Internal economies and large companies

Life as an independent contractor is going to be a whole lot more ‘interesting’ for the next few months and possibly few years. The credit crunch (cue bad joke about the ‘credit crunch’ sounding like a bad breakfast cereal) has been having an effect on the wider economy for a number of months and from my personal survey it appears to be hitting the technical community and big companies. It may simply be that November/ December are simply exhibiting their usual end-of-year slow down and that activity will pick up again in 2009, but I don’t think so.

I have been more active than usual in monitoring job vacancies on account of the fact that a major contract ended and I had no immediate opportunities. As the financial markets started to resemble a roller coaster (up and down, but far more down than up) there were many, many contracts advertised in the financial services sector. Now I don’t have any experience in financial services, but when you don’t have any other work, you start to consider other possibilities. Of course as the financial meltdown continued the possibility of turning up on a Monday to start work and getting terminated 24 hours later grew and grew. So maybe financial services wasn’t the way to go for me, but that question became moot as within a couple of months there are almost no jobs being advertised in financial services. The companies have closed down all recruiting activity as they try to work out what on earth they are going to do to weather the storm.

Fortunately for me I managed to get a new contract with an existing client but this got me to thinking as to why I was having difficulty finding new opportunities. Obviously, the credit crunch is not helping, but I also realised that as a small contractor my network is very dependent on the people I meet. I have had a contract at a large company for over two years now and I realised that my network of contacts is actually almost exclusively internal to the company.

The company is so large it is functioning as its own mini-economy- people change jobs, move, have health care and many the other benefits that are typically assigned to a government. And they do all of this without ever actually leaving the company. Even more bizarrely is that different departments start poaching people to server their own means and consequently even turf wars erupt. When people are looking for a new role they have to advertise their own services to the rest of the company, just as you would in the ‘real world’.

I have no idea if this is the same in all really large companies, but I can imagine that it is. And here is my point- although this company is exhibiting many characteristics of a country, a government and an economy, it is not a totally related to the world outside the walls. The closest analogy I can come up with is the artificial economy that was put in place by the Soviet Union: I can clearly remember having a discussion in the early 1990’s with an ethnic Russian in his late 50’s who was convinced that the West was forcing up the price of bread. I never did work out if he thought it was all part of the closing stages of the Cold War or just some capitalists playing with his mind. What became clear was that under the soviet system he had been paying far, far less for his loaf of bread: the system was determining the price to pay, not external factors such as the price of wheat in Canada or a rise or fall in the price of oil to transport the oil.

What I find most interesting is that the very companies that are the basis of the whole free market system are functioning internally in exactly the same way as a system that they brought to its knees. I think it is going to be one hell of a ride to watch how this plays out over the next few months. But in the meantime I am going to put much more effort into developing an external network. So look out for me at a few more conferences in the next few months- I’ll see you there.

Privacy, Venture Capital and the Common Good

Some people may say that I am naive when it comes to privacy- if you Google me, you find me; I am happy to upload a photograph of what I look like to Facebook and I even publish details of my location in the world via a calendar on my web site. No, when it comes to privacy, I leave the deep thinking in the hands (and heads) of people like Pamela Dingle.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t care about it, after all the first time I ever thought about privacy issues was when Sam Seaborn was interviewing a prospective Supreme Court Judge on the West Wing. No, I have issues with who collects information about me and what they do with it. And I have even more issues with a service that creates a picture of my entire financial life and then stores that information somwhere that I don’t have entirely under my control.

Now you can argue that anyone can break into my house, go through my filing cabinet and create a similar picture, but the crucial difference is that I would (almost certainly) know that someone has broken in, so I would be able to immediately take some remediative action. Furthermore, even if you have all the account information, unless you can break the password codes kept in the back of my diary, you still wouldn’t be able to actually do anything.

So what has prompted this post? Well it seems that there are enough people in the world willing to trust someone else with their financial life (including passwords) for the creation of another amalgamation site: Techcrunch is reporting on Kublax offering the ability to store all your financial details, your bills and even your loyalty cards.  This is the same as Mint and Gazeo, both of which have received heavy venture capital investment.

Although there is a part of me that loves seeing the VC guys fall flat on their faces, they do perform a necessary function- after all how could Cuil afford to order in lunch every day if someone wasn’t backrolling them? So the venture capital guys see a future in sites that store everything about you and reckon that they can make some money.

And this is where is starts getting really frightening: I am not convinced that enough people are aware of the potential privacy issues to use these systems safely. And just because someone can make money out of something doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good thing- we need checks and balances, we need to truly understand the implications of providing all this information to someone else.

