Friday, May 28, 2010

Better Keyboard

After months of using the TouchPal keyboard for Android, I have recently downloaded Better keyboard. I really like most of TouchPal's functionality, but it is just too laggy. Better is much crisper, but missing some good TouchPal features. I am sure there is an ideal virtual keyboard out there, which blends the best of all of them. Which brings me back to a key suggestion for Android...the keyboard experience is SO vital to the consumer's impression and experience of the phone...I really think Google should do more to ensure that the built in keyboard is world-class.

Clue 1 for Email Marketing

For years I have had a separate email address to give out to retail operations. I check it about once a week, or  when I have a reason. It is amazing to see how many emails even legitimate brick-and-mortar operations send out. Sign up for something on Tuesday, receive marketing emails on Wednesday and Thursday! If marketers weren't so abusively over-eager to send marketing emails, they might actually get better results.

Here is Clue 1 for email marketing--don't send messages any more often than weekly!

How IT Got Boring (It's All About De-Commissioning)

I have been in and around big-corporation IT[1] for 20+ years. I started my career in 1987, fairly early in the PC era. I was attracted to computers in general for the technical and micro-scale problem-solving challenges. I was attracted to corporate IT for the opportunity to build systems which solve problems, deliver efficiency and enable innovation.

For the first 10+ years of my career, that worked out pretty well. The technology improved quickly, and there were numerous opportunities to apply technology and make a big impact quickly. Automating a manual process for the first time is usually a sure winner.

But something subtle started happening. It became apparent to me personally in the post-Y2K, post-dot-com era. The fact was that corporate IT was no longer a fast-moving, innovative, technology-driven profession. IT has reached "maturity". This maturity is manifest both in the technology, and in the projects.

Regarding the Technology
In the 80s and well into the 90s, it was conventional wisdom that keeping up with technology was an exhausting rat-race. If you weren't careful, and allowed yourself to work in the same "old" technology for 5 years, you would fall hopelessly behind. For corporate IT, that has long-since ceased to be true. The pace of technology turnover is way slower now. Information technology tools may develop and improve steadily, but they don't go through wholesale, next-generation replacement very fast at all. The web was probably the last pervasive new technology to break over corporate IT--and that wave hit 15 years ago. If you were at the top of your game 5 years ago, and sat out of the workforce for 5 years and came back, I think you would have no trouble picking up where you left off.

Regarding the Projects
At some point around the year 2000, everything that could be automated, had been automated. At least once, sometimes more than once. Somewhere along the line, in the rush to automate stuff and gain all those efficiencies, we didn't really think too much about maintenance[2]. We just built a bunch of systems. But we discovered that the care and feeding of those systems was becoming a crushing burden. As companies acquired other companies, or created new product lines, or just generally modified business processes, they found that it was getting harder and harder to alter computer systems to keep up. Ironically, the software became the most rigid ingredient in business processes and capabilities.

This fact in turn led to behaviors which ultimately compounded the problem. Since it was already hard for the systems to keep up with business changes, there was an inevitable tendency to take shortcuts. In particular, older (aka, "legacy") systems, when being superseded, were often not completely de-commissioned, but were left in place, performing some vestigal functions that the new system did not provide.

Other trends have only compounded this problem. SOX separation of duties requirements--while generally appropriate--slow down the pace at which small changes can be introduced. Data-privacy requirements create further burdens. Outsourcing, and turnover in general, also make the problem worse: it is an axiom that documentation for computer systems is always woefully incomplete and out-of-date, so work arrangements that eliminate the handing down of "tribal knowledge" further undermine the organizational knowledge needed to understand how a system works, and what is needed to take it out of production.

Conclusion
So the result of all this is that the typical large corporation, circa 2005, started to feel that it was choking on the complexity of its own systems environment. The single biggest focus of most IT departments, after keeping the lights on, is an increasingly frantic quest for environment simplification. However, because of the complexity of the problem, and the effect of running frantically while trying to shoot a moving target, this is not so easily done. Nothing goes quickly, and many of the results are close to invisible. In other words, corporate IT work has gotten kind of boring[3].

I will be interested to re-visit this post in a decade--my guess is that some progress will have been made, but this will still be a big concern.


Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to try to describe this problem for the "lay" person, as my sense is that most non-IT people have little awareness of this situation.


