Dizzying but invisible depth

Dizzying but invisible depth

Here is an inspirational Google+ post from the Google employee Jean-Baptiste Queru, on the subject of technological complexity.  It goes all the way from “What happens when you go to www.google.com?“, through the layers, through communication gap between technical and non-technical people, to the point of why people talked more about Steve Job’s death rather than Dennis Ritchie’s passing, even though the impact of the last one on the technology in general is much bigger.  He even touches on the problem with the patent system a bit.

Today’s computers are so complex that they can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. In turn the computers used for the design and manufacture are so complex that they themselves can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. You’d have to go through many such loops to get back to a level that could possibly be re-built from scratch.

Once you start to understand how our modern devices work and how they’re created, it’s impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that’s involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy’s law says that they simply shouldn’t possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all. That is the reason why many people can find computers so frustrating to use: there are so many things that can possibly go wrong that some of them inevitably will, but the complexity goes so deep that it’s impossible for most users to be able to do anything about any error.

That is also why it’s so hard for technologists and non-technologists to communicate together: technologists know too much about too many layers and non-technologists know too little about too few layers to be able to establish effective direct communication. The gap is so large that it’s not even possible any more to have a single person be an intermediate between those two groups

A must read.

On the future of jobs

GigaOm covers the release of the new book by Seth Godin, which, this time instead of marketing talks more about the future of work.  And jobs.

Why do we believe that jobs where we are paid really good money to do work that can be systemized, written in a manual and/or exported are going to come back ever? The internet has squeezed inefficiencies out of many systems, and the ability to move work around, coordinate activity and digitize data all combine to eliminate a wide swath of the jobs the industrial age created….

The industrial age, the one that started with the industrial revolution, is fading away. It is no longer the growth engine of the economy and it seems absurd to imagine that great pay for replaceable work is on the horizon.

Seth Godin is a visionary.  And whether you agree with him or not, his thoughts are worth knowing about and considering.  I only started thinking in the same direction, spending more of my focus on education.  But I see where he goes and why.  The change is coming. And it’s coming fast.

Sysadmins vs. programmers

In a Slashdot thread on the topic of the Programmer’s Day, I came across this insightful comment, with which, having been both a sysadmin and a programmer, I have to somewhat agree. No disrespect to any programmers intended, but sysadmins have it tougher.  I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that Programmer’s Day is not deserved – we all work hard, but I agree that Sysadmin’s Day is deserved more.

Having been both a sysadmin and programmer, I have to honestly say that while sysadmin day is deserved, programming day isn’t. There’s just simply much more to sysadmins that are underappreciated when compared to programmers:

  • Sysadmins setup routine systems that are built by programmers (who usually get the credit).
  • Sysadmins only get (negative) attention when something goes awry.
  • There’s usually no mention of sysadmins anywhere.
  • Unless you are very technical, you probably don’t even know that sysadmins exist!

In contrast, programmers have it nice in the sense that when they do a good job, they are seen as the heroes who created the system. People go to programmers for feature requests in addition to bug reports. Their names are usually listed in an about dialog or readme file somewhere. Also, unless you are completely technically illiterate, you know that someone has to create the software.

The final bit: the infrastructure will crash and burn without sysadmins, but without programmers, it’ll just cease to advance.

Having a Programmer Day in addition to Sysadmin Day is like having an Executive Day in addition to Labor Day: unnecessary, unjustified. In both cases, the former already has the glory on a daily basis that the latter is hugely lacking.


On Perfect Knowledge

The Next Web Boris has a thought provoking blog post titled “Achieving (and living with) Perfect Knowledge“.

One day, we will have Perfect Knowledge. Although we won’t know everything there is to know, our knowledge of the world will approach a perfect state. It will be ‘lacking nothing essential to the whole’

Recommended reading.

Yahoo + Microsoft vs. Google et al

The big news of last week were of yet another attempt by Microsoft to buy Yahoo.  If you missed all the buzz, Web Worker Daily has a really nice round-up with separate links to facts (read: press releases) and opinions (read: speculations).  If that’s not enough for you, you can always find more with Google, Slashdot, and Digg.

