Monday, October 30, 2006

Tech: I didn't even have to open the manual

"It was really easy to use," said Hernandez, who does not consider herself blessed with unusual techno-aptitude. "I did not even have to open up the book to be able to use it."

Now, I have to admit to a couple of similar posts in the past. But one of the reasons for this blog is to document ideas that have particularly struck me on the day, and the above quote really qualifies.

Why? Because we live in such a tech-intensive society that even us tech-heads really resent the time-intrusion of poring through a manual. I really, honestly don't have the luxury of time to read properly read any manual. These days I usually go through the headlines, focus on the areas of interest, and read the rest on a need-to-know basis.

What's it like for the non-technically inclined? It must be akin to torture. Even for me, it is. I get sucked into a world of irrelevances where I have to read ten sentences to find one helpful one.

The above quote is nirvana. It should be achieved through a combination of one cheat card, some wizards, tooltips, plenty of familar usage paradigms... and a decent bloody help menu!

The device in question - read about it here - actually converts vinyl records to digital music. It comprises a cable between stereo and computer, mediated by a credit-card-sized device, plus associated software.

Anyone designing/marketing hardware or software should meditate on the quote above.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

World: Sydney Harbour Bridge: alternate design

This is dated 1922, a design by Ernest Stowe. It links the city (Millers Point) with Balmain to somewhere west of current North Sydney, via Goat Island.

Any suggestions how the centre could have handled a modern volume of traffic? A roundabout would be too slow.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Tech: Science Fiction becomes reality – 3 ways

It’s a coincidence. But recently I’ve read of three scientific developments which each touch on a core science fiction premise:
When you put those together, it’s dynamite.

Unfortunately, the reality is a little more mundane. Mostly we’re talking about quantum-level experiments; and the quantum world operates under a different set of laws than ours.

Still, interesting to see if anything useful comes of any of it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Film: Children of Men (UK/USA, 2006)

This film carries very mixed emotions for me:

For the most part, it's the saddest, bleakest film I can recall seeing; in places the directing is somewhat hackneyed or heavy handed; and it is often violent.

On the other hand, there are reasons for the extraordinary bleakness, and there is redemption. And:
  • There are some extraordinarily well-made shots in a warzone - so vivid and memorable;
  • It has an extraordinarily moving scene in it – I cried;
  • It compellingly turned on its head the typical cultural valuation of a baby boy over a baby girl, better than any overtly feminist work could do.*

For those three reasons alone, it is worth seeing. Which is strange for me to say, since they are starkly contrasting points.

The plot is simple: a near-future dystopia where human fertility abruptly falls away completely. A journey through that world with a vestige of hope.

Interesting to note that it reminds me strongly of two other films: Sleeping Dogs (one of the first films for Sam Neill), and Dead Man. I shouldn't reveal too much, but the former gives a somewhat brighter parallel dystopia, and the latter is a more spiritual journey to a somewhat similar ending.
*Note that I'm not up for a debate on how society values girl babies and boy babies. Suffice to point to current practice in India and China, to illustrate what I'm trying to say.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tech: broadband and Grid computing

The future is in computers and telecoms... the future is in broadband... I can repeat it like a mantra, but it's a truism. There is unimaginable power in linking up the world's computers. I've focused somewhat on the benefits of access to knowledge (the consumer end), but the more powerful benefits are in ease of collaboration and technological advancement. The gains will hit all scientific and commercial endeavours - especially in human health and biology.

Broadband, the semantic web, XML, Web 2.0,... and grid computing. (That covers the software, hardware and plumbing.)

I've posted a few times before about telecoms analyst Paul Budde and his company. I'm going to reproduce here some comments from a free email newsletter from BuddeComm - simply because I can't find them elsewhere on the web, and they're quite thought-provoking.

