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Monday, July 31, 2006

"A single ton of junked PCs has more gold than 17 tons of ore"

So says Fast Company and then proceeds, unfortunately, not to provide the factual basis. (It appears as an unattributed statement of fact alongside an Alcoa executive's speculation that north American landfills may contain more aluminium than can be produced by mining ores and that the same may be true for gold and copper.)

It's a tantalising idea, and it's one that Buckminster Fuller proposed [at least] 25 years ago in Critical Path:
it is quickly realized that (with a few rare exceptions) humanity need do very little further mining. The metals already scrapped from obselete machinery and structures, which recirculate on a sum-total-of-all-metals-average every twenty-two years, are now able to do so much more work with ever less weight per each given function with each recirculation as to make the present scrap resources of almost all metals adquate to take care of all humanity's forward needs.
It is likely that Fuller mis-estimated a few things (e.g. his primary example for recirculating metals was tin and his claim that, at the time, there was more tin in use for soft-tooling (tools that can be melted and reshaped at will) in US aircraft factories than there was in all of the known still-in-the-ground reserves on Earth; he was writing at about the time that Malaysia's huge reserves were being discovered and led to the 1985 collapse of the tin cartel, the International Tin Council), but interesting to see that another of his ideas may in fact play out.

Friday, July 28, 2006

On "Business Models"

Peter Rip has an interesting post on business models. His broad thesis appears to be that many people think of a business model in a rather superficial manner, as if "what's your business model?" was a multiple-choice question. Indeed, he points to Wikipedia's article which, under "Types of business models" lists about fifteen types. As a VC, when he asks someone what their business model is, he's not asking the multiple-choice question (he's not asking "what's your business model type?"), he's looking for depth of thought. He even provides an illustrative chart of the ~10 axes over which he evaluates business models. Interestingly, much of this is what is typically addressed in a business plan, but his mindset in this case is about how the entrepreneur sees the pieces fitting together, rather than what the entrepreneur plans to spend his/her time doing.

His closing is apt:
So, quick, what's your business model, anyway?
(via Feld Thoughts)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"In order to complicate listening to radiation from the [screen], THL blinks encrypted messages in morse code on the keyboard LEDs."

Leon drew my attention to this. The first paragraph on the project page explains it all, really:
It started as a secure, single floppy, bootable Linux distribution for storing PGP keys and then encrypting, signing and wiping files. At some point it became an exercise in over-engineering.
(The quote that is this article's title comes from the README.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Three Constituencies" touched by a business

Brad Feld wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago that I've just gotten around to reading. In it he suggests that many businesses, at least several that he's worked with in the last few years, have relationships with three constituencies:
  • Subscribers
  • Publishers
  • Advertisers
He also points out that successful businesses frequently serve one constituency while getting paid by another.

This is a generalisation of a model I've been aware of for years (and that's been around for decades, at least) in which the audience of an advertiser-funded medium ("subscribers") is served and the advertisers pay. This is also the particular case where audience members, e.g. readers of a paid-for or free newspaper/cable-channel which includes advertising, are frequently confused by a belief that they are customers when, in reality, they are (or, more accurately, the audience as a whole is) the product that is manufactured for sale to the advertisers. This reframe helps to make clear, for example, what news distribution organisations are doing when they dumb down, depite the possible genuine interest of their audience; they're avoiding conflict with their [real] customers.

Brad's generalisation of this model provides some interesting insights to aid business model evaluation and partner selection. What piqued my interest, though, was one of his comments about some of the ... less viable business models that he has seen:
I’ve run into people that think they are serving all three but getting paid by none
Clearly not a great recipe for success. What strikes me about this is the assumption that several people schooled in developing software in order to generate licensing revenue (whether from users or developers) make about open-source software; roughly that if you're spending money to develop software whose source you then freely publish then (a) you cannot recoup licensing revenue and therefore (b) you're shooting yourself in the foot. (Obvious counter-examples that spring to mind include MySQL AB with its database server and IBM with, amongst others, material contributions to Linux and Apache. There are thousands more.) What's Brad's generalisation brings to this for me is a realisation that users (or, as their proxies, developers (ISVs)) are not the only possible constituency for a software developer (individual or corporation) to get paid by.

It may even be true that most of the low-hanging fruit in the "develop software to get licensing revenue" space is already gone, but that there is still plenty of it in the "develop software to get revenue from other constituencies" space. Indeed, Brad's "I’m finding most successful companies serve one constituency and get paid by another" suggests that this may be so.

