Sunday, July 30, 2006

Tech: Innovation

I attended an interesting Innovation Breakfast recently. There were three speakers on the general topic of innovation. I'll say a little about each; copies of their presentations are available at that link above. I sat next to Don Nicholl, who works in Melbourne for the German multinational, Bayer. He said that in typical German fashion :), they were building structure around innovation.

The event was sponsored by IBM, who was releasing a global survey on innovation, in which they had interviewed 765 CEOs. One of the key points to come out of the survey is the strategic importance of external collaboration. This poses a whole set of issues in a capitalistic world, where sharing is a dirty word.

Partnerships consistently ranked high in importance, as a source of innovation. Customers were also an important external source. Internally, employees ranked higher than Research and Development. Perversely, the biggest obstacle to innovation was seen to be an unsupportive corporate culture. In an ideal world, this is actually the responsibility of the CEO, but since the average tenure of CEOs these days is relatively short, there’s a limit to the extent to which it can be shaped – assuming the CEO has the ability to affect the culture.

Talks were also given by John Swainston, Managing Director of Maxwell Optical, and Grant Kearney, CEO of the Innovation Xchange Network. John Swainston was an interesting speaker, and credit must be given to him for building up to the serious innovation challenge: addressing climate change.

Innovation Xchange is a not-for-profit organisation that presents a very unusual approach to this issue. Through the placement of their representatives in innovation-seeking organisations, they identify opportunities for collaboration between their clients. Where there is mutual agreement, they go through a step-wise disclosure procedure to enable the two organisations to work together without compromising commercial confidences. As a measure of their success, Kearney says their clients include all medical research institutes in Victoria.

Surprisingly little comment was made by speakers on the day about the place of technology in innovation. Computers have been responsible for massive structural changes and efficiency improvements over the past fifty years. And, of course, the internet has created for us a whole new arena for revolutionary innovation and collaboration. I expect those terms – internet, innovation, collaboration – will be inextricably linked into the future.

World: There is a better way than destroying Lebanon

Killing civilians in a war is wrong, bad, unethical. Always has been, always will be. Terrorism – as we commonly know it – is wrong.

Palestinian suicide bombers will never achieve anything. The violence in Iraq is several orders of magnitude worse than it’s ever been in Israel, and it achieves nothing except brutalising millions of people.

What Israel is doing to Lebanon is a tragedy, and will not achieve the desired result. Slaughter of civilians, mass homelessness, and wholesale destruction of infrastructure. Violence is only breeding violence. No matter how much Israel cripples its neighbours, people will fight back, even once that fight becomes token and pointless.

The US has clearly been backing Israel in its destruction of Lebanon. Once more, US foreign policy is making the world a much more dangerous place. The war on terrorism will only be won if they win hearts and minds – yet every headline the US garners encourages more Muslim extremism. The Bush administration’s actions are spreading terrorism throughout the world, and we will experience the bloody aftermath for a long time to come.

A better path was demonstrated in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The US, through the Marshall Plan, helped rebuild Europe, to the point where it has developed the most sophisticated political organisation the world has ever seen – and blurred the borders of nations. The cost? US$130 billion in today’s terms. A drop in the bucket compared to what the US is pouring into Iraq and into its futile war on terrorism.

Reconciliation, not violence. Yield a little of your heart to your enemy to make the world safer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tech: Wikipedia - where’s that critique of unsourced information?

I was drawn to a piece on Radio National’s Counterpoint programme, which promised to be a critique on Wikipedia. Here’s evidence of the mainstreaming of a hidden gem: to have it discussed nationally on radio. Not that I needed that evidence, on an anecdotal level at least. I frequently encounter non-technical people nowadays that use Wikipedia as their first reference source.

However, Wikipedia emerged favourably from the the two discussions I picked up in this exercise, and I’m still waiting for a serious challenge to its burgeoning pre-eminence.

The first point of contention came from Jaron Lanier. Who’s he? Despite his own bio and that in Wikipedia (vetted quite recently by him), his substance is rather elusive to me, although he has clearly been involved in technical and critical spheres. Undeniably he is literate, and has garnered recognition, including an honorary doctorate, as well as notable people who are willing to put a fair bit of thought into responding to his essays.

I believe the teaser for the interview with Lanier said words to the effect that Wikipedia was a “revolution in unsourced information”. I was thus looking forward to a critique of its accuracy. Now the Wikipedia model is somewhat counterintuitive in that it sounds like it lends itself to both misinformation and disinformation, yet in practice works particularly well.

Here I present another analysis. Nature magazine carried out a survey (which Lanier is wont to quote) comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. It concluded there is not a great deal of difference between the two – a finding favourable enough to the former to draw the ongoing wrath of the latter. Nature stood by its conclusions. Four major errors were spotted in each; smaller errors of fact were of an equal order of magnitude: 162 for Wikipedia and 123 for Britannica. The sampling was relatively small (42 pairs of usable reviews), but it’s not surprising Britannica was wringing its hands at the prospect of its reputation being usurped by such a young upstart. That link to the survey leads to all the details of Britannica's criticisms and Nature's rebuttals.

