Take foot, place in mouth

So a little more digging and suffering with web storage, in particular Omnidrive just shows how dangerous it is to say anything. The minor teething issues I was having with getting Omnidrive to work turn out to be probable symptoms of something far worse: In the words of Dr McCoy; “It’s worse than that, Jim, it’s dead”. Well maybe not quite dead yet, but far from the glowing reviews that Omnidrive has received from Techcrunch, extremetech and many others, the truth for the average user seems far less rosy.

Matthew Ingram wonders if Omnidrive is heading for the deadpool, which my current experience appears to back up. Wandering around the various forums and chat rooms seems to indicate that all is not well in the Omnidrive world- there are many technical issues and these are not being solved mainly because of financial difficulties. And yet most of the complaints seem to be coming from people who have paid for storage. This raises a puzzle in the Web 2.0 world: How to make money from all the tech developments? I am worried when something like on-line storage can’t make it work: surely that has one of the simpler business models and if they can’t make it work, then what hope is there for something like Meebo that has no obvious revenue stream.

So for now at least, I have to have 1 foot in with the big guys- I’ll use Xdrive for on-line storage, becuase even though it may be flaky from time to time, it seems to be the best of the bunch.

So, now the list looks like

  • IM: Pidgin/ Meebo
  • Web Mail: GMX
  • Online storage: Xdrive

And the rest stay the same

What I use (2)

Six months ago I posted about the various pieces of (mainly web) software that I use. Well, in this world of rapid software development, six months is a long time. Not least of which is because I am slowly catching up with the rest of the world as to what is the latest ‘cool’ app. I am still using the same personal social network (Facebook), professional social network (LinkedIn), photography site (Flickr), bookmarking site (del.icio.us), travel site (Dopplr) and calendar (Google Calendar) but I have now made some decisions, expanded in other directions and discovered some new apps. So, here goes with the new things that I am using:

  • Web mail: GMX. You may not have heard about GMX, but they have been dominant in Germany for years and have recently made their service available to the rest of the world. Now I know that there are lots of people who rave about Gmail and Yahoo has fought Hotmail/ LiveMail (or whatever brand Microsoft has given it this week) to be the biggest webmail on the block, but I have tried ’em all, and so far GMX is knocking them all out the park: IMAP, slick UI, fast response and no adds. Damn this is good. Oh and it can collect all your mail from all your other accounts. Just about the only thing it doesn’t do is a WAP interface, but smart phones are just downloading mail straight to your phone, so that is not as essential
  • Instant Messaging: On a desktop I have been using Adium or Pidgin, but I really like the way Meebo works on the web. The thing about IM is that there is no need to have a desktop client, because how can you chat if you don’t have an internet connection? So it would seem a perfect case of a web app. As far as I can make out, the only down side is that you can’t encrypt the conversation (e.g. with OTR)
  • Online storage: Originally there was Xdrive, then AOL bought it and it still offering the best deal (5GB for free, as opposed to Yahoo’s 30MB) but Microsoft’s Live Spaces is coming up hard on the rails. I am trying to stick with an alternative: Omnidrive. When it works it is just great: only 1GB storage, but that is OK for what I need. But I keep having issues getting it to work on my Windows machine- it works magnificently on OS X (seriously, the UI is so good it is yet another reason to switch)
  • RSS reader: Last time I didn’t know whether to go with Yahoo or Netvibes. Well, Netvibes won, but I still miss some of Yahoo’s functionality. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all

There may be more, but with those three (GMX, Meebo and Omnidrive) I think that I am starting to see a trend: the big players (Microsoft, Yahoo and Google) all offer the same functionality and all in a one-stop-shop. So why I am using all sorts of odd little players and not just stick with 1 offering? Many, many reasons including truly picking the best of breed, supporting the little guy or just trying to be different. But probably the main one is just trying to stick one to ‘the man’: It is possible to survive in America without sucking up to the blandness of corporate ubiquity- Dave Gorman proved it by driving coast to coast (with a few, OK a lot, of detours on the way) and making a film and book about it; America Unchained is well worth the read. Mind you, Dave also attempted to live exactly according to his horoscope, so maybe holding him up as a role model is not entirely a good idea.

