Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas catharsis

Okay, so I took this week off expecting to powerwash the pool & steps, do some touch-up painting and replace some fixtures & fittings. "Painting up for xmas" as the Bajans call it. Well, shit, if I'd have known how it would have gone I'd have stayed at work.

First the dishwasher died. A brief forensic analysis implied the water valve: when I put water in it worked, but the water wasn't pumping in automatically, despite the pipe being clear. Must be the valve. Then the powerwasher didn't work. It started, but as soon as pressure was applied the motor cut out. Okay, I'd left it a few months and didn't drain it, so change oil, drain fuel, check plug. Need oil.

Monday: 2nd destination I found right motor oil, and 3rd destination yielded... "no" to the water valve. Not "try " or "we could order the part for you"; just "no". Our survey said "eh-ehhh". Gotta love that Bajan "I really don't care about selling you anything" customer service.

Tuesday: Colin popped round, and since he knows his way around the tricky bits of a 747, I figured my powerwasher problems were solved. "Air's ok, sparks ok, so it's your fuel pipe or carburettor." Or it could be the water pressure as the hose, even when connected by a shredded brass end to the washer, is pissing water. So, sort out the hose, drain the carb. Got hose fixture at 2nd destination. Wrong fixture: 5/8" hose not 1/2" - fucking imperial measurements. The British empire has a lot to answer for... in America, where they still use the stupid fucking system. "The British are coming!" No, we fucking left, as you LOVE to point out, shortly after the Boston Tea Party, but you still insist on using our antiquated measurement system. Now, there's a post-imperial headfuck for you: you threw us out of your country, yet retain our stupid fucking measurement system, even though we, along with many other sensible nations, have moved on.

Wednesday: swapped hose fitting, got part for dishwasher... at the 3rd attempt + an hour wait because the person with the cashbox went to lunch and forgot to give anyone the key. 3.5 hours on de road. Dishwasher part did not fix the problem. Fuck you, dishwasher!

Thursday: morning with Ryan - bliss with my 18 month old boy. Holetown was a parking lot sprawled over most of Sunset Crest, so I avoided the supermarket, got a couple of presents and navigated the traffic with Ryan yelling unintelligible support from the back seat. Afternoon: attempted to fix hose, no joy. Tried other hose: it leaked; brass fixture was hand-tightened, but I couldn't get it off the tap. Tried hammer, tap blew off: we had a fountain in the garden next to the porch. Called father-in-law, who called James the plumber. He's in the area, will be here shortly. I decided it's rum o'clock, so took a beverage and decided to get some garden xmas lights up and varnish a couple of bar stools. James the plumber proved to be a xmas miracle: not only did he turn the fountain back into a shiny new tap, but only charged $150 for the privilege. Okay, it's $150 I hadn't planned on spending, but it could have been a lot worse. The AC guy I got in last month cleaned 4 AC units, one of which wasn't working, and charged me $1000.

Gotta take the positives where you find 'em. I'll have one last crack at the powerwasher tomorrow morning. If that fails then fuck it, the garden's grimy for xmas. Thank god I didn't attempt the garden nativity - I'd probably be in hospital by now...!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

WikiLeaks, the "War On Terror" and personal empowerment

This articlet (The Economist) makes a very interesting point at the end; that, while calling Assange and Wikileaks terrorists is 'deeply counterproductive' the best lessons for dealing with Wikileaks can be gleaned from the decade-long "war on terror":
Deal with the source of the problem, not just its symptoms. Keep the moral high ground. And pick fights you can win.


It got me thinking that the pattern here is really one of personal empowerment. Modern technology provides individuals with incredible augmentation: no X-men genetic mutations required, just a few grams of strategically placed combustibles, or a phone camera, or a website, or all of the above. The capacity for one individual to influence their society has never been greater, and is still increasing exponentially. If mass media put gods and demons among us, then multimedia significantly lowered the qualifying criteria. Julian Assange is no media tycoon, nor even a feted (foetid?) journalist. He's just an outsider with strong principles and powerful media skills. Yet he has captured the world media's attention with an incredibly anarchic act that has angered nation states across the world.

Whether you're for it or against it, Wikileaks, like international terrorism (or 'asymmetric warfare', as the Pentagon liked to call it) is here to stay in whatever incarnation it takes next. It's for society, and our civic structures in particular, to get to grips with these 'people with causes' and address them appropriately. One approach may be that sometimes adopted by the information security industry: offer them a job.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Why Google may not go the way of Microsoft

Interesting article discussing the current threats to Google, and how it is mitigating them. Bookmarked here, so that I can find it again next year and compare how they are doing then.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The evolution of spam

The economist had an excellent piece about spam and online fraud last month.  Key points:-

  • Spam email has massively reduced in the last 5 years.  Research in 2008 showed only 28 “sales” on 350m e-mail messages sent, a conversion rate under .00001%
  • It's now more about making you click, to download malware, than making you buy whatever's on offer.
In the face of these diminishing returns on spam email, spammers are now targeting social apps: 
Twitter ... estimates that only 1% of its traffic is spam. But researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana show that 8% of links published were shady, with most of them leading to scams and the rest to Trojans. Links in Twitter messages, they found, are over 20 times more likely to get clicked than those in e-mail spam.
  • In Facebook, BitDefender set up some fake profiles to research ease of spamming:-
  • They got up to 100 new friends a day
  • When they invited people with at least 1 mutual friend, they got 50% hit-rate of new friends
  • Overall, they got 25% of their new friends to click on malware links.
  • The koobface trojan, spreading via social networks since May 2008 has profits estimated at $2m, and it's still out there...
So, caveat clicker, and be careful who you befriend!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The FT's take on Facebook

This is a nice layman's summary of the whole Facebook phenomenon.  It's a private members club of 500 million people.  The inherent threat to Facebook's existence is, therefore, a mass exodus.  Social networks are nothing if not fickle, so to hedge against this Facebook has to wall the garden: members can put stuff in, but we can't take stuff out (easily, anyway).  If I upload a photo to Facebook from my phone, I can't share that photo using Google Buzz.

