The end of the Microsoft era?

from The Economist, 26 June 2008:

Watching Microsoft in the company of Google and Facebook is a bit like watching your dad trying to be cool.

As a dad, I understand just how deep that cuts. And I still don't get Facebook.

But I do get this:

Despite all those efforts, the PC, Mr Gates’s obsession, has ended up as an internet terminal.

I have had two copies of Vista sitting on the shelf, waiting to be installed, for 14 months now. And I've yet to find a reason to upgrade. Our internet terminals are working fine without it.
  • Current Mood
    blissfully clueless

Ten Things We All Need to Learn

I found this a few weeks ago and was so impressed by it I printed it out for my sons, now in high school--although I'm afraid it's one of those things that make so much sense that it takes a decade or two for much of it to really sink in.

Excerpts from Stephen Downes' "Half an Hour" blog, 30 August 2006(

1. How to predict consequences
"... People don't think ahead. But while you are in school, you should always be taking the opportunity to ask yourself, "what will happen next?" Watch situations and interactions unfold in the environment around you and try to predict the outcome. Write down or blog your predictions. With practice, you will become expert at predicting consequences....."
2. How to read
"... Oddly, by this I do not mean 'literacy' in the traditional sense, but rather, how to look at some text and to understand, in a deep way, what is being asserted (this also applies to audio and video, but grounding yourself in text will transfer relatively easily, if incompletely, to other domains)....."
3. How to distinguish truth from fiction
"... The first thing to learn is to actually question what you are told, what you read, and what you see on television. Do not simply accept what you are told. Always ask, how can you know that this is true? What evidence would lead you to believe that it is false?...."
4. How to empathize
"... Most people live in their own world, and for the most part, that's OK. But it is important to at least recognize that there are other people, and that they live in their own world as well. This will save you from the error of assuming that everyone else is like you. And even more importantly, this will allow other people to become a surprising source of new knowledge and insight....."

It carries on to:
10. How to live meaningfully
"This is probably the hardest thing of all to learn, and the least taught."

"Living meaningfully is actually a combination of several things. It is, in one sense, your dedication to some purpose or goal. But it is also your sense of appreciation and dedication to the here and now. And finally, it is the realization that your place in the world, your meaningfulness, is something you must create for yourself."

(no subject)

My son and I were watching a DVD last night when the rating notice appeared on the screen. It said the movie was rated R due to "adult situations".

"Oh, no," I exclaimed, "what will you see? Someone paying a bill? Driving a kid to a sports game? Or doing the laundry?"

(no subject)

James Lardner's collective review of three books on the state of American capitalism makes for grim reading if you believe that our future is a linear extrapolation from the past two decades:

The economic policy of the United States has in recent memory been directed almost entirely toward the goal of growth, and treated, accordingly, as the preserve of experts and corporate and financial insiders....

... few Americans would be anything but grateful if our corporations and financial institutions could develop some respect for our non-material and non-individualistic selves. It is hard to imagine such a fundamental transformation of these giant institutions. It is even harder to imagine a better world in which they remain essentially what they are.

I often think of an interview with a member of the American Communist Party I heard back in the late 1970s on Seattle's late, great radical station, KRAB. The interviewer challenged the Communist at one point: "Come on, now: do you really think we're going to have a revolution in America, with people marching in the streets and throwing Molotov cocktails?"

"No," the Communist answered. "The next American revolution will be the quiet disappearance of its middle class."

102 year old gay jazz musician dies

I love the obituary section. I almost always learn about someone whose life followed a unique path. Such as Peggy Gilbert:

Musician Gilbert dies at 102
Saxophonist led the way for women in jazz
Peggy Gilbert, a noted saxophonist who helped female jazz musicians gain acceptance over a decades-long career of leading all-women ensembles, died Feb. 12 in Burbank, Calf. of complications of hip surgery. She was 102.

Gilbert was infatuated with the jazz she heard on the radio growing up in Sioux City, Iowa. But when she tried to learn the saxophone in high school, she was told girls could play violin, piano and harp but not wind instruments.

So she turned to a local bandleader for lessons.

"The first time I picked up a sax, I said, This is it!" Gilbert told the Los Angeles Times last year. "I loved the feel of it free and loose."

A year after graduating high school in 1923, she formed her own all-female jazz band, the Melody Girls, before heading to Los Angeles. It was the first in a string of women ensembles she led over the next several decades at a time when jazz culture was often hostile to female instrumentalists.

Her band performed under various names -- including Peggy Gilbert and Her Metro Goldwyn Orchestra, and Peggy Gilbert and Her Coeds -- at popular nightclubs, sometimes sharing the bill with jazz titans such as Benny Goodman. It appeared in Hollywood films and toured the vaudeville circuit with George Burns and other stars.

Along the way, she became known as an advocate for women in jazz.

"She often went down to the union and demanded equal opportunity for women instrumentalists," said her friend Jeannie Pool, a musicologist who recently completed a documentary and a biography of Gilbert. "She was always calling for an end to discrimination."

More recently, she was known for the Dixie Belles, a Dixieland band of older women she formed in 1974 at age 69 and that performed together until 1998, appearing on several TV shows.

Gilbert is survived by her companion of more than 60 years, Kay Boley, a “former vaudeville performer and contortionist whom she met when they appeared at the same nightclub.”

In fact, Peggy has a whole website about her life.

In defense of second-class novels

from John Berryman's afterword to the Signet Classics edition of Theodore Dreiser's The Titan:

Thank the Lord for second-class novels, or what would we read after the age of twenty-one, and how insufferable would be a criticism that devoted itself solely to first-class novels (the fifty-two or eight-six there are).

I like this line, particularly the bit about reading after the age of twenty-one. I think less than perfect works tend to be better companions as time goes along.

Knowledge and Uncertainty

from The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton:

Still it is true that much of what the prophets said belongs to their own day, not to ours. The politics they threw themselves into with such vehemence are comprehensible now only to the scholar. When they said an earthquake happened because God had arisen to shake terribly the earth, they were offering their own scientific explanation which long since yielded to others as every explanation does. Old ideas are continually being slain by new facts. There is nothing stable in the conclusions of the mind, and it is impossible that there ever should be unless we hold that the universe is made to the measure of the human mind, an assumption for which nothing in the past gives any warrant.

Keats once said that he saw in Shakespeare "the power of remaining in uncertainty without any irritably reaching after fact and reason." There is no foe so deadly to the truth as complete intellectual assurance. It substitutes an easy and shallow certainty for the deep loyalties of faith. It puts an end to thought, which can live only if it is free to change. Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge, and frequently the result as well [Emphasis added]. Greater knowledge does not mean greater certainty. Oftenest the very reverse is true. We are certain in proportion as we do not know. We seem, indeed, so made that intellectual certainty is not good for us. We grow arrogant, intolerant, unable to learn and to attain better grounds of certainty precisely because we are certain. The right attitude for the mind would seem to be humility.

I can't recall a passage that has resounded so strongly within me. This may come the closest to my personal credo as anything I've ever read. The passage from "There is no foe..." on could well be posted at the front of every school. What better explanation of the need for learning to be a lifetime quest?

Web technology notes

Over the last six months or so, I've been running a couple of projects that are using several variations of web-based collaboration tools, and I wanted to jot down a few observations from the experience so far.

On the first project, we are using a COTS tool called Groove Virtual Office to share files among a team distributed in three countries and two timezones six hours apart. The contractors love it, as they themselves are split across the two timezones. We (the customers) hate it because it doesn't work with our firewall. We have to use our laptops and WiFi network instead, which might be nice if it actually covered our offices and not just a few conference rooms. Groove has several different features, including a form of instant messaging and chat, but no one ever uses them. It's just used for sharing files. It does this well, and securely. But it's a memory hog and does not work easily with other applications. I agreed to try Groove at the recommendation of a colleague, but I will never use this on a project again. I understand Microsoft bought Groove and has grand plans for it.

On the second project, we are using Microsoft Sharepoint Portal Server to share documents among a team distributed in two locations but on a common internal network. Sharepoint also has a number of other functions, such a discussion board, calendar, and announcements, but again, the only thing we use it for is sharing documents. I've tried several times to adapt the layout and add some pages, but it's very cumbersome to use and limited in how much content--aside from uploading files and posting announcements--a mere mortal user can provide. NATO has a big enterprise-wide project underway to push most of its web content into Sharepoint. I think it will be a huge effort with only slight gains over what it's got now, which is mostly static HTML. Then, of course, we will be stuck with it for years to come.

On the third project, we have a distributed team of internal and external staff putting together a bunch of process documentation. Having suffered with Groove and lacking the money (or desire) to go with Sharepoint, I decided to set up a Wiki. Our IT staff said the effort would take weeks. Frustrated, I did a few searches and located a hosting company called SiteGround which would allow me to host a MediaWiki server for $60 a year. I paid for it out of my pocket and got the thing set up and running in about an hour.

Roughly half the team members were very reluctant to use the Wiki at first. They just emailed their files around for a while. But the other team members dipped their toes it, found it very easy to add content, and charged off. Two months after I installed the Wiki, we have over 400 pages of material online.

For me, the huge advantage is that I can pop in and out and add material in sessions as brief as five minutes. From the Recent Changes page, I can see that quite a few others are doing the same. On the other hand, its support for file sharing is a bit lame--basically, you have to call everything an image regardless of the file format and you have to enter all the expected file formats into a config file to make it work. It also tends to get a bit messy and disorganized, as threads can take off in unexpected directions. But the Wiki is the hands-down winner when it comes to encouraging content creation, and I am still a strong believer that content is king.

I keep wondering if blogging technology also has a place at work, but I can't find a natural place to fit it in. I do think, though, that the key to any of these technologies is the impedance it presents to various methods of communication. Like with water or an electrical current, the less work it takes to put the information into the medium, the greater the likelihood that the information will naturally flow in that direction.

Among the piles of papers on my desk is a small pile of papers, each bundled folded in half down the middle. This is my reading pile.

Some years ago, I got tired of the amount of paper wasted in printing a typical article or page off the web. I started clipping the text of articles I found on the net, pasting it into a blank Word document, and formatting it into two columns of 9-point Times Roman. It seemed to be a handy size for reading and to conserve paper. I eventually saved the format as a template ( to make the process faster.

At least once a week, when I'm in the office, I surf through a few favorite sites such as Arts & Letters Daily, collect up the text of a few articles, and print off one of these reading copies. Usually I take one down with me when I go to lunch, in case I find myself dining alone. I loathe eating by myself with nothing else to do, though I suspect some would say I should savour the food and enjoy the moment of quiet.

From AL Daily this week, I collected this article on happiness, sparked by Daniel Gilbert's tour for his book, Stumbling on Happiness. In it, Gilbert remarks, "It's the frequency and not the intensity of positive events in your life that leads to happiness, like comfortable shoes or single malt scotch."

On one hand, this sounds pretty insipid. My first response was, "This sounds like something I'd find in a catalog or one of those insufferable magazines like Real Simple that celebrate the joys of a life enriched with 800-count Egyptian cotton sheets and artisanal olive oil."

But then I remembered a thought I had just the day before. I was sitting in a very long and slow line of cars caused by major work on the route I usually take to work. "I can't wait for summer," I thought. The volume of traffic here plummets for at least six weeks starting in early July, and it's really nice to zip up to the autoroute, slip onto it for two exits, and pop off again, arriving at work in about ten minutes or so. If the weather's sunny, the night cool just burning off, the grass and trees vivid with green, it's a very pleasant way to start the work day. A little thing like that gives me a big boost. Not just as I'm experiencing it--the knowledge that a good moment isn't too, too far away also keeps me from ruminating over lousy experiences too long.

This may just be a reflection of an optimistic temperament. The same situation probably does nothing for someone in a seriously depressed state. But insipid or not (and, by the way, speaking as one who bought a set of 800-count Egyptian cotton sheets on sale a few years ago--they really are great to sleep on), Gilbert's statement is true for me. Why, just heading off to lunch yesterday with an interesting article on happiness to read helped make it a better day.

The Toronto Star article led me on to Gilbert's book site, which includes a few excerpts. I like this quote in particular:

But as bald men with cheap hairpieces always seem to forget, acting as though you have something and actually having it are not the same thing, and anyone who looks closely can tell the difference.

The eCrock-o-Crap

I saw a notice about an upcoming lunchtime lecture here at work on "Blood Sugar Disruption," which the notice claims affects 5-6 times more people than diabetes. Out of curiosity, I googled the phrase. 27 hits. Not a good sign.

Many of the hits seem to relate to the following product:

Clear Essential Energy eMug (13 oz)
Assists the body to eliminate chemicals, allergens, and pathogens!
When any substance is placed in or on the Essential Energy eMug (also known as E Mug), the "energy information" is transferred from the eCrystal technology within the eMug to the water in the new liquid or solid. Bovis levels of 30-40K may be obtained within minutes and the very balancing 90 K within minutes instead of hours. The electrons in the substance take on a positive left spin. Their free radical nature is virtually eliminated! The body can more easily process and eliminate chemicals, allergens, or pathogens. "Negative memories" within a liquid substance formerly retained are wiped away within seconds!

This is some seriously deep bullshit. I'd forgotten that crap like this still exists. How could I have survived this long imbibing fluids lacking in positive left spin?

I then googled "Bovis levels." One of the hits was from the "Crop Circular," which informs us that:

The Bovis scale is an intuitive scale created by a French scientist at the turn of the century to measure the natural health of organic objects, a system which is now being used in resonance therapy- along with crop circles images- to treat diseased environments and people. The higher the Bovis count, the healthier the system; an average person emits 15,000 Bovis.

Bovis, I also learned, developed his scale while researching the therapeutic effects of pyramids. So here we see eCrystal technology validated by crop circles and the healing power of pyramids--it's polynomial bullshit!

My grandma used to give us a gift subscription to Capper's Weekly every year. This was a tabloid published for the farm population, coming to us from Topeka, Kansas. It was a mix of homilies, recipes, gardening tips, and pure filler news items. The best part was the ad section in the back, which always had at least a page or two of ads for healing copper bracelets, magic elixirs, and down home equivalents of the Orgone box.

It's nice to see that some folk traditions have made the leap into cyberspace.

I shall have to figure out how to insert the phrase "Bovis levels" into my conversation now.

Oh, by the way--the eMug is now only $59.25, marked down from $79.00. What a deal!