If we do have the correct rules in place and people are aware of what we are getting into then this can be a useful function. If not then a few people are making money, a few companies will know more about you than they ever should and we nail another nail into our on-line world.

(Re)connecting through social networks

No one can deny the massive impact that social network sites are having on the internet world. Of course there is always the bigger question of what percentage of the real world the internet world really represents, but that is a question for another day.

I have used different social network web sites for the past 2 years (except that at the start I didn’t even know what a social network web site was, I just knew that LinkedIn had huge performance issues) and have found that the ability to reconnect with old mates is one of my favourite features. The question becomes: What do you do once you have connected via the ethernet? Ping an occasional e-mail and catch up or actually meet in real-life again.

I have tried both approaches and found that the impact of actually meeting is far greater than any number of e-mails, instant messages or pings or nudges. These are the same issues that all people who meet through the internet face: Suddenly there is no where to hide, no back space key to remove ill conceived thoughts and, worst of all, no easy way to duck out of the conversation if things are going badly. The pressure of these situations is well known on the first date, but what surprised me was that it is still present when reconnecting.

The net result of this is the that meeting can rapidly head into one of two directions:

  1. You realise that you really need to see this person more and can’t believe that you ever fell out of touch
  2. You realise that the intervening years have taken you in markedly different directions and you really have nothing in common any more

Of course when #2 occurs it is best to retreat a quick retreat, but when #1 happens…..

A(nother) cool web 2.0 site

OK, this one might go into the ‘cool but pointless’ category or it could be the greatest thing to hit the computing cloud, I can’t decide which and I guess that only time will tell.

There appears to be 2 ways to move into the true on-line world and I think they differ in their point. The approaches are:

  1. Integrate your desktop with your on-line world (not a desktop machine, but your compute desktop)
  2. Migrate all the functionality on-line

Desktop Integration

The integration approach (taken by Xdrive) allows you to open a Windows Explorer window that looks just like any other- except that the drive you just opened (cunningly called X: ) is nowhere near your local area network. This allows you to run all your local, desktop applications and save documents and files to the on-line storage. The advantage of this approach is that you have pretty damned good integration with your desktop. The disadvantage is that if you use multiple local machines, you have to make sure that they are all set up identically if you wish to duplicate the experience- for example ensuring that all the applications are installed on each machine.

On-line Functionality

On-line functionality takes everything away from the desktop and runs in its own little world. Meebo takes this approach- so all your IM contact details, your chat logs etc are stored remotely. This has the advantage that everything is going to be the same no matter what computer you use to access the functionality. The downside is that (currently) most apps focus on a single piece of functionality e.g. IM or Calendar or file managment

Unfortunately, what all of this means is that many of the apps are simple re-packaging of what you can already do, just not do it on-line. This means that every on-line desktop provider I have tried (Xdrive, GMX, Omnidrive) has a folder for ‘My Music’, ‘My Photos’ etc and I have no way of taking my data from the on-line applications off-line (though you could argue why would I want to- it is just the Generation X insecurity in me)

And then I came across Jooce (www.jooce.com) that gives the whole world a shake upside down: What Jooce does is create a complete desktop, just like your main desktop, but it does it inside a browser. So now you can file your documents away nicely or just leave them on the desktop.

As I said as the start, I have no idea if this is the coolest thing to hit the way we use computers or a total waste of time. In my mind, the key to creating a cool Web 2.0 app is to try to break down what we use a computer for and then either identify something totally cool that you never knew you needed to do or make something that you do already available in a new and interesting way. I don’t see Jooce doing either of these, but I can’t deny that when I saw that I had the ability to rotate a picture on my desktop it made me smile with glee.

Jooce Desktop with a rotated picture

Jooce Desktop with a rotated picture

But then small things always did amuse me… and a good job too.

Building the complete solution

Sometimes it takes a person with a bit of perspective and distance from a problem to identify the solution. Sometimes it takes someone else to read your ramblings on a blog and ask a question to make you realise the point that you have been trying to make. I received some feedback about my recent post on hardware profile that made me realise that the combination of the posts on what I use, data portability and hardware profile were all pointing to a common solution. And as with so many solutions I think that the key to it all is the information.

What Marinko made me realise is that I own, use and define a set of information; some of the information is created or edited by me, some is delivered to me from other sources and may or may not be read-only; some of the information has its own security profile (for example, I can’t copy the file away from my work laptop) and some is available to anyone, such as a public web site like BBC Sport. But, at the end of the data, the sum of the documents, e-mails, pictures, music web sites and RSS feeds etc make up my information entity (sorry to the data modellers for using that word, but I can’t think of a better one).

