A CivSpace Christmas

December 25, 2018 Comments off

Twas the night before Christmas, and across his wide grounds

Terendurr the Black Stone listened for sounds.

His wide ears were twitching both downwards and up

And his head swiftly turned like the most nervous of pups.

His own sounds were sickly, twiddling and coarse,

An orchestra drained of all its force.

When I could stand it no longer I had to yell out,

“Boss! What’s the problem? What’s it about?

Alien invasion? Quantum death-beams?

A party of Keret forming volley ball teams?”

“The night is quiet, Blair,” he said,“Too quiet for me.

I fear some plot of fearsome degree.”

“No help for it now,” he said, nodding his head to the door,

“Go out to the city and search out the score.

Do not return until the danger is known –

Then I, a genius, the solution shall intone.”

He seemed so sincere I didn’t dare scoff

so grousing and grumbling I departed straight off.

My first stop was Bartoe the Monitor,

a lawman grumpy but tough as a boar.

“MacAlister!” he growled, “Trouble as always!”

“Thanks, Bartoe,” I said, “From you that is high praise.

But tell me, straight-up, any evil brewing tonight?

The Black Stone is nervous and fearing a fight.”

“No, nothing,” he barked so onwards I strode

My next stop, a Phair, to cash a favor long owed.

“Terril, you thief, you inveterate cad,

you owe me some info, so don’t make me mad.

A job is happening, this very eve.

Tell me the play and I’ll let you leave.”

His bald head he nodded, big eyes he blinked,

“Lovely Blair, I’m not so bad as you think,

no crime is planned across the town tonight.

In fact I intend a solemn and personal rite

Where clothing is optional and qualms passé –

What say we share a moment outré?”

In reply I just slapped him down to his bench

(Why should an alien know French?)

and headed out to the dark. My geas unlifted,

weary across the silent town I drifted

till at last I encountered a rare thing indeed,

an Oro-Ka, moving at speed.

Chaotic beings, of power great and manifest

He was my last chance to finish my quest.

“Hail, your worshipfulness!” (an ancient expression we scoundrels all favor).

“Questions I have I know you will savor.”

“What’s this, a Terran?” he cried.

“A child race – upstarts, infants – my patience you try!”

“Calm yourself,” I scolded, “lest dignity you misplace.

A riddle I have ,as great as space,

That I would pose.

Will you answer? Chose!”

“Ask,” he replied, sparks of power flicking about his head.

“My riddle,” I began, not without dread,

“concerns nothing, nothing at all.

When we are threatened by ‘nothing’, what defender shall we call?”

“’Nothing’, you say?” he stroked at his chin.

“A riddle from the Terran Sphinx’s kin.”

His powerful hand indicated the stars.

“Child, attend to the answer I tell.

Time is infinite, and space as well,

both curving, both swerving, both infuriatingly grim.

Back upon themselves they bend, an enclosing rim,

Tighter and tighter and the end – Is nothing – Unless.”

“Unless?”

“Unless a fracture is introduced. Foolish primate.

Only by that can you avoid your fate.

At the beginning of things the answer lies,

When quanta were mist and atoms dreams.

I am done, and so are you I deem.”

There was a shimmering flash and he was gone,

Leaving me to ponder the night alone.

Above were alien stars, around me alien air,

All lonely, cold, beyond care.

But in that moment I smiled, and laughed —

the Oro-Ka was right, and not by half.

Back to the compound I sped,

Till through the silent doors I did tread.

Distant sounds drew me on, breathless,

To the Great Hall when, blinding light left me helpless!

For there was Madeline the Raylic and the Trang, Pierre,

Bearing wrapped gifts, the grinning pair.

And the Black Stone as well a present he had

(its wrapping I must say was terribly bad).

“Apologies, Blair,” he boss announced,

“for the false assignment so lately pronounced.

Too late I learned that gifts are needed this night

For your Terran celebration to be observed aright.”

And we laughed, and talked, till Terendurr inquired

“Christmas, Blair, what is it? besides presents acquired.”

“The beginning of things,” I said, thinking on The Oro-Ka.

“We choose how the symmetry cleaves, what flaw

Shall set our yearly path towards we know not where.”

“Hrrmphh,” he grumbled, “Unaccustomed for you, wisdom quite rare.”

Then shaking his head he left, off to his office to ponder,

On problems I’m sure most dire and somber.

But I heard him exclaim, as he tromped to his lair—

“Happy Christmas to all, but most to you, good Blair!”

Categories: Writing

Ask not for whom the app logs-in, it logs-in as thee …

September 8, 2018 Comments off

With this installment’s title I must extend apologies to John Donne, though had he lived today I’m sure the great metaphysical poet would have been concerned with more inevitable eventualities than death … like the inevitable need to go online and once there, to login to something.

