Monthly Archives: May 2006

Generosity?!

Generosity?!.

From the Wall Street Journal, May 13. It's sometimes said Americans are stingy when it comes to foreign aid. Perhaps, but a recent study reports that our $19.7 billion in gov't aid in 2004 topped the charts and was more than #2 and #3 combined—Japan and France. Far more important, private contributions (schools, religious groups, foundations, companies, families and individuals) chipped in, conservatively, $71 billion. As usual in the U.S., it's the private sector and citizenry that lead the way. Incidentally (not so incidentally) $47 billion of the $71 billion came from individuals, not institutions.

[The Tom Peters Weblog]

Mark Shuttleworth: US visa-waiver program

Mark Shuttleworth: US visa-waiver program

Joi ito has had a few stern looks from the US INS regarding visa waiver forms.

I can relate.

I have a UK passport by virtue of the fact that my father was born in the UK (mostly by accident – another fun story). So I also know about the visa waiver program – it used to cover me too. Until one day I flew into the US briefly, on my own plane, to visit friends in DC as part of a long trip. When we arrived at Dulles, the immigration officer said there was a small problem. The operator of my plane had never signed the visa-waiver treaty, and so despite the fact that I had entered the US 27 times previously on that same passport, without a visa, they would now have to decline me entry.

But before doing that they would:

  • take me in for questioning
  • search me (I objected to the strip search, they relented)
  • fingerprint me and send those fingerprints off around the world (no, Mossad is not looking for me, yet)
  • examine for obvious tattoos and other distinguishing features
  • ask me to sign a statement of wrongdoing (I declined)
  • terminate my visa waiver access – from then on I need a visa

A complication was that, because they did not have records of all the times I left the USA, they believed I had previously stayed for longer than the 90 days. Fortunately I was able to get copies of all my inbound and outbound tickets faxed to them, so I think they eventually came to believe that I had not actually overstayed the visa program ever.
Then they let me back on the plane, we flew to Ottawa, the US embassy kindly gave me a visa, and we returned to the USA.

Now, flying into the USA I am ALWAYS sent off for extra questions and paperwork. And on applying for a new visa, I have to fill out the form for “people with a criminal record” (cross out the criminal record part, write in “visa waiver declined”, I kid you not). It’s a joyless process.

Hello, land of the free, knock knock.

I fell in love with the USA once. It was built on beautiful principles. Alas, it appears to have forsaken those in the name of security and expediency. As a result, I think the world is looking for a new source of inspiration – a new country where the most interesting people of the world can arrive, feel welcome, and feel free. Joi, best you be sure to hand that little green form back, every time.   [Planet Ubuntu]

How OPACs Suck, Parts 1, 2 & 3

How OPACs Suck, Parts 1, 2 & 3.

If you're a librarian, Karen Schneider's series on ALA TechSource, “How OPACs Suck”, should be required reading. Certainly any vendor of library software should sit up and take notice. Library online catalogs have not adapted to the expectations of users familiar with features provided by sites such as Amazon, and that can't be good for libraries or vendors!

In Part 1, Karen starts by discussing the lack of relevancy ranking and discusses how it could/should be applied to library catalogs. We're all used to search engines that at least TRY to provide the most relevant results at the top of the list, but library catalogs make no such effort. According to Karen, the default order in most search engines is “last in/first out, in other words, whatever was most recently cataloged will come up first.

That explains a lot, including my typical experience with the L.A. Public Library catalog. I type in a couple of words from the title of the book into the search box, and end up with a long list of titles that don't even contain my search terms! The one I'm looking for is inevitably found at the bottom of such a list. Yes, I know, I could opt to search title only, but when I'm looking for something so basic, I'm like everyone else…I expect a keyword search should do it. The relevancy ranking doesn't have to be complicated, but if a search word appears in the title, don't you think that book would be more relevant than one where the word appears in the description or note?

There are better ways. Karen describes how relevancy ranking could be implemented. In our own catalog, I'd love to see an the option to rank the books most often checked out to the top of the list. Consider it a passive way of collecting knowledge about what books people find most helpful.

Part 2 offers Karen's wish list of features including spell-checking, support for popular query operators, duplicate detection, and sort flexibility, just to name a few. Search logging and reports, an administrative interface that let's you tweak the search engine and “best bets” are among my favorites.

