Monthly Archives: October 2008

Fun page on statistics

I was looking for a reference to the story about bullet holes in bomb planes, and came across this fun page on statistical lore. My favorite:

Question: How many people have more legs than the average?
Answer: Almost everyone. This is because the number of three-legged people are greatly outnumbered by one-legged people, so the mean (i.e. the posh mathematical way of saying that which most people think of as the ‘average’ [total sum divided by number of values]) number of legs is a little bit lower than 2.

I also liked the fact that, statistically speaking, there are 2 popes per square kilometer in the Vatican….

Plus ca change….

I clipped this from ACM Technews, an email service of the ACM:

Looking for Job Security? Try Cobol
IDG News Service (10/23/08) Sullivan, Tom
A Cobol programmer may be one of the most secure and steady jobs in IT. Analysts report that Cobol salaries are rising due to a healthy demand for Cobol skills, and there are few offshore Cobol programmers. The troubled economy also bodes well for Cobol programmers, says Interop Systems director of research Jeff Gould, as long as they are working for an organization that intends to keep its legacy Cobol applications. "Many mainframe customers with large mission-critical Cobol apps are locked into the mainframe platform," Gould says. "Often there is no equivalent packaged app, and it proves to be just too expensive to port the legacy Cobol to newer platforms like Intel or AMD servers." Deloitte’s William Conner says salaries for Cobol programmers are rising because many Cobol programmers are reaching retirement age and colleges are focusing on Java, XML, and other modern languages instead of Cobol. Dextrys CEO Brain Keane says Cobol programmers are less likely to have their jobs outsourced because the Chinese do not have mainframe experience and recent Chinese computer science graduates have focused on the latest architectures and systems and do not have experience with legacy languages and systems. Meanwhile, warnings that mainframes would disappear have proven to be untrue, particularly because mainframes are very reliable at handling high-volume transaction processing, and companies are increasingly benefiting from integrating legacy mainframe Cobol applications with the rest of their enterprise.

(Full article here.) With the exception of the part about offshoring, this article could have been written 10 years ago, and be just as true then. There are, of course, a number of programmers in India that know COBOL – converting legacy apps for the year 2000 was one of the jobs that got the Indian IT service industry started.

Come to think of it, I never really learned COBOL, myself. But I was a decent REXX programmer….

Tim O’Reilly nails it on cloud computing

In this long and very interesting post, Tim O’Reilly divides cloud computing into three types: Utility, platform and end-user applications, and underscores that network effects rather than cost advantages will be what drives economics in this area. (This in contrast to the Economist’s piece this week, which places relatively little emphasis on this, instead talking about the simplification of corporate data centers – though the Economist piece is focused on corporate IT.)

Network effects happen when having new users on a platform or service are a benefit to the other users. This benefit can come from platform integration – for instance, if we both share the same service we can do things within that service that may not be possible between services, due to differences in implementation or lack of translating standards.

Another benefit comes when the shared service can leverage individual users’ activities. Google’s Gmail, for instance, has a wonderful spam filter, which is very reliable because it tracks millions of users’ selections on what is spam and what isn’t.

Tim focuses on the network effects of developers, which is an important reason why Microsoft, not Apple, won the microcomputer war. When Steve Ballmer jumped around shouting "developers, developers, developers", he was demonstrating a sound understanding of what made his business take off – and was willing to make a fool of himself to prove it.

Tim also invokes Clay Christensen’s "law of conservation of attractive profits", arguing that as software becomes commoditized, opportunities for profits will spring up in adjacent markets. In other words, someone (Jeff Bezos? Larry and Sergei?) need to start jumping up and down, shouting "mashupers, mashupers, mashupers" or perhaps "interactors, interactors, interactors" and, more importantly, provide a business model for those that build value-added services on top of the widely shared platforms and easily available applications they provide.

One way to do that could be to make available some of the data generated by user activities, which today most of these companies keep closely to themselves.  That will require balancing on a sharp edge between providing useful data, taking care of user privacy, and not giving away your profitability too much. As my colleague Øystein Fjeldstad and I wrote in an article a few years ago – the companies playing in this field will have to make some hard decisions between growing the pie and securing the biggest piece for themselves.

