Saturday, November 27, 2004

Why Open Source?

I had a conversation recently where someone challenged me to defend my interest in open source software, which I cheekily referred to as a "fever." The person asking was also a proponent of FOSS, and I wasn't any more interested in giving him a trite answer than he was in hearing one. I dug deep, rooted around in a pile of cliches that I immediately tossed aside, and came up empty. In the end I punted with some inarticulate babble about openness and how it betters "the community." I was right in what I said, but it was a poor argument that wouldn't have convinced someone sitting on the fence, let alone someone planted firmly in the other pasture. So I've got some thinking to do and some answers to come up with for the next time I find myself in this position.

Where do I fit?

I'm not much of a coder; my ability to produce cool code widgets, or even root out bugs in other people's code, is so wanting that I dare not even start. And so much of what the FOSS community is asking for help with is coding and related tasks that there's very little space for someone like me to contribute. Of course, you ask immediately, "what can someone like you do?" And I have a hard time articulating that, too.

As someone who's been using computers since 1980, wading through a variety of software from MagicWindow on the Apple //e to the GIMP on my SUSE laptop, I have some sense of what works in a user interface and what doesn't. Also, as someone who has made a career out of implementing enterprise class software (you know, the stuff that gets business done in a data center rather than "cool stuff" like network snooping utilities and filesystem managers), I have some sense of what integration means beyond knowing whether or not all the components can "speak" XML. But what does that all mean to the open source software world? Where do I fit in? My ego is sure that there's value in what I know. But how do we (my ego and I) present what that is in a manner that's convincing? Furthermore, how do I put it into practice? I sense a challenge.

Partial Answer

But the point of this post was to delve into the depths of why open source software is a good idea. The knee-jerk responses are that "information wants to be free" and "you can't have security without being able to see the code." But how many of us really look under the covers of Mozilla to see how it works? I know I don't, and I even mentioned that once. And, looking at that Slashdot post, I now remember why open source is a good idea:
"The biggest thing, though, is the openness. I don't read C code well enough to be able to delve into the bowells of the kernel or the GUI, or even modestly complex applications and have a chance of knowing what's going on. But there are people who can, and I know where to look to find out what they think. There's a certain safety that I feel when I run Linux that I don't feel when I run Windows. It's public safety, and it's maintained by the neighborhood watch."

So, there's the answer, or at least part of it. I'm sure there's more. So, tell me, why do you think open source software is a good idea?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Stuff and more stuff...

There's been a lot going on lately, and I keep thinking, "Oh, I should write about that." But then life gets in the way and I don't get around to it, then something else happens and the pattern repeats.

Twenty Years After 1984

One thing I've noted recently (in the news) is that some police departments, including Portland's, have started carrying handheld fingerprint scanners to identify people they are dealing with. Run your finger over the scanner, it connects wirelessly to a machine in the patrol car that links back to home base where the fingerprint is looked up in a database. If it finds a match, it sends the photo back to the handheld unit for comparison against the real McCoy.

At first blush, this seems like a great idea, particularly when you think about all the tax dollars that will be saved when police can more easily identify criminals they happen upon and cart them off to jail. But what about the time that they stop you for some minor infraction ("Excuse me, Sir, but you swerved back there. If you'll just run your finger over this scanner, I'll be with you in a moment.") and suddenly your fingerprint is in the system. Now, I don't mean to be spouting off Orwellan doom and gloom, but it seems a little invasive for them to be collecting physical characteristics on you or me when we haven't done anything wrong.

Which leads us to the really creepy stuff. Evidently California is expanding their collection of DNA samples, with further expansion in 2009 to "anyone arrested for or charged with any felony offense." So, now you don't even have to be convicted of something for your DNA to be on file. Kobe Bryant should sit up and take notice.

So, my question is, how long will it be before some Congressman who's been bent over a pork barrel calls California and says, "I want that database released to insurance providers." From there, how long until someone gets denied health insurance because they have the genes for some disease that's on a watch list somewhere.

Again, I don't mean to be spouting Orwellian FUD, but this sort of thing is staring us in the face.

Somebody Said Java was Dead

The guy over at Loosely Coupled is proclaiming the death of J2EE. I know that's not all Java is, but "Somebody said Java 2 Enterprise Edition was Dead" didn't make as catchy a headline, so bear with it. I read the blog post, and I just don't see that he's right. It seems that the Slashdot community agrees with me, but it took a flamewar to decide. What these pundits seem to be missing is that it doesn't really matter what the underlying technology is (J2EE, .NET, LAMP, etc.), the important aspect is the loosely coupled architecture that componentizes your infrastructure to the point that individual pieces can be upgraded, replaced, or (gasp!) have an outage without crashing the whole system. It's the best distance we've come from the days of the mainframe where everything was strapped to a single processor core and one OS image (LPARs notwithstanding). I'm not going to say that we've finally arrived at the ultimate architecture envisioned when people first started talking about distributed computing, but it sure seems like that statement would fit if I were of a mind to be so bold.

The Space Race

A small number of people (I hesitate to say fanboys, but that's about it), myself included, are still following the progress of Armadillo Aerospace. They're still making good progress, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a manned launch within six months. From there, it should be a short time (a couple years, maybe) before they are offering suborbital rides to paying custmers. When the price drops below my annual salary, I'll start thinking about booking a ticket. That should be a while, so I can start saving now.

In other space news, Bigelow has gotten his America's Space Prize underway. I sure hope he can come through with his end of the bargain, which includes orbiting a space station to dock with. Orbiting a platform that's not controlled by any government and open to customers who want to run experiments, host parties, or whatever, is the best way to encourage advancement in space technology.