Back to Lanier. If you read his comments carefully enough (in the Counterpoint interview and particularly in the essay that probably caught their attention – Digital Maoism), he is actually bewailing the fact of collaboration, and the apparent loss of the individual voice. He contrasts it with, which he expresses enthusiasm for – specifically because it is an individual, signed voice - regardless of the quality of the content.

Lanier has an axe to grind against collective collaboration, and doesn’t seem to disparage the accuracy of Wikipedia per se. It’s an interesting perspective for a professed computer scientist: it’s much more that of an artist. Art and science/knowledge, I contend, have very different purposes and in the ultimate, science (and knowledge) is more concerned with successful collaboration, whereas it is in art that the individual's voice has strongest relevance to the subject matter.

Further, Lanier is misleading in claiming that that collective content of Wikipedia is homogenised. In fact, if any contentious issues therein are tested, they are found to have a plurality of voices, proffering often diametrically opposed views on the same issue.

I have a side issue with how the man encourages himself to be portrayed. The radio presenter, Michael Duffy, credited Lanier as being an “academic at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley”. At a brief whizz past (which is all radio listeners will get), this sounds like Lanier’s been given cachet by being associated with the University of California, Berkeley. In fact, a) that Institute is not associated with U of C, and b) Lanier would not seem to be an academic at ICSI. His Wikipedia biography doesn’t mention it; in his own website bio, he mentions various “associations” with that Institute, but the Institute’s staff list doesn’t mention him at all. I think the artistic desire for signature won out over the scientistic regard for accuracy.

So we have Lanier’s critique of what he calls the “hive mind” – for what it’s worth. I’m still waiting for a challenging critique of Wikipedia.

Climate Change: Tipping points on climate change

Elizabeth Farally normally writes deliberately abstruse articles on architecture. But she can be suddenly lucidly when she wants - and she wrote on climate change.

Farrally drew my attention to a report called The Top Ten Tipping Points on Climate Change, put out by the Climate Institute of Australia.

The Climate Institute is a very new organisation with the very important mission of raising public awareness on climate change. It’s led by a heavyweight roster of business and public figures, and funded by the Poola Foundation, a low profile Melbourne-based philanthropic organisation which seems to be doing exactly the sort of things I postulated would make a structural difference to our society.

The report itself documents the critical mass that has been developing over the climate change issue. This includes science, governments, media, the public, energy issues, moral leadership and – significantly – corporations who are slowly recognising the global imperative. It is always heartening to see leadership on the issue, especially from mammon. This very presentable, readable and detailed report is both a source of hope for our future, and a call to arms for laggards.

Australia and the USA are in a very similar position in so many ways: we are both major greenhouse gas offenders whose national governments are still in climate change denial. Yet in both countries, significant initiatives are taking place at the State level and below. If I was feeling optimistic, I'd echo the sentiment that in both countries, the next national leader would be the one who couldn’t, and wouldn’t, ignore climate change. This doesn't reflect well on our current leaders, who will hopefully be relegated to historical footnotes as we draw our inspiration from others.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Tech: Business intelligence: basic practice for print reports

I came across a post which discussed a list of must-haves for identifying information on printed reports. I came up with my own to see how they matched. All this sounds really simple, but too often the basics are missing.

1. Report title
2. Data source
3. Data refresh date/time
4. Print date/time
5. Page number (of n pages)
6. Filter values, if any

Now, what did Mitch Wheat have?

He adds:
- who printed it
- alternate shading of data lines
- don't print empty reports
- URL to the live report
Apart from those, we're substantially in agreement. Personally I don't think those additions are must-haves - although they're useful options. He adds to the title a "unique identifier" which he rightly points out is essential when the stock of reports is large.

What else makes you grind your teeth in frustration when it's lacking in the report? (apart from the quality or absence of data!)

Too often, there's a communication disconnect when someone responsible for BI services is working through issues with information users. It's not always possible to even agree whether they are working off the same page. Are all six identifiers above present? If the software tools aren't able to generate all those identifiers, it's time to rethink the toolset. If this is not possible, proxies (through either data or business processes) need to be engaged. For example: strict controls over when data is refreshed; information users only having access to a single data source. In other words, eliminate all possible sources of ambiguity.

All this is something that ideally should be worked out between the report developers and information users early on in the development process, at the point of business analysis. However, in mitigation it must be said that some ambiguities can creep in later, for example when extra capabilities are added to either reportage or the data environment - or the information user's environment. Be mindful of the ramifications of such changes.

Film: Mullet (Australia, 2001)

Browsing through the Internet Movie Database for the film Mullet, I was struck by how misunderstood it was. So I added a few words myself to redress the balance. The following is substantially what I said.

Reading the comments on IMDB, I wondered if I'd been watching the same film. There may have been changes for the American release, since I don't recall voice-overs for the Australian version (maybe Americans need things spelled out. Comes from watching too much Hollywood.) This film is not Hollywood. It's small in scope, with budget to match, and it runs at a tender pace. If you want something fast, get fast food. If you want something absorbing and thoughtful, watch this.

