Monthly Archives: August 2004

Excellent discussion of Wikipedia authority has a great summary of The Importance of… > The Great Wikipedia Authority Debate” href=””>The Great Wikipedia Authority Debate. I have used the Wikipedia as a student excercise and found that it requires quite a bit of setup, in terms of communicating values and norms, to work. I certainly do not believe in setting up a Slashdot-like reputation system, if that is what is being contemplated. Wikipedia works now, and will work in the future, just the way it is. Thinks I.

Painting the town wet


The note from Joi Ito’s web about the arrest of the organizer of something called Bikes Against Bush is interesting (aside from the fact that you can get arrested for being in NY with a bicycle nowadays.)

The technology of the dot-matrix printerbike is very cool, but isn’t it a little too complicated? I remember reading from one of Hemingway’s books about people walking around the streets of Paris with a rolling drum which would paint the word “Cinzano” on the sidewalk in water – which would, eventually, evaporate, hence no need to clean up at all.

This bike, ingenuity aside, strikes me as a high-tech answer to a low-tech problem. Still cool, though.

A new Agenda, this time for all of us

I followed Eirik Newth‘s recommendation and listened to the Gillmor Gang’s discussion of the ramifications of Microsoft’s announcement that Longhorn will be missing the WinFS file system when it comes out in 2006. Setting aside that this is further evidence that Microsoft has become 1980s IBM (including the practice of preemptive announcements and the time-honored “midlife kicker”), an interesting comment made by one of the particpants intrigued me: That Microsoft by having this delay may give away a large market to Google.
Despite having worked with computers for quite a while now, I still have problems getting used to what we can do with abundant processing, storage and communication. Google’s 1Gb Gmail, coupled with blogging/wikiing/blikiing technology and (still for a while) graphics processing at the desktop, can presumably mean a return to the mainframe topology – that is, all your apps and all your data can be on Google.
This is not as far-fetched as it sounds – essentially, the problem of storage is not size of files, but duplication. I have hundreds of presentations, but probably also hundreds of copies of my favorite slides. A networked information format, with component-based information items linked together to form documents – across users, accounts, and organizations, could conceivably be stored on the 100,000 and counting servers that Google has. A very clean Wiki-based interface could be the preferred way to go for those of us who want deeply functional, simple software.
Many years ago, Lotus had a wonderful product called Agenda – text-based, freeform, lightning-fast (and, apparently, still available). The problem was unsupported file formats and limitations on content size – and the product eventually was abandoned in favor of the elephantine Lotus Notes. Imagine an Agenda-style software, stored in one place, with little duplication and a very simple interface. XML-based content, separation of content and display, sensible design choices and global search.
Well, one can dream, but I think this is getting a little closer to reality once we let go of the client-centric model of computing we seem to be clinging to. Fun.
Incidentally, I will listen more to the Gillmor Gang and the other stuff at Interesting stuff, picked up in a format that reminds me that all these bloggers and digerati out there are real people, available for a teleconference if only the topic and the audience is interesting enough.

The life digital and the life unexamined

I thought I was living digitally (wireless network at home, teleconferences and cellphones, blogging and wikiing and teaching electronically), but Joi Ito has a degree of connectivity that is couple of standard deviations further out.
In the end, he asks whether he is a freak, or whether this is the way people will work. I think he a bit on the edge, but less for his use of technology than for the disjointed way he works, jumping from one conversation to the other, because he can. In the end, more people will use the technology, but most people will not jump between conversations the way Joi does.
New technology will always be used first by those with the highest need for it. Joi Ito is a venture capitalist and a technologist – and as such, may need to talk to three groups of people as soon as he wakes up in the morning. The first users of a technology also shape its design – and the introduction of the ability to talk to many people fast means that more of us are going to talk to more people, fast.
The interesting thing, as far as I am concerned, is how we can use the technology in the slower lane. Realizing that increases in quantity and convenience is a quality in itself, how can the technology help us increase the quality of our conversations?

Microsoft and geography: Not too bad

The Guardian has a story about how Microsoft has lost money and reputation because their employees don’t know geography (via Techdirt).
In all fairness, I didn’t think these mistakes were that bad. First of all, they have little to do with geography, and more about political history and culture. Secondly, for a company that does as much software as Microsoft, over so many years, this isn’t really that much, and the mistakes not that huge. And with a workforce to draw on that does not know where the Pacific Ocean is (you would in Redmond, or at least in Seattle), it is pretty much a wonder they manage to do anything international at all…..
Not that the Grauniad themselves have that much to brag about….

