Monthly Archives: March 2008

Covariation and causality

Thanks to Kristine, I really shouldn’t need to translate this Norwegian blog post, but for future reference:

As any statistician worth his or her standard deviation is well aware, covariation does not mean causality – or, in more civilian terms, just because something moves at the same time or later than something else, the first does not necessarily cause the other.

Otherwise, it would be really easy to explain global warming: Baby boomers reaching menopause.

But how to explain this to students? I use this drawing by the Swedish genius caricaturist, Albert Enström (1869-1940):

Unhealthy galoshes, by Albert Engström 

In English, the caption is During a convivial gathering there is talk of the unhygienic aspect of using galoshes. One of those present chips in: "Yes, I’ve also noticed this. Every time I’ve woken up with my galoshes on, I’ve had a headache."

That’s all. We will now return to our usual programming.

Updated: Boingboing!

Keyboards, again

Yesterday I spent three hours trying to get a long Javascript to work – before I realized that my old keyboard was dropping characters. This is not a problem when you write text (automated, or, for that matter, manual spell checking will take care of it) but subtly introduced misses in source code is a real productivity slowdown.

So, up to the IT department, which obliged with a spare Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 they had lying around – and this post is dedicated to keyboard testing. 

This is going to take some getting used to – the middle hump is much higher than anything else I have tried. It is kind of irritating not to be able to reach the Ctrl key easily (have to lift my ams). But it does encourage a much more upright posture, which I assume is good. No more slouching,  thanks to Redmond.

That being said, I have about 5 different keyboards, and I think the best one is whatever I am using at the moment, until my wrists start to hurt and I will have to switch to a different one.

I like this one, though. For the moment.

Incidentally, if you really are up for a long-winded discussion, ask any technologically interested author about what kind of keyboard he or she is using…..

Should rich countries open up for fair trade?

Excellent stuff by Brad Delong on what happens when rich countries open up their economies – not much, and long term the effect is positive, especially when you realize that 1.3b Chinese (and 1.1b Indians) are a pretty powerful force of economic development that you want to tie into your own economy with as many and as unbreakable strings as possible. In the long run, we all benefit by trade.

If only politicians up here in the frigid north could understand that….. Here is the video directly:

Brad is an inspiration and a glorious example to academics everywhere – he really is out there, putting his thinking, teaching and publicizing online. Maybe the makers of Morning Coffee ought to include Brad’s Morning Coffee as a default choice.

Patenting everything

Excellent article by the always readable David Warsh on how patenting has gone overboard, with various companies patenting things that are a) obvious, old hat or both, b) patented just for the sake of suing people who want to create real products, and c) limits real innovation.

Tom Evslin has previously written about a peer-review patent process, which is especially important for software patents, where it is relatively easy to demonstrate prior art, if only people know about it. 

I read somewhere recently that someone was thinking about patenting a method of patenting obvious  innovations (particularly in software) just to get at the patenters. Excellent idea, if I only could remember where I saw it…. 

(I am giving a talk called "Intellectual property – an anachronism in a digital age?" next week and am putting together pointers. Yochai Benkler seems a great starting point….)

Mainframes and other survivor technologies

Good article on why technologies survive – largely due to adaptation. Mainframes are still around, but they are no longer mainframes.Radio is still around, but is now “audio wallpaper” for the car rather than the focal point of family nights. I wonder how TV will change (maybe it already has and I haven’t noticed) with the advent of Internet-based entertainment.

We shall overcome AOL

Good article by Timothy Lee on how network neutrality sometimes can be forced on network companies through rapid technology development and sharing on the client side. As a long-time Trillian user I have personal experience of the example he uses. And anyone who has seen a teenager swap SIM cars in a cell phone will know that flexibility is not limited to developers.

Do be evil

Wired has a good article on Steve Jobs’ management style and how that and Apple’s focus on tightly integrated, closed-down platforms has made the company successful despite violating almost every tenet of high tech management wisdom.

I don’t think this is much of a surprise, really – and that the success of Apple is pretty well explained by disruptive innovations theory. Apple is focused on the end user experience – the creative end user, at that – and demands control fo the entire platform in order to micro-manage that experience. (Actually, they are focused on the job the user wants to do, which is different from end user focus in that it gets you out of the segmentation trap.) As long as users want more of whatever they deliver – and they do – Apple will do fine, and the culture underscores that by keeping them focused on the customer’s interaction with their products rather than what anybody else is doing.

Where Apple will get in trouble is when they either deviate from what the users want (and the lack of Tablet functionality in the MacBook Pro is one such instance) or start to develop products in response to what others are doing. All of Apple’s markets will eventually shrink due to competition from more open platforms – such is technology evolution, after all – but as long as the company can continue to focus on areas where things still aren’ t working the way they are supposed to, I think they will do just fine. (And if you want an example of a company that did ont do that, but instead prettied up technology that others had created, check out the fall of the once mighty Bang & Olufsen, which increasingly are looking like an unbearably expensive Sharper Image.)

iAD Master students wanted!

(This message is meant for students at the Norwegian School of Management, but I am posting it here for distribution – and if someone from another institution should be interested, by all means, get in touch.)

