Category Archives: Off-topic

Too hot to count #2

It’s been a while since I added an entry in the CrayStats category. On my drive back home tonight, I heard a gem, courtesy of both British and French public broadcast. So I guess it’s not just a problem at NPR.

I was listening to a podcast from a history program from France Inter (French public radio). It was about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79. They played a clip from a BBC program that explained that the lava coming down was “five times hotter than boiling water”, a figure that the French host later repeated.

Never mind the fact that, on the Kelvin scale, the same lava is only twice as hot as boiling water. More on the siliness of applying percentages to temperatures here.

1 Comment

Filed under CrazyStats, Everything, Off-topic

What you’ve been spared (aka blog drafts boneyard #1)

I try to keep posts on this blog relevant to the general topic of IT management. Less than 10% of messages are in the “off-topic” category and even those are usually somewhat related to computer technology (mostly rants against the misuse of Flash and against the stupid ways in which US Social Security numbers are used). What this means in practice is that off-topic drafts are often abandoned when I realize that they are not relevant enough to make the cut. My “drafts” folder is a boneyard of such entries. Today, I am relaxing my standards and subjecting you to a list of them (they are still computer-related). Hopefully, either you find at least some of them interesting, or you come out with a renewed appreciation of what you’ve been spared over the years. Since they are all in one post, they are easy to just skip it altogether without being too tempted to hit the “unsubsribe” button for those who really only want to read about IT management (at least from me).

Here is a list of the topics covered below:

Messing with a blogger’s head

I recently looked at the HTTP logs for this site. Maybe I am the last blogger to realize this, but it looks like the online blog readers (e.g. Google Reader, Bloglines…) tell you how many subscribers they have for your feed. They do this through the user-agent HTTP header, which gets logged. It looks something like this:

Feedfetcher-Google; (+; 102 subscribers; feed-id=…)

Of course that’s only on a per-feed basis, so you need to add all the feeds (Atom and the different RSS versions) to get a total. Still, it’s a lot more visibility than I had before.

My first thought was “hey, some people are reading, better watch what I write”. But I quickly discarded that in favor of a more intriguing idea: if bloggers use this data, how hard would it be to mess with their heads? After all, this is not verifiable. Anyone can send HTTP requests with any user-agent they want. I can pick a blog and starts sending HTTP GET requests on their feeds with a user agent that pretends to be “Feedfetcher-Google”. And I can set the “subscribers” number to anything I want. To not be too suspicious, I could slowly pump it up, to look like a realistic increase.

Of course, an alert blogger would probably smell a rat if the number of subscribers shoots up and the number of incoming links and comments didn’t change, if the site still didn’t show up near the top of Google searches, or if the technorati “authority” didn’t change. Etc. There are pleny to ways to reality-test this. But people have an amazing ability to suspend disbelief when they like what they see, however logic-defying. If you don’t believe me, I have a pile of mortgage-backed securities to sell you.

This stat-pumping experiment could be done as a practical joke. It could be done out of meanness.  It could be done as an unethical and pointless sociological study (how many subscribers does it take for someone to go buy a Porsche on the assumption that the traffic will eventually turn into $$$, how does the impression of popularity change the writing on the blog…). It could even be done as a fraud (guaranteed increase in your subscription numbers if you sign up for my blog marketing service or you get your money back: just check your logs to see the results… – of course you could also generate fake users to create real subscriptions). It hits bloggers where they are the most vulnerable: the ego.

If you are thinking of doing this as a way to be nice to someone who needs encouragements, it will probably backfire. Before you process, listen to act two of this radio show (description: “A group called Improv Everywhere decides that an unknown band, Ghosts of Pasha, playing their first ever tour in New York, ought to think they’re a smash hit. So they study the band’s music and then crowd the performance, pretending to be hard-core fans. Improv Everywhere just wants to make the band happy — to give them the best day of their lives. But the band doesn’t see it that way.”)

Google search suggestions

When you enter a Google search query (on or in the Firefox search bar), as soon as you’ve typed a few characters it proposes to complete your search terms (BTW, it’s not just Google, it is now an well-know extension to OpenSearch but Google pioneered it, at least according to the spec). Something about this just doesn’t sound right. If you think you know what I am looking for, why not propose the most likely answers rather than trying to complete my search request? If you get it right, then I’ll stop typing and I’ll click. Plus, Google already concentrates viewers on a small set of pages for each search query, with this feature won’t they compound this by concentrating people to a smaller set of queries, further shrinking the Web?

Since Google feels free to give me plenty of unsolicited suggestions, here is mine to them. If you are going to hand-held people as they write their queries, provide suggestions that desambiguate rather than suggestions that overly constraint. For example, if I type “python”, I get these suggestions:

“python tutorial”, “python list”, “python strong”, “python ide”, “python download”, “python for loop”, “python datetime”, “python re”, “python time”, “python os”, all clearly about the programming language. Wouldn’t it be more useful to detect algorithmically that results from searching on “python” fall into three largely disjoint groups, to detect a common word in each group and to ask the user to qualify their “python” request with either “programming”, “snake” or “monty”? Rather than the simpler but, in my opinion, less valuable approach of showing the most popular search queries that start with “python”?