The Vote

I was very pleased that so much of America got out and voted in the 2004 elections. The losing sides of all the elections are out scouring the countryside for evidence of voter fraud, looking for ways to overturn the decisions. While this may happen in a case or two, I seriously doubt there was enough fraud out there to make any major changes in people's lives.

While I was modestly disappointed by the reelection of President Bush, I don't think that it's that big of a deal. If we'd had John Kerry in that position, we would have had a different set of problems, and I'm not clairvoyant enough to tell whether they'd been better or worse. As it is, we're going with what we've got, and I hope that things come out well.

What I'm really frustrated about, though, is that 11 states across the U.S., including my own state of Oregon, voted to outlaw the notion of gay marriage in one fashion or another. I don't get it. How on Earth is my marriage to my wife affected by someone else, either next door or across the country, wanting to be married to someone they love? If someone has a clear explanation about why gays shouldn't be allowed the same protection under the law that I am, please send me an e-mail and let me know. I want to be enlightened, really I do. I don't have to agree with it, but I at least want to understand it.

Well, enough is enough. I hope none of you blow yourselves up while deep frying turkeys. I don't eat the stuff myself, but that's for another post. For all you Americans, happy Thanksgiving. For the rest of you, cheers.

If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Considering the DMCA

I see in the news today that John Kerry has made some vaporous comment about "considering" changing the impact of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), the weapon of choice for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in their fight to keep the river of money flowing into their coffers. Slashdot is carrying coverage of it in their new "Politics" section, and all of Geekdom has risen, flamethrowers in hand, to discuss it.

Whenever I read a discussion on the DMCA or a related topic on the web, I'm always amazed at the number of people that seem to be completely against the idea of any sort of copyright protection on anything. They somehow feel like it's their inalienable right to rent a DVD, make a copy of it, and share the copy on the Internet for anyone to download. The same goes for music. The early MP3-swapping craze showed that people have no respect for producers of the media they consume. The common chant is, "We prefer that money go to the artists, not the record producers." Okay, so how does you trading tracks with your buddy give the drummer for your favorite band the ability to pay his rent?

Having said all that, the majority of Congress, as well as the President, should be embarassed for letting something like the DMCA get passed. I put this admonition most directly on the President, as he is one person with the power of veto and should be considerate enough to see the ramifications of such a law. It ranks right up there with The Patriot Act in removing freedoms from Americans, as well as (evidently) those abroad. What's needed instead is a redressing of the whole core issue of content distribution and licensing that is simple and clear enough for everyone to understand, yet robust enough to address current and future distribution technologies.

A law that truly recognized the coming of a digital millenium (that's a thousand years, people) would separate media (the delivery mechanism) from content (what the consumer sees or hears, though sight and sound are not the only means of consumption or use), and both of those from licensing. Consumers have the responsibility to recognize and honor the fact that, when they consume or use a product that they did not produce, they need to pay for it in some fashion. Content distributors need to get over the idea that consumers should only use their products within the narrow band of options that they've graciously handed down. Content should be licensed for use, and the limitations should be on the order of personal use, broadcast use, or commercial redistribution. At that, the latter two are really only one, though there's enough grey area in the definitions of those to allow abuse, so in the interest of clear definitions, I suggest two categories.

A license for personal use of multimedia content should be just that; a consumer purchases content through some sort of delivery mechanism (media) with a license to use it themselves. The usage license should not include redistribution of any sort through replication, i.e. the purchaser cannot make a copy and give it to their friend. On the other hand, the purchase of the license should be for whatever sort of media the user chooses, and licenses should not have to be purchased twice. For instance, a consumer should not have to purchase music tracks once on cassette tape, then again on the higher quality CD, then again in one of the more convenient portable digital formats like OGG or AAC. Purchase of the license is for, in this case, listening to a music track. If someone can demonstrate that they own a license for content (such as by possession of a commercial CD), they should be able to use that content in any way they like on any device so long as it doesn't extend beyond the boundaries of personal use. In much the same way as I can have a bunch of friends over to the house to watch one of my DVDs, it's outside of the usage permissions to charge for tickets at the door. But if I want to rip the movie track to a DiVX file on a media server and keep the original DVD and its jacket away from my best friend's two year old, I shouldn't have to worry that I'm violating some federal law in doing so.

Broadcast licenses should be just as simple. If a consumer wants to redistribute content to a wide audience without specifically charging for individual pieces of content, they would need a broadcast license. Commercial radio stations or home-cooked DSL streaming media servers, file shares or public broadcasting stations, all would need a broadcast license. Licenses would likely come from the publisher in different "sizes" meant to address projected audience classes, but the base license would be the same; if you're going to broadcast this content, pay an appropriate royalty. Consumption of content from a broadcast-licensed media would confer only a personal usage license unless another type of license was purchased separately.

A commercial redistribution license is the one that is probably best understood and best addressed by today's standards. Record companies like Arista and Sony give licenses to redistributors like K-Tel and Columbia House to repackage and resell music and movies regularly. Apple and others have licensed music from those same producers to resell iTunes tracks to great levels of success. This licensing model is on a fast track for growth, and would probably grow even faster if the above-described personal content licensing scheme was widely adopted.

As with any broad-sweeping change in the way the public consumes things, a short period of chaos would ensue if these standards were put into effect. Everyone with an 8-track tape would be digging them out and using them to prove that, indeed, they have a license for Dylan's It Ain't Me, Babe that's stored on their Rio music player, and I'm sure that the newly-reformed Napster would be inundated with requests to download content without making payment. "I've already got it on vinyl, but I want it in MP3 as well, and I don't want to buy another license." In that case, it should be up to the consumer to "possess at their own risk," and Napster should not be held accountable to verify the veracity of their claims, if in fact they let the user download the tracks in question at all.

