Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tech: The tech personality 2: three mathematicians

I was struck by the profiles of three people who have a mathematical aptitude of one sort or another.

For some people, mathematics takes work. For some, it comes easy. For others, it's an art form.

Australian Terence Tao is the youngest ever winner of the Fields medal, the "Nobel of maths". His mathematical interests are wide-ranging, and he appears particularly well-adjusted.

Russian Grigory Perelman was also awarded a Fields. He declined it because they didn't understand his work - a mite unfair, because you don't need to understand some maths in full to appreciate its truth, beauty and relevance. The Fields was awarded to him anyway. He has apparently solved a very important puzzle - which will probably fetch him the million-dollar millenium prize. He apparently withdrew from mathematics in protest against a perceived lack of ethics in certain people in the upper echelons of maths. Currently unemployed.

Englishman Daniel Tammet has Asperger's Syndrome and, unusually, some insight into his condition. He also has an eidetic memory. He can recite pi to 22,000 places - "as beautiful as the Mona Lisa". He can multiply numbers in his head very easily - as does Tao - but interestingly, he can't do square roots (as some can), and can't do abstractions such as polynomials.

Three very different personalities. All very interesting. I can appreciate them from my love of mathematics, although they're leagues above me.

Here are their Wikipedia entries: Tao , Tammet, and Perelman.
And here's some interesting press about them: Tao, Tammet, and Perelman.

All six articles are worth a read.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

World: Oops! Jailed forever

The new US ambassador to Australia, Robert McCallum, apparently bristled when defending the indefinite detention of Australian David Hicks at Guantanemo Bay:

"the law of war, allows the detention of enemy combatants during the course of the hostilities. There is still a war on terror"

I don't think the US will declare the "war on terror" over within the next, oh, fifty years. So, look forward to a few more decades there, Hicks. (I previously blogged on this matter here.)

This is despite the US Supreme Court ruling that the intended military commission was unlawful. Hicks was in solitary specifically due to that impending trial, and he remains there eight weeks after the trial was quashed.

Fortunately, he's not George Bush.

Oops, he's Bush's mate, known him since he was 19.

All UK detainees were released after the UK government made representations to the Bush administration. However, when Hicks successfully applied for UK citizenship (after appeal), the Home Secretary immediately revoked it.

Obviously everyone thinks Hicks is a hot potato, really evil, or both. But there's no excuse for the Australian government not to support its citizen, nor for the US government to hold him in limbo with the trial ruled illegal.

We are measured by our treatment of the worst, not the best, cases. And our governments are found sorely wanting.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tech: The tech personality 1: Myers-Briggs

When technology architect Dratz blogged about the hoary Myers-Briggs personality categorisations, he got a fair bit of feedback from techies who'd tried it. (You can try a simple test here.)

To refresh, Myers-Briggs divides people up by comparing four traits:
  • Introvert vs Extrovert
  • Sensing vs Intuition
  • Thinking vs Feeling
  • Judging vs Perceiving

  • From Dratz' feedback, I.T. people are really clustered around INTP - much more than the 3% of the overall population (according to Wikipedia). That's Introvert, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving.

    I came out as INTJ, but the description at that site gave only a weak match, whereas I got a very strong match for INTP. What did it for me was, inter alia:

    "[INTP people] are less interested in running the world as they are in understanding it. They are curious and capable of explaining complex political, economic or technological problems."

    (I note that that doesn't necessarily indicate how lucidly they can explain it.)

    I also note that a recent New Scientist article listed a more generally accepted set of categorisations around five dimensions:
  • Extroversion
  • Neuroticism
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness to experience

  • - which sounds like it describes people more holistically than MB. You can read some criticisms of MB in the Wikipedia entry above, but it seems to work in describing people's temperament for I.T.

    Update 17-Aug-09: just took a test for this elsewhere. ISTJ. Either these tests are imprecise or these 'types' are not set in stone. Maybe a bit of both.

    Sunday, August 27, 2006

    World: the opera Batavia

    Had a surprisingly pleasant experience at the Sydney Opera House on Friday.