Oh, that reminds me; there's a fourth, and critically important, constituency for anyone who provides software or online services:
  • [Software] Developers
In once sense developers are simply a proxy for users, but:
  • as they have radically different needs they are likely to be worth addressing seperately; see Scoble's coming GYMAe wars for example, and,
  • the "users" that developers may be considered proxies for are exactly those users that a business is not [already] seeking to serve, so again, a different treatment may well be called for.
UPDATE: s/Fred Wilson/Brad Feld/ and apologies to both!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Human names as identifiers

A problem that comes up frequently in the creation of information systems, particularly those which are implemented with computers, is the assignment and use of identifiers to refer to things in the real world. Using real-world identifiers is often problematic, but sometimes unavoidable. Using human names has some special additional problems; this article provides some examples.

A common approach is to assign an internal identifier (integer, UUID, ...) which has no meaning in the outside world. This typically simplifies implementation as user errors in data entry can be dealt with smoothly (correcting the spelling of someone's name in a Land Registry's database doesn't suddenly cause all real estate registered in his/her name to be orphanned) and corner cases where unique identifiers become not so unique (courier companies using as an identifier the phone number presented by caller-ID will occasionally confuse multiple tennants of the same serviced office with each other) do not arise. Occasionally using internal identifiers, or depending exclusively upon them, is inadequate. An excellent example is the use of crytographic certificates for communication over an untrusted network in which external names, whether computer derived (email addresses, domain names) or not (human names), must be handled and matched, rather than simply treated as opaque data.

As all domain names and email addresses have distinguished/canonical representations (indeed, all can be represented uniquely, if not sensibly, in US-ASCII), correct matching is trivial; convert the two addresses to be compared into their canonical representations and then perform byte-by-byte comparison.

A quite different problem arises when trying to match human names. I encountered this problem in a discussion on a CAcert mailing list a while ago. I wrote:

> On Fri, 2006-02-17 at 13:21 +0100, Danilo Buerger wrote:
>> The Problem still stands. Cacert should treat the following as the same:
>> ae <=> ä
>> oe <=> ö
>> ue <=> ü
> Oh, quite. (My mistake, I was "solving" the wrong problem.)
> The problem is even more subtle. While those three identities (plus ß
> <=> ss/sz) can safely be applied to the names of Germans and Austrians,
> this is not neccessarily the case for all languages which use the umlaut
> and as the characters themselves (whether Unicode or 8859-*) do not
> specify a language, the question can't be answered without reference to
> the language in which the name is ordinarily used, and even then a
> correct answer will usually require a knowledgable local. (Or multiple
> conflicting correct answers will require multiple locals.) It may even
> be the case that multiple transliterations are used by a single person
> for his/her own name depending upon what language is being used.

(On re-reading this, it occurs to me that my own name goes through this, contrary to my desire, without even a character set change. Britons frequently assume Rowland. Francophones, in both Quebec and France, assume, or even insist (!), Rolland.)

> (Further examples include è,é, and ê, which, when transliterating from
> French to ASCII tend all to end up as "e", although in some rare cases ê
> becomes "es". If we move on to Greek, most of the consonants have
> ambiguous transliterations, for instance Φ transliterations are split
> near uniformly between "f" and "ph" depending upon the age of the word.
> Dare I even mention south-east Asian languages? Chinese has one written
> form, two different spoken forms and multiple machine character set
> representations.)

I went on to suggest that CAcert's only way to handle this entire problem, if were inclined to do so, would be to permit assurers to assure multiple spellings of assuree's names; in other words that facilitating computerised matching of human names for languages beyond English requires that each real world "thing" (person) be able to have multiple real world identifiers associated with it.

During my recent trip to Prague, I learned of a further complication (and indeed, further support for my suggestion); whereas for English speakers our given and family names are essentially fixed, for Czech speakers their names are subject to change for gender (an Australian friend of Czech descent gets odd looks from Czech border officials when she presents a passport which has a Czech family name that is clearly in its male form (Hrouda rather than Hroudová); it is written this way because, as she was born in Australia, she took her father's family name as-is) and case (see Wikipedia's Czech name article for examples; essentially as the family name is used as an adjective, full declension is required). I suspect that this may be true of other languages.

(N.B. The declension problem can be solved, at least in Czech, by always using a particular form, which is presumably how Czechs deal with it. The gender issue may still cause problems in some cases though; automated name matching in genealogical systems for example.)