If, like me, you believe that information fundamentally wants to be open, then Facebook may seem like the best enabler of that; except that it's a privately-owned company and it co-owns whatever information you give it.  Your rights are not exactly violated so much as 'shared': you can control you stuff on there, but so can they.  But they can also change the rules on that, and if past evidence is anything to go by, the majority of us won't care.  So, Facebook does not really practice open information.

Unlike Google.  Imagine if Google had thought of Facebook first.  How would they have done it?  I suspect it would have been rather like Diaspora.  A completely open platform for anyone to create their own Facebook, but federated using Google identity management, and of course, linking to Google's giant advertising machine.  Would it have caught on as well?  Very doubtful: most of the awesome tech that Google develops is too raw, too geeky for mainstream users, and even the more user-friendly stuff assumes more tech knowledge than the average punter has.

So Facebook has its place. But as its importance increases, as it burrows its way into the social fabric, it will hit sensitive seams like religion and politics head-on, not just via its users, and those walls around the garden will be challenged.  The question is: will they open them, or fortify them?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Facebook takes on email - good luck with that!

Good article here (Facebook's Platform Coup D'Etat of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) about Facebook's new messaging. Interesting that it says Gmail is only 15% of online email, with Hotmail at 30% and Yahoo at 45% - the latter two effectively being Microsoft. So it's not so much a blow at Google as at Microsoft/Yahoo's 75% share, it seems.

But is it a blow? I'm not sure that the convenience of integrated email in Facebook would outweigh privacy concerns. Facebook already has rights to all the pictures of my kids I post there. That's why I post most pics to Picasa, which then notifies Facebook. They'd have rights to my email contents too? And even if they don't have rights, they know who I've been emailing with, both inside and outside Facebook. Fundamentally, their business model is predicated on users' online promiscuity.

While teenage communication behaviour is often used as a predictor of future communication culture, you have to balance that with life phases. Most teenagers (certainly those with time to burn on Facebook) don't have a professional life. Their life is all about social networking, online and offline. I'm not convinced they'll carry those same traits into their professional lives.

Will Facebook become more than a 'keep in touch with friends' tool in mainstream adult culture? I'm not convinced. Facebook taking on email is a good, sensible progression - I have several friends & family whose email I don't know because I just contact them via Facebook. But as anything more than a convenience?


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Fackin' students

What is all the fuss? Record high grades at GCSE and A level would imply that the country's youth are getting smarter. Are they really? Or are standards slipping? Moot point, but the net result is that there are more people than ever in the UK trying to get a higher education. On the face of it this seems a good thing, but only if what they are studying will enhance their ability to contribute to society.

My year was one of the first to pay student loans. We still got grants for tuition fees (if eligible), but they wouldn't cover full tuition and certainly not living expenses. The interest was about 1.2%, and I paid mine off in about 3 years. Some of my peers with less vocational qualifications (my degree was Computing Systems) took longer to pay theirs off. IT seems to suffer a perennial 'skills crisis' in the UK, so I had every confidence I could pay my loan off. I was also a member of the National Youth Theatre, which opened many doors to drama schools. I chose not to take them. Because I met successful and unsuccessful actors, and not only did the latter far outweigh the former, but often the only difference in talent between them was a lucky break. The difference in income and lifestyle was tragic: kings and clowns. My MBA was self-funded and done in parallel with a full-time job.

Most private sector loans have eligibility criteria that factor in the ability of the person to pay back the loan and the risk of default. Why not include those here? How about tiered payments based on usefulness of the degree you're taking? Useful = grant supported; Underwater basket-weaving = pay for it yourself. Base it on a list published by Dept of Industry (or whatever it's called these days) every summer. Not only would this encourage students to take more useful degrees and acknowledge the risk of studying less useful ones, it would also encourage UK industry to be much more specific about the skills it needs.

Sure, it's biased against some of the more traditional, less directly vocational subjects (eg. classical greek or latin), but I suspect there's a strong case that so are the aspirations of the bulk of student applicants these days. Many just want a degree in whatever they think they can get. There's nothing to stop a smart kid wanting to study ancient greek at Oxford; they'll just have to pay more, presumably smug in the knowledge that an Oxford MA is a good enough meal ticket to pay off the bigger loan, even if it means a couple of years working in the city to pay it off before tootling back to get the PhD and become the next Classics professor. And if you're a good artist or actor there are plenty of other ways to get sponsorship from people who appreciate your talents (some of them are even televised, for your nation's enjoyment!).

It's good to see students marching again. Student activism is the most vibrant, wholesome, cathartic part of a democratic society. But I think the social contract between student body and government just needs tweaking: less swingeing cuts and more clinical cuts. But cuts nonetheless.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Tron 2 preview - wow

Looks very slick... "lickable", as Steve Jobs would have said 10 years ago. And in 3D it looks to be spectacular...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Stat of the day

From the Economist:
In Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia (the so-called BRICI countries), there are 610m regular internet users but a staggering 1.8 billion mobile-phone connections, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

So THAT'S why Apple, Google and now Microsoft are getting all jumpy over mobile data. There are a billion people out there with a capability in their hands that they are not using yet. Cha-ching!

Nothing grey about this economist's outlook

Tim Jackson's economic reality check (Video on TED.com) is a fascinating reflection on what it is to be a member of society today. It's about as zeitgeisty as it gets in a lecture hall, especially from an economist. The principle is, well, the title of his book, really: Prosperity without growth. Historically, the two have always been tied together: companies grow profits, increase market share/value; countries increase GDP; I buy a bigger house/car. His argument is that this is not sustainable, so we need to review this assumption at both personal and societal levels.

It made me think about a lot of things, not only concerning my life, but the world my kids are emerging into, and the issues they are going to face. All in a very upbeat and sensible way - no fear-mongering, moralistic ranting here.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Players of Games

I saw this article in the Economist, which led to this article, about professional computer games players. At first sight the idea of computer gaming as professional sport may seem absurd, but, as the first article points out, snooker's early professionals were probably similarly derided.

The top players in this sport can earn over $200,000 a year, making it as viable a career option as many other sports. But is it as wholesome, as skillful, as spectacular as other sports? Perhaps not physically, but, having watched a couple of bouts of Starcraft 2 on the biggest gamer channel's biggest tournament, I think it might be a goer.

