Saturday, December 29, 2007

Searching E-mail

As a certified packrat, I have accumulated vast quantities of e-mail over the years. Working on the assumption that bits are cheap, I have a relatively complete record of my electronic communications.

The problem with the bit bucket approach to data storage is retrieval. How do you find what you are looking for in that huge pile of information?

A number of search programs exist, all with various flaws. Google Desktop leaks information back to the mother ship. Lookout, a search plug-in for Outlook crashes things regularly. Microsoft bought the company, and now offers Windows Search.

The problem with all these programs and plug-ins is that they only do literal search. If you are looking for a phone number, but the word "phone" does not appear in an email, you will not get a result. The solution is to use semantic search, and a researcher at IBM has created just that - a semantic search solution for Outlook and Lotus Notes called IBM OmniFind Personal E-mail Search.

What I particularly like about this program is that it is free (for now), fast, and clean. When installed in Outlook, a small search button is added to the toolbar. The search results are presented in a simple web browser page that looks very similar to Google.

Downloading requires registration with IBM.

Toy Alert - ASUS Eee PC

ASUS have managed to create something for which I have been waiting for a very long time - an inexpensive (S$598), usable, small form (225 × 165 × 21mm), notebook computer called the Eee PC. When you consider a Nokia N series or Windows Mobile smart phone is over S$1,200, the value proposition for the Eee PC is compelling.

Even more interesting is the market reaction. Sales are way ahead of projections, with the Taipei Times reporting
more than 350 thousand units sold, and predictions of 5 million to be shipped in 2008. The user community is already huge, with web sites, forums, wikis, and articles proliferating all over the 'net. That puts the Eee PC in iPod territory.

I won't bother to go into all the specs or provide a detailed review as that ground has already been well covered by others. It comes with Wi-Fi, a solid-state disk for storage, 3 USB slots, Ethernet port, integrated web cam and microphone, an external VGA connector, a removable battery, and a decent keyboard and touchpad. The 7 inch LCD screen is fantastic, and the default fonts and type sizes are very comfortable for my old eyes, unlike the more expensive UMPC's like the Toshiba Libretto, Sony Vaio, and OQO.

This little device is really going to shake things up in the operating system world. The model I bought came with Xandros Linux wrapped in a particularly simple and easy to use menu system. All the applications you need (to surf the web, send and receive email, use Skype, create and read documents, play games) are already installed. Linux is suddenly on the desktop and actually being used in anger.

Although I have installed Linux systems over the years in order to have a look, I am a firm Windows XP user. Linux just seems too fiddly and time consuming compared to Windows. The default installation of Linux on the Eee PC is anything but fiddly. It just works, and that is what good software should do.

Using hints and instructions I found by googling support forums, I have already modified the OS to reveal the advanced desktop which ASUS decided to hide, and installed my favourite media player, VLC.

It is also possible to install Windows XP on the unit. A DVD disk is provided which contains the Xandros image and the drivers necessary to complete a
Windows installation. ASUS is shipping models that have more memory, storage, and XP natively installed, but they have not appeared in Singapore yet. I was so taken with the device that I didn't want to wait for the higher spec units.

The ultimate recommendation I can give is that I was so impressed with the Eee PC, I left my usual ThinkPad behind and only took the Eee PC along on a recent 8 day holiday. I was able to access all my email accounts, check the weather forecast, and complete an Internet check-in for the return flight.

We do love our SMS

ZDNet Asia reporter Victoria Ho has a story about SMS growth based on findings from Gartner.

The numbers are truly staggering. Asia accounted for 1.5 trillion messages in 2007 out of a total of 1.9 trillion messages transmitted world-wide. The Gartner analysts are predicting growth of over 19% in 2008.

There are approximately 6.6 billion people in the world, and most of those don't have cell phones. Those that do, have very busy thumbs.

Add to the messaging total all the Blackberry users pushing email, all the IM conversations taking place on MSN, AOL, Yahoo and the like, and all the Skype and VOIP services, and one gets the strong impression that the human animal craves communication. The future of social networking seems secure, even as it evolves and mutates to take advantage of new channels.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Smoking is an IQ test you fail in public

With all the evidence linking smoking to a range of health impacts, and with that evidence particularly pointing to the effects on women, I am astonished at the number of girls and women who continue to smoke.

I was heading out for lunch today, and had to pass through a group of otherwise attractive women, all puffing away on cigarettes. My first thought was how pathetic it is to have to reveal an addiction in front of strangers, and then I wondered at the thought process that led them to take up smoking in the first place.

Which led to the bumper sticker:

Smoking is an IQ test you fail in public

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Come out of the cage - GSM in North America

Like animals kept in a cage so long they are scared to come out when the door is left open, North American cellular users seem unable to grasp the concept of a standards-based cellular network.

There has been a lot of press calling for open networks recently, kicked off in an op-ed piece by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal demanding cellphone perestroika. American cellcos have adopted a business model in which they tightly control which handsets are sold, and heavily discount the equipment by locking subscribers into long term contracts.

Whenever choice is limited,
the result is rather predictable. The range of handsets available in the most technologically advanced country in the world is tiny compared to places like China, Hong Kong and Singapore, where hundreds of handsets are available at retail shops and from the cellcos directly.

Verizon, one of the main cellcos in America, and famously the one that passed on the iPhone, has now announced that it will "open" its network to external devices. In a bizarre twist, AT&T, which operates using the GSM standard, has announced that it is open too. I say bizarre, because by definition, GSM is open. People all over the world move between carriers everyday, with any device certified as GSM compliant.

It's called roaming. And no, you don't have to have permission to activate.

In an article in Infoworld, an AT&T spokesman is quoted as warning "
We can't guarantee the performance of the device, of course."

Which is nonsense. If a GSM-certified handset fails to perform on AT&T's GSM network, the problem is with a non-compliant AT&T.

Knowing that the situation in the US and Canada was not competitive, I equipped eldest daughter with the latest Nokia handset purchased in Singapore before sending her off to university in Canada.

Like AT&T, Rogers, the operator of the GSM network in Canada, has kept a stranglehold over handsets. Unlike other countries with GSM coverage, it is almost impossible and certainly uneconomic to purchase a prepay SIM card for use while in Canada. The staff at the shops don't seem to even understand the concept. You can however, sign up for a normal post-pay account.

And guess what. That foreign, unlocked, non-tested, unblessed handset works perfectly.

Who knew.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Who needs a computer anyway?

There was a post on Good Morning Silicon Valley today referencing an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the fact that half of the top ten books in Japan in the last 6 months were written on cellphones. As usual when exploring cultural trends, the Japanese tend to be out there first. Not everything starts in Japan, but if you want to look for unexpected societal implications of technology, Japan bears a look.