On the other hand, this “most popular” feature has one benefit: it provides plenty of fodder for pop psychology, as I found out when tried to ask Google why they provide these search suggestions. As soon as I typed “why”, I got suggestions including “why men cheat” and “why did I get married”.

The part I like about all this, is the meta-meta aspect. Google doesn’t only suggest what you might want to read based on your search, they even suggest what you might want to search on. What’s the next meta level? Suggesting that you want to do a web search when you’re not even thinking of doing one? You can bet they will if they can. What a butler indeed.

Google to navigate rather than search

Still on the topic of Google, but a positive comment this time. It struck me one day that pretty much every single bookmark I have in Firefox is for an Oracle-internal site, not the public Web. After thinking about it for a minute, I realized the reason: Google doesn’t index the Oracle intranet. When I find a good page there, I can’t be sure I’ll be able to find it again easily, so I bookmark it. On the Web, on the other hand, why bother bookmarking it. I pretty much know I can find it from my Firefox search bar.

Most of the time, when I use Google, it’s not to find a new page. It’s to get back to a specific page. Case in point, when I want to look something up in the XPath spec (which I have done a few times lately in the context a CMDBf). I know it’s on the W3C web site, I could go there and navigate to the page in a few clicks. I also have a copy of it on my disk, I could open my file explorer and get it from there. But instead I just type “xpath” in Google. Again, I am not looking really “searching” (trying to find information about XPath), I am just navigating (finding my way back to the spec).

So I started a post to share this brilliant insight, at which point I saw (using Google in “search” mode for once) that Robin Cannon has already perfectly described it.

So I’ll just add a few thoughts to complement what Robin wrote:

  • I am sure the implication in terms of advertising have long been studied by Google (I would guess that people who use Google for navigation are a lot less likely to click on ads than those who are actually searching).
  • AOL had to die for the “AOL keyword” to live.
  • There are serious privacy aspects to letting Google know what you’re up to all the time (but I am not logged into Google, I clean up my cookie jar relatively often and, at least at work, I am behind a large enough firewall to have a mostly anonymized IP).
  • Somewhat ironically, there a potential security benefits. For example, the HP employee credit union is called “Addison Avenue credit union”. Googling for “addison avenue” gets you right there. If you mistype the name and ask for “adison avenue”, you get a suggestion that maybe you meant “addison avenue”, along with a list of links related to “madison avenue”. That’s enough data to realize and correct your mistake. On the other hand, directly typing into the navigation bar could have taken you to a spoof site (in reality it takes you to a link farm, not quite as bad, but you never know what it will turn into tomorrow).

BTW, am I the only one who doesn’t know what 2 of the top 3 “Google Fastest Rising Search Terms 2007” relate to (from the list in Robin’s post)?

What is a computer

It started with this New Scientist article: Ten weirdest computers. With all these examples, how do we define what a computer is? Fundamentally, it’s a physical system that can process data. Meaning that you can define a logical data model that can be mapped to the physical characteristics of the system. And the system is such that it (through the laws of physics) changes in such a way that after a time its new physical configuration represents data that corresponds to a calculation that took place on your original data. You get the resulting data by measuring physical characteristics of the system (not necessarily the same physical characteristics that you controlled to represent the input data) and deriving the result data from it. In short, to use a computer:

  • Step 1: you create a system that represents your input data
  • Step 2: you let the laws of physics “do their thing” on the sytem
  • Step 3: you measure the system to derive your output data

For example, take a spring scale and a bunch of 1kg weights. That’s a computer. At least it can add (within a given range). To calculate “4+8” you put four 1kg weights on the scale, then you put eight more, then you read the number next to the needle and it should tell you “12”. This is an example in which the physical characteristics that you use to provide input data (putting weights on the scale) is different in nature from the physical characteristics that you measure to get the output (the position of the needle, which is really a way to measure the compression of the spring in the scale).

Based on this, we can ask the next (and more practically useful) question: what makes a *good* computer? It has the following characteristics:

  • easy to set up
  • easy to measure results at needed precision level
  • not too many side effects (e.g. energy consumption)
  • fast and versatile (planting a pine tree seed and waiting for a pine cone to come out in order to calculate a Fibonacci sequence is a little too slow and too specialized)
  • able to process large amounts of data (that’s where the mechanical scale doesn’t… scale).

On that last topic, there are two ways to process large amounts of data. The way used by current computers is to process little at once but very fast and in a way that makes it very easy to use the output of one operation as input to the next one. The alternative would be to compute a large problem in one go of the physical system. For example, maybe one day we’ll know how to represent a mathematical problem in DNA form, such that we know that the solution to the problem corresponds to the DNA sequence most useful to a bacteria in a given environment, e.g. most likely to resist a given antibiotic. Setting up the computation system, in this case, would be engineering the antibiotic that selects for the problem’s solution. You can put that antibiotic in your Petri dish (or in the food of your 1000 cows, now that’s a “computer farm”), wait for a few days, then sequence the DNA of the bacteria that’s in the dish (or in your cow’s “output” matter, think of it as a “core dump”).

You can think of it as the RISC versus CISC debate, except with many more orders of magnitude in difference between the alternatives.