Many online news sources continue to be completely dominated by discussion of Microsoft’s hostile bid to acquire Yahoo! And no wonder: a deal of this magnitude has the potential to touch the lives of pretty much everyone living and working online. It’s a rare web worker indeed who doesn’t use something from one or another of those two companies in their daily lives.

So, first, can it affect me personally?  Yes.  I don’t use any Microsoft/MSN/Live services, but I can’t live without Flickr and del.icio.us, both of which belong to Yahoo now.  Also, I do occasionally use Upcoming.

Now, what do I think about this whole thing?  Well, I think it shows how desperate Microsoft is.  The general trend is towards the web, not the desktop, where they still rule.  Most of their own web services turned out to be pretty lousy.  They want to get online, and they are willing to pay a lot of money to get their fast.  Mostly, of course, this is a war for a place under the advertising sun.

From the Microsoft view point (I think), Yahoo looks to be online.  More than so.  Yahoo is the second most important company online after Google.  And Google is giving Yahoo some rough time.  And Microsoft realizes it clearly, that Google is partially to blame for this whole trend towards the web.  And it also realizes that if it is serious about moving online, it’ll have to compete with Google in one area or another.  So it makes even more sense to acquire Yahoo.  From the Microsoft point of view (again, I think), Yahoo appears to know what they are doing.

And that’s where I see their biggest mistake.  Yahoo is indeed the second most important company on the web after Google.  But it struggles to be there, and it struggles even more to keep Google in sight.  Because it is falling pretty far behind.

A little side note: I think there is a war of concepts between Google and Yahoo. It’s bigger than just advertising space or anything else.

  • Yahoo started off with a directory of links, which was better than many at a time because it was moderated by humans.  Google started off with bringing huge improvements to machine based indexing and searching.  Yahoo:Google – 0:1.
  • Google brought this whole concept of clean user interfaces and simplicity for the end user.  Yahoo stayed and expanded on the old idea of portals, which bring all possible and impossible to the front page of the site.  Yahoo:Google – 0:2.
  • Google made a stake on the brilliance of its people – if the service is properly done, it’ll grow by itself and bring in more users.  Yahoo played it safe, trying to purchase web services that already have momentum.  Yahoo:Google – 1:2.

End of side note.

Overall, I think that this is a bad move on Microsoft part.  If the acquisition will happen, I think, it’ll damage both companies, and, maybe even, drive at least one of them into the ground (eventually, not immediately).  Yahoo, being at the position it is now, needs more flexibility.  The online space is getting more and more competitive.  That’s where you need to move fast.  Yahoo made some really good acquisitions before, and I’d say that they have some sense in this area, but they need more speed with integration of their acquisitions into their backbone.  With Microsoft on board, I’m afraid, everything will get a lot slower.

Also, I think that Yahoo won’t win much from this acquisition.  Surely, some money will come their way, but it’s not always a good thing.  And I don’t think that it’s good in this particular case and at this particular time.   I believe it would do much more good for Yahoo to get smaller, faster, and “hungrier”.  Hunger (think: limited resources) makes one’s mind sharper.  That’s exactly what they need now.  Not more “fat”.

As for Microsoft, I think there strategy should be more directed towards entertainment.  If they really want to buy something, they should buy some entertainment companies.  Those that produce content.  Disney studios maybe? Or some sort of a deal with AOL/Time Warner (they had a few frictions in the past, but they seem to managed to work out a solution together).  With more and easily accessible content they can reinforce end users interest in their Windows desktop, as well as their gaming platform (Xbox thing), and their mobile platform (Windows Mobile).  And, entertainment content by itself is a rather popular thing among the end users, which makes advertising much easier.  And rich advertising too – not just text-based relevant web ads, but audio and video media.

What do you think about all this?

Black people in science and innovation

It’s been a few times already that I heard the argument that “black people made no contribution to computer science“.  I’ve also heard a few alternative versions, which were less or more specific, varying from “African blacks” and “no innovations“, to “black women” and “no contribution to science“.

