Archive | October, 2010

Call Me Fred

30 Oct

Increasingly, I feel like Fred Flintstone stumbling through George Jetson’s world. Just this week I flew down to San Diego to attend Partners, Teradata’s user group conference, where cutting-edge data geeks meet with state-of-the-art computer geeks and wow each other with what they’ve done in the past year or so. If you want to know about the most advanced uses for enterprise intelligence, this is the key event to attend.

But it wasn’t the myriad conference and keynote sessions that made me feel like the bumbling Mr. Flintstone once again. It was my flight to Southern California.

Since moving to Oregon, by deliberate choice, through the ease of working remotely, with the reduction in corporate travel budgets, and from the utter inconvenience of air travel, I’ve reduced my time tethered to the airline industry from two to three weeks a month to two to three weeks a year.

Bliss.

My reduced exposure to the limitless tedium of airports around the world means I’ve missed out on a few rather substantial changes in George Jetson-style processes and services. Naturally, I’d heard of these advances, but I’ve never experienced them firsthand until this week.

When Alaska Airlines flight 576 deposited its load of passengers into the cramped terminal at San Diego International Airport mid-day on Sunday this week, the line of departing travelers leading into the terminal stretched endlessly throughout the concourse, blocking the paths of those who were following the Ground Transportation and Baggage signs. I overheard someone complain that they’d been in line for 45 minutes. And from where he was standing it was clear he would have another half hour before he got through security. I made a mental note to arrive a bit earlier than normal when it was my day to leave.

Upon my departure I saw the reason for the very long line: the x-ray security machine. It adds at least 20 seconds to each and every passengers’ trip through the ever-changing labyrinth of airport security. Ten of those seconds come from the necessary time it takes for the machine to bombard your body with a tiny dose of x-rays. Another ten comes from the time it takes for the Transportation Security Administration agent to explain what you’re supposed to do in the x-ray booth. So, while listening to the instructions, putting your thumbs on your head while holding your wallet and counting to ten as the machine scans your body, the people behind you wait…and wait…and wait.

Privacy and health concerns aside, x-ray machines compound the already complex passenger boarding process. If they were a true breakthrough, such as envisioned in the 1990 sci-fi flick Total Recall, where you get x-rayed while carrying all your gear to the plane without breaking stride, I’d give the security process two thumbs up. But you still need to pull your laptop out of your bag, take off your jacket, remove your belt, empty your pockets of keys and change, slip out of your shoes, and the rest. As it stands now, the x-ray process is yet one more reason not to fly. It adds extra time to the already long, mind-numbing experience of air travel.

The second technology advance I witnessed was WiFi in the air. Alaska Airlines flight 233 back to PDX offered me the chance to send e-mail from seat 26C, which I did for free, announcing to friends that I was sending them a message from 35,000 feet above terra firma. At first, I thought it was pretty cool. Then I noticed everyone around me diligently bent over their laptops working away harder than ever. What might be a fun or convenient new service for some was mostly another tool to keep workers working longer, harder, for no extra pay.

This trip reminded me once again that I’ll take my Fred Flintstone existence over George Jetson’s world any day.

24 Hours in Cyberspace: 15 Years Later

23 Oct

I was rummaging around some seldom-opened cupboards in the garage when I came across a few boxes of books that had been stored back in a corner when we moved to the Willamette Valley more than 10 years ago. Inside one container I found a copy of 24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave still shrink-wrapped and pristine, untouched by human hands.

Published with much fanfare in late 1996, the book’s conceit was to have photographers around the world visually capture a single day (8 February 1996) in the life, as it were, of the worldwide web. More a magazine with many different stories to tell between hardcovers than a proper book with a single voice or point of view, 24 Hours in Cyberspace encompasses much of what exists today online, yet it lacks almost everything that is important about our contemporary cyberspace experience.

The sometimes goofy, occasionally poignant photos in the book reflect a random collection of people whose lives somehow touched the web. The team behind 24 Hours in Cyberspace showed how some people involved in health care, politics, education, and other areas are engaged with the worldwide web. They touched on sensitive topics as well, such as the proliferation of pornography and the spread of Holocaust deniers online. The attempt was a comprehensive glimpse of the influence of the web in daily life.

In truth, though, all the people covered in the book are also engaged with cellphones, televisions, automobiles, and other technologies we embrace. The web, as depicted in 24 Hours in Cyberspace, is just another tool. Nice. But not earth-shaking.

For example, one photo spread shows an American in St. Petersburg, Russia negotiating for his “prospective Russian bride whom he met online.” How different is that from bachelors in the Wild West shopping for mail-order brides in the penny newspapers of the day? And, while another photo shows some young women in Bangi, Malaysia who, according to the excitable accompanying text, “lift the lid on Pandora’s box as they check out a bare-chested Matthew Modine on Hollywood Online.” Hardly revolutionary considering most those women had probably already seen similarly dressed men in the thousands of magazines published in their country. (And Matthew Modine? Come on, ladies. Have better taste.)