Having said that, my perspective was strangely shifted as I watched it; I can't recall another film that has done this to me so well. I thought I was watching a "small town boy makes good" film, but after a while it became obvious it was about a bloke who _couldn't_ make good with his relationships - and didn't realise it. Everyone was being nice to him, and he didn't realise he was slapping them in the face.

Maybe the other commenters here were waiting for something to happen, then didn't find anything. But the happening is in the journey, and speaks to our ability to grow, or not.

Some commented on the apparent lack of ending. There is an ending there. The fact that the final shot is held as long as it is, says volumes about the protagonist’s ability to learn.

Yet it’s possible there are two versions of the ending. The one I saw was not properly resolved which, given the nature of the film, would be the superior version. Having read about a version with a “proper” resolution, I’d say that was done more for overseas marketing purposes.

To add to the pot is a comment from Mark about growing up in a small town. Basically, when growing is done, some people want to leave as quickly as possible. This makes the decisions that much more complex, as this film ably shows.

It’s possible this film was marketed as a comedy. Rather a woeful exercise: although it has some moments of humour, it’s not a comedy in the Hollywood sense. It’s a simple ‘slice of life’ drama.

Finally, as vindication, I’d note that this film garnered a slew of Australian Film Industry Awards. And the industry here is not small or undiscriminating.

In contrast to the nay-sayers, I'll say this is one of the best Australian films of the past 10 years. There's heaps of heart in this film. Watch it with your eyes open.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Tech: the future of blogging, and why it matters

I stumbled across an article on the Future of the Blog (courtesy of Luis Suarez): some thoughts from one of the earliest originators of blogging software, Mena Trott.

Why blog? I can think of a lot of reasons, but at its best, it’s a form of communication and collaboration. For example, if several experts in a given field are blogging and reading each other, an interchange of ideas can happen at a distance that used to require either working in proximity or an inordinate amount of time for the exchanges.

If you search at random through a blogging site such as Blogger or Typepad, it will eventually strike you that most blogs are either personal, political, or technical in nature. Perhaps not surprising. Some people use it as a form of diary, or a substitute for writing letters to family and friends. Others want to express opinions. And why technical? Right at the moment, that’s because those closer to the leading edge of technology tend to have a greater than average technical interest.

In my particular case, I have a few different aims, including some of the above. I post five times a week, and since technical betterment is one of my aims, every second post is technical. Currently.

Mena Trott’s vision of the future largely emphasised the biggest advantage blogs have over traditional media: they are more personal. Thus she envisages a future ability to filter readership – so that, for example, you can intersperse the private with the public, and set levels of access. If such a filtering mechanism can be made relatively painless, I expect it to see an awful lot of use, as bloggers will feel freer to set entries to specific communities. (For example, I’d feel freer to add personal content which is not relevant to a general audience.) Further, blog entries could be rendered private or public at will.

Further, the ability to add any type of digital content to a blog will make the experience richer for both the writer and the reader. I can vouch right now that we’re nowhere close to that yet, and the blogging tools we have are still relatively rudimentary.

Why tools? As a medium, blogging is meant to make for quick and easy communication. Although we already see all manner of digital content on web pages already, to suit the purposes of blogging, it needs to be just as easy to add audio, video, files and pictures as it is to add words. To date, I’ve found most video and audio on the web has required plugins and helper applications. Longer term, this should not be necessary… maybe when formats are more standardised…

Trott highlights the perception that blogs are mainly political or technical in focus; yet she emphasises their significance in communicating the personal. Luis Suarez in turn advocates a mainstreaming of blogging to enhance knowledge sharing. His focus is Knowledge Management, and in that context he sees Personal Knowledge Management as an important outcome.

Yes indeed. In some senses this all calls in question the purpose of blogging, and reading blogs. Trott emphasises the personal outcomes; Suarez is more expansive in applying outcomes to professional situations too. The ultimate result is knowledge sharing (even – or particularly - through disagreement) and thus new information, knowledge and insights. In the past, this could not be done through either traditional media, or personal communications, with the reach, immediacy and power of blogs. Marry this with the ability to specify audience, and to add anything that can be digitised, and the sharing of information and ideas is revolutionised.

24-Jul-06 Update: Pew Research has just released a survey on blogging. Amongst other findings: 37% of blogs are exclusively personal; next highest cagegory is politics/government, at only 11%. Technology ran a distant 7th at 4% - which surprised me, but maybe that reflects the circles I move in. Technology was beaten by entertainment, sports, general news, and business. "Sharing knowledge or skills" is cited as a purpose by 64%, which is some verification of the collaborative significance of the blog.

World: media ownership: how to tell the broad populace what to think

Australia’s media ownership regulations are being shredded. Why should anyone care? Why should there be any regulation at all?

Just look at Russia. President Vladimir Putin has stifled the independence of all the major media outlets, while correctly maintaining that there is a pluralism. But Putin knows that to keep a grip on public opinion, it is sufficient to control the flow of information and viewpoints in the largest voices.

To date, Australia has had a comparatively complex set of regulations limiting both foreign ownership of media, and diversity within particular markets. In practical terms, it recognises that the dominant media voices are the free-to-air tv stations and the mass circulation daily newspapers. The regulations also – effectively – recognise the distinct major markets (eg Sydney, Melbourne), and the differential nature of indigenous versus foreign interests in the media’s voices.