    Batavia is a recent Australian opera, based on the history of the ship of the same name, whose inhabitants were shipwrecked then marooned, and were steered into barbarism by a psychopath.

    I expected the opera to be a reflection of obtuse 20th century musical sensibilities, but it turned out to be fairly normal, easy to absorb music, albeit without any notable ariatic experiences.

    The history was actually transformed for the sake of dramatic narrative, and the violence was restricted to one act, running for about a quarter of the programme. There was also a strand of forgiveness added to the set of themes, which of course wouldn't emerge from a historical account.
    It remains, however, that the main surviving account of this tragic story is the diary of the merchant commander of the ship, Pelsaert. As a consequence, his character (melded with that of the captain) emerged unscathed in the performance.

    The composer is Richard Mills, who apparently also conducted. The librettist, Peter Goldsworthy, actually had a letter published in the Herald that day, in which he was rather caustic (in a light fashion) of the caustic review given by the Herald's reviewer, Peter McCallum. The debate in itself is interesting reading; Goldsworthy suggesting McCallum couldn't separate the content from the music in assessing the opera.

    In fact, there were apparently a number of walkouts in this short season, which is rather surprising since the violence (and rape) is rather stylised, and there are unprecedented warnings posted about the graphic nature of the content.

    The pre-performance talk was interesting, but more striking was its location, at the back of the Opera House, the only internal location - barring passages - with a vista out onto the harbour, which was of course very pleasant. (I previously wrote about an alternative design for the Opera House, which fortunately didn't make it.)

    There's one more performance of Batavia, on Thursday, 31st August. If you're of an inclination, I recommend it.

    Tech: Call it Business Technology, not IT?

    I saw a commentary from George Colony at Forrester (a technology analysis company, somewhat similar to Gartner) via Vladimir Stojanovski suggesting the term "information technology" be transformed to "business technology".. Following on from that, a CIO should be called a CBT - from "Chief Information Officer" to "Chief Business Technologist". This is envisaged as something akin to the gradual ascendancy of the term "information technology" over "data processing" (which latter rightly bit the dust).

    In the commercial world, I think it's an absolute imperative for technology to focus on business solutions. Paraphrasing the words of blogger Dratz (information architect), "the best technology solution is not always the best business solution". In effect, the frame of mind of the technology architect should be squarely on the business needs and imperatives. Yet, too often technology and business architecture are not sufficiently well-aligned. A good example is the amount of business re-engineering needed to successfully implement SAP, that monolithic ERP system.

    So it makes great sense (in most cases) for that role to be CBT (or CBTO) rather than CIO. (Any ideas for something a little less clumsy?)

    However, a complete re-alignment of conception of technology - as business technology - is a little off the mark. It's rather a commercial takeover of I.T., despite the fact that I.T. reaches into far more areas than simply business. It's attaching the values of business to an appellation that has other imperatives wrapped up in it, from government to non-profit sector to end consumer.

    It remains that, within business, there can't be too much emphasis placed on technology addressing the specific business issues.

    Thursday, August 24, 2006

    World: TV distorts perceptions - the cure is?

    "We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press"
    - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    An article in this week's New Scientist discusses how television distorts one's perception of reality. For instance if you see a plane crash on the news, it affects your perception of the relative safety of air travel, as opposed to driving. The article (reproduced in full only here) mentioned research highlighting a greater level of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst people who watched 9/11 coverage as against those who didn't.

    This is not greatly surprising. If tv is a window into the world, it's a greatly distorted one. It creates particular bias because the impact is so immediate. To a lesser extent (given the difference in impact) the same thing applies to newspapers, particularly tabloids. That's why, for example, so many people end up thinking the odds of their child being abducted are actually quite good! Taleb's argument is that intellectual sophistication is not enough to overcome this manufactured bias in perception. [it's worth reading more of Taleb's discourse here.]

    The obvious solution is to avoid high-impact media, tabloids, and talkback radio, and pay attention to research and statistics wherever you see them. Otherwise, no matter your reckoning of your ability to filter, your perception will be skewed.