In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I can do be independent.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Photography as Art

They say that a good story is worth retelling, well I don’t know if this is a good story, but it keeps getting retold by others, so I’ll jump into the frame with my own version…

There have been a number examples of celebrities complaining (and occasionally even suing) magazines for retouching photographs. Famous examples include Kate Winslet (there there are many more links than just this one on Kate’s issues with GQ magazine) and Faith Hill (including this blog posting on the Faith Hill example) but the art of doctoring or modifying photographs has gone for as long as there have been photographs. So what particular example do I bring to the table? This one

(The picture should be an animated GIF showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effects of photo retouching. If it doesn’t change then click on the photo to open it in a new window)

Full credit for the photo goes to Lee Phillips1 at Flickr

It is taken from a BBC Three program Dawn gets naked that was recently (re)shown in the UK. Obviously with a title like that it was going to grab the attention, but there was more to it than simple voyeurism. As Dawn attempted to overcome her issues with body image, she learnt how to perform a burlesque strip tease and organised a mass flash mob entirely composed of women riding an open top bus around London. But the most interesting part was as intrepid reporter got her body initially made up and then retouched by the digital artists.

Again credit to Lee Phillips1

My mind had two questions as we witnessed the transformation

  1. Why do we believe that an image that was captured using a mechanical/ electronic device should actually represent the truth? Sure, it can be used to represent the truth, but does it always have to?

One of the dominant trends in the art world for over 100 years has been the impressionist movement. If you look at the work of Monet, van Gogh and the like, the images are nothing like the truth. Yet they are undeniably desirable (to me at least, and if the sale prices at the major auction houses are anything to go by, by a lot of other people as well).

If we go further back in the history of art the paintings and sculpture are more lifelike and at the time served the purpose of capturing a measure the truth. But if you are commissioned to paint a King and he is overweight, ugly, has bad skin and bad teeth (insert favourite joke about bad British teeth here) it may be in your best interest (not to mention keeping your head attached to your shoulders) to exercise a little artistic licence and make him look a little better than reality would have it. So what did Henry VIII really look like? And what about Henry V? William the Conquerer? If we go back 1,000 years then the process of creating paint the correct colour was beyond the means of most artists- never mind the fact that perspective was not truly understood. So how do we know that the image we have of Kings, Queens and the like are anything like the truth? So maybe the trend of photo retouching is simply continuing a tradition that has existed as long as artists have painted- that of making the image a little more than the truth.

2. The other question is a little more social sciences oriented: Why do women want their physical appearance to look like the images of women they see on the covers of magazines?

OK, there are many, many women who make a lot of money for nothing more than looking good and very few men (Name me one male supermodel? OK, now name me 10 female supermodels) but is that a real aspiration for women? There is a huge industry in making women thinking they need to primp, preen and pump themselves up- and don’t get me wrong, I like it (a lot) when I watch the transformation in a women as hair, makeup and the like get applied. And maybe guys just have it easier- can you imagine George Clooney spending more than 20 minutes getting ready for a night out? Even Samuel L Jackson gives the impression that looking that good doesn’t take effort.

I guess I just don’t get it. But that might explain why I am single

Data Modelling in Practice

I try to keep my hand in at creating data models- for whatever strange reason I still enjoy sitting down with a set of requirements documents and working out the logical and then physical data model to meet those requirements (As a quick aside, I still prefer Oracle as my target database, but that is just because the oil business has been dominated by it for so long that it has become my ‘comfort food’ of database systems. Either that or the fact that there was a particularly hot woman who worked there and was one of my (many) not girlfriends. But I like to think it is the former reason)

I studied the theory behind data modelling whilst at University, but for the past 9 years, my approach has pretty much been do it this way (or that way) because it ‘feels’ right. If I had to put a formal qualification on my natural data modelling tendancies then I would have figured it was probably somewhere around 3rd Normal Form. Except that some recent work has caused me to reconsider- or at least hit the textbooks again to verify what level I normalise to.