Most criticism of those regulations has come from large media proprietors and financial service organisations (eg merchant banks, accountancy firms) that stand to gain from the free-for-all that ensues from relaxation.

As both a dominant media proprietor and a naturalised American (and thus a foreigner), Rupert Murdoch stands to gain from weakened regulations. In fact, News Ltd outlets have complained the changes don’t go far enough: Murdoch wants the number of free-to-air tv licenses relaxed, so he doesn’t have to pay a premium to take over an existing network. However, he benefits anyway, in the new capability to own both tv and newspaper voices in the same major market.

An interesting piece this issue on Radio National last night gave some indication of the biases of the different players. Those from the financial services sector (eg accountant Matt Liebman of Price Waterhouse Coopers) focused exclusively on technical aspects of the changes, while oblivious of the social and political ramifications – as if advertising markets and profitability were sufficient proxies for a diversity of information and opinion.

Yet analysts (such as Steve Allen of Fusion Strategies) recognised that the changes chiefly benefitted “boardrooms and shareholders”, and recognised that News Ltd criticisms represented particular vested interests. While the technicians postulated that the regulations were irrelevant in a ‘new media’ era, the analysts recognised that the overwhelming majority of voters still consumed information from the traditional sources of tv and newspaper – and this would be the case for some time to come.

A media analyst from Melbourne’s The Age newspaper then noted that an analysis of recent reportage of the issue from the four main ‘national’ newspapers – upwards of 50 items from The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and the Financial Review – showed that Murdoch’s paper (The Australian) “lobbied unashamedly for changes - in its news, editorial and commentary” pieces” – with utter consistency. By contrast, the others – Fairfax papers - ran a wider variety of views, more often than not conflicting with the official Fairfax position. (The analyst’s situation can be debated, but his findings cannot.)

Fairfax is a peculiar beast. Since “Young Warwick” Fairfax’s disastrous privatisation attempt in the late 1980s, the organisation has had a run remarkably free from proprietor influence. It has been an anachronistic independent, a bastion of the relatively free voice (see Wikipedia’s entry on the Herald). All that will change in the impending feeding frenzy of takeovers, and Australia’s diversity of information flow will be substantially weakened.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tech: Master Data Management

When someone recently asked me what I thought of Master Data Management, I said Hallelujah!

In actual fact, implementation of MDM is frequently incomplete, often incoherent. All enterprises need to maintain a consistent view of their information across all their businesses. To my mind – and many others - this mean keeping tight control of a central data dictionary, that is referenced by all applications and databases. This necessarily includes maintaining different versions of the same data over time – for example, a development system may be working with a new version of that data – but a central reference point is key.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t happen often enough. Part of the problem lies with the need for disparate vendor products (databases, BI systems, etc) to be able to (forced to) synchronise with what will usually be an external reference source.

It’s been on people’s minds for a while (see, for example, these articles from Intelligent Enterprise and Baseline Magazine), but so far I have not seen a perfect implementation. In fact, where I have seen attempts to control data formats and definitions, it’s usually been through manual processes such as source control systems. That’s simple, but not always quite enough to mandate a consistent data view. Software vendors often present products that aim for the ideal – see for example, Hyperion’s MDM . And according to Baseline, Gartner finds favour with its presence in the ETL space (eg IBM/Ascential’s DataStage, and Informatica). However, as DMReview’s take on the matter suggests, it’s a process to work on, and you may never reach a perfect endpoint.

Yet I’m always on the lookout for ideas and products that work towards this ideal.

Comments welcome.

20-Jul-06 Update: As a succinct illustration of how current this issue is, I received an email less than 24 hours after this post, inviting me to participate in a survey on Master Data Management.

26-Jul-06 Update: See also a posting on Master Metadata. This is intended to refer to enterprise-level data about the data, processes, repositories, toolsets even. In effect, data dictionaries of the enterprise. Laudable - an enterprise really needs to be on top of the disparate IT systems - but I expect successful implementations would be rather rare. You'd see the typical problems that aggregate at the enterprise-level, such as speed of change, political manouvring, etc.

Film: River Queen (2005, New Zealand)

River Queen is the tale of a woman caught between two cultures in the Maori Wars of 1860s New Zealand. It is a very effective portrayal of the multiple tragedies of war, and despite problems with pacing and plot, it’s impossible not to be affected by this film, which is visually quite impressive.

I have a lot of respect for director Vincent Ward. Yet he’s made a surprisingly small number of films over the past 20 years; they can be counted on one hand: Vigil, Navigator, Map of the Human Heart, What Dreams May Come, and now River Queen. The common strand through all of them is vision: the scope of the films are all large, and the films are visually impressive: they absolutely fill the screen.

All of them rather different from each other – and flawed, for the most part. In all this, Ward is like a more austere version of Terry Gilliam. Like Gilliam, Ward expresses a vision that is often too grand for his abilities; tales from the set are often rather tragic in the extent of their calamities. In this case, Ward was even fired from his own film – before being rehired. Also like Gilliam, you sometimes feel like shaking him, telling him to reduce his vision to something manageable – for both himself and the audience.

