Saturday, February 26, 2005

Blog People and Michael Gorman

Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, has written a rant about bloggers, Google, and the role of librarians.

I quite enjoyed the rant, especially as Google refuses to index my web site, but then I started wondering about the implications of Gorman's assertions.

The current method of publishing books, with authors, agents, publishing houses, printers and booksellers cannot be viewed as the "right way" any more than blogging can claim the title. The former is just as much a result of technology (printing) as is blogging (web and Internet).

One begins to suspect that Gorman's assertion that his concerns have nothing to do with job protection for librarians rings hollow, and is an elitist attempt to maintain control over access to knowledge.

I have witnessed the same painful transition in computing, where the old IBM priesthood of programmers and system administrators fought bitterly to prevent the widespread dissemination of information that led to their becoming irrelevant. The phrase "real men program in Assembler" while humorous, has at its root the vain attempt to keep things hard so that access is only possible through the professional intermediaries.

Where were the librarians when the world shifted and such wonderful new tools as the web, and search, and essentially free storage became available? I have no disagreement with the assertion that current methods are anarchic and ineffective, but they are still dramatically better than trying to educate by assuming that all knowledge should reside in books organized by librarians and accessible only by physically going to book storage locations.

The real debate should be about the inability to judge veracity of information without context or bona fides. Google's approach is to assume that popularity (number of linked pages) equates with importance. It is the digital equivalent of mob rule.

The "dead trees" brigade relies on self appointed gate keepers - editors, publishers, distributors to determine what gets published. While one can perhaps accept that this ensures quality, it does guarantee that most material is not published. Since sales ultimately determine success and therefore subsequent access to distribution, the same result we see with Google obtains - a rush to the lowest common denominator, and those with the most money for promotion (or search engine advertising placement) take dominant placement.

There is also a very real concern about monopolistic control over the channels of distribution. There are few librarians happy with the prices charged by scholarly journals. Given the archaic system of publish or perish in academia, the inevitable logjam of those needing to be published has run into the decreasing number of outlets controlled by large publishing houses.

Do I want my news and information to come from some illiterate blogger? Obviously not. But I do want my news and information to be available conveniently and instantly. Gorman should be questioning why librarians have failed to keep up with technology and the potential it offers to revolutionize their profession, not trying to protect books and libraries. Most libraries use computers only to make the distribution and tracking of books more efficient, not to access their contents.

You are doomed if you do not understand what business you are in. Libraries are not useful because they store books in one place. They are useful because they provide a thoughtful and useful indexing framework for the retrieval of information.

To use another analogy, libraries are like fixed line phone companies attempting to compete with mobile phones. The fixed line companies thought they were in the business of providing physical connections and handsets to customers. Experience has shown they were actually in the communications and indexing business. The value comes from the phone number and the ability to access any other subscriber.

The technology is irrelevant.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A Genius Explains

The abilities of savants and autistic individuals have fascinated and intrigued people for years, but there has been very little explanation of how and why the extraordinary capabilities work.

The Guardian has an article describing Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant. What makes him particularly interesting is his ability to describe how he thinks.

Good article that makes one wonder about the amount of unused capability we are all carrying around on our shoulders.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Top 100 Gadgets of All Time

As an inveterate gadget buyer and tinkerer, this list of the top 100 gadgets of all time naturally drew my attention. Some of the highlighted items I had never heard of, but other favourites are listed.

Who can forget the ETCH-A-SKETCH, released in 1960? The first time I came across this marvelous machine, it confirmed my suspicion that I had no artistic talent or hand-eye coordination. The first conclusion has stood the test of time, while the second has improved with age.

For on-going impact, I have to select the TREK THUMBDRIVE, released in 1999. I received the first one of these as a promo from a vendor who cleverly put the invitation to an event on the drive. It was a real "wow" moment, and has completely changed the way I move and store data.

Top 100 Gadgets Of All Time

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Western Digital - Great Moments in Customer Service

I have often been left gobsmacked by just how badly companies manage customer service. Thank goodness for the Internet which reduces the need to interact with counter drones.

It is with considerable surprise and pleasure that I am able to say that Western Digital has just delivered the best service I have ever had from a manufacturer.

While building a high performance gaming machine last year, I had purchased two Western Digital 120 Gb Caviar SE hard disks. Using the onboard RAID controller, I set the drives up in a mirroring configuration. Everything installed, and the machine was in use for a month. Suddenly one day, I got a disk error, and it turned out one of the drives had died.