But with freedom comes responsibility, though, and content consumers should embrace their responsibility to the system as a whole. If, for instance, someone purchases a CD and rips it into OGG Vorbis files to store on their new all-in-one cell phone/PDA/music player, they shouldn't feel free to distribute that file to everyone on their instant messaging "friends" list. When you can get coupons for music tracks on Whopper wrappers and under Pepsi caps, the barriers to entry are extremely low. And, if consumers and producers both respect the system, the digital millenium can proceed with one less ball and chain holding it back in the twentieth century.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Bus Analogy

I've mentioned before that I work for an electric utility. Lately we've been fighting a steady stream of battles over the fact that a few local politicos think they can do a better job managing power delivery than our executive staff. They've been doing their best to get ballot measures passed that would carve out parts of our service territory and turn them into Public Utility Districts, or PUDs. They hold up a bunch of Perot-ist charts that use spurrious data to draw suspect conclusions on how they could've done things better than we have over the last [insert period of time here] and how we're risking the lives of old people and the infirm by our mere existence. They print up flyers, whip the media into a froth of enthusiasm, and make speeches about how it's time for a change.

[I should say here that I am by no means a member of the executive staff. By "we" I mean those of us who work for the company. We all feel like we have a certain amount of ownership of the problem of delivering safe, reliable power to our customers.]

What they neglect to do in all this, much like any salesman who leaves out the bad parts of any deal, is tell the people, our customers, about how much more its going to cost them in the final analysis. They neglect to mention that they're going to have to buy power on the same open market as everyone else, bidding against California consumers for their megawatts. Nor do they talk about where their corporate infrastructure is going to come from, such as an IT department to write and maintain code for the customer information system, a human resources department to handle the warm body infrastructure, or line crews to go out and fix downed power lines in the middle of a stormy night. I'm sure all of this is just too complicated to fit into their basic message, and that's why their not mentioning it.

So, it struck me that I could use a charter bus as an analogy. Not that you're too dumb to figure this out for yourself, but I like analogies, and I'm going to use one.

It seems to me that these people are riding along on the bus, and they decide that, after all this time watching what the driver is doing, that they could drive the bus better. Their fellow passengers listen while these dissenters tell them about how, if they were driving the bus, they would always maintain the same speed no matter how steep the hill, only drive on roads without potholes, stop at every spot that someone onboard wanted to, and make ticket prices so cheap that no one ever need worry about getting onboard, even if gas prices far outstrip ticket prices.

The way they're going to accomplish all this is by starting with a few seats, passengers and all, off of this very bus. You see, with seats, passengers, and competent drivers, you're most of the way there. Sure, you're missing a few minor things like wheels, brakes, and an engine. But those are minor, and surely things will work out so that the new bus will run. And don't worry, ticket prices will be low, that will get figured out, too. And, if ever the new bus breaks down, why this bus line we're on will give us a free ride, because it's the law.


I'm just starting to realize that I never should have written this. I've gotten this far and it's got me mad, so I'm going to stop. I should come to my point before I leave you, though, so here it is:

If you see a ballot measure this election season that proposes the formation of a PUD, carved out of the service territory of your local power company, look closely at the details of their plan before you vote. I'm not even asking you to vote "No" (though I sure would like it if you do), I'm just asking you to pay close attention to what they say and what they don't say. I think you'll be able to decide for yourself that it's a bad idea. As a matter of fact, I sure of it. Like I said, you're not so dumb that you can't figure this out for yourself.


If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Kill, Kill, Kill!

I've watched two debates in the campaign for President over the last week, and a recurring theme that absolutly disgusts me is that of candidates on both sides saying that we're going to "hunt and kill" the terrorists. John Kerry hit this first and hardest, saying, "...I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are." No mention of an attempt to capture, try on war crime or international terrorism charges, imprison, or otherwise humanely deal with those who have or might in the future attack us. He's just going to kill them wherever he finds them.

When I heard Kerry say this, it sounded to me like something stuffed in his mouth by some campaign manager that thought he needed to show how tough he was. Later, he decried President Bush for not using American forces to kill Bin Laden when "we had him surrounded." Whether or not we had him surrounded is a topic of another debate, and not one I'm qualified to take up.

I could have let it go, waiting for him to say later that he didn't mean it the way it sounded, and that he meant something totally different. That's become a common theme with him, so it would not be wholly unexpected.

But everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon. To his credit, President Bush, for all his talk of death and destruction over the course of the last four years, talked about "the killers" as the enemy, reserving the term "defeat the enemy" for the action that the U.S. was going to take. This is consistent theme with him, and is, in my opinion, the only way to view a war action. Soldiers defeat an enemy, using lethal force if necessary; murderers are the ones who kill, seeing that as the goal, not the means to an end.

In last night's Vice Presidential debates, John Edwards took an early chance to repeat Kerry's spurious admonition that we didn't kill Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Vice President Cheney responded in a prideful fashion that we had "...captured or killed thousands of al Qaeda in various places around the world." This may be merely a statement of fact, but it sure doesn't seem like something to be proud of, at least the killing part. And, for all the things I don't like about Mr. Cheney, I've never thought that he liked the idea of killing people unnecessarily. Then again, I've never met the man, and can't say I know one way or the other.

Ah, but then there's John Edwards. I don't know him either, and maybe it's just his stage presence showing through, but I thought he repeated John Kerry's message that they "will find terrorists where they are and kill them before they ever do harm to the American people, first" with such vigor that it seemed born of his own heart. As his running mate did, he went on to repeat the message before the end of the debate, making sure that the American people understood him. I'm not sure how we could have missed it the first time.