Having said that, River Queen is definitely not the disaster that some love to say it is. The vision is sweeping; the intention is epic. The cinematography, the look, is always stunning, and that’s something for which we can rely on Ward.

There are strong parallels with both Lord Of The Rings and The Piano: all were shot in New Zealand to great effect. All are epic films, drawing the viewer into their world. Although River Queen doesn't match those films, it aspires, and it is frequently stirring.

I can picture what Ward intended this film to be. Although it is sad he didn’t quite pull it off, River Queen can definitely be enjoyed for what it is.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Tech: Google Earth's advantages

It’s a little frustrating that Google has a couple of products competing against each other!

I revisited Google Earth after extolling Google Maps, and find several superior features in Google Earth:

a) smooth zoom without needing to redraw;
b) onscreen latitude/longitude. As a bonus, look at this site that integrates Wikipedia and Google Earth. Wow!
c) ease of adding markers
d) an ‘autotravel’ from one link to another.

The last is a particularly powerful visualisation aid. My kids love zooming from our house to their cousins’ house in another country – with one double-click.

I long for these products to be integrated – in a browser interface. A universal application – a browser - is where it all belongs. We no longer need to be forced to seek out a new application every time something new comes on stream.

As an aside, I understand the programming approach Ajax is an enabler for much of this, allowing smooth transitions within web pages without the need to redraw. For an illustration of the difference, in Google Maps try zooming and then try panning. Zooming, involving as it does a number of redraws, is a lot clunkier than panning.

Of course, I’d like to see realtime satellite data, and higher resolution. But aside from being too intrusive, that’s too much to ask for. Right now.

World: U.S. should show leadership, and Israel should get out.

My kids were arguing about something. As usual, one was playing with something the other one “owned”; the owner saw that and decided to have it, snatched it away, and it escalated from there. As you’d expect. It doesn’t stop until there’s major hurt on both sides – or a parent intervenes. Sometimes both parents are drawn in.

In trying to unravel the knot, I often start with the older one, because she’s more advanced, and has better tools (for understanding and doing) at her grasp. I always explain to them in what way they’re each in the wrong. Despite “ownership”, it’s still not really the right thing to do to snatch something back. And that hitting is right out. Still, I have to repeat the message, because they’re only kids.

If it gets to the point where a parent has to intervene, it may cause upset for some time afterwards.

There’s no excuse for Israel to occupy the left bank, nor for their settlements in occupied territory. Israel has the strongest war-making capacity anywhere in the region, and has successfully defended itself on multiple fronts - without the slightest impact on its integrity as a state.

This situation has festered, and will keep festering. Why? Because Israel’s voters are too split to vote for a leadership that can do anything but fight. And Israel is bankrolled by the US, so has no particular financial incentive to resolve. And US politicians are beholden to the Jewish vote, and nobody has enough leadership or stature or will to separate support for the state of Israel from support for Zionism.

Israel can defend itself, and most (not all) of the antagonism and violence will just evaporate if Gaza and the Left Bank is evacuated. But there is nothing in sight to break the deadlock. (My freind Mark drew a powerful analogy: that they are like an intertwined helix. You cannot damage the other without damaging yourself.)

Surprisingly, a start was made by former Israel PM Ariel Sharon, who is now out of the picture. Not only did he get out of Gaza, but he took the Israeli settlements out too. Maybe our only hope is from someone else from the far right who sees sense. Nobody from the left could get away with it, because the right would rise up.

Why should we care? Because it brutalises us all. And the spillovers directly affect us – this conflict is directly responsible for the rise of Islam extremism (all other grievances added together wouldn’t create such a critical mass of ferment.) And if, like a few people, you only ever vote in your own financial interest, well this affects you too, because the latest escalations have detonated oil prices afresh.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Tech: Fostering the Clever Country: Internet access for all

An interesting report that the French government is offering an internet-enabling package for low-income households.

The deal provides a computer, training, and high-speed internet access for one Euro (AU $1.70) per day for three years.

There is a financial benefit to the government too: they’re encouraging people such as pensioners and unemployed to conduct governent transactions over the web, such as filling out income declaration forms, and so on.

Of course, not all of the target audience would take to it. But takeup would represent a win for everyone. It’s too easy to forget the benefits of good internet access – for education, knowledge, communication, and simply getting things done quicker and more easily. A whole world is opened up with that access, and a whole nation is enriched (and more productive). Clever France.

Climate Change: nuclear power is a bad answer to an urgent question

Is nuclear power the solution to excessive carbon emissions? UK PM Tony Blair thinks so, although he's often been somewhat on the quixotic side of any political fence.

Full marks for Blair’s recognition of the issue of Global Warming. But nuclear power?? Sadly, this is gaining currency as a solution to energy production. Blair should know better, particularly given Britain’s troubled history on the matter, with the Windscale/Sellafield plant in particular. Accidents, leakages and fire. The Windscale fire in 1957 wasn’t topped until Three Mile Island. Which of course was overshadowed by Chernobyl.

Newer technology would be used, of course. But two problems will always remain:
a) there’s no guarantee against further ‘incidents’. There’s no guarantee against something worse than Chernobyl – no matter the safeguards
b) containment of radioactive spent fuel will remain a problem for thousands and thousands of years.

