Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Random Aside: Starbucks and CAPTCHA

The 4 month break from travel came to a halt yesterday when I headed over to Sunny San Diego to give a presentation. Except that it was raining in San Diego and I was reminded of my proposal for new a TSA regulation:

Proposal: Speaking in the coffee line, especially by high pitched teenagers, before 7:30am is expressly forbidden. Violation is punishable by losing your place in line and having those who had to hear your drivel beat you with the designated "whacking stick".

On a security note, this "paper" (breaking CAPTCHAs) is being discussed on bugtraq. It's not exactly peer reviewed work and there are questions on its practicality. At a quick glance, I think it the attack could be automated and numerous CAPTCHAs that I've seen on financial sites could be broken with this method.

Quite frankly, I'm a little surprises that Identity Guard from Entrust hasn't picked up more steam as a cost effective way of providing two-factor authentication for B2C web sites dealing with high value data.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Long Tail for the Gear Head

Many many many moons ago, I did systems administration work for an environmental research shop. At one point, I was asked to help port and improve a simulation program written in conjunction with Honda. To kick the project off, a Honda engineer flew in from Tokyo to spend a few days with us. All good except he didn't speak English and we only got a translator for the first half of the day.

It was summer time and the desert heat was causing brownouts. I went around and did the usual lap to remind my users to save their work often. That is until I got to the engineer from Honda -- amongst the few words of English he managed to pick up, "brownout" was not one of them. So how do you say it? After scratching my head for a minute I went to the whiteboard and drew a graph. On the Y axis, I labeled two points: 110V and 220V. On the X axis I wrote "t" with an arrow pointing right. In another color I drew a line at the 110V line and tossed in a momentary dip to zero and back up to 110V. To the right of the graph I put the command for saving a file in the editor he was using.

He nodded. I nodded. We both went back to work. I started checking on the time stamps for his files and sure enough he was saving every 2-3 minutes.

This morning I needed to explain The Long Tail to a programmer without making him gag. Translation: Assume a graph of c/x where the area under the curve is the available market where x is number of total number of products, y is popularity, and c is some sufficiently small subset, usually 2-3, of very popular products . Historically, the only money that could be made was for x<=c. The Internet has changed this so that niche markets (x>=c) can still make a healthy living.

It ain't rocket science (as some other gear head friends who are rocket scientists would tell me), but stirred up with some examples and it appeared that we had a translation win.


Slobber and Snot

A few weeks ago a radio talk show guy ranted a bit about how disgusting it was for parents to take their kids' slobbery cookies and eat them.

My son has had a cold for the last few days. This morning he fired off a nose clearing sneeze into my ear.

Kind of puts slobber on the cookie into perspective, don't you think?


Saturday, January 27, 2007

English vs. American

If you asked me what I thought of English back in the 8th grade, I would have told you three things: (1) The language is only there to torment me, (2) Mrs. Free and her classwork were the officially sanctioned tormentors, and (3) Code is a much more efficient method of communicating.

I somehow managed to flip a bit in college and ended up minoring in Creative Writing. (I think it had something to do with the 28 women and 4 guys in my Introduction to Creative Writing class.) I've since become a bit of a grammar Nazi.

Most of the folks that I've worked with have only known the "Steve who is comfortable with writing" vs. the 8th Grade Steve that hated it. So when I make a statement like "Make sure you write this in American", they are typically stunned.

"American? Didn't you mean English?"

No, I meant American. The two are different and when you're trying to communicate with an audience that isn't fluent in your lingo, the difference is important. With English, you can make statements that are grammatically correct but make no sense to the listener. A feat commonly achieved in the world of technology. Trying to make the same statement in American is not unlike trying to make your choice of words understandable by your grandmother.

In contrast to English, "American" has a limited vocabulary. The only words available are those that are used by typical adults in the US. (Adjusted of course, for the level of education you're targeting your statement for.) This means that the only technical terms are those that have managed to make it to the mainstream like web, software, email, Internet, and computer. American is a much more constrained language and doesn't let you communicate much if any detail, but it does the perfect job of separating those that have the background and want detail and those that don't care to know any deeper.

My favorite example of this comes from the way that I described the products from my last job. When asked by people outside the industry, I answered "My product makes web sites go faster." It's an ambiguous statement that drove some of my co-workers nuts, but for the overwhelming majority that weren't in my industry it was perfect.