Of course, it’s easy to carp about a nearly 15-year-old book which contends that the Internet “is a shape-shifting, borderless medium firmly in the hands of ordinary citizens bent on turning it to extraordinary ends.” Given that ordinary citizens in China, Iran, and behind other borders face government sanctions if they violate national laws while online seems to undermine that statement.

1996 was, in terms of the worldwide web, a far more innocent time. The authors of 24 Hours in Cyberspace could not envision Google battling with a sovereign nation over a search engine. Perhaps because the book’s producers did not even mention Google, Facebook, Twitter, social networking, software as a service, cloud computing, or any of the other truly revolutionary aspects of the Internet.

As such, 24 Hours in Cyberspace is not a very interesting or insightful book. It tells us nothing important about the real power of the Internet. Nor does it tell us much about who we are as human beings. But it does offer yet another proof point that making a bet on what we’ll be doing online even just a few years from now is probably a poorly placed wager.

I Am Product

18 Oct

If I were a product I’d probably be part of a recall. A defect from the norm. Or so I would hope. Who wants to be part of the crowd?

Yet, when I think about it, I am a product, and not such a unique one, at least as far as the boardrooms of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the rest of the social network empires are concerned. I am part of the noisy crowd that comprises those companies’ product. Without me and millions of others like me typing away, attaching links, posting videos and photos, generating more and more content, there would be no product for social networks to sell.

We are all product.

But, I ask you, what kind of company can succeed in the long run when it does not own, control, influence, or manage its own product? As I’ve said here before, the faddish nature of consumers and their likes and dislikes of online services make any social network ephemeral, which is why I swing between astonishment and amusement when supposedly sober people value, say, Facebook at $33 billion. For what?

Once upon a time capitalists, so-called captains of industry, aspired to own real things. Ironworks. Railroads. Steel mills. Oil wells. Baseball teams. Something they could point to and say, “That’s mine.”

What do the capitalist captains of social networks point to when showing off their accomplishments? The leased servers in the hosted data centers where the “secret sauce” of their proprietary software runs? Maybe, but it’s rather pathetic when compared to the real value created in the real world by the business titans that preceded them.

My concern is not that the fortunes of new billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg are built upon shifting sands. Rather, when (not if) fickle users of today’s social networks shift their gaze to the next shiny thing, I fear current and future investors will be wiped out. I also worry that as a nation, the United States seems to be obsessed with building an economy based on virtual products (me and you) and not real things with value in the real world. Social networks are the reflection of an economic engine, not an actual one.

Facebook, Twitter, and the rest won’t help the USA overcome its ongoing economic woes. The best they can do is distract us from them for a while. But only for a while.

iTunes Genius and Her Cousin Dumbass

15 Oct

Sheepishly, I admit to liking the iTunes Genius feature. I use it regularly while cycling. Click on a song and Genius generates a selection of related music on the fly. All I need do is pop in my iPhone’s earbuds and I’m on the road, pedaling to a well-conceived string of tunes.

Despite my best intentions, I don’t devote the time I once did to creating Playlists from the 10+ gigabytes of music I store in iTunes. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to hear even my old favorite lists, so I use Genius to generate a meaningful and immediate collection of songs. They’re not unlike the compilations you’d find on late-night television, producing musical themes around Beethoven or Coltrane to Woodstock or Tilith, which is why I feel sheepish. While clever, Genius is not creative. But it’s drop-dead simple to use and a surprisingly savvy bit of software. It’s a nice addition to my digital life.

The way it works, as I understand it, is that once I opt in to iTunes Genius, I permit Apple to snag data from the music program’s database on my Mac and combine it with data from thousands, maybe millions of other iTunes users’ music libraries from around the world. People who like similar music tend to like other similar music, so working up lists from such a large sample of users makes it an effective, intelligent service in the cloud. As a result, Genius is able to cobble together a solid list of tunes from a single suggestion.

You would think that Apple would exploit Genius more than as merely a tune selection program similar to Netflix’s movie recommendation engine. But you’d be wrong.

iTunes Genius has a Dumbass e-mail cousin that makes a mockery of Apple’s so-called marketing genius. iTunes Dumbass is a standard html-formatted e-mail that only knows that I bought this or that genre of music and wants me to buy more of the same. Every time some Apple marketing suit thinks it’s time to promote that genre, he sends Dumbass to annoy me. Because I did something in the past, even years ago and never repeated buying in that genre, I get Dumbass in my mail queue on cue.

Genius tells me that Apple has the business intelligence (BI) tools at hand to put Dumbass out to pasture and create something new and useful. For some reason, though, Apple sticks with Dumbass.

I want an iTunes e-mail that groks my recent and trending music purchases. It should know what others with similar tastes in those trending or recent buys have in their music collection but I lack. It should select those tunes for my consideration. This Smarter e-mail should send me 60-second mp3 files of a few such songs, or a link to a one-time full play of music I do not own, but would likely buy. Such a service would increase my spending at the iTunes store and improve my customer experience. That’s real BI like Genius not Dumbass.

