Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Keep it simple?

I know the advice offered up by Dean Rieck in his "Ultimate Blogger Writing Guide" is exactly what I should be doing to increase the readability of my blog and widen my audience. But I find I tire easily of blogs written in small words, with short sentences arranged in short paragraphs. I long for complexity. I crave writing that requires thought and digestions before I decide if I agree or disagree. I love it when an interesting article sends me off to my dictionary to look up a word, which will then be added to my working vocabulary and is certain to show up in a future blog post of my own. I recently used the word "ponder" in a facebook status and had a high school sophomore seriously asking what it meant to "ponder" something. Perhaps, if we were not all trying to write to the lowest, widest common denominator, more readers would be stretched and grow. Then again, maybe they would just stop reading what we have to say...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Playing telephone with the truth..

One of the primary things that many years of studying/practicing academic research science taught me is always go back to the primary source- get as close to the raw data as possible. Today's latest news blurb nonsense made it obvious that this is true in all areas of life- especially news as spread by social media.

I love getting up to the second news bits and pieces, love that social media helps me find information that would have been lost to me otherwise, but I get frustrated that the growing push to get more pieces out faster is corroding the truth of what is being spread. Here is my latest experience:

1) I receive the following Tweet from @mollywood on Twitter:
"DUDES. Obama may get rid of Daylight Savings Time!? Do it! Do it!"
2) Because I was sitting at my computer, I clicked through on the URL. It took me to a BoingBoing article with the headline "Obama might get rid of daylight saving time". The lead off sentence reads: "President-elect Obama wants to get rid of daylight saving time in the United States to conserve energy. " And the short BoingBoing summary has a click through link that reads: "Obama Looks to Axe Daylight Time". Being a DST hater myself, I was intrigued. I clicked through- what would the man of hope have to say about DST?

3) That link took me to a GreenDaily article with the headline: "Obama Should Axe Daylight Time -- NYT Op-Ed Explains Why". My confusion was growing. Note the change in language between the two headlines, although the BoingBoing article was meant to summarize and highlight the GreenDaily article. This was not an Obama opinion at all, this was a scientific report in the NYT. The GreenDaily article linked through to the original NYT article. I am always looking for evidence against DST, so I clicked through.

4) I ended up on an OpEd ( that Op stands for Opinion, in case you did not know) NYT piece entitled "What’s the Point of Daylight Time?" It is actually a good read and contains references to research done recently with Indiana data- but being an Opinion piece, has no links or references to the actual data or studies. This was an article that originally went into print on Nov 20 in the paper version of the NYT. If I had read this straight from the paper, it would have driven me to the computer to look up the researchers, drive back to the original research. It is too easy to just read something that agrees with your opinion and not check the facts. Unfortunately, this trail that got me here already took too much of my lunch hour, so the real background checking will have to wait until later. You can go do it yourself and comment here on what you find, or wait a day or two for me to update here.

What does this teach us? It took very little effort to go from an opinion piece in the NYT where some researchers are discussing their research and making an open general recommendation to the new president on actions they like, to an environmental blog summarizing the NYT opinion piece and correctly reporting it as the NYT recommending this action to the President-elect to a BoingBoing article that made it sound like Obama was actually taking action. As we speak, the internet is blossoming with articles saying "Obama looks to axe DST", "Obama wants to get rid of DST", etc..- all of them linking back to the BoingBoing article. And yet, in NO part of the sources of these articles did any information come from the Obama camp.

I am a proponent of distributed news and social bookmarking. For this to work, we need to keep the flow of information "clean", rather than a news headline version of telephone that results in a distributed flood of articles with as much veracity as the National Enquirer. Try the following to help keep the information flowing:

1) If you are passing on a news article or "fact", take an extra 3 minutes and click through to the source.
2)Reference the original news source, in addition to the "pass through" intermediary.
3) Don't just recap the headline of the intermediary you read,read the original and re-summarize if you think the intermediary got it wrong; or link the to intermediary and give some value add as to why this is good or bad news.