Social benefits of fibre - Dutch computer grid

"An increasing number of Dutch towns have opted for municipal fibre networks, whether co-funded by local governments and housing associations or developed by commercial enterprises. An interesting computer-grid system has developed from this, first attempted in the Amsterdam suburb of Almere in 2004 and recently launched. The idea is to combine municipal FttH with the combined computing power of business and residential subscribers for research calculations, and taking advantage of the computers' free hard disk space. Grandly, the scheme was touted as developing a supercomputer city. Several distributed computing grids exist worldwide, but the geographic concentration at Almere helps combat latency, while the participating computers are linked to a 100Mb/s network to optimise data sharing. Indeed, Almere is one of 18 projects of the EC's BEinGrid research program to assess the possibilities of grid computing.
"Some practical applications have been suggested to take advantage of the collective power of multi-computer processing, achieving computations in a fraction of the time normally taken. These range from complex 3D designs, image searching and retrieval, weather predictions, and crunching medical research data. This last area illustrates the booming business in online medical applications and advice, whether from established cottage hospitals and surgeries, or even clairvoyants. Many councils and hospital trusts are saving money by relying on online medical care, achieved through web cams and interactive units managed by people at home. The grid network is allowing research to be undertaken using the resources of PCs and thus saving the high cost of data storage and specialist computers. Rotterdam's Erasmus Medical Centre is just such an example: a study on bone aging requires scans of up to five gigabytes each. These are done by computers on Almere's grid, and are then uploaded to the hospital."
"Transferring data on this scale requires fibre networks, and the fact that it can be done in conjunction with computer grids opens the door for innumerable commercial applications. That The Netherlands is in the forefront of both of these developments strengthens the argument that in coming years jobs, prosperity and a range of social benefits in Europe will follow where broadband infrastructure is strongest."

Maybe they're jumping the gun here - and maybe they're not. It's certainly very forward thinking. I can picture just where they're headed. I don't think this sort of project will be an instant success, and will require a few iterations to make it work, but it's extraordinarily visionary.
And maybe Europe will lead the world. Its geography lends itself well to such a project - perhaps more so than anywhere else.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Climate Change: Sudden rationality at the top?

If you believe the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian government has had a sudden change of heart on climate change. According to the Herald’s political editor, this has happened over the past couple of weeks, specifically due to Foreign Minister Downer being persuaded. The triggers were a) the parliamentary undersecretary for the Environment nutting it out with him; b) A number of comments about the unusual weather at an agricultural show in Downer’s home State.

It sounds rather like a bunch of dominoes, doesn’t it? Ready to fall.

Still, don’t expect this to result in sensible policy change. After all, the government had set aside $1 billion on global warming issues, but didn’t even spend $360m of it.

Why was that money set aside at all? My only guess is that it was committed through the political process (either an election promise or parliamentary horse-trading) by a bunch of people who had no interest in doing anything.

Now is not the time for triumphalism. (however, I will refer you to a previous post.)
We need to see useful action, but it's easy to imagine that the government's first moves will fall far short of idea.

Because the Prime Minister remains uncomfortably wedded to nuclear power to this day (see the first article). Why? Now that, I can’t answer.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Tech: The brilliant untraceable spam scam

The perfect scam is where nobody can ever identify your involvement. And I finally found it.

I’ve been getting a lot of spam trying to get me to buy shares in some Chinese company or other. "Really, you’ll love this one, it’s going to go through the roof next week. But I’ve told you this before the announcement, so you can invest now. You’ll make millions."

Why do people do it? At first I thought the Chinese companies were just trying to pump up their own share prices. But then I got a spam recommending to me a Texas oil company.

Why oil companies? They’re the typical prospector, pottering along earning very little unless suddenly they hit it big. Their shares hover close to nothing in price, but if there’s a rumour, they can multiply value overnight. Then sink back to where they were, when it all peters out.

I sought mention of this Texas company, and stumbled across a press release from them - a couple of months old - that distanced themselves from certain information put out by “third parties”.

What better way to profit from spam?? Buy up some shares that are languishing at 11 cents. Send out millions of emails, and when enough suckers buy, sell out and you’ve made your money. Let the market do the dirty work – your hands are clean. No traceability.

Ingeneous! Much cleverer than I was giving them credit for.

Update 17-Nov-06: I just found out that this is a common ploy known as "pump and dump".
However, that Wikipedia entry didn't mention the crucial point of superiority of this scam: that the purpetrator is virtually untraceable.

Pers: music that surprised me 2

I've always had a strong affinity for music, so it's odd that I haven't posted more often on the subject. It's a very direct route to the inner being for me. One song (or track) is an instant feeling, one album (or work) is a mood, and over time, you get a feeling for the voice of a particular composer/artist/band. That time-stretched voice is an insight into a distinct individual or collective mind.

I listen to quite a mixture. I always seem to return to Ravel for classical music; popular music presents a greater variety of instant mood, so my preferences move, back and forth.

I'm listening to a recent (!) release from Echo and the Bunnymen: What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?. The voice is the same as ever, although the youthful vigour and anguish is gone. Competent, often pleasant, but not the same as Heaven Up Here or Crocodiles. Some people improve as they age; for some people their peak was in their raw youth. Not to denigrate this work too much - it's worth a listen.

