Monday, March 23, 2009

Your ancestor is not your ancestor

It's easy to envisage a brave new world of healthcare, where your genetic makeup can be interpreted in minutiae, and therapy developed that is fine-tuned to your specific needs. The genetic information would be supplemented with reference to detailed ancestral information - for those with extensive enough family trees.

I heard something in passing on the radio a few days ago, which gave that a reality check. I think the woman being interviewed was a geneticist, who had researched the relationship between genetic and genealogical information - that is, comparing DNA information with supplied family trees.

Of course, the result should be quite obvious. She couched it in terms of paternity, but it turned out that there was substantial disconnect between the two sources of information. In effect, there were too many cases where the attributed father was not the actual father. This would happen for any number of reasons, from infidelity to retro-fitting a respectable background.

I see some irony here, for the many people who, for example, would like to trace their roots back to royalty. Apart from the fact that most English people (all?) should share some royal blood if they go back far enough, red herrings would abound. On the one hand, there would be cases like my grandmother's family, where it's plausible that purported links to the Dukes of Bedford would be simply an attempt to increase cachet.

Yet on the other hand there would be the hidden stories that may reveal closer links to a royal family than expected. Hidden for as many reasons as there are players.

I would not be surprised if the information flow ended up being in the converse direction. Genetic analysis may be able to correct family trees.

In that light, there is yet hope for genealogists. However, for that level of detail I would not be holding my breath. It is unlikely to come soon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Aus Politics: waiting for the great leap forwards

An informal Herald poll asked which politician people would like to have to dinner:

Julia Gillard (deputy PM): 35%
None of those mentioned: 21%
Kevin Rudd (PM): 20%
Peter Costello (opposition pretender): 12%
Malcolm Turnbull (opposition leader): 11%

The results are not surprising.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Business Intelligence trends: HP's take

Buried amidst the consolidation of business intelligence (software) vendors, HP appears to base its solution on Knightsbridge, which it purchased in 2007.

It can't be too surprising if HP (and, previously Knightsbridge) aren't familiar names in the BI field. They do not figure regularly in industry reports and forums. HP's profile is quite low - so low, in fact, that they're not even mentioned in Wikipedia's list of BI tools. I expect their marketing strategy is limited to supplementing their provision of whole-of-business solutions to the marketplace: when selling to enterprises, something akin to "Oh, and we also supply business intelligence solutions - and consulting services. No need to go to the market for that". (However, for a counter-view on HP's BI profile, see this blog by Shawn Rogers.)

Notwithstanding, they recently released their take on BI trends for 2009, as follows.

Trend #1: Consumerisation of IT
In effect, business to adopt consumer-level technologies such as facebook and twitter. BI-specific effects in collaboration, visualisations, new data sources.

Trend #2: Post-Western tech economy
"Emerging regions" will transition from being simply "suppliers of low-cost talent" to being developers of best practice and global standard-setting consumers. Benefits to BI in terms of innovation - in analytics, unstructured data, etc.

Trend #3: BI importance increases; data governance and quality to become critical
So says HP - but see BI Survey's comments on less than expected adoption. However, it's to be expected that in hard times businesses would turn to BI for efficiency gains.

Trend #4: BI Buyers more scrutinising
- linking projects to business outcomes.

Trend #5: Market demands lower BI complexity
Commodified BI, standards for data marts. Here, HP contradicts its own earlier comment about SaaS/Cloud issues not yet figuring prominently in BI. They note it under "consideration".

Trend #6: Analytics moves to the front office; business users get greater sophistication
- including data modelling in the hands of business managers - scary!

Trend #7: Data integration increases in importance
Consolidating data from traditionally disparate sources; increasing focus on enterprise-level information management strategies.

Trend #8: A blurring between data warehouses and operations systems/data
A need for realtime operational reporting - enter, data hubs, Enterprise Service Buses, etc.

Trend #9: Convergence of structured/unstructured data
- this is a brave call, as business are only just starting coming to grips with the unstructured data buried in documents, notes, etc. My call is that it will be some time before unstructured data sees much effective use, let alone convergence.

Trend #10: CEP (Complex Event Processing) comes of age
- this seems to be an amalgam of alerting and data mining, nearing real-time.

As they later note: "To make the most of BI, first you need to get the data right". Much as that sounds a truism, it is a point that needs to be hammered at every opportunity, from data modelling to quality/management/governance.

HP's full report here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

BI Survey 8: business intelligence trends

Out now is the new edition of the BI Survey - once known as the OLAP Survey, now up to edition 8, covering 2008.