Each bout (or 'set') is about 45 minutes, which is well within sports watchers' attention spans. I'm no big gamer, although I have played similar games, so I'm vaguely familiar with the format, controls and complexity of such realtime strategy games. While the action was at times difficult to follow, it was no less accessible than, say, cricket. All it would need is better explanatory commentary. The commentators covered the highlights well, explaining the skills and tactics on show, but it was quite hard to grasp what you were seeing. Packaging, in other words: there's little wrong with the product, from an entertainment perspective, it just needs better presentation. The screen is a bit cluttered with arguably unnecessary detail. I believe Starcraft 2 is one of the first games designed with spectators in mind, and there's clearly more scope for evolution here. But with over 250,000 viewers for some matches, there's definitely an audience, so plenty of justification for such an evolution.

While it's never going to replace more tangible sports, I think there's sufficient complexity and excitement within the games, and beyond-amateur prowess on show that, coupled with the inherent low cost global distribution model, there could be serious money in such sports in future.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'Like' button elections - the future?

Some strange quotes swarmed into my consciousness today, starting with...
The means of communication the electorate can use and enjoy are becoming more and more inaccessible while the fantasies of those who seek to influence us become more and more powerful.
from AL Kennedy in the Guardian.
Which got me thinking about influence and where people in this day & age ascribe credit. Is it that society is simply addicted to the trivialities of 'reality' TV, instead of wholesome political discourse, like junk food vs a healthy diet? Maybe the problem with politics and economics is not content but presentation. Opinions about reality TV are social & frivolous. They are sport: accessible, fast-evolving interactions, with 'like' buttons, blogs and discussion threads. Whereas politics and economics are weighed down with gravitas, and as such find it necessary to spurn lightweight interactions.

Perhaps the true electoral reform would simply be a Facebook Election page, with 'like' buttons next to the candidates. Referenda could be conducted the same way. When you think about it, opinion polls are simply models to compensate for a lack of capability: historically, it was impossible to get everyone's opinion about a topic, at least in a time frame that was reasonable for research purposes. Now, with the internet, and social networks weaving their way through it like ivy up a tree, there is a capability to rapidly grab and even validate votes online.

Obviously, in practice, the validation mechanisms would need to be more robust than Facebook (I think there are 6 other Neil Taggarts in the UK on there, and any one of those could be an alter-ego for an enterprising immigrant), but the principle is sound. Let the fast-flowing opinions pour forth. Sure, the crowd is fickle, but as any Pericles fan will tell you (shortly after explaining that, no, he's not on Facebook) that just means the oratory must be better. More immediate. More intimate. Shorter feedback loops. For politics to be more active, it must become more interactive.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Autopilot

Seeing all the fuss about Google experimenting with cars that drive themselves (cue eerie music) got me thinking.

Much of public transport drives itself these days: the Docklands Light Railway is unmanned, in most other trains the driver is only there to supervise. Even commercial aircraft are fly-by-wire, auto-navigation, Instrument Landing System -equipped behemoths. Airline pilots don't fly the plane so much as ensure it flies itself properly, and when it doesn't, they know what to do: they manage by exception, which is no less exceptional than their predecessors, it simply takes the mundane bits out of their jobs.

So why are cars different?

For Americans it's obvious: their society and cities are all relatively modern and shaped around the automobile. They are a combustion society, whether it's handguns or engines. Cars are deeply personal to the American individual: kids can 'take a roadtrip' before they can drink. But the speed limit in the US is 55 mph; US cars are not kitted for speed and handling, like European cars, they are built for comfort; for crossing states the size of Europe. Would Americans mind if their car could auto-drive them the 4 hour journey to Disney World on Labor Day weekend? Probably not. Would they be happy to take the train? Certainly not. Having a car is emblematic of the constitutional rights of the individual.

For Europeans, it's a bit more complicated. European cities are not designed for automobiles, with simple grid patterns, wide avenues and ample parking. European roads can be small and twisty, requiring nippy, agile cars, as opposed to big engine, comfort cars - formula one instead of NASCAR. Yet European public transport is generally excellent: even the French have rapid, efficient trains. Most Europeans don't have an issue with public transport, either - possibly because of the history of this efficiency. I've inter-railed throughout Europe and quite enjoyed the whimsical dilemma of standing at Munich station and opting to go to Rome instead of Vienna because the Rome train was 40 minutes sooner. Driving for Europeans is a pleasure, as much as driving for Americans is an expression of personal freedom. European cars are far more popular in the US than US cars are in Europe, not because US cars are crap, but because Europeans, and even shrewd Far Eastern car manufacturers, make cars fun to handle.

At the extreme cars are now intimate: they are no longer a way to get you from A to whichever B takes your fancy, in comfort, but they are almost pornographically personal symbols of status, pleasure and loyalty. To automate that is to steal its soul.

And yet... I remember seeing the first fly-by-wire airline at the Farnborough Airshow, and my dad trying to explain the significance of this rather mundane looking passenger aircraft. He, an experienced fighter and test pilot, was positively effervescent about this technology. There was no hint of it spoiling the art/enjoyment of flying aircraft, of robbing him of the enjoyment of flying. It was all about safety. This aircraft could do things that no pilot could do: it could fly amazingly close to stall point, it could automatically trim the aircraft, should an engine fail, in milliseconds. The point was: you could tell the machine what you wanted to do, and it would figure out the details. I remember when power-steering was first introduced in cars and the skeptics said that it took away the 'feel' of the car. Yet how many luxury sportscars today DON'T have power steering? None.

Auto-drive, like autopilot, can still be switched off. But, as any individualist knows, it's nice to have the choice.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

September Morn

Waking with cold ears, cold tiles, cold toilet seats... just some of the subjects Neil Diamond could have sung about in September Morn. Living in hot countries so long I had forgotten such important minutiae of UK autumn living. 2nd night jet lag also meant that there was no treefrog/cicada orchestra to mask odd noises and woo me to sleep at 3am. Just the deafening english countryside silence, with intriguing feral taps and rustles to pique your curiosity... at 3am. Im typing this under covers, trying to work up the warmth for the bathroom run. How quickly you forget when it's no longer part of daily routine, eh?