Traps for the unwary, or the parochial...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ssh, Debian and "System bootup in progress - please wait"

I've solved this one before, but couldn't remember how, so here it is for posterity.

If an Debian ssh server is returning a "System bootup in progress - please wait" message to clients connecting during server boot, then the problem is that the server's /etc/default/rcS contains DELAYLOGIN=yes but needs to contain DELAYLOGIN=no.

The problem arises because setting DELAYLOGIN to yes causes /etc/init.d/, symlinked by /etc/rcS.d/, to create /etc/nologin, which causes a default ssh+PAM configuration (/etc/pam.d/ssh contains "auth required") to prevent logins. This file is removed late in the boot sequence by /etc/init.d/rmnologin, symlinked by /etc/rc2.d/S99rmnologin.

Another obvious approach is to remove pam_nologin from /etc/pam.d/ssh, but this would remove the ability to use /etc/nologin to block logins at all and, at least for systems under my control, there is no reason to delay login during boot.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The "Minority Report" UI

Those who have seen this movie (or recent Dixons/Currys TV ads in the UK) will remember the cool UI operated entirely by waving hands at a screen.

Some months ago, Jeff Han's prototypes using a Frustrated Total Internal Reflection (FTIR) panel appeared. Of particular note was that the panel supports the sensing of several simultaneous contacts (e.g. several finger tips) and that, with some colleagues, he had produced some really cool demos. (via Media Influencer)

An alternate approach is being pursued by Microsoft's Andy Wilson. His PlayAnywhere (video, paper) uses a projector and camera so that arbitary objects can be given arbitrary meanings ("when you see a phone, attempt a bluetooth connection", "when you see a piece of paper, project a video onto it", "when you see a patient x-ray, mark it up with relevant metadata", etc.) and of course the cool gestural interface can be provided (cue Microsoft Earth, or indeed Google Maps). In this latter case, the resemblance to the Minority Report UI is even closer as no actual contact with a screen is required, hand gestures are being interpreted directly; in one respect it's an improvement in that no laser-equipped gloves are required to drive it. (also via Media Influencer)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Leaving Montreal

My final few days in Montreal for this trip have passed very quickly:

  • On Friday morning I had a brief demo of Toxik, the product that has finally resulted (first release was last year, IIRC) from the work that was in progress when I worked for Discreet in Montreal. It was interesting to see that some of the UI work from those days survived long enough to make it into the product and that collaboration is still central to the product's mindset. There is still a very long way to go with integration with other Autodesk M&E products, not to mention competitors' products. In the afternoon I turned up for the beer-at-4pm-Friday tradition at Autodesk M&E and met several people whom I've not seen in years; I miss Friday afternoons at Discreet.

    In the evening I talk a walk around Parc Jean-Drapeau (formerly Parc des Isles; the two islands Sainte-Helene and Notre-Dame). Not a lot has changed, although Place des Nations appears to be getting periodic use as a storeroom for Piknik Electronik. At around midnight I returned once more to the Jam Session at the Hyatt which was, once again, superb.
  • On Saturday I took a walk up Mont-Royal. Inconveniently the Chateau had been booked for a wedding and had therefore closed to the public at 4pm, which was a little irritating as I arrived at 4:15 with a particular thirst for a coffee. No matter, I completed my walk to the top then made my way down to Beaver Lake and the pavilion there to find only vending machines. As I'd missed my bus, had 20 minutes to pass and had a pile of nickels and dimes (5/10 cent pieces) to get rid of, I decided to risk the vending machine coffee. For added spice, there was chewing gum blocking part of the coin slot, so each coin had to be pushed in with the aid of a house key. After several minutes of this amusing distraction, I had fed the machine the $1.25 that it wanted for a cappuchino. I duly pressed the buttons and waited as it produced a cup, put liquids of about the right colour in it, then opened the door for me to take the result. I'm pretty certain that I pressed the right button, and it definitely produced a cappichino (i.e. "with a cap"), but the liquid underneath was not coffee, it was chocolate. In retrospect perhaps the machine was choosing what I would have chosen anyway if I'd thought more carefully about vending machine coffee beforehand, or perhaps I pressed the wrong buttons, but I enjoyed the chocolate.