    Wednesday, August 23, 2006

    Tech: Telecommunications... Blimps

    Another day another... interesting idea.

    A company called Sanswire is reviving (!) an idea of using telecommunication blimps, as an alternative to telecommunications satellites and towers. Why? Well, they are cheaper than satellites. But at about 21,000 metres, geostationary is not an easy call. At least he's realistic about their lifespan being short... if 18 months is realistic.

    They're doing proof of concept work now - albeit on a much smaller scale.

    Could any useful technology come out of this? In fact, resident telecomms expert Peter Pacers suggested a realistic application would be to temporarily boost mobile reception at large sporting events. Perhaps Sanswire is just generating publicity ahead of something more realistic.

    Monday, August 21, 2006

    Film: Thank You For Smoking (USA, 2005)

    It's so refreshing to see a film that works in many different ways. It's not possible to single out the biggest achievement of Thank You For Smoking: it is extremely well-directed, well-acted, and well-written. In fact, one writer suggested the casting director deserved an award - and that's not an idle comment.

    In a nutshell, it's a satire on the smoking lobby. Yet it's so well-written that it doesn't greatly denigrate any of the players, except through the film's nature as satire.

    The lead is played by one Aaron Eckhart - not exactly a household name, despite apparently being around the traps for a while. This must be his breakthrough role. He's ideal: warm, confident, sincere, and charismatic. All that, and he's devoid of ethics. The cast is full of these people; actors who are right on the money, a treasure to watch their performance. Special mention must go to Adam Brody [Jack], but Rob Lowe, JK Simmons, Katie Holmes and Cameron Bright also do very well in that same style.

    Of course, there's magic in the script. The lines are all there; the consistency never lets up.

    “That's the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you're never wrong. ”

    And so it goes.

    I fully intend to see this film again before its season finishes. It's one of the few films I've seen that engages me fully from beginning to end and has enough content to engage me again.
    (I can only think of only two other films I saw again in the first season: Matrix and Memento. Both were rated a high 8.6 on IMDB.)

    Tech: OCR hides its light with crippleware

    I spoke to a bloke who once sold Optical Character Recognition software. He told me that there was a substantial difference between the OCR product bundled with a scanner, and the industrial-strength version. Surely they use the same engines, I said.

    Well, no they don’t. And this is not something that’s obvious to the average punter.

    Myself, I was certainly aware there were commercial versions of the bundled software, selling for a few hundred dollars. I imagined that, as with most software, the commercial version would simply add extra features. As you would. Instead, the bundled software – which is all most people would normally have exposure to – simply doesn’t recognise characters as well. With any variability in print quality (eg darkness or alignment), the bundled software won’t interpret so well. It’s the difference between recognising a c as an o, for example. Correcting this can get rather tedious over a lot of text.

    I remember in a previous workplace using the scanner. They only had the bundled software. Maybe it’s an older version? No, it’s just crippleware. Who’s to know, if the consumer is not educated in the deficiencies of what’s supplied.

    This approach to marketing does the technology – and the brand name - no favours.

    Saturday, August 19, 2006

    World: Sydney Opera House - could have been...

    What do you think of this as a design for the new Sydney Opera House?

    Well, it's a bit retro - very 50s. Not surprising, since it was designed in 1957.

    It was a "commended" design when it was entered into the original design competition for the mooted Opera House.

    All I can say is, thank heavens that's not what we ended up with. I can see it when I cross the bridge every day to go to work, and although I'm quite used to it, it still surprises me sometimes. And it's an intrinsic part of the whole harbour vista. No matter how cliched the image is now, it's better than something that's stuck in time.

    (Jorn Utzon's design probably baffles most people as to its genesis. In fact, he said his inspiration came from segments of an orange. Thinking about this, he has actually done an inversion of the shape of an orange segment, making the curve run obtusely instead of acutely. Not immediately obvious.)

    Thursday, August 17, 2006

    Tech: Just what does IBM do?