If we cannot harness network effects, cloud computing becomes a cost play, and after awhile about as interesting, in terms of technical evolution, as utilities are now. USA is behind Europe and Asia in mobile phone systems partially because US cellphone companies were late in developing advanced interconnect and roaming agreements, instead trying to herd customers into their own network. Let’s hope the cloud computing companies have learned something from this….

The Economist on cloud computing

The Economist has a nice feature on corporate IT, mostly about how it is evolving towards cloud computing. Like everything the Econonomist does, it is nicely worded, measuredly opinionated, and contains nothing new to those in the know. But the article is a very good introduction to the current state of at least the technical and market side of corporate IT provisioning, so I mark it for future courses on just that topic. It includes an audio interview with Ludwig Siegeler as well.

CACM becomes much more readable

CACM (Communications of the ACM) is one of my favorite journals – and it is currently in the throes of an editorial upheaval that I think is very positive. In addition to scholarly articles, it is moving in the direction of essays and more generally accessible articles, without loosening the quality criteria. Ever since BYTE disappeared (a victim of the need for targeted advertising) I have missed a general, quite technical yet accessible journal – CACM is now getting closer to what I am looking for.

Here are two articles I found very interesting:

  • "Will the Future of Software be Open Source?, a well reasoned reflection by Martin Campbell-Kelly, giving a very terse, yet comprehensive and useful description of the evolution of software markets. Answer: OS is a tempting conclusion if you extrapolate, but extrapolation has not been a very successful prediction technique so far…
  • "Searching the Deep Web", by Alex Wright, which explores two different approaches to searching beyond static web pages – the trawling approach, which relies on local storage, and the angling approach, which produces targeted results in real time.


Brad Templeton has a long and good analysis (containing spoilers) of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which I read a couple weeks ago and have yet to make up my mind about. On the one hand, it sets up a great world with Concets of Avout who devote themselves to science rather than Praxis, it invents a number of words and does quite a bit of philosophic reasoning on topics Stephenson has explored before, such as multiple universe models. I like the first 200 pages or so really well. Then it becomes a picaresque, and not a good one at that – similar to the tour around the world in the middle book in the Baroque trilogy. Lastly, it becomes a tad puerile, with people flying around in space suits and boarding spaceships.

I love the language that Stephenson creates, and the notion of scientific communities locked in for either 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years (depending on how dangerous their exploits are, it seems) is very interesting. But the plot line could do with some sharpening, and the character descriptions are shallow at best. As is usual with Stephenson, mind you.

So, make up your own mind. I still think Cryptonomicon is Stephenson’s best, but maybe that is just me.

(Minor quibble: I think I found an error, and am enough of a nerd to report it. On page 512-13, we find the sentence "Late yesterday, Yul had shattered the calm by starting the engine of Cord’s fetch, and …." But Cord’s fetch was left on the other side of the pole, wasn’t it (on page 416)? Oh well…..maybe I should update the Anathem Wiki. On the other hand, I have a life.)

Incidentally, Anathem may be the only book published so far that has its own video trailer without first being made into a film. Here it is:

The World of Anathem,t=1,mt=video

Airport insecurity

I am thinking a lot about security now, since a discussion last week on security in the 2.0 Enterprise – where the conclusion was that we need to get away from perimeter security and over towards something asset-based, i.e. securing what really matters and not faking security by having showy and inconvenient moats and drawbridges.

This funny but deeply serious article in The Atlantic takes on the example of airport security with all its symbols and holes. As Bruce Schneier (a real security expert) repeatedly has pointed out, hijackers can no longer get into the cockpit. Furthermore, passengers would attack hijackers on sight, rather than cooperate with them. Hence, the bluff that got the 9/11 hijackers in control of four airplanes will no longer work.

But we persist in implementing security that does little but increase the cost of flying, inconveniencing everyone, and, ironically, making flying (or, at least, turning up at the airport) less secure. As the article points out, the most dangerous place in the airport is where many people are waiting closely together in an unsecured area. In other words, in the security control line, perfect in case somebody wants to repeat the Lod airport massacre.

