Monthly Archives: September 2005

Good enough computing

The Economist has an article on Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 computer for the poor. The machines’ specs are not bad at all.
I often teach the Dell case in my technology and strategy classes. One of the questions I ask students is “what could kill Dell” – and one of the answers might be that people start thinking computers are good enough, thus demanding fewer updates and less (mas) customization. To a certain extent we are already seeing that – when a student asks me nowadays what computer to buy, I will answer that, for study purposes, any laptop will do. I especially liked the mesh network piece – imagine what this will do for spreading news and learning.
But the OLPC technology can literally change how we think about computing, yet again. The price point is just ridiculous – at $100, I would like to sprinkle a few of these around the house, as email stations, library catalogue, inventory keepers, shopping list creators and TV program selector. With information stored centrally on a server and mesh networking to connect, information – one’s own or someone elses – could be literally at our fingertips.
Not to mention that you could stop worrying about losing the laptop when travelling – at that price, you could take one on trips and lose it (or give it away to someone needy) when no longer needed.

Posner on educated women

Richard Posner argues that elite universities should raise tuition and then pay it back according to whether students work full time, to combat the perceived problem of super-educated mummy-trackers which recently seems to have ruffled a few feathers.

I for one think this is one area we can safely let people work out by themselves – the net effect of a pay-and-get-back policy would be to reduce the number of women applying for elite schools, and that is sure not a worthwhile outcome, even though the utilitarian economic case Posner makes (and it seems a bit tongue-in-cheek) has merit. That’s why economics is fun – you can rile people with logical arguments.

Well, I am sure this will be pointed out in spades – but I would like to point out that some schools do this already, for doctoral programs at least. When I did my DBA at the business school, I was supported by a loan from the school, 20% of which was forgiven every year after graduation as long as I was working full time in a degree-granting academic institution. That worked – it was a factor for me when deciding to teach, as for, I think, most of my classmates, rather than to work full-time in consulting. The benefit to the school, of course, was that a higher proportion of its graduates go into teaching than otherwise would have (given that the school has a practice-oriented reputation, that might increase its scholarly standing). For the students that do chose to go into consulting or other non-academic work, the pay differnential finances the loan payback anyway – and the school knows that it is not spending money educating super-consultants.

Microsoft is 30

Microsoft is 30 today, officially entering "middle age" (at least for a software company).  I was called up by a journalist from the Norwegian version of Computerworld wondering if I thought MS would be stronger or weaker 10 years from now. Of course, it would be hard to get much stronger than what MS is now, but I could quote myself:

Middle age enters when it becomes clear to you that you are not the person that you want to be, when you realize that the skills that took you to where you are now will not take you further, when you need to switch from increasing your space to tending to what you have. I think Microsoft is entering middle age, whether it wants to or not (and who wants to, or even admit to it happening). Unlike people, however, companies can have youthful parts — and they need to be free to grow.

The recent reorganizations seem more like a firming up than any sign of change in strategy to me – and the company seems tied to exploiting its dominance on the desktop in any other market it can enter. It could be argued that this is, long-term, a risky strategy, but then again, it seems to work.

But, as I asked in a conference panel about six months ago – what can Microsoft offer me if I am a large company that has just decided to go Linux on the desktop. Server, middleware, database, even office applications – when Windows is not there to provide that well developed link in?

Oh well. My computers are still running Microsoft. Most of them at least. 

Goodbye Google Ads

I have decided to remove Google ads from this blog as well as my Norwegian blog, though my wife is keeping them on Lena’s Knits and Pieces. The reason is that the costs exceed the benefits – the income is not there, and the ads were getting on my nerves. It is a bit tiring to write something about universities and have the Google Ad section fill up with exhortations to get a degree by mail order. Likewise when I pan alternative health care and see my page providing links to holistic healing, homeopathy and other garbage.

I think this is a problem with generic blogs. My wife’s site is about quilting, and the ads she gets are focused and interesting to her. She often clicks on them herself to see what others are doing. For a less focused blog like mine the ads are either generic (blog services) or just irritating.

(Incidentally, when the great software and hardware magazine BYTE disappeared, it was for the same reason. BYTE had wide readership and excellent articles, but it was not focused to one particular audience (the way PC Magazine or MacWorld was) and hence had problems getting advertising.)

Being rounded is a problem in a focused world. Perhaps I should have 10 different blogs – or Google should start to qualify their ads, rather than allowing all kinds of crap to advertise.

Norwegian elections

Election day yesterday, there will be a new, “red-green” government. Not much else will change. I would have written about this, except a) not even foreign, die-hard journalists under a publish-or-perish regime can find much interesting about Norwegian politics, and b) Leif Knutsen has done an excellent job already: Analyzing the result here, and joking about it here.
Oh well. I will stake my hope on the Liberals, too – though that would peg me for a “clueless intellectual”….
Update: Wikipedia, of course, has the results.

Format invasions

My colleague Tim Bevins forwarded me an article from Format Invasions: Surviving Business’s Least Understood Competitive Upheavals (registration required) by Bertrand Shelton, Thomas Hansson and Nicholas Hodson, all consultants at Booz Allen Hamilton.
I thought this a good article in that it explains disruptive innovations in a new way, including the point that disruptive innovations succeed if managers don’t fall into the trap of adding new services which take away the initial cost advantage.
What I did not like so much was the article’s insistence on the word “format” when all it means really is “technology”, at least the way Clayton Christensen uses it. They also set up a straw man attack on Christensen – namely saying that Christensen says that the new technology (er, format) underperforms the old. What Christensen says is that the new technology underperformes the old in the traditional dimensions or with the traditional customers, which is essentially what they are saying as well.
Nevertheless, many readers have trouble with the words “technology” (thinking it involves hardware or software or other complications) or “business model” (which sounds, and is, consultantese.) Perhaps “format” is a better format…..