I'm definitely not in the category of "bleeding heart liberal" in my political or social views. I think murderers should be punished for their actions appropriately, and I think that society needs to be protected from those who would do it harm, sometimes in a pre-emptive fashion. But I don't think death is an appropriate goal without first considering options, and none of us, as Americans or as civilized people of Earth, should relish killing.

If the leadership of this country is going to be decided on who's the best one to go kill people who may or may not have done us harm, then I want a new system of choice.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Little things...

I haven't posted anything in a couple of weeks. Everything I read about good blog manners says that you have to post as much as humanly possible, practically spending every waking hour at the keyboard writing about the things you'd be doing if you weren't in here writing a blog. So, I'm a bad citizen. I'll flagellate myself later, I promise.

I've been developing an essay on enterprise data security, but it's not going to be done for quite a while. It's dry as a chip, and as hard to write as it is to read. Once I get the research done, all the facts down, and draw a few conclusions, I'll try to spruce it up a little before I post it. If it's too dry, neither of you will want to read it.

In the News...

Space: There's been a lot going on in the news lately. Very recently, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne made the first of two required flights to an altitude qualifying as "space" in pursuit of the much-desired Ansari X-Prize, with the second flight expected within a week. However much I congratulate Mr. Rutan and his colleagues on their accomplishment, I can't help but lament that one of the other contenders isn't set to win the race. Mr. Rutan has done a great many things in the realm of "first" during his career; I'd like to see someone else in the limelight. Many of the other teams struggled to get their projects done on shoestring budgets, and maybe a few more billionaires could have stepped up with funds to make a real competition out of it.

My favorite, Armadillo Aerospace, seemed to have a good run going for a while. I really thought they were going to make it. Engine troubles plagued them the whole way, though, as well as some fuel supply issues. The engine troubles seem to be resolved, but the fuel supply issues (manufacturers won't sell them high grade hydrogen peroxide) still haven't been worked out. They still have a viable business in the joy-ride launch business, though, if they can get their vehicle completed. My fingers are still crossed.

Film: This weekend, the much awaited anime film Ghost in the Shell 2 is going to be playing in Portland. I'm generally not much for anime, with its preponderance of big headed, doe-eyed, prepubescent school girls with voices that would shatter glass as the main characters. A few films, though, use the Japanese animation techniques to tell stories more traditionally aligned with science fiction. I really love movies and novels about a gritty, dark near-future where the world as we know it has come unravelled and the characters are doing their best to find their way in what remains. I saw the first Ghost in the Shell about six or eight years ago and really enjoyed it. The plot was straightforward and not terribly unique, but the story was interesting and the artwork was excellent. Since then I've been enchanted by Cowboy Bebop, The Last Exile, and a few of the Animatrix shorts produced by the Wachowski brothers. I hope that producers continue to see a market for these pieces. Evidently there's some support for it, because the beautiful Charlize Theron is starring in a live action version of Aeon Flux, which has been a somewhat enigmatic short clip favorite on MTV for years.

Politics: Speaking of anime, the presidential debates are on tonight. I'm looking forward to hearing what they both have to say, even though I sort of feel like the analysts have read the scripts to me every day this week already. Early on in the year, I had the hope that the Dems would put up a candidate that could stand up to the Republican machine with the virve and stamina, not to mention good looks and charisma that it takes to win an election. John Kerry's not that guy, and the only hope I have now is that people across America are pissed off enough to get out and vote.

Mind you, I'm not against the Republicans in general, just a few of them that are at the top of the heap right now. Like a lot of people, I'd vote for Colin Powell in a hot minute (twice if I lived in Florida) if he were running. There are several people in the Republican party that I think would make fine leaders of this country, but the one we have isn't one of them, and neither is his second. Furthermore, I don't see how we can have a balanced system of government in this country if all three components of the government are held in majority by one political party. Don't we decry other countries that find themselves in this position as un-democratic? Of course, ten years ago we went over and kicked Iraq's ass for having the audacity to invade another country where we had business interests. We've become one of those "do as I say, not as I do" people. No wonder our president gets nothing but golf claps at the U.N.

I want a new president in this country so that I'm not embarassed to go outside of its borders. I can deal with going to Canada, but I don't feel comfortable with the idea of being an American in Europe right now. Not that I'm afraid, but I'm really ashamed. And I love this country and all she used to stand for.

Culture: Elsewhere, I saw recently that Madonna has taken an interest in Kabbalah, a Jewish form of mysticism. It's all over the news, and photographers hound her at the temples and shrines she visits. Pardon me, but why is this news? I took an interest in Buddhism once, no one cared. Okay, so I'm not as famous as Madonna is. For that matter, I'm probably not as famous as her dog walker, if she's got one. But this woman has, since I was a wee teenager, been delving into whatever interested her at the moment with all the energy she can muster, which is evidently a lot. I don't imagine that her interest in Kabbalah will last long, nor will anyone care about it a year from now. Does anyone remember or care about all the hoopla around Stevie Nicks being a "white witch?" Okay, you over there, put your hand down. Really, it doesn't matter.

Outdoors: Anyone living in Portland may have noticed recently the new addition to the river front between OMSI and the Hawthorne Bridge. It's a new dock for non-motorized boats, such as kayaks (yay!!), canoes, rowing shells and dragon boats. It's been put in place in conjunction with the opening of the Portland Boathouse, an educational organization for paddlesports. The launch platform on the dock is very close to the water, so it's easier to get in and out of small boats, and there are no cleats on it to get your pants caught on. I did that once, getting my shorts caught on a tie-up cleat as I was sliding into the cockpit of my boat. There I was, suspended halfway into the boat, both feet in but not the rest of me. In several less-than-graceful moves, I managed to extricate myself from the situation and sort of belly-flop back up onto the dockside, where I moved my boat down a little and got in without further incident. Embarassment was my only wound, though it cut deep as I looked around at all the yachters in the moorage, staring down at me with looks of disgust and amusement. I could tell that they thought I should take my playtoy elsewhere. Too bad. I'm sure one or two of them were nice people once.