The wonders of free content

A few years ago, Sarah Kaull, currently at ICEX Corporation, and I wrote a teaching case called Catatech. The copyright statement says that the case can be freely used for teaching purposes, as long as the copyright statement is not removed – a sort of early Creative Commons license.
When “egosurfing” (putting your name into Google to see what comes up, a somewhat disenchanting experience) today, I found that the Uganda Martyrs University has taken the case and turned it into a word processing exercise – which I think is just excellent.
Quite frankly, when I hear academics being protective of their teaching material, I just don’t understand what they are talking about – I think it is great when someone can use my material for something – and frequently I get emails from teachers with ideas and thanks. The Catatech case was translated into Spanish and Portuguese by some teachers who needed them, as have some of the others. And over the years they take on a life of their own. Great fun!

Executive Leadership and Information Technology – A Fragile Dance

The AOM All-Academy symposium titled Executive Leadership and Information Technology – A Fragile Dance, described here, was great fun – the participants came at the issues from four different directions that together signalled that IT is both more invisible (at least if you don’t look closely) and yet more important than ever.
Jim Cash started (PDF slides here) by reflecting, based on his boardroom experience and his interaction with CIOs, that there has been a strong evolution in the role and expected contribution of CIOs – at least from the admittedly skewed sample he has. (Jim runs a invitation-only program called the Cash Concours, with 38 CIOs of Fortune 200 companies. The group meets quarterly, and Jim visits their companies twice a year.) CIOs are expected to help the firm with the challenges facing the whole firm, including the “large” issues such as the erosion of trust that lead to the Sarbanes-Oxley act, as well as the shifting definition of shareholder value, with more focus on long-term and risk reduction.
Jim considers IT-business-alignment – the notion that the business should come up with a strategy, and IT align with that – outdated. In the companies he is involved with, there is an IT/business convergence – and no new strategy is contemplated without thinking about the influence of technology and technology evolution on the specific business environment. The winners are the CIOs that are “redesigning themselves” to function as full partners in the strategy deliberation and implementation.
Two issues are particularly close to Jim’s heart, and in his view important for CIOs: One is the company’s awareness of and influence on technical standards. The other is the role of China – for many companies, the IT organization not only tasked with supplying IT for Chinese subsidiaries and joint ventures, but the IT organization is in many ways spearheading the company’s move into China. Understanding the role and evolution of China, including its future as an outsourcing location for IT services, is particularly important for CIOs of multinational corporations.
John Seely Brown (PDF slides here) started by noting that China as a market has important ramifications for US corporations – the challenge of selling their goods there, at 10% of the US price point, will lead to a lot of innovation which will make its way back to the US. Information technology is currently driven by the rapid commoditization in three levels: processing, open source, and open standards. He cited Akamai, Google, and the Internet archive as organizations that are able to provide stunning amounts of technology at 1-10% of the IT price point of regular companies – thanks to provisioning and virtualization technologies.
The main driver, however, is standardization – and standardization drives not only decreases in price but also enables flexibility – which is particularly important since IT frequently is the single biggest thing holding up M&A and other corporate change activities. With commonditized technology we can enable further specialization as well as learning.
The key challenge for corporations is to understand how to leverage resources they don’t own, as well as change their business model from supply push to demand pull. JSB cited Amazon, where he is on the board, as a particularly agile corporation – note that they are setting aside a relatively large portion of their screen space to the sale of used books, which means they understand the concept of reciprocity. A good way of understanding the new technology is to see the Internet not as wiring diagram, through which messages are sent, but as platform for inter-company applications.
Vijay Gurbaxani (PDF slides here) took the economic perspective, noting that information technologies have had a profound impact on labor and multi-factor productivity – and cited a number of companies that have created new dominant designs for business processes in their industries. He sees the new marketplace for outsourcing, which is moving from provisioning of IT towards business process outsourcing, as an important contributor to the commoditization of technology and processes.
Mark Kriger (PDF slides here) underscored the role of leadership, giving IBM as an example of a company that has turned itself around under new management. He wondered whether the problem of IT contribution might not be related to ITs perceived lack of explorative power (as opposed to power to exploit existing resources better), and saw the ability of CIOs to be leaders as the key differentiator.
After the presentations, a lively debate ensued – questions ranged from the security of XML applications to the role of IT in China. When asked by a prospective MIS teacher what he should teach the students which he wouldn’t have 5 years ago, the panel said “social software” and “managing vendor relationships” – the first as a new technology, the second as perhaps the most important supply skill for CIOs today.

