Monthly Archives: May 2009

Interesting Wolfram Alpha statistics

Here is the answer you get from entering "budget surplus" into Wolfram Alpha:


Two things I did not know: The fifth largest government surplus in the world is held by Serbia, which surprises me, given that the country has 14% unemployment and a recovering economy, according to Wikipedia. And that Japan’s deficit is very close to the US’, indicating that things are not as bad in the US as you might think. Or perhaps that the numbers are a bit dated, but according to the source information, most of the numbers are from 2009.

Since May 17th is Norway’s national day, I think it behooves me to point out that of the five surplus states listed above, Norway is the nicest place to live, by most measures (weather, culture, politics, human rights, health care, etc. etc.). On the other hand, many of the countries with large deficits are nice places to live, so I wouldn’t read too much into the economics at all…

(Hat tip to Karthik, who retweeted one of my tweets, which I misunderstood and started researching….)

Someone goes on a hungry journey

City of Thieves City of Thieves by David Benioff

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bleak and terse but very likeable story about an orphaned adolescent and a soldier on an impossible quest in and around St.Petersburg (Leningrad) during the 900-day siege. The authenticity and details are moving, the language and plot fluid and there are moments of suspense and quite a bit of laconic humor. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews.

Gladwell on Goliath vs. the ever striving, socially unacceptable David

The New Yorker has a great article by Malcolm Gladwell on how David beats Goliath, largely by working harder and exploiting unanticipated weaknesses in the opponents defense. Examples include basketball, Lawrence of Arabia, Doug Lenat using an expert system, and, of course D vs. G.

The interesting point here, of course, is how Goliath reacts when David substitutes effort for talent and rule-bending (or, rather, rule exploitation) for tradition: By declaring that this is an unacceptable way of playing. During the 1990s, under the truly eccentric coach Egil "Drillo" Olsen" (pictured), the Norwegian national soccer team employed a strategy of putting the whole team in defense, and scoring all their goals on the occasional breakaway, when a long pass would find a single player (usually Jostein Flo) plugging a goal against a surprised defense. This strategy was highly effective (at one point, Norway beat Brazil and was ranked as number 2 in the world by FIFA) but raised the ire of commentators and players everywhere, because they were seen as destroying soccer as a spectator sport. Just like the protagonists in Gladwell’s article, Olsen was an analyzer and a highly controversial character.

Incidentally, after many failures on the field, the Norwegian national team has employed him as a coach again. And they have started winning. Just wait for the accusations to start…

(Come to think of it, the great Swedish Alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark was subject to the same mechanism: He never did downhill races (thinking them crude and dangerous), but won every slalom and grand slalom event on the tour, and thus the overall World Cup title (as well as a total of 7 Olympic medals). This led the powers that be to institute a rule that to be eligible for the overall title, you had to participate in at least one downhill race. Which Stenmark did, in an upright position like a Sunday skier. He finished dead last, and, of course, took the overall title. Again.)

Think about your own industry – what are the equivalent to Olsen strategy there? I am sure it involves something socially unacceptable which will allow the weakest player to win. May you find it before someone else does…

End user computing as vision and reality

My esteemed colleague and similarly jaded visionary Vaughan Merlyn has written rousing call for a new vision for the IT organization. While I do agree with everything he says – in principle – I think we still have a long way to go before the nitty gritty part of IT has moved from server room to cloud, leaving the users to creatively combine and automate their world in cooperation with their colleagues, customers and suppliers. While I do agree that the IT organization is better served by helping users help themselves than do their work for them, I am not sure all the users out there are ready to fish for themselves yet, no matter how easy to use the search engines, social communities and systems implementations tools become.

The enabling vision is not a new thing. I remember a video (or, rather film) from IBM from the mid-80s about End User Computing – a notion that the role of IT was to provide the tools for end users, and then they could build their own systems rather than wait for IT to build for them. (This, incidentally, was also the motivation behind COBOL in the 70s: The language was supposedly so intuitive that end users would be able to describe the processes they wanted automated directly into the computer, obviating the need for anyone in a white coat.) The movie showed an end user (for some reason a very short man in a suit) sitting in front of a 3270 terminal running VM/CMS. Next to him was a friendly person from the EUC group explaining how to use the friendly terminal, which towered over the slightly intimidated-looking end user like the ventilation shaft of an ocean liner.

It didn’t look very convincing to me. One reason for this was that at that time I was teaching (reasonably smart) business students how to do statistical analysis on an IBM 4381 and knew that many of them could not even operate the terminal, which had a tendency to jump between the various layers of the operating system and also had a mysterious button called SysRq, which still lingers, appendix-like, on the standard PC keyboard. Very few of those students were able to do much programming – but they were pretty good at filling in the blanks in programs someone already had written for them.

Of course, we now have gesture interfaces, endless storage, personal battery-powered devices and constant communication. But as the technology gets better, we cede more and more responsibility for how things work to the computer, meaning that we can use it until it breaks down (which it does) at which point we have no idea how things work. This is not the technology’s fault – it often contains everything you need to know to understand it rather than just use it. Take the wonderful new “computational search engine” Wolfram Alpha, for example: It can give you all kinds of answers to numerical questions, and will also (I haven’t seen it, but if the capabilities of Mathematica are anything to go by, it is great) allow you to explore, in a drill-down procedure, how it reached its answers.

This is wonderful – truly – but how many are going to use that feature? By extension: All of us have a spreadsheet program, but how many of an organization’s users can write a new spreadsheet rather than just use an already existing one?

For as long as I have worked with computers, each new leap in functionality and performance has been heralded as the necessary step to turn users from passive to active, from consumers of information to creators of knowledge. While each new technology generation, admittedly, has achieved some of this, it has always been less than was promised and much less than what was hoped for.

And so I think it is this time, too. Many people read Wikipedia, few write for it (though enough do). More importantly, many of Wikipedia’s users are unaware of how the knowledge therein is instantiated. Online forums have many more lurkers than contributors. And human ingenuity is unevenly distributed and will continue to be so.

So I think the IT department will continue to do what it is doing, in principle. It will be further from the metal and closer to the user, but as long as the world remains combinatorially complex and constantly changing, there will always be room for people who can see patterns, describe them, automate them and turn them into usable and connectable components. They will be fewer, think less of technology and more in terms of systems, and have less of a mismatch in terms of clothing and posture between themselves and their customers than before (much of it because the customers have embraced nerd chic, if not nerd knowledge).

The key for a continued IT career lies in taking charge of change rather than being affected by it. I think the future is great – and that we are still a long way from true end user computing. IT as a technology will be less interesting and more important in its invisible ubiquity. And Neal Stephenson’s analogy of a world of Elois and Morlocks, of the many that consume and the few that understand will still hold true.

I just hope I still will be a Morlock. With an Eloi pay and dress sense.