As someone who started using computers during a compulsory statistics course while at university, the journey from punching holes in cards on a keypunch to writing novels on cellphones is quite extraordinary. What I have also noticed is that the time to progress from one dominant method to the next has compressed beyond recognition.

If you consider that writing and paper go back thousands of years, printing goes back hundreds of years, the typewriter was invented just over a hundred years ago (1868), and the Teletype was in mass use in the 1950's, there is a pace of change that is exponential.

Within my own family, my grandparents had a discipline of writing letters to the family on Sunday nights. Each of them had portable typewriters that had traveled with them all over the world. I also learned to type on a mechanical typewriter, but it was the IBM Selectric that greeted me by the time I started work. Within 5 years, AES word-processing machines started to show up, and it was only 10 years later that PC's had completely replaced stand-alone typewriters and word-processors.

My dominant method of writing and communicating has been the PC and email. Although I did use typewriters and carbon paper when I first joined the diplomatic service, I rapidly shifted to PC's and WordStar, when I started assembling my own computers in the mid '80's. This was the time of the first modems running at a glorious 300 baud, and the advent of the free Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) with their forums and messaging.

For my children, only two years apart in age, I can see a difference already in their approach to written communications. The eldest grew up with instant messaging and gaming, and she barely uses email. For the youngest, email is already a thing of the past. She lives exclusively on her cellphone, using SMS for written communications.

Which challenges the whole idea of "the written record".

Our ideas of permanence and persistence are not keeping up with the change in technology. Carving marks on rocks gives you a pretty permanent record. Papyrus has lasted for milennia. Paper, if made acid free, last hundreds of years. But now we have thermal printing, laser printing, and ink jet printing, all with lives measured in tens of years. Our written record is becoming ephemeral, lasting only temporarily.

While electronic records seem permanent, the reality is that the storage media - disk, tape, optical disc - are fragile and easily corrupted. More importantly, even if the data survives, there is a dependence on the continued existence of computers, operating systems, and application programs in order to access the data. Although we are awash in information, our historical record is surprisingly delicate.

What has replaced persistence is presence. I don't care what you said in the past, I just want to know if you are online. Services such as MSN, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, and Skype have changed the rules of the communication game from content to contact.

There is an assumption that there is no record - what I say to you will disappear when we stop talking. Nothing is permanent. This accelerates with SMS, in which even the device being used to communicate, the cell phone, is viewed as a fashion item rather than a communication channel. Replaced on a whim, the record of messages is erased without a thought.

The same behaviour can be seen on social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, where pictures of people doing things they would probably rather forget about are routinely posted. There seems to be a genuine sense of surprise when warnings are given that these photos may come back to haunt one later in life.

After all, isn't stuff supposed to go away when you disconnect?

In Japan, cellular storytelling is all the rage

Justin Norrie
December 3, 2007 - 10:29AM

It seems improbable, even at this early stage, that 21-year-old Rin (a nom de plume) might one day be granted a place alongside Fyodor Dostoevsky in the pantheon of literary giants.

The nursery school teacher from Kokura, in Japan's south, is celebrated for her skill with stichomythia and crude colloquialisms but not, like the great Dostoevsky, the extent to which her writing illuminates the darkest machinations of the mind.

For the time being at least, however, she is entrenched alongside the Russian master in Japan, where the two have become major best-sellers of fiction this year.

A new translation of Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov, released in July, has surprised its publisher by notching up more than 300,000 sales already - but it is Rin's rather less challenging Moshimo Kimiga (If You ...), a 142-page hardback book about a high-school romance, that has caused the bigger fuss.

"I typed it all on my mobile phone," Rin explains matter-of-factly over the same device. "I started writing novels on my mobile when I was in junior high school and I got really quick with my thumbs, so after a while it didn't take so long. I never planned to be a novelist, if that's what you'd call me, so I'm still quite shocked at how successful it's turned out."

So successful that one volume of her book, which began its life in a series of instalments uploaded to an internet site and sent out to the phones of thousands of young subscribers, has sold more than 420,000 copies since it was converted into hardcopy format in January.

Remarkably, half of Japan's top-10 selling works of fiction in the first six months of the year were composed the same way - on the tiny handset of a mobile phone. They sold an average of 400,000 copies. By August, the president of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, was declaring in a manifesto that he was determined "to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture".

Conservative literary academics in Australia who have been huffing about the "radical" study in high-school English courses of SMS messages as "text" have cause to be anxious.

In just a few years, mobile phone novels - or keitai shousetsu - have become a publishing phenomenon in Japan, turning middle-of-the-road publishing houses into major concerns and making their authors a small fortune in the process.

Usually they are written by first-time writers, using one-name pseudonyms, for an audience of young female readers - who, in Japan especially, consult their mobile phones so regularly that the habit could be mistaken for a tic. The stories traverse teen romance, sex, drugs and other adolescent terrain in a succession of clipped one-liners, emoticons and spaces (used to show that a character is thinking), all of which can be read easily on a mobile phone interface. Scene and character development are notably missing.

Koizora (Love Sky) by Mika has sold more than 1.2 million copies since being released in book format last October. The story, about a high-school girl who is bullied, gang-raped, becomes pregnant and has a miscarriage in a saga of near-Biblical proportions, will soon be made into a movie.

Mayumi Sato, a 37-year-old editor at Goma Books who turned Rin's episodic melodrama into a bestselling book, says it is also her favourite of the new generation. "I was actually crying at one point while I was working on that one," she says about the story of a high-school girl's fight against HIV.

"It might seem strange that young readers are going out and buying the book after they've already read the story on their mobile. Often it's because they email suggestions and criticisms to the author on the novel website as the story is unfolding, so they feel like they've contributed to the final product, and they want a hardcopy keepsake of it."

Maho no i-rando (Magic Island), a site that has free tools to help readers create their own mobile phone novels, has accumulated nearly 1 million works since it was set up seven years ago.

Predictably, the surge in popularity of crude, cellular storytelling has raised eyebrows in academic circles.

Toru Ishikawa, a professor of Japanese literature at Tokyo's Keio University, points out that Japanese mobile phones allow their owners only a limited selection of kanji, the Chinese characters regarded by Japanese as more intellectually demanding than their native syllabary. "The size of the screen also necessitates that [authors] use short, simple sentences with basic words. If that's how you measure the quality of literature, then yes, the prevalence of writing like this will water down Japanese literature.

"But it could also encourage writers to be inventive with language in new ways. Language must always evolve."