With previous experience of trying to get warranty service on a hard drive (can you spell I B M...), I reluctantly decided to just buy a new drive rather than have the PC out of service for an extended period of time. The new drive was identical, and installed quickly. Once I had figured out the arcane Chinese English error messages, the drive was synchronized, and everything has run fine since then.

The dead drive has been sitting on a shelf waiting for a day I was both in a good mood and had become so bored I was prepared to tackle a manufacturer's RMA process. Having finished preparations for Chinese New Year, it seemed appropriate to attempt the return of the drive.

I logged onto the Western Digital web site, followed the links to end user warranty, filled in the form, and was issued an RMA number. There were extremely clear instructions on how to pack and ship the drive, and a local Singapore address. There was a menu choice to track your RMA, just like a FedEx or UPS package. Finally, there was the statement that drives could only be mailed, and that walk in service was not provided.

Fantastic! Every other time I have tried to claim warranty service, I have been told to take the drive personally to some obscure industrial estate in deepest Singapore that is open for 45 minutes on alternate Wednesdays. The taxi fare alone would be equal to half the cost of the drive, and having to go back to pick it up makes the whole exercise pointless.

The day before Chinese New Year, I packaged up the drive according to instructions, and dropped it off at the local post office. The postage came to the grand sum of S$2.50. I expected that nothing would happen for a few weeks due to the holidays and past experience. Imagine my surprise 7 days later when a courier company called me in the morning and asked if they could deliver a hard disk.

Great service, great experience, congratulations to Western Digital.

Stopping Spyware

Like the debates about gun control, "guns don't kill people, people kill people", there are strongly held views about how to stop or at least control spyware and spam. The very mechanisms that are supposed to protect endusers are being used to create and deliver spyware.

This article by Ben Edelman makes the point that those charged with running the Internet are not doing enough to protect us, and are in fact allowing the problem to get worse.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

V-Gear LanDisk

As home networks become common, the same issues that plague businesses arise - the ever increasing need for storage, and managing backups and the backup window.

I have been on the lookout for simple Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices to use as bit buckets for storing everything from MP3's to system images. In the corporate setting, there are a number of low-end, Windows Server-based NAS appliances that work just fine. I have put Dell PowerVault NAS appliances into a number of different office and development environments with great success.

For home use however, the price point, power consumption, noise, and heat become issues. There are a number of products from Linksys, Snap, Iomega, and Buffalo, but they all tend to either be too expensive or too complicated. I don' t want a whole new server with email, DHCP, and LINUX apps running just to get network storage.

And so to the V-Gear LanDisk. Sold by a company in Taiwan I had never heard of, this little box does exactly what the name implies. It is a stylish little enclosure in which you install the 3.5" hard disk of your choice. Connection and setup are incredibly simple. After inserting your hard disk into the space provided, it is just necessary to attach the included power and IDE cables. Two screws secure the cover, and then it is just a matter of inserting an RJ-45 cable to connect to your switch, and the included power which comes from a wall wart.

Administration is just as simple. Using a browser, you type http://landisk and the admin page comes up. There is a very sparse set of choices which basically come down to formatting the disk (FAT32), creating the share permissions, and setting the identity of the device for Windows networking. Immediately, all other computers on your network can see and map to the share.

The unit can also act as an FTP server, and there is an administration menu to set that up. The web site makes reference to firmware updates, so it looks like any bugs will be taken care of that way.

To try the unit out, I inserted an old 20Gb Maxtor that I had lying around. It had been formatted as NTFS under WinXP in its previous life, and the LanDisk was not happy when it tried to display disk statistics. I clicked the format button, and a few seconds later, the drive showed up as an empty 20Gb drive. I moved files on and off to make sure that everything worked as advertised, and created folders and shares.
Confident that it all worked as advertised, I decided to splurge on something significantly bigger, and bought a Seagate 200Gb drive. Again, after clicking format, it was less than a minute before I had a usable system.

Wonderful, simple, and reasonably priced (S$175 from South Asia at Funan), I am very happy with this unit.

Getting a Gmail Account

Google has done a great job of creating demand through scarcity by dribbling out invitations for free Gmail accounts. These email accounts are desirable for the huge amount of disk space that comes free (1Gb), and the clean user interface.