    It might surprise you to know that IBM is the largest I.T. company in the world - by revenue. Global sales in 2005: IBM: US$91 billion; Microsoft: about $40 billion.

    Of course, it used to be the hardware giant: in the 1960s and 70s, IBM simply defined the mainframe computers that once formed the backbone of large enterprises. Then the mainframe market was slowly crippled over the 1980s and 90s by the rise of micro computers: they were effectively a victim of the success of... IBM-format PCs. And the Dells of this world have demonstrated that the PC sector is a dangerously low-margin market.

    Over time, IBM turned to technical/business services and software. Some of that software is its own technology, like DB2 (the new release is discussed here: it includes native XML support and autonomic memory management).

    But IBM has also been buying up software companies left right and centre, specifically to give it a full vertical business software offering.  In effect, it is seeking to lock in large enterprises by providing a full range of software/services across business needs.  This is a common trend in the larger software companies which is why, for example, Microsoft and Oracle have equally been on the takeover warpath for several years.

    Like Apple, IBM deserves credit for successfully re-inventing themselves more than once. Whereas they once exploited their hegemonic dominance in the mainframe computer market to extract monopolistic profits (hence the epithet Incapacitating Business for Megabucks), they now operate much more competitively across a range of markets, leveraging off their brand name rather than their monolithic presence - something Microsoft is taking note of, as its own dominant position is being eroded by Linux, Open Office, and other open source offerings.

    2009 update: Q2 2009 revenue reports at $23.6 billion - that's just the one quarter.  This is made up of:
    • 57% services - made up of technical services (39%) and business services (18%)
    • 22% software
    • 17% hardware
    The remainder is revenue from financing businesses to buy their upscale hardware.  More complete press reports on IBM's second quarter financial figures can be found here and here.

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006

    Climate Change: States bypass Federal intransigence

    A report in the SMH today details how all Australian States have "tentatively approved" plans to deal with carbon emissions.

    It's a "cap and trade" plan, which means emissions are capped and emission credits and debits (for running above or below the caps) can be traded.

    The article couches it in doom-and-gloom terms of what this will cost the consumer. Yes, preventing climate change does cost. You'd expect that. I hope that as one who pays extra for electricity from 100% renewable sources, my costs don't change. Still, small price.

    It's good to see unanimity in the States (and Territories). Makes PM John Howard look small.

    I believe something similar is happening in the USA - the other Climate Change refuser - albeit to smaller proportions because it would be difficult to achieve useful consensus in so many States.

    Tuesday, August 15, 2006

    Tech: How technology changes music

    There were at least four CD shops last time I worked in North Sydney. I can't find any now.

    It would be a surprise to find this was entirely due to music downloads, but that would be a big factor. Certainly, CD sales have been plummeting over the past few years.

    Concurrent with that trend, I noticed severe price drops in back-catalogue classical music, later reflected in popular music too. The price fall has even resulted in frequent discounting of current releases. And of course, the flipside of the market squeeze is fewer CD shops to browse in.

    Another technological earthquake: the ability to burn tracks to CDs in normal CD shops. This digitisation trend gives us convenience, but it also gives us lower quality - when you choose the MP3 route.

    So technology influences art. Both these changes mean that over time, best-sellers will be individual tracks that have the greatest instant appeal. The economics of music is changing; we will witness a sharp decline in the production of album-length music.

    Although distribution channels are changing, who benefits? Anyone can put up music on a site, but that doesn't translate to high-volume paid downloads. The net may not be quite the great leveller people touted. High-traffic channels will still be what counts, but radio will share the traffic with web sites. Record companies are stretching to re-define their roles, yet there will always be a place for the intermediary that finances and produces the music. Since they're in it for the money, they'll follow the changing nature of demand, and focus - even more - on the short attention span.

    So the losers will be
    a) traditional distribution channels - CD shops;
    b) music that takes time to grow on you; and thus, perversely
    c) the discerning punter, who has far greater convenience and price - at the cost of quality.

    The dust hasn't settled yet.