Rin says she often reads more challenging Japanese classics and acknowledges that her work is deliberately aimed at young people.

This story was found at:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Achieving Karmic Environmental Balance

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In 1966, my grandfather, William Arthur Wall, decided that he wanted to grow trees. With the help of the Ontario government, he located 195 acres of abandoned farm land that was available from a tax sale, and had the land plowed into furrows for a tree farm or plantation.

Using seedlings grown at the Kemptville Nursery, he planted Red Pine and White Spruce. The initial planting was done by machine, but the quality was poor, and my grandfather decided that the planting should be done by hand in future. And so we did. With a bucket containing bundles of 2-3 year old seedlings, and a shovel, we walked the rows, ultimately planting 150,000 trees.

As a 10 year old kid, the work seemed impossibly hard. The buckets were heavy, the mosquitoes relentless, the weather cold. While I retreated to the car to recover, my grandfather would just keep working.

I learned a few important life lessons from the experience:

You need to work hard to get something you want,

It is never too late to start (what was an old man doing planting trees??)

Some things take longer than next week or next month to accomplish.

It is difficult to adequately describe the sense of accomplishment one gets when looking at a forest, knowing that before, there was only scrub. The transformation of the area has been incredible, with a big increase in wildlife as well - birds, groundhogs, porcupines, and signs of other larger animals.

Having spent most of my working life involved with information technology, the one constant has been change. I read, research, and learn, aware that the useful life of what I know will likely expire in less than 24 months.

It is some comfort to know that by acting as the steward of a forest, I have something in my life to counter-balance the pace and waste of IT. When I think of all the paper that is consumed by the process of automating information processing, I take karmic relief in the knowledge that the big ledger in the sky is balanced by the contribution of biomass, habitat, carbon sink, and whatever other environmental factors forests contribute.

I have to say though, the personal benefits are limited to the non-financial. The economics of growing trees are not pretty. One has all the capital costs up front, running costs in the form of property taxes, and event costs in the form of pest control and natural disasters such as ice storms and fires. The bottom line is that this is a labour of love. So far, it has been a money pit.

If you feel the need to redress your environmental karmic balance, send money, and I will plant a tree in your honour.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

V-Gear LanDisk Firmware - Version 024

It seems that V-Gear has indeed disappeared.

I have received a number of requests to post a copy of the last firmware update I have, which is version 024.

Since Blogger doesn't allow posting of files directly, I have created a page on my web site. The firmware is available as a .zip file, since Homestead doesn't allow posting of .bin files (notice a theme developing here?)

To download the firmware, click here: V-Gear LanDisk firmware version 024

Monday, November 05, 2007

Car-Sharing firms merge

The technology magazine RedHerring is reporting that two car-sharing firms in the U.S. are merging. The result gives an operator with a footprint that covers a significant number of metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Zipcar Carpools with Flexcar

Venture-backed Zipcar, whose by-the-hour car-sharing service is used by college students and urban dwellers, is merging with Flexcar, a cross-continent rival service funded by Steve Case’s Revolution, the companies said Wednesday.

In a conference call, Scott Griffith, chairman and chief executive of the combined company, said the top post-merger shareholders will be venture capital funders Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, Globespan Capital Partners, and Revolution. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Jonathan Seelig, a managing director at Boston-based Globespan, said in a telephone interview that bigger is better in the car-share business. "This business is better at scale," he said. "I love that I can use cars in San Francisco, where I travel frequently and Seattle, where I also spend some time. It’s about more people, more cars, more places."

The only markets where the companies compete head-to-head are San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Zipcar operates in markets including New York City, Boston, Toronto, and London. Flexcar operates in Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Seattle, where its headquarters were located.

“There’s very little geographic overlap between the two companies,” said Mark Norman, former chief executive of Flexcar, who becomes president and chief operating officer of the combined company, which will take the Zipcar name and be based in Cambridge.

Mr. Griffith said the combined company will have about 180,000 users, about 120,000 of whom were Zipcar members. The deal is expected to close by week’s end.

"When we acquired Flexcar in 2005, our goal was to bring car sharing to more people in more places," Mr. Case said in a statement. "The Zipcar merger will accelerate this effort."

In July 2005, Zipcar raised $10 million in a funding round led by Benchmark, followed by a $25 million round in November 2006. Officials said the combined company has sufficient funding to take it through the merger and beyond.

In New York City, Zipcar’s rates start at $5.85 per hour and $58.65 per day for frequent users and $10 per hour or $69 per day for occasional users.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What Happened to V-Gear?

I was doing a routine check for firmware updates the other night (trust me, this is what nerds do for entertainment), when I got a "Page Not Found" message from V-Gear. This is the company that makes the low-cost, low-end NAS enclosure that I have written about before.

Thinking that I had got the address wrong, I tried all the variations, including adding a Taiwan suffix(.tw) and even trying the website for the parent company, Asiamajor. All came up dead. Using Google's cache facility, I was able to confirm that the pages used to be there, and that the address was correct.

Not sure if they have gone out of business or just suffered some sort of catastrophic web site failure.

As far as I know, the last firmware update for the LanDisk was 024. It appears that they released an updated model of the equipment sometime last year called the LandDisk Pro, but the firmware is different.

Heads We Win, Tails You Lose - Singapore's CPF

Singapore has, since 1955, had a particularly good solution to the problem of providing a social safety net. Rather than simply have the government as provider of last refuge, the Singapore government instituted a transparent and relatively straightforward compulsory system for the collection and administration of social security monies.

The Central Provident Fund
, or CPF, to give it its normal TLA, assigns every working citizen and permanent resident an account into which a portion of wages are paid, with contributions from the employer and employee. With online access, one's CPF account looks very much like a bank account, meeting the tests of transparency and good order.

That's the good news.

The bad news comes, predictably, whenever governments have large pools of money sitting around. There is a primal itch to do something with the funds. And so the CPF has been tweaked, stretched, re-purposed, and generally abused into the service of a number of different goals deemed worthy by the administration of the day.

One only has to look at the Mission and Values statement on the CPF web site to see the distance that has arisen between the primary mission:


“To enable Singaporeans to save for a secure retirement.”


“A world-class social security organisation providing the best national savings scheme for Singaporeans to enjoy a secure retirement.”

and the current Corporate Philosophy:

"The basic purpose of the CPF is to help members meet primary needs like shelter, food, clothing and health services in their old age or when they are no longer able to work."

The mission has been extended from saving for retirement, to cover shelter, health services, and unemployment. Investing in shares of Singapore Telecom, and providing funds for education have also featured over the years.

Once it was decided in 1968 that home ownership was a national goal, the CPF was modified to allow use of savings for home mortgages. This has spawned a whole bureaucracy to handle the movement of funds between CPF and banks and the Housing Development Board.

