Sunday, January 31, 2010

Random Idea for iPad Functionality

I have my doubts about the iPad, and I generally agree with the various concerns about the non-opennes of the device. As to its niche, I do kind of think the "living room" device is a possibility. That is, a lightweight, readily accessible device that is within easy reach in the living room, to look something up quick while watching TV. Very quick, very casual usage, that doesn't require much body movement.

In that regard, I think a great function would be universal remote control. I actually have wished this function would be accomplished by an ordinary smartphone. And I still think that is the ideal platform. However, from a pure strategy point of view, if Apple could have made that happen and made in an iPad capability, that might have been a compelling usage.

The price is too high under all circumstances.

Help Out With My Bags? Are You Kidding Me?!

I made a rare trip to Kowalski's, our nearby Lexus of supermarkets, the other day. I still can't get over it, when I have one puny bag, containing the half-dozen convenience items I bought there, and the bag-boy wants to carry my grocery bag out for me. I am an able-bodied person, there is NO WAY I am letting someone do something for me that I am perfectly capable of doing, while I stand around and watch.

As I was driving away, I saw that very scene playing itself out, but, to me, at the next level of "no way!". A middle-age man, seemingly fit (but who knows, maybe he had a physical handicap), walking to his car, trailed by a 17-year old girl, pushing out his bags! I'm sorry, maybe I am old-fashioned, but that is just too much!.

I guess I have a little bit of ascetic or puritan or something in me. I just hate the idea of letting someone do stuff for me, when I am perfectly capable of doing it, and wouldn't even actually be saving time by out-sourcing the effort. It just seems lazy and decadent to me. I guess other people may consider it pleasant pampering. It's just not for me. It feels to me like another example of what I would call "cultivating weakness".

I guess my perspective is that if one is "able-bodied", one should certainly be grateful. And demonstrate one's gratitude by using the physical ability. For one thing, I think there is ultimately some risk of "use it or lose it" (in the very long term).

I have something of an ideology around this topic...maybe someday I will get around to thinking it through and writing it up.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lesson from the Climate Email Hack

Why isn't email encryption more common? I suppose in that case the email was probably stolen from the server, so soft-core encryption (encrypting the email when transmitted outside the trusted domain) wouldn't have prevented it. That would have required hard-core encryption--where the message is only decrypted on the client computer, viewing the email. And most people think of soft-core encryption when they think of email encryption. Still, it is surprising to me that it hasn't taken hold, at all.

Teens Can't Buy A Drink, but Can Drown Themselves in Debt

During the Viet Nam era, it was observed, as a great irony, that young men could be drafted and fight in the military, but couldn't buy a drink. This led to the temporary reduction in the drinking age to 18. That era ended, another era began, and the drinking age was raised back to 21.

My ironic observation for this era would be that we don't let teens drink, but we do let them drown themselves in debt. No, I'm not talking about teens being preyed on by credit-card pitch-men, though that does happen. I am talking about the crushing burden of college debt that many graduating high school students take on, often without a lot of thought and guidance.

It's crazy to rack up $100,000 or more in debt, in pursuit of a generic undergraduate degree. I would submit that it is not reasonable to expect a 17 or 18-year old, who has lived at home, not supported themselves, and has no experience of debt, to make good decisions in that regard.We are talking about a debt burden that will have consequences a decade or more into the future.  In the short-term, going to the right college or one's dream college, or just a fun college, may seem totally worthwhile. But in the medium-term, that fateful, ill-advised decision, taken in one's late teens, can have life-long consequences. It's the kind of decision that can cause people to pursue the wrong career, just because it pays well, or to put off child-bearing, until it's too late.

But not only is it legally permissible for teens to make this choice--it is often socially encouraged!

Outlook Feature Idea: Per-Meeting Delegates

For each specific meeting, authorize calendar delegates. They would have delegate privileges, but only for that meeting (i.e., re-schedule, change content, change invitees).

Find All Feature in Excel 2003 Is Very Slick

I have been using Microsoft Office since before there was a Microsoft Office. The last Office upgrade that I found semi-compelling was Office 1997. At work we are still, happily, using Office 2003. I hate the UI in Office 2007, which we have at home on the family laptop.

Anyway, one of very few new features I have found to be significant is the Find All option in Excell 2003. Ironically, I only stumbled on it last week, after years of using that version of Excel.

Vibrate Before Ring--Really Nice Feature

For the first two rings, my cell phone (T-Mobile myTouch) vibrates, before it starts ringing. That is a really nice feature--gives you the chance to grab it, when you get a call in church, and realize you haven't silenced the ringer.