So, what I need is a number of mechanisms to access my information- depending on the source of the data (public, private), the action I wish to do (edit/ read) and my location (on-line/ off-line) I will access my information using different tools (the Permanent Presence, Portable Solution or Base Station as described in the Hardware Profile).

Everything else, the file format, the internet protocol, new capabilities of a smart phone etc are all steps to move towards this goal.

Which brings me to a bit of a conclusion- there does not need to be one single format to solve all the problems of the world, but there needs to be a fairly small number and the information format must be open for all to read and all to implement. By this I mean, that though it may be tempting to say that all data, documents images etc be stored as XML because that can be parsed, transformed and displayed in different ways on different machines, this is the typical IT situation of an evangelical war over one technology or another. Sure, it would be nice for the application developer to know that all e-mail is in the same XML format, but it is not going to happen- and we already seem to have a fine working model of e-mail formats that can be accessed wherever you want. Same applies for images (JPEG/ PNG), drawings (SVG) and music (MP3).

What the alert amongst you will have noted is that I haven’t included a set of Office document formats- so here goes, time to get flamed or praised: Any document format that is dependent on a particular client to correctly display the information cannot meet my requirements. By this I mean that if your format has a bug in it so that the answer to a calculation is only correctly displayed if you use, oooh say Microsoft Excel, you are not fit to be considered an international standard certainly should not be blessed by ISO. Anyone who knows me has come across a situation where I have held an opinionated and probably unfathomable view on something or other; but at the same time I tend not to simply dismiss technology, companies or solutions out of hand simply as an act of faith. I use Microsoft Office including Visio because it does do a good job. But requiring that I use Excel or Word to view a document, even though it has been created using an ‘open standard’ fails on so many levels.

As an information or data architect I don’t understand the need to have open source software (the components and code) but I definitely see the need to have open, defined information standards. And why do I need this? Because I have not decided how I am going to access your data- and depending on the profile I am using to view it, I may or may not wish to use the same tool or see all the details of what you sent. This is the same as a web page ‘degrading gracefully’ when viewed over a phone, but if we take the premise I made back at the start- all the information that makes up my world needs to be available to me, whatever hardware profile I choose. This means that an office document, a photograph or a web page need to be treated the same. Well, for me to be happy anyway.

Complexity in Creation

Creating something, anything, that can be admired, enjoyed or simply used involves things that the admirer or user is frequently entirely unaware of. I remember sitting in a meeting with all the bright IT people at a mid-sized oil company and ideas, problems and solutions were being thrown out at a dizzying rate. By the way, I do mean all the bright people- in three years of working there it was the one and only time I saw everyone in the same room working to solve a single problem. What intensely complex problem was all this brainpower trying to solve? Simply to stop the need for a user to type in a password twice- yup that was all, but it took all of us to work out how to do this. Now this is also a reflection on the complexity of systems and the fact that unlike 300 years when an intelligent man (and unfortunately it was all too often only a man) could know the entire sum of human knowledge, no-one knows everything today. But as the solution began to develop I passed a note to the Chief Technical Architect that said “Nola has no idea what we are going through to solve her problem”

Well, it is the same in all forms of life: I listen to music and buy what I like, look at art (and even manage to buy the occasional painting) and watch movies and television (though I prefer to wait and watch them on DVD without any adverts). But really, I have no idea what goes into painting a masterpiece, composing a piece of music lift you out of you seat or directing a scene in a show that works so perfectly that you smile to yourself afterwards. Fortunately, though this lack of understanding does not stop me from appreciating them: the Rijksmuseum has a small (very secure) extension at Amsterdam Schiphol airport that is currently exhibiting 8 pictures by Vincent van Gogh. Having more than $10 million of painting in front of you is something that I could get used to, even if I don’t understand all the complexities of how the pictures were created. And the fact that entrance to the Rijksmuseum is free simply is the icing on the cake.

I get more opportunity to watch television than gaze at impressionist masterpieces; and still following through with my resolution to only watch ‘worthwhile’ television I recently watched the last 2 seasons (6 & 7) of the West Wing. When it first arrived on TV in 1998 the West Wing set the bar for smart, well written, well acted and fantastically produced television. And though most critics felt that is suffered a drop in form during the middle of its run, by the end it was completely back to its excellent best. I think that part of the reason that the ratings did not recover was the the plot lines were so complex, the dialogue so fast (and intelligent) and the advert breaks such low quality compared to the actual program that people gave up watching the broadcast show and simply waited for the DVD to come out (apparently this also happened with Alias). So although the show was broadcast in 2005 and I only watched it in 2008, and to use a line from the West Wing- let’s not knock me for coming late to the party and celebrate the fact that I came at all (courtesy of Sam Seaborn as he attempted to explain the budget to CJ in series 2 I think).