I can't wait to get my boat down to the water at the new dock, though.

Well, I'm going to leave this thing for now, as I don't have anything more to say. Feel free to comment on anything I've said by clicking the link down here at the bottom of the post. I started this thing because I wanted to interact with people more than I was by posting the occasional bit of blather on Slashdot. It doesn't seem to be working. I'll keep it up for a while, though, and see what happens.


If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The technology's here, why can't we have it?

I just finished reading an article by Peter Coffee entitiled "The paper(less) chase" in the April 26 issue of eWeek. It's essentially a cry for the implementation of an idea at least 35 years old; the paperless office. In a response e-mail to Mr. Coffee, I pointed out that my finding the article is actually a testament to the paper medium itself, considering how old the article is.

You see, between my keyboard and my monitor is a space that's right-sized for holding paper (okay, a lot of it) with subjects ranging far and wide. Normally it's a staging area for work to be done, with meeting notes and "to do" lists piling up faster than I can work on them and send them off to recycling. Occasionally a magazine will show up there, and I can page through it while waiting for something, or when I'm just tired of doing what I should be doing instead. I can read articles that catch my eye, and in general, the whole situation doesn't interrupt my workflow at all. Indeed, it takes only a moment to re-focus on what I was doing on the screen, making my few moments of entertainment completely unintrusive.

Because of the convenient nature of the paper medium, it may be years before magazines, particularly IT trade journals, go out of print in favor of a soft method of delivery. Still, the reasons for printing reams and reams of project kickoff documents, meeting agendas that no one reads, or draft versions of documents that are only going to get a few scribbles before they're printed again are thinner than the paper itself.

As Mr. Coffee points out, what's needed is an infrastructure that will support working with documents in all the ways we need to without printing them out. For me, among other things, this would mean a PDA that'squite a bit larger than the ones currently on the market. I'm thinking of something the size of a steno pad rather than the pack-of-cigarettes size that seems to be the norm. It needs to have high contrast and high resolution, but relatively a low processor speed is all that's required, as the client software itself shouldn't be doing much. Wireless connectivity would be a must, but other ports could be left out beyond what's necessary for a desktop cradle. A Compact Flash (CF) slot would be all the local memory expansion it needed. The real cue is to make it thin; as thin as the Palm V, which was a wonder of design engineering. It may not be small enough to fit in a pocket, but it doesn't have to feel like a brick, either. My point is that we have all the hardware technology we need, we just need to choose to package it this way.

The software, of course, is where the real bugaboo is. A Web browser could easily handle a lot of document display, if only document authors would write in a tool that was appropriate. Markup could be done in a whiteboarding application, launched with a tap on the right button in an on-screen toolbar. But the real trick is to integrate everything into a nice, easy to use, single environment, where the list of invitees to the meeting can be checked off for those attending, then those peoples' web pads (identified by them being logged in) can be sent notices to launch the whiteboarding application with Document X loaded. The meeting minutes template would, at the end of the meeting, show up in the chairperson's Drafts folder, preloaded with all the known information from the meeting (attendee list, documents covered, time and location, etc.). It's this sort of integration that drives productivity.

Price is the other big issue. $600 per unit won't drive the adoption of this sort of technology on an enterprise scale, but $200 per unit might. The infrastucture and deployment costs should be as inexpensive as possible, relying on standards-based technologies like 802.11x and USB (for the cradle). The software client license should be part of the cost of the client unit, and it should leverage whatver identity management and file sharing system an enterprise already has in place (Active Directory, eDirectory, Windows file service, Netware, etc, etc). In short, make it cheap and easy, with final implementation costs being as little as possible beyond the per unit cost plus training and implementation labor. Huge licensing fees for infrastructure will scare off all but the most wasteful customers.

Technology companies have a real opportunity here to leverage existing components in a new and useful way. With known development costs and a carefully laid marketing plan, an unfilled market niche can be captured with very little risk. So, when are we going to see any of this? "Real soon now," I'm sure.

I, for one, am tired of waiting.

If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Home Tours -- The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

So, how about something a little less heady than the two "enterprise ready" posts I put up recently? I want to put useful things up here, but they don't have to be as dry as the desert. I don't care for the desert; I'm a valley sort of person, preferring maple and Douglas fir to sage and pine.

"Home Show" season is just over in the Portland area, and we hit the three big ones this year (again). Jen and I have some sort of strange addiction to going to these things, but it seems we're in good company, because half the rest of Portland seems to be at every show we turn up to.

For those of you not familiar with these events, a group of builders works like mad for six months in a new development to erect houses showcasing their talents. Once comlete, promoters publish tour guidebooks crammed full of advertisements for companies who had some hand in the construction or decor in the houses, lending companies who will happily work a deal for you, or travel companies that figure anyone who wants to dream about owning a house like this will want to take a vacation to get away from their miserable existences. Stacks of guidebooks at the ready, the promoters open the gates and charge you twelve bucks to walk through the houses, "ooh"-ing and "ahh"-ing the whole way, right along with the rest of the wannabe millionaires in the local area.

The three shows we went to this year (and last) are The Street of New Beginnings (home prices ranging from $350,000 to $600,000), The Clark County Parade of Homes ($600,000 to $1,000,000) and The Street of Dreams ($1,300,000 to $1,900,000). To let you know where we stand in all this, our house is worth around $175,000 after several years of good market appreciation since we bought it (for significantly less). My point is, we're not exactly touring these homes trying to figure out which one we should buy.