The problem, as Karen describes it in Part 3, is that the catalog is based on the obsolete CARD catalog resulting in what she calls “literalisms.” I found her 4th literalism particularly interesting, that is, combining almost all library functions into one is counter-productive, creating an application that doesn't do anything well. I've been suspicious for some time that integrated library systems aren't really the holy grail after all. But I assumed that my view from a special library environment was peculiar to that environment. But according to Karen, “Lorcan Dempsey, VP of OCLC, has been making the case on his blog that the next-generation integrated library system should be dis-integrated. He points out that the modern ILS weds an inventory system with a discovery system—in the end doing poorly at both.”

Karen wants a revolution, and that may be exactly what we need. “It's time to dis-integrate the catalog, weave it into the Web, and push forward to the future.” That's truly a vision for the future.

How OPACS Suck, Part 1: Relevance Rank (Or the Lack of It)
How OPACS Suck, Part 2: The Checklist of Shame
How OPACS Suck, Part 3: The Big Picture

[LawLibTech]

Jean-Louis Seguineau: A real dial-tone

Jean-Louis Seguineau: A real dial-tone.

The concept of “killer app” is a powerful driver of our
collective psychology. We want to believe that our entire community can
be propelled forward and our lives reshaped by the next must-have
technology. A search on “VoIP killer app” will give you an idea of the extend of this belief…
It's
hard to get people excited about new frontiers and possibilities.
Painting vivid and exciting pictures is not enough. They need to be
credible. I earlier hinted at some of the reasons for considering presence the “new dial-tone”. Alec Saunders also looked at the decreasing value of Skype presence.
I believe that his post is characteristic of many misconceptions
attached to presence (in short IM is not presence, and AOL is not IM),
although he probably wrote it on purpose… That said, he re-stated the
major flaws of today's combined IM/VoIP messaging

  • Presence
    tells you nothing about the person using the device at the other end.
    For example, it doesn’t indicate that I am talking when I am in a call.
  • Presence gives me little to no control over who can reach me.
  • Presence does not express my willingness to communicate.

I
agree when he says the word presence cannot properly express whether I
am willing to engage in a conversation. Same when he says we really
mean availability, i.e. the result of processing presence information
according to rules about our reachability. But this is yesterday's
news. This difference was entirely detailed by the PAM forum many years
ago. On the other hand, I believe Saunders is wrong when he says
presence is a broken idea. He should have said the implementation of
presence in all the existing IM or VoIP applications is broken. Not the
idea of presence.

Generating the “new dial-tone”
requires a tight integration between the presence aggregation engine,
the availability inference engine and the presence notification engine.
I will quickly expose why I believe XMPP as a protocol have a more
appropriate design to support this integration and produce an accurate
and useful dial-tone. A dial-tone that would signal busy when you do
not want to be disturbed, and be your voice mail's dial-tone when you
are in a meeting.

When establishing a point to point a voice
communication, presence does not appear necessary. And de-facto, many
VoIP services are only mimicking the PSTN model with a different
technology. So much for those trying to make you believe they are “re-inventing telephony”.
In doing so, VoIP is a bit of a side show. Establishing a bidirectional
audio stream over a network is also yesterday’s news. VoIP only gets
all the attention because of the PSTN charges and the sustained rush to
mine them. Nonetheless, attempts at combining multimedia communications
with presence have been around, at least on paper, for some times. Some
implementations, such as Skype, call presence the information derived
from authenticating on their system. AOL, along with other legacy
services, is coming at VoIP from the instant messaging side. By adding
voice to a client, it can claim offering a presence enabled VoIP
service. Another interesting implementation is the upcoming 3GPP mobile
phone service. The most courageous amongst you may read their thousand
of specification pages to have an idea of how the carriers' world wants
to use SIP presence extensions.

All these implementations have in common a “loose coupling”
at protocol level between presence and call management. Skype's
presence is irrelevant. AOL use a mix of proprietary instant messaging
protocol with SIP signaling for the media sessions. The 3GPP IMS is SIP
based, but provides presence as an “added value” service through the SIMPLE extensions to SIP.
SIP
is a respectable player when it comes to negotiating point to point
call sessions. It carries the weight of some big industry names behind
it. But this concerns only SIP, not the integration of its presence
extensions. How many SIP phones on the market implement the SIMPLE
extensions? How many phones implementing these extensions actually use
presence as a way to indicate willingness to communicate? How many
presence enabled phones actually change automatically the presence
status to “on the phone” when the call is in progress (The same could
be said from AOL's Triton client)? By offering presence as a service
the telecom world is taking the wrong road.