Singaporeans don't have sufficient medical insurance? In 1984, the CPF was used to fund Medisave, and in the process, create two accounts where there used to be one, so now CPF has an Ordinary Account, and a Medisave account.

Worried that people are putting too much of their savings into housing (ah, the law of unintended consequences), create a third account - the Special Account - to remove funds available for housing.

By 1988, worries were expressed that people would run out of money for their retirement before they died, and so a Minimum Sum Scheme was introduced, forcing contributors to leave money with CPF even though they had retired and presumably earned the right to their money.

Worried that people are relying too heavily on government for their retirement and need to take more responsibility for their future? Create the CPF Investment Scheme (CPFIS) in 1997 to allow a certain portion of funds to be used to buy certain "qualified" investments. Oh, and give the three local banks a monopoly on handling the accounts created, allow them to charge whatever they want, and don't insist on any service standards.

The economy has also played a role in CPF changes. When the government became worried that contribution rates were making Singapore uncompetitive, the employer contribution rate was reduced, restored, and then reduced again.

And so CPF has grown and mutated, serving whatever hot issue of the day needs a solution. What should be a straight forward retirement savings system, has become a multi-headed hydra with tentacles into most areas of Singapore life. Which is all well and good. Governments can do whatever they want, and people deserve the governments they get.

The effect of constantly tweaking a system set up to do one thing in order to make it do other things is complexity and the destruction of predictability. With each new mission, the original CPF has become more complex, more rigid, and more unpredictable.

But now to the latest assault on the CPF. Having done the numbers, the government actuaries are staring at a shortfall in CPF funds for members even though the Minimum Sum has been raised every year. The driver in this case is an increase in life expectancy. Although the official retirement age remains at 60, people are living into their 80's, destroying the underlying actuarial assumptions for the CPF.

What to do? One obvious solution would be to raise the retirement age. There are few societies that can afford to have a large portion of their population unproductive and attempting to live off savings.

Instead of taking this somewhat unpopular step, the government is proposing to break the basic promise of the CPF.

To quote from a paper comparing the CPF with the US Social Security system,

the most salient features of the [CPF] scheme have not changed since 1955: it is compulsory, its basic principle is thrift and self help; and the contributions made by each member are earmarked for the benefit of the individual, with no redistribution among members"

The basic principle of each individual being the beneficiary of his own contributions is about to be violated by the proposed introduction of compulsory annuities which will commingle contributors funds into an external risk pool. Instead of having access to the money you worked for and saved, you will be forced to turn it over to an insurance company that will pay you a monthly sum. If you die the day after, tough, you lose everything.

Unless you have the luck of Methuselah and live longer than the actuarial tables predict, this is a pretty lousy deal. With interest rates among some of the lowest in the world and below the inflation rate, a Singaporean annuity is a financial disaster.

More importantly, these sudden changes to the rules destroy any planning that a prudent person has made for his own retirement. Funds that are earmarked for retirement are long term and patient money. We are also lectured about the power of compounding interest and the futility of market timing. Save now, and you will be fine later.

Except when "they" keep changing the rules. How is one supposed to plan, or trust, the guardian of one's retirement funds when the rules change unpredictably?

Ironically, there is still one situation in which the CPF achieves its original promise of funds for retirement. You can get all of your money, without any hold backs. Just promise to leave Singapore and never come back.

History of the CPF
Analysis of the CPF

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Deferred Gratification

There is considerable research about the way in which humans tend to prefer immediate gratification over deferred reward. Just try offering a child a choice between one candy now, or two candies in 15 minutes. The choice is almost always immediate gratification.

Having had the opportunity to receive share options while negotiating employment contracts, I have always tried to take the more cerebral approach and defer immediate compensation (salary) for the larger potential payoff of stock appreciation. Sadly, my track record has been 1-3 so far, with the options expiring worthless for various reasons.

So it was with considerable wariness that I approached the decision the last time it was required. I still wanted the options, but decided to balance things more to the immediate gratification side.

Too bad, the options actually paid off this time.

Apart from the financial gain, which is always welcome, the more important result has been the feeling of ownership and the resulting subtle modification to behaviour. It is really hard to talk about "them" when you are an owner. If more companies understood the sense of inclusion and responsibility that ownership brings, there would be a lot more empowered and committed employees.

Going Mobile

Apart from a brief period when I had an employer provided car, I have been without wheels in Singapore. This has been a matter of rational choice and some emotional regret.

The rational choice comes from the absurd price of motoring in Singapore. To purchase a car is not just a matter of putting one's cash on the table, but rather a complex journey through permits, taxes, monopoly dealerships, and financing options that make the U.S. sub-prime mess look like child's play.

To buy a car in Singapore is to commit funds which would secure shelter in any other country. If one can mentally dispose of that ugly thought, there is also the matter of bidding for a Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which fluctuates in price in a way that would warm the heart of any commodity trader.

Having secured permission to buy a vehicle, there is then the dealer, who basically tells you what you will get and at what price. Add insurance, road tax, radio tax,
gas at almost S$2 a litre, parking at S$4 an hour, and you have an economic disaster on your hands.

In the end, it is much quicker and cheaper to just take taxis, or use the car sharing schemes around town. Except on the eve of public holidays. Or when it is raining. Or in the CBD at 6PM.

Which leads to the emotional regret. The car was always the symbol of freedom for any kid coming of age. Growing up, 16 was not the age of majority, it was the age you could get your driver's license, the real moment of adulthood for a Canadian teenager. Relying on other people to drive you around is a drag, even if they are limo drivers.

Having been forced out of our home by an en bloc sale, the long balance between rational thought and emotional regret fractured with our new location. Instead of a steady stream of taxis cruising by our front door, we are now in a taxi-free zone that makes spur of the moment travel impossible.

And so the car as saviour. It still doesn't make economic sense, but it sure helps soothe the trauma of missing mobility.

Which leads to the next decision. Put simply, "What car are you?"

In Asia, cars are an extension of "face" or status, hence the quite absurd market share of Mercedes, BMW, and other luxury brands. Thankfully, I am not wired that way, and could care less about brand. OK, I wouldn't voluntarily drive a Hyundai. There, I said it.

And beyond brand, what type of car should one buy? In an urban environment, what possible use is there for a Porsche Cayenne SUV? Given that most parking lots in Singapore
are so narrow they seem designed for bicycles, not cars, the effort of parking an SUV is intimidating at best. A mini-van screams "soccer mom", so that doesn't work.