Friday, 20 August 2010

Book synopsis: Credit

Ryan Alexander is a young business analyst in London, dreaming of being a startup millionaire. He wakes one morning to find several million pounds in his bank account. What will he do?

He takes it and invests it... rather well, as it turns out. When the original owners of the money catch up with him, they're not sure whether to sue him or hire him... nor are the people who bungled the attempt to steal it from them.

The story explores the questionable credit status of modern society: our reality-media values, our virtual libertarianism, our media-propagated vices. What does credit mean in our hyper real age?

Friday, 13 August 2010

On devices

So, last month my Macbook Pro died - a logic board failure. My perfect, portable, emailing, browsing, report writing, movie watching, photo editing, ipod syncing sliver of aluminium (with backlit keys) was done. Priceless data safe, but expensive hardware now history. Well, fixable, but half the cost of the laptop again + shipping + duties = a laptop (+ shipping + duties).

I was peeved, but at least I had my work laptop and my trusty Google phone (nexus one). I could do most of the above list from my phone too: email, browsing, movies, photos, vids, music... and it stored or accessed the data for most of my 'stuff'. It dropped at 14:04 this afternoon, as I was lifting 4 year old daughter's birthday bike into the truck, and the screen cobwebbed. Again, data safe, expensive hardware consigned to history. This was a blow.

Barbados does not have an Apple store, or Apple-certified support centre. From a strict licensing perspective Apple products do not exist here. Nor do Google phones. Barbados is off the technorati map, basically. Having these items was not some status thing, for me - I've had macs and PDAs for years. They were, on reflection, talismans of my first world ties. I am still a technologist, honest! Look, I've got the decent laptop and phone to prove it. I may live in an IT backwater, but I wont succumb to the local ambivalence/antipathy/apathy/crumb-gathering towards technology. My tokens of civilisation. Gone.

"Good grief, geek, get over it!". Tell me, how would you feel if your TV broke, and it would cost too much to replace it. You'd like to think it wouldn't bother you: "I don't watch much TV anyway". We all like to think we're social, healthy, 'doing' kind of people who don't have time for TV. Try it. See how much you miss it. It's a passive addiction, like electricity: you don't think about dependence unless its not there. We don't have TV. We have an internet connected mac mini attached to a TV. All our content is pulled, there's no push, no broadcast, no channel-surfing chewing gum for the eyes. Content matters to me. Good content is rare in this part of the world: you can pay hefty premiums for dozens of US ad-filled, repeat-laden channels, or watch the single local channel, or pay hefty fees for a little more bandwidth and go seek on the infinitely various internet. If I'm going to pay big money for content anyway, I might as well get the most selective option.

So, the devices I use to access and manipulate content are important to me. And now two of them are gone in as many months, and I can't afford to replace them. They say that madness, true madness, starts with one of your senses going nuts: an unscratchable itch or a sound that won't die away... I'm about to enter content deprivation, and my senses are twitching...

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Sporting English

So the England-Pakistan test match is over a day early, with Pakistan collapsing for just 80 in the second innings.

English sport has always seemed to lack the professional ruthlessness of other countries. I think the English have always been uneasy with professionalism in sport, as though it undermines the spirit of sport, the British sense of fair play. After all, we didn't invent these sports so that people could make money out of them. This sense of 'fair play' has pervaded into the professional era. How often have you seen an English team or player narrowly win (or even lose) a seemingly obvious victory because they seemed to lack the killer instinct to mercilessly dispatch an inferior opponent? English teams have rarely, if ever, won convincingly. Deservedly, yes. But not convincingly. Leave it to the Aussies or South Africans to show us how to win consistently, even against superior talent, always with spirit and determination, rarely unconvincingly.

Yet, this summer saw inspirational performances from an English team that, above all other accolades in my mind, has proven it can ruthlessly dispatch inferior foes. I saw first hand an English 20/20 cricket team that was not only exciting to watch, but showed that methodical level-headedness of consistent winners. Collingwood keeps talking about confidence, and I think that's part of it, but the main part is British sports people being unapologetically professional. And what better sport to laud the rise of a truly professional attitude in England? Let's see the other sports take heed when representing our country.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Listless, restless - a daydream

So I have lots of work to do: a retail system to setup, a regional telecoms contract to negotiate, an intranet site to help design... and I'm watching two tiny birds do an intricate mating dance on the road outside my office.

Is it that I'd rather be with my family, mucking around in the pool, and just leading our family life?
Or that I want to work for a dynamic technology company, where I'm doing really stimulating, rewarding stuff?
Or both: be self-employed, work my own hours on my favourite things, and play with the family the rest of the time. Cake. Eat.
Gotta work the cashflow angles... and thus the brain is back at work! Thank you, little birds.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The wisdom of children

We're getting ready for school/work. Bella is dressed and ready to go, I'm putting a sock on with a croissant in my mouth... and Ryan is tottering around like a Thunderbirds puppet, shouting "UGH! ARGH! DA! DAdadada" etc. and waving a toy hammer around.
I say to Bella, through the mouthful of croissant, "your brother is bonkers."
Bella (aged 3) looks at me shrewdly and says "Takes one to know one, daddy!"
My initial irritation at the cheekiness of the responses melts into laughter as I reflect that I'm hopping around half-dressed, with a croissant in my mouth.
God bless the child & all that...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Froyo gives me chills

Official Google Blog: Android Froyo, with some sprinkles: and so we get Google opening up the smartphone market with both barrels. Apple may match this, but I'll be amazed if they top it. If anyone can, Apple can, but I think their vice-like grip on the smartphone market will be their undoing. As Googlers like to say "information wants to be open", and this latest Froyo update to Android certainly pushes that ideal. For free. No Microsoft software tax, no Apple 'new magic device' talisman. Just free software to update any android phone (eventually - Google phone gets the initial boost).

Google, I love you: you make money off the people I don't care much about (ad people) and give riches to us poor consumers. Sure, it's not totally altruistic, of course there are commercial reasons, but those reasons are far-sighted enough to be enriching for all. Nice play, guys. So, Apple... you got 2 months... worried?