You could say that
it would be easy to integrate these different protocols in the client.
I agree that setting a status to “on the phone” is easily implemented
in a client (I actually wonder why current SIP phones or clients are
not doing it, don't you?) On the other hand, deriving availability from
the aggregated presence information requires a close collaboration at
the protocol level between the presence and call management. This is
where, in my opinion, XMPP has an advantage. XMPP is a presence based
protocol. Not only do all IM client applications receive notification
of presence state changes, but many non IM XMPP applications are
natively presence enabled. These application will only provide their
services to you when you express certain presence states. Such
applications today range from IM federation gateways to news feed
aggregators and generic publish-subscribe systems. Many XMPP clients
already allow message to be filtered out against presence status, and
either shown or buffered. Because presence is deeply rooted in the XMPP
protocol, the usage of presence is natural to many developers. This
alone provides a huge advantage over other protocols. Many SIP
developers are still thinking like telecom developers, not focusing on
what a user is trying to accomplish and what the other party is
available for. In this context, Jingle,
as a natural extension to XMPP, will also benefit from the same
advantages. Very naturally, the upcoming Jingle clients can
automatically change the presence status when a call is in progress
(GTalk does not do it, but GTalk is not a Jingle client). Some Jingle
clients offer call filtering and call re-routing derived from the
actual presence set by the user. On the server side, XMPP enables
granular routing between multiple client instances based on presence application priority, whereas SIP will fork calls to every registered instances of a SIP URI.

In
all, XMPP has many natural constructs leveraging presence. The root
integration of presence in the protocol has created a larger community
of “presence aware” developers. In comparison, SIP
implementations today treat presence as accessory. Those of you that
have tried to integrate presence in SIP applications have certainly
found out that it is a complex task. And everybody would agree that
complexity is an “app killer”.  [Planet Jabber]

On Conflicts of Interest and TechCrunch

On Conflicts of Interest and TechCrunch.

On a recent Gillmor Gang, at around minute 21:30, Jason Calacanis innocently says something like “I heard you could buy a review at TechCrunch”. A discussion begins about conflicts of interest, at one point Jason says “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety.” Or, in other words, when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.

I find it incredible that Jason makes the accusation that I take money for reviews, couched ridiculously as “something he heard”, and then makes a blanket statement to the effect that the simple fact that the accusation is made makes it effectively true, in the journalism business. As an influencer I think it was inappropriate for him to make that statement. Beyond that, the fact that he is a competitor makes it even more outrageous.

Jason has a history of these sort of theatrics with Nick Denton, and so I’m not assuming he’s set on crushing TechCrunch. Rather, I think this is just Jason’s style to make these statements about competitors. To him, it’s all part of the game. That’s not my focus here.

His point is worth talking about.

I want to state quite clearly that I have never taken a payment for a review and never will. Sure I’ve been offered money for a review a couple of times. But it would be completely unethical for me to take it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. Companies that have offered to pay me have never been written about on TechCrunch.

But let’s put that easy case aside for a moment. What about the more subtle ways that journalists can be influenced in what they write about, and what they say?

Steve Gillmor, taking up my defense and responding to Jason, says “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.”

He’s right. It’s impossible to be objective. Impossible.

How do you think ho hum startup Inform.com got a juicy article about themselves into the New York Times last October? Because it’s a hot new product? No. The reason Inform.com received such a stellar review in the New York Times is because its founder, Neal Goldman, is a very influential and very rich man who, I assume, knows people at the NYT very well. That company sure didn’t get written about on merit, so someone did someone a favor. Is this unethical?

Or take Jason Calacanis, now an employee of AOL. He writes about AIM Pages, a fairly poor attempt by AOL at copying Myspace. His post is titled “AIMPages is F-ing Hot!” and he writes a glowing review. Would he have written this if his company were not acquired by AOL? Is that unethical?

I personally don’t think either of these cases are unethical. Because I know that human interaction drives all of this stuff, I know to factor that in when I read stuff.

But let’s get back to TechCrunch. Ok, I don’t take payments for reviews. But let’s discuss a more subtle case. Google has treated me like yesterday’s trash when it comes to communication. They have a few favorite bloggers that they give news to and I’m not one of them. I tend to be harsh when reviewing their products (but not always). Is this my real opinion, or am I just bitter that I’m not one of Google’s chosen few?

