Monday, March 26, 2012

Outdated Computer Paradigms

I'm often surprised when I hear about support contracts being for X amount of hours per week. I don't know about anyone else but I hate counting hours. I just want to get the job done. And it doesn't work in the customer's interest anyway.

In the good old days programmers charged out at lines of code. Lines of code doesn't actually tell you much. By this mentality I would get paid more for:

mkdir test-1
mkdir test-2
mkdir test-3
mkdir test-4
mkdir test-5

rather than:

for counter in $( seq 1 5 ) ; do
  mkdir test-${counter}

This was recognised and instead, charging is done differently - deliverables. In order to charge, you must deliver certain functionality.

But it seems we're willing to keep this same sort of mentality for desktop support. If you're asking for X amount of hours, then those delivering the support aren't really interested in deliverables. What if, instead, that person spent a lot of time to make sure things were actually working, and then put in the infrastructure to make everyone's life easier, and was therefore able to reduce the amount of time they had to spend onsite. Rather than technicians being onsite trying to look busy, you'd have them actually doing something.

I know computer people seem to be horribly interested in offsite support i.e. remoting into a system to fix it, but support is more about people than it is about computers. So remote access for urgent, just get it done quickly stuff. An hour or so a week to show your face and deal with any face to face or has to be done onsite sort of issues and everyone's happy.

Allow for going to a site multiple times in a week - even if it's 10 minutes here and there just to make sure everything's working okay rather than users having to wait a week for support and you've suddenly got a hell of a win. The technician has more time to deliver great support to more people. Those needing the support get it more often. No one's having to do stupid amounts of paperwork. It's a win no matter how you look at it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

HTML5 Can't Come Soon Enough

I'm always deeply cynical about the HTML standards. They aren't so much standards as they are ... suggestions. Each vendor seems to have slightly different ideas of how those standards should be implemented.

Take for example what should be fairly simple: including one html page within another. Why would you want to do this? Fairly simple - you may find you want to use one html file for your header and navigation and another for the content. This would make consistency a breeze across a site.

Frames can do this but each frame is then a separate instance i.e. scrolling in one frame doesn't scroll down the other frames. It's no longer just one web page.

There are ways of doing this according to the html standard... though you still can't do it... consistently. The problem is that each of the different clients have a different way of implementing these "features". Whether it's a limitation on defining the size of such an element, the risk of ending up with scroll bars within your content or it just plain doesn't work.

So we're stuck with having to do it "server side". That is, when the server serves up the webpage, rewrite the code so that to the client, it looks no different from a static page.

This isn't a solution. It's a workaround. And all because a standard isn't really a standard until it's implemented. HTML leaves a lot to be desired. CSS only solved a few issues - it just plain didn't go far enough. See this page for an interesting instance of where:

  1. Standards aren't really standards.
  2. CSS just isn't the standard everyone was hoping for.

I'm finding myself increasingly frustrated by multimedia in a web environment.

For a long time the darling on the Internet has been Flash. It made possible youtube for one. However, it's in a decline. Various apple devices (the iPad being one) never supported flash. The Linux Adobe Flashplayer isn't being supported past 11.2. The latest version of Android is the last that will have support from Adobe. There are various other implementations of flash players out there, but no where near as complete as the Adobe implementation. Furthermore, it's encumbered by a license agreement which makes it hard to distribute on free software implementations (requiring an EULA that's 8 or 9 A4 pages long).

Enter Silverlight/Moonlight. So while Adobe are dropping Flash in favour of working on HTML 5, Microsoft came to the party with their own similar product. However, they've entered the fray in amongst patent issues. For video codecs, they have the MS Media Pack which allows you to play video and audio. However, it can't be distributed i.e. you MUST download it from the MS site and agree to the EULA.

This isn't the first time this has happened. During discussions around HTML5 there were a series of debates around the standard codec for video - a split between H.264 and Ogg Theora. H.264 offers great quality at low bit rates (less data needing to be sent to the client) - and also requires a lot of client resources to uncompress and play - BUT is encumbered by patents. Ogg Theora isn't encumbered by patents but doesn't offer the same quality.

