Sunday, March 30, 2003

A stab at the topic of idiot-proofing

When I was a child, my mother used to refer to the best, most trustworthy, robust appliances as "idiot-proof." This meant that using them was simple and straightforward, and that someone with no mechanical aptitude whatsoever could employ them as intended. "Idiot-proof," in this context, is not an insult--to the appliance or the user.

I started to think about idiot-proofing as I pondered Bob Frankston's request for access to source information, (see my "PC Forum, Day 1" post). The dilemma is, when does idiot-proofing constitute help or support for the user, and when does it constitute obfuscation? For instance, I am a person who doesn't like to read directions. Yet, I often choose to try things that are new and difficult, where I have limited background knowledge. I end up learning more than I had intended, mainly by trial but mostly by error. Ultimately I am better off because by the time I've made a big mess and cleaned it up, I've had to learn how the thing works. However, there are many, many people who either do read the directions or are not the slightest bit interested in doing something over and over until they get it right, or both. They don't care how something works, just that it does and that it's easy. This is entirely legitimate, however alien it is to me personally.

Hmmm. Why can't providers make available both the idiot-proof/user-friendly version for those who want it, and the source information for those who want that? Obviously some companies don't want the end user to have access to source data because they want to protect their intellectual property. This is short-sighted and impedes innovation, but I grasp the logic.

On the other hand, it is my impression that some companies' leaders don't understand their 'product' well enough to know the difference between help and hiding. They have a knack for selling or for managing, but no particular expertise in the domain. How can you develop a viable business model if you lack a fundamental grasp of that which you are selling? This is just plain disturbing, and all too common when the product is highly technical.

[The common practice of weaseling bizarre and ridiculous rights into the user agreements we're required to sign in order to gain access at all is a separate topic, which I'm mentally bookmarking for a later date.]

Comments anyone? (I put that in to trap myself into learning how to do this.....)

Saturday, March 29, 2003


Nota bene: not all reporters covering the current conflict are sycophants........

Blank Stare Redux

I'm starting to think my earlier screed may have been a tad bit misdirected. Just now, I was sitting here listening to my spouse read aloud from Google Hacks (isn't that romantic?). As he read the preface, which addresses questions of ontologies, precursors to the World Wide Web, search strategies, etc. it suddenly dawned on me that much of the discussion at the PC Forum pertained to secondary or published information, of the type that is found in libraries. What I was talking about, however, was primary or raw data--the kind upon which one can reasonably test hypotheses, perform statistical analyses, etc. So now I sort of understand some of those blank stares. A quote from Adlai Stevenson seems appropriate at this juncture: "Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that sometimes he has to eat them." I'm not eating all of my words, mind you, but perhaps a snack is in order.

Idiot-proofing: Pro's and Cons

It's Saturday afternoon, it's raining, and I just ate. I'm too drowsy to write anything now.....but this is my topic of the moment.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

PC Forum Wiki

Here's a link to the PC Forum Wiki, a good source of a lot more information about the conference

PC Forum, Day 2 (Monday): A minor screed on using one's noggin

Somewhere leading in to the 10:50 a.m. panel, I started to think about the value of using one's brain. My musings began with someone's statement that it is possible to develop “classified” information by aggregating and making sense of unclassified information. In other words, if you use your head you can take data sets that seem quite neutral and piece them together with other neutral data sets, only to see a fuller picture emerge. All of a sudden, it becomes information you're not supposed to have. In other words, using your brain is subversive?! Well, of course it's subversive. It always has been. This is one of our greatest sources of power as individuals.

During this particular panel, I noticed that the gentlemen on the stage were speaking from a set of assumptions about data that were (in my opinion) rather ill-informed. For instance, they seemed quite pleased with themselves because they look at "links" in the data (whatever these are, mathematically speaking--correlations? path analyses? what?) and this helps them identify consumer behavior patterns, potential miscreants, etc. This really started to get under my skin.