Obsolete Ideas

12 Oct

Back in 1984 I wrote a cover story for Micro Communications magazine on 2400 bps modems. Sending data across the telephone wire at 2,400 bits per second was the hottest thing for PC users. To get a 2400 bps modem to work you manually controlled it by using the arcane de facto standard called the Hayes Command Set. It was state of the art at the time, but ridiculous today.

I got to thinking about this obsolete technology when I came across a story in the current issue of The Economist called “The New Calvins” (p.46) about obsolete theology. It describes a “cadre of  Young Turks” within the 16-million strong Southern Baptist Convention who “are looking back to the 16th century for fresh inspiration.” That is, they are reviving the now dated ideas of John Calvin.

As a rebel against the corrupt and intellectually stagnant Catholic Church at the time, like Martin Luther, Calvin’s ideas breathed life into the Reformation. And like so many theological precepts, his ideas have the odor of obsolescence about them today. He established rules against dancing and swearing. He opposed any theological notions that weren’t his and approved the execution of so-called heretics.

Calvin, who ruled Geneva, Switzerland like a despot until his death in 1564, was the theological inspiration for the Puritans who settled in the New World because Old Europe was too decadent for them. Calvinists hate the idea of free will, so it’s ironic that his ideas continue to appeal to people dwelling in the so-called “land of the free.”

Even more amusing, I think, is that Calvin’s unbending beliefs are taking hold among social conservatives. For example, Calvin was rock solid in his view of predestination. That is, no one has a choice about who he is or what he’ll achieve on this earthly plane because it was all “predestined by the Lord God.” I guess that shoots down the notion that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.

Calvin also held that “only the Elect will be saved.” In his mind the Elect were pious people who, by outward success and achievement blessed from above, are the most likely individuals who will go to heaven. That will be good news to the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, David Sedaris, and many other modest, successful gays who are obviously among the Elect. But it may distress Calvinists whose homes are in foreclosure.

I know that many of these renegade Baptists are flocking to Calvin because they are among the “greed is good” strain of Protestantism. God’s plan, Calvin argued, is that success on earth translates to a successful election to heaven. As a proof point these new Calvinists underscore Calvin’s approval of usury, the charging of interest on borrowed money, something the awful old Vatican once made illegal in its domain. One problem for these new breed of greedy Calvinists is that Calvin himself only approved of usury for rich people or merchants. Charging the poor interest was, he wrote, immoral.

Another problem for modern Calvinists and the distinctly un-modern views of their hero, is his belief in witches. He sent no less than 34 to be burned at the stake. Social conservative Christine O’Donnell’s protestations about her being a witch would not hold water with Calvin. Once accused in Calvin’s Geneva meant you were all but guaranteed a gruesome end. (And politically it looks that way for the GOP senatorial candidate from Delaware.)

I think if you listen carefully to the tired, discredited theology of John Calvin, you’ll hear the obsolete noise of 2400 bps modems. And it’s not something intelligent people want to hear again.

10.10.10

10 Oct

Today is ten’s special day. Unless, of course, you live in a binary world, where 10 means something less than we think of it.

10 in film

10 in education

10 in politics

10 in math education

10 in dining out

10 in sports

10 in amateur communications

No 2 ways about it, 10 is a big, big number.

 

I Own IBM

8 Oct

Well, based on its recent market capitalization, technically I own 1/87,225,000th of the company with my 15 shares of stock.

It may not sound like a big deal, but to me it’s huge. You see, for two decades as a technology journalist on staff at various publications I was not permitted to own stock in companies in the computer industry. It was feared that I might be tempted to write a glowing story about a company I had shares in, or that I might sell stock in a company whose product I was about to slam in a review.

Not that I believed for a second that anything I wrote could move the market one way or another, my bosses believed it and they made the rules. So, I was not allowed to invest in the one business segment that I knew something about. As a result, I missed out on quite a few opportunities to make a killing here and there. (For example, back in 1999 when Sun Microsystems started advertising on television that it was “the dot in dot com,” I knew it was time to sell that stock short.)

Since becoming a freelancer two years ago, I’ve been free to invest in tech companies. However, by habit and the scary stock market situation since 2008, I’d still not invested in tech companies. But a couple of weeks ago I girded my financial loins and decided to buy IBM. I could have picked any stock in the tech sector, but IBM had all the things I look for in an equity: a (surprisingly) low price/earnings ratio, good revenue growth and a dividend that pays more on a percentage basis than the best money market or CD I could get from my banks.

Owning IBM is big responsibility, especially for a blogger. Who knows? Maybe I’ll write something about the company in Croisan Views that will propel the stock to new heights. Or (shudder) new lows. I now can see why my old bosses forbade me from making these investments. The fate of investors everywhere rests in my hands. 😉