First of all I had to compare the way an application was storing its data compared to how it used to in the old version. My first reaction was that the new way was simply correct and that is how I would have modelled it (in fact I could find an example of doing exactly that in one of my models). Imagine my surprise when I find out that the vendor’s model is actually in 5th Normal Form. Wow, so my gut feel approach actually skips over 3rd, BCNF and 4th and goes straight to 5th. Cool.

Except that now I have just finished reviewing a guideline document and apparently the simple act of adding the effective_date, expiry_date type of information that we all do means that I am now creating a 6th Normal Form. Even more cool, I am doing really smart things, without really knowing about it.

Except that when I go back to my textbooks and read up on these really rather academic discussions I am not entirely sure that I have even addressed all the subtleties of 5th Normal Form. Then I can’t even find any mention on 6NF in the text book (it was only published in 1994 after all, so there have been a number of advances since then) and have to hit the internet to find out what it means. Again, I find that I am not sure if what I do is actually meeting the subtleties of 6NF.

So I come to 1 of 2 conclusions:

  1. I am not normalising to 5NF or 6NF in which case I am being sold a bunch of horse…. by the vendors and technical authors who are trying to justify their existence, but don’t actually know what they are talking about. This is highly likely
  2. I am normalising to 5NF and 6NF and the academic understanding behind what I do is beyond my comprehension. I just understand that I do what I do

Option 2 is quite possible, after all, it is highly unlikely that Wayne Gretzky could explain why he was so much better at doing what he did on a hockey rink than anyone else, likewise for Pele on a football field or Picasso in front of a canvas etc etc. In which case I must be afflicted with a data modellers equivalent of the Photographer’s Eye. Which may well be the case- I have worked with people (1 person in particular) and we just saw the solution to a modelling problem in the same way. We couldn’t necessarily explain why we saw it that way, but invariably the solution stood up to whatever tests were thrown at it and eventually got accepted by the naysayers.

So, to bring this back to modelling in practice; if you find someone who is good at data modelling (and don’t take their word for it, get a few other data modellers to verify their work) they are probably doing many, if not all, of the things to create a model that is in 5th, 6th or even more Normal Form. They just won’t know why they are doing it that way. But, and this is crucial to the practicality bit: when I created the temporal aspect of a database, I occasionally had to go against every principle in my body and not only create effective_date and expiry_date but also an active_flag. Now, obviously there are situations where a row can be effective, not yet expired but not active- but in my case I had to add the extra attribute because the user could then simply click a check box in the UI and a trigger in the DB would populate the relevant date columns. So was I in 6th NF or not had I not even made it to 3NF? At the end of the day it didn’t matter, because the app met the user requirements, the developers could code against it and the DBA could manage the tables. And all of those issues combined is the true test of a practical data model

Community, Faith and Religion

I stumbled across a discussion on social networks that concerned itself with the nature of social networks and whether or not the Web 2.0 features of Facebook, MySpace etc constitute a real community. I thought that the discussion had closed, but as with all the best things, you never know when inspiration will strike and from whence it will come (Sorry about that, I just wanted to use ‘whence’).

I have a wonderful bedside radio that also serves as an alarm clock. The beauty of a Tivoli Model 3 is that it is completely analogue in clock, radio and speaker, but that is also its downside: the functionality that you get with modern radios, such as the ability to have different wake up times on different days or listen to different stations, is singularly lacking. All of which meant that on Sunday morning I found myself listening to Good Morning Sunday on BBC Radio 2. Anyone familiar with my taste in music and my opinions on religion will know that this is about as far from my normal listening taste as it is possible to get. But that is also what makes us complete people, and is the beauty of broadcasters like the BBC, CBC and many others around the world; we need to hear, see, read and learn from people with different and opposing viewpoints to our own. It is my considered opinion that the fragmentation of media in the world today is partly to blame for the narrow minded, ill informed society that we are forming around us. A mark of the well rounded mind is the ability to hear opposing views and reject them if they have no merit, or agree with them (and therefore change your own opinion) if these opposing views have sensible, coherent and well made arguments. But that rant is for another day- this post is about something far more positive.