So even HTML5 might not be the saviour we're all looking for. To resolve the debate they chose to simply not include a standard codec.

In Linux, you'll find that you have varying degrees of support for codecs. For example, converting an avi file to a mov file (for use in iMovie for example) isn't possible on Ubuntu using the official codecs (included in ffmpeg - you can decode but not encode). You'd instead have to use unofficial ffmpeg binaries or compile it yourself.

So while HTML5 might be a step in the right direction (and we need this direction now as other difficulties face us such as creating online interactive multimedia rich applications becomes more difficult) it's probably going to be a great big pain to get cross-browser compatibility.

This is a huge argument against software patents. While I was commenting last year during the Rugby World Chalice-like-thing (there were issues with using the three words together) and the state of streaming, I termed the problem as a technical one. Surely we've got the technology to do this by now? But it's not technical. It's a legal problem. One which seems to have resulted in stalled development. While the individual codecs get better, they're still being developed in isolation.

I thought this line was interesting from the MS Media Pack EULA:

You also may not: ... work around any technical limitations in the software.

While working around technical limitations has the potential of improving the software...

So back to the original question.... which I haven't really stated up till now:
"What is the future of multimedia rich content on the Internet that is accessible to everyone?"

HTML5 is nowhere near perfect and definitely needs fixing, but it's at the very least a step in the right direction.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On the virtues of #unblog'ing

I haven't posted here nor on my own blog in a while. I'm probably not going to much anyway. I seem not to do blogs very much... they have a set of constraints I'd rather not deal with... so I'm using my own #unblog format:

  1. Publish using the tools of the web, e.g.

  2. Tweet (or post about it on FB, G+, etc)

    "#unblog entry: Title of Entry [URL]"
  3. Done.

The interesting thing about this is the number of different things you can post; anything from just plain text to code to pictures to drawings to... it's endless. You're not locked in to one vendor, either: if the privacy policy of a service or website doesn't quite sit right, stop using it. Find an alternative. It's really that simple.

The advantage of a blog over this is archival and findability. For these reasons I'll be working in my spare time on a kind of aggregator for #unblog posts. Watch this space:

I think that's it on this blog for me. Nevyn, I'm on Brentwood Ave these days, so I may bump into you sometime. Good-bye!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Can You Say "Moo"?

Here in good old clean green New Zealand we seem to be living in a capitalist paradise.

In India, the majourity of people wouldn't make it in any other country based on their incomes. Sure, it's a bad example, as the poor are really poor, but the point still stands. They're able to produce their own goods cheaply.

Contrast that to the price of milk. It's ridiculous. Some of us live in predominantly rural areas where dairy is the biggest trade for the area, or meats, or fruit and vegetables, and the price paid in stores is still shocking. Why? Because the international demand on these goods is high.

It's cheaper to buy New Zealand cheese in Australia than it is to buy it in New Zealand. Which would mean that the prices offered in the New Zealand market are actually higher - an average perhaps? - of International prices. The expenses of selling overseas - shipping, standing up to an individual country's import standards etc. - can't be ignored. And yet, we pay through the nose.

But this doesn't just hold true for dairy. Meat, fruit, wool, seafood even data. As domestic customers we're charged full international rates for national data. Say what you will about the reasons for data caps and other New Zealand Internet costs - the fact that national data costs exactly the same as International rates (for domestic customers) - has got to set off some warning bells.

I'm not a big fan of capitalism. I don't think it works in the way that people think it does. We're fed a bunch of lines as to how it should work, accept a bunch of things that undermine those things that might make it work, and continue to "trust in the system". What becomes apparent though is that capitalism does a lousy job of taking into account people and their contribution to society as a whole.

The majourity of people work their butts off for a pay check though the size of that check doesn't reflect their contribution to society. If it did, nurses, teachers and hospitality staff (when sitting in a bar, I'm always thinking of the fact that I'm having an enjoyable time as a result of the service) would get paid a hell of a lot more than they do.