It is also interesting to note that networks and storage mechanisms (the other two consitutive elements of a data center, along with computers) can be thought of in a very similar way. If step 2 doesn’t change the data and can be made to last long enough, you have a storage system (e.g. engrave text on stone, store stone for a few thousand years, read text from stone). If instead of being far apart in time the locations in which you perform steps 1 and 3 are far apart in space (with 2 still not changing the data), then you have a networking system.

Is this a site or a feed

Like 99% of the blogs out there, this site is just an HTML rendition of an RSS (or Atom) feed. Isn’t it a little silly to have millions of Web site (visited by humans) that have their structure dictated by a machine-to-machine protocol? It is especially ironic on a site like mine, which occasionally talks about data models and protocols (and on which you would therefore expect the difference between the two to be understood). But no. Every time a new release of CMDBf comes out, for example, I create a new post with an updated version of the pseudo-algorithm for performing a graph query. Rather than having one page that gets updated (with potentially a “history” feature to access older versions).

As much as I’d like to blame the limitations of WordPress, I think it’s more a sign of my laziness. There are plenty of WordPress extensions that I have never considered. Or I could move to Drupal. The key question is, is there a way to get a site that is more useful as a unit (“show me what information William provides on his site”), while keeping the value of the feed (“tell me when William adds new content”) and not adding to my workload?

Comments Off on What you’ve been spared (aka blog drafts boneyard #1)

Filed under Everything, Google, Off-topic

Barack Obama’s first day on the job

A phone conversation.

– White House IT support.

– Hi, it’s Barack Obama.

– Good morning Mr. President and welcome to the White House.

– Thanks. Hey, I have a problem with the computer on my desk.

– Is it the screensaver? I know, it’s pretty embarrassing. President Bush got it from the vice-president and he really liked it. I was planning to remove it before you arrive this morning, but you got here before me. Sorry about that.

– Forget the screensaver. It’s the keyboard.

– Pretzel crumbs again, I am sure. Just shake it upside down.

– No it’s just the “Z” key.

– What about it?

– I’ve been pressing “control-Z” all morning. The economy is still a mess, the deficit is still huge, we’re still stuck in Iraq and Guantanamo is still open. And now my hand hurts. What gives?

– …

– Can you help?

– I am sorry Mr. President, I am afraid you cannot undo the work of the previous administration that easily.

– Really? Well, how on earth am I going to do it?

– I think it will take a lot more work.

– You’re positive I really can’t use “control-Z”?

– No you can’t.

[UPDATED 2008/11/9: Looks like he is not deterred: “Obama Weighs Quick Undoing of Bush Policy” (New York Times article, November 9, 2008)]


Filed under Everything, Off-topic

A flash of anti-genius

Just this week, I saw two emails that painfully illustrate what is maybe the single worst thing about the way Flash is used on many web sites: the lack of addressability.

The first email was a request for help about finding a specific view on a Flash-based app (one that, I must shamefully admit, was created by Oracle). The answer came quickly, in the form of a screen capture of the Flash app with the multi-level menu open and pointed at the menu entry that produces the requested view. Does anything with this strike you as wrong?

If not, look at the email that arrived the following day. A fellow Oracle employee wanted to advertise for rent an apartment he owns in the new One Rincon Hill tower in San Francisco. In order to provide a link to the floor plan, here is what he had to put in the email:

Plan 5 – see (Lower right “Skip intro”, then follow the link on Residences and Views -> Condominiums -> Tower One -> 1 Bedroom -> Unit 05)

No need to comment on the “skip intro” part. We all know how stupid these “intros” are. BTW, it would be nice if you didn’t have to download the entire Flash file before clicking on “skip”. But this is a “no Flash, no service” site. There is no alternative. Ironic for a tower in which 95% of occupants own an iPhone (the remaining 5% are  Android-wielding Google employees, also Flash-challenged).

Even more ironic is that fact that Flash is used on this site to navigate menus (usefulness: zero) and when you get to the floor map it’s a plain static image. Even though that’s the place where you could provide innovative features in Flash (like having a list of typical furniture items that people can drag and drop to see how to use the space).

You could say, NRA-style, “Flash apps don’t screw up web sites, bad Flash designers screw up web sites”. Sure. It’s not Flash per se, it’s the way it’s used. There is a good case to be made for small areas of web pages being delivered through Flash for increased interactivity (rather than having Flash become a navigation mechanism). But just like with the gun, when you are on the receiving end the difference seems pretty academic.

In a blog entry three and a half years ago (an entry which, in retrospect, is a strong contender for “most obscure, pretentious title”), I recalled hearing Tim Berners-Lee explain in 1999 on the radio how he came up with the idea of a URL: before the Web, people would create small files that describe where to find information in a human-readable way. TBL wrapped this in a consistent format, the URL.

And now, more than 15 years after TBL’s invention, Flash-drunk nitwits are recreating the problem he solved and forcing people to again “create small files that describe where to find information in a human-readable way”. When WS-Addressing decided to deprecate URLs, they at least provided a replacement (the EPR). What is the Flash equivalent going to be? Who wants to write the DARC (Distributable Addressing for Rich Clients) specification?