The Center for Technology Strategy is seeking M.Sc. students who are looking for interesting topics for their thesis, offering the opportunity to write their thesis under the iAD research project. This project is a joint project of FAST, Accenture, Schibsted and six universities, among them NSM. The purpose of NSM’s part of the project is to understand the business impact of search technologies and other new technologies for information access.

This opportunity is open to all Master students, at any specialty, and would involve finding a research topic connected to the iAD project. (See a list of proposed topics here, but feel free to come up with your own.) The topic definition will happen in collaboration with faculty from your M.Sc. specialty. Thesis advisor will be either your own faculty, one of the faculty associated with the iAD project (Espen Andersen, Ingunn Myrtveit, Erik Stensrud, Torger Reve), or possibly an advisor from FAST, Accenture or Schibsted, as appropriate.

We are planning an information meeting on

    April 2, at 0900-1030 at room C2-040, BI Nydalen

If you are interested, please send me an email so I can know how many will be there.

Updated March 25: A list of some suggested topics can be found here

Turtlenecks will come back, I predict

…if this technology ever moves from lab to street:

(The reason I am skeptical, is that this is kind of similar to voice recognition and other language processing technologies, which have not had a profound impact on our daily lives yet. Though they certainly have affected standard transactions as well as communication analysis.)

Via Marc Andreesen.

Existential walkabout, in comfort

Walker Percy: The Moviegoer (1960)

Reread this one after 10 years, to see whether if I could understand better what the fuzz is about (The Moviegoer is regularly held up as a major event in American novel-writing.) The protagonist , Binx Bolling, lives a comfortable if nondescript life as a small-time stockbroker in New Orleans, going to movies and hitting on his secretaries. During most of the book goes on a "search", essentially trying to figure out what to do with himself. In the background lurks a changing society and traumatic experiences from Korea. Whether he succeeds or not is not clear by the end of the book, since the most dramatic thing happening is that he takes the train to Chicago from New Orleans and eventually figures out what to do (and whom to do it with).

I don’t know. Somehow I have read this before, be it with Crime and punishment, Age of Reason, Hunger, or even Catcher in the Rye. The main distinction is that Binx Bolling is relatively well off and competent in what he does, even if most of his family and friends do not think much of it. The overwhelming theme of the book is Bolling trying to come to term with whether this comfortable life is all there is. Perhaps the book signaled the start of a more rebellious 1960s (it is comparatively racy for that time) but I think its time, unfortunately, has passed.

Or maybe I am just missing something. Is this really all?

Time to move the scientific process on the web

A fascinating paradox is that, for all the innovations around the web, and the fact that it was created to support a research community (CERN researchers around the world) and a research consumption model, the scientific method still operates largely as it did in the time of Newton. This presentation at MIT shows some of what needs to be done in order to fix that

I particularly liked John Wilbanks’ slide saying that we need to move from

  • old collaboration:
    • reading the canon on paper
    • querying single-access databases
    • human as mediator
    • artisanal tool manufacturing
    • tightly controlled distribution


  • new collaboration:
    • reading the canon with machines
    • integrating databases
    • computer as mediator
    • industrial tool manufacturing
    • standardized distribution

The time is more than ripe for just getting this done, lest academic research fall so far behind industrial and commercial research that it becomes completely irrelevant (it already has, in some fields). MIT understands it and will build the future. Many other universitites, especially in Europe, do not. I am sorry to say, but I think it is a generational problem as well.

(That being said, it is irritating to have to download Realplayer to see MIT’s videos. Real has this constant nagging to have you try out a "free trial version" rather than the truly free version, which you have to look hard for to locate.)

Platform building

I am right now participating in BSG Alliance teleconference on business platform strategy – a business platform being not just an information technology system that the extended enterprise can use, but also a set of processes and people which allows creating a business playground, an area for doing business together. This has been around for a long time – SABRE, Retaillink, AHS, and other famous cases were information systems that became bases for transactions and coordination.

The difference now lies in how the technology has progressed. First, the functionality is much better – you can now do collaboration – even co-creation – around products and services. Secondly, the price, both in investments and in time and people, of establishing a platform is going down significantly, perhaps to the point of not being a platform at all, but a set of interfaces for information exchange.

Within the software and hardware industries, platform thinking has been around for a long time – witness Steve Ballmer famously dancing the point 7 years ago. The winners in the software industrye – and in hardware such as workstations, PDAs and mobile phones – are those that can get their users to also become developers, to share their uses of their offerings in a form reusable by others. The goal is to get your business partners to do business not just with you, but through you, trying to establish and exploit network externalities – virtuous cycles where the size and composition of your customer and supplier set matters for new customers and suppliers.

Strategy is about to change – to the point where you not only have product, price and distribution to play with, but also the interrelationships between those you do business with. Operating in this space is complicated and difficult (and that is good, otherwise everybody could do it), but potentially very rewarding.

TED 2008 summary

I wish I had the time (and research budget) to get to TED. Reading Jimmy Guterman’s summaries and reflections helps, though. And, of course, there are various other blogs and video sites around.

Trouble with TED, methinks, is not that it fails to solve the world’s problems, as discussed. Rather, I wonder if it doesn’t at some point become a victim of its own success – partly because it may be running out of stunning speakers, partly because when it becomes the cool place to be, the average quality of the participant goes down, a process I am tempted to call conference gentrification.

The upshot? By the time I get around to going, it will no longer be cool. Oh well.