Andrew Sullivan on blogging and essaying

Andrew Sullivan has a thoughtful essay in The Atlantic on blogging and what it does for writing – his own and others’. Blogging is a substitute that frees the writer’s mind and increases the premium on orderly thinking:

A blogger will air a variety of thoughts or facts on any subject in no particular order other than that dictated by the passing of time. A writer will instead use time, synthesizing these thoughts, ordering them, weighing which points count more than others, seeing how his views evolved in the writing process itself, and responding to an editor’s perusal of a draft or two. The result is almost always more measured, more satisfying, and more enduring than a blizzard of posts. The triumphalist notion that blogging should somehow replace traditional writing is as foolish as it is pernicious. In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding.

Good stuff. Read it.

Back to Firefox again….

Google Chrome was great – but for some reason, a number of web sites I use almost daily (such as my Internet bank and did not function well with it. In addition, I have had some unexplained bluescreens since I started using it (having 30 windows open at the same time may have had something to do with that.) Lastly, a number of plugins, most importantly Zotero, are not available for Chrome.

So it is back to Firefox again. Still some issues, and I will miss the search-like interface of Chrome (write "af", hit enter, and it takes you to Still, ideas (and code) of Chrome is open source, so I expect to see a number of Chrome features in Firefox fairly soon – here is a preview of what is to come.

And now for the good news…

I don’t, as a rule, read the HBS Alumni Magazine too closely, but here is an interesting perspective on the decline of the newspaper industry from Roben Farzad, MBA ’05  and business journalist, who paints a bleak picture of the newspaper industry, declining in revenues and importance as the barbarians digitally storm in with their click-counters and lack of respect for the sanctity of the fourth estate and its industrious acolytes. There is little hope, he says, as the fundamentals of the industry are disappearing so fast that not even patient money taking over to run newspapers as museums would help much.

I would like to point Roben to the case, developed after he finished HBS, of Schibsted ASA, a Norwegian media company that, so far, is one of the few media houses that successfully has managed the transition to the web. As one executive at said to me recently: We dominate everywhere in Europe, except Norway and Spain, where Schibsted dominate. Schibsted was early onto the Internet, and managed to have a long term view (15 years) on their investments and the luck of selling out a few of their early investments before the dot-com boom, so that their portfolio did not look totally hopeless even in 2002. It helps, of course, that its top management (particularly Kjell Aamot) was convinced, very early, that the Internet was here to stay and fundamentally would change the newspaper business.

Now, their Internet revenues exceed those from their newspapers (partially because they dominate classifieds in Norway with, more people get their news from their web sites than from their (large) newspapers., the largest news web site, gets half as many hits as (and we are less than 5m people here in Norway). breaks every rule of good web design and, precisely because of that (according to Torry Pedersen, its editor) encourages browsing. Incidentally, Torry recently became editor of both the web site and the newspaper (which, at some point in the not-too-distant future, may become free).

And yes, they have different journalists working on the net and the paper. Only 10% of the material is cross-posted, because Torry wants it that way. No mixing – these are different media and need different kinds of people.

Schibsted is by no means out of the woods yet – but they have a far better chance than any other media group I know of. I think they should focus more on their considerable capability in search technology to create more targeted and specialized, "automated" web sites, as well as get their hand more firmly in search-based advertising. And there is still work to do on integration of their activities across their various media outlets. But Schibsted did something while the rest of the media industry (and most of its journalists) lamented the coming of this vulgarity called the Internet. And that is the beauty and the fear of disruptive technologies – that by the time you understand their impact, it is too late for the majority of companies. And those who work there.

The funny thing is, if you ask journalism students, the majority of them want to work for paper papers, not this vulgar web thing, where you have to publish right away, write quickly, and instantly know whether you are being read or not. A paper journalist files one item per day. A web journalist, according to figures floating around among journalists here in Oslo, posts, on average, six.

I recently heard an anecdote about a rock singer who no longer can make money selling records, so he had to do many more concerts to maintain his income. That forced him to lay of cocaine, since he now had to go to work much more often.

A few years ago, the Oslo press club had to close for lack of customers. Presumably, they were at work. What a loss….