    Monday, August 14, 2006

    World: Toyota's lessons may bite back

    I heard a BBC news report about the rise of Toyota in the USA. The thrust was that Toyota was about to overtake General Motors as the biggest volume car manufacturer. A number of interesting points came out of it, two of which I'll mention.

    The first is the mention that Toyota could change models on the production line without halting production at all - it was simply a matter of updating the software controlling the robots. Now that might be a slight exaggeration (or it might not), but it's quite something to be able to retool with practically no stoppage. By contrast, when GM changed models, they had to suffer a significant stoppage - in the order of days, at least.

    The other point was that Americans were becoming tired of defect-ridden cars, and were choosing Japanese cars more and more for reliability. The implication of the report was that U.S. manufacturers were getting worse at their job. However, I really suspect the problem was that Japanese manufacturers were getting better. With a consistent approach to quality improvement, they had gradually reduced their fault rate below the Americans.

    It's a tale of eclipse through complacency. Japanese manufacturing processes were taken to a new level. However, my point: I wouldn't be surprised if the Japanese are eventually overshadowed in turn. By China. It's in the nature of a mature capitalist economy, and the Japanese economy has been particularly moribund in recent years. By contrast, China has been on the boil constantly for at least the same length of time.

    Yes, I'm extending the economics of the nation to that of the corporation, but I believe they are inextricably linked. Hunger and innovation are important factors in the dynamism of China. Plus a huge and increasingly wealthy domestic consumer base. It may take some years for this transformation - but it's later than you think.

    Wednesday, August 09, 2006

    Tech: A new form of distributed network

    I had a rather outlandish concept I thought I'd share.

    I though of a data stream network. Its intelligence lies in rapid circulation of a data stream amongst a (varying) set of peers. This stream comprises packets, with some sort of informational benefit to its hosts. However, within the packets is some extra functionality that can be independent of that host-directed functionality. This is a sort of distributed network: each packet contains a part of the information that comprises the overarching functionality. As well as header information that flags a packet's place in the puzzle, timestamps indicates prioritance, so that a stray packet can be superceded by a more recent version of the same. Those timestamps have to be sufficiently complex not to be broken by the peers exchanging the packets.

    It's possible the simplest super-functionality could be a sort of cockroach-like life. Perhaps - unfortunately - this description best suits a form of malware.

    Born of a sudden thought. Quite plausible something like it has been done before. What are the applications/boundaries of this concept? Ideas welcome.

    World: NZ women lead the world. Again.

    It was just an aside in an article on New Zealand's departing Governor-General.

    A Governor-General is equivalent to ceremonial head of state - a non-executive president in many countries. That article happened to mention that women filled all the top leadership posts in New Zealand: Prime Minister, Governor-General, and Chief Justice. Well done.

    As an afterthought, there's a couple more positions there that are headed by women: Parliamentary Speaker, and CEO of the largest company in NZ.

    The new Governor-General was to be Anand Satyanand. Don't know if that's a bloke or a non-bloke, but it's certainly not an anglo name. Yet New Zealand was once a rather homogeneous place...

    World: The structure of capital, part 1: demutualisation

    I'm reminded of my thesis work in economics. The topic was demutualisation, but it threatened to blow out, because there was a very interesting strand to chase down.

    The most successful organisational structure, from the point of view of capital, is the joint-stock company. It's unparalled in its success in accumulation, that is, raising more capital. In this sense, profit distribution can be seen as the bait, a necessary cost of accumulation. Some might call this view a little topsy-turvy - isn't the prime aim of capital agglomerations to generate profit? Hmm, it's all a matter of perspective.

    Mutual organisations were largely formed in the 19th century, for particular purposes - largely social and benevolent. Over the latter half of the 20th century (in particular) there was a great rush of demutualisation for a number of reasons. The main two that I saw were: managerial bias in favour of joint stock companies (in this "managerial" category I also include corporate advisors); and a far greater ability to raise capital - particularly through share issues.

    That was largely my thesis. The deviant strand was an interest in the changing structure of capital formation over time: the forces involved, the mechanisms, and in particular the implications. There's a lifetime of research in this, and I still have some ambitions.