Look at the other end of the scale. The wealthy are looking at ways of increasing that wealth. It's often a result of having the resources to be able to think in that way. A friend of mine would often talk about the limited opportunities of children in third world countries. Just because we're in New Zealand, we're privileged. They've been convinced to convert to capitalist systems but because they start off poor, the system doesn't work. Their poor remain poor. Their rich become richer. And we in America aren't the kings of the mountain. We have to accept that it's VERY unlikely that a New Zealander will ever be an astronaut for example.

I'm a huge fan of the Yes Men. In one of their films they propose the idea of slavery as a way of getting people treated well. The premise being that the alternative is that they can be fired at a moments notice and there are any number of people willing to take that position - just to have a job. If an employee was owned instead, then you'd be obliged to look after these resources. It was done in sarcasm but the scary bit is that it kind of makes sense.

So the items most effected are food items. Those items we need the most. The exchange rate being up is supposed to mean that we can import goods cheaply but seems to have a negative effect on locally produced goods - because we're paying as if we were living on the other side of the world.

Effectively we're cash cows. Might as well say "moo".

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Old Myths (A Stolen Post)

Just a quick acknowledgement. If I'm going to steal the guts of a blog post, I might as well credit it (this is essentially how Creative Commons and Open Source works) - So thank you Dorothy Burt. (Yes, I am asking forgiveness rather than permission).

A few years ago at a birthday party of mine a friend of mine was happily snapping away with her digital camera. In fact, she was the only one doing so, so a few people asked her if she could email them copies - me included. Social networking hardly existed at all back then. She sent me a link. I clicked on the link and it wanted me to register with some stupid service called Bebo. This was before I knew anything about social networking. I wasn't interested. I generally don't sign up to things if I don't know what they are.

But they're my pictures!

Nowadays I'm a little more aware. While walking through town I do my best to avoid being in the background of pictures being taken by inconsiderate people blocking foot traffic on Queen Street. All of the kids have cameras on their netbooks and often get told off if they take a photo of me without asking permission. Just about every cellphone these days have a camera. It's impossible to completely avoid having photos taken of you. Hell - in London they're probably watching your every move on Closed Circuit TV.

Back in the early days of cellphones a friend said that she'd often joked when on the phone about her going into the shower and if you were quick enough, you could join her... She'd stopped using that joke once cellphones were a little more commonplace.

An example of where technology changes our attitudes... So, about my soul then... There are plenty of things that I do that I'd rather my parents didn't know about or see. Or that I'd rather my boss didn't see. Hell, that I'd rather future employers or clients didn't see... Or I'd love to avoid the photos that have me looking fat. That list goes on and on. Why would Google choose the whole "circle" paradigm for Google Plus if people weren't concerned by this?

So photos taken of me and put on the net have the potential of stealing something... my soul? Well okay, probably not. My reputation almost certainly.

You've got to wonder though - where did that particular myth come from? Are we seeing an interesting piece of myth become reality? It seems more possible now given the technology...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What's the Problem?

The geek community are all in a froth over Raspberry Pi. A credit card sized computer (though it needs to be plugged into a monitor and keyboard) for "educational purposes".

They're trying to encourage computer sciences. The problem I have with it though, computers have never been the problem. I first learnt to program on a Tandy 102 - a computer from the late 70's, early 80's. Most schools have a few computers in the classroom and/or a computer lab.

And while I'm all about being cynical - think about what you're creating on those computers. Are they being used to engage your students?

So the Raspberry Pi team define the problem being that most people enter the computer sciences with only having done a little website design rather than the situation a couple of decades ago where the people entering computer sciences would have been hobbyist programmers.

Their solution? Build a rather cool cheap little machine and throw them at the problem. If computers and access to computers haven't, as of yet, been an issue, then what are they actually solving? I am willing to go on record to say that Raspberry Pi will have little or no effect on education.

So how is this problems solved? It's a people problem. Ask anyone at school - "why aren't computer sciences taught?". The answer is one of two. Either "we don't have the people to teach it" or "we don't have the people to make it engaging". So without there being professional development around the teaching of such a subject, it simply won't be taught. The computers are available, the software has been developed. It's down to the people...