With SUV's and mini-vans off the list, a good mid-life crisis would argue for a Porsche, or Corvette. Luckily, the first is too expensive and the second is not available, narrowing the search to something sporty, small externally, large internally, and preferably somewhat cheaper than a house.

Enter the MINI Cooper S. 175BHP, 0-100 in 7.1 seconds, and generally a hoot to drive. Easy to park, and very comfortable to sit in.

I know, rationally it makes no sense at all. Emotionally however, my face aches from smiling so much.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Aviation Milestones

Having just landed in Singapore after taking the world's longest non-stop commercial flight (18.5 hours, Newark to Singapore on an Airbus A340-500), I was thinking about all the flying I have done.

I have been flying on commercial aircraft for a very long time, starting with Vickers Viscounts and Vanguards with Trans Canada Airlines back in the '60's. Also the DC-3, landing on a grass strip at Whitehorse, in the Yukon.

DC-9's were the main aircraft of Air Canada for inter-city routes, and of course, the Boeing 707 for intercontinental flights. I remember flying Pan Am from New York to Lagos, Nigeria, which seemed interminable, particularly as the in-flight entertainment was a 1 hour music loop that repeated 10 times.

By the time I got posted to Hong Kong in 1982, the Boeing 747 was the dominant aircraft for long distance flights, and it has been my favorite through all of its variants. I was on the first Cathay Pacific non-stop flight between Hong Kong and Vancouver, using the new 747-300 with Rolls-Royce engines. With the relatively short runway at Kai Tak, and the fuel load required for the distance, we started the take-off roll with the tail almost touching the fence at the beginning of the runway. Today, such a flight is routine, but it sure was exciting the first time.

British Airways ran a promotion in the late '80's in which you could get a flight on the Concorde if you flew into London on a first class BA flight. At the time, I had an office in Hong Kong, one in London, and a supplier in the States, so it was easy to arrange an around the world ticket to take advantage of the offer. After finishing up a deal in Columbus, Ohio with Compuserve, I caught the shuttle to NY, and boarded the Concorde flight to London.

I wish I could say the flight was wonderful, because the plane was wonderful - a Formula 1 race car to everybody else's minivans. The reality was less than stellar. The Concorde was so small inside, it was like flying coach on a discount narrow-body. Even the port holes were smaller than usual. The ride was OK when at cruising altitude, but the landing was pretty rough. The plane made the landing approach in a tail down/nose up attitude, which meant you were basically looking up the aisle as you landed. It was noisy and rough, and not something I ever wanted to do again. I am glad I had the experience, but the idea was better than the reality.

I was on the last flight out of Kai Tak, Hong Kong, a very bitter sweet moment. As we taxied out, I could see tens of thousands of people lined up along the airport fence and in the parking garage. It really was the end of an era, with the airport shutting down after we took off, and all personnel and equipment shifting to Chek Lap Kok over night.

The relatively recent addition of the Boeing 777 with its long range versions has made things even more comfortable, with more headroom and storage. The Singapore Airlines cabin treatment in Business and First for the 777-300ER is amazing, with a huge seat that lays flat, big LCD display, power point, and sliding table/desk. It is never a pleasure to fly, but this is the closest to "normal" that any airline has come. It has allowed me to keep my sanity while maintaining a monthly commute to Europe from Singapore.

Friday, April 13, 2007

SingPass goes down - what's up?

Finally gathered in one place all the information I needed to file my income tax, and went to the IRAS web site only to be greeted by the following:

SingPass login is temporarily unavailable, please login using IRAS PIN.
We apologise for the inconvenience caused.

myTax Portal is jointly developed with Accenture, NCS, Avanade and Microsoft.

It is nice to see the people responsible so clearly identified when a major system fails. So IRAS, Accenture, NCS, Avanade and Microsoft, what is going on?

For those not familiar with Singapore's government computing environment, SingPass is a national ID and password system. It is used as a common authentication point for accessing all secure services provided by the Government.

Having SingPass go down is inconvenient at the best of times, but this is April 13, and there are only two days left to file income tax returns. The income tax system has become so dependent on SingPass and electronic filing, that individual taxpayers are no longer issued tax return forms or tax info from their employers. It is all online, and only online.

What is interesting about the error message is that it suggests using an IRAS PIN instead of the SingPass.

Great idea except that in it's letter to taxpayers this year, IRAS states
"IRAS will not be sending any paper return or IRAS PIN to you this year"

So IRAS, what is plan B?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Singapore - En bloc Behaviour

The building I live in has been sold en bloc, and the countdown clock is ticking. As a tenant, I do not benefit from the supposed riches that have been created, rather I lose my home and have to find somewhere else to live.

Other commentators have painted a pretty bleak picture of what happens once the official sales date takes place. In our case, things have started declining even before the official date. What was a well maintained building is now plastered with posters and leaflets ranging from real estate advertisements and financial planning seminars to transcendental yogis offering to help newly rich owners avoid the temptations of sudden wealth (presumably by giving the wealth to them).

When I queried the guards as to why they were suddenly permitting outsiders to post ads on the walls and in the lifts, I was told that the "management" had given instructions.


This is not going to be pretty.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Freezing Hell

I had to wait until after April 1 to post this, or nobody would believe I was serious.

Hell froze over last month.

I am now the slightly bemused owner of an Apple Macbook.

As someone who owned the first Osborne computer, and who happily built PC's running CP/M and DOS, Apple has always been the computer equivalent of Scientology - a cult with lots of publicity and scary, rabid fans.

So why the trip to the dark side?

With the switch to Intel, and the availability of virtualization software, the distance between a "normal" computer and an Apple has dropped to insignificance. It is now possible to run a mixed environment on a single machine, which eliminates the main pain point of losing well understood applications. If you have something that only runs under Windows, it is possible to maintain a Windows virtual machine and still run on the Apple.

Which is all good and rational, but I didn't really need a new notebook, and it is an Apple.

My only excuse is that as an IT professional, I need to stay current with technology, and the damn things keep showing up at work, and people keep asking questions. So it was professional curiosity. Yeah. That's it. Professional curiosity.

So what is the upside of owning an Apple?

Well you get to belong to the cult. Your equipment is all white. The "out-of-box" experience is definitely better than a Wintel machine. It has the best Wi-Fi connect process I have ever seen. It connected to my existing Windows-based network without a problem and I was able to access files on my NAS. The screen really is impressive. The thing actually seems to work OK.

The downside?

It is heavy. It is white. You belong to a cult. The Macbook throws off enough heat to fry eggs. You have to click an eject button to remove a USB drive or the file system gets trashed. To buy accessories, you have to go to Apple stores, and your friends might see you. It doesn't actually do anything I can't already do on my "normal" computers.
It is an Apple.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Just When You Thought You Had Arrived...