Notes
[1] This article pertains to the IT systems that are built for in-house use, by typical large companies. The situation is likely different for other categories of IT systems--such as software products or embedded software. For a fuller treatment of those distinctions, see Joel Spolsky's essay "Five Worlds of Software".
[2] Sort of like the original Y2K problem itself.
[3] It's not truly boring, any more than many other kinds of complicated, but slow-moving, professional work are boring. In fact, once you adjust your mind-set, simplifying the complex environment provides a very challenging problem to work with. But it is no longer intrinsically exciting, the way only building shiny, new things can be. (And remember--this only applies to BigCo in-house software, as per note #1.)
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Value-Added Consumer PC Feature: Encryption

I've written before with a few ideas about how manufacturers of consumer PCs could create differentiation and better margins by some value-added features, such as built-in RAID (automated backup). Here's another idea: built-in hard-drive encryption.

Corporations have been encrypting hard drives routinely for at least 5 years, and for good reason. It is admittedly much less imperative for consumer PCs, but still a good idea.

I think I know one reason why PC manufacturers would be leery of shipping consumer PCs with disk encryption turned on--it really works. They are rightly afraid that consumers will forget their passphrase, and will be very unhappy when they can't get their data back. But there lies part of the value-added relationship opportunity--key escrow.

The hardware manufacturer would provide a key escrow service for the consumer. That way, the consumer would be protected from forgetting their passphrase. And the PC manufacturer would not only have a value-added product--they would also have an opportunity for a small annual fee, and an ongoing relationship with the consumer.

Monday, May 24, 2010

If Not Self-Reliance, Perhaps Mutual Reliance?

Ms. Schor is less nostalgic than programmatic. She argues that greater self-reliance could help provide an effective strategy for coping with unemployment and reducing environmental degradation...As a child of the Woodstock era, I think it would be cool if she were even partly right. As an economist of the 21st century, I’d like to figure out if she could be.
I will admit I read this quickly, but my impression is that this is way too back-to-the-earth for my taste. However, I find a seed of potential in it...my contention is that contemporary Americans could do much more to be mutually supportive. Carpooling kids to sports for example--I feel like I have practically had to beg people to carpool--when I was the one offering rides. There seems to be such a pervasive "I don't need any help at all" mentality. Or lawnmowers...at a dinner party, I off-handedly suggested that it would be easy for 3 suburban families to share a lawnmower. People looked at me like I was crazy.

Think of the specialty tools we buy that we don't need more than once a year (if that). Not only do we incur the cost of buying them, we also incur the cost of storing them. I am more than happy to share my small collection of such tools with neighbors--thinks like the DeWalt compound miter saw that I bought for a deck project, or the sturdy hand truck hanging in a corner of the garage. There is absolutely no need for every suburban family to own their own copy of such things.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Securosis Blog

Securosis is a info tech security consultancy, who have this great blog where they publish most of their research. I have found it tremendously helpful for a project I am working on.(I also think "Securosis" is a great name--I assume it is meant to convey "obsessed with IT security, to the point of neurosis".)

Complete College In 2 Years

We hear a lot of talk about the importance of educational achievement and the knee-buckling costs of college. What if you could get kids to complete two years of college by the time they finish high school? 
From Bob Herbert, with whom I do not always agree. In general, I am in favor of more "doing things the cheap way". Especially regarding college.

Android Cloud-to-Device

Very good stuff, if I am understanding this correctly. I want to do as much data-entry as possible on the PC, and as little as possible on my Android phone. That applies to selecting apps, but much more so to creating maps (which already works), and other things, like searching for Podcasts.

Another very cool API they've introduced is called Cloud to Device Messaging. This means that – using Android's "intent" call – you get real-time, two-way synching between your phone and any web-app that would take advantage of it. One huge feature that showed this off was the ability to browse apps on a web-based Android market and send them straight to your phone: you can install apps without even having to look at your phone. Note that while this feature will be supported in Froyo, the sight may not be launched with Froyo: that's still a bit down the timeline.

NYC Pensions

It's what the system promised, said Mr. Tassone, now 47, adding that he did nothing wrong by adding lots of overtime to his base pay shortly before retiring. "I don't understand how the working guy that held up their end of the bargain became the problem," he said.

Despite a pension investigation by the New York attorney general, an audit concluding that some police officers in the city broke overtime rules to increase their payouts and the mayor's statements that future pensions should be based on regular pay, not overtime, these practices persist in Yonkers.

I am not a close follower of NYC politics and news, but I have been hearing about this stuff for years in NYC public works.