Monday, March 5, 2012

Spend Now, Save Later

It was announced recently that Housing New Zealand would be closing their offices relying instead on an 0800 number. Further to this, further cut backs are being done including stopping a scheme that helped people people into a private rentals.

This just smells of a massive failure to me. It's cost cutting without understanding their audience. Who are they trying to help? What are they actually saving?

Relating this to my own experience, I don't think I would have half as many issues with IRD as I do if I could go to an office, meet with someone and actually sort out my finances. Instead, I get a letter in the mail every couple of months telling me how much I owe. Give 'em a call and you get someone completely unhelpful on the phone.

That's me. I'm probably fairly patient compared to a lot of those dealing with Housing New Zealand. When you're talking about a home, they're probably right to be horribly frustrated.

In the long run, I believe these cost cutting measures to be misguided at best. Likely to cost a great deal at worse.

A housing project I heard of removed a property manager after the National government got in. They were not happy paying for this person. The thing is, having that person living on the premises meant that any disputes and problems were dealt with quickly. The housing project has since been considered a failure. The cost of maintenance on that property has gone up.

A couple of days ago I was laughing at the "Buy this crap and save $20" line that we're so often given. The funny bit is that a lot of the purchases I make I see as saving me money in some form or another. I want to buy a bread maker (and hopefully swap some of that bread for other food items). I buy fountain pens. I want to buy an ice cream maker. I'm thinking about brewing my own beer (which requires me to buy a tank to brew in and bottling equipment etc).

And of course, I've always known of this phenomenon. The best comparison in the computing world is a printer. Save on the printer, spend big on the consumables. Inversely, spend a lot on the printer, and the consumables are very likely going to be cheaper.

I've seen this in other places in the computing world. I was horrified when upon changing a power supply I was told to leave the old faulty power supply where it was as it might be okay in another computer. The power supply in question definitely isn't the sort of power supply I would chose. It just smelt of being cheap. Tip - avoid this sort of thing:
 And go for this sort of thing:
The larger fan means it can run slower to get the same air throughput. Less chance of it getting clogged up with dust, quieter and, generally speaking, better designed for air flow meaning it deteriorates over a longer period of time.

This is another place where the extra money (in this case, probably around $5-10) saves you money in the long run. Think about the time taken in diagnosing and replacing power supplies. That's a switching cost of, assuming $40 / hour for a technician, 30 minutes to actually diagnose the issue, 10 minutes to replace the power supply and 5 more minutes testing - that's $30 plus the cost of the new power supply (another $30-40). These costs soon add up.

Apply that to housing...

So we're not unfamiliar with the concept - that to spend money (in the right places) leads to savings further down the road. We can assume that the powers that be aren't idiots. So we've got to ask ourselves - what are they up to? Is this just a cheap shot to save money and leave a problem for someone else? I've always assumed that Housing New Zealand existed to help people. Perhaps they need to be looking at their core values and asking themselves whether they're meeting that expectation.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"My People"

I had rather an odd morning yesterday morning. I was walking down Queen St when someone saw me and said "you're from Dominion Road right?".

He's someone I see from time to time. He's often drunk and asking for a cigarette. Polite enough so I normally do give him one.

Anyway, there was another guy with him. An Irish guy. He sort of just attached himself to me and asked why my people don't save the world. I was puzzled. My people? He had a list of 3 things though the one he focused on was "Mercury based antigrav engines". Apparently "my people" had invented them and the American's stole it. They apparently used them in the 2nd world war and they were called foo fighters.

He went to great lengths to tell me that my people should be using them as weapons and save the world. Being a pacifist, I was troubled by this. The answer to saving the world is weapons. This reminds of a conversation I was having with a kid. This child was afraid of a particular school because he was convinced he'd get beaten up. I said to him "Do you know the best way to avoid getting hurt?".

His response "Hit them then run away".

I tried to point out that hitting the person would only aggravate them all the more so it's best to just run away. But I digress...

After a few minutes of this I asked him exactly who he thought my people were. I was expecting an odd answer. Something along the lines of "the Martians". Instead he responded "Your people. You know, you Indians".