The definiition of "rich" can be very personal. It is often based on something that seemed out of reach growing up, or on comparisons with others. Most people have some sort of number they hold internally that indicates to themselves whether they are well off or not.

Since governement plays such a large role in our lives, it seems appropriate that the American SEC has just changed their definition of "accreditied investor", which is a euphimisim for someone who can afford to lose large sums of money, and who presumably is smart enough to make his own investment decisions.

The Wall Street Journal reported it thusly:

"Now, the government has weighed in. As part of its effort to better regulate hedge funds, the SEC has proposed a new definition for “accredited investor” — someone rich enough to invest in private investment pools without needing protection from government regulators. To invest in hedge funds today, investors need to have $1 million in net worth (including the value of their primary residence), or income of at least $200,000 for individuals or $300,000 for households. The SEC has proposed raising the bar, requiring investors to have $2.5 million in investible assets.

So many people are now worth $1 million (especially if you include the value of homes) that being a millionaire may no longer buy a ticket to that rarified world called “rich.”"

Singapore - En bloc madness and Economics 101

I had an economics professor in university who put a single question on a mid-term exam. What is the most effective way of destroying a city - carpet bombing or rent controls?

Singapore has managed to come up with a third alternative - the abrogation of private property rights through the forced sale of one's home. The governing law for all this is referred to as en bloc sales.

I have already written about the disruption and waste caused when developers, real estate agents and speculators are allowed to force the sale and destruction of buildings.

I can now also confirm that the economic theory which predicts that investment will cease when returns are no longer certain holds as well. Whether it is rent controls which cause landlords to stop investing in their buildings, or en bloc sales, the result is the same. Perfectly good buildings are being allowed to deteriorate because owners are afraid to invest in case they are forced to sell before they can recoup their money.

The evidence is clear to anyone who is trying to rent an apartment. If there is any chance the building can be forced en bloc, landlords are simply refusing to do any upgrading or repairs. I have been offered apartments in otherwise desirable buildings at very low rents, as long as I am willing to take the apartment as is.

Most of these apartments are coming off lease, and the landlord would normally do a full renovation.

Not any more.

When is the Singapore government going to admit that they made a mistake and that en bloc sales have gone out of control? The number of apartments destroyed in the Orchard area has now exceeded 4,000, and new en bloc sales are announced weekly.

This will eventually stop on its own of course - when all the buildings have been torn down.

Infrant ReadyNAS NV Network Attached Storage

After trying to use a few different low end NAS devices on my home network, I had mostly given up on the category as interesting but immature, and not reliable enough for archival backups.

Most, if not all, the different boxes run a variant of the same Linux-based application to provide Windows file services. The problem is that cobbling together open-source code to produce something that is seamless and mature takes work and care. That just wasn't the case, with unexplained crashes, occasional hangs, and at one point, corruption of the data.

None of that is acceptable when the device is supposed to be the backup of last resort.

A NAS is basically a bunch of disks attached to one's network instead of directly to a computer. This means that it can be seen and used by all computers on the network. The penalty comes with performance, where the speed of the network limits the rate at which data can be written and read from the NAS.

With the growing number of digital images, music files, and videos being stored on computers, along with the usual data generated by word processing, spreadsheet, email, and finance programs, there is a pressing need for keeping a backup that sits outside the primary machine.

A NAS fits the bill perfectly, unlike tape or optical storage, as it is quick to access, and comes in capacities that are at least as large as the primary. Using various flavours of RAID to protect the data, the NAS can also tolerate the failure of a single disk without losing any data.

Which leads me to Infrant. I had never heard of the company until Slim Devices, the company that sells the Squeezebox music streaming device offered a bundle deal with an Infrant NAS and 3 Sqeezeboxes.

The Infrant ReadyNAS NV is a toaster-sized device that contains four 3.5 inch hard disks. As shipped with the Slim Devices bundle, the Infrant was equipped with 1TB of disk, (4*250Gb), yielding approximately 660Gb of usable space.

Doing some research on the 'net, I found that Infrant routinely wins Editor's Choice awards.

The setup of the ReadyNAS NV demonstrated why. All that is required is to plug in the power, and plug in an Ethernet cable. A supplied software utility is run on any PC attached to the same network which "discovers" the IP address of the unit, and launches a setup wizard. There are a huge number of things that can be set and tweaked, but even a novice user should have no trouble completing the setup.

If an email address is provided, the ReadyNAS NV even sends an email every time there is a change in status or if there is a problem.

After the initial setup, all the settings are accessible at any time by using a web browser to access the Infrant's built in web server. The screens are clear and easy to understand.

The whole thing is slick, smooth, and a pleasure to work with.

My unit has now been running for more than 6 months without any problems. It has essentially become invisible, just doing what it was designed for, and providing me with secure, reliable storage.

Highly recommended.

Linksys CIT400 Skype Phone

I just got around to posting a review of the dual-mode (Skype and land-line) CIT300, and now Linksys in Singapore has released a further twist on the idea with the CIT400.

All the Skype phones released up to now have required a PC to be on, and a base station to be connected through a USB port. A piece of software is required to tie the base station to Skype. This mostly works, but it does mean that you have to leave your PC running all the time.

Now, with the CIT400, Linksys has released a new Skype cordless phone and base station that connects to a land-line and and Ethernet connection. As long as you have an active Internet connection, the CIT400 is active and you can use the Skype phone.

I was skeptical at first, because connecting a base station without a PC means that all network settings have to be done through the handset. Entering logins, IP addresses, and other necessary data for an Ethernet device can be very tedious with just a numerical keypad.

To their credit, Linksys has done an excellent job with the user interface. The screen on the phone is high res and beautiful to look at. The colours are rich, and the text looks like it is written on paper. The menu choices are logical and clear.

It took only a moment to connect the base station and register the phone. Using DHCP, the base station obtained an IP address automatically and the phone prompted for location and then a Skype user name and password.

And that was it. I was online with a fully functional Skype phone.

If you want to do more sophisticated network setups or to upgrade the firmware, the base station of the CIT400 provides a web interface that gives access to all the settings. It just requires pointing a web browser at the IP address of the base station.

We have now seen Linksys evolve the phone from the first model, the CIT200,which was Skype only, to the CIT300 which supported land-line as well, and now to the CIT400 which eliminates the need for a PC completely.

It is hard to argue with good product evolution, I just wish they had started with the CIT400, and I would have saved some money and time.

Friday, March 23, 2007

CIO Asia Conference and Awards 2007

Got roped in as a judge for this year's CIO awards. There were quite a few good submissions, and it was a pleasure to meet some of the winners.