... travelling back to Led Zeppelin, I was listening to Nobody's Fault But Mine (from Presence) when I realised, yes, I really do like Zep. They have their lesser and greater moments [favourites include Immigrant Song, Battle of Evermore, and Over the Hills and Far Away), but overall they are very listenable.

... which would sound surprising to anyone not used to that genre. But a) I'm always mining quite a variety of genres (libraries are strongly recommended for this); b) I've always had a strong affinity for good rock music. Jethro Tull is certainly that. Given one of their predominant images is that tramp on the cover of the wonderful Aqualung, it's surprising to find Ian Anderson comes across as rather a cultured person. Revisiting Thick As A Brick. Within the limitations of a 2 x 20m vinyl LP, it's one continuous song, which they ended up doing as something of a joke (according to hindsight) when people took Aqualung (the predecessor) to be a concept album. I say here and now, Thick As A Brick does work, and it's a very intricate piece of music - but it rewards listening with an open mind.

Hearing Wings Over America for the first time reminds me of Paul McCartney's earlier album Venus and Mars - the only one I owned at the time. A bit patchy, but it had some good stuff. I was only later to discover the full album Band On The Run must stand out as his absolute best. Wings Over America is quite pleasant for McCartney's pop ear - and occasional rock - and is a great companion to those seeking slight variations on themes that are otherwise worn (ie live versions of songs you've heard too much).

Not too thrilled by U2's War. Past their glorious debut Boy, you really have to wait until they're more mature - starting with Unforgettable Fire. From then on, an illustrious career.

Running out of time, so also recommended are:
  • Bette Midler's second (eponymous) album
  • More recent Robert Plant - surprisingly good
  • Allman Brothers - always great blues/rock
  • Fleetwood Mac's Then Play On (the one with the legendary Oh Well)
  • Early Boz Scaggs (recommended for the blues tinge)
  • Hard Fi
...and back to Ravel, as always.

This is only what I'm listening to now. Major recommendations some other time.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tech: The tech personality 3: Steve Wozniak

I read a very interesting extract today from a new book by Steve Wozniak, the bloke who designed and built the original Apple computers.

It gives an insight into the type of mind behind some innovative technology.

With the caveat that it's an autobiography, he sounds like a very gentle, down-to-earth person, whose passion is ideas. (Who can argue with that?)

Of course, cleverness or talent does not of itself win out. Otherwise, all the top selling music, films and books would be masterpieces.

Behind successful businesses are marketing or business talents - and that's where Steve Jobs came in.

Here's a link to Woz' web site. The book is iWoz.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

World: Bees in the bonnet 5: EU vs US

What's happening with the European Union? Why is it swallowing up swathes of countries at different levels of social and economic development?

It occurred to me that some of those driving the EU project may be working with the aim of developing a power block to rival the US - now that the US dominates a unipolar world.*

So. The thought for today: on the basis of world events of the past few years, is the European Union a more ethical power block than the US?
If the answer is yes, then a corollary: is it so only because it can afford to be, as a relatively junior entity?

*Of course, it won't be a unipolar world for long. Even without the EU, China and India are rapidly emerging forces that will play major roles on the world stage within the next few decades.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Tech: THE most technologically advanced country Denmark.

What's the basis of this claim? Simply: Broadband. The takeup of broadband as measured by the number of subscribers per 100 inhabitants.

A fresh OECD report gives the following ranking:
1. Denmark 29.3 1
2. Netherlands 28.8 2
3. Iceland 27.3 3
4. South Korea 26.4 4
5. Switzerland 26.2 5
6. Finland 25.0 6
7. Norway 24.6 7
8. Sweden 22.7 8
9. Canada 22.4 9
10. UK 19.4
12. US 19.3
13. Japan 19.0
17. Australia 17.4
22. New Zealand 11.7

Just yesterday I was discussing South Korea as the most advanced in the world. What happened? Strong per-capita takeup in the other countries over the last year. (Also figuring in the strong improvers were Australia and the UK.)

Why is this significant? It's axiomatic. Broadband is the essential [knowledge] tool of the future. It will never substitute for personal knowledge or wisdom, but there is simply, unquestionably no better tool to supplement your own faculties.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

World: How to go nuclear?

Interesting tenor on the news reports about North Korea's purported nuclear detonation. In the first few days, they seemed to me to state categorically that there was a nuclear blast. More recently, the reports - from quite a variety of sources - have stepped back from the hubris of the definite. The blast was noticeable, but small. No radiation detected.