I told him that I'd only ever lived in New Zealand and so considered myself a New Zealander. He got a little bit frustrated with me after a little while. I'd persisted in saying "Dude, they're as much your people as they are mine".

He peeled off with one last "You should be proud of your people!".

I am. I really am. The powerbeat battery, splitting the atom, climbing Mt Everest, the uses of No. 8 wire, our work ethic etc. Even some of the traits I complain about like our lack of patriotism and seemingly indifference to politics. If being a people were just about blood, then we wouldn't have so much diversity and conflict.

Anyway - let's celebrate all the weirdos out there. They make life interesting.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Better Ways

Working in schools I'm reminded of all of the things I was really bad at.

Handwriting. I never earned my "pen license". I'm not sure at what point I was allowed to use a pen. I don't think I was ever given explicit permission.

Spelling... I'm still a pretty bad speller. I've gotten orders of multitudes better, but I'm still not great. I'm just really lucky that I work with machines that can tell me when I've got it wrong.

I was shocked and stunned when I went to a school and found that they still do the good old fashioned spelling tests that I used to do as a kid. It didn't help. My spelling, I believe, actually suffered from the exercise. My failure to spell properly in those tests discouraged me.

Memorizing the spelling of a set of words seems to me to have so little value as to be one of those things that takes away from learning. I think I've said it before about math. The value in learning and memorizing your times tables has the detrimental effect on so many people that they spend the rest of their lives hating math and convinced that they're simply no good at it. Learning what it means - 7x3 is 7 groups of 3 - has much more value to knowing the answer. Actually I can't credit myself for this thought.  It came from this TED talk.

So how do you teach kids to spell? I sincerely believe it has to be in context. It's not enough to just teach "spelling". It goes under a much better heading of "literacy". Write a story. Try to use "these" words. Have a dictionary or some way (such as a netbook) of being able to look up a word. Make the word have some sort of meaning. You're suddenly expanding vocabulary, learning spelling (and hopefully picking up on patterns) and it all has some meaning as opposed to the awful explanation of "it's what we've always done" (and get what we always got).

Nowadays my vocabulary is expanded through reading. I'm sure that's the case for most adults (those of us who read at least). Why shouldn't this ring true for kids well? I don't find myself memorizing lists of words on a weekly basis. It's all in context. Think about the whole "word a day" approach. The idea is that you learn a word and during the day, try to use it in context as part of normal conversation. Sure, it's mostly a vocabulary thing, but then, what's the point in learning the spelling of a word if you can't use it? I wouldn't recommend this for kids - they have to expand their vocabulary at a faster rate than most adults and given that the people around them are likely to be just learning the word, using it in context isn't going to be easy... Still... if we learn with context, why do we expect kids to learn without?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Google - Please Stop Trying to Control My Life

Back in the good old days I had a cell phone and an email account and they were two very different things. The people I emailed were not necessarily people I'd call and vice versa.

Enter in the age of the Android phone. I'm finding that Google are desperately trying to match up my email contacts to my phone contacts. So friends who I've known for years have suddenly got photos of random people I met on Google Plus associated to them. It's quite disconcerting answering the phone trying to figure out which "Simon" or "Fiona" it is I'm going to be talking to. Someone I knew 5 years ago who's still in my phone or someone who I met on Google Plus last year?

Have you noticed the little notice that Google products keep popping up with?

We're changing our privacy policy and terms. This stuff matters.

The whole data mining thing has taken on new wings. The information collected from all of Google's services will be collated across multiple products. So what you write in a blog and what blogs you visit can be collated against what you search for or what sort of emails you receive. Have you actually had a look at the text ads in your gmail? They're targetted based on the contents of your email. It's horribly scary. How much does Google really know about me? In Google Plus they made sure they had the name I'm known in meat space by. With my phone they probably have a fairly good idea of where I am at all times. They know what sort of work I do and probably have a fairly good grasp on my work ethic and competency.

Never mind Facebook and their data mining. Google have it sorted and collated and associated to a real person. There is something insidious about Facebook as well but to do that post I'd have to steal an idea from someone (though she told me the idea around 3 months ago and hasn't written the post yet so I'm tempted).