The technology is not there yet, to either maintain a safe plant or to cope with the waste. Cheaper options exist (eg wind). There’s no excuse for not focusing on safe, renewable energy sources. If sufficient money is invested in research into those sources, there would be no need for either unsafe power forms, nuclear or carbon-emitting.

Further reading: UK Friends of the Earth has a FAQ on this issue: Is nuclear power the answer to our energy needs?

Footnote: In other news, the band Pearl Jam is taking a surprisingly intelligent approach to the global warming issue, to compensate for the effects of their touring activity. Based on estimates of the carbon emission costs of their touring, they're donating to several organisations that focus on global warming issues and renewable energy.

Update 19-Jul-06: In an interesting illustration of the wilfully blind leading the wilfully blind, Australian Prime Minister John Howard admitted that he put nuclear power on the agenda because he was influenced by George Bush's policies. It figures.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tech: Google Books - another revolution in knowledge

Google Book Search is a project that, ideally wants to scan all books in existence.
When I first heard about this - launched in late 2004 - I couldn’t make sense of it. In particular, how would they get around copyright issues?

However, an absorbing article by Kevin Kelly clears up the mystery. Their solution is one that few other organisations could do: in partnership with a number of universities and publishers, they:
a) scan everything;
b) restrict access to books currently under copyright; and
c) fight out the resultant lawsuits.

It’s a particularly laudable concept: to digitise and make searchable all human knowledge – or rather, its proxy as represented by books. Its library partners are Stanford, Oxford, Harvard and Michigan Universities, and New York Public Library. Technology includes a rather large robot (from 4DigitalBooks) that delicately turns the pages of even rare books at the rate of 1000 pages per hour.

Kelly’s article is well worth reading, as it dishes up in depth information and prognostications on the future of copyright. He says that there are 32,000,000 books currently catalogued, and of those, an estimated 15% are out of copyright and in the public domain. About 10% are actively in print and clearly in copyright control. But the rest – about 75%, or 24,000,000 books – are in a grey area. That is, it is not clear who the current copyright holder is: whether the publisher still exists, whether the author is still alive, or their whereabouts. That’s quite a sobering thought if one stopped to try to track down copyright. Fortunately, Google didn’t.

Kelly’s brave new world is but one view. Which world eventuates is really a social and cultural question, which will be mediated in the political sphere. Don’t expect optimal results. For one, we cannot guarantee how much of those 85% will ever be available in digital form to the world at large. Yet I’m betting that the political outcome will be largely favourable to this project. Another stumbler in this interconnection of knowledge is whether facts in a given book (where applicable) are both correct and not in dispute. One person’s knowledge is often another person’s tripe.

Further, we should expect inaccuracies to creep in – in the scanning process, and in the original book. If you’re reading a digital book some time in the future, and suddenly it doesn’t make sense, maybe the robot scanner turned two pages at a time. Or maybe someone was eating lunch while reading the library’s copy, and splattered the book. Or ripped out a page or two, as some nefarious people have wont to do. Etcetera.

As I found out, another issue is the relevance of Google’s indexing and search results. As an example, I tried the famous opening lines from Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael” got over 1000 hits, and I didn’t find the book in the first few pages. "Call me ishmael. Some years ago" gets 51 hits. [In fact it’s 21, but only on the third page does Google say this, and present the last entry. Strange bug.] However, Moby Dick only appears 13th, or about two thirds of the way down. The rest is a admixture of different types of books quoting the first few sentences. And I couldn’t look at the book, although I’m pretty sure Melville’s been dead longer than 70 years. However, I give Google credit for the project, and acknowledge that it’s still in beta.

Having said all that, technology is a wonderful enabler. Kelly’s vision of all book knowledge being searchable and cross-referenced is a powerful one. We’ve already seen major changes in approaches to publishing, and we should expect to see even more upheaval – as has been happening in the music industry. Publishers will have to adapt – fairly quickly. Vanity publication (“I want this book in print, publishers turned me down, so I’m paying to print it myself”) has already become easier – you can do it on the web. This may then force the author to think more deeply about why they want to publish. Using the Google model, I can guarantee that over time that book will be read by more people than if it was on paper. But some authors want that physical artifact – many readers, too. So be it.

Envisioning the future is fraught for all sorts of reasons. But it’s worth reading Kelly’s vision, to get the imagination active.

Monday, July 10, 2006

World: Appalling lack of ethics on the playing field and the battlefield

Even in the (Soccer) World Cup Final, a goal was taken from a fake dive.

For those who don't know Soccer, this means a player pretended he was illegally tackled/assaulted, to get a penalty kick for his side.

Unfortunately, taking a dive has become pervasive at the international level. This practice has effectively been condoned by the national teams and the peak body, FIFA, all the way up to the peak game of the four-year cycle. Serious failings all around. Winning is more important than ethics, and the ethical high ground doesn't count for anything.

Ah, but it's only a game. Isn't it?

In a similar vein, the US is apparently investigating five allegations of atrocities by U.S. military forces in Iraq. The only one yet to reach the headlines involves a group who invaded an Iraqi house specifically to rape a woman, then murder her and her family. And more is yet to come out.