Logging in and getting a personalized experience with our apps is a universal expectation, not to mention in lots of cases a logical requirement. Back in the day we’d blithely enter our email address yet again, and use the same ‘ol password, just to register with a site we’ll probably use only 1 time in our lives. Well, those days are gone. Not only are users weary of all these separate logins, I as a developer want to minimize the effort I spend on basic stuff, so I can save it for the specific features of my app. So what I decided to do is use OAuth, the standard that allows sites to cooperate on user-identity. In vastly-condensed summary: OAuth allows different applications to share identity information based on shared keys. When you got to a site and see “Login with Facebook”, and click that, here’s what happens:

  • The site formats a link to the identity provide – in this case Facebook – that includes a signature. The signature is a long string of data created by processing some input with a secret key.
  • The user’s browser is sent to page hosted by Facebook. Behind the scenes Facebook checks the signature, using its own copy of the secret key. Then it asks you, “App such-and-such wants access t your email address, etc. You good with that?”
  • Assuming you click “Yes”, Facebook re-directs back top the original site, including its own signed and encrypted data. because that data was  created, once again,  with the same secret key, the app can read it and find your user-name, along with whatever other things you may have approved.

That’s the theory. Now in practice I want to have such a “Login with Facebook:” button on my site. To do that I do what most developers do: Google “rails facebook oauth login”. As expected the 1st page of results had 3-4 tutorials on how to do just that.

What’s the next step? if I was at work I’d most likely read through the candidate articles, pick the best one, then write out the requirements and steps in a new document, then do that. At home, well, I can only say I have a more carefree attitude. I started following the steps of one tutorial that was based on Omniauth and React-Rails (more on React later) but decided after a hour or so that was too much UX work than I wanted to do just now. So I stopped that path and started a different route using Devise, a Rails-based framework that is a largely pre-made authentication system.

Then the hackery began. I removed the original routes I had added with the 1st version,  then used the Devise utilities to generate new ones. if you’re not familiar with Rails, its ‘generator’ facility is used all the time to create config files, stub files, and much more. For example:

rails generate device:install

will create a complete devise configuration, prompting you for settings along the way. Alas, I couldn’t do that all-in-1 step because of the 1st attempt stuff I had in place, so I set out doing it piecemeal.

In the end it all worked, but the process wasn’t pretty. I did have to spend about an hour trying to resolve an error, where I had only this log text to go on:

F, [6 #8279] FATAL — : [c6e010f3-c1b9-4675-90d6-9bdaeb42c1b5] ArgumentError (wrong number of arguments (given 0, expected 1)):
F, [7 #8279] FATAL — : [c6e010f3-c1b9-4675-90d6-9bdaeb42c1b5] app/models/user.rb:19:in `from_omniauth'[ 

This was one of those that looks specific to the problem – line 19 in file user.rb is messed up, right? – but actually did not explain anything. I tried different things, to no avail. Finally I brute force rescued the exception and printed the “real” stack trace, which was:

F, [5 #8280] ERROR — : [7120f455-99a1-4427-922c-053742c6194d] wrong number of arguments (given 0, expected 1)
F, [6 #8280] ERROR — : [7120f455-99a1-4427-922c-053742c6194d] /app/vendor/bundle/ruby/2.5.0/gems/devise-4.5.0/lib/devise/models/database_authenticatable.rb:166:in `password_digest’/

So the crash wasn’t in my code, it was in the Devise framework. The problem turned out to be this: I created my original user-model to use a Rails option has_secure_password. This requires a database column and model-attribute password_digest. However the Devise framework adds its *own* method named password_digest that takes 1 argument. The fix: remove has_secure_password and the password_digest column.

So there it is. If you’re of a mind you can Try the FB Login Demo here.

My closing thought … software frameworks, like cars, are things that people build and because of that you’d think we know everything about them. Well, we don’t. The picture below captures this thought:

mechanic

Next time: SM Geeking takes on user-interface. Systems architect that I am, comedy is guaranteed. Don’t miss it!

Categories: SM Geeking, Technology

Saturday Morning Geeking: And So It Begins

August 25, 2018 Comments off

Been quite some time I posted anything here. Anyway I’ve started work on a personal coding project and it occurred to me might be useful / fun / get-something-out-of-my-yearly-Wordpress-subscription to write about how the project progresses. Finally, there’s the (probably vain) hope that starting a thread about the project will induce me to keep working the project. And hope is a fundamental aspect of programming, as anyone who has ever deployed to production can tell you, so here goes …

What is the project about? 2 things: My wife Kim (String-Or-Nothing) is an expert in textile arts like embroidery and knitting. Way, way back in the day I did a site for her, wiseneedle.com, that was a searchable catalog of yarn reviews. The data for that site is long-since sold, but we’ve often chatted about doing another textiles-related project. The second part comes from me recently taking a seminar at Google Cambridge where Google folks presented their latest cloud services and APIs. The machine-learning stuff got me thinking, and looping back to the textile-arts thing, I thought maybe there’s a fun learning opportunity here. So the overall goal of the project is to use Google Cloud and their APIs to make a site for some textile thing, that also uses machine-learning. I know you all thought that was were this was going from the start, right?

What do you need to start such a thing? past few years I’ve been doing a lot of Ruby on Rails, so that’s going to be my main framework. And I said I wanted to use Google Cloud Platform; you get an  account with $300 credit and access to bags ‘o APIs. However, while tis all well and good to ordain yours tools and your platform, getting the twain to meet is another matter. Google has lots of ways to deploy and run stuff: App Engine, Kubernetes, and Compute Engine; here’s an overview for using these with Rails.

