Archive for the ‘muse’ Category

Shhhh… Do You have Secrets?

January 3, 2014

I have been asked recently, “Brian, how do I dodge the NSA?” Hahahahaha – you can’t – not really… But, I don’t want to distress my good friend or alienate him, either. My reply was, “They can break your security if they want to badly enough. The best you can do is 1) make it just a little challenging to keep honest people honest, and 2) don’t hide everything, or you will attract the NSA’s attention.”

I read /. now and then http://slashdot.com for those who may not know. They have a lot of “chatter” about “techie stuff” that I enjoy reading when I have a few minutes of spare time. I recalled a few articles I read on /. some time ago, when my friend pressed me about the NSA:

The US Government considered closing about 1200 data centers (40% of their centers) in 2012.  Did you know that the US government had more than 3000 data centers? Google for Federal Data Center Consolidation initiative or FDCCI.

What I recalled more vividly is from a 2009 /. article – an announcement that the NSA was building a $1.5B data center in Utah. I can’t find the /. link to this article, but Googling brought this other link up for me:

http://fcw.com/Articles/2009/10/27/Web-NSA-data-center-cybersecurity.aspx

I recall thinking in 2009 that the NSA was going to store enormous numbers of e-mails and phone records for the entire country – perhaps for  much of the world. Why else would the NSA need that much data center floorspace? There was not a word of this on CNN at the time. Today, of course, with the Snowden disclosures, this “kind of thing” is all over the news.

Not too many people are good at critical thinking (you all need to get better!). Most people don’t connect the dots very well (you all need to get better!). And with regard to this particular data center, there is still “silence” in the mass media. At the time, I was wondering how much power the data center would draw from the local electric utility? How many BTU’s to cool the center? How many hard disk drives? How many bytes of storage? How long was the data retention planned for (15 years was my guess)? That is what an engineer wonders when they hear about this kind of place. The article about this data center maintained that only 10% of the floorspace would be dedicated to data storage, though I wager it is far more than that. Also, the article states that the center is 1 million sq ft, but I seem to recall that the center was a bit larger at 1.2 million sq ft. Where did I read that?

How many HDs in the Utah data center?  Well, let’s do some math…  An 11 ft rack typically holds about 100 drives, and it requires about 12 sq ft of floor if you want front and rear access.  Let’s assume that 75% of the 1.2M sq ft of floor are covered with storage racks – that’s 75,000 racks of drives or 7.5 million HDs, each storing two terabytes average – some more and many less…  that’s 15 exabytes (10e18) or so of storage.

How much power consumption? Assume a drive consumes 5 watts.  That’s 37.5 MW of power just for the HDs. Whew – that’s a lot of power… And you need a lot of network equipment to get the data in and out and to perform searches.

How many BTU? About 130 million BTU to compensate for the drives, 40 million BTU to cool the network equipment, and 70 million BTU to cool the volume of air to a cool ambient temperature assuming 16 ft ceilings… That’s a lot of air conditioning – 240 million BTUs! As a point of reference, that’s about 10 times the rule of thumb BTUs per sq ft for a typical home.

Eliminate rear access, stuff the racks, and I bet you could double the number of drives in the center.

Is my math correct? I may be making a few mental calculation errors, so feel free to check my numbers!

Do you recall the hard drive shortage in 2011? The floods in Thailand shut down hard drive production – so we were told. I wonder if that shortage wasn’t really do to a single, very, very large order… Well, I’ll never know, but I have to wonder…

So, back to my friend’s query.

Oh, before I forget, almost ten years ago, I recall a Project Trailblazer with SAIC (and I find now with a Google search, Booze Allen). The mission was to analyze all Internet traffic in the US. As I recall, it failed (though, I bet it succeeded to some degree, after all…). Oh, and before that, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that required backdoor access for all public telephone networks. And before that, the predecessor act of 1984, too, required access for Government purposes.

My point is that none of this is really secret from a high level point of view. If you can read, you can learn what’s going on around you (you all need to GET READING!). There seems to be a surprising amount of transparency.

OK, now to my friend’s query. I asked, “What are you trying to hide?” “Porn,” he said. I remember laughing long and hard (no pun intended). “OK – just encrypt an external drive with TruCrypt or MacOSX Core Storage encryption services, and put your porn there. Choose a relatively strong encryption method like AES128…” That’s useful enough to keep the data private from a criminal or your partner or parents or children. But I wager that the NSA can readily decrypt that drive if they really want to.

