Monthly Archives: June 2005

Favorite notebooks

NYT Magazine has an article (reg req) about moleskin notebooks, which apparently, through clever and almost viral marketing has become the thing to have if you want to appear intellectual or even cultured (that is, if you don’t opt for blogging to show that you’re with it.) There is even a moleskin blog.
I wonder when we will have the same affinity for computers. I’ve had a few, and a some of them have stood out as extremely good, artifacts that were better than their successors (though not as powerful, which is why they were replaced.) So far, my three favorites have been

  • The Compaq 386 Portable I got in 1986 (12 pounds, no battery, 2Mb hard disk), at the time the most powerful PC in the world.
  • The NeXT workstation that I borrowed for six months in 1990, too bad I couldn’t really do anything with it except create killer reports in Display Postscript and try to understand the practical implications of object-oriented programming, and finally the
  • Toshiba Portege 3440CT I still have lying around (mostly used by my daughter) which was a great little computer but too weak in the muscle department to stay on as my work machine.

Each of these computers had a combination of innovation and usability that, at least for me, was a significant step forward at the time. The Compaq was the first really useful portable, as a desktop replacement. The NeXT taught me how to really work with everything electronic rather than a combination of paper and screen. The Toshiba was ultra-portable and allowed me to work anywhere.
Alas, technology marches on, and you have to give up these machines because they wear out or something presumably better comes along. But can you really get attached to a computer, as a professional? With the exception of Macintosh fanatics who can be relied on to whip up their powerbook at a moment’s notice, I have so far only heard writers and nerds vax lyrical about keyboards (in particular the IBM buckling spring variety.) (Lest you think I am MacPhobic, I have had a few Macs as well, unfortunately always a tad underpowered for a number of reasons, primarily lack of software and stupid IS non-fiddling rules.)
I suppose we will have to wait for Moore’s law to taper off a bit, and notebooks to get even more modular and customizable, before we imbue them with personalities and employ them for personality signalling.
Or am I wrong – what is the “cool” computer to have, provided you a) keep Macs out of the context, and b) don’t get into this tiresome Linux vs. XP debate?

Chessboard WWII

Keegan: WWII front coverJohn Keegan: The Second World War, Penguin 1990

I am currently unpacking books from storage crates and finding many a jewel for rereading. This is one of them.

This relatively short (600 pages) book is a strategic and military history of WWII – John Keegan, lecturer at Sandhurst, concerns himself with maneuvres, logistics, weapons and the thoughts and deliberations of military and political leaders about how to conduct war. Largely missing from the story is partisan warfare, the Holocaust, resistance movements, and the political and ideological side of the conflict. This is WWII as seen from military headquarters, where deaths are counted in the thousands and losses deemed acceptable based on percentages.

And that is OK, for the book makes no pretence at trying to be anything else – and as a military history, it is brilliant. The best part of the book are careful analyses of some of the great battles (particularly Crete, which taught both the Germans and the Allies some important lessons, is well described). Where Ambrose describes the hardships of the individual soldiers, Keegan makes us understand the importance of decisions at the strategic and tactical level – how politicians and generals depend on communications, intelligence, rapport with subordinates and peers, and luck. In particular, the book counters the rather disparate view of Montgomery espoused by Ambrose. Montgomery was more careful with his men and more calculating than the American generals – but Britain had exhausted its supply of manpower and could not depend on hordes of enthusiastic young men to be flung against entrenched and experienced Germans.

Keegan does not moralize either this way or that: He evaluates decisions made based on the information available at the time and leaves judgment largely up to the reader, based on his careful and understated analysis, delivered in logical rather than chronological chapters. He discusses Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and their generals largely in terms of decision style and strategic insight (or delusion).

Read this book for the understanding of technology and maneuver and the decisions faced by military leaders. Highly recommended.

The reluctant linker

Robert Scoble has a projectlet going to convince an SVP at UPS that blogging is important. Like this: shipping. OK, I’ll do it.
On the other hand, I must say I have always preferred UPS to Fedex for shipping – they have an extemely long term view of what creates value – I once had a conversation with an exec in UPS who referred to himself as a relative newcomer, since he only had 27 years in the company…..

Etiquette for a connected world

I didn’t get to go to Reboot this year – had an administrative responsibility I literally could not get out of (you can get out of most things as an academic, but there are exceptions). I will go there next year, since I am sick and tired of regular academic conferences and would love to go to something where I would get ideas and be entertained, by someone out to change the world and not just prove that A influences B once you have removed every C, D, and E. This presentation is an example of what I missed.

Networks in our midst

The Enronic gets my vote as best social network analysis tool ever (both system and instance. This should have great potential as a tool for consultants and researchers, provided you can deal with the privacy issues. I especially like the idea of introducing animation – imagine introducing changes into the organization, and then watching the emails fly in real time…
(Via BoingBoing)

Metaphor overload

The Bloglines plumber
Neal Stephenson has written (here) about the almost obsessive need for metaphors we seem to have when it comes to technology.
Now, I read RSS feeds via Bloglines, and think the service excellent – fast, intuitive, and user-friendly within the limitations of the HTML asynch protocol (which, among other things, blanks out the list of unread blog entries, then retrieves them, ensuring that if something goes wrong in the download you cannot redo the command).
But whenever Bloglines is down, this image of a plumber comes up. And this is where metaphor overload comes in – what kind of system do they really have down there in the system basement, anyway?

Icelandic existentialist angst

Half a year ago, I wrote a little blog post about Icelandair, a bored and rather halting attempt at mimicking Bill Bryson. A couple of days ago, it was posted at an Icelandic humor site. Since then, a bunch of Icelanders have been duking it out in the comment section – from what I can gather, a battle between puerile keyboard jockeys with too much time on their hands and hand-wringing, more decent types lamenting the level of civilization of the opposition.
Which leads me to think that either there is something out of kilter with a segment of the Icelandic populace, or that Bill Bryson’s comment section is strictly filtered…..