Scanning through the options, I wasn’t super-enthused by any of them. Well, as most coders will tell you, you Google enough you’ll find an answer. the answer I found is called Nanobox. Billed as “PaaS V2” it struck me as not unlike Heroku, a PaaS I was familiar with from my last job. This tutorial, on using Nanobox to deploy a Rails app to Google Cloud I was able to read in about 3 mins. In my experience that means I could probably complete and verify the actual steps in about 3 hours. Anyway what Nanobox does is it layers on Google Compute Engine (an IaaS service similar to AWS EC2) a deployment model that allows you – or , me – to de isolated from details of what VMs, what storage, what load-balancers, etc. are needed for your app. Well, I am all about isolation, so at about 10:30 I started in …

Long story short – it worked! The only hitch was, while I created a role for Nanobox to use that had all needed Compute Engine permissions (it had to create a lot of stuff on my behalf), I hadn’t enabled the Compute Engine API in my account. It in fact took a little digging to determine that was the root cause of stuff not working. Well, after fixing that Nanobox deployed “all the things” as we say and my Hello world app was running.

Next time … the wonders of Facebook plus OmniAuth. Booyah!

Categories: SM Geeking, Technology

Looking into the Sun

June 13, 2015 Comments off

Electricity non-bill

I shared some info on this on Facebook.  Last year Kim and I decided we wanted to do solar photovoltaic on our home.  We knew we had a nice, south-facing open roof, it seemed big enough, and we all see fairly frequently articles on how cost of solar is dropping, so we took the plunge and started looking at options.

In our town there are many people with solar; I can see 1 such home from my back porch, and SF writer acquaintance of mine Jeff Carver also has a solar system.  Asking about online I saw that there were two active solar installers used by people in Arlington, one of which is Sunbug Solar.  Anyway I contacted Sunbug, the other outfit, and yet a 3rd, state-wide installer I found online.  The other outfit never got back to me, and bachelor #3 seemed technically not very savvy, so I went with Sunbug.

What do I mean by “technically not very savvy”?  I’m no expert in solar systems, but I can use Google, and I know that there are different grades of panel with different efficiencies, and that there are different ways of  gathering the DC output of the panels and turning it into AC, which is what your house needs.  The non-savvy solar people could not answer a single question, they had a set system they were pitching me, take it or leave it.  Meanwhile the folks at Sunbug seemed to like talking about this stuff – were excited, even – and that made the decision to go with them very easy.

The system I arrived at with Sunbug has 24 SunPower 327W panels. This means that under ideal conditions the system can deliver 7.85 kW of power.  Of course conditions are never perfect, and the sun don’t shine 24 x 7.  Here’s what production looks like on a day of typical sun:

solar-output

Power generation reaches close to peak at about 10 am and stays there 3:30 pm or so, then drops.  The highest output I yet have achieved is 7 kW.

Anyway the system makes more electricity than I use – thus my negative electric bill for last 3 months.  I may not stay negative all through the summer – in the hot months I run dehumidifiers in my basement and they draw considerable power.

Of course all this is not free.  The system, fully installed, cost just under $39,000.  But right off the bat you get a Massachusetts rebate of $1,250, and a federal tax credit (not deduction) of 30% of your costs, plus a $1,000 Mass State tax credit.  All this put the upfront cost at about $25k.  But there’s more!  Massachusetts supports SRECs or Solar Renewable Energy Credits.  In brief outline, SRECs work this way: Different states want to encourage use of solar.  They therefore require utilities to show a proportion of their output comes from solar.  Utilities can do the generation on their own and meet the regulatory requirement that way, or they can buy from me the right to put forth my solar generation as credit towards their obligations.  SRECs are traded in a market like commodities and their prices will fluctuate based on plain ‘ol supply and demand.  Essentially utilities pay me to generate my own electricity by solar.

Bottom-line: Even with the minimum forecast prices for SRECs, my capital costs for the solar system will be recouped in 6 years.  For the 24 forecast years of system life after that, it is free electricity, no electric bills, and maybe even a small surplus.

Certainly this won’t be for everyone.  6 years seems like a short time to me but it may be an eternity to you.  And as fun as is is to gloat over a $0 electricity bill, you may have other more pressing needs for your money.  Finally be aware there’s other ways to get into solar than owning the whole show, like leasing the system.

In the end, panels or no, we all need sunshine, sometime.  I’ll leave you with The Soggy Bottom Boys, till next time …

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

You keep using that word …

April 4, 2015 1 comment

Master swordsman (not strategist) Inigo Montoya

And, what is the word?  No, not inconceivable – the word I have in mind is strategy.

Working in software products of course I have heard “strategy” in one context or another on a daily basis 20 years of more, and now as a product manager I hear it even more, if such a thing is possible.  However what the vast majority of self-styled strategists are really talking about is just features, like “Our strategy is to have web-based something-or-other”, or “Our strategy is to use middleware to achieve this-or-that”.  These kinds of statements are not strategy, they are just features or architectures.

What is strategy?  Among the things that stuck with me from my time in B-school at Babson was a statement from a professor (a former partner at Bain & Co.) answering that very question.  He said:

Strategy is: Where do you play? and How do you win?