One of the guests on Good Morning Sunday was Tobias Jones to talk about his latest book, Utopian Dreams (isn’t it always an excuse to talk about something that we need to sell). The book is a report on Tobias’ year long odyssey in which he visited 5 communities that had rejected traditional religion, such as christianity. Some of the communities attempted to create their own faiths and some rejected all faith based systems completely.

But what became apparent as the journey progressed was that although we may reject traditional religions most, if not all people substitute a new form of worship. These people may have rejected traditional religion, but they they are not able to exist without any faith. It is a sublte difference- this difference between no traditional faith and no faith at all, but it appears that even people who are willing to adopt life outside of regular society are not able to exist without any faith. At the most simple and obvious level; it may not be a traditional church, but if one considers the parallels between football (either kind) and religion then similarities spring up all over the place: gathering together every week, holding up heroes, be they saints or sportsmen etc etc. I wonder if this also explains the ever increasing rise in celebrity culture; for people not interested in sport perhaps their idols are Paris Hilton, Jordan or whoever is the latest fodder for Heat, Hello and all the rest of the celebrity press.

Whether or not the communities were successful or not in creating their faith is discussed in the book, but the point that I picked up on in the interview was possibly not the obvious one. Where the communities worked it was because of the collective spirit with which the people lived: There is more to inhabiting this world than simply existing as an individual- we as a species have developed through social interaction with each other. Technology means that we can now create the interaction without physically being present, but I wonder if this is yet another case of us not respecting the past. I believe we need real physical interaction- living connected by wires (or wireless) is not really living- but Tobias Jones takes it further than that. His experience of observing these communities is that the late 20th Century notion of the nuclear family is a one fraught with challenges. Now it may not be the most academic of sources, but even The Nanny Diaries appears to back this up: Traditional i.e. non-western cultures believe that it takes an entire village to raise a child, but we perhaps naively believe we know better: We cocoon ourselves in our houses with our toys and technology, we move to find work but that takes us away from family, support structures and the community that we are familiar with. We live as small units and are so frightened by the society we have created that it is rare to see children playing on the street or neighbours just stopping to talk.

I know that it is impossible to take society back to a simpler time in the past- not least of which is because that rose tinted place we hold up in our mind’s eye has just as many downsides as today, they are just different drawbacks. But I do think that the inability of traditional religion to connect with people today has led to a vacuum forming. People don’t want to believe in nothing- but the somethings that are on offer are not enough. Maybe I dream of Nirvana, but then they certainly wouldn’t be played on a Sunday morning on Radio 2.

A club even Groucho would want to join

This may come across as sentimental but every now and then you come across a group of people that makes you realise Groucho’s famous quote on clubs (“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”) gets it so right that is scary. The Camabridge Ring is a group of scientists who actually think about the real problems that the computing world faces. Note that these are not necessarily computer scientists- instead they come from a wide range of backgrounds and are far more concerned with the underlying and fundamental issues that need to be solved to move computing forward.

In some ways the vision in your mind of this group is probably correct- they are largely male, a cross section of ages from mid-20’s bright eyed things to 90 year old duffers and generally graduates of Cambridge University. But the humour is gentle, self deprecating and largely doesn’t translate outside the group.

The work that I do is far removed from the theoretical thoughts that the Cambridge Ring discuss, but that doesn’t mean that I would love to sit down and simply be in the presence of these great minds. So how does Groucho apply here? Well, any society that I can join is far less interesting than the Cambridge Ring- so I wouldn’t want to be a member, but there is no way that I could ever contribute to the Cambridge Ring, thus excluding me from ever being a member of the group I wish to join.

Oh, and if you think that the Cambridge Ring is entirely removed from the commercial world- a recent estimate on the combined net worth of the 100 or so members: $5billion. OK it is not Bill Gates, but that is not bad for a bunch of academic dons. And if you want to read another appreciation of them PC Pro has published and article