As a specific term, Business Intelligence is more widely known than Online Analytical Processing, but the Survey found that even on this, the software vendors are over-optimistic. They estimate about 14% of employees (of a "typical" organisation) use BI tools, but the Survey finds a reality closer to 8%.

Other points noted in the preview copy I have:
- BI implementations that follow a competitive evaluation of different vendor toolsets are more successful in every way - however, the Survey shows a slight drop in the number of competitive evaluations. My comment: this is not fully surprising, and I can give a couple of reasons: a) the competitive process is seen as too hard, costly, or lengthy; and b) encumbents with BI skills will inevitably veer towards the toolsets with which they are most familiar;

- the most common issue with BI tools is (query) performance - although vendors have a rosier view than business users. ;

- small software vendors provide better support than large ones.

The spate of vendor amalgamations is somewhat represented in the survey. Gone are explicit listings of tools such as ProClarity and Brio (subsequently Hyperion Intelligence), but still represented are TM1 (as Cognos TM1) and Hyperion (via Essbase - all their other tools were subsumed in the Oracle toolset).

Another blogger, Chris Webb, has seen the full report, and makes some comments here.

One interesting point he notes is about MicroSoft's marketing strategies vis-a-vis different product offering. He strongly suggests that MicroSoft is leveraging their BI tools (SQL Server services SSAS, SSIS and SSRS) to promote greater adoption of the MS Office suite - to the ultimate detriment of its BI tools. In effect, their BI toolset is less than could be in the interests of encouraging greater sales of MS Office. This is of note because MicroSoft are increasingly pushing their BI solutions out to Office products. Client-end tools in Excel were only the start.

The degradation of outcomes for one product in favour of another is certainly plausible for an organisation selling multiple products, especially if their marketing strategies are sufficiently sophisticated. However, I would in turn suggest that greater adoption of BI tools is hampered by specialist knowledge requirements, and that the more users are able to work within a familiar paradigm, the easier they find it to use the tools.

On the other hand, MicroSoft's BI solutions have always been far too heavily geared to the technical environment to the detriment of business-level stakeholders, and I'm not yet convinced their Office-related tools are a good fix.

Webb's other notable reading of BI Survey 8 is that MicroSoft's BI products come squarely in the middle of all rankings (eg usability, scalability, etc etc). This is not surprising. While they are capable of producing competent product, I don't think MS's BI products are stellar in the scheme of things - ubiquity is the word that springs closer to mind, since they come free with all enterprise edition databases. Thus MicroSoft will perpetually remain too big to ignore in the BI marketplace.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

McCabe I.T. prognoses 1: the cloud

It's hard making intelligent predictions. Science fiction's successes have been notably sporadic, with the odd fax and video player overwhelmed by flying cars and time machines. But everyone was caught on the hop by home computers, mobile phones and the internet, so the would-bes are trying to make it up with high-impact but outlandish speculations.

Bruce McCabe is a researcher and analyst (his company is called S2 Intelligence) who makes his living predicting the future course of technology for corporate clients who want to keep on top of broad trends. In particular, he is wont to point out technological change that will be "disruptive" to business - that is, major developments will bring about changes to business models, negatively impacting those who haven't kept up, and providing advantage to those who are ahead of the game.

That latter must be where he ekes out his niche: competitive advantage is a key issue for corporations, and technology is the biggest vector for change.

Thus to McCabe's latest review, dated January 2009. It covers briefs on 34 aspects of technology; although this is ultimately an admixture of intelligence, knowledge and speculation, credit should be given to McCabe for his length of service in this field. His work must be worthwhile, since he is still consulting and presenting to conferences at least five years after I first saw him.

Yet the first topic - cloud computing - is a fraught topic: its meaning has been somewhat abused, often coming to refer to any outsourced I.T. services, where it more accurately refers to computing services (particularly storage and processor power) that are leased from a third party (via the internet), and abstracted in terms of size (and so very scalable) and physical location. It is chiefly the scalability and on-demand nature of such a service that brings business benefits over locating and managing one's own equipment.

McCabe visited, whose success in this field may encourage people to overstate the degree of adoption of cloud computing. McCabe: "in the past five years not a single customer interviewed by S2 has expressed anything other than strong positive outcomes. That outcome is unique."

It is a fair comment that: "this leadership is rapidly moving the goalposts for Microsoft, SAP, Oracle and every other provider of business software." He goes further: "A new world of software development is opening up. It is not a wholesale displacement of the old one... 'In the cloud' software development will, however, be strongly associated with rapid, disruptive, innovation by businesses".