For my sins, I was also asked to be the afternoon keynote speaker. That was fine, and I took the responsibility seriously, as I have often complained about conferences where all the speakers are marketing managers for vendors.

Unfortunately, the topic was Innovation, the latest thing that CIO's are supposed to do, in-between being aligned with the business, being strategic, being tactical, being customer focused, and all the myriad other things that vendors and consultants have dreamed up.

To his credit, Teng Fang Yih, the editor of CIO Asia Magazine, was supportive of the idea of presenting a critical opinion, and so the following speech is the result.

I thought it wise to start with a definition of innovation, since that is what we are going to be talking about for the next while.

And what better place to get a definition than from Wikipedia, the innovative online encyclopedia that combines Wikis and user-generated content.

The classic definitions of innovation include:

1. the process of making improvements by introducing something new

2. the act of introducing something new: something newly introduced (The American Heritage Dictionary).

3. the introduction of something new. (Merriam-Webster Online)

4. a new idea, method or device. (Merriam-Webster Online)

5. the successful exploitation of new ideas (Department of Trade and Industry, UK).

6. change that creates a new dimension of performance Peter Drucker (Hesselbein, 2002)

7. A creative idea that is realized [(Frans Johansson)] (Harvard Business School Press, 2004)

The article goes on to look at the role of innovation and how to determine if something is really innovative:

In economics, business and government policy, something new must be substantially different, not an insignificant change. In economics the change must increase value, customer value, or producer value. Innovations are intended to make someone better off, and the succession of many innovations grows the whole economy.

The term innovation may refer to both radical and incremental changes to products, processes or services. In the organisational context, innovation may be linked to performance and growth through improvements in efficiency, productivity, quality, competitive positioning, market share, etc. All organisations can innovate, including for example hospitals, universities, and local governments.

Innovation is a process, and the "innovator" is often an organisation of people providing a diverse range of complementary skills and knowledge. Consequently, it is rare for just one individual to be an innovator. Innovation always comes with a potential risk and it is the responsibility of the innovators to assess and manage that risk. Innovation aims to introduce new benefits, which exceed those available from current "best practice". Innovation also introduces some degree of new, and possibly unforeseen, impact on the innovative organisation and others.

OK, so I guess we can all agree that Innovation is a good thing. It only requires a new idea, and everybody can do it.

Actually it is more than a good thing, It is fundamental to humans as a species that we seek out the new. Our heroes are those who conquer new territories and who make discoveries, whether geographic, scientific, or in business.

But we are CIO's. What does innovation have to do with us? Are we in the innovation business, or do we have a different role to play in our organizations?

For those of us who have responsibility for Information Technology investments and operations, our employers look to us to ensure that things keep running. In most cases, success can be measured by our ability to remain invisible. Like suppliers of water or electricity, we only make the headlines when something goes wrong. There is not much upside, and lots of downside, to running a complex back office or IT infrastructure.

We all know the statistics, and they all sort of blend together after a while. 55-70% of CRM projects fail. 70% of ERP projects fail, 70% of Supply Chain Management projects fail, and software projects always costs twice as much and take twice as long as predicted. Less than 10% of projects in large American corporations are delivered with the functionality specified at the beginning.

And yet we still come to work everyday, ready to be convinced that this time it will be different, this time we will have learnt from our mistakes. It may not be innovation, but it is definitely optimism.

But the topic is innovation, not reality. Before I depress everybody, let’s look at how innovation works in a real IT shop. Our budgets, and therefore our financial resources for innovation are usually set by others. If you are organized as a cost-centre reporting to a CFO, then innovation is unlikely to be in your vocabulary unless it is about cutting costs. If you are a cost-centre in the slightly luckier position of reporting to the CEO, then budgets can usually accommodate some R&D funds, but for the most part, it is still about cost.

When a CIO sits as a member of the management team, the scope for innovation becomes more realistic. Now you are talking about business, not costs of technology. You are there because you can contribute solutions and ideas by using technology to meet business requirements.

But our definition for innovation includes something as simple as introducing a new process. And here is where I need to take a contrary position. Real innovation is not just change.

Actually, change is the enemy of the very thing we are trying to be, which is invisible. Change brings risk. Unmanaged change brings chaos. Change makes employees uncomfortable to the point of quitting, and change messes up documentation and process. The happiest IT manager is usually the one in whose shop nothing has changed for the past year, and whose SLA’s are all being met as a consequence.

Let me take this a little bit further.

Unless we build and operate our own test and development labs, our primary sources of information abut our own profession, are trade publications, conferences such as this, and vendors.

And guess what, the vendors are paying for the trade publications and conferences. Which means that we really rely on a single source for information, our vendors.

Luckily, they are very generous, and supply us with white papers, templates with business cases that show to persuade our boss to approve the purchase, advice, and an endless stream of nice people to talk to. Actually, the nice people go away unless you buy stuff, but they don’t hold grudges and come back very quickly when you place an order.

We are actually faced with close to a mono-culture in our suppliers of tools. There is one dominant supplier of operating systems, a couple of database suppliers, a handful of ERP vendors. And every week seems to bring another news story about another take-over. The market for business intelligence tools just shrank with another acquisition, this time of Hyperion.

In my own workplace, I have seen the choices dwindle dramatically. Every time we locate a small independent vendor, they seem to get swallowed up by one of the big serial acquirers. In fact, innovation in these large vendors seems to have completely stopped, and they rely entirely on acquisitions for new products, new ideas, and new talent.

One could conclude that size is the enemy of innovation, and that only small, nimble teams are in a position to innovate. Another way of saying this is that only someone with very little to lose can afford to take chances.

In our real world of daily IT operations and challenges, we are lucky to be able to evaluate and deploy, let alone research and develop. Most of us simply don’t have the people, time, or money to launch speculative projects that may or may not work.

And yet, we are told that we should be innovative. Since the source of this advice is the trade journals, conferences, and vendors, permit me a bit of skepticism. Is it possible that in IT, innovation has become another euphemism for upgrades?

We were told during the dot com boom that if we didn’t have a web-enabled business we were going to be road-kill on the information super-highway. And yet, the ones doing the fear mongering have imploded, and here we still are, some of us with shiny new systems, and some of us with what has always worked.

Our vendors look at us as a market to be sold to. We are segmented, CRMed, analyzed and influenced. If we don't naturally buy their product, then they need to stimulate demand. And that demand is classically based on FUD - Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.

This is a great term that describes a major innovation by IBM.

FUD was first defined by Gene Amdahl after he left IBM to found his own company, Amdahl Corp.: "FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering Amdahl products.