The final strain of this thought before the denouement (bet you weren’t expecting a word like that in this blog!) concerns music and in particular jazz: Although many of my friends are firm blues fans, I have always been more of a jazz guy. I tend to take it in small quantities, but there have been times when music has had such a profound effect on me that the fact that I don’t understand the intricacies of what I am listening too are entirely irrelevant. I spent several months on the Yemen/ Saudi Arabia border in the Empty Quarter. This was before the Internet or satellite TV: the only regular contact we had with the outside world was via the BBC World Service of the Voice of America; and the conditions were not pleasant on so many levels. The fashion these days is to talk about Health, Safety, Security and the Environment (HSSE)- well given that we were exploring for oil I can safely say that the Environment was taking a hit. As for the H, S and S; let’s just say that none of them were being met- raw sewage was being dumped close to the camp, dynamite was being used to blow things up and men who were barely more than boys were walking around with AK47’s and no fear of death. In this environment music and the escape it can bring from what surrounds you is almost essential. Where the music takes you depends on what you listen to and I discovered two bands that took me in opposite directions: I had never understood the attraction of the Doors; not that is, until I was in situation with guns, explosions and living far from home. Suddenly LA Woman (the full version) could transport me far, far from where I was. Which would typically be a good thing, except that where it took me, in my mind, was to a war zone in South East Asia where the Doors were heard for the first time. And that was not a good thing.

Taking me in the other direction- to calm, peace and a more mellow place, was Miles Davis and in particular a track called Bag’s Groove. I have said several times that The Doors came close to pushing me over the edge, but Miles Davis get pulling me back (well, him and Van Morrison). I am not sure why jazz has been able to play such a role in my life but the first jazz song that had impact in my mind was probably a track called Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I think that my father owned the 7” single and I played it a lot as a small boy. Being the contrary character that I am, I was probably attracted to it initially simply because it was in 5/4 time (and though I didn’t understand what that meant) and that sounded different. And cool. And isn’t jazz all about being cool? Sure it is.

Except that maybe I overdosed on Take Five, maybe the unusual time signature threw me off or maybe I just didn’t understand how to use rhythms, the off beat, strangeness of it all the best effect so it disappeared from my conciousness, even after the track appeared on a CD I bought. And then I saw a scene on ep. 19 of series 6 of the West Wing: Picture in your mind the scene- its a Democratic Party Gala ball in the White House. Everyone is dressed up, bright lights are creating a dazzling background and the camera is whirling around people in full party mode. The conversations are rapid, often at cross purposes but occasionally subtleties emerge that were never seen before. And in the background, in 5/4 time a clarinet, double bass, drum solo and piano are perfectly syncopating to the action evolving before our eyes.

In 4 minutes of television involving 7 separate conversations using lights, dialogue, a swirling camera, television acting of the highest level and the perfect background soundtrack I remembered why Take Five is still such groundbreaking jazz and I was completely overwhelmed by just how many components go into making a scene work the way it did. Never mind the 90 minute meeting involving a dozen or so IT geeks to work out how to pass a password to a new system, the number of people and amount of time that must have been involved in creating the West Wing is truly mind blowing. I don’t understand the complexity of 1 of the components that go together to make that scene so wonderful, and maybe if I did the beauty would be lost on me- but for right here, right now, I just love it.

Hardware Profile

I have not had time to post much (read anything) to the blog in a while- this is not because I have stopped having ideas of things, though they have slowed down- but because I have not had time to sit down and put electronic pen to paper. Additionally, now that I have plunged into the Twitter micro-blog pool it feels as though I am still updating my on-line life, even if the longer articles associated with a blog are less frequent.

So, why have I not had sufficient time? Well, as I posted before, occasionally real work gets in the way of doing the fun stuff, but a new toy has led to the inspiration to post.