You would thing the Americans would have learnt by now. Wouldn't you?

Abu Ghraib was a severe setback in America's efforts to "win hearts and minds" in Iraq. If they were ever sincere about this goal, they would have instigated major changes in their own army already. "Hearts and minds" was the only way the U.S. could have brought peace to Iraq. Why didn't the U.S. act when the signs were already clear? Culpability goes all the way to the top. (Some might say it goes back down to the people who voted for them. I say that at the very least, this speaks to the moral bankruptcy of the American religious right, the direct source of ethics for the Bush administration.)
Most recent violence in Iraq has been perpetrated by both Sunni and Shi'ite extremists, and that country is definitely on the downward spiral. The U.S. knows how to create a war, but it doesn't seem to be capable of peace.
Australia's Howard government shares in this culpability, through its complicity with the US, and its abnegation in turn of any ethical/moral leadership.

A game. Is it?

Sadly, the ethical position of the players on the ground takes its cue from the leaders. But as individuals, we can take a stand.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Tech: Examples of Web 2.0

Have a look at the site Web2.0Slides - it's an interactive slideshow of a large number of "Web 2.0" sites. Easy to use, it allows you to navigate through all the sites at will, or just sit back and watch the show. Gives you some feeling for this emerging paradigm.

World: Learning from Scott Adams' blog

Scott Adams writes the Dilbert cartoons*. He has a daily blog - possibly because he wants to get his real opinions out…

He’s one of those people (like myself J) who thinks they’re right, and everyone else is mistaken or misled. Politically, he’s neither left nor right, but a cynic (he’s still the enemy: if you’re not for us, you’re against us J). But his particular obsession is religion-baiting.

Why are his blogs worth reading? To get some insight into his character? No. In fact, it’s the quantity and breadth of the comments that make it interesting. He’s well-known enough that he’s guaranteed 100 to 300 comments for every post. If you rifle through the drebbidge, you get some a diversity of views, generally well-considered (apart from a fair quotient of smart alecs), and a good overall perspective on the topic at hand.

For his religion-baiting posts, he always gets a good quota of comments. About 40% are from believers, 40% from non-believers (the rest seem to be uninterested in being drawn either way). In the aggregate, there’s some good insight into why non/believers feel the way they do… although, in the end it might seem to be simply personality-typed – i.e. your ‘belief’ gene is switched a particular way. For example, a recent post about prayer gives some insight into why different people pray. There’s some intelligent answers there.

Not that Adams’ posts are always relevant to anything. But the aggregate of answers tends to demonstrate greater wisdom than Adams’. If only I got that many comments for each post… perhaps I’d be a little wiser…

*Current theme is particularly anti-feminist, which shows Adams' colours somewhat.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Tech: Why I prefer Firefox to Internet Explorer

Firefox is, of course, the current contender for knocking Internet Explorer off its perch. Browser wars are healthy, since browsers are and will be our key application for mediating the internet, and increasingly complex functionality will be needed.

Since Internet Explorer annihilated Netscape (chiefly through Microsoft's market domination in other areas), there have been pretenders, but nothing close to Firefox - which is, in essence, a reborn Netscape.

1) Browsing naturally
In so many ways, I found that Firefox is so much more in tune with my browsing patterns. For example, links in emails always onen in new pages. And: when I click on a link, I usually want to peruse after I've finished the main page, and the tab opens behind the page I'm reading - far less obtrusive. Particularly useful for Google, where I don't know which page contains the best answer, and I want to explore several pages.

2) Tabs
With Firefox, you can open a link in a new window, or in a new tab within the same window. You can thus keep like pages grouped together.

3) It's Open Source
As we've seen with Open Source tools, people volunteer improvements, and once a critical mass is reached, the paradigm is more powerful than a for-profit corporate development.

4) The extensions
People have written numerous extensions for it that expand its utilities in so many ways. I'm trying to keep my set small, but some of what I have at the moment are:

5) NoScript extension
Bans scripts unless I add a page/site to a "whitelist". Gee, that makes me feel safer. You can do this globally in IE, but the whitelisting feature here is so easy to use.

6) IE tab extension
This allows you to open a tab within Firefox using the Internet Explorer extension. Why would you want to do this? Occasionally useful - see my recent entry on Google Maps, right.

7) Adblock Plus and Flashblock extensions
Allow me to block ads and Flash features, unless I okay them. Gee those Flash ads can get annoying. My viewing is a lot calmer now.

8) Sessionsaver extension
If I want pages open when I next open Firefox, I simply shutdown with those pages left open. All restored together when I next start Firefox. (several standard sites are essential for me, such as Google, Wikipedia, and this blog site.)

9) GooglePreview extension
Gives a thumbnail of the web page within the Google results. Surprisingly helpful.

There are some down sides to the above. Blocking Flash and scripts means you sometimes need to go "doh! I need to re-enable for this site". Small bikkies, though, in return for making my work safer, easier, more pleasant and more productive.