Since Hotmail is apparently not upgrading users outside the US, I am still stuck with my 2mb limit. This is exhausted daily, with spam that now seems to be growing in size. Although the filters work well, you are charged disk space for your junk folder, so quickly run out of space.

Unless you know somebody who has an account already, it is tough to get a Gmail account. However, there is a solution. The folks at isnoop have created an exchange point where people can donate their invitations, and people can pick them up for the asking. Go here to get your account.

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The Illusion Of ISP Speed Claims

An article in the Straits Times covers what broadband users in Singapore had already figured out - the speed ratings used by the ISP's are a joke. At best, speeds are only applicable to local sites, which are practically non-existent. Bandwidth to reach overseas is never specified or explained.

To put this all in context, Singapore realized early on that having a wired infrastructure to the home was going to provide economic benefits. The government put in place policies to subsidize connections and to encourage infrastructural roll-out. A significant amount of fibre optic cable was installed, but much of it remains dark.

A basic flaw also exists in the government's failure to regulate use of the existing in-ground conduit network. Other jurisdictions have realized that forcing new entrants to dig up all the roads to create a new distribution network is pointless. Since those conduits were created while the dominant telco was a monopoly, it makes far more sense to separate the physical manholes and conduits from the wires. The conduits are on public land and represent a public good. Access should be open to all licensed telcos so that competition is real and possible.

With a small market and a dominant, government owned telco in place however, progress has been slow. The original broadband offering was from the cable monopoly, SCV. Speed was advertised at 1.5mbps, but that was only for local sites, and download only. Upload was capped at 128kbps, which made it next to useless for connecting back to corporate LANs using IP VPN.

SCV was encouraged/forced to merge with Starhub, leaving only two primary suppliers of ISP services to retail users. Unlike Japan or Korea where true 20mb speeds are on offer at low cost, Singapore continues to limp along with 512K ADSL from Sin
gTel, and the 1.5/6.5 mbps notional speeds offered by Starhub, at relatively high cost.

And the economic results are clear to see. Korea has seen an explosion of Internet based services and companies because of the ubiquity of high speed connections. Although Singapore professes to want to be an IT hub, the high cost of local and overseas connectivity discourage firms from making Singapore their base of operations.

I doubt there will be much change to this comfortable duopoly until either the government uses regulation to force meaningful competition, or disruptive technology enters the scene. With the track record of the IDA to date, I have little hope of the former, but there is a glimmer of hope that broadband wireless will allow a new operator to bypass the strangle hold on homes that now exists. That will solve the last mile problem, but the overseas access problem remains in need of a solution.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Employing the "Elderly"

There is a debate going on in Singapore about what to do with all the old people now that citizens aren't dying conveniently on schedule within a year of the official retirement age. In Singapore, the retirement age is only 62, so with life expectancies going up, the need to continue to earn an income is a pressing issue for many people.

Suggestions have been made to reserve jobs for old people.


Is it fear of one's own mortality that causes people to have dumb ideas? I was moved to write to the paper...

My letter to the Business Times:

Business Times - 02 Feb 2005
Tackle retirement by tempering expectations
I REFER to the article, 'Not yet time to retire' (BT, Jan 31).

Treating those of a particular age as if they belong to a single homogenous group is at best confusing. A complex modern society is composed of many different people with widely varying skills, education, and work experience. Why is it that as soon as someone becomes 'old', all his other attributes are forgotten and he becomes a nameless member of an amorphous group united only by their age?

Are we really to believe that two individuals, one a CEO and the other a clerical worker, are the same because they are 'old'? The problem of employment equity and opportunity is not one of age: it is one of expectations and compensation. As other correspondents have mentioned, a seniority based compensation system is going to price the older worker - whether blue collar or white - out of his job eventually. What really needs to be addressed is the assumption on the part of the employee and employer that earnings should only go in one direction over a career - up.

In today's society, it is close to impossible to suggest that pay for performance or pay for value be applied across the board. It is somehow embarrassing for both the employer and the employee to suggest that someone take a wage cut and not see it as a demotion or penalty. It is easier to just fire the older employee and replace them with someone younger and cheaper. Both parties need to come to a more mature understanding, and realise that with life expectancies reaching into one's eighties, retirement at a fixed age is no longer needed or welcome.

Waleed Hanafi
Copyright © 2004 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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