The Good...
The best show this year was by far The Clark County Parade of Homes. The quality of construction was excellent, and the decor, at least in most of the homes, was very pleasant. Some of the styles were not to my taste, but someone must like them, as they went to a lot of work to put them in place. Still, when considering that you could have purchased any two of most of the houses on this tour for less than the low-rent home in The Street of Dreams, the value per dollar was extremely high. My commendation goes out to all the builders.

A lot of attention has been given in the last few years to outdoor living spaces, at least here in the Portland area. While our winters can be miserably rainy and dark, the temperatures rarely get below the level that you don't want to be outside. Indeed, many people here wear shorts year round, layering polar fleece and rain shells on their torsos to stay comfortable. So, as long as you can stay dry, outside is a great place to be, and houses with extensive covered porches and decks, complete with fully configured kitchens, fireplaces, dining areas and places to lounge have become all the rage.

The other hot-ticket item for these houses is the home theater. As big-screen technology becomes more accessible to Joe Sixpack (microbrew, please), home theaters are becoming more common. THX-certified audio systems, video-on-demand, high-definition televisions and hard-disk video recorders are available in every department store you look in these days. So, armed with some electronics, some dark wall paint, and a heavy velvet curtain, Joe and all his neighbors are putting in home theater rooms. At the home shows, the bar is set fairly high for making an impression, and builders seem to be willing to clear it. Wet bars have turned into mini-kitchens, screen sizes have gone up, and the subwoofers (one we heard was 3000 watts) will push the air out of your lungs. Ammenities include popcorn poppers, plush sofas, and recliners that you never want to leave. The wiring is all nicely routed through the walls to closets that hide the ugly technical details of the situation. And, with the rising price of movie tickets, not to mention movie popcorn, spending money on a home theater system is starting to make more sense all the time.

The Bad...
One downside to a lot of these houses is that they don't seem to be homes. By that I mean that, even though they have all of the checklist items for a family dwelling, a lot of designers don't seem to consider the needs of families. This is by no means a rule; there were several houses on the tours this year that were nearly ideal designs for your average family of four. Still, most houses concentrate a lot of floorspace in the master suite (where the people paying for the house sleep, I suppose), in some cases completely neglecting the needs or desires of other family members. Bedrooms beyond the master are small and oddly shaped, with poor attention to furniture placement options and almost no closet space. What teenager do you know that doesn't need about twice the closet space as their parents combined? In some houses, the master suite was not only at the other end of the house from the rest of the bedrooms, but on a different floor. While this seems great at first blush, how does one parent while the obj d'art is half a city block away?

And the Ugly...
The thing that really sets me on edge about some of these houses is running across glaring examples of poor craftsmanship amidst all the opulence. It's one thing to run across the occasionally squeaky floorboard, but quite another to see concrete sealer sprayed on patio doors or wallplates that don't quite cover the hole in the sheetrock. Communication between the tradesmen seems to be an issue, too. In one home, the counter that separated the kitchen from the foyer followed a curve that was reflected in the radius of the drop-ceiling edge. The lighting, recessed "potlights" in this case, also followed the curve, nicely integrating the whole look. That is, until you notice the built-in celing speaker, which seemed to be arbitrarily placed just off the line of the curve the lights were on, destroying the visual cleanliness of the fascade. Another look determined that the speaker placement was following a straight line of other speakers that went down a short hallway, but a minor adjustment to that line would have made the last speaker land perfectly on the curve line with the lights. Maybe only I notice this sort of thing, but if I were going to pay upward of half a million dollars for a house, I would want the builders to notice as well.

The sites are another thing that gets to me every year, and, listening to comments from the rest of the tourists, I'm not alone. I don't know about you, but I don't want to lounge around in my master suite's Italian marble-lined bathtub and find myself waving "hi" to the neighbor kids in the Ranger Rick playhouse next door, nor do I want to look into Mrs. Kravitz' bedroom from my home office. That's one place that The Street of Dreams did it right this year; the lots were an average of two acres in size. At first I thought, who wants to mow all that yard? But if you've got that much money, hire a landscaper.

In all, I enjoyed the home shows this year. The one thing that was really hammered home this year, though, is build versus buy. If you're going to spend that much money on a house, don't expect to get what you want in a pre-built home. Talking to a lot of people, I've culled the following tips:

  • Find an architect, a good builder, and a good site for your new home. If you go to one source for all three of these (a builder who has an architect and a realtor waiting in the wings to help you, for instance), you're either going to pay more than you should for the service, or not get just what you want.
  • Plan to wait two months longer than you think it will take (say, eight months instead of six) to accomodate schedule slips and post-build repairs.
  • Get a good warranty on the home, and hold the builder to the repairs. Once you've paid them for the job, they're off to do another house, and it's hard to get them to pay attention to the things you need on a job they thought they were finished with. Like horses with blinders on, builders only see what's in front of them.
Follow these links for more information on these home shows:

If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Introducing Change in a Resistive Environment

Introducing change into any work environment, no matter how supportive it is of change, can be a difficult prospect. Almost five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli recognized this when he wrote, "…it is worth noting that nothing is harder to manage, more risky in the undertaking, or more doubtful of success than to set up as the introducer of a new order." He went on to describe people as skeptics, that they "don’t really believe in anything new [until] they have solid experience of it." Resistance will occur, though, and the introducers of change should be prepared for it. Passive resistance can be the worst thing to combat because it is insidious and can be difficult to detect. But resistance isn’t always a bad thing. It encourages a search for alternative, perhaps superior methods to support or supplant the ones originally intended. In any case, taking care to communicate with the people affected by the change, "selling" the problem as it exists as well as the solution proposed, and making sure that those who end up on the losing end of a change have something to look forward to are key issues in creating a successful transition.