Although this may be the way the world eventually understands cloud computing, McCabe effectively conflates a number of different trends:
- cloud computing - scalable leasing of computing power;
- free and open source software - including, for example, Google's offerings of business software that directly competes with Microsoft;
- outsourcing in general;
- the emergence of software development services, especially from India.

As with all attempts at outsourcing, if one's I.T. capabilities and needs are not managed effectively, it matters not whether they are located in-house or god-knows-where. And it remains that outsourcing in whatever form it takes makes management exponentially harder; the hazards are also far greater. We've all read or experienced these outsourcing efforts: incredible disruption to business when the switch was flicked; equivalent headcounts hired as consultants down the track; and sometimes a complete volte face to bring services back in the fold.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that the trends described above (cloud computing plus) are going to figure big and are going to disrupt traditional business models. The greatest business benefit comes where services are inherently commodifiable and scalable in the first place, and thus lend themselves well to such abstraction.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On the nature of errors

Tom's presentation today was on the interface between Sharepoint Services and SQL Server, on which he's very knowledgeable.

But it gave me a couple of double-takes. They were a couple of harmless errors that gave me food for thought.

The first is on the nature of errors. At one point, a slide mentioned 'hit fixes' instead of 'hot fixes'. For someone proofreading a lengthy presentation, not least the one writing it - who can so easily skim through it in an identical manner in which he wrote it - it's very hard to spot word substitutions that may make plausible sense in context. Particularly with technical communication, you'd pretty well have to engage with the whole of the message to spot the error. Nobody else in the audience mentioned it, and I may have just happened upon it.

Another slide had a diagram of three cogs in a triangle, with connectivity between all three, and (opposing) directions of motion indicated for two of them. But this would simply not work in actuality, since the third cog would be subject to contradictory forces. Tom said to me later he was trying to convey the idea of the three factors in combination, but he thought it could equally illustrate the contention between each of the three factors - some of that contention came out in general discussion. I suggested that was a more engaging narrative anyway - that the illustration could be a direct prompt for such a discussion.

But at least he can fix the 'hit fixes' - now that it's been noticed.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Australia maintains short-sell ban

A devious rash of financial instruments emerged in the boomtimes, some of them originally created for legitimate reasons - currency hedging for those involved in international trade, for example - but many of them existed simply to give non-productive traders more opportunities to gamble.

Australia is said to be the last country in the world to maintain a ban on the short selling of shares - specifically, in this case, financial stock. This means speculators can't sell shares that they don't yet own in the expectation of covering themselves (and profiting) by subsequent purchases at a lower price.

A few days ago, a claim emerged that Asian financial interests were poised to take over Australian banks by forcing the price spiralling down through short selling - once the ban was removed by ASIC (the Australian Securities and Investments Commission).

That ban was due to expire, but ASIC has now extended the ban.

And rightly so. Many such practices that were of marginal at the best of times are anathema to unstable markets - which situation will be the case for some time to come. I have not seen justification for other countries' removal of that ban, but according to one Australian fund, "much of the criticism of the ban came from off-shore investors". Which rather begs the question what is to be legitimately gained from having overseas dealers indulge in short-selling Australin financial shares. (I note that the Herald's Ian Verrender has given a justification for lifting the ban - which is quite weak.)

In these volatile times, regulators are trying to promote stability and investor confidence - which they know are the only cures to the financial crisis. Probably the reason regulators are not doing more is that they have too strong a ground in the ideology of unfettered markets.

And despite the fact that this is an ideal juncture in history to redirect capital to more environmentally sustainable production, like most people they have a large part of their attention focused on the short term; until environmental crisis looms larger than financial crisis, scant action will be taken. In fact, there will be much temptation for governments to foster crisis solutions that are easy - but more environmentally damaging. Vote carefully.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Darwin was not really wrong

I briefly mentioned (here) a recent New Scientist article whereby they disparaged Darwin's conceptualisation of life as having a single origin that diversified and branched out as a tree.

They emphasised the ways in which that metaphor of evolution steady direction and branching didn't really hold, ultimately laying the material under the banner "Darwin was wrong".

There is much meaty discussion in the various issues they raised. But they overplayed the theme: wrong is too strong a word for what is really some fuzziness on the margins.

I will note some of the issues at a later date; meanwhile, more recently someone wrote to New Scientist to make exactly the same point. The writer is much more vociferous than me; here's a link to that letter. Original article here.