Depending on the overall direction of the discussion, variation of the argument, and sensibility of the opponent, it can be very easy or rather impossible to reason. For example, an argument like “there is not one black programmer in the world” is pretty trivial to destroy.  There are at least a few respectable Perl Monks of the black race.  Over the last few years, I personally have been in contact (IM, email, phone) with a few black programmers and system administrators.  On the other hand, a request for a name or a biography of a black computer scientist might be much harder.  I am not very good with names and biographies, and I don’t know many scientist by name at all.  Picking representatives of a certain race using my own memory is close to impossible.

So, I asked The Mighty Google for a few names and biographies, and it replied.  Here are a few links that I picked from the results:

I have to admit that I was a little bit surprised by the low number of results.  Finding the above weren’t very easy.  Also, many links were very outdated.  Sometimes I’d come across a quote that slowed me down before I could “sink it in”.  Here are a couple of such examples:

one quarter of one percent (.25%) of computer scientists are black

from the “Computer Scientists of the African Diaspora” page, which seems to be from the 1990s.

Throughout the United States, there are only 32 African-American computer science (CS) professors.

from the “A Model for Department Diversity” article, which was posted in 2004.

I think that the above references are enough to convince any sane person that both science and innovation have benefited from black people.  Whether the benefits were to the same degree as those of the other races is a totally different question.  I am not going to debate it now, but perhaps I will come back to it later.

(NOTE TO MYSELF for when and if I do: consider that most computer science innovation is happening in the USA [obviuos, but citation needed], and that black people make only about 12% of the USA population [Wikipedia]. )

Elvis, Beatles, Nirvana, then who?

Matthew Sidney Long brings up an interesting point with a challange:

Please name me a band over the past 10 years who has come close to Nirvana in sheer impact and talent since Kurt put shotgun to mouth above garage in 1994? (and, I’m not talking about some indie band that hardly anyone listens to or some ring-tone fueled, Top-40 creation who no one will remember in 6 months. I’m talking IMPACT here, people. Combining art AND commerce. Both big AND authentic. Dig?).

My pick would be Rammstein, of course.  That’s the band that made an impact.  I don’t know if it was as strong as Nirvana’s or not, but I think it was pretty close.  As always, I very biased and subjective.

While I was trying to come up with the band, I had a thought about the strength of an impact.  And, as much as I love Nirvana, I have to admit that it was nowhere near the scale of Elvis and Beatles.  There were a few others in between that were larger than Nirvana too.

If Rammstein isn’t as big of an impact as Nirvana, maybe it has to something to do with my theory of sources.  Back in the days of Elvis and Beatles, there were much less sourcse of music available to an average listener, than it was in the days of Nirvana.  Think number of albums, songs, bands, radio stations, television, top-X lists and hit parades, music awards, DJs, Internet, peer-to-peer, mp3s, music shops, etc.  So, each band had a chance of producing a bigger impact back then.  In the last 14 years, since Nirvana, the number of sources only grew.  So, each band these days has even less of a chance to impact the world.

Either that, or the music industry is broken.  Or both.

On copyright, fair use, and free speech

TechCrunch has an excellent cover of the “photograph in the video” story that has been going on all over the web in the last few days.  Basically, somebody wrote a funny song and made a video for it.  In that video a bunch of images were used including one that was downloaded from Flickr without permission of the photographer.  The photographer got really pissed off and such.  The video was re-edited to remove the offending image, but there was plenty of discussion on how is right and who is wrong in this story.  Some really important questions on copyright, fair use, and free speech were asked, and some really smart people tried to answer them.

The rights of the copyright holder have always been balanced against the more fundamental right of free speech. And free speech in the Internet age, more so than ever before, goes way beyond words and text. The way people express themselves on the Web increasingly involves images, video, animations, and other rich media, often in mash-ups of pre-existing works. That is how people communicate today. Both copyright law and industry standards need to evolve to take that into consideration.

While I support the (copy)right of the author to command the usage of his or her work, I think that this particular case wasn’t handled properly by the photographer.