In a sea of data, how do you know if a "link" is important or meaningful? It is very easy to achieve statistical significance at the p<.05 level if your data set is large enough. But, how do you know what-if anything-it means, and whether or not it is important (back to Gilman Louie)? Suppose you interpret a 'link' incorrectly? Notwithstanding the fact that being wrong is expensive and inconvenient, who will be hurt by your mistake? How do establish or test meaning when it is likely that--at least in matters of race, age, or nationality--there is a good deal of bias involved? There are known ways of doing this, but they are not widely known in this setting. Not that there's anything wrong with that--at least it helps me stave off feelings of personal irrelevance.

To borrow from the title of the meeting, making "data come alive" should be about far more than managing, sorting, or even conducting significance tests on massive piles of data. Good data and lots of it are necessary but not sufficient conditions. One's ability to develop and test hypotheses, and one's skill at interpreting results, are the primary differentiators between a pile of data ressembling (along numerous dimensions) the Herculean stables, and a thing of functionality and beauty. This complex interweaving of art, science, ethical judgment, commerce, creativity, and more is fundamentally a human endeavor.

I said something to this effect on day two and was greeted with a sea of blank stares and an awkward silence. I don't know that I said it as clearly as I did just now, and I certainly wasn't as succinct. But at least I knew what I meant.............and I felt compelled to say it. Etiquette tip to panels--you need to develop a PC Forum equivalent for "thank you for sharing."

PC Forum, Day 2 (Monday)

I'm actually posting this on Thursday. The conference ended yesterday and per usual, I had a blast. So much so, in fact, that I didn't have time to blog. I was finding that if I wrote during the proceedings, I missed them because I was paying attention to my writing, not to what was going on before my eyes.

The 8:15 am panel, moderated by Esther, was "Watching the World," with Robert Carter of Fedex, Mark Cattini of Mapinfo, Jeff Jonas of Systems Research and Development, and Gilman Louie of In-Q-Tel. Gilman Louie in particular was very impressive. Speaking about security and identifying 'suspicious' individuals, he noted the many and varied opportunities (and some terrific/horrific examples) for computer-assisted versions of 'racial profiling.' As an Asian-American, he spoke poignantly about his own personal experience as well as that of friends and family. There's nothing like taking a walk in someone else's shoes to sensitize you to their concerns.

Monday, March 24, 2003

PC Forum, Day 1 (Sunday)

The first interview is titled “Inside Intel,” with Esther Dyson and Paul Ottolini of Intel.

Here's what I thought/wrote:

I feel incredibly sleepy. Melllow, but sleepy. I’m sure there is some importance to this, but I’m not an industry insider, so I don’t know what it is. Lots of discussion of WIFI—something tells me it is viewed as potentially subversive; there are lots of questions about security, as well as one about “whitebox” desktops (what are those?).

Bob Frankston: speaking slowly (for Bob) and clearly, asks a question about individuals' access to data and protocols as compared to corporate access. He seems to be advocating giving individuals access to raw data/other information direct from the source (raw data are the only really useful kind, in my opinion)—asks (to paraphrase) "Are you going to shape it for me; are you going to control what it is/what it looks like? Or, will you give me access to the real thing?” It appears to be a concern similar to that which was widely expressed about Bluetooth.

To the extent that the data have been pre-cooked, they are no longer usable—they have already been manipulated. The problem is not just that the individual has been patronized. The person has also been robbed of his or her power. He or she can no longer ask the kind of questions or develop the kind of solutions the provider didn’t anticipate and/or might find challenging.

You go, Bob!

Friday, March 21, 2003

Arrival in Scottsdale

We came for the conference, but we came a bit early....3.5 days to be precise. It's such a great place and is clearly worth visiting even without any professional self-improvement initiatives.

My first item of business is to get the family unpacked and organized. I don't know why, but facing this prospect I suddenly feel incredibly drowsy.

I keep thinking I should post deep thoughts about technology, data, data interpretation, finding the meaning in the numbers, blah, blah, blah. That's the focus of the conference, after all. It's what I do, I know a ton about it, and I really enjoy it. Why, then, am I so completely unmotivated to post any pithy, well-informed screeds? It's especially odd since I am a person of many opinions and this is one of those delightful cases where I actually know what I'm talking about.

I guess part of the problem is that such opinions are best expressed in the context of a conversation while this blog, to date, has been largely descriptive. I hope to change that soon.

Incidentally, the backdrop for all of this is our unprovoked attack on Iraq. What a dark day. I'm embarrassed to be associated with it. I'm devastated thinking of all the innocents whose lives will be snuffed out by the USA. I can't help but think that with this attack, we've become what we oppose. I am sad and angry and scared.

Monday, March 17, 2003

The Furniture Factory Re-opens

Yesterday I spent a good four hours in the garage, stripping a 125-year old Chinese Wardrobe. What a mess! It seems that the original owner may have stained it with something akin to maraschino cherry juice, then mixed egg yolks into the varnish. I kid you not!! Totally vile.

Eventually it will be worth it. There's part of me that likes stripping away layers and layers of gunk, to the point where all the corners and crevices are clean, the grime is gone, and the grain of the wood begins to show through. Then, something another person thought had little value is revealed as a thing of beauty and utility. I note that this is a theme for me. It's the same trait that drove my choice of profession...........

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Onward and Upward: an Arizona Geek-fest

Next week, I'll be at the PC Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is a very cool technology conference that I've attended for the past 7 years. I always take my family, so it's a vacation and an adventure for the brain rolled into one. The forum is run by Esther Dyson, a leading technology pundit and someone who was into technology before (also during and after) it was cool. Esther really knows how to make an event happen. The meeting is a combination of abstraction, innovation, and gritty reality that is completely unique in my experience. One encounters everything from neat new gadgets, to company "debutantes" seeking funding, to discussions about the relationship between the music industry establishment and file-sharing afficianados, to broad scale consideration of the role of national government in a world not bounded by geographic borders.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Russia in February

I had gone to Russia in late October 1997, to do a banking consultation. My primary memories from that trip are: darkness, cigarette smoke, and excellent dumplings.

It seemed much different this time. Perhaps it was the wonderful light, bright "Kremlin view" room, overlooking St. Basil's cathedral (for which I paid a whopping $3 extra). Perhaps it was the incredible Georgian food I had one night, or the walk through Red Square at midnight during a light snow. Perhaps it was the fact that it was both warmer and less snowy than Philadelphia was that week, and/or that none of my colleagues smoked. Whatever it was, I had a blast. Now I'm back, and I need to do my homework--develop some proposals that will turn into projects that will allow me to return.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

I went to Russia!

Several weeks ago, I went to Russia on business. What a trip. Unfortunately I couldn't write about it when I was there. The internet connection was fine: I found an ethernet port in my room at the Rossiya. However, my blogs were all messed up and I couldn't post. Also, before I found the ethernet port I wasted a ton of money (almost $200--argh) attempting to connect via international telephone. I know, I know. I should have just let it go, but I couldn't.

In any event, my friend/colleague Pat, with whom I went, kept me so busy I could barely breathe. We met with such interesting and accomplished people. We are working on setting up an exchange program for Russian and American entrepreneurs, with a special emphasis on the collection of market data. Among others, we met with one Mikhael Fridman, chairman of the Alpha Group. What a charming and accomplished man, and only 37 years old.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

A breakthrough

I finally wrote in to "blogger support"--and they fixed my problem! It all works now.

When I was a child, if we got lost in an unfamiliar place, we would drive around and around, because my father was never willing to ask for directions. I have *just a little bit* of that in me. Fortunately, at the end of the day, there is someone who knows their way around and can help. Thank you blogger support!

Monday, March 03, 2003

Ok, progress. The page no longer is listed as "not found." Now if I can only post.......I've been unable to do that, too. Here goes!

(That was written day before yesterday.) Now I'm trying a work-around. Actually read a pile of directions in the last 24 hours--to no avail. I won't give up, however. I'm post-obsessional. The obsessional phase was merely the entryway (see "The Door" poem I posted on 12/31/02). I'm beyond that now, somewhere into a 'grim determination' phase.