Friday, 16 April 2010

App stores - why Amazon and Google need to talk

Once upon a time there was an online store that sold one particular type of media really well. So well, in fact, that it expanded to other media. It engendered customer loyalty by tracking customer purchases and, using sophisticated algorithms, recommending related products for purchase.

Question: are you thinking 'Amazon' or 'Apple'?

Up to this point in the story it could be either, right? Amazon with books, or Apple with music. Arguably Amazon is more obvious because that's all it had, whereas Apple had an additional loyalty weapon in its arsenal: the ipod. And what a weapon! With an ipod you're umbilically locked into iTunes. Imagine if your entire CD collection could only play on Sony CD players. You'd feel restricted, right? You'd mock the absurdity of it: how dare Sony be so presumptuous! Yet millions of us bought, or were bought ipods. The word 'ipod' has, like 'walkman' before it, made the transition from proper to common noun. And we happily bought our music, then our videos from iTunes.

Then Apple produced the iPhone. The device itself was not particularly revolutionary: multi-touch was a beautiful gimmick, but functionally similar phones had been around for some time. Except this was an ipod too. So rather than carrying around an ipod and a phone, you could just carry a phone. Sony offered walkman phones, but they didn't have iTunes, where many peoples' media collections now resided. So the iPhone took off, enabling Apple to beef the device up with GPS and 3G compatibility... and tack an app store onto the side of iTunes.

Meanwhile Amazon finally figured out that tethering customers to your own hardware device was a good loyalty move, so they produced the Kindle for reading their books. Except books are an ancient and familiar technology, with little need of an electronic overhaul; and if you did prefer electronic versions, why not have the reader software on your own preferred device, rather than Amazon's?

Now, Apple have produced the ipad - a bigger ipod - and tacked a bookstore onto iTunes. Again, the device is not particularly revolutionary, and functionally similar devices have been around for some time. Except this is an ipod too, with all your music, video, apps, and now books from iTunes on it.

Imagine if all your music, videos, games and now books are only usable on Sony devices. Even if Samsung TVs are better, or JVC music players offer richer sound - you can only use Sony. While books are written about the marvelous Apple gadgets, little is said of the true Apple genius, its truly imperial mastery of media distribution: the iTunes store.

What could possibly compete with such a physical bond with loyal customers, that fully bespoke (not even USB!) ipod/ipad/iphone cable? As I mention repeatedly above, despite what the frothing media pundits say, the device is not the magic. HTC do better phones, and there are a number of tablets hitting the market. Building competing devices is not the issue: it's how you intercept that iTunes bond.

The answer is straightforward in principle: provide a better store. But how could you possibly do all the deals with content providers, build the catalog and transaction and loyalty mechanisms? You don't... if you're Amazon. Amazon's singular failing is in not providing a lean, aggregated interface to all the things that a smartphone/tablet user needs. It has an MP3 store, and it offers video on demand. It even has a bookstore. All it has to do is serve these up in a seamless manner directly to smartphones and tablets. No iTunes client, just device to service, with the significant selling point that it's not tying you to specific hardware.

So, Amazon: drop Kindle and get Androided. Google: go talk to Amazon about doing a proper App store. And both of you leave the hardware to the experts.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Apple hubris

This article: http://feeds.arstechnica.com/~r/arstechnica/index/~3/y-PHmbhiMPQ/apple-takes-aim-at-adobe-or-android.ars
... sums up Apple's position nicely, and it's from a reputable, non-partisan source (Ars Technica).
It seems that, once again, Apple's self-belief is straying into hubris. It's one thing to have great products, but to guard them so jealously smacks of last-century fast buckaneering, rather than 21st century sustainable business. As a company that has benefited significantly from open systems, their current closed approach seems disingenuous at best and cynical at worst.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Why Ancient Mayans and Media Barons Are Alike

This is an intriguing angle on the state of modern media. Basically, that their reluctance to change may not be reluctance but actually incapability.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Dead gecko

You prowl the dwelling,
Seeking sustenance in the niches of our home,
Your success is your size - a giant of gecko!
The perfect eco insect repellent.

Your skin adapting to adobe walls, your patient stillness in the doorjamb,
Unseen
By all including me as I close the door.

The crunch of tiny bone sickens as much as your fall to the floor,
floundering, flailing,
As I reach for something to end it,
You gasp, defiant dragon, your adaptive, diligent resilience snuffed by an oaf with a shoe.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Big church = big abuse. So lets socialise rather than institutionalise

When I read articles like this...
http://feeds.slate.com/click.phdo?i=2db4346fb4f046232a2ea7db782473f9
... it panders to my suspicion that religion is (forgive the apparent paradox) God's cruel joke. After all,what place does old fashioned church have in the age of information?  Surely we should focus on exploring the unknowns rather than writing them off to divine providence; minimize uncertainty rather than prey on it.

It seems that all religion really provides, in this day and age, is an excuse for irrational behaviour or reasoning, and/or the opportunity to exploit that trait in an institutionalised way.  Evidently faith-based institutions are fertile ground for trust abusers: a surfeit of trust is bound to attract abuse.  Yet it's interesting to note that the more sceptical/questioning/'protesting' flavour of Christianity, Protestantism, seems to have far fewer cases of child abuse.  It does suggest a direct correlation between religion (in the sense of the degree of institutionalisation of faith) and sexual abuse. Or in plainer terms: the bigger the church, the bigger the abuse.

I actually believe in the power of faith. Any competitor knows (be it sport or combat) that having faith can give you a psychological advantage, just as anyone who has experienced a trauma can appreciate the comfort of faith. But in this age of global social networks, does it really need to be institutionalised? Why not belief clubs?

Checking the internet, many are already there: Jedis, trekkies... they appear to be cod-religious nouveau entities, but their zealots are no less faithful. They may lack the gravitas (and body count!) of a centuries-old institution, but I suspect they are also more honest, earnest and less prone to abuse.