The first step in creating a successful transition to a new order is to have a solid understanding of the processes that exist. People sometimes balk at the idea of completely documenting a process that is no longer going to be used, but it is part of a necessary first step. If the architects of the change don’t completely understand what they are changing, they may find themselves fixing one problem and causing a host of others. People who couldn’t articulate all the facets of the job they do at planning time will quickly detect when a change causes problems. Often it is a subconscious understanding of the way they work, developed over years of doing the job that alerts them to the problem. It’s something that they couldn’t see before they found themselves in the position of having to work through all the issues, and many times, by the time they’ve discovered the problems, it’s too late to do anything about them. This is the primary reason that good process documentation, of both the existing and the planned processes, is critical before embarking on a change.

People who have been doing things one way for a long time tend to become comfortable and complacent with their job and are reticent to introduce anything new into their daily routine, especially if it involves letting go of something. And, since most change management comes from outside the work group, they are sure that those making the changes don’t understand what’s going on well enough to decide what to change. In a description of the people of Machiavelli’s time, Robert Adams inadvertently provides a caricature of people who find themselves the subject of outside influences: "They tend to be ironic if not cynical, and rather proud of the fact that nobody likes them—which they take to be evident proof of their superior intelligence." Unfortunately, this caricature applies just as well to those making the changes. William Bridges says that, "to deal successfully with transition, you need to determine precisely what changes in their existing behavior and attitudes people will have to make. … They need to know how teamwork differs behaviorally and attitudinally from the way they are working now. … Until these changes are spelled out, people won’t be able to understand what you tell them." In short, open and complete communication is necessary to make effective changes.

One pitfall that can beset many organizations is the temptation to implement change for the sake of change. Creating change to combat stagnation can be an attractive siren, but things will look different when the entire organization is drowning in expensive new work processes that don’t work any better than the old ones. The old adage of, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," applies directly here. If the business works well in its current state, and the processes scale well enough to accommodate any increase in business that might happen, then there is likely no need for anything new.

One counterpoint to this is that change combats apathy. Bridges points out that, "people who are sure they have the answers stop asking questions. And people who stop asking questions never challenge the status quo." If the business processes work well, but production is slipping because people are bored with what they do, a small but significant change in the way things are done can have a dramatic effect on people’s attitudes. Sometimes simple things, such as rearranging furniture into a less cellular setting can be enough to encourage change.

Bridges also describes something called "the neutral zone" as the transitional period when old processes are winding down and new ones are ramping up. Management of this "zone," he says, is an important factor in effectively completing a transition.

Per Bridges' description of the neutral zone, several dangers take a variety of forms. They include:

  1. Anxiety rises and motivation falls. People feel disoriented and self-doubting, resentful and self-protective, and energy is drained away from work into coping tactics.
  2. People miss more workdays than at other times. Productivity suffers and medical and disability claims rise sharply.
  3. Old weaknesses, long patched over, reemerge in full flower. Resentments over generous executive severance packages come up again, when everyone’s trust in the organization’s leaders is slipping, and old communication problems that were getting better suddenly get much worse.
  4. With personnel overloaded, signals are often mixed, and systems are in flux and therefore unreliable. Priorities get confused, information gets miscommunicated, and tasks go undone. And, with so many things uncertain and frustrating, turnover begins to rise.
  5. People become naturally divided into two groups; those who want to rush forward with the new change and those who want to go back to the old ways. Consensus breaks down and the level of discord rises.
  6. Lastly, it’s noted that, during a time of change, corporations and other organizations find themselves vulnerable to attack from outside. Disorganized and tired, people respond slowly and halfheartedly to competitive threats.

While this "neutral zone" is a part of every organizational change, the time spent there varies widely. Good planning and open communication can reduce stress and create a fertile environment for a healthy transition.

Another method for reducing stress is to make one large, sweeping change rather than a series of small changes that achieve the same end state. While this may seem contrary, the "transactional overhead" of creating incremental changes can create stress in the workforce. Many people would prefer to "just get it over with" and absorb one large change than be assaulted with month after month of small changes to the way they work.

One of the greatest challenges presented to an introducer of change is the need to sell the problem to the people affected. With most changes in organizational procedure, some people find themselves in a less prestigious position than they previously held. If everyone in a group is trained to be effective in all positions, then those who exclusively held those positions before find themselves less unique and may start to wonder if their jobs are suddenly in jeopardy. Convincing those people that the new changes are good can be very difficult. Spencer Johnson, author of Who Moved My Cheese? illustrates this point deftly, as can be seen in the following paragraph:

Hem appreciated his friend’s gesture but said, "I don’t think I would like New Cheese. It’s not what I’m used to. I want my own Cheese back and I’m not going to change until I get what I want."
While many would object to the idea of being compared to mice and cheese in a maze, Johnson’s parable holds true. If people don’t embrace a change, they will never complete the transition. It’s the process of letting go that people resist, not the change itself.

Finally, the use of "benchmarking" with other groups or companies who have gone through the same sort of changes or that are in the same situation can assist in designing a successful transition. It can also help the people involved see that others are, have been or need to be in the same position they are. Comparison of work processes, management techniques, standards, or whatever else describes the situation under change will aid the discover how things can be changed for the better.

Implementing change can be a difficult prospect. People comfortable with the status quo are hesitant to embrace new things, especially when it reduces their standing in an organization. Getting their "buy-in," engendering in them a sense of ownership of the solution, will ease the transition period or "neutral zone." In this "zone," organizations leave themselves open to a variety of ills, including blatant and passive sabotage of the project, missed work days, polarization of the workforce into groups of competing idealists, and threats from competing organizations. Clear communication of both the problem being solved and the architecture of the solution can ease the pains of the transition, especially if the solution is designed with a clear understanding of the organization and its existing processes. People with years of experience at a job can be slow to elaborate on all the aspects of their job, but quick to discover when something new won’t work. But knowing that people are naturally skeptics, and that resistance will occur during most change projects can prepare change managers for the worst problems. And, with five hundred years of accumulated literature on the subject, a leader of change can find assistance for almost any problem encountered literally at their fingertips.