[UPDATED 2008/10/3: Someone pointed me at the “solution” for this problem: SWFAddress. Looks interesting. Except that this is an extra step that the Flash developer needs to know about and implement. If your Flash developer has that state of mind and level of competency, you’ve already solved 95% of the problem. For starters, s/he won’t create your whole site as a Flash movie, s/he will just use Flash judiciously on the site. I don’t see how SWFAddress is going to help with the throusands of mostly clueless Flash developers who keep banging out Flash-only sites. If you really want a technology solution to the general problem, it would probably require something like a click tracker that generates a trail of crumbs and packages it in a URL. But I don’t think the solution here is a technology solution. It’s more a “get a clue” solution. After all, almost no web site has an empty, pretty-looking, entry page anymore (except Flash sites of course), even though those were pretty common at a time.]


Filed under Everything, Flash, Off-topic, Tech

The circus continues…

Here we go again. Yet another institution who “takes the protection of [my] personal information very seriously” wrote to me to let me know that they lost some unencrypted backup tapes with my SSN and everything. In a way I’d prefer if they said that they don’t take the protection of my personal information seriously. Because now I have to assume that they are incompetent even at the tasks they take seriously, which presumably also includes performing financial transactions (it’s a bank). That they plead dumbness rather than carelessness kind of scares me.

Well, not really. This letter is just damage control of course and whatever reassuring verbiage they put doesn’t mean anything. Everyone is just playing pretend, which is how this whole “identify theft” problem started (“we’ll pretend that the SSN is confidential information and that we can use it to authenticate people”).

A few months ago I wrote that it is now safe to steal my identity because the credit watch service provided by Fidelity following their similar screw-up (laptop stolen from a car that time) had expired. Of course the new breach comes with two years of credit monitoring, courtesy of the incompetent bank.

So here is yet another reason to not buy credit monitoring services (in addition to the fact that they don’t work and that you can get the same thing for free): it’s only a matter of months before the next breach and the free two years of credit monitoring that will ensue.


Filed under Everything, Identity theft, Off-topic, Security, SSN

Small brain teaser: my work phone number

My work phone number is a typical US 10 digits number. In addition:

  • a) My office is in the same area code as Stanford University.
  • b) The area code appears twice in my phone number
  • c) The number of the beast doesn’t appear in my phone number.
  • d) An even number can only be in an even-numbered position if the value of that number is also its position (the leftmost digit is in position 1; 0 is an even number).
  • e) The number of occurrences of non-zero numbers is always less than the value of the number.
  • f) The answer uses as few different numbers as possible to meet all these conditions. For example, if 123-123-1231 and 123-412-3412 both met all the constraints above (which they obviously don’t), then the answer would be 123-123-1231 because it only uses the numbers 1, 2 and 3, while the other uses an additional number (4).

Asking your Oracle-employed brother-in-law to look me up in the employee phone book is considered cheating…

[UPDATED 2009/1/23: Clarified last bullet with an example, based on reader feedback.]

[UPDATED 2012/10/1: I have now left Oracle, so this is not my number anymore. You can still try to solve the puzzle and email me the answer for verification.]

Comments Off on Small brain teaser: my work phone number

Filed under Brain teaser, Everything, Off-topic

Less bloat, more oxygen

I follow Coté for his coverage of the IT management market. He also covers the so-called RIA (“Rich Internet Application”) playground, so through his blog (e.g. this post today) I involuntarily get news and comments about Flash, AIR, Silverlight and other I-hate-the-Web technologies. And I keep thinking “I hope they won’t mess up the Web too much for the rest of us on their way down to failure”.

Every time I run into a “no Flash, no service” site, I have a flashback (if you think the pun is funny then consider it intended) to 1995. That’s when Jean-Michel Jarre (the French musician, of Oxygène fame) launched his first web site, (now de-commissioned). As a pioneer of electronic music, it wasn’t surprising to see him be one of the first artists to use the Web. As someone who likes to illuminate entire cities with laser beams, it wasn’t surprising to see him use overkill technology. So his Photoshop-wielding consultant created an entire site where each page was just one big image, with embedded text. It took forever to load and the stupidity of the approach shocked me so much that I remember it 13 years later. All the links were based on server-side image maps (the x/y coordinates of the pixel that you clicked on get sent to the server where a map links these coordinates to a target URL). The way HTML was at the time, you couldn’t use fancy fonts, colored text and elaborate wrapping (but you could blink!). And we all know that you simply can’t provide dates and locations of upcoming concerts without colored text, twisted fonts and a fancy layout.

The Internet Archive doesn’t have a copy of this original Jarre site, I don’t know if it has survived anywhere other than in my scarred-for-life brain. And if you go to JM Jarre’s current site, guess what? It is a Flash-only site. With my non-Flash Firefox all I get is a black page with a sentence (in French only, and not even grammatically correct) pointing me to the Flash download page. Looking at it with my Flash-enabled IE confirms (after a long wait for the Flash content to download) what I expected: other than a few videos (which could indeed use a simple Flash player embedded in the HTML page), there is no value whatsoever in using Flash for this site. The photos of his 80’s haircut would look just as good/bad in HTML.