Currently, even Wikipedia's entry equivocates on whether it really was a nuclear device. Gas detected consistent with a nuclear explosion; according to a US source "We don't think they were trying to fake a nuclear test, but it may have been a nuclear fizzle.''

Although it's hard to take seriously a clown like the Dear Leader, but I remain surprised that the matter is so hard to resolve.

Update 16-Oct-06: Latest news seems to confirm the detonation was nuclear - which frankly surprises me, as I didn't expect them to be capable. Clearly, the Dear Leader is diverting all North Korea's scant resources to this one statement, angling for an increase in rewards from the rest of the world. A perverse form of trade. Either that or it's just bravado, and he's a mad clown.

...scrap that. He is a mad clown.

Tech: MicroStrategy - BI strengths and weaknesses

I attended a MicroStrategy presentation a few days ago. It was a good opportunity to position it against other players in the Business Intelligence market. There were some surprises, and some to-be-expecteds.

MicroStrategy is a relatively small player. It would seem to be playing into niches - they pretty much said as much - which is surprising giving its strengths.

They position their competitive advantage as being performance and scalability - which should make the product industrial strength, up against the biggest players (Cognos, Business Objects, Hyperion/Brio, Microsoft). In fact, the stats they give suggest as much, with average data volumes and seats being significantly ahead of the major players. In particular, customer loyalty is very strong, by their measures.

The architecture is good, also industrial strength. Object reuse is extensive, they do caching at multiple levels, connect to multiple (heterogeneous) data sources, and - something that impressed me - their use of SQL is multi-pass. For my money this would mean their generated SQL is less convoluted to achieve the same results, and MicroStrategy's also capable of more complex querying.

Of course, they have industry standard features such as web interfaces, zero-footprint clients, and extensive use of metadata - albeit their proprietary implementation.

They're also focused on ROLAP, which is a plus for people like me who want to get directly stuck into the database, rather than work through manufactured cubes.

Where's the rub? I was betting that implementation and use would be consequentially more difficult. And this was confirmed by another observer at the presentation.

Thus, they wouldn't be a casual investment. But then, is any BI?, you ask.

It all begs the question why they aren't bigger in the market place, despite any usability and implementation issues. But markets are not axiomatically logical.

I look forward to any further critical analysis I can lay my hands on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

World: Cautious optimism on a Mental Health auction

It may seem like I'm obsessed with mental health issues, but I'm not. I've posted on the subject twice before because it's a social issue, and a bellwether for the health of a government and a society. Moreover, poor policy results in increased crime and poverty.

My previous post on failings in mental health care policy discussed deinstitutionalisation being poorly implemented because it's been run from a short-term cost-reduction perspective - rather than focusing on outcomes that reap more indirect monetary benefits. Strictly speaking, this is old news. My understanding is that the 80s and 90s saw similar policy moves across the western world - with similarly poor results.

Now there's a State election around March next year, so comes news that the two sides of politics in New South Wales are running a bidding war on mental health funding. Strange as it may seem, the Liberals effectively said "I'll match Labor's funding promises and raise you this much more".

Although this should be nothing but good news, I can't help retaining an edge of cynicism. Election promises are like bravado talk in a boozy pub late on a Friday night. And implementation of promises always falls short, never exceeds.

Still, they've set a common benchmark. We can only watch and wait with cautious optimism.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tech: Learning is painful - when there's too much

I loaded up a copy of Office 2007 yesterday*, and got totally, instantly lost.

What a beginning. MS Word and Excel have a new interface that is radically different to anything that came before. I knew to expect something, but that something wasn't... lost.

All previous releases have been particularly incremental. They have steadily bloated Word and Excel with numerous features that most people wouldn't have time to explore, practice and exploit. Well, now some exploration is necessary.

It somewhat begs the question, what do you want from a word processor or spreadsheet? By now, one of the big factors in the profit of Word and Excel is that they are now in most peoples' comfort zone. Changing is painful.

Well, now updating is painful.

There are degrees of comfort, of course. I can think of four paths off the top of my head:
  • stick with the versions you have
  • try OpenOffice - it's closely compatible, open source, and free
  • explore other options for word processors and spreadsheets
  • stick with the new versions

I'm not actually making any recommendations here. I expect there's good reason for the changes - Microsoft probably did extensive consumer and professional usability testing, and they reckon the changes are worth the pain. Further, this was simply my first reaction, and I'll persist - I just think it would have been sensible to provide a simple, free introductory navigation. ...I daresay they do have one hidden somewhere.