Yahoo, Microsoft, Fox and Ask tend to include me in news embargoes. I often write positively about them (maybe because I don’t trash them) (but not always). Am I conflicted in my opinions because they include me in their news releases?

Or what about when a company takes me to lunch? Or writes something positive in their blog about TechCrunch before I write about them?

Or here’s the read mind bender – what if I don’t write about a competitor to a company that I like? Doesn’t inaction count as much as action when we’re talking about conflicts?

My point is this: Forget the easy stuff like direct payoffs. I don’t do take them and I would be shocked if any large blogger or journalist did. But our lives are full of conflicts and thinking that envelopes full of cash are the only way people get paid off means you are watching too many made-for-tv dramas. Put everything you read through a filter and form your own opinions on things. Don’t look for the golden fountain of objectivity. It doesn’t exist.

And a final note on consulting, advisory positions, etc. I used to be open to these but it’s clear that I can’t do it and retain my reputation. So I’ve stopped (and I never wrote about the one or two companies I advised in the past without disclaiming any interest). I am currently an unpaid advisor to Pluck’s Blogburst (and they haven’t asked my opinion on anything recently) and I recently joined the board of a publicly held company – if and when I write about either of them I will fully disclaim my interest. I will also disclaim interests in companies I’ve invested in (only Edgeio, my startup, as of today). I am not taking any further advisory or consulting positions for the time being. And that just leaves advertisers on the sites. Since I look for companies that I actually like as advertisers, it’s likely that I will be writing about them. But I will, again, directly disclaim this interest at the time of writing. That’s more than most major publications do, but I will hold myself to this standard. 
[CrunchNotes]

quick, effective diagrams with Gliffy

quick, effective diagrams with GliffyGliffy is a great new tool for
creating diagrams. It recently opened up it's doors to a public beta.
I've been using it for a while. It's awesome to be able to create a
quick network diagram, and then publish it to get a easily accessible
jpeg image. I've never loved Visio, and now I don't need it anymore!
Working on a team with that uses both Mac and Windows there just hasn't
been a good way to create a diagram that can be easily edited by anyone
on the team before Gliffy.

They've got some other neat features that make it feel like a mature product that can easily fit into your workflow:
– collaborative tools
– version control
– SVG export

Also, in addition to the basic shapes that I've been using during the private beta, they just introduced:
– Flowchart
– UI wireframes
– Floor plan
– Network shapes (yay!)

Gliffy is built using OpenLaszlo
by Chris Kohlhardt and Clint Dickson. The interface is snappy and easy
to learn. It includes the kind of important user interface details
you've come to expect from a desktop app: the side palettes can be
quickly tucked away, allowing more room for your drawing; when the
browser resizes, the document and tools resize fluidly; and you'll find
familiar menus and toolbars. You'll forget you are using a web browser!   [Sarah Allen's Weblog]

Jeff Waugh: Sunday Grab Bag!

Jeff Waugh: Sunday Grab Bag!

  • Seamless RDP: Cendio has released SeamlessRDP, a set of changes for rdesktop to provide rootless RDP functionality. I can see this being extremely useful in small business environments, where staff would be perfectly happy using Linux desktops if only they had access to one or two line-of-business applications. Rock on, Cendio! Thanks to Stephen English, who flickred a screenshot of Notepad on dapper, via RDP.

[Planet Ubuntu]

Vista should've been codenamed White Elephant

Vista should've been codenamed White Elephant.

I just leafed through Chris Pirillo's Vista Beta 2 feedback and had to chuckle. I don't know what OS X 'Tiger' or 'Panther' looked like 8 months before release, maybe they were in a similar kind of mess, but I doubt Apple had to contend with dialog boxes from the Windows 3.1 days!

The Vista release saga (now with extra delay!) is increasingly farcical to behold, especially in the light of the question “Who's waiting for this thing?”

To this outsider Vista sounds like Windows XP SP3.5 with a not terribly well conceived UI. Performance will be variable and reliability will continue to a problem as registry files grow and grow. I have no doubt that M$ will shift a bunch of units via OEM but will anyone actually go out and buy an upgrade to this turkey?

If I was a Microsoft stock holder I might be starting to give credence to the idea that M$ was deliberately depressing it's own stock price. [Curiouser and Curiouser!]