The day the world exploded

Interesting book on the Krakatoa explosion: Simon Winchester (2003): Krakatoa, New York, HarperCollins. Subtitled “The day the world exploded: August 27, 1883”, this is a detailed account of the history of the Sunda straits and the Dutch colonial powers, prior eruptions, and the eruption that blew Krakatoa away and which was literally seen (or, at least, the pressure wave registered) all over the world. Winchester sees the event as the first “global” event – thanks to the newly established telegraphic network, the news was known within days all over the world. He also, less convincingly, sees Krakatoa as a catalyst to the Islamic rebellions against the Dutch colonial powers a few years after.
Most interesting to me was the explanation of the mechanisms of the eruption (the meeting of two tectonic plates of differing composition, water-rich material being pulled under one of the plates and then pressuring its way up again) as well as the sheer size of the eruption. The noise of the final explosion was so loud that it was heard 3000 miles away – on the island of Rodrigues, where people thought it was naval gunnery. This is equivalent to hearing a noise made in New York while sitting in San Francisco. Krakatoa remains largest single natural catastrophy known to modern man, at least by some measures. 38,000 people died, a paddle steamer was lifted 3 miles upland, and a number of tsunamis, the largest the height of a 10-storey building, swept away whole villages, harbors and ships.
Winchester writes in an almost Victorian detail, sometimes overdoing the flowery language – I suppose it is hard to avoide being influenced by one’s sources. The book is very detailed – but I like that. One small irritation, however, was the low quality of the overview charts in the beginning of the book. It took me quite a while to understand precisely where Krakatau was the Sunda strait. A more detailed overview map with some of the places that were eradicated (such as Anjer and Merok) would have helped.

Dante does it

Just as I was beginning to despair and think that another Name of the Rose wasn’t possible (and that we forever are doomed to read the illiterate snippets of The Da Vinci Code,) along comes Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club to rewive our spirits.
This is a very good book – historically correct as far as possible, painting fascinating portraits of Longfellow, Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and other literary figures of late 19th century Boston, and with a proper plot, shades of Sherlock Holmes mixed with modern-day notions of what happens after the conclusion of a war.
One of the critiques of The Name of the Rose was that it seemed a bit after the fact: That the main protagonist had ideas that were several hundred years ahead of themselves, in expression if not in content. I had the same feeling reading this book, but it seems based in the writings of the people involved – and I am continually amazed by how early ideas turn up, and how we seem to rediscover them in every generation.
Nevertheless, The Dante Club is a must read in the historical crime mystery genre (if there is such a thing), and a relief, as I watch the NYT Book Magazine carrying ads for talks on lectures on The Da Vinci Code. Pearl can write, is historically correct as far as possible, and can set up a plot. His book is not very filmable, though. But it is very readable.
Very highly recommended.

Hotels that have understood what they are doing

I am currently staying at the New Orleans Marriott. Like most American business hotels, each room is so standardized that for an experienced business traveller, turning on the light is not really necessary – everything is where it always was, the only variable being whether the bathroom is to the left or to the right.
However, this hotel has a big plus: The Marriott chain – and most other US business hotels – have understood something that most European hotels have not gotten into their heads: That business travellers want connectivity without paying through their noses. European hotels have shoddy and expensive Internet connections and fleece you on the telephone bill even if you are calling free-phone numbers.
This hotel has no hotel charges for 800 numbers, meaning you can have long telephone conversations with your loved ones using cheap calling cards. But even better, they have a 10Mb Ethernet connection (as well as a USB option for those who don’t have Ethernet on their laptop) available for the entirely reasonable fee of $10 per 24 hours. It works beautifully, can be activated straight onto your room bill without fiddling with credit cards, and as an extra bonus the work table isn’t bad either. Meaning I have been able to edit course pages, down- and upload course material, and in general spend the jet lagged early hours of the morning, when you can’t sleep anyway, very productively.
I am just longing for the day when European hotels, business or not, will understand that connectivity should not be a revenue generator in itself, and instead a service that works to make you choose their hotel next time. Hotels should be hassle-free. This hotel is. Bravo.
Highly recommended.

Curious Incident of book about autism

Light summer reading that is neither shallow nor pointless: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. About an autistic (at least that is what I assume he is, since all I know about the subject comes from Dustin Hoffmann’s performance in Rain Man) boy who finds his neighbor’s dog killed, and sets out to find out who did it. The journey he sets out on is one of very small and carefully planned steps – those of a person who is extremely smart in one dimension and handicapped in almost anything else. Wonderful insight in into the mind of a child with a psychiatric disorder – or, as the protagonist would say, we don’t know whether it is an insight or not, since we can’t get into other people’s minds. But it feels right, which is something he would not say.
Highly recommended.