Monday, 8 March 2010

R&D: Apple vs Microsoft vs Sony [Graphs]

Some interesting research here. Key takeaway for me: Sony spend on avg $11.5m per product; Apple $78.5m. Microsoft spend $9bn a year on R&D! What the heck are they up to??

Research and Development: Apple vs Microsoft vs Sony [Graphs]: "

The core of any long-standing technology company is research and development. Here's how Apple, Microsoft and Sony's last decade of spending stack up.

Note that the first graph shows research and development as a percentage of revenue (to scale the spending by company, since revenues differ so greatly). This next graphic can help you conceptualize the revenue and R&D gap:


A Few Interesting Notes:

• Now, Microsoft spends about 17% of their revenue on R&D. Sony spends about 8%. Apple spends less than 4%.

• If you were to break down the amount of R&D that goes purely to physical (non-software) products sold by Apple and Sony, Sony would spend about $11.5 million per product while Apple would spend about $78.5 million per product. (Of course, that's rolling the cost OS X and iPhone OS development into Macs and the iPhone, which could be seen as inflating their per product spending.)

• Microsoft just spends a lot of money in R&D, period—about $9 billion this year. In terms of percentage growth over the last decade, Apple's R&D has grown the most (nearly quadrupled) while Sony's has grown the least (not quite doubled).

In light of these bare numbers, is it any surprise that Sony is struggling the most to capture the hearts and minds of a public hungry for gadgets?

Research by David Chaid

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

IT project failures - an analysis

This is a good summary of typical IT project failure. Certainly rings true for me & the project failures that I've been involved in. My only addenda would be a couple more reasons why IT PMs tend to dumb down risks & assumptions: they either form an over-optimistic view of the features and benefits of the new system (they start to believe their own sales pitch), or they overestimate the level of buy-in from end users (they overestimate the success of their sales pitch).

The lesson for me is not to treat IT projects like other engineering projects. Most non-IT projects deal with tangibles, so the concepts are much easier to share with the layman: a model, drawings, artist impressions, VR walkthroughs, materials to touch etc. IT projects are intangible - mostly invisible to the end user, so as such there may be a wide gap between the IT pro's concept of the workload required, and the layman's concept. So while the PM process can be similar to traditional engineering project management, the emphasis at certain stages should factor in the conceptual differences: both end user and IT pro should ensure that they have a common understanding of the design and effort required.

Update: another good article with more detailed common assumptions and remedies.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Good intro to Google Buzz

(Hands On With Google Buzz - Webmonkey) covers the salient features well and I like the conclusion that it's less a Facebook competitor, as most pundits are trying to draw it, and more a drawing-together of what Google already offers.

Where I think it may have killer app status is in the enterprise. I hooked us up to Google Apps last year, so can't wait to see what Buzz will do for work collaboration across our 5 offices in 5 countries.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Multitasking

With the recent announcement of the iPad, there's been a resurgence in the issue of multi-tasking. The iPhone, famously, doesn't support multi-tasking - a fact that Palm were quick to exploit in marketing the multi-tasking Pre.  The iPhone can do multiple things at once, but only Apple things, like checking mail, or ringing on an incoming call during your game of Grand Theft Auto.  The technorati would have it that multi-tasking is an essential part of any computing device. After all, it was the killer feature of Windows that brought us out of the dark ages of DOS.

The trouble with multitasking is that your hardware has to know how to juggle, without necessarily knowing how many balls or how big each ball may be.  To compensate, the hardware tries clever things to re-prioritise the tasks (balls), so that each gets something approximating the resources it needs. This takes time, and  requires a certain amount of flexibility on behalf of the task: it may not get all the resources it asks for.  A robust app will cope gracefully, a sloppy app will crash.  So, with multitasking your mileage may vary.

Now this usually seems a reasonable price to pay for being able to juggle several things at once: copying that text to your spreadsheet from your browser,while it downloads the next page in the background.  But on a phone?  Do I really need that multitasking enough to risk sacrificing the snappy, consistent response I need from a phone?

I had a couple too many apps open on my Google phone the other day - mucking about with a few newly downloaded apps - and I abruptly had to make a phone call.  I pressed the Phone app button and... waited. Probably a full 30 seconds later, one of the other apps crashed, and my phone was usable again.  Way too long for a phone to make a call.  The trouble is, the phone is just another app on a smart phone, and if the smart phone is multitasking, the phone app has got to juggle and jostle with all the rest of the apps.

The truly smart thing about Apple and their iPhone is a) single-tasking, and b) except where Apple decide multitasking is needed for notifications.  And Apple control the latter by vetting every single app to hit the app store.  So while some may bemoan Apple's control of apps, I actually think it is necessary quality assurance to ensure that users get a snappy phone that does apps, rather than a micro PC that happens to have a phone app too.  This will be the chief hurdle that Android/Google/HTC will have to leap.

As for the iPad, it's an interesting gambit by Apple: their second bite at the tablet market, after the Newton (no, it wasn't a PDA)!  This time they have the iStores, so maybe they'll pull it off, but my gut says it's a product looking for a need.  I can do all the things on it that I can do on my iTouch, so that just makes it an oversized iTouch, right?

Friday, 5 February 2010

Media Publishers' dilemma

So Macmillan, the book publishers, beat Amazon into submission, forcing them to charge $14.99 for bestsellers, rather than Amazon's proposed $9.99.  And now other publishers are lining up to make their demands on Amazon.

It seems like Amazon tried to do what Apple did with the music companies after the ipod became ubiquitous: leverage their big channel to customers to push supplier prices down, in a market that they had effectively reinvented. Your CD sales are dropping, but thanks to us, people are still buying your music online.  So drop your prices because we own your customers and they don't want to prop up your tired old distribution model, they want to pay less for something that costs a lot less to produce & distribute.


So why did Amazon fail, where Apple succeeded?  Possibly because of Apple, who, during their iPad announcement also revealed that they had deals with the major book publishers to release books through the iTunes store (or iBookstore as they're calling it).  And I'm sure they were willing to distribute at whatever price the publishers wanted, happily taking a percentage, like they do for iPhone apps.  Who is going to bet against the iTunes/iBook store?