    One important aspect that cannot escape me is the control of these capitals. This control is shared between managers and shareholders. Large shareholdings are sometimes favoured, in that their degree of influence provides clarity. Rupert Murdoch, for example. This clarity can also be achieved by consistent managerial vision. But in the competitive world, this consistency is seldom achieved, as managers change tack, absorb fads, try something different to get that competitive edge.

    At this time and this place, I'm just ruminating. Next up will be a countervailing, almost contradictory perspective, on the rise of superannuation funds.

    Tech: Broadband - politicking nobbles the future

    Going into the future, I expect most broadband use to be mindless entertainment - isn't that what happened to tv? However, outside that doldrum, the internet is revolutionising knowledge, communication, and collaboration. Hence it is going to be an essential part of everyone's future.

    Industry analyst Paul Budde (previously blogged here) loves to call broadband in Australia "fraudband".

    Of course, broadband comes in many sizes, contrary to what most telcos tell the public. Many people end up with common copper wire, the cheap phone lines. From ADSL to ADSL2+ protocols, they try to squeeze more out of a piece of string. The only future-proof answer, as Budde keeps saying, is fibre optics all the way. That's FTTN then FTTH, or Fibre-to-the-node (local exchange) then fibre-to-the-home. FTTN is the main issue, and this is already available in the major population centres, so why the argy bargy?

    It's really only about the less-densely populated areas. Australia's a wide country, but most of the population huddles in a few spots around the edges. If broadband is rolled out only on the basis of profitability, there will still be a large number of people that would miss out. Hence USO, the Universal Service Obligation - public subsidy for broadband to uneconomic areas. The argy bargy is about how much that costs. And in a rare moment of clarity, politicians agree that decent internet access is important to everyone.

    Hmm, scrap that. There's votes at the fringes, and the government is scrambling for them.
    It's politics, with irony piling upon irony. Telstra, the ex-government carrier, happens to be still 51% owned by the government. Howard's mob have been trying to sell off that remainder for years, but the share price has been languishing in the doldrums, and only ever seems to go down. Hence the threat from Telstra: we reckon the USO will cost us this much, and if you make us swallow it for less, you'll kill our share price, and we'll be a lump of wet cement when you try to offload us.

    Telstra had brought in an American head, Sol Trujillo, for a few truckloads of money. Praise the lord, says Howard, he won't carry the sentimental baggage of an Australian, who might want to see everyone get a fair go. Unfortunately for the government, their strategy is now biting them: they can't get Telstra to appease their rural constituency, yet dare not - as the majority shareholder - tell Telstra what to do, because that's just what they're trying to move away from.
    So, as Budde foretold, Telstra is now bluffing it out. According to Internet analysts DSL Prime, “Telstra is absolutely lying about the costs, which they are placing at twice what AT&T is costing for a near-identical build”; AT&T is said to be stretching it anyway, to recover costs profitability after downturns in the voice market.
    It's possible the truth lies somewhere in between. It's possible much of the costing is finger-in-the-air estimates. If there is some risk involved, there would be an amount of capitalising that risk.

    In May, Budde reckoned Telstra would capitulate in a few months. That's yet to happen, and the game is by no means over. Ahh, politics.

    Monday, August 07, 2006

    Tech: semantic integration

    Have a look at a thoughtful article on semantic integration, flagged from Wikipedia.

    In a nutshell, this is a form of integration that focuses on data, and relies on ontologies (effectively metadata by domain, or data dictionaries) being published in a relatively standardised format.

    The ultimate goal would surely be a product which sucks all a company’s metadata into one source – regardless of original format - then enables updating from that source. Now there’s a business opportunity.

    World: On myths and half-knowledge

    I’m a simple bloke with an analytical temperament. I don’t like fiction masquerading as fact. This is why I’ve always included a link to Snopes on the right.

    Mythology per se has a real, cultural purpose, but I resent any attempt to pass it off as objectively real.