The history of the computer can be traced back over 200 years to Charles Babbage and his Analytical machine, 50 years to the Bombe that helped to crack the Enigma codes, 35 years to the debut of Intel’s 8008 microprocessor or 17 years (at the time of writing) to the invention of the internet. If we look back through time the path to the ubiquity of computers seems clear, but looking forward from today there are clear differences in the vision of what computers will do and how we will use them: Tom’s Hardware is trying to decide whether or not to buy a laptop or desktop whilst MacUser has made the decision and recommends that if you only need a single computer, then that computer should probably be a laptop- but I simply reject their premise that a single computer can meet my needs. I have identified 3 use profiles for the tech aware, connected geek of today (and the hardware that I currently use to meet the profile):

  • Permanent Presence: Nokia e51

  • Portable Solution: Toshiba R500

  • Base Station: Twin screen desktop with serious sound system, top notch keyboard and bucket loads of RAM

The key thing about these profiles is that they need to work seamlessly together- information needs to by synchronised between all machines as well as needing to meet the particular profile. The synchronisation issue is why I am so interested in web apps and how they can also work offline. I want to be able to use a single storage location for all my files, have that sync whenever I need it, work off-line and not get in the way. I have worked at some large companies that have implemented this, but I get the impression that it is just hard. Too hard for me anyway, as my trials with Omnidrive, Meebo etc have proved. Anyway, getting on with the profiles:

Permanent Presence

This is the term I use for the computer that you have with you the whole time- for most people today this is a cell/mobile phone (be it ‘smart’ or not), though in the past this may have been a Personal Digital Assisstant (PDA) or even simply a filofax. I resisted carrying a mobile for several years, feeling that they were for posers, gits and tossers who liked to announce to the world that they were “Yuh, I’m on the train. I’ll be home in 20 minutes” to anyone in earshot (which would normally be the whole carriage). However, sometime this century mobile phones stopped being looked down upon and became all pervasive. Being good little computers, the phones followed Moore’s Law and increased their computing power each year, as did our ‘need’ to be connected. However, the prime use of the permanent presence machine is to read e-mail, text, basic news services and stay in contact through voice, text, brief e-mail and possibly video calls. For many people today this is a Blackberry or similar. Personally, I got stuck into Nokia many years ago, hence my preference for the e51. The ability to create content will vary by user, but for me that is where the next step up comes in…

Portable solution

This is where the situation starts to get interesting, as for many people this is the size of machine where they start to think of owning a computer. Now if you truly are set on owning a single solution then this will be a mid sized laptop, or even a large multimedia desktop replacement. But if you actually follow my advice (and the justification for it appears in the Base Station section) then the portable solution should be as portable as possible. By introducing the ability to take your compute power with you, you are already compromising on screen size, keyboard capability, mouse comfort and sound system quality. Buying a bigger laptop is not going to give you speakers as good as a set of Harman Kardons, nor is the keyboard going to be as good as a Logitech di Novo. So if the compromise has to be made and the system is not your one and only, I believe that the system should be as light and portable as possible.

Currently there are 4 real players in this sphere: 3 have been battling out for almost a year and one has come along more recently. The three old hands are Sony TZ series, Apple’s MacBook Air and Toshiba’s R500 and there was, in my mind, no clear winner; the MacBook Air is the thinnest, the R500 is the lightest and the Sony had the most capability built in- you just chose your favourite vendor of particular pose requirement (I am an old Tosh hand, and I like that lack of weight in the R500). Lenovo obviously learned from these three pretenders and came out with the X300 which is now clearly the best portable solution. So why isn’t everyone using these machines? Well, most obviously they are hideously expensive; every 50g or 1cm reduction costs more. Further these machines are only really usable when you have a 2nd machine- the advantage of a single machine is that there is no need to synchronise separate machines. If you have a docking station and simply plug the machine in, then you are using the same hard drive- hence the lack of need to sync. So the only people likely to be driving a truly portable machine are not constrained (too much) by budget, are tech aware to keep things in sync and probably like to pose a little bit with their new toy. Yup, sounds like I fit that bill 😦

Base Station

Now we get to the real justification for using multiple machines. I like twin (or more) screens. I know it is a little extravagant, but honestly once you get used to that much screen real estate, you will not be prepared to give it up. To paraphrase a quote “once you go black, you won’t go back”. I like to think that the quote was about coffee, but read into it what you will. I currently have two 21” screens giving me a desktop that is 3200*1200 pixels across; that equates to 1m * 36cm. Or as my brother put it: “That’s a piggin’ big screen!”. Now admittedly this requires a large desk, though not nearly as large as it used to be when the screens were CRTs! And there are arguments that can be made that a single 30” screen is a better solution, but not only were they not available when I bought my system, but they are even more expensive than the ultra-portable laptop. Somewhere budget has to come into it 🙂

Conclusion

So, if you can solve the synchronisation issues and can afford it, then using machines designed for each particular purpose is truly the best approach. And if you travel a lot and are able to justify not using the 7lb monster, your back will thank you too.