  • Management First, "Resistance to Change: Enemy or Ally?"
  • Fast Company, "Resistance Fighter"
  • Adams, Robert M. The Prince, Second Edition, Niccolo Machiavelli. Norton, 1992.
  • Bridges, William. Managing Transitions; Making the Most of Change. Addison Wesley, 1991.
  • Johnson, Spencer. Who Moved My Cheese? Putnam, 1998.
If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Open Source Software -- How do we engage the community?

When people hear the phrase "Free and Open Source Software," they immediately think of "free" in economic or monetary terms. While this concept applies, the term is really intended to address, as the community puts it, "free as in freedom, not free as in beer."

This "community" that I speak of is made up of software architects, developers, even a few documentation writers, who commit their time and talent to projects where the only compensation to be had comes in the form of gratitude from their fellow developers and the user community for a job well done. This fact alone stymies the capitalist-minded proprietary software developers who have a hard time understanding that there are more rewards in life than pure monetary gain.

In the face of this unknown entity, many prominent software producers have reacted with a campaign of fear, uncertainty and doubt to try and corral the concept of free and open software into a thing they can compete against. This campaign has taken hold, and in some cases factionalized the user base into those who are for the concept of open software and those who are against it. Each group looks to the other with pity, thinking that "they just don’t get it." The fact is that there is a place in most organizations for both kinds of software, and better education can empower decision-makers to choose the right path at the right time.

The question at hand is, "Does open source software have a place at my company?" My answer to that is that there is and will continue to be a place here and elsewhere for open source software, and that the true question lies elsewhere.

Open source software packages are in broad use on many companies' systems whether they realize it or not. Many vendors choose the Apache web server over proprietary ones for inclusion in their products; Perl is a standard language for development on both Unix and Windows systems, and the venerable Sendmail handles the e-mail needs of most Unix servers. The list continues, but I think you get the idea…

But "Open Source" isn’t a product or group of products, it’s a different philosophy around software development and distribution. Traditional support is available, feature sets are robust, and code quality is good. The variances in these categories are broad, just as they are with closed-source software, and should, as always, be top on the list of questions when considering new packages to implement. The question that needs addressing, though, is how our comapnies want to participate in the open source software community. Do we continue as consumers, or do we start giving back to the community that we take from?

In many industries, vertical market software vendors, self-described "industry experts," are getting fat on licensing and consulting fees for software that, in many cases, is crippled, light on features, and poorly documented. They charge us to tell them what the software should do, charge us for the software, then charge us again to fix the problems that we spent the time to test for. Software implementation requires a fleet of lawyers, a ton of paperwork, and hours of project management time that could be better utilized elsewhere.

Take, for example, the energy industry [In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I currently work in the energy industry, no pun intended]. There are over a hundred and fifty electric utilities, large and small across the United States and Canada that collaborate to keep the lights on and motors turning in a giant electrical grid. If even a portion of those companies contributed some part of their technical staff to projects geared to developing free and open source software for the utility industry, the cost to serve loads would drop dramatically, retained earnings would go up, and those utilities would take back control of their information systems from the life-stealing software vendors that hold them hostage.

[Okay, so we've hit upon a sore spot. I will say that I've encountered vendors that were truly top notch. But I've encountered far more that are just as I describe them above. Remember, "V is for Vendor, V is for Vampire." I'm sure that will get me in trouble with the next vendor I deal with, but I'll just tell them they're in the other group. It might actually be true. ]

So, does open source software have a place in your company or mine? Yes it does. Should our companies contribute to the open source community and take charge of our information systems? For us, I believe so. For you, the decision is in your hands.

Links to follow up:

If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

    Off we go...

    Well, here we are. Thanks for taking the time to read this; I hope you won't be disappointed.

    I've read a few things on writing lately; one of them can be found here. It contains a scathing testament against the education system in the United States, which led me to think about this piece, the prologue to a book I'm interested in reading. My favorite passage from the prologue sets the tone for what I hope the contents of this blog will be:

    Reading my essay will help you sort things out. It will give you a different topological map upon which to fix your own position. No doubt I’ve made some factual mistakes, but essays since Montaigne have been about locating truth, not about assembling facts. Truth and fact aren’t the same thing.
    Indeed, truth and fact are often quite distant from one another, but they are rarely, if ever, disassociated from each other entirely. Sometimes, though, people have become so settled in their ways of thinking that it takes great energy to wrest them from their track. They are comfortable walking along their path of truth, passing well-known waypoints of facts along the way. Eventually, the walls of the track become so high, the groove worn so deep, that they can no longer see other paths they might take.

    So, in that squishy, "everyone's included, let's sing Kum Ba Yah" manner that makes us feel good and sick to our stomachs all at the same time, I say let's embark on a journey of discovery together. I'll provide a few essays, as well as links to other people's essays, interesting items around the net, and whatever suits my fancy. You post comments, let me know when I either hit the mark or hit the backstop (sorry for mixing metaphors there).

    I've been posting to various messageboards around the Internet for many years. In recent times, I've taken to adding a signature to my posts (it took me many years to come up with something I felt represented what I was saying while being cute at the same time). From that "sig," I created the name for this collection of essays. I hope they live up to my expectations. But more importantly, I hope they live up to yours, because without you, my audience, I write for nothing.

    If you don't stir the pot,
    the stuff at the bottom just sits there.