    I get niggled by the little bits of misinformation and disinformation that spread through the net. Reading Snopes, it's apparent that a fair bit of urban myth is created maliciously, while some of it comprises stories (or opinion) that is eventually passed off as fact, via chinese whispers.

    Snopes deals with the myth that eight glasses of water per day is good for you. As is typical, Snopes found it hard to identify the source of the original story. Like a lot of urban myths, it probably gained legs because it captured the imagination - entered popular culture as mythology does.
    Also dispelled is the story of evil sulphates in shampoo (the bad ones were phased out, the not-so-bad ones are only minor irritants). This one’s probably being perpetuated by shampoo manufacturers who make a point of tagging their product “no sulphates” – probably in response to a previous generation of consumers.

    This week's New Scientist bursts the bubble on antioxidant supplements. A recent study found that while there is benefit from antioxidents ingested naturally from fruit and vegetables, there is no benefit when extracted from the proper food stream and taken as pills.

    Be aware that even good sources can sometimes snag. For example, Karl Kruszelnicki is an Australian scientist who spends his time these days spreading enthusiasm for science through books and radio. I have a lot of respect for him; like myself, he’s a sponge for information, and his gusto is infections. Yet despite an extensive background debunking misconceptions, he’s occasionally prone to propagating some himself. (Recently he made an off-the-cuff comment that the word hello was invented specifically for the telephone, whereas its use clearly predates that innovation.)

    This is just to illustrate that nobody’s perfect. The best one can do is to check information, be able to refer back to your sources. Be suspicious of anything that is counter-intuitive, and check it up. And sometimes be prepared to drop that long-cherished belief that has no foundation.

    Thursday, August 03, 2006

    Tech: Siebel: the sad tale of powerful technology

    Having occasion to work with some Siebel software, I read up a little about its history.

    Siebel, of course, is a CRM system. That's Customer Relationship Management: software for managing sales, customers, opportunities, contacts. (Also known as Constituent Relationship Management when speaking of the fundraising or not-for-profit sphere. Someone might like to make that connection for Wikipedia, which is uncharacteristically sparse in this area).

    Siebel was founded in 1993 by Tom Siebel, an ex-Oracle executive who was unhappy that Oracle's Larry Ellison wouldn't invest in his idea. To cut a long story short, it was very successful in a relatively short space of time, and Tom Siebel made his billions.

    But apparently it suffered from two faults, compared to the other CRM software that had emerged in its wake. First, it was particularly CRM-focused, and didn't integrate terribly well with other software - quite a no-no in this era. Second, it was rather too flexible. You could do so much with it, that implementations ran for years, and suffered chronic scope creep. This is the bane of an implementer's or project manager's life: people wanting to add more functionality, do more with it, blowing out the project's costs and timespan. And you could do this with Siebel, because it was so powerful, so flexible. You could mould it to fit your business processes - which also blew out implementation costs. Whereas its ultimately more successful competitors required companies to re-align their business processes to fit the software - perversely making it easier to manage. (SAP, anyone?)

    So, ironies, Siebel was eventually sold to... Oracle. Yet another good technology falling victim to a turning marketplace.

    Postscript 1: Of course, I have to qualify those positive epithets. Bottom line, integration (of a company's disparate software systems) is a seriously important issue - one of the biggest of the decade - and integration difficulty should rightly have doomed it eventually. Still, in theory at least, there would have been nothing wrong with a good buyout that could have made use of its strengths while addressing its weaknesses.

    Postscript 2 (updated 4-Aug-06): The metastory is itself amusing. I got the above story from Now they suck a lot of their content from Wikipedia, including this one. But since Oracle took over Siebel, they seem to have sanitised the Siebel entry on Wikipedia. This is not always the case: a person or organisation can insist on telling their story their way, but of course the official story doesn't always win out. See for example the discussion on Jaron Lanier's bio, where Lanier pushed one angle, and others pushed another until there was... eventually (sigh) consensus.
    Having said that, the reason for the Oracle version prevailing would be available on the history and discussion tabs behind each article, since the development of Wikipedia's information is always transparent. On the other hand, it's very interesting what occasionally results from this process... for example, the alternative ("out-of-date") version of Siebel's story being available at

    Comments welcome.