Also, there will remain some aspects of IE not reproduced by Firefox (such as proprietary features). However, Firefox conforms to W3 Consortium standards, while Microsoft doesn't. The latter is gambling that its monopoly muscle is big enough to do this, but I'm happy to gamble against them here; I believe a critical mass has been reached.

And you can expect Internet Explorer to try to implement the best of Firefox - I know, for example, that those tabs are coming. But I see no compelling reason to change back. How can Microsoft match the dynamism of a keen open source community?

Film: Play It Again Sam (USA, 1972)

I’ve seen quite a few Woody Allen films in my time, but not much in recent years. My involvement had tapered off when I realised enjoyment was no longer there - and was never vociferous anyway. That made this a pleasant watch, for unexpected reasons.

When I look at his filmography (see above link), I’m surprised to see how many he made – and how many I missed.

Certainly, Allen’s films are contextualised to particular points in time. Play It Again Sam is the first in his Diane Keaton period, which is plainly visible: the fibre of Play It Again Sam contains some of the slapstick of his earlier work (such as Take The Money And Run) and the focus on relationship contained in later films such as Annie Hall. Imbued throughout, of course, with the Woody Allen persona - so much so, in fact, that he inflicts some of that persona on Diane Keaton’s character. Some could say that this persona is one of Allen’s more endearing creations, but it can become threadbare, particularly when two of the characters are possessed.

Nevertheless, what I found here was a human warmth, more so than any other Allen film I’ve seen. That warmth was between the Woody Allen and Diane Keaton characters, in both the writing and acting. The premise: A jilted Allen is set up with other women – unsuccessfully – by a couple of Allen’s friends, including Diane Keaton. The magic in the film is the developing relationship between Allen and Keaton. Tension builds as Allen becomes attracted to his best friend’s wife. This gives him an opportunity to replay Casablanca’s final scene – and speech - from (with the added twist “It's from Casablanca; I waited my whole life to say it”).

Despite the possession of these two characters by that sometimes excruciating persona, there was a genuinely touching humanity here, that I’ve never found in other Woody Allen film – no matter how he tried.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Tech: Email is too slow and you’re too old

It’s often difficult to encourage older people (generally over-60s) to use computer technology. Some baulk at email, some go that far and no further. If communication is restricted to letters, correspondence becomes slow and sporadic. Well, welcome to the older generation yourself: email could be the new snail mail.

Teenagers are using instant messaging, SMS, and MySpace to communicate. The [San Jose, California] Mercury News reports that some teenagers check their email only once a week; others only have an email address because it’s required for MySpace registration. Email’s not an instantaneous medium, and you often don’t know when the recipient will read it (although implementing read receipts usually tells you when they’re read).

I’m all for better communication. But like many others, I’m rather swamped by technology, and only dip my toes when I have a specific need. Too much early adoption can lead to dead ends when critical mass is not reached. Maybe critical mass is there as soon as that technology becomes useful enough.

Pers: Memories of the Sando, and the best grafitti ever

In the late 80s, my whole household (I had four flatmates) would wander up to the Sando on Thursday nights to watch Roaring Jack. They were a heavily political Celtic rock band, playing songs like Thin Red Line, The Lads From The BLF, Yuppietown, We Don’t Play No Elton F****** John. A rollicking institution it was, the crowd packed tight and jumping all over the place, and we’d frequently stay until closing, where Dirty Old Town was the send-off and the leftovers would spill onto the streets.

In those days, the Sando was playing free live music seven days per week, with various residencies. Louis Tillet (Paris Green and other bands) would play there, so would Tim Freedman (Penguins On Safari); and various Hayes brothers in various incarnations: Tuesday nights had the Gruesome Twosome: Bernie and Stevie Hayes doing covers in acoustic mode; the Shout Brothers (Bernie, Stevie, plus a few more) was a great covers band for Sundays. It was definitely downmarket, always fun.

Roaring Jack’s residency ceased. Last time I saw Louis in the old days, he fell off the stage halfway through a song, and someone jumped up from the audience and finished off the set. Stevie worked behind the bar for a while, then as Stevie Plunder formed the Whitlams with Tim; Stevie later took a fatal turn in the Blue Mountains. Bernie Hayes went solo, producing some lovely CDs but little money. Tim (as the Whitlams) made substantially more money although not as interesting musically. Louis took several hiatuses (including a hospital stint from smoking in bed), and the Sando… well, it was eventually gutted, and became a very bland pub full of poker machines. In recent times it’s made something of a return to live music, but nothing like its heyday.

Musically, I think Bernie Hayes and Louis Tillet ended up faring the best. Bernie’s first album was a real treat, and Louis is always great on stage.

The best grafitti I ever saw was a collaborative effort by three unknown people in the men’s toilet at the Sando. The first one had written:
Question everything
Under that, someone added:
Under that, someone else wrote:
Why not?

13-jul-06 Update: the above photo is actually the result of me stumbling across a community art project one Saturday long ago. This is my first ever - and only - linocut. At short notice, it was the best local theme I could come up with. The linocuts were subsequently cast in metal and embedded in the footpath across the street from Newtown Station. At least two copies of mine remain, if you care to look. The first S is the Sando's logo in its heyday, and the last is my signature. Somewhat cryptic, but I'm sure a few people would have worked it out.