More on Public Pensions

NYT forum on the grave problems with state pensions. This state and municipal pension crisis is absolutely poisonous to the trust of the elecorate, in their government.  The combined degree of incompetence, corruption and self-serving short-term thinking required to mess up this badly is staggering. Any competent normal organization (business would be the archetype) first and foremost safeguards its own financial best interests. That governments have dug such a deep hole makes one question why they should be trusted to do much of anything. (Note--In case anyone is wondering, I am not saying this as an anarcho-rightist, I have no doubts that effective government is crucial for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I am merely making an observation.)

(Sadly, it is also another nail in the coffin of defined-benefit pensions, in general. Not that the coffin lacked for nails. And I would have to say, if the vast majority of private industry employees can't expect a pension, I see no reason why they should be retained for public employees.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thomas Friedman Re-Generation

I really liked this Tom Friedman article on the need for "re-generation" of the United States infrastructure, social fabric, moral capital. It is the kind of call-to-arms that I wish President Bush would have made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Tire Replacement Tip - Keep A "Spare"

It is very desirable to have matched sets of tires on your car. Keep them properly inflated, rotate every oil change, and you're all set. No ground-breaking tip there. The tip involves overcoming certain situations that might foul up your plans.

Time was, if you had a flat tire, you could replace it with your full-sized spare. This would give you plenty of breathing room to get the damaged tire fixed, or figure out your replacement strategy. But unless you drive a Jeep or full-sized van, your spare tire is going to be a "donut"--a very small tire that is rated for only enough mileage, at sub-highway speed, to get you safely to a service station. You can't drive around on it all week while the tire place awaits a shipment of your desired tires.

That's where the problem lies. A tire gets damaged beyond repair (maybe because it has already been patched before), and now you may have a quandary. If the remaining tires have significant tread on them, like maybe 10,000 miles, you might not be ready to run out and replace all of them. You would like to do a one-off replacement for the interim. But you don't want to buy a brand-new tire for that purpose.  Or, maybe you are ready to replace all the tires, but the shop doesn't have your desired tires in stock--it could be a 2-4 day wait. What do you do?

In the last 5 years, I have found myself in each of those situations. The answer is to save the best tire from your previous set, and use it as a spare. Unless you are: A) Running your tires down to the nibs before changing; B) Both utterly fanatical and very lucky, and have totally even wear--there will be at least one of the four that is in quite serviceable shape. Keep that as a spare, and hang it up in your garage.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Google Giving Up on Selling Nexus One Direct

I never fully understood that move in the first place. There was a lot of talk about phones from carriers and plans--like they do with un-locked phones in Europe. That seems noble, and in many ways it could be good--cross-subsidies often mask inefficiencies. But, but, but...

First, it just seems too much like competing with your distribution channel. That's never a good thing--where would Android be without the relentless Verizon campaign for the "Droid"?? Second, T-Mobile, Google's closest Android ally, had already taken the step of offering the "Even More Plus" plans, that offer lower rates but no subsidized phones. Third, my comments about cross-subsidies aside, if you really want a new phone, it is often net short-term cheaper to get the subsidy[1]. Fourth, why in the world would it be available with only one very specific plan?! Probably in some way tied to the arms-length arrangement with Google (I'm not sure exactly how, but that is the only theory I can muster), but from a consumer point of view, what a colossal fail. 4 strikes, give up the game.

[1] I think cross-subsidies are distortive in two ways. One, they may save you money in the short-term, but they lock you in to the carrier for 2 years. Two, in some cases they may cause people to upgrade just because they can: spending $50 to get a new phone that retails for $200, when they never would have shelled out $200 for a new phone. That is clearly an economic inefficiency.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Disaster Date (TV Show)

I am not one for reality TV. But my kids have been watching Disaster Date lately, and I have caught bits and pieces of it. Fortunately, its concept is so simple that you don't have to follow long to catch on. I must say, it is pretty amusing. I'm sure they will eventually wear out the concept, but for now it is pretty funny!

Monday, May 10, 2010

ERP Customization 80/20 Rule

Infoworld:
Although open source implementations invite all sorts of customization, a clear lesson learned from the ERP wars of the ‘90s appears to have sunk in: When it comes to commercial software, avoid hacking the system when possible or you’ll end up with maintenance costs equal to or greater than those incurred by apps developed in-house.
 After my experience as an ERP manager in the 90s, I concluded that if you customize more than 20%, you would have been better off building.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mental Bandwidth and Willpower Bandwidth