    Climate Change: I mostly travel by car

    An interesting survey by the Sydney Morning Herald found 74% of respondents said "I mostly travel by car". (No link to this, unfortunately; for some reason the Herald never published it on their web site.)

    Other responses:
    "I mostly travel by public transport": 13%
    "I travel [by both] the same amount": 13%

    Just as alarming, 60% of all respondents said they would not reduce their car use even if public transport services were improved. (I would. I mostly travel by public transport, but there is room for improvement if the routes and frequencies of buses were increased.) Optimistically, that leaves a full third capable of change, but that other intractible two thirds is a real problem.

    Sydney's always been car-mad that way. The State government has put an amount of resources into increased public transport, but they've also encouraged the increased use of cars through a greatly increased network of motorways. Mainly tolls, but that doesn't discourage people. Most seem eager to cut minutes off their daily journeys, with a faster route. Ironic, then that the increased traffic results in more jams and they're back where they were, after a period of adjustment.

    I've known several blokes in the past few years that have consistently commuted by car. Even when the public transport's there. Why? I could never get a straight answer from them. They'd say that it's just as cheap in a car. But I don't think those people are doing their sums, looking at the full overall costs, including petrol, wear and tear, on-road costs, parking, extra insurance costs, and depreciation. Some say they sometimes work late. But it's never enough to justify the car use. Why can't they make use of the extra time available to them just cruising along in a train, instead of being obliged to focus on the road the whole time? Possibly some of the answer is an environment sort of thing. Once they get in their car, it's their own world, hermetically insulated door to door. Still doesn't add up to a proper explanation, in my mind.

    So, two questions getting in the way of major adjustments to our carbon emissions:
    1) Why does a government, which has at least some environmental aspirations, intentionally drive up car usage?
    2) Why do people drive when the public transport options are easier, cheaper, and give you more free time.

    Until we can address those questions - political will and private will - we aren't really going to make enough inroads into our climate change problems.

    16-Aug-06 Update: A new draft State Plan aims to address the concerns above. 'The failure of earlier plans is acknowledged in the draft: "People are rightly frustrated when plans are announced but not delivered."'
    That's a good start. Let's hope that point above is kept in focus by the implementers.

    Tuesday, August 01, 2006

    Tech: Is that TLA too technical for you?

    Poring over a couple of documents in the last couple of days, I counted a total of fifty acronyms. Now I know the I.T. industry loves acronyms, but this is ridiculous!

    They spanned 10 pages of a specification document, plus 14 powerpoint slides. I deciphered two thirds of them. Which is pretty good going, in only two days.

    2-Aug-06 Update: Found the company's acronym directory. It helped - for a handful of them. Unsurprisingly, there were a number of duplicates, including one case where the document's context wasn't enough to determine between the two options! Of course, the rational way through this is to ask people. Still, one might hope that sort of information is documented and accessible. Sigh.
    What industry? What else but telecommunications. Building on the strengths of the I.T. industry, as usual :)

    Climate Change: Energy efficiency the Rocky Mountain way

    "The Rocky Mountain Institute is an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of natural, human and other capital to make the world more secure, just, prosperous, and life-sustaining. We do this by inspiring business, civil society, and government to design integrative solutions that create true wealth." - RMI Mission Statement

    The Rocky Mountain Institute is an organisation I stumbled across that really impresses me with both their aims and what they have already achieved. According to Wikipedia, their headquarters can sustain tropical plants through -40 degree (C or F?) winters, simply through the capture of sun's rays and the body heat of those that work there.

    An inspiration; well worth exploring their web site.

    Note: I first heard of them recently at a recent Innovation Breakfast. A speaker (John Swainston) recommended books by Amory Lovins. Lovins had been an activist for Friends of the Earth, but then decided there was no point attacking the prevailing paradigm if you don't formulate better alternatives. Thus the RMI was founded, by Lovins and his wife L Hunter Sheldon.