The reason I don't care for the target of "being able to tell your grandmother" is because most people have written off their grandmother as being the kind of person they would even bother trying to explain themselves to. American on the other hand is something that you would tell your childhood friend that majored in something different.

If you haven't already, think about it... Can you tell your friends from college that majored in something different about what you do? Can you say it in American and have them "get it"? If you haven't tried to do this recently, I highly recommend it.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Text message based novel

"A novel whose narrative consists entirely of mobile phone text messages has been published in Finland. " - Yahoo News


332 pages of "u", "ur", and the countless other bastardizations of a written language. I suspect the novelty of this particular novel will end after a few pages of intense squinting and asking "wtf?"


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

SaaS as a Business Model

Over a few beers earlier this week, I got to talk about SaaS with a die hard believer. His argument went that the next generation of users have accepted and actively use software on the web. Thus, as they move into the workforce, they will not only accept SaaS, they will prefer it.

Not unreasonable. This has happened before -- Apple dominated the early education and home computer market because they put a few free machines in every school; AutoCAD became the standard for CAD/CAM because they made their software easily accessible to students and schools. Microsoft currently does this with cut rate pricing for education. The argument schools should use open source because it would cost $500 to outfit a PC with Windows+Office is silly as a result -- Microsoft sells media-less Windows licenses for $25 and Office for a few dollars more.

However, there is a catch to this. The reason these programs have succeeded is because they still met the basic requirement users have of their software: ease of use and scratching an itch. It is here that SaaS starts falling apart.

It's hard to get SaaS to beat a desktop equivalent, even with technologies like AJAX which push a lot of the hard end user experience work to the client so response times are quick. I'd argue that if SaaS for a particular kind of software succeeds, that says more about the poor quality of the desktop equivalent than it does about the SaaS.

"All mail clients suck. This one just sucks less."
-Michael Elkins, project creator of Mutt

In the case of, the poster child of SaaS, the CRM software that it replaced really was terrible. Customers have long complained about the end user experience of CRM packages. They are slow, were written by people who would never use the software themselves, and very costly to install and maintain. By comparison, offers a relatively straightforward interface, is incredibly cheap to start with and reasonably priced to grow with. If you need customization, they'll do it for a price. If what you want is useful to others and are willing to let them own the result, you can get it for cheaper. For a company that wants nothing to do with CRM aside from using it as a tool, this is an ideal situation.

But now let's look at online calendars, spreadsheets, and word processors... I'd link to a few of them, but besides Google, I expect most of them to have URLs that will disappear. (If that's not foreshadowing, I don't know what is.)

Online calendars are okay. I use the Yahoo one, but they are really behind the curve and I've just been too lazy to get authenticated SMTP on my mail server at home so I can switch to Outlook. (Or let it go and pay for any number of services that do mail hosting.) Others are better, but not significantly so. Their challenge is that they have to compete with Outlook's calendar which is actually quite good. It's easy to use, responsive, and integrates easily with email and tasks. For a group using Exchange, group functions are a breeze. Really, as an end user, I don't have pain with Outlook.

Online word processors and spreadsheets are still in their infancy and can't compare in either response time or usefulness. This can change, but it's going to be hard to compare with their desktop counterparts and the argument for price is weak -- if I'm that hung up on pricing I'll just get Open Office. Most importantly, even today's teenager has a notion of "their stuff" and having "their stuff" hidden away in some random computer on the Internet isn't nearly as satisfying as having the file on their laptop and being able to point to it. It will take a long time and significant strides in ubiquitous Internet connectivity before that changes. One only need to look at banking and the number of years it took before people were used to the idea of having money they never see. Even with the current state of banking, the gold coins business is still doing well because people like to see and hold their money.

Moderate successes are out there. Email as a service is doing well for personal use because most people consider their email as temporary to begin with. Those that have a need for heavy use or long term storage of their inbox use desktop packages and pay for the appropriate service. Email as a service for business users is still a very small market. Businesses that live and die by their email will pay for a service up to a few people, but it doesn't take many users before buying your own server becomes a better choice.