Just like there are some usages for which image maps are appropriate, there are some for which Flash and friends are the right tool. But if they were only used where they belong, there wouldn’t be nearly as much hype around them. Poor Coté would have to spend more time with boring IT management geeks and less with Flash hipsters.


Filed under Everything, Flash, Off-topic

Are you a “meta-meta” or a “pseudo-pseudo” kind of person?

We IT management geeks are pretty familiar with data at different “meta” levels. For example:

  • The content of a configuration record: data
  • Who can access that content: metadata
  • Who can set access permissions on that content: meta-metadata
  • etc…

Trying to keep the layers separated (good luck Savas) is tempting for performance reasons but it’s like trying to shore up an ever-leaking levee in the face of a major storm. Semantic technologies get a lot of power out of the fact that they don’t even try.

I was prompted to write this because I recently learned that it also happens in medicine:

  • Hypoparathyroidism: low parathyroid hormone
  • Pseudohypoparathyroidism: normal parathyroid hormone levels, but a problem with the parathyroid receptor such that the symptoms are the same as those of hypoparathyroidism
  • Pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism: normal parathyroid hormone levels and a normal parathyroid receptor, but presents with the same symptoms as pseudohypoparathyroidism (but without the consequences)

Good luck getting your health insurance to cover a pseudo-disease. Don’t even bother calling them about a pseudo-pseudo-disease.

[UPDATED 2009/5/1: For some reason this entry is attracting a lot of comment spam, so I am disabling comments. Contact me if you’d like to comment.]


Filed under Everything, Off-topic

If we are not at the table we are on the menu

Earlier this evening I was listening to a podcast from the Commonwealth Club of California. The guest was Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It wasn’t captivating and my mind had wandered on another topic (a question related to open source) when I caught a sentence that made me think that the podcast had followed me on that topic:

“If we are not at the table we are on the menu”

In fact, she was quoting an energy industry executive explaining why he welcomes upfront discussions w/ NRDC about global warming. But isn’t this also very applicable to what open source means for many companies?

Everything below is off-topic for this blog.

To be fair, I should clarify that not all Commonwealth Club podcasts (here is the RSS feed) fail to keep my attention. While I am at it, here is a quick listener’s guide to recent recordings (with links to the MP3 files) in case some of you also have a nasty commute and want to give the CCC (no, not that one) a try. Contrary to what I expected, I have found panels discussions generally less interesting than talks by individuals. The panel on reconstructing health care was good though. The one on reconciling science and religion was not (in the absence of a more specifically framed question everyone on the panel agreed on everything). They invite speakers from both sides of the aisle: recently Ben Stein (can’t be introduced in a few words) and Tom Campbell (Dean of Haas business school at Berkeley) on the conservative side and Madeleine Albright (no introduction needed) on the progressive side. All three of these were quite good. As I mentioned, the one with Frances Beinecke (NRDC president) wasn’t (it quickly morphed into self-praises for her organization’s work, including taking a surprising amount of credit for Intel’s work towards lower power consumption). Deborah Rodriguez, (director of the “Kabul Beauty School”) was the worst (at least for the first 20 minutes, I wasn’t paid enough to keep listening). Thomas Fingar (Chairman of the National Intelligence Council) was ok but could have been much better (he shared all the truth that couldn’t embarrass or anger anyone, which isn’t much when the topic is the Iraq and Iran intelligence reports on WMD). In the process he explained what the intelligence community calls “open source intelligence” and he wasn’t referring to the RedMonk model. Enjoy…

Comments Off on If we are not at the table we are on the menu

Filed under Everything, Off-topic, Open source

MicroSAP scarier than Microhoo

Here are the first three thoughts that came to my mind when I heard about Microsoft’s bid to acquire Yahoo (in order, to the extent that I can remember):

  • After XBox this will take their focus further away from enterprise software. Good for Oracle.
  • I wonder how my friends at Yahoo (none of which I know to be great fans of Microsoft’s software) feel about this (on the other hand the stock price rise can’t be too unpleasant for them)
  • Time to get ready to move away from Yahoo Mail

Turns out I should have added an additional piece of good news to the first bullet: after this they won’t be able to afford SAP for a while. This I just realized after reading this New York Times column which argues, in short, that Microsoft should acquire SAP rather than Yahoo.

A few quotes from the article:

  • you’ve probably never heard of BEA“: this obviously doesn’t apply to readers of this blog.
  • it’s not much fun hanging out on the enterprise side of the software business“: ouch. If it’s fun you’re after, try the IT management segment of enterprise software business.
  • to find the best acquisition strategy, ask, ‘What would Larry do?’“: does this come as a bumper sticker?

Of course if Microsoft gets Yahoo and things go really badly, then it could be SAP who acquires Microsoft…

Comments Off on MicroSAP scarier than Microhoo

Filed under Business, Everything, Microsoft, Off-topic, Oracle, SAP, Yahoo

Going dot-postal

According to this article, the Universal Postal Union is in talks with the ICANN to get its own “.post” TLD. Because, you see, “restricting the ‘.post’ domain name to postal agencies or groups that provide postal services would instill trust in Web sites using such names“. If you’re wondering what these “groups that provide postal services” are, keep reading: “the U.N. agency also could assign names directly to mail-related industries, such as direct marketing and stamp collecting“. I have nothing against stamp collectors, but direct marketing? So much for the “trust” part. Just call it “.spam” and be done with it.