Now, I suspect these publishers will end up dropping prices for the same reason the music publishers did, but not until they've milked it as much as they can.  Trouble is, it might be too late: in their greed they could well kill the iBook market.  Scenario: I want the latest bestseller. It's $14.99 at Amazon and $14.99 at iBookstore.  The former is presented in a portable, lightweight, rugged format. The latter requires a $700 not-so-rugged device to read it.  Which do I opt for?  The publisher doesn't lose out in either case (okay, margins may differ slightly, but a book is a book).  So maybe Apple starts to lose out.  Or maybe the other attributes of their versatile device make it the de facto reader of choice.  What will they do then?  Same as with the music publishers: squeeze the supplier.  Then the publishers would lose out.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

My Google Phone - the Nexus One

So I've had my N1 for just over a week now, and you know what?  It makes my ipod touch look a bit dated: the screen looks a bit washed out soft compared to the N1's amazing sharpness and colour.

A few people commented that they thought I worshipped at the Apple temple, so why no iPhone?  Simple: a) the only way to get one here is to jailbreak it, which I'm unwilling to do for something so expensive, and b) the nexus is cheaper and (hardware-wise) better.  It's actually made me reflect on the cult of Apple, and I think they are heading down the Sony path of too much lock-in. The 'but we do it to protect our customers' line is getting a bit, dare I say it, seedy.  So, while I'm happy for Apple to look after my music and some media (ipod touch, old ipod, macbook pro and mac mini for the TV), I'd like a bit more freedom with my personal device (phone, GPS, 'reality augmenter'). 

So, I've gone Android.  And it's growing on me like a proper favourite tune, rather than one of those over-played catchy tunes that you love then hate.

Now, the iPad ... that's another story... I suspect most people will buy it out of curiosity, rather than because it fits any compelling need in their lives.  After all, what can it do that a laptop + smart phone can't?  Nothing.  The phenomenal success of the iPhone wasn't Apple's marketing, it was a ground-breaking product widening an existing mobile niche (ipods), so that you didn't have to carry around 2 portable devices.  The apps bit was a huge bonus.  The iPad is more a filler.  You use it sitting down... like a laptop. Or walking about... like a phone.  My phone has 800x480 resolution.  I'd guess that's not much less than the iPad's.  So, it's basically a giant phone for the visually impaired...  ;o)

Haiti's history: bullied and blackmailed independence

This was emailed to me by my wife, so I don't have the original publication source (happy to add should anyone with more knowledge stumble upon this post).  It's a pretty lamentable tale, and it certainly puts America's chest-thumping about independence into perspective...

The Hate and the Quake

Published on: 1/17/2010 by Sir Hilary Beckles
THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES is in the process of conceiving how best to deliver a major conference on the theme Rethinking And Rebuilding Haiti.
I am very keen to provide an input into this exercise because for too long there has been a popular perception that somehow the Haitian nation-building project, launched on January 1, 1804, has failed on account of mismanagement, ineptitude, corruption.
Buried beneath the rubble of imperial propaganda, out of both Western Europe and the United States, is the evidence which shows that Haiti's independence was defeated by an aggressive North-Atlantic alliance that could not imagine their world inhabited by a free regime of Africans as representatives of the newly emerging democracy.
The evidence is striking, especially in the context of France.
The Haitians fought for their freedom and won, as did the Americans fifty years earlier. The Americans declared their independence and crafted an extraordinary constitution that set out a clear message about the value of humanity and the right to freedom, justice, and liberty.
In the midst of this brilliant discourse, they chose to retain slavery as the basis of the new nation state. The founding fathers therefore could not see beyond race, as the free state was built on a slavery foundation.
The water was poisoned in the well; the Americans went back to the battlefield a century later to resolve the fact that slavery and freedom could not comfortably co-exist in the same place.
The French, also, declared freedom, fraternity and equality as the new philosophies of their national transformation and gave the modern world a tremendous progressive boost by so doing.
They abolished slavery, but Napoleon Bonaparte could not imagine the republic without slavery and targeted the Haitians for a new, more intense regime of slavery. The British agreed, as did the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.
All were linked in communion over the 500 000 Blacks in Haiti, the most populous and prosperous Caribbean colony.
As the jewel of the Caribbean, they all wanted to get their hands on it. With a massive slave base, the English, French and Dutch salivated over owning it - and the people.
The people won a ten-year war, the bloodiest in modern history, and declared their independence. Every other country in the Americas was based on slavery.
Haiti was freedom, and proceeded to place in its 1805 Independence Constitution that any person of African descent who arrived on its shores would be declared free, and a citizen of the republic.
For the first time since slavery had commenced, Blacks were the subjects of mass freedom and citizenship in a nation.
The French refused to recognise Haiti's independence and declared it an illegal pariah state. The Americans, whom the Haitians looked to in solidarity as their mentor in independence, refused to recognise them, and offered solidarity instead to the French. The British, who were negotiating with the French to obtain the ownership title to Haiti, also moved in solidarity, as did every other nation-state the Western world.
Haiti was isolated at birth - ostracised and denied access to world trade, finance, and institutional development. It was the most vicious example of national strangulation recorded in modern history.
The Cubans, at least, have had Russia, China, and Vietnam. The Haitians were alone from inception. The crumbling began.
Then came 1825; the moment of full truth. The republic is celebrating its 21st anniversary. There is national euphoria in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
The economy is bankrupt; the political leadership isolated. The cabinet took the decision that the state of affairs could not continue.
The country had to find a way to be inserted back into the world economy. The French government was invited to a summit.
Officials arrived and told the Haitian government that they were willing to recognise the country as a sovereign nation but it would have to pay compensation and reparation in exchange. The Haitians, with backs to the wall, agreed to pay the French.
The French government sent a team of accountants and actuaries into Haiti in order to place a value on all lands, all physical assets, the 500 000 citizens were who formerly enslaved, animals, and all other commercial properties and services.
The sums amounted to 150 million gold francs. Haiti was told to pay this reparation to France in return for national recognition.
The Haitian government agreed; payments began immediately. Members of the Cabinet were also valued because they had been enslaved people before independence.
Thus began the systematic destruction of the Republic of Haiti. The French government bled the nation and rendered it a failed state. It was a merciless exploitation that was designed and guaranteed to collapse the Haitian economy and society.
Haiti was forced to pay this sum until 1922 when the last instalment was made. During the long 19th century, the payment to France amounted to up to 70 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
Jamaica today pays up to 70 per cent in order to service its international and domestic debt. Haiti was crushed by this debt payment. It descended into financial and social chaos.
The republic did not stand a chance. France was enriched and it took pleasure from the fact that having been defeated by Haitians on the battlefield, it had won on the field of finance. In the years when the coffee crops failed, or the sugar yield was down, the Haitian government borrowed on the French money market at double the going interest rate in order to repay the French government.
When the Americans invaded the country in the early 20th century, one of the reasons offered was to assist the French in collecting its reparations.
The collapse of the Haitian nation resides at the feet of France and America, especially. These two nations betrayed, failed, and destroyed the dream that was Haiti; crushed to dust in an effort to destroy the flower of freedom and the seed of justice.
Haiti did not fail. It was destroyed by two of the most powerful nations on earth, both of which continue to have a primary interest in its current condition.
The sudden quake has come in the aftermath of summers of hate. In many ways the quake has been less destructive than the hate.
Human life was snuffed out by the quake, while the hate has been a long and inhumane suffocation - a crime against humanity.
During the 2001 UN Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, strong representation was made to the French government to repay the 150 million francs.
The value of this amount was estimated by financial actuaries as US$21 billion. This sum of capital could rebuild Haiti and place it in a position to re-engage the modern world. It was illegally extracted from the Haitian people and should be repaid.
It is stolen wealth. In so doing, France could discharge its moral obligation to the Haitian people.
For a nation that prides itself in the celebration of modern diplomacy, France, in order to exist with the moral authority of this diplomacy in this post-modern world, should do the just and legal thing.
Such an act at the outset of this century would open the door for a sophisticated interface of past and present, and set the Haitian nation free at last.
Sir Hilary Beckles is pro-vice-chancellor and Principal of the Cave Hill Campus, UWI.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Spinning rum yarns through the centuries