Monday, November 17, 2008

switching roles: journalist mode

I am getting settled in here at SC08 in Austin Texas. This is one of the conferences where I get to attend as Press, a fun hat switch for me. I like approaching new technologies from the perspective of outsider looking in, questioning how we can stretch the discipline and grow it in many directions. When I have my journalist hat on, it is how to grow it in the direction of Manufacturing IT.
Instead of looking as a consumer of technology, I get to brainstorm on behalf of many technology consumers, trying to think not just what my family or my company needs.. but what anyone could possibly do with some of the new ideas being introduced. I get to dream, think big and travel way outside of the box. Most of my "official" posts will appear over on the Intech High Performance Computing Blog, but I will try to keep posting here as well, including some pictures as the week goes on.

Friday, November 14, 2008

How bandwidth caps will hurt the economy more

I remember the days of dialup networking well. I don't mean the old AOL/Geni/Compuserve dialup service, I mean "put your funny shaped, wire tethered phone headset down in a cradle and listen to the funny tones squeal while you wait for a handshake" dial up. When network connectivity was difficult, you saved it for important things. You did not squander precious bits without putting thought into it. Modems evolved, and then became incorporated into computers. It was easier to connect, so we shared small pictures,backgrounds for webpages ( usually tiled), animated images and silly sounds. But the connection was still slow and we paid by the hour. Some people even paid twice.. once to the service/ISP and then again in cost per minute to the phone company for the connection. Things like video and online shopping could not take off because the overhead of paying for the connectivity, and the worry that you would run out of minutes and not be able to continue with basics like email. Then came always on, unlimited bandwidth. No longer did I have to dial up to the ISP, wait for the connection and then carefully count the minutes I was online.
With a bigger pipe and free access, the business model for the web changed. Want to share all 1200 pictures from your last vacation with me? Cool. I have all the time I need to sit and admire them, and I know I will still have bits left over to read my email. Someone put videos on thee web? holy crud. Let's sit and watch, who cares if there are advertisements on the page, these are funny videos!
Busy at work? Need to get birthday presents for your grandma who lives on the other side of the country? Here.. order flowers online- you can page through the images and select one. Not flowers? How about any one of a million other products you can order online and have easily shipped to her? Maybe you would like to buy her one of those nifty products you saw advertised while you were watching the funny videos.
Like to play games> No need to get up from your computer and go to the store to buy and install discs, just buy them over the internet and download them directly to your PC. Why not to your wii? your PS3? Your Xbox? Download them to your console and then move them to your DS or your PSP.
Too busy to go to the store, buy CDs, load them in your computer and then copy them to your mp3 player? No matter. We have many different services where you can buy music directly over the internet and then just download it. You like to buy music? how about music videos? TV shows? Movies? Don't download it- you can just stream it. Heck, stream it in high definition- why not? Your bandwidth is virtually free!
Soon, it became easier to shop online than to get in your car, drive and interact with grumpy, rude people at the mall. The price of gas went up- you are saving money by staying home, so you can buy more. Right?
The internet is the ultimate impulse buy.
What happens when we go back to that old dial up mentality and we are worried about how many bits are flowing to and from our houses again? Will you let Spore waste your bandwidth uploading and downloading creatures? Will you continue to directly download audio books from the likes of How many ad-supported video podcasts will you download and watch? Will you let your video game console communicate over the net?
Last month, I spent hours and hours looking at images of dresses on the internet while I was shopping for a wedding dress. If I had a cap on my DSL, I never would have done that. Nor would I have bought the dress online from the merchant I did. What will happen to iPod hardware sales if people are concerned about how much they are downloading from iTunes or to put on it? What about your cell phone that uses a wifi connection when you are at home to save on your cell phone minutes? Will you still let that connect? If not, will you talk less or will you spend money on your cell phone bill instead of something else from a store in your home town?
Personally, I work a lot from my home office. Bandwidth is cheap, I can VPN into the corporate network and do my teleconferences. It saves me gas money from the commute and time to stay caught up on things like laundry. If my bandwidth gets capped, I will be driving into the office again every day to use their bandwidth instead. The money I have to spend on gas will take away from things like eating out, seeing movies, or buying new wii games for the kids.
What other gadgets and habits do you have that eat away at the bits you consume every month. How many purchases will you forgo, if you are worried about being able to read your email at the end of the month? how many youtube or 12second videos will you upload? How many will you watch? Will you Hulu? How useful is that iPod touch if you are not connected to the internet?
Will your highspeed bandwidth provider become the gas companies of the next decade, making big profits to give you virtual mobility at the expense of other businesses and sectors?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Keeping IT Cooking through a recession