    In the evening I went to listen to JTADI who, like Gadji-Gadjo, include violin and piano-accordian with more traditional jazz-like instruments, however I did not find their sound quite so enjoyable. I had my "Last Supper" with friends at Pizzedelic; discussion ranged all over the place (including a reference to some recent work on the potentially harmful effects of praying for the recovery of an ill loved-one {{ UPDATE 16-Jul-2006: someone wrote to New Scientist with a rebuttal, sort of... }}) and then headed down to Savoy du Metropolis for the Phantom Power Deluxe Combo which includes a superb trumpeter who uses a most interesting wow (as in "wow-and-flutter") effect. As this was their final night they also had as special guests Motus3f which consists of two guys and a Korg Kaosspad. For the most part they are doing the ntz ntz ntz song into microphones held right against their mouths, but with several additional sounds and, I suspect, did not use any (or many) pre-recorded samples. They did get the audience involved and then used the audience sample several times later. At one point, one of them used one half of a pair of headphones in place of his microphone and, later, a telephone handset/receiver! Their sound was decidedly techno and a little harsh (no jazz here...), but it was fascinating. I later asked and, apparently, they've been playing for about two years and doing shows for about a year.

  • Sunday was spent sleeping, packing and departing.

Needless to say, there were multiple meals and coffees with friends interspersed amongst the above. Thanks to everyone who responded to my various invitations to catch up, go out and eat, and a special thanks to Bill and Natalie and J and Joan for their kind hospitality.

I hope to return in less than three years next time around...

Friday, July 07, 2006

Jazz Festival Jam Sessions

I've been meaning for the entire time that I've been here to get to the Jam Sessions at 11pm at the Hyatt. One challenge is that only "Friends of the Festival" (those "select few" who have purchased the CA$12 compilation CD with "La Carte Des Amis du Festival 2006" inside, which CD is offered at essentially every non-liquor cash register inside the festival area, several of the liquor ones and many places outside also) can enter, which has meant that it's not a practical place to go with a group of friends who are not going out of their way to take in the Jazz Festival.

Last night I was on my own, so at a bit after 11pm I headed down. Well, wow! The "house band" this year is the John Roney Trio. They played their first set and then, before taking a break, invited any musicians in the audience who'd like to jam with them to come and talk to them. During the break I was joined by two gentlemen from North Carolina: Mike (a professor of nuclear engineering) and Tim (a programmer at SAS Institute). They were drinking double Wild Turkeys faster than I could get through single Cointreaus and, because I'd secured a table, insisted upon buying my drinks for me. The session went on until 3am and, needless to say, I'm feeling a little under the weather this morning :-)

From the second set onwards, there was a procession of musicians, none of whom I know by name (I enjoy listening to jazz but, as yet, know little about it) but a few of whom, I learned from Mike and Tim, were rather well known. Apparently this is the norm; one year [members of] the Buena Vista Social Club joined a session; it's that kind of event. Remarkably, or not, there was very little evidence that these were performers who typically met on stage 30 seconds before beginning to play; the performances were tight and made for a great backdrop for a lengthy discussion about jazz, food, software, economics and I forget what else.

I look forward to doing this again.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

In Montreal

So, I've arrived in Montreal, caught up with various people and commenced soaking up the festival; some of the music's even Jazz!

The highlights are numerous:
  • Catching up with lots of friends. Meeting various new offspring.
  • Becoming an uncle! (Congratulations Graham and Joanne and their new (first!) daughter Madeline Grace!) (This is not related to my trip of course, but it was expected to happen while I was travelling.)
  • Gadji-Gadjo, think Cossack meets gypsy meets Jazz. These guys have a great sound.
  • Marc Atkinson Trio, what this man does with a guitar needs to be heard to be believed.
  • Alister Spence, an exceptional pianist. (There are a couple here, of course; I neglected to take note of an earlier one's name)
  • The not-Jazz "Homage À Paul Simon" on Tuesday night. As I love his music however, this was fantastic. I particularly like a lot of the music that he did with Art Garfunkel decades ago, most of which was covered. The show opened with Leonard Cohen speaking Sound of Silence. Sadly Paul Simon himself did not appear. Perhaps he was resting for his performance on Wednesday night, for which tickets sold out ages ago.
  • Swing Tonique's "Minnie the Moocher", en Francaise!
  • Seeing (and being caught in) my first thunderstorm and torrential rain for years.
The lowlights are few:
  • Too many thunderstorms! This is not how I recall Montreal in July.
  • Mobile phone problems. (The Vodafone UK SIM almost works: SMS in/out, voice in, no outbound calls though. I bought a Fido Canada SIM which mostly works, unless you are in the UK, an Orange customer, and want to send me an SMS. Ugh.)
Sadly, it all comes to an end in a few days, but then I'll be off somewhere entirely new: Prague.