I doubt that having to use a “.com” name has ever registered as a hindrance for FedEx, DHL or UPS in providing web-based services. And these organizations have been offering on-line package tracking and other services since before many of the postal organizations even had a way to locate post offices on their web site. That being said, would be a great URL for a blog.

If the UPU really wants to innovate, what would be more interesting than a boring TLD would be a URI scheme for postal mail. Something like post:USA/CA/94065/Redwood%20City/Oracle%20Parkway/500/William%20Vambenepe but in a way that allows for the international variations. That would be a nice complement to the “geo:” URI scheme.

Now, should I categorize this as “off-topic”? What would the IT management angle be? Let’s see. Maybe as a way to further integrate the handling of virtual and physical servers? Kind of a stretch (being able to represent the destination as a URI in both cases doesn’t mean that delivering a physical server to an address is the same as provisioning a new VM in a hypervisor). Maybe as an additional notification endpoint (“if the application crashes, don’t send an an email, send me a letter instead”)? As if. Alright, off-topic it is.

Comments Off on Going dot-postal

Filed under Everything, Off-topic

Loosening my coupling with Yahoo (excuse my SOA-speak)

For those of you who still have my personal email in your address book, now is a good time to replace it with the more portable one composed of my first name This way there won’t be any problem when I move away from Yahoo (which is where my personal emails are currently redirected) after the Microsoft acquisition.

This is not a knee-jerk anti-Microsoft reaction. It’s just an intuition that their attempt to acquire Yahoo is driven more by lust for Yahoo’s audience than anything else (Tim Bray seems to agree). And that having acquired the audience, Microsoft is going to want something more for its $44.6 billions (or whatever the final price ends up being) than the few dollars I send to Yahoo every year for freedom from ads and a few additional services. Things like promoting Silverlight for example (did you hear that the Web broadcast of the 2008 Olympics will supposedly require Silverlight? Since I don’t own a TV, that would make me a little upset if I cared about the Olympics).

When the time comes (I am willing to give Yahoo-Microsoft a chance to prove me wrong), I’ll probably just move to my own server unless I find a provider who offers a great email-and-only-email service. It won’t be GMail.

In the meantime, whether this acquisition succeeds or not, thank you for updating your address books.

1 Comment

Filed under Everything, Off-topic, Yahoo

Lyon shares

The New York Times published an article describing a plan to partially replicate the city of Lyon in Dubai. I wasn’t born in Lyon but I grew up there. At the cost of another off-topic post, I will take this opportunity to tell my American friends, whose itineraries in France tend to take them from Paris straight to the French Riviera, that they are missing out on a great city located half-way between these two spots.

The Lyon apartment building I lived in stands on what used to be a trading post for Gauls and Romans. Napoleon Bonaparte presided over the earth breaking ceremony for this building. A couple of windows in the apartment were later blocked with bricks because of a 19th century tax that was assessed based on the number and size of windows in your home (*). Through the remaining windows, the view from the apartment is over place Bellecour on which you can see a statue of king Louis XIV that was melted during the French revolution to make cannons and replaced during the Restauration period. There was also a guillotine in action there during the revolution. During WW2, the Gestapo took over the building (my elderly same-floor neighbor told me about being evicted by them – he came back after the war). And Antoine de Saint Exupery was born next door. That’s a lot of history for just one apartment building. Good luck replicating that in the desert.

Of course that’s not necessary and there is a lot you can be inspired by in Lyon without emulating its past (I don’t recommend cutting a few heads in public just to “capture the feel” of Lyon’s revolutionary history). The Times article lists a few challenges. The importance of pork and wine in the local cuisine is manageable. Once you accept that you’re not going to get a carbon copy, the challenge of Lyon-inspired cooking without these ingredients is one chefs could rise to (a generic prohibition on heavy sauces would be more problematic). The role of the rivers in the “feel” of the city seems more challenging to me. I lived in the peninsula formed by the meeting of the Rhone and Saone rivers. The rivers and the wide walking areas by their sides make for great (sometimes windy) walks during which you can see nice bridges and historic buildings (universities, a hospital, a courthouse and many Renaissance apartment buildings). And even if they manage to create an equivalent body of water in Dubai, the strong flow of the water coming down from the Alps is likely to be missing. There is a reason why the picture that illustrates the Times article shows a pedestrian bridge (looks like Passerelle Saint Vincent over the Saone river).

I am not sure what it really means to replicate an old city but there certainly is a lot to learned about urban life from Lyon’s long evolution. I am sure the people of Lyon don’t mind the money but even more they probably love being told that they represent a model to emulate. And it must feel good to steal the limelight from Paris just once. I don’t have millions to invest in the city like Dubai does, but I too am happy to speak highly of Lyon and encourage people to visit. Feel free to contact me if you plan such a visit and would like recommendations.