This is an email I sent to Sendhil Mullainathan. Unfortunately, he never replied to me. It is in reference to a discussion between these two economists, discussing the concept that the extra mental distractions arising from managing in poverty conditions (e.g., "which bill do I pay") detract from total "mental bandwidth", thus making poor parents less able to attend to the needs of their children. While I think there is something to that concept (though it could also easily become an excuse), that is not the application of the mental bandwidth concept that interests me.
I caught some of your bloggingheads discussion with Glenn Loury. I am intrigued by the mental bandwidth concept. It reminds me of the "finite willpower" concept that was in the air a few years ago (I believe promulgated by Dr. Roy Baumeister). One feature of this theory is that willpower is a lot like physical endurance--although one's capacity can be developed somewhat over time, it is a finite resource in the short-term. So, the more willpower expended on solving a hard intellectual problem, the less available for dieting. The more spent on training for an athletic event, the less available for managing the budget. Etc.

A feature of the concept was the notion that willpower could be built up, like a muscle or like endurance. So I wonder if you think that is true for mental bandwidth. Either that it can be built up, or at least we can train ourselves to focus our bandwidth on useful things (economics, health information, developing skills) and less on useless stuff (keeping track of celebrities, indulging conspiracy theories), etc.

It is probably evident from the way I phrased the above, but this is a pet theory of mine. I consider myself a generalist. I am constantly dismayed at how under-informed and not intellectually curious people are. I attribute this largely to the fact that in today's age of specialization, economic success is typically derived from being very, very good at one specific thing. So specialization is where all the mental bandwidth goes.

Theories of Employee Evaluation, Motivation and Recognition

You should at least skim this, it is really good:
http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000070.html

There are (at least) 2 distinct theories of employee evaluation. One is the hard-core GE / Jack Welch--rank people, tell them where they stand in the rank. That will fire up people's competitive spirits, and cause them to work harder to move up.

Another school of thought says that the Jack Welch theory is counter-productive, for several reasons. One, it motivates internal competition, which often takes destructive forms. So if your enterprise requires a high-degree of collaboration (and what modern corporation doesn't?), then you may get some very bad side-effects from over-emphasizing internal competition. Second, it idealizes human behavior. That idealization may work for the ultra-competitive types that find themselves in the Olympian Jack Welch-like position of establishing company norms. But for the rest of us, it may be that we do our best when positively encouraged, and we are all allowed to feel like we are doing good work and are a little bit above average. Obviously you can't allow gross distortions, it is a subtle thing. Does the 11th player on the basketball team constantly get reminded that they are at the bottom of the list, or do they receive some encouragement for working hard, and staying prepared, even when game after game they never see action?

That example is not perfectly analogous to the workplace, but it's something to think about. Joel on Software also has written insightfully along these lines.

At Snopes, a Quest to Debunk Misinformation Online - NYTimes.com

At Snopes, a Quest to Debunk Misinformation Online - NYTimes.com

Identify Theft

Bruce Schneier (who is by no means a Pollyanna bout security matters) says:

Identity Theft Over-Reported

I'm glad to see that someone wrote this article. For a long time now, I've been saying that the rate of identity theft has been grossly overestimated: too many things are counted as identity theft that are just traditional fraud. Here's some interesting data to back that claim up:
Multiple surveys have found that around 20 percent of Americans say they have been beset by identity theft. But what exactly is identity theft? The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 defines it as the illegal use of someone's "means of identification" — including a credit card. So if you lose your card and someone else uses it to buy a candy bar, technically you have been the victim of identity theft. Of course misuse of lost, stolen or surreptitiously copied credit cards is a serious matter. But it shouldn't force anyone to hide in a cave. Federal law caps our personal liability at $50, and even that amount is often waived. That's why surveys have found that about two-thirds of people classified as identity theft victims end up paying nothing out of their own pockets.
The more pernicious versions of identity theft, in which fraudsters use someone else's name to open lines of credit or obtain government documents, are much rarer.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Grade Inflation

Grade inflation has been in the news lately. I try to explain to my kids what it was like in a competitive engineering school...tests where 60% was a solid "A", and 17 was a passing grade! We complained about it at the time, and that last example is a bit extreme, but in general, the rigor is good. It is good in terms of "resolution"--if you crowd 80% of the scores into the 80-100 range, you don't have enough room to make real distinctions. It is also good for the soul--it imbues students with a sense of humility, and knowledge that, however hard they have worked and how much they have mastered, they still have miles and miles to go.

Android Useability Feature: Make non-Homescreen Apps Prominent

Android should arrange the App Slider so that it groups all the non-Homescreen apps at the top. This would be a very nice convenience, when going for those less-frequently-used apps.