I sometimes get to catch a TV show called "Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares" (Between you and me, I like the BBC version better- but you can actually watch it on Hulu via the first link). It is a show where famous chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsey spends a week with a failing restaurant and attempts to turn it around. In a week, what he can usually do is is rework it and point the owner and the staff in the right direction. It occurs to me that the types of activities we, as corporate IT folks, should be taking during this "economic downtime" are very similar to what Chef Ramsey goes through with a restaurant. The process is really fairly formulaic, it is only the personalities involved that make the shows different from week to week. If you are a corporate IT type and your business is slowing down, here is the basic flow:

1. Inventory. Understand what you have.
For IT this can not mean spending lots of money. It may mean lots of man hours. Time spent on phones with end users, technical staff etc. Then tracking it down in detail. It is tedious, it can be boring. You can not do anything else without this information.

2. Clean ( usually while inventorying). Throw out the green fuzzy leftovers in the back of the kitchen. Make sure the old grease is cleaned up and the plumbing is working well.

You may have done some of this as part of cost cutting already, but I am sure there is more to be done. Keep the following key principles in mind: simplify the software stack, lower the variety of applications that fulfill the same task and look at which technologies are potentially nearing their expiration dates and may need to be replaced in the future. You will not be able to spend money to do simplification; but you can do all the research and be prepared with detailed business cases and implementation plans when the money is released. Look at the entire queue of identified projects and rationally prioritize your actions for when the budget is a little more flush. You may even surprise yourself and find some cases where you can see immediate cost savings.

3. Understand the neighborhood and potential clients. Understand the competition. What unsatisfied tastes/needs could this establishment fulfill?

What are the technologies that will give your company the best business edge over your competitors? How do your competitors work? What is the growing infrastructure in the IT and/or ( fill in your domain here) world at large? Where are the biggest business gaps that IT can assist the business with? Do the full technology evaluation, write the business case, use this information to help build the new menu. Understand what ingredients are needed, what the best suppliers are, etc.. Read, talk to other IT folks at other companies, hold internal discussion groups and seminars to get everyone up to speed and well educated on today's possible technologies. Have a few key sandboxes where you can build without costs, using your own man power to try things out.

4. Rework the menu, always remembering to keep it simple. Narrow the number of choices. Use ingredients that allow you to make a quality product while keeping the menu price low and still make a profit.

This is not just coming up with the same dishes on a pretty new piece of paper. Sometimes you have to work with the suppliers to teach them better ways to do things. Help them find ways to lower their costs, so they can get things to you cheaper. Sometimes you have to find brand new suppliers. Test all the menu items. A good chef Always tastes and eats his own food. If we do not test and use the technology, we will never really be experts or understand the potentials. It is your experience with technologies combines with our deep understanding of the business that makes us an invaluable addition.

5. Work on staff communications and clarify duties. Make sure everyone knows their job and can do it well.
Clean up your processes. This does not mean make them more complicated. This does not drawing pretty pictures.. It means practicing. OK, you don’t have real paying customers? Run yourselves as customers and practice how to handle the orders, how to serve and how to talk to each other and the business clearly.

6. Relaunch with a fanfare and some important guests. Be sure not to blow the relaunch.
Have a great new recipe/offering to dazzle folks. This means having fully prepared business cases/implementation plans and have the business partially sold on it before the dollars start flowing. Execute well.

7. Work hard, but do it with passion and feeling
That is just something that never changes. It is insufficient to just beat yourself to a pulp to get tasks done- you still will not win at the end of the day. You have to have a passion for what you do and add in your personality and flair to make it really a winner.