Gotta love this short article about the origins of "rumbullion" (rum), grog, bumboo and other such colorful language used to describe the Caribbean's favorite booze.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Why walled gardens are a limited strategy in online ventures

This story prompted me to think about the longevity of Apple's App Store. Apple's secretive and power-crazy ways may yet be its undoing (again - that's why it lost the PC wars: because it insisted on vetting every piece of hardware you plugged into your Apple computer).  In its effort to ensure its customers are truly locked in Apple vettes all App Store apps. Not only has it garnered criticism for:-
  • taking too long to vette apps
  • blocking apps that may compete with its own products (god forbid!)
  • being laughably draconian about age ratings for apps
  • allowing wholly inappropriate apps
.. but it has now added to that list with allowing legally questionable apps.  That's the trouble with dictatorship, even beautifully designed, "lickable", "insanely great" dictatorship: too much control is not sustainable.

Take Facebook, another walled garden.  You can put your content in and share it, but don't expect to take it out again, or have any rights to it.  Now, in the short term who cares?  Sharing your thoughts, pictures and affinities is much more exciting and interesting than how they might be used by an unknown third party.  But what about the longer term?  The biggest demographic in Facebook is 30-40 year olds. The youngsters are not using it.  Is it because it's a 'certain age' tool, or because the yoof have more sophisticated views about their online interactions and privacy?  Facebook's business model (what there is of it) is based on loyalty: its main advantage over Google as an advertiser is that its users stick around for a lot longer - minutes vs the seconds we tend to hover at most other sites.  How does it protect that loyalty?  By subtlely manipulating your privacy and removing your rights to any content you submit.  Effectively, your loyalty is not to Facebook, but to your friends on Facebook - the wisdom of the crowd.  That's not very sustainable as a business model.

Google, for all their dominance and the fear that invokes, have got it right, I think.  They have no walled gardens: there are APIs everywhere and you can move data out as well as in.  Fundamentally, they win and retain market share by offering customers what they want, efficiently.  They want your loyalty but appreciate that the core of that is transparency: you're making choices based on the best possible information, not based on coolness factor, or lock-in because Apple didn't mention that you can only use iTunes with your iPhone or Facebook didn't tell you that there's no easy way to export your personal data, or even see how it is being used.  Don't expect bells & whistles and "lickable" user interfaces.  Just solid, simple products that play nicely with others and gradually evolve - like nice children.  Now there's a sustainable business model.

I'm really not a Google-vangelist: I don't think that they can do no wrong. But I do think that they appreciate that walled gardens weaken you in the long term because just as they hoard super-normal profits, they also breed complacency.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Google Nexus One phone - it's about software, stupid!

From a business perspective, the amazing thing about the ipod/iphone isnt the device, it's itunes. The device is simply the enticement and lock-in to the service, which is where the real revenue is made.

For Google, the Nexus One is simply a delivery mechanism for Google Voice and associated services.

The trouble with other smart phones (including the iPhone) is that they are locked to carriers. Why is that a problem? Imagine your cellular phone company being like your phone company or ISP: you pay a flat rate for a pipe. No plans or charges per call/text/whatever. Your modem isn't owned by them, and nor is your landline phone (the concept seems laughable now).

It's a dream for you, and a nightmare for your cellular provider, who is pushed away from the customer to become a wireless packet herder. So how does a software/service provider reach your dream? By providing you the means to untether from the carrier. Once you're unfettered, you're much more likely to focus on what matters: the software services, and not the proprietariness of the network's packages. Google Voice aggregates your phone numbers into a single voice service, so that, effectively, you no longer need a number, except as a legacy.

Just go big with the thought for a second: imagine if everyone had untethered phones with services like Google Voice. Knowing your carrier-provided phone number would be like knowing your computer's IP address: useful for diagnostic purposes only. In the age of avatars and 'screen names' isn't it quite remarkable that we still have phone numbers?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Whatever happened to Second Life?

Here's a really interesting article by Barry Collins at PC Pro about a recent visit to Second Life, three years after his initial visit. He tells the story well, and it's a thought-provoking conclusion.