Education and technology – a historic view

Nice review of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz’s The Race between Education and Technology which goes into my ever-expanding pile of books to get. Main point: Income inequality decreased in the first half of the 1900s, then, after 1980, increased again. In chapter 8, available in PDF format, is the following conclusion:

Our central conclusion is that when it comes to changes in the wage structure and returns to skill, supply changes are critical, and education changes are by far the most important on the supply side. The fact was true in the early years of our period when the high school movement made Americans educated workers and in the post-World War II decades when high school graduates became college graduates. But the same is also true today when the slowdown in education at various levels is robbing America of the ability to grow strong together.

Security, privacy and IP in the 2.0 Enterprise

(bear over with me here for a while, this is something I am mulling over in relation to an nGenera research project called REC – Reinventing End-user Computing.) I am doing a teleconference on security, privacy and IP later today with Kimberly Hatch and other colleagues at nGenera and need to bloviate a bit to get in the mood.)

Continue reading

The maladjusted and marginalized terrorist

Bruce Schneier, security guru extraordinaire, has a cracking good article on what motivates terrorists in Wired: The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists, much of it drawn on a paper by Max Abrahms called What Terrorists Really Want.)

The main argument is that terrorists "turn to terrorism for social solidarity", i.e., that they join terror organizations less for political aims and more because they themselves are alienated and outcasts in search for belonging and, perhaps, as an outlet for violent or authoritarian tendencies. They are loners in search of meaning rather than radicals in search a way to express their political views:

Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group’s political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can’t describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren’t working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.

I think this makes lots of sense. During the late 60s and early 70s there was a vogue in many European countries for politically active youngsters to join the far left – a movement that at the most extreme produced the Bader-Meinhof group in Germany. Here in tiny and peaceful Norway a number of people who later wondered how they got into it joined various versions of marxist-leninist groups with the stated aim of violently overthrowing the state. (A great novel by the author Dag Solstad, later turned into a film, explores these mechanisms, telling the story of a small-town high school teacher who joins the movement because he falls in love with one of the leaders). This caused a number of bookish intellectuals from well-off homes to try to act and talk like "the people" (often with hilarious results) and take menial jobs with a view to start strikes, unrest and eventually, the great revolution.

The movement petered out eventually, due to a lack of examples of marxist-leninist success stories, better career opportunities elsewhere, the demands of family life and, most importantly, the failure of the general populace to join the cause. Today, most of these people (especially the ideological leaders) are found in relatively good positions in society and will not thank you for bringing up this period. (In one ironical twist, one of them is a professor of journalism – an interesting position for someone who once wanted to force the press to serve the needs of the proletarian dictatorship.)

Now, imagine what would have happened if the Norwegian state had declared war on these groups and instituted all kinds of controls in the name of national safety? Suddenly they would have increased in importance, had some legitimate cases of persecution (heavy-handed security always produces incidents) and play off the fear and irritation induced by surveillance and controls.

Instead, the Norwegian government largely ignored them, aside from discreet monitoring for weapons violations and espionage. To the extent that anyone was arrested, the perpetrators were charged with clear violations of current law and given sentences similar to those of anyone else.

The movement did not achieve much: A few strikes, a half-hearted rebellion at a few universities, a radical newspaper that still scrapes by (and occasionally is rather good, especially after they toned down the ideology,) "progressive" clothing fashions, some small groups of old professors with weird research streams, reams and streams of newspaper commentary, and that’s about it.

Now, imagine if the current war against terrorism had been pursued as a large-scale police investigation rather than a war, with terrorists being pulled into regular courts, security controls set up for security rather than show, publicity focused on a general toning down of the whole thing, money spent on improving the situation for various downtrodden groups, and military solutions employed as the absolutely last resort, and then only under the auspices of the UN.

I think al-Qaida would be reduced to a group of fringe Islamist fundamentalists with uncertain political aims, lots of fratricidal infighting (when the populace ignores them, they turn on each other), uncertain career paths and increasingly untenable positions. Which is what they were, until the Western world handed them prominence to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Bruce would, I think, agree. Here is his conclusion:

We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries. We need to support vibrant, benign communities and organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge.