Friday, April 29, 2005

Jon Udell on Clueless Users
SdiDesk version 0.2.0 is getting very close now. (Promise :-)

I've started a journal, over on the SdiDesk wiki, to report what's going on.

Yesterday. Remembering one of the oldest tricks in the book, just simplified my life dramatically, and started taking SdiDesk on the road to The Architecture of Participation
RichardP drops science on Eugene Eric Kim.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Am I a racist? Apparently so :

Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for African American relative to European American

Implicit Association Test

Hmmm... not entirely convinced. For example, the order thingie. (See FAQ Q.1)

Having started by associating African-American with "good", I then had to unlearn this behaviour for the second phase, when I was getting a bit more tired and bored. Any connection there?

The FAQ claims order has a negligible effect they're compensating for but I'd like to see a link to some kind of evidence that they've callibrated the test with neutral stimuli to detect order based effects.

Also, look! I hang around with a very PC crowd. I'd be really embarrassed to get this test "wrong". I was probably more careful not to conflate black / bad than other combinations.

Still, it's interesting.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

More on Brazil's embrace of Free Software

Just to point out the obvious re: Microsoft et al's complaints that government shouldn't be choosing what software goes on the machines. The government will necessarily be deciding what software gets pre-installed on the machines. No one is seriously suggesting they can offer every possible option. (AmigaOS, for example?)

And there's nothing to stop Microsoft coming up with a cheap CD of software which users can install over the free software they get on their machine, once they get it home.

But this isn't what MS want. They want to turn the Brazilian government into their retail channel by making the government do the pre-installation. That's got nothing to do with a free market for software, and everything to do with the corporation trying to co-opt government to bias the market.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Condi in Brazil

What's going on here? Last week, the Equadorians threw out their president, Lucio Gutierrez. He's accused of various things, including now, murder - in that he ordered his guards to fire on protestors. (Not mentioned here, I note.)

The Equadorians want him to stand trial there. Instead he took refuge in the Brazilian embassy and has been granted asylum in Brazil. Apparently he's now here in Brasilia, hiding in the military zone. In Equador the people are furious, and out protesting against Lula on the streets. Meanwhile there's an official request for his extradition.

So how come? A corrupt president is kicked out of power by his own government, with popular support. Yet Brazil gives him the Ronnie Biggs treatment rather than just hand him back?

One theory : the Brazilian national oil company, Petrobras has interests in Equador although it's hard to see how this move is currying favour with the new government. My politically aware friends inform me it's, naturally, tied up with the Gutierrez's support for the US's Plan Columbia.

Notice how the story is being spun as Condi arrives. That in a time of "concern" about democracy in Latin America, Brazil is a beacon of stability.

No. Remember that the times when democracy was really in trouble in Latin America : when Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay all had dictatorships - they were all pro-US, and US-supported, right-wing military groups.

This, in contrast, is time when a number of Latin American countries are voting for left-wing, non-US sympathetic leaders (Venezuela's Chavez is the most extreme example, but Argentina's Kirchner has also distanced himself. And Uruguay just voted their first left-wing president ever.) As the BBC points out, that doesn't translate (much) into much real action. The region is highly dependent on good economic relations with the US.

Nevertheless, Lula, the first ever president from the "Worker's Party" is making like Tony Blair and looking more and more like the moderate the US can do business with.

Friday, April 22, 2005

You know. If I believed everything I read on the interweb I'd be a lot less comfortable than I am.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Rigorous Intuition: Presidente Quixote
The new Hamsterdance?
Tim OReilly on Stewart Brand on cities

The effect of 1,000 people leaving a county of 1,000 people is much greater than that of the same 1,000 people showing up in a city of one million. Density of occupation in cities has many environmental advantages yet to be examined.

I'm a bit suspicious of this. Are we comparing like-with-like? We're talking millions coming from absolute poverty in the countryside to live in the cities and *increase* their material wealth; and yet those millions are meant to be consuming fewer resources?

The people coming in to live in the favelas aren't the sort of people who were driving around the country in SUVs and requiring a lot of industrially produced stuff to be shipped out to them. In the country they aren't driving anything (more likely to take the bus or use a horse). Their village probably doesn't have electricity, sewage or water. And the little food they get, is produced very locally.

It's quite understandable why they want to leave that for the relatively better conditions in the favela, but very hard to see how their net consumption of energy and products derived from oil can be going *down* in this situation.

Obviously, higher-density living is much better for people who are already reasonably rich. Extended suburbs are a disaster for energy consumption.

Of course, in the city, the birth-rate goes down. But that's only important if the overall rate (country + city) is going down. If the country is simply producing more people to compensate for the outflux then the city isn't having any sort of regulatory effect.

Still, it would be interesting to see the "useful analysis of the "ecological footprint"".
BBC NEWS | Ancient necropolis found in Egypt
Who Should You Vote For?

Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:

Liberal Democrat

Your actual outcome:

Labour -9
Conservative -68
Liberal Democrat 92
UK Independence Party -22
Green 72

You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

Monsanto just signed a deal to co-produce text books for Brazilian schools on agriculture and the environment.

Copied the (portuguese) message to
X.J. Scott doesn't like Robert Patterson's Going Home. And he liked my attempt to explain it even less.

Some points worth thinking about.
A sceptical rant against business blogs. Don't know why I care really. I think the guy's clueless myself. But does it matter?

Nevertheless I started writing a comment on BubbleGeneration and then remembered my new policy of putting more writing here, rather than scattered around other people's comments sections.

- the only companies doing it are early adopters?

erm ...

- blogs want companies to speak with a "corporate voice"?

not last time I heard

- Businesses already communicate well in various ways?

go ask the customers

- Once people see the alternative, they realize they actually do prefer copy that’s readable, coherent and to the point – puh-lease, to the point!

blogs less readable than corporate happyspeak? The point he's missing is that however crude blog writing is (and it isn't on the blogs I read), it's normally informative, contentful, (even if the content is merely "here's how I feel") rather than a smokescreen designed to produce an impression without saying anything.

- E-mail and the general Web are still the killer apps for online communications in business today – and, last I checked, no experts were predicting their demise.

Not so long ago email and general web weren't considered killer apps either. And blogs don't mean that these older media disappear, though they may change their role

- Personally, I think what’s happening in the newly invigorated field of “word-of-mouth marketing” (in which blogging may play a minor role, though that’s still in question) is a much more interesting overall focus for marketers today.

Pretty much talking at cross-purposes here, aren't we? Most bloggers would put the "newly invigorated word-of-mouth" under the heading "blogging" and will admit that really they're talking about a wider phenomenon that includes blogging along with things like wikis, social software and online discussion fora.

If the author is totally determined to separate blogs from all that and consider them as a single genre of technology, opposed to this more general "word-of-mouth" culture, well ... he's still wrong, but there's perhaps a different argument to be had.

Update : Another comment

Monday, April 18, 2005

Michael thinks we leftists think the oil crisis is all about stupid business-men. If only it were that simple.

Tribe Discussion: Alternative Money and Economics -

My reply : It's not a question of whether capitalists are stupid or not. Even great supporters of capitalism don't claim businessmen have more (or less) wisdom than anyone else. The pro-capitalism claim is that capitalists have an institution : the market, which allows greater diversity of experiment, and which discovers and promulgates the successful experiments more efficiently than other institutions do.

The argument doesn't hinge on the people. It hinges on the capacity of the market to solve the problem of oil passing its "peak production".

A good book to read here is Clayton Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma"

What Christiansen wants to do is analyse why so many, apparently good, market leading companies, fail. And what he discovers is that they do so, by too slavishly following the signals given to them by the market.

What happens with the doomed companies of "the innovators dilemma" is that they have an existing customer base which they pay too much attention to. This customer base is using a particular format of product (Christensen's examples range from disk-drives to steel to earth-moving machinery) They want (and reward) improvements in the price / performance of this particular format and the company gives it to them. But it remains blind to another coming "disruptive" technology. Not because it's too stupid to understand the technology, but because the signals it gets from its customers are steering it in a different direction.

By the time the customer discovers the "disruptive" technology, another supplier has become dominant in it, and the customer switches to the new supplier rather than wait around for the previous market leader to catch up.

Markets are essentially thermostats : too cold, switch on the heating, too hot, switch it off. Demand outstrips supply, raise the price. Supply outstrips demand, lower it. That's the information available.

In an ideal world, there are nothing but smooth gradients. And simply following the prices up and down will keep you on the right course. What Christiansen demonstrates very clearly is that the world isn't composed of smooth gradients but discontinuities and catastrophe points and dead ends.

In theory market leaders who've spent years supplying customers with one technology will start to perceive a gentle shift towards a demand for another, start to shift their product output accordingly, tracking the demands of the customers.

In practice, the transformation is sudden, shocking, and market leaders rarely survive. As Christensen keeps emphasizing, not because they were stupid but because the market switch is too fast for the the feedback mechanisms to cope. Because the market-leader has constructed and is constrained by the system of other dependent suppliers and the existing customers pushing in the other direction.

This is why he calls such technologies "disruptive". They cause disruption.

Let's go back to the claims about the end of oil. No one is saying oil is going to run out tomorrow. What most people are saying is that oil is getting near its peak of production. That's not a prediction which is based on oil prices increasing, that's a prediction based on trends in oil discoveries. They're slowing down.
Although we're discovering more oil "everyday", the rate at which we are discovering oil is certainly decreasing, while the rate of consumption is going up.

As I said, this isn't a debate about whether the people are smart enough, it's whether the market as institution is able to react fast enough to avoid crises. From Christensen, we know that that's not always the case. Market signals are not always sufficiently timely nor companies sufficiently fast on their feet, to meet dramatic changes. Especially when there's a lot of inertia built in to the system, with each player in holding the others back from making change until the catastrophe.

What we have to remember about oil is that we are so dependent in so many different ways. Food production is highly energy intensive. Plastics are made from oil and almost everything in modern society is partly made from plastic. All kinds of things aren't made in the "west" at all because cheap fuel has enabled cheap transport which takes advantage of cheap labour in Asia.

All these dependencies are a) highly oil dependent, and b) difficult to switch. We have nothing equivalent to replace oil with - you don't make plastic with uranium; oil or gas made from coal requires extremely poisonous processes.

The market should be encouraging relevant research to improve these or find other sources of energy. But our scientists don't have any theories of real alternatives. And the market isn't doing what's needed. Right now, oil is still so cheap that, like the 8 inch disk-drive makers who didn't research 5 1/4 inch discs because no one wanted them, no one does real, sufficient research into alternatives because the car drivers and the farmers and the plastic industry and outsourcers don't want something else which is currently more expensive. Until, one day, they suddenly will, and maybe the industry won't have time to adjust.

Ok, let's not let this become totally negative. Markets are pretty good at acting on negative feedback. Alternative energy sources exist, alternative, less energy intensive methods of production and consumption exist, and if the catastrophe doesn't happen too quickly, the markets should be able to find and encourage them and steer us towards something survivable. But there are a lot of imponderable "ifs" there. As Christensen says, only 4 of the 100 biggest companies in 1900 were big in 2000. 96% screwed up, either due to incompetence or because the market *didn't* lead them in the right direction.

So I suggest the market could do with a bit of help. How does come in?

Well, is almost always "local". The big advantage from the oil perspective is users of local currencies can't buy stuff from the other side of the world and don't consume that fuel for transport. That has a downside, of course, sometimes there are real benefits of international trade. We want things and services from places which we can't produce locally. But there is also a lot of international trade which is simply arbitraging the relative prices of national currencies. With more local money, there'd be less of that.

The more people voluntary switch to, the more they encourage local production, by local labour and from local materials. This consumes less fuel.

Doing things locally, also tends away from doing things in mass, making small scale alternative energy more viable. Perhaps the local farmer selling in my village can produce vegetables without recourse to so much fertilizer or needing fleets of trucks to get his stuff to market.

Local money is not sufficient in itself, but it can play a role in constructing a local economy with a bias towards local, lower energy production.

Obviously, a gamble on the status quo might pay off. As the price of oil increases, someone (probably in China) will unveil a new super energy efficient car that works on everything from gasoline to cow-dung, oil companies will invent new techniques for extracting oil from hitherto unreachable depths, the big boxes will reverse their habit and start to source locally to keep prices down etc.

But remember the dilemma. Sometimes the market leader simply goes bust.

Monday, April 11, 2005

China changing

Factories covet young, female workers like Ms. Sheng because they are considered better at assembly line work and more docile than young men. In the past, these workers were largely cut off from the outside world, but now they use text messages or e-mail to check with friends at other factories about wages and treatment.

The New York Times : Help Wanted: China Finds Itself With a Labor Shortage

Friday, April 08, 2005

UBERCOOLISCHE : very funny if you read the article which inspired it.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Steve's off to do something new. I'll be watching his blog to find out what.