 

“Where you play” is your target segment.  If you are not targeting some specific thing, you already don’t have a strategy.  Certainly the very biggest players in some industries can address really big and wide markets, but even the obvious examples – like Apple – use some targeting.  If asked about the target market for Apple I bet a lot of people would answer, “Everybody”.  Not true.  Apple targets higher-income consumers, and adapts for sub-markets in that group, like convenience-oriented multi-tasking men age 25-55, or family-oriented women age 20-40 who use technology to stay connected with friends and family.  I think segmenting is in fact even more important in the business software world.  I often hear vendors – my own employer included – saying things like “We sell to the biggest enterprises” or “We aim at the mid-market”.  These are probably true statements but they’re not helpful.  All business have specific problems inherent to their place in their market – they need to sell faster, or need to communicate with more customers, or need higher manufacturing efficiency, things of that nature.  If the benefit you provide is too generic and doesn’t address a clear problem and pressing problem, then you are a nice-to-have, not a must-have … and, nice-to-haves finish last.

“How do you win?” is a bigger question than most people think.  Many people believe winning is solely about better features: my light bulb lasts longer than the competition, my body-spray smells better, my car goes faster, my collaboration is more collaborative, stuff like that.  But think – Why are there so many examples of outwardly inferior products dominating their markets?  In my own industry I think the most telling example is Microsoft Sharepoint.  Now I can’t say Sharepoint is especially inferior; the product has a 12 year history after all and has seen a lot of improvement in its time.  But when Sharepoint came out it was not especially innovative and even today is criticized for having lousy administration, being slow and unwieldy, and for promoting “document graveyard” styles of collaboration.  For all that, Sharepoint apparently drives $2B of revenue a year for Microsoft.  How can something so bad be so successful?

Lots of reasons, actually.  A big one is network effects. Lots of people have Windows, lots of people use Windows Server, lots of people develop for Microsoft systems … all of this creates an ecosystem where technology buyers are likely to know about Sharepoint or know someone who knows.  From this they get confidence that the Sharepoint bet is a good one.

Next is ease of acquisition.  Sharepoint is easy to buy – just an option in your per-user Windows licensing – and easy to deploy – it’s a standard Windows server like all Windows services.  This short time to value goes a long way towards easing concerns the customer might have about not getting the ideal solution, from a features perspective.

Finally think about Sharepoint’s feature-gaps – real or imagined – as opportunities and not liabilities.  Enabled by the network-effect and Sharepoint’s  ease of acquisition/deployment, there is a large after-market of ISVs who offer products and services to augment Sharepoint or address its shortcomings.  Microsoft claims over 700,00 developers write for Sharepoint.  That number is probably too high, but there’s no question there are 1000s of Sharepoint partner vendors and 100s of solutions for the platform.

Network effects; Ease of acquisition; Developer ecosystem .. almost like they planned this, right?

Anyway my point is not that Sharepoint is some great thing.  In fact I see it as just sitting there waiting to get bumped off, the way Wordstar was bumped off by WordPerfect, and WordPerfect was bumped off by Word.  The point is, Sharepoint actually has a strategy and features are only one part of it.

Anyway, happy to talk to you about strategy.  Just be aware before you come by there’s a 2-question quiz: Where do you play? and How do you win?  If you don’t pass the quiz I may send you to this master for remedial training:

Bugs studies "stragety"

Another Opening, Another Show

March 22, 2015 Comments off

Enterprise Connect 2015

In my job as a Product Manager I find myself doing a lot more travel than when I was in engineering.  Been to three trade shows already this year, IBM’s ConnectED in January, Team Polycom in February, and just this past week, Enterprise Connect.  All three were in Orlando, FL.  If you don’t know it, in addition to being the promised land for lovers of all-things Disney, Orlando hosts 100s of conferences and trade-shows each year, ranging from the tech-oriented shows that I attend, to shows like Snaxpo, “The world’s largest, most comprehensive trade show devoted exclusively to the international snack food industry”, where you can attends sessions like : The State of Snacking: Finding an Identity in a Rapidly-Changing World; and shows like the International Fly Tackle Dealer Show, “the largest international gathering of fly fishing manufacturers, retailers, sales reps, media and fly fishing organizations in the world”.  I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine the result if only these two shows could join forces.

Back to Enterprise Connect.  This show is about unified communications in all its forms.  In the past the main topics at EC Shows have been the core technology – how do things work – and to some extent, interoperability – for example, how does video from company A talk to video from company B?  This year’s show had a distinct collaboration focus, however, with a strong emphasis on solutions that are easy to use, highly mobile, and lead to fast, straight-forward benefits.  Taking their cue from “over the top” applications like WhatsApp and #Slack, UC leaders Cisco and Unify introduced their Spark and Circuit offerings respectively – both being team-oriented chat, meeting and content-sharing apps, all with a social flavor.  So one of the big takeaways was, it’s not about ‘speeds and feeds” anymore, it’s about putting tools in the hands of users that they control and can use to get work done quickly and easily.  For my own product, IBM Sametime, this is a pretty timely message – hopefully we can bring together some of the concepts we’ve been brewing to not only equal these first-movers but to surpass them.

Of course one of the charms – such as they are – of trade shows is swag.  Tramping the exhibitor hall you will see stalwarts carrying show-bags loaded down with everything from pens to stress-balls to lightsabers.  But the best time to go swag hunting is  when the exhibitors’ hall closes down, because everyone want to pack up and ship back as little as possible.  Using this strategy my friend and colleague Karl scored some cool loot from Logitech, including a BCC950 Conference Cam:Karl and his swag

Tradeshow season is winding down, till things start up again in early Fall.  Hopefully by then I’ll have some product news of my own to pitch – assuming of course I can pass up that innovative snack foods-fly fishing tie in …

Winter Streaming

February 1, 2015 Comments off

Windows Media CenterWay back in ‘06 I setup a home DVR based on BeyondTV, a pretty nicely done Windows DVR app.  That was long, long ago, but frankly we had no reason to change, so we just kept on time-shifting by doing recordings through a tuner card and our ancient Comcast cable box.

But for all things there is a time and for the old DVR, that time has come.  I wanted to do streaming, and  I wanted to cut my costs with Comcast, so I set out to build a new rig to replace the old.  A few hours on trusty newegg.com  and I had the right list of components:

  • MSI A78M-E35 Motherboard
  • AMD A8-5500 Trinity Quad-Core 3.2GHz FM2 65W Desktop APU with DirectX 11 Graphics
  • SILVERSTONE Black Aluminum / Steel ML04B Micro ATX Media Center / HTPC Case
  • SILVERSTONE Strider Plus ST50F-P 500W ATX PS
  • Scythe SCSK-1100 100mm Shuriken Rev. B 3 Heat Pipes CPU Cooler
  • Rosewill RHRC-11002 Windows 7 Certified MCE IR Remote Controller
  • Seagate Hybrid Drive ST1000DX001 1TB MLC/8GB 64MB Cache SATA 6.0Gb/s
  • ASUS Black Blu-ray Drive SATA Model BC-12B1ST
  • SiliconDust HDHR3-CC HDHomeRun PRIME digital tuner

Neat things … first of all these AMD combined CPU/GPU chips seem cool to me, literally and figuratively.  No graphics card needed, the CPU has one built in.  With 65W power, the whole thing draws little power.  The Scythe Shuriken cooler is a low-profile unit, fits just right in the case and is extremely quiet.  The Seagate drive … 1 TB and close to SSD speeds, for $80; what’s not to like?

Case and power supply are from Silverstone.  I wanted to get a fairly small case to fit in my TV stand and the Silverstone fits that bill.  The inside setup is tight, though, so make sure you get a PS as small as the Strider.

The thing that makes it all work is the HDHomeRun PRIME from SiliconDust.  It was with some trepidation I took my 2 old Comcast cable boxes and headed for their service center.  Expecting an interrogation, instead in 5 mins and with no hassle I had traded in the boxes for a cable card, a way to get authenticated content from your cable provider.  Back at home, plugged the HDHomeRun onto my home network, plugged the cable card into the HDHomeRun and, after a few short calls to Comcast activation, voila!  I now have 3 – count ‘em, 3! – digital TV tuners on my network.

The DVR app is Windows Media Center, which is a “free” part of Win 7 Ultimate.  This of course is what put BeyondTV out of the personal DVR business.  Still doing the setup to WMC, like making our recording rules.  And while I can watch all our old shows in WMC, the UI for searching through them frankly sucks.  One thing that was built in to BeyondTV was compression and commercial-skips.  Now with WMC I need an add on like DVRMSToolbox.

Lastly, with this new box I finally have a Blu-ray player.  First disk to get: Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Collectors Edition.  DVRs: Like any other machine, either a benefit, or a hazard …

Categories: Technology

2014 in Technology

December 31, 2014 Comments off

tech-new-year

2014 is nearly gone and while the champagne is chilling (Champagne Aubry this year) I thought I’d look back on the year-that-was, tech-wise …

Edward Snowden

This story broke in 2013, but has only deepened in 2014 as new documents have been released.  We found that the NSA has active efforts in place to hack cell networks worldwide, can read a lot of SSL/TLS traffic, and most recently is able to listen in on any Skype call. President Obama proposed reforms for the NSA, that Snowden assessed as “incomplete”.

The discussion on amnesty for Snowden has already begun.  For my part I hope that happens in 2015.

Privacy & Security

One unsettling thing about the Snowden revelations is that we always knew, at some level, that the NSA was doing lots of stuff, but we chose to ignore it.  Movies like Enemy of the State and The Simpsons Movie showed NSA capabilities in futuristic and/or tongue in cheek ways, so the actual (and mostly unintended) warnings in these films were easy to dismiss.

In the private sphere we had no such excuses.  In August, nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence were published online, together with photos of 24 other celebrities.  Apparently this was accomplished with a simple brute force password attack, combined with an Apple “find my phone” bug.  Of course we faceless masses have some safety, in that the return – in money or in prestige – in attacking a single one of us is much less than the return in attacking a public figure.  But it is only a matter of time before peoples’ online bank accounts and other financial resources get targeted in a systematic way.

If you don’t know by now, your password is not secure.  It hardly matters how clever you are in devising multi-word mnemonics, tools like WordHound will crack it.  The main method I use for passwords I care about is the Schneier Scheme, by worldwide security alpha-dog Bruce Schneier.  Better still are 2-factor authentication systems, like RSA SecurID – if your online financial institution supports them, get it fast as you can.

Gamergate

While it may be that, on the internet no one knows you’re a dog, Gamergate showed us how many of these dog-indeterminate creatures are totally determinant jerks.  It all started with some painfully obvious observations about sexism in gaming – I mean we have sexism in politics, in entertainment, and in business, why not in gaming?  But, it turns out these sexist gamers have Reddit accounts and they’re not afraid to use them.  The backlash against women game developers and culture critics went beyond typical trollish/crude commentary to include threats of violence.  Amazingly there are those who contend this was a real debate about ethics in the gaming industry.

I feel this sad episode achieved resonance because it is the application of attack politics to an everyday thing.  Even if the US Supreme Court rules that violent threats on Facebook are are criminal offenses, I’m afraid that is just the start of the civility journey for 2015.

Satya Nadella & Microsoft Reborn

In February Microsoft got a new CEO when Satya Nadella replaced monkey-boy Steve Ballmer.  Since then Microsoft stock, long a moribund performer, has gone up about 26%, compared to increases of 15% and 9% for NASDAQ and the Dow, respectively.  How did this happen?

One factor is that Microsoft’s cloud business, started under Ballmer, is growing extremely fast, doubling in the past year to a total of $4.4B.  Next, despite rumors of selling the XBox business, that segment also did very well, selling double the number of units in fiscal 2014.  Finally the company made shrewd moves that unite the consumer and enterprise spaces, like offering a free version of Office for tablets, and announcing Skype for Business which unites the enterprise Lync business with the consumer-oriented Skype business.

Unifying all this is a vision Nadella articulated in a memo to employees:

At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.

Nadella talks a lot about the “dual user”, someone who uses technology for work but also for their personal life.  A simple observation, but a powerful one.  There is probably no company better positioned than Microsoft to surf this wave.

Apple & iPhone 6

Apple’s market-cap hit $700B in November, making it far and away the most valuable company in the world.  Despite the doom and gloom of Tim Cook’s early days as CEO, today there is little doubt CEO Cook is a worthy and effective successor to Steve Jobs.  The iPhone 6 launch in September was a huge success, with Apple selling over 10 million units of the new models in the first 3 days of availability.  Cook has also diversified the product line with items like the iPad Mini and iPhone 5c, cheaper ways for customers to get into the Apple fold.

On the strategy front, Cook has spent some long-hoarded cash on acquisitions, like Beats Music & Electronics, and mobile podcast streaming app Swell.  In fact since acquiring the Cue personal productivity app in Oct. 2013, Apple has acquired 13 companies, all over the tech and consumer space.  In a ground breaking move, Cook closed a deal with China Mobile to sell the iPhone in the biggest market in the world.  Finally on the enterprise front, Apple created a partnership with IBM to bring a full spectrum of “made for business” apps to the #1 consumer platform in the world.

All is not perfect in the Apple universe.  Reports persist of supply-chain partners exploiting workers.  The long-anticipated Apple Watch is not a runaway hitApple Pay is a solution in search of a problem.  And, the company does not have the advantages of a content-based part of its business like a Facebook or a Microsoft; Apple is a platform where you access non-Apple content.

Lots of people have bet against Apple and lost.  I expect those people will still be losing in 2015.

Energy

Energy prices dropped like crazy in 2014.  Oil is $59 a barrel, down from the $100 price that persisted since around 2010, and well down from the $140 peak price in 2008.  The cost of solar is plummeting even faster, with the cost of panels now less than the average cost of retail electricity.  Here at the Salazar household we are in the midst of putting in a 7.85 kW system that on many days, I expect, will completely cover our power needs.

This energy glut is certainly an old-fashioned economic shot in the arm, but more importantly I think it will catalyze massive innovation in storage, monitoring and optimization.  Bill Gates is investing in liquid metal battery technology, that enables storage of power close to the consumers, new SaaS solutions are emerging that allow building operators to optimize energy use, while the internet of things – broadly-realized telemetry of any device – will enable energy management of just about anything.

This is economically counter-intuitive – usually when the price of something drops the incentive to manage and conserve that thing also drops.  I think everyone is acting on future expectations that energy prices, and the costs of “externalities” like pollution and global warming, will all go up.

Uber, the “sharing economy” & Big Data

Transportation-booking app Uber seemed to live by the rule that any publicity is good publicity.   Some of the items in the Uber-feed: An Uber exec threatened to “dox” a journalist who wrote a negative article; Uber drivers across the globe have been implicated in rapes; taxi drivers worldwide have protested against it; and, the company is reputed to have booked thousands of fake rides on rival service Lyft.  Yet, the valuation of the company is an astonishing $40B – for a company with assets that are almost entirely intangible, that is extra-amazing.  I guess that is good publicity, people figure this app must be worth using, since they company does at least $10M per week revenue in just its top 5 USA cities.

Uber, like room-renting service AirBNB, came up on the notion of the “sharing economy” – a business model where through coordination services that enable anyone to be a service provider, we all benefit.  I have an extra room, why shouldn’t I rent it?  I have time (goodness knows how) to give people rides, why shouldn’t I get paid for it?  What makes this possible is born on the web big-data technologies like MongoDB, Python, Node.js and others – with these, any team of 5-6 reasonably talented developers can build a perfectly good Uber.  Now, Uber has 550 employees.  My guess is the vast majority are customer service or other logistics roles.  There are probably no more than 50 people in all engineering and technical operations for the company – 50 engineers for a $40B company.

I believe (and hope) that these disproportionate valuations and expectations will level out in 2015.  Uber is a good idea.  However this year I used similar services in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing that were every bit as nice, and got me rides in accredited taxis, not with a “sharer” of unknown skills and motivations.

 

Silicon Valley – Let’s Not Go There, It Is A Silly Place

Uber is an example of 21st century Silicon Valley, where there’s an app for everything and business models rule. “Disruption” is the must-have word in every pitch – if you are not disrupting something, why bother? I think it is hard to see something like Uber as anything but exploitative – the “disruption” doesn’t create anything new, it just shifts it from the current owners to the disrupters.  But isn’t this innovation the engine that drives our economy and makes our lives better?

No, it makes the VC’s lives better, as Andrew Leonard writing in Salon points out.  A key paragraph:

The reality of our current situation is that the rich are getting richer while the rest of us flounder. Some of the “sharing” economy companies that Andreessen invests in offer a perfect demonstration of this thesis. The founders and investors in Airbnb and Lyft stand to become millionaires while the consumers of these services stretch their dollars by giving each other rides or renting out their spare rooms. That’s a business mode that not only perpetuates growing inequality but actually profits from the desperation of people having a harder and harder time making ends meet.

Ok, they are in business and the need/urge to make a buck is understandable.  But some of these guys are just plain wacky.  Look at Bitcoin.  Tons of Silicon Valley insiders are buying in to the “cryptocurrency”, apparently unaware that logically speaking Bitcoin as a currency is worse even than gold.

The real thing about Bitcoin and why the Valley-types love it is the Libertarian connection.  As a synthetic currency Bitcoin is not tied to any government or physical place.  This is exactly what you need if you plan to move yourself to a government-less Libertarian artificial island.

Finally, I came across a great article in the latest issue of Harpers: Come With Us If You Want To Live (Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley), by Sam Frank. (paywall link).  I can’t give you the whole thing, suffice to say if you read it you will come across vegans and Crossfit-ers arguing about hedons vs. utilons, debating the pros & cons of DAOs (distributed autonomous organizations) and still others doing Bayesian optimizations of their personal thought processes.  One such visionary informs us about the imminent cataclysms faced by our society:

“There are all of these different countdowns going on … There’s the countdown to the broad postmodern memeplex undermining our civilization and causing everything to break down, there’s the countdown to the broad modernist memeplex destroying our environment or killing everyone in a nuclear war, and there’s the countdown to the modernist civilization learning to critique itself fully and creating an artificial intelligence it can’t control.  There are so many different … ways in which the self-modifying intelligent processes that we are embedded in undermine themselves.”

Note to self: Great idea for an app, “MemeplexID”, a single photo taken by cell-phone identifies for you which destructive memeplex you are confronted with.

And that’s it.

All I can think of right now about 2014.  Soon will be moot anyway, as 2015 will soon be here with its own new memes, streams and themes.  Here’s hoping they all play nice, in the real world as well as in the memeplex.  Peace.

Categories: Technology

What Lies Beneath

November 2, 2014 Comments off

Polished nihonto

Beneath, what, you might ask?  In this case it is metal, made dull and uncommunicative through time and poor handling.

Collecting and appreciating Japanese swords (nihonto) is a hobby of mine, though more of an aspiration-hobby than one I consistently pursue.  More than two years ago I posted on a sword I had bought on eBay, where I described getting the sword fitted with new koshirae – scabbard, hilts, etc.

Now, I had this work done because I had liked this sword.  It seemed “healthy” – with a lot of original metal, few nicks or other damage – and I liked the feel of it.  The next step in bringing this sword back to what it was like when first made would be to have it “polished”.  Now, “polishing” sounds like a jeweler’s term and in fact many unknowing people attempt to improve Japanese swords using buffing wheels and jeweler’s rouge.  This is in fact one of the worst possible things that can be done to a sword.

The proper thing is to take the sword to a togishi, a traditional sword polisher.  The sense of what a togishi actually does I would say is closer to “sharpener” or “shaper” than polisher.  Many people know that Japanese swords are constructed using folded steel, similar in some ways to Damascus steel, but refined and molded by the needs and conventions of Japanese warfare – for example Damascus swords do not have the differentially tempered edge of a nihonto.  But in additional to the raw construction, a Japanese sword gets its famous cutting ability from its cross-section.  The sides of the blade are convex, not concave like a hollow-ground Western knife.  This makes the sword stronger in battle, it can receive the strike of another blade with much less chance of severe damage.  And when cutting, the bowed sides force aside the material being cut; without this the sword would get, well, stuck in its target.  To get this shape, and the proper edge, you need a togishi, who will work by hand using stones of varying fineness to remove metal, shape the blade, and create the edge.

It has of course been 100s of years since these swords were used primarily for battle.  But even in ancient times the utilitarian aspect of the togishi’s work was complemented by an aesthetic one.  A side-effect of this work is that the grain of the metal – the hada – and the extent of the temper line – the hamon – become visible and throughout history warriors and connoisseurs both have had appreciation of a properly polished weapon.

My sword was much in need of this treatment.  Whoever had it before me clearly had used mechanical tools to buff the steel to matte finish.  It looked like a sword, but any details of temper line or grain were almost entirely obscured.  I oftentimes would stare it, trying to angle the light in different ways, searching for a temper line.  This sword has a signature on the tang and my amateur’s judgment was it was made in the late 19th century, but it could well have been a 20th century sword, many 1000s of which were made by hand in WW2, though using inferior steel and methods.  Such swords are generally much less interesting than those from earlier eras.  The only way to find out what was really there was to enlist a togishi and ask their help.

Nowadays on the web it is easy to find lots of people advertising this service.  Anyone thinking of having a sword worked on should be aware there are many weak practitioners out there, and also some out and out dishonest ones.  The togishi I quickly settled upon was David Hofhine (http://www.swordpolisher.com/, https://www.facebook.com/swordpolish).  His website had impressive examples of his work and when I inquired via email about my sword he gave very knowledgeable and thoughtful responses.  Be prepared, if you have a sword to be worked on, the waiting time will be long, two years or more.  Beware the togishi who says he can take your sword right away!  In all likelihood it means they are not very good, or are using artificial methods to quickly treat swords.

Enough of the background.  I got on David’s list in 2012 and when I returned from India in 2014 my turn had come.  When I sent the sword in July and David received it, he was skeptical, thinking there was in fact a chance the sword was a low-quality 20th century blade.  He offered to do an “exploration” – meaning he would work on some small part of the blade to see what was there.  This was an example of David’s professionalism, which I much appreciate – polishing a sword is not cheap and David wanted to give me a chance to see if that investment would be worth it.

The exploration returned good news – this was a “real” folded blade with grain and temper line.  I asked David to do a “foundation polish”, roughly comparable to what a working samurai would have done to his sword.  A further step, at additional cost, is a “finish polish”, but that is really only appropriate for more valuable swords, or swords where there’s expectation of special aesthetic features.

The result in you can see in the headline photo and in the shots below:

Nihonto showing hamon and hada; uraNihonto showing hamon and hada; omote

The temper line I would say is suguha – straight – while the grain is harder to classify, at least for me; itame (wood grain) would be my guess.

For now the terminology is beside the point.  Just having this artifact, in the condition much like it was in when first made, is very satisfying for me.

What is next for the sword?  I can only say: tameshigiri or no tameshigiri, that is the question …

Categories: Swords

When Words Mattered

September 28, 2014 Comments off

Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbook

Past few weeks I’ve been posting various quotes on Facebook.  Here’s the story on the source of these bits of ephemera.

Two weeks ago Kim and I took a ride out to Shelburne, Mass.  Purpose of this trip was to get some grass-fed beef from Wheel-View Farm, a great place where John and Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle just on grass, free from antibiotics, corn or hormones.  It is just beef that tastes great and is great for you.

On the way back we passed an antiques store – can’t recall if it was in Turner’s Falls or Miller’s Falls, but around there.  New Englanders will instantly be familiar with this kind of place: aisles and aisles and shelves and shelves of old junk, from keys to tableware to brushes and razors to aged toys to old signs and more.  We were in no hurry to get back and you never know what you will find, so we stopped and browsed around.

The was a section of old books and out of the yellowed issues of Life and Time the title shown here to the left instantly leapt out at me: Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook.  I snatched it up and without even opening it made my way to the checkout, where I parted with all of $4.50.

I know Hubbard, at least a bit.  He was one of the great progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a printer and businessman, and founder of Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts movement that lives on to this day in East Aurora, NY, not far from my own hometown.  (He is also the uncle (adopted) of L Ron Hubbard of Scientology and Battlefield Earth fame.)  On Hubbard’s wikiPedia page you’ll find he was a socialist and anarchist, but his was a uniquely American version of those ideologies, melding a deep reverence for personal responsibility and productivity with a desire for social justice.  If Hubbard is known for anything today it is for the essay, Message to Garcia.  The message in this story of initiative, self-reliance and devotion to duty has made this work required reading in US military academies for decades; not many socialists nor anarchists are so revered.

The scrapbook is not Hubbard’s own writing, but writings of others that he prized.  In it you will find quotes from over 500 authors: Twain, Wordsworth, Solon, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Savonarola, Blake, Bronte, Buddha, Charles Darwin, Eugene Debs, Cato, and Cicero, just to name a few pulled at random from the index.

Isn’t this amazing?  I consider myself a well-read person, and having access to the information resources of the modern age, I should easily excel someone like Hubbard – who, as Mr. Spock remarked lived in a “stone knives and beaksins” culture – in exposure to great thoughts.  Yet it is not so.  My own scrapbook would be a thin volume indeed, compared to Hubbard’s.

We can debate the reasons for this, but it hardly matters.  To skim through the Scrapbook is to quickly see how the progressive movement was born in words, wed to action, much as the independence of America was born in the works of thinkers like John Locke and later John Stuart Mill.

I suppose people today would find much of the Scrapbook maudlin, or naïve.  In my sampling of it I have found to be energizing and optimistic.  I’ll leave you with this quote:

EVIL is unnatural – goodness is the natural state of man.  Earth has no hopeless islands or continents.  We live in a redemptive world.  Poverty will end; sin will die; love will triumph and hope will plant flowers on every grave.
David Swing

I imagine this was Hubbard’s belief as well – provided of course enough men and women are willing to take the message to Garcia …

roycroft-stamp

Categories: Books