I was actually using OpenOffice for a couple of days for a project of mine. But I found there were small areas of functionality in each of Word and Excel that didn't work in OpenOffice the way I needed them to. So, experiencing pain, I switched rather than go through an extensive search for the functionality I wanted.

The major lesson: there is so much technology in our lives that learning curves are a significant pain point.

*Office 2007 is currently scheduled for November release; I have a beta version.

Monday, October 09, 2006

World: Bees in the Bonnet 4: imaginaryatheist

Well, I've been having a rough time trying to upload some pictures of my vivid spring garden. So I thought I'd have one last go at trying to be provocative. I haven't had much response to the series so far, so let's see if this goads anyone.
(I hope I'm not being too subtle.)

Tech: How technology really propagates

Just reading an article about the competition for the consumer's precious moments of attention. It mentioned that the ABC programme The Chaser's War On Everything (a satire/sketch series) experienced more downloads than actual people who watched it.

(I was also going to post on an Australian award-winning device that allowed a mobile phone to act as a projector, but of itself it's not a big deal.)

Yes, spectator attention is fracturing, but they're also globalising, so there's not necessarily a danger of losing audience.

No, I was really musing on the tendency to pack functionality into devices such as mobile phones (computers by another name), and the way it's been happening. The best way for a technology to progress rapidly is by fast consumer takeup, which encourages more investment in the technology. And the medium, essentially, has been the mobile phone. My PDA has all the functionality of a small computer, and has had all the functionality that is only now being stuffed into phones (bar a projector!).

But a PDA is not really a mass consumer device in the same way that a mobile phone is. Hence, the phone is a back door to enabling technology to rapidly spread to the world's population - in a way that has more personal meaning than a tv or a landline phone.

I don't think any science fiction writer could have envisaged personal technology spreading in this way. The human factor is not easily susceptible to prediction. Remember that, if you're trying to forecast the world of the future - say 20 years' time.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

World: Bees in the bonnet 3: Read Al-Jazeera

If you want to see a reasonably true measure of how well –and how ethically – the western world is engaging the eastern, I suggest you read Al-Jazeera Online regularly.

This is predicated on the fact that every news source reflects the values of its owners and/or managers – through how it reports, and what it chooses to report on.

(Be careful with the spelling, however: is totally unrelated. Use one of the links here.)

Al-Jazeera has been referred to by the New York Times as “the freest, most widely-watched tv channel in the Arab world”, although the US government claims it has a strong anti-American bias.

Some may be disappointed to find, however, that Al-Jazeera Online is relatively measured. It may take a little time to gain that useful perspective I mentioned. (Yesterday's front page was relatively bland, today it's more forthright, tomorrow ... )

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tech: The internet has flattened the world

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, has collected his thoughts on the changes wrought by the internet, and in particular the power of global collaboration to come up with innovations and product improvement. The book has quite a catchy title: The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of The Twenty-First Century.

This article in Business Week Online gives a set of illustrations of this phenomenon. It's very interesting - instructive - for its anecdotes, although you have to put up with one of the most jarring web sites I've seen in some time.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

World: Record low wage share, record high profits

A recent New York Times article highlighted the worsening lot of American workers as company profits soar over the tenure of the Bush administration.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a standard for measuring a country's economic output. Wages as a proportion of GDP is a coarse measure of the share in the output that workers get. At 45% in the latest quarter, workers' share of wealth is the lowest on record, down from about 50% in early 2001. In the 60 years of records, workers' share was at its highest - at 53.6% - in 1970.

Conversely, corporate profit's share of GDP is at its highest since the 1960s.

This is the first sustained period of (US) economic growth since World War II that has failed to deliver real benefits to workers.

Included in the wages category are executives, who I believe are seeing their remuneration reflect corporate profit increases. I suspect if you discounted for top executives, the figures would be even worse. The median hourly wage has actually declined 2% in real terms since 2003 - especially notable at a time when productivity - the profit per worker - has steadily increased in that time.

What possible explanations are offered? Global trade, immigration, technology [productivity increases, by another name] are said to erode workers' bargaining power. Unions are much weaker, and the buying power of the minimum wage is at a 50-year low.

All this should ring alarm bells for Australians, as the Federal Government has recently introduced draconian industrial relations legislation, with the intent of mirroring the US experience.

A copy of the article can be read here.