Coming back to SaaS as a business model -- I believe it can work. The caveat is that it will work for specific software niches where desktop equivalents aren't up to par. Until a SaaS implementation can meet both the end user experience requirement and scratch a real itch, it simply won't see wide spread success. There is still a lot of opportunity in SaaS and I periodically see a new application emerge that merits the business model. However, I doubt that it will achieve true widespread use anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Hive Mind

Over at today's Long Tail, Chris makes a case for total transparency. His premise is not unreasonable: you can either have your own words represent you or have other's words represent you. Either way, you're inevitably going to have someone saying something about you on the Internet.

Another key reason he lists is the benefit of the Internet's collective intelligence. Specifically, "They'll have more and better ideas that [sic] you could have on your own, more and better information than you could gather on your own, wiser and sager perspective than you could gather in 1,000 years of living -- and they'll share it with you."

Right. Sorry, Chris. I think you're being way too optimistic about the Internet's collective intelligence.

The Internet generally suffers from a bad case of group-think with each niche suffering from their own themes. Marketing interests well repeat "The Long Tail", "The Chasm", and "The Hype Curve" in unison. Technical interests will repeat "Microsoft is evil", "FOSS is good", "Management sucks", etc. Even gear heads have group-think -- visit a Jeep discussion group sometime and say "it was a good thing we had the Hummer to get us out of the jam". The reaction will be not unlike driving a Chevy to a Ford event in the South.

To be fair, group-think isn't always wrong. The group got to thinking that way because it worked for enough people that others started trying to replicate the success. However, the smart ones know when the group is wrong and quietly do it their way. I believe it was Adam Corolla (a guy that doesn't hesitate to stray from group-think) that said "Extremists run the country because the moderates have sh*t to do." When someone is confident enough in their skills to do it their own way, they have better things to do than to go online and argue their points. They'll let their success speak for itself and wait for the group to adopt it.

Is transparency good? Sometimes. But if you're going to do something come high water or hell, there's little benefit from sharing it "in total transparency" until a success needs to be advertised. But please... that's just marketing yourself.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Family IT BSOD Tip

Family not realize that you're serious about what the t-shirt says and still pegs you for IT help? The Smarter Half and I have thankfully narrowed our support list down to just our parents, the only folks that we don't mind helping. (Note that we still cringe... if they would just put as much care into their computer as they do their car...)

We've gotten rid of most of the problems by upgrading them to XP SP 2, turning on Auto-Updates, installing Norton Internet Security and turning on its automatic updates. Just in case, minidumps are enabled.

We still get the occasional weird one like my Dad started getting recently: BSODs at random intervals. He copied the BSOD screen word for word to read back to me but stopped after writing the hex digits associated with the STOP message. Now we have three choices here: we can play 20 questions while he struggles to find the part of the screen I want him to hear, I can ask him to open up the firewall so I can see his screen which is usually more hassle than its worth, or he can just send me the minidump file.

After I showed my Dad where the minidump was located, he attached it to an email and sent it off to me. A quick tour with WinDBG and I had my culprit: the drivers for his webcam. Another minute with Google and we had a solution.

Since the Norton/Windows auto-updates were enabled, BSODs were generally the only problems that turn up which can't wait for the next time we pack up the family and visit the grandparents, so today's hot tip: Turn on minidumps, download WinDBG, and take a read through Mark Russovich's presentation from 2006 Technet.

Same solution; less headache.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

And Let There Be Routable Packets

Our world is slowly coming back into order this afternoon after our DSL router bit the dust last night. The withdrawal pains were rough, but the Smarter Half and I made it through. I found another dealer, er, IP address over at a local coffee shop for a few minutes to kick off an email earlier today. This made the morning easier to deal with...

This afternoon the Smarter Half made it to Fry's and got a Diamond Multimedia DSL router. Who knew they made DSL routers? Anyway, after a little bit of struggling we got the thing to work. I was initially looking forward to having a built-in NAT, VPN, Firewall thingie(tm) but in the end we turned it into a bridge and dropped the old Netgear NAT/Firewall back into place. It turns out that the router doesn't support multiple "outside" IP addresses or any kind of 1:1 NAT which meant I'd have to wait until midnight for my mail server to come back online. A non-starter given that it had been offline since yesterday evening.

We need to revisit the closet this weekend anyway. The shelves are full of old gear that has probably outlived its usefulness (unless of course you know someone looking for an ISA sound card...) and I'd like to get a few things fixed up on the household network side. The Netgear NAT is 7 years old now -- I'd like to beat it to the punch before it kicks the bucket too.

Monday, January 01, 2007