Tapping the tapping

Ed Felten blogs how learning machines can deduce text by listening to keystrokes. Another reason to get a quiet keyboard….
One interesting point: Somewhat counterintuitively, with this approach a longer password is easier to guess than a short one – though, of course, a non-sensical password will be hard, since the approach relies on character counting.
Reference: Li Zhuang, Feng Zhou, J. D. Tygar (2005), Keyboard Acoustic Emanations Revisited, University of California, Berkeley

Bug or feature?

I recently bought another Logitech wireless keyboard, this time with a rechargeable mouse. The keyboard is excellent – low, good wristrest, responsive and relatively quiet (which is nice for interviews and teleconferences.) But the mouse has a limited battery life and forces me to take a 15 minute recharge break every 3-4 hours or so.
Hey – wait a minute – is this a feature or a bug?

Lithuanian interlude

I spent Friday and Saturday in Kaunas, Lithuania, guest teaching strategic management to an executive class at the ISM business school. It was an interesting experience – I had never before been in a former East Bloc country. I learned as much as you can expect to when you have two days in a country and spend most of the time in a classroom. The school took good care of me, though, I did get an good view of Kaunas, including a walk along the main pedestrian thoroughfare (pictured) and an excellent dinner with honey beer and Lithuanian snack specialties in the old town center.
My impression was that of a country which is still trying to find its personality – at least in terms of what economic and cultural impression it intends to make on the world. The economy is lacking in natural resources, but has some industry. Still, a comparatively large part of the population makes its living off agriculture, most of which is produced for internal consumption. The country was relatively prosperous when part of the Soviet Union, but much of the industry folded in the face of international competition and the relative disappearance of Russia as a trading partner. The country is slowly coming out of the post-Soviet funk, but still struggles with unstable government (with many of the heads of business and politics having apparatchnik backgrounds), corruption and lack of internationally competitive industries.
Lithuania does not have a very distinctive history – the last time the country was important was in the 1400s with the Archduchy of Lithuania. The Holocaust remains a sore point, and the population is shrinking due to emigration, primarily to the United States. Like many nations which have been held in suspended animation during the Communist period, there seems to be a number of old issues that people still are willing to fight over, though anyone from the outside really can’t understand why. Democratic traditions are still immature, open for exploitation by populistic politicians such as Viktor Uspaskich, a former Russian welder who managed to become economy minister six months after forming his party. He was forced to resign this summer after using his office for personal gain. (He was also discovered to have bought fake degrees from Moscow and a university in Kaunas, which I am sure didn’t help him much.)
So there is some work to do find and implement anything resembling a national economic strategy. One possibility might be that the country takes a leaf out of Denmark’s book and recreates itself as a source of excellent agricultural products. The food certainly is good enough. The country does not have the luxury of the highly educated population and lack of industry that contributed so much to the Irish miracle, but perhaps political stabilization, increased trade with Germany and the long-term influence of their EU membership can induce the diaspora to take a more active and direct role in the country’s economy. It would be deserved – this nation needs to look forward to an democratic future rather than falling back on a largely mythical illustrious past.
They do have excellent basketball, though!

Gassed out

For all those Americans who carp about how gas prices are approaching exceeding the magical $3 $4 per gallon mark, including Joho: Let me inform you that I just tanked up my 1995 Golf (rust-colored) at the local station at the cost of NOK 612, which at today’s dollar exchange rate is about $98. For one tank of gas for a small car….
Lemmesee – the litre price was NOK 12.60, which is about $7.60 per gallon….. Don’t think I will get one of these anytime soon….

The “Intelligent Design” hoax

The ‘Intelligent Design’ Hoax is a great refutation (one of many) of the current claptrap making its way into education. I liked the web site it is on, too: The Textbook League leaves no stone unturned in exposing vague, fake, and feel-good pieces in text books.
Another benefit is that this site has a copy of my favorite cartoon – reproduced here. For another bonus, read Richard Feynmann’s account of how textbooks are approved.

Mark “The Economist” Burnell

The Economist has a fawning review of Mark Burnell, which is interesting because it is markedly different from the reader comments on each of his books at vs. Either someone at the Economist really likes this guy, or US readers have greatly different ways of wanting their thrillers. Check out:
The Rhythm Section: US UK
Chameleon: US (“plodding sequel”), UK (The Economist: “Bigger and slicker in every way than his first novel. If you buy no other thriller this holiday season, buy this one.”)
Gemini: US UK
The Third Woman: UK (not yet available in the States).
Only one way to find out, I suppose…..

Academia in trouble

Came across the SCIgen page at MIT, complete with its own fantastically hilarious blog. This is a computer program that generates computer science papers randomly. The three students behind this program even got a paper accepted at a conference, and then went to the conference where they gave three randomly generated talks.
I am not sure what this indicates, other than that the “publish or perish” system seems to generate some seriously deficient reviewing. There seems to be a market out there for weird conferences (always held in attractive locations) with vague (but long) titles, as well as truly obscure journals. Time to clamp down at some point?
Anyway, kudos to the SCIgen guys – now all they need to do is get published, as was done in the Sokal affair. Wonderful.