Monthly Archives: December 2006

Broken by design?

Peter Gutmann, a very reputable computer scientist, has written a highly critical analysis of the content protection features of Microsoft Vista, which is currently being discussed on Slashdot (1, 2) and essentially every other place in the known blogosphere. It seems like Microsoft is trying to close the "analog hole" by using market fiat to require all hardware vendors to downgrade performance unless all devices are certified as DRM-capable. Here’s the executive summary:

Windows Vista includes an extensive reworking of core OS elements in order to provide content protection for so-called "premium content", typically HD data from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources. Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost. These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it’s not used directly with Vista (for example hardware in a Macintosh computer or on a Linux server). This document analyses the cost involved in Vista’s content protection, and the collateral damage that this incurs throughout the computer industry.

[…] The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.

I’ll withhold judgement until I hear from people who know hardware design better than me, but this sounds like a major stumbling block for Vista adoption. The underlying market dynamics in the computer market, as Nick Carr recently said it, is that "hardware wants to be software, and software wants to be free." The Vista content protection specs seem to want to reverse that. I don’t think it will work, long-term: As Gutmann points out, cheap and single-use hardware devices can be created that circumvent premium content protection quite easily.

And to think that I just went out and bought a Media Center PC. Arrgh. I have been thinking about buying a Macintosh as my next laptop, this just about clinches the decision. 

(Via Hugh McLeod)

Update Dec 31st: This is turning out to be an interesting discussion, see Joho and Bob Cringely for viewpoints. What a pity Scoble has left Microsoft.

Update Jan. 14, 2007: There is a good interview with Peter Gutmann at Tvit.tv. Amongst other things, he says he got the phrase "longest suicide note in history" from a bad political program – and that you could not listen to the podcast of the interview without having parts of your PC either shut down or intentionally lose performance. The interviewer describes Vista, with it’s 30-times-per-second system authentication check as "insanely paranoid".

Somehow I don’t think this will fly, and not just because hackers will fix it. It has never been good strategy to go to war against your customers. 

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The short guide to English writing

John Scalzi, sci-fi author and prolific blogger, has a list of his best posts for 2006. It is worth visiting, and this non-writers guide to writing English (or, for that matter, any other language) is excellent and will be standard reading for all my courses from now on. Here’s an excerpt:

9. When in doubt, simplify: Worried you’re not using the right words? Use simpler words. Worried that your sentence isn’t clear? Make a simpler sentence. Worried that people won’t see your point? Make your point simpler. Nearly every writing problem you have can be solved by making things simpler.

This should be obvious, but people don’t like hearing it because there’s the assumption that simple = stupid. But it’s not true; indeed, I find from personal experience that the stupidest writers are the ones whose writing is positively baroque in form. All that compensating, you know. Besides, I’m not telling you to boil everything down to "see spot run" simplicity. I am telling you to make it so people can get what you’re trying to say.

If I could only do that consistently myself. His points about grammar are also interesting – one of the few things Norwegian schools do better than US or English schools. I have experienced myself, not infrequently, that I will know correct English usage better than native English speakers because I know some grammatical principles.

Anyway: Key point for non-writers: Speak what you write. If you can’t speak it, don’t write it. Simple indeed.

Grading techniques

1ec8969A few years ago, most European universities began using letter grades (A, B, C, D, E and F). This actually made grading harder than before. We used to have numeric grades, on a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 as the best grade. Then I would grade reports simply by measuring their thickness and multiplying with a factor (the thinner the report, the better the grade). Sorting exams into categories is much more complicated, with lots of if..then statements in your spreadsheet.

Luckily, Daniel Solove has, very collegially, shared his robust method of grading. Continuing the tradition of learning from Law School faculty (after all, they invented the case method), I think this will be my preferred method from now on.

Christmas is approaching, and our new building has plenty of staircases which seem purpose-built for this grading method. The only problem is that more and more students submit exams electronically. I think it is inefficient and costly to print out all the papers before grading them. Could there be a market for an electronic grading toss simulator?

(Via Volokh)

Pitfalls for the US speaker in Scandinavia

(To be updated, I hope. Suggestions?) 

One of the reasons one has a blog is that it is a great place to put things to refer back to. I recently hosted Dan Pink at a conference here. Before the conference, we had a conversation, and I outlined some errors I often see European management speakers make when visiting Scandinavia (or even Europe in general). It occurred to me that this was something I could put here for the benefit of others and to save myself having to repeat it. (Dan, incidentally, didn’t hit a single one of these. Excellent.):

  • Don’t use big-name US companies (General Motors, General Electric) as examples without explaning who they are. Outside top management echelons, most people will only know their brand names (incidentally, for GM in Scandinavia, that is Opel) and not the companies themselves.
  • Never use the US mobile telecommunications industry as an example of something good or advanced (or, at least, be very careful). Mobile communications in Scandinavia outshines the US mobile phone industry by a factor to high to compute – you can essentially get into your car in Northern Norway and drive to Rome while continually being on your cellphone. Try that in the US. (This comparison isn’t fair, there are many pockets of innovation in the US cellphone industry, but most people will judge the industry in terms of connectivity and coverage when they go to the US themselves.)
  • Be very careful about using banking examples – US banking is seen as very backward by Europeans, because of the continued use of paper checks. In reality, the US banking industry probably leads the world in technical innovations, but services between banks are not nearly as integrated as in Europe – and therefore are seen as backward. Plus, European banks have a wider range of services in the payment area – services that credit card companies and PayPal do in the US.
  • Be careful that you don’t talk about Europe as if it was a country like the USA. There is much more variation between countries in Europe than between states in the US – language, history, culture, attitudes, economics, etc. Check each country on Wikipedia (particularly economics if you are speaking to a business audience) and make sure you don’t say things that are wrong about a country.
  • Don’t refer to going to church in your talk (for example, refer to someone as "we belong to the same church" or similar). In Scandinavia, at least, less than 10% of the population goes to church regularly, and religion is a very personal thing. You will be seen as belonging to some strange cult or something.
  • In general, Europeans are less inhibited in the off-color joke department than Americans –  not that it takes much – but there is considerable geographical variation. However,  this apparent frivolity comes with subtle pitfalls: If you tell something that can be construed as demeaning to women, for instance, it will fall very flat even in an all-male audience. The telling of off-color jokes should not be attempted unless you really know your audience (or if you possess an English accent more pronouced than Stephen Fry’s.)
  • In general, Scandinavian business people are less formally dressed than Americans during daytime, but they dress up (or keep their business suits) for dinner. Quite the opposite from the US, so don’t change into jeans for that after-work restaurant thing. Unless you work in software, which is thorougly Americanized. (If in doubt, ask. Preceed it with an "In the US we do this, what’s the custom here?")
  • No US-only sports metaphors! (Which, incidentally, for most US speakers will mean no sports metaphors.) Though Europeans know what American football, baseball and basketball is, they generally don’t know these sports well enough to understand individual terms such as touch-down, loaded bases or rebound (though they might understand "slam-dunk" from context.) So, unless you are throughoughly familiar with soccer, handball or (in Scandinavia) cross-country skiing, ski jumping or biathlon, don’t use sports metaphors. They simply aren’t used as much in Europe as in the US. (As seen in Henrik Lindstad’s comment below, though, no rule without an exception.)
  • Some opinions which are labeled "conservative" in the US, are considered fascistic or simply crazy in most of Europe. The "right to carry arms", anti-abortionist sentiments, and, quite frankly, much of what George W. Bush is doing at the moment is viewed with horror by many Europeans. While most audiences will view an American speaker as a any speaker on a specific topic, mentioning that you are a member of the NRA will (for those in the audience who knows what that is) position you as a person with a frighteningly loose grip on reality for most European audiences.
  • more to come, suggestions?

Right-brainer with analysis

I recently had the pleasure of hosting Dan Pink at a conference here in Norway. Dan is a writer for a number of august publications and made his name with the book Free Agent Nation a few years ago. His most recent book is A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World, in which he makes the relatively simple point that because of Abundance, Asia, and Automation, all work that is explicitly defined will move to the place in the world where it can be done the cheapest. This means that competition (be it in products or services) will take place less on price (utility) and more on significance, i.e., design and emotion.

I tend to be very sceptical about professional speakers, partly because I am Norwegian (and thus a member of the most cynical group of people in the world,) and partly because 10 years on the rubber chicken circuit has given me a severe allergy to gurus giving canned speeches.

Dan turned out not only to be very solid in his analysis, but also very attuned to his audience. My job was to lead a discussion on how his ideas related to a Norwegian, as opposed to American, reality. The discussion was not necessary, because Dan and I had a couple of conversations beforehand and he took the trouble to not only read the stuff about Norway I sent him, but very carefully tailor his talk so that language and examples related to something the audience knew.

Well done, and a lesson for any speaker, no matter nationality and place. The test of your mettle is not how polished your message is, but how it is received and understood by the audience. I wish more speakers would understand this (including, incidentally, myself.)