Another thoughtful ringer feature that my old "dumbphone" had was "one beep". This was vibrate mode, except that it would make one, modest little beep on the first ring. It was quiet enough, and not repeated, so that it would go un-noticed in business meetings or church, but if your ears were attuned, you would pick it up, just like a Daddy picks up his baby's cry. One of the advantages is that you never had to put your phone on full-silent, meaning that if you ever misplaced your phone and were hunting for it, you had a slight chance of audibly locating it.

Apple iPad Tablet - Medical Charting

10 years ago, I had a consulting assignment at a hospital, to write a white paper on the feasibility of electronic medical charting. My general conclusion was that what was required was a hand-held that was qualitatively bigger than the Palm Pilot (the hand-held standard of the time), but far smaller than the smallest laptop. It seems like the iPad might be about that size.

Big Media - Another Example of Doing Things the Expensive Way

This Cringely article talks about how much margin big media needs to be profitable. I know, some of that has to go to salaries and things like "hard cars" in war zones. But then there are the lunches and the expensive office buildings. He has a point. It kind of fits in with what is an ongoing theme for me--the extent to which we contemporary Americans have constructed a very high-overhead lifestyle.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Freakonomics

I've previously written about the fact that a catchy name is often half the battle in branding. The Freakonomics authors have been pretty successful extending their brand, with a regular feature in the New York Times. I read the book and enjoyed it, but really, there is nothing particularly freaky about the cases they cover.

Eating your own dog food, in Corporate in-house software development

Many contemporarly writers on software development, including successful sofware entrepreneurs, such as Joel Spolsky, Dave Winer and Paul Graham, emphasize the importance of "eating your own dogfood". This phrase is used a lot in contemporary software development, maybe a bit too much, but what it alludes to is using your product. Not just casually, but intensively. The eat-your-own-dogfood theory makes a lot of sense to me, in theory and in terms of the really good software I have ever used, and also the really awful software (PeopleSoft, for instance).

It is easy to see how it can work for consumer software, or tools used by software developers. It is more challenging to make it happen with in-house corporate systems. I mean, how many developers have ever used a claims-payment system, or a reservation booking system, for example? In my experience, large corporations fail terribly in this regard--and oustourcing and offshoring isn't making it any better.

The problem can be attacked. There are several techniques that I have seen to go a long way. One is to bring people with operational experience into IT. Unfortunately, the trend to offshoring it cutting off the opportunities for entry-level transition into IT. I know of Computer Science undergrads, with average credentials, who have left the field, because they could not get their foot in the door, for a development position. So it is even more unlikely that someone will be able to transition from a business operations job to a technical IT job; the best they can hope for is to make it as a Business Analyst.

Another, even less-used alternative is to have IT people spend some time "apprenticing" in functional areas. Although this has a lot to recommend it, this was never popular, and is even less likely to be tried now. So the last alternative is creating a scaled-down version of this situation. Have the IT people spend a significant chunk of time, 1-2 cumulative work weeks, sitting with real users, and learning their processes. Then, continue that partnership, where those real users--at the do-er level, not at the management level--continue to be closely involved in and consulted throughout the software-development process. Whenever I have done this, the payoff has been huge.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

LinkedIn Offers Backdoor to Derive Someone's Email Address

Normally in LinkedIn, you can't see someone's email address if they are not linked to you. If you want to send them an invite, you can do that, but it goes through LinkedIn--the process does not expose their email address.

However, if you send an Invite to someone, and they have their Out of Office (OOO) reminder set, you will get an OOO from them, which gives you their email address. This is a little bit of a security gap, probalby not a huge on, but someone, somewhere, will exploit this in some say.

This problem arises from the interaction of LinkedIn with the OOO reminder (typically set in Microsoft Outlook).  Interestingly, a solution could be obtained if either piece of software were more security-conscious. LinkedIn could send the invitation request email without providing the Inviter's email address. That way, when OOO auto-generated a reply, it would not go to the sender of the invitation--it would go into a no-reply address at LinkedIn. And OOO should definitely be masking the "Reply To" address; not just for this reason, but in general.

Deficit-Reduction Idea

There is talk of a commission for reducing the deficit. I have an idea. Congress should steal a page from business, where many businesses require managers to rank-order their employees, in terms of value to the oraganization. So if you have 10 great employees, that's fine, but still, some must be greater than others, so--just rank-order them.

I would like to require every Congressman to identify the least justified 20% of spending in their district. Not that the 20% would automatically get cut, they just have to identify it. The criteria, in descending order of importance, would be:
  1. Not in the best interests of the United States
  2. Not accomplishing its intended purpose
  3. Not in the best interests of the constituents
The idea is that, if the Congressman is on record as agreeing that the spending is not so useful, maybe that would make it easier to attack.

Gender Wage Gap

Superfreakonomics takes on the question of the "gender wage gap". The conclusion are what I would have expected: "while gender discrimination may be a minor contributor to the male-female wage differential, it is desire — or the lack thereof — that accounts for most of the wage gap. The economists identified three main factors:"

I would be interested to see a similar treatment of the question of age-discrimination.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Airlines Making Obese People Buy a Second Seat, At A Discount

NYT article with lots of comments, about how Air France is making obese people by a modestly-discounted second seat. They should have read my proposal from 2005--I've already solved the problem for them.


Here's a question, though-why don't airlines charge a premium for having an empty seat next to you? They charge for everything else, that actually seems like a really obvious revenue opportunity. I think the way it would have to work is that you pay a premium for an adjacent empty seat. If you don't wind up getting that seat, the premium is credited back to you. There would probably have to be some other rules. Like you can't reserve your specific seat in advance, the most you could do is specify aisle or window. That doesn't seem so bad, though. The other complication is that this would tend to require people to stick to their assigned seat, even if there are some open seats on the flight.

NYT Charging, Again!

I can't believe they are going through another iteration of this...they have done this SO many times. That comment was rhetorical, I actually CAN believe it, because I understand, they want to make money off of me, even if I don't want to give them any money if I can possibly help it. I do like the fact that they are trying something new, the hybrid approach. One good thing about that is that is doesn't put everything behind the walled garden.

Typically, however, the "cliff" between free and charging is too steep...so that flat fee, instead of being $3/month (acceptable) will be something like $11/month or $50/year.

I will be interested to see how they detect a repeat user. Slate's predictably negative take on the whole idea speculates about that.

Colts Class

Although I was among those who were aghast at the Colts' decision to turn their back on NFL immortality, I must say, they are one classy pro sports franchise.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Washing Machine Feature: Detect Electronics in the Load

My daughter had a good design idea today--she said that washing machines need a feature where they detect if an electronic device is in the tub. Obviously the point here is to prevent iPods, cell phones, etc from being left in pockets and tossed in the wash (has happened to her once). That really is a half-decent idea...if the machine had a detector for cell phone and wi-fi signals. I guess false positives would likely be a problem (cell phone in my pocket while loading the laundry).

Movies Android App

I used the Movies app on Android for the first time recently. I have got to say, it is super-convenient. It was pretty much effortless. I would go so far as to say it was as convenient, maybe better, than using a full-size computer. That's not something I could say for very many use cases. Now if only there were a Blockbuster app.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Maintenance--for IT Systems as much as for Cars

I thought this observation about "IT Nuisance Requests" had a lot of merit. It's more exciting to build something new than to maintain what you have. Of course, neglect maintenance long enough, and then you have no choice but to replace with new. So it creates something of a self-fulfilling cycle.
From an IT perspective, the request to change the report structure or one of a myriad of other request is simple enough but it is also small.  This type of project often goes onto a maintenance list prioritized against one another and demands for more strategic projects.  The open request is also a nuisance for IT...It is easy for both parties to overlook the list of nuisances.  Business and IT executives undervalue these individual small requests when prioritizing them against larger investment projects complete with business cases.  The natural inclination is to assign resources to the investment portfolio and address enhancement projects on a best effort basis.

I have seen this play out repeatedly, at different companies. A big project is commissioned, to replace the old, unloved system with the next-gen system. The project winds up being years late and over budget. More often than not, the new project winds up being canceled. Even when not canceled, it often comes in short of expectations, with the result being that the old system is not fully de-commissioned.

This result has a couple of implications. One, if a fraction of the money spent (wasted) on the next-gen system had been devoted to overhauling and maintaining the old system, success could have been obtained, far more economically, far sooner and with far less risk.

The other consideration relates to the overall IT environment. In the past 10 or so years, a huge focus of large, corporate IT departments has been in retiring/sunsetting/de-commissioning/harvesting redundant existing systems. This is far from the most exciting work, but it has become absolutely vital, because the cost of maintaining multiple, redundant systems is crushing IT budgets. So when a big project limps across the finish line, short of expectations, so that the old system is kept alive, this contributes to creating the kudzu-like corporate system environment that, as we have just observed, carries a very high price for maintenance.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Local IT Best Practices Rep

One constantly reads about the woes of corporate IT departments. How they don't have a "seat at the table", how the business doesn't value their services, how they can't get in alignment with the business. Well, I have one teeny, tiny little idea for how they can get a little more love.