(*) the number of doors was also part of the tax calculations. The goal was to achieve some degree of proportionality in taxation since rich people presumably had more doors and windows in their homes. It wasn’t a new idea, Julius Caesar imposed similar taxes (called ostiarium and columnarium) on the numbers of doors and columns respectively. Looks like he didn’t care for McMansions either. Maybe it’s time to resuscitate the columnarium in US suburbia.

Comments Off on Lyon shares

Filed under Everything, Off-topic

21st century phrenology

This is very much off-topic for this blog but if I read another article (like this one) that draws conclusions about the mind based on what areas of the brain light up under MRI, I am going to bang my head against the wall until my “anterior insula” switches places with my “ventromedial prefrontal cortex”. That should nicely mess up their models if I ever get in the MRI machine.

Brain science is in its early stages and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course scientists need to progress step by step and for now MRI images might be the best we have. Go ahead and use the tool. But can we be spared statements about what area of the brain processes “soft-drink preferences”? These stories are so 19th century.

Comments Off on 21st century phrenology

Filed under Everything, Off-topic

Taking control of the Flash player

As far as I can tell, Flash is an advertising delivery platform for the Web. This is why I have not installed the Flash player in my Firefox browser. It saves me (especially when combined with the Adblock Plus Firefox add-on) from a lot of obnoxious animations. And a few security vulnerabilities too, (this latest one is what prompted me to write this quick entry to help readers protect themselves while retaining the option to use Flash).

Despite all the hype about Flash, I very rarely run into a page that requires it for something useful. A few sites are Flash-only (mostly restaurant web sites from my experience, apparently restaurant owners are easy preys for incompetent Web site designers) and when I find one I usually take that as a sign that I am saving myself a lot of frustration by taking my business elsewhere.

Still, once a while I need to view a Flash applet. Ideally, I would like to have Flash installed but disabled, such that I can enable it for a given page with a single click. This doesn’t seem to be possible (my guess is that Adobe knows very well that Flash is mostly used in ways that are not welcomed by users and that they would likely disable it most of the time if given the option). So here is a convenient way to achieve the same effect:

While I have not installed the Flash player in Firefox, I have installed it in IE. I have also installed the IE Tab Firefox add-on which allows one to switch from the Firefox rendering engine to the IE rendering engine within a given Firefox tab. It can be configured to place a small icon in the status bar. Clicking on that icon switches the rendering engine, which means that suddenly the Flash player is enabled for the page you are looking at. One-click enable/disable as requested!

You can also configure IE Tab to automatically switch to IE rendering for some pre-configured sites. So if there are Flash-dependent sites that you use on a regular basis, just enter them there and the IE rendering engine will automatically be used whenever you are on those sites. Again, this all happens inside your Firefox tab, it doesn’t start a separate IE browser. Enjoy.

[UPDATED on 2007/12/24: I wrote this entry to try to help readers and it turns out I am the one who’s getting helped after all. Many commenters pointed to the Flashblock firefox add-on which is designed specifically to do what I get done in a round-about way with IE Tab. I looked for such an add-on some time ago and didn’t find it, which is why I devised the work-around. Thank you all for the info.]

[UPDATED 2008/5/14: Another reason to keep Flash turned off: Crossdomain.xml Invites Cross-site Mayhem.]

[UPDATED 2008/6/9: Looks like Flashblock can be circumvented (in a way that my more basic FF vs IE setup cannot). BTW, I closed comments on this entry because for some reason it was attracting a lot more comment spam than all the others combined. Email me (see about page) if you want to post a comment here.]


Filed under Everything, Flash, Off-topic, Security

Is IT management to enterprise IT what ecology is to economic development?

What happens when a society gets hold of a new territory or a new technology? It usually starts by decimating the easy preys in that territory or by running wild with the technology. Using abundant resources (food, fuel or other) with abandonment, dumping waste everywhere. Then there is a crisis directly tied to this lack of restraint. Maybe an epidemic. Or starvation from the sudden disappearance of easy-to-get food (or fuel). Lack of clean water. Landslides from deforestation. Something is done to address that crisis and its direct causes. It starts with random acts of what is not yet called ecology. And then the best practices gets more widely adopted. But another crisis appears. Other changes need to be made. Eventually people start to look beyond fighting individual fires and towards managing the environment as a whole, in a way that aligns with the desired quality of life. Models are developed to better understand relationships and predict consequences. Comprehensive environmental studies appear. People take a lifecycle approach to managing the environmental aspects of development. Processes, policies and rules get defined. And of course, companies and consultants appear to help with these tasks.

This is a (widely) simplified description of how ecology appears out of necessity in developing societies and how its development is a gating factor for sustained economic development. Of course, this is the happy view, the one where the society is able to correct its course before collapsing.

Doesn’t this sound very similar to the way IT management appeared and is developing in enterprises?

When enterprises got hold of computing as a business tool, individual departments deployed applications with little planning and coordination, just to grab the low-hanging fruits of increased productivity. Then comes the crisis, a key system goes down and no-one knows what to do. Business suffers. Some early, localized, monitoring functionality is created to fix the problem. A random act of management that addresses a tactical issue. But more problems happen, the system gets more complex than niche management tools can address. Eventually people start to look at IT management more globally, to think of it as a way to align IT with business objectives. Models are developed to better understand relationships and predict consequences. People take a lifecycle approach to managing changes to the IT environment. Best practices, processes and even rules and compliance mandates get defined. And of course, companies and consultants appear to help with these tasks.