The other major approach is to create or identify a problem, and then offer to solve it. Until a consumer goods company created the fear of halitosis, otherwise known as bad breath, most people didn't know they needed to buy mouthwash.

Of course IT is more sophisticated, so our problems need to have fancier words and more expensive solutions. If one looks at the evolution of computing from mainframes to minis, to PC’s, to client/server, to web, and now to Service-Oriented Architecture, one gets a clear view of something that has cleverly been called Marchitecture.

This is a term given to any form of architecture perceived to have been produced purely for marketing reasons. It may be used by a vendor to place itself in such a way as to promote all their strongest abilities whilst simultaneously masking their weaknesses.

I sometimes get the mental image of a corral, with all the CIO's inside like cattle, and the vendors outside figuring out how to rope and brand us.

This is not meant to be an attack on IT vendors, but I do get tired of having to pretend that we have a choice when it comes to the tools we have available for running our shops.

So the question becomes, is it really innovation when you buy a product and install it in your shop? Or is that implementation?

In fact, can you be innovative in the back office, or is it execution? The company that sold you the new tool may be innovative, but is your use of the tool meeting the benchmark of innovation?

Innovation is a high hurdle to set oneself for day to day operations, when what the customer wants is predictability and stability. There is a basic contradiction here. We are being told by our vendors to be innovative, while our employers want reliability and low cost.

Change is the enemy of good execution, and so innovation is not something that we can sustain on a daily basis. We risk intellectual bulimia from trying to keep up with vendor driven change.

True innovation is something that is likely to happen once in a career. Unless you are working in a vendor environment or product development organization, the chances to be part of a real innovation are slim. You will however, have a daily opportunity to execute better than your competitor.

It is difficult to be managed by people who only know how to count costs instead of benefits. It is discouraging to be in an industry with such a concentration of suppliers that one has to follow the vendor’s roadmap instead of your own. It is disheartening to watch the guy in the front office making millions in bonus from trading on the systems that you build and run, usually without recognition.

But perhaps I am being too harsh. We are all bright people, and we choose to work with, and for organizations.

I would argue that the real challenge lies not in innovation, but in execution. When everyone has the same tools, it is execution that separates the good from the merely average.

It is the day to day work that is necessary to make a complex and fragile set of systems function. It is the imagination and discipline that allows one manager to be successful while another fails. We rarely create new products and services, but we do gain competitive advantage from how well we operate.

To avoid bruising our vendors again, let’s look at another industry that has few suppliers, and many customers. I suggest we consider the airline industry.

If you want to run a long-haul airline, you basically have two suppliers to choose from, either Boeing or Airbus. Interestingly, they also supply trade publications, conferences, and white papers. And if you place an order, they have really nice people who talk to you, and they even give you rides in their product.

Each of these companies is driven by the need to innovate. They periodically take huge gambles, investing amounts that will destroy the company if they are not successful.

Their customers are all in the same business. They transport people from one place to another, using exactly the same equipment as their competitor. The innovation for the supplier is clear; they need to continually improve their product to beat the competition.

But where is the innovation for the customer organization? Why are some long haul carriers profitable and solid, while most of the industry lurches in and out of bankruptcy?

And why are we will to pay more to fly on one airline than another? I can travel from Singapore to Amsterdam in business class on either KLM or Singapore Airlines. The price difference between the two is almost 75%. They both fly the same physical aircraft, a Boeing 747, and the flights leave within minutes of each other. How is SQ able to command a premium over its competitor?


It was innovative to create the Singapore Girl marketing campaign, but it is the daily need to deliver the promise that requires execution from SQ. In more ways than I can count, a large team of people, equipment, and systems have to function at a level that earns the premium being charged. Like most organizations, they have good days and bad days, but they do understand the promise they have made, and they execute to keep that promise. Some of that is IT, but it is the entire Company working together that produces the outcome.

Our role, the role of the CIO, is to understand the business, and apply information technology to solve problems and create competitive advantage. Innovation is one source of advantage, but I would argue that an even more important source is execution.

So how should you allocate your time as an innovative CIO that knows how to execute?

The founder of Visa, Dee Hock, is one of the great innovators of the past 50 years. He conceived and drove the creation of what we all take for granted today – a universally accepted credit card.

Hock describes the 4 things that one needs to manage to be successful. The first is yourself, then your boss, your peers, and then hopefully with less than 5% of your time left, your subordinates.

Hock is making the point that we are subjected to many conflicting demands, and that we often fall back on giving orders to others rather than managing the relationships that actually determine our success.

We let the pressures and deadlines of our jobs prevent us from the continual learning we need in order to stay current and useful. It is tempting to put off reading another white paper, or attending a seminar, because of work.

When I look back on the knowledge I have about technology, I realize that it has a very short shelf life. I have been working with computers since punch cards were the main form of data entry. I know how to sort a data set by setting up a card sorter. I know how to change a ribbon on a Decwriter terminal. I know how to write programs in dBase, and to write documents in WordStar. I have used so many different operating systems that I have lost track, from Xerox Sigma 9 to Honeywell CP6, to CP/M to DOS, to Windows, to Unix and Linux and, in a moment of pure madness, Apple OSX.

The same thing would have happened to a programmer trying to stay current - COBOL, FORTRAN, PL/1, APL, PASCAL, Basic, C, dBase, C++, SQL, Java, PHP, Python, Ruby and so on.

The point is that unlike someone who works in a more traditional discipline, we work in an industry that rewards newness, not experience. The only certainty we have is that our technical knowledge is being made obsolete at this very minute by someone, somewhere, working on the next great thing.

This is not a complaint.

It is a celebration of why most of us chose this field of endeavor. We are change junkies. We love the newest software, the next breakthrough, the cool gadget. And by putting ourselves on this treadmill of change, we have to keep running just to stand still.

In the scramble and compromise of day to day pressures, we risk becoming people with a shallow familiarity with many things, but no in-depth knowledge of anything.

Except that one thing has never changed in all the years that I have been working.

Business is about providing customers with what they want. It doesn’t matter if you are in the private or public sector. We get paid because somebody wants to buy what we are providing.

All the technology in the world does not change the reality that in business, you are setting out your stall and hoping somebody will buy. We can pretend we actually control the process and use tools like ERP and CRM and BI to generate reams of data that prove we understand the customer, but at the end of the day, individuals make buying decisions. Our job is to make them buy from us, and to deliver the promise that we have made.

As innovative CIO’s, we need to embrace the constant change with which we are surrounded, while managing ourselves, and our key relationships to ensure that we stay connected to our organization.

Ultimately, we are judged on how well we execute.