Departments within an organization should all have a local IT Best Practices Rep. This person would not be an employee of the IT department. They would be a business user within the department. They would spend 80-90% of their time doing the normal work of their department. However, they would spend 10-20% of their time being the on-site representative of the IT department.

The general responsibilities of this role would be:
  1. Serve as best-practices evangelist/consultant to the department
  2. Serve as advocate for users, if necessary, when they are dealing with the Help Desk
  3. Gently educate users regarding the facts-of-life of corporate IT
It always amazes me how un-informed the average knowledge worker is, regarding simple tricks of the trade. These are generic, personal-productivity techniques that apply to any knowledge worker in any industry. Some of the things I have in mind:
  • Keyboard shortcuts. How painful is it to watch someone who isn't adept with the keyboard. I am thinking of things like HOME (beginning of line), CTRL-ARROW (next word), SHIFT-CLICK (multi-select), and even ALT-TAB. It's amazing how many people don't know CTRL-F for Find On Page.
  • Archiving mail. This is partly the fault of corporate IT, for their stupid mail archival policies. But I have even seen people who print all their emails, so they retain a copy when the mandatory corporate archiving timeline hits.
  • Save to Shared Drive, using Offline Files. WAY too many people save to their hard drive. Sometimes, out of habit--they don't even know there is a shared drive. For others, the motivation is to have access to their files when offline. Fortunately, modern versions of Windows handle this really well, with the Offline Files feature. It works beautifully. You save to your synchronized folders on the network drive. If you are not connected, Windows automagically hands you the synchronized, offline copy of the file. When you re-connect, it all re-synchs, automatically. It even works when you lose your connection mid-edit. I don't think 10% of knowledge workers know about this feature.
  • Indexing. I have been indexing for years. I think that having indexing software, like X1 or even Windows Desktop Search, will make any knowledge worker at least 5% more productive. I am not kidding. I have seen people spend 30 minutes looking for an email that I can find in 30 seconds, using search. Again, I don't think 10% of knowledge workers use this, and the IT department does nothing to educate them.
  • Corporate Help Desks often do a poor job of servicing users. Sometimes this is because users do a poor job of explaining their problems. The Best Practices Rep could both help the user describe the problem, and could also be a point of contact for the Help Desk. For instance, when the user swears their machine was on AC power, and not low on battery, when it suddenly shut down, the Help Desk will still tend to suspect the user is wrong (often, but not always, for good reason). The BPR can provide the Help Desk with a calibration of how savvy and reliable the user in question really is.
  • There are a lot of things about IT that users don't understand. For instance, they may see the internal chargeback of $200/month for their laptop and think "that's crazy, I can buy a really good laptop for less than $1000!" What they don't understand is that $200 per month is an accounting number, burdened with all kinds of overhead.
  • Security vigilance. Without becoming the local gestapo, they can remind people of the importance of locking their keyboard, not emailing sensitive information, etc.
I see this as a multi-benefit strategy:
  • The IT department benefits by having both better PR and better rapport with end users
  • The IT department also has some "reserve" troops to help do its work
  • The business departments get better service from IT
  • The BPR gets good technical experience
I think a key point here is that Human Resources are, well, human. Humans crave contact, relationship and the personal touch. So many things about the way business are run nowadays take this away. This approach is a way to give people the human-ness they want, in a flexible way that should deliver on the business objectives as well.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Avatar Movie Review

Visually beautiful and stunning. The 3-D was terrific, layered, complete and integral to the visual environment. Those things--3-D and visual environment--were the star of the movie. The plot was terrible, 110% predictable. And the movie was a good 45 minutes too long. They should have stopped when the humanoid city-tree was destroyed--that would have made the movie shorter, and fixed the predictability problem nicely.

As an aside, the movie was criticized for portraying smoking, by the Sigourney Weaver character, in a somewhat romantic way. The dumbest part about that is--it was completely mis-placed. It was thrown in to make her look really tough and hard-edged, but then the rest of the movie she wasn't.

Sherlock Holmes Movie Review

Not very good. Not recognizably Sherlock, just the modern action-movie protagonist type. A combination of Jackie Chan, Batman and Jason Bourne. Robert Downey was reprising his role as Iron Man (saw previous for Iron Man II, that looked really, sequel-ly bad as well). Over-long as well. Yawn. Best part was the re-creation of Victorian London.