Does this parallel reveal any opportunity for one side to learn from the other? Will you hire Greenpeace to run your data center?

Comments Off on Is IT management to enterprise IT what ecology is to economic development?

Filed under Ecology, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Off-topic

Moving on

I am now an Oracle employee. My last day at HP was last Friday. I have a lot of excellent memories of my almost nine years there. And the company is (finally) very serious about software and investing a lot in it. HP Software is a very good place to be. But so is Oracle and the very interesting position I was offered convinced me that now was the time to go. So I am now in the Enterprise Manager group with the title of Architect. More specifically, I am in the part of EM that manages Middleware and Applications. Which also means that I’ll get to interact with the ex-Bluestone people who were my colleagues at HP Middleware and later joined Oracle’s application server team (like Greg). And I just learned today that David Chappell (with whom I collaborated on several specs) recently joined that group too. This is a happening place.


Filed under Everything, HP, Off-topic, Oracle

All things (not very carefully) considered

Another off-topic entry to add to the CrazyStats category. Today’s NPR’s “All Things Considered” included a report called “States Fret at Easing of Border Security Plan” which talked about “Operation Jump Start”, so described:

“For about a year, National Guard troops have been rotating in and out of outposts along the [US-Mexico] border. Soldiers stayed visible under blue tents right on the border to deter illegal crossers while scanning the landscape, reporting anyone who did cross.”

It then goes on:

“The deterrent worked. The number of crossers apprehended by the Border Patrol since last October is down by about one-third, while drug seizures are up.”

The implication seems to be that would-be illegal immigrants were deterred by the presence of the troops and that drug traffickers were not deterred but were more often caught thanks to the help of the troops (who presumably either directly caught drug carriers or freed up Border Patrol resources to go after them). Success! But what if the result had been the exact opposite? More crossers apprehended and fewer drug seizures. Couldn’t that just as easily be interpreted to mean that the troops helped in catching more crossers while providing reinforcements that deterred drug traffickers? When opposite results can be interpreted to both mean success the test is suspicious.

1 Comment

Filed under CrazyStats, Off-topic

Want to play a minesweeper game?

Since I am on a roll with off-topic posts…

I accidentally ran into some Web pages and scripts I wrote between 1994 and 1996. Mostly experiments with Web technologies that were emerging at the time. Some have pretty much disappeared (VRML), some are still pretty useful but slowly on their way out (CGI) but many of them are very prominent now. I found a bunch of Python scripts I wrote back then, some Java apps and applets and even a Minesweeper game written in JavaScript. And the impressive thing is that even though those were all pretty early technologies at the time, these programs seem to run just fine today with the latest virtual machines and interpreters for their respective languages. Kuddos to the people who have been growing these technologies while maintaining backward compatibility. Speaking of technologies that were emerging at the time and have made it big since then, all these were served from a Linux server and the Python stuff was developed on a Linux desktop (Slackware was the distribution of choice).

1 Comment

Filed under Everything, Game, JavaScript, Minesweeper, Off-topic, Tech

We won’t get rid of SSN-based authentication anytime soon…

… because the issue has been mixed up with the whole terrorism/DHS hysteria. Game over. So now we have “Real ID” which won’t stop any terrorist but somehow is marketed as an anti-terrorist measure. I don’t like this law because it is too focused on physical identification (ID card) and not virtual identification. Trying to impersonate someone in person is difficult, dangerous (you risk being arrested on the spot or at least having your face captured by a security camera) and doesn’t scale. Doing it virtually is easy, safe and scales (you can even do it from anywhere in the world, including places where labor is cheap and the FBI doesn’t reach much). So this is where the focus should be. Also, this law is not respectful of privacy (the “unencrypted bar code” issue, even though if someone really wanted to systematically capture name and address from ID cards today they could take a picture of the ID and OCR it, the Real ID-mandated bar code would only make things a little easier).

On the other hand, I also can’t go along with the detractors of this law when they go beyond pointing out its shortcomings and start ranting about this creating a national ID card. While it’s true that this is what it effectively does, someone needs to explain to me why this is bad and why this would make the US a “police state”. If really such IDs are so damaging to liberties, why is it ok for every state to have them? What makes a national ID more dangerous than a state ID?

I agree that the Real ID effort is a bad cost/benefit trade off in terms of protection against terrorism. But leaving terrorism aside, we do need a robust (not necessarily perfect) way to authenticate people to access bank accounts and other similar transactions. In that respect, something like Real ID is needed. And in that context, the cost/benefit trade-off can be hugely positive if you think of how much impersonation costs and how much friction it creates in the country’s economy.

As long as we live in denial about what a Social Security number represents and as long as we can’t think sanely about terrorism, there can’t be an answer to the authentication problem.

Comments Off on We won’t get rid of SSN-based authentication anytime soon…

Filed under Everything, Identity theft, Off-topic, Security, SSN