My friend wants to encrypt his e-mail, too (I am wondering what my friend really does after midnight…). “Get a security certificate from PGP or Verisign (now Symantec?) or Thwate and use it for those e-mails.” Some ISP’s provide encrypted e-mail service for a price where your e-mail transits your ISP encrypted just like a browser HTTPS transaction does.

The cellphone – my friend wants to encrypt his calls. Well, you can’t do that very easily. You can purchase an encrypted handset – an encryption feature is part of the GSM technical standard for our cellphone networks. The government is the primary user of encrypted phone services, but ordinary callers do not have ready access to encrypted cellphones as far as I know. I don’t know where you can get an encrypted cellphone, but I bet you can find one if you look hard enough. And to be honest, I don’t know if AT&T would let an encrypted phone operated by an ordinary customer work on their network – I bet not. Forget the cellphone.

You have to work hard to protect your privacy, but you can do it to a small degree. Use Private Browsing features, turn off your cellphone’s GPS until you need it (and then turn it off, again). If you use Google, don’t search while you are logged in to your G-mail account. There are all kinds of precautions to take to limit your exposure on the Internet. There are anonymizing http proxy servers on the Internet, though frankly, you still leave footprints, and the proxy server owners still maintain logs – and how much do you really trust these proxy services? Do you know those people who own and operate them? No?

I wager that the NSA can break ciphers on demand easily enough to defeat most anything you can do. The NSA clearly is capable of network interception, deep packet inspection, packet insertion and masquerading techniques if you believe the Snowden disclosures. My advise to my friend – just don’t attract the attention of the NSA in the first place (or of the CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency or the Russians or the Chinese, etc.). They’ll notice if you are heavily encrypting your net services or taking steps to hide your activities, and then they will wonder what you are up to!

Do you have secrets? I think it is better to assume that they are not secret after all. Because they aren’t, really. And to my friend, I don’t think the NSA is interested that you have porn from the Internet…

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Hey Tim, Innovate This!

December 26, 2013

This is an open letter to Tim Cook at Apple.

Dear Tim,

Is the BOD challenging you to innovate more and put more distance between Apple and your competitors? Here is the top item of my “Wish List”:

Integrate every aspect of user context into operating system services.

For example, innovate this (please) for my iPhone:

Don’t bug me when I am busy in an important meeting!

Scenario – I am in a meeting, and that meeting appears on my iCal calendar. I don’t want my iPhone to ring unless a) the caller is on my VIP list, or b) the caller is on the meeting invitation list. I think that would be simple to do. … or c) don’t bug me unless the caller is a higher priority than my meeting (a little more difficult).  Do the same for Messenger notifications and perhaps e-mail notifications, too.

This third consideration requires me to prioritize meetings and also prioritize people with more granularity than “VIP” or “Not VIP”.

And another nuance to consider – don’t silence my calls when I am traveling at the airport or at some other location where I don’t mind the call. I put travel and personal business on my calendar – perhaps every event needs an election to manage notifications contextually or don’t… Perhaps we need a sense of a) public place context and b) private place context.

Another example from my wish list:

Direct the user interface to the best device at hand! And follow me as I move about…

Scenario – I am watching a YouTube video on my iPhone. When I step into my media room, the YouTube video is automatically directed to my AppleTV. When I leave the media room, the YouTube video is directed back to my iPhone. When I step into my office, the YouTube video is automatically directed to my iPad Air.

This is a toughie – tougher still, what if I don’t start watching that YouTube video on my iPhone and start the video on my desktop Mac? This requires a whole new generation of display devices that are bonjour-equipped, and/or wi-fi equipped and/or blue-tooth equipped so that display devices advertise their capabilities and location to my various computing devices.

Perhaps there is a new device concept lurking, here. I had a dream that I carried a futuristic iPhone in my pocket. It was mostly battery – very small and dense, and it did not have a display. Whenever I moved to a different environment, my iPhone would always utilize the best nearby display device and always have access to my many TB of local storage on my desktop, and to my iCloud storage, too. My futuristic iPhone would automatically use the best devices for audio I/O, video I/O, gesture interaction and text entry that were in my immediate environment. Wherever I was, my future iPhone was working in the background to optimize my user experience by making use of the variety of devices that fill my environment at work, at home, in the car, and at friends’ offices and homes, too. In this sense, my future iPhone’s phone function had faded way into the background, and it really became an intelligent user interface gateway.

I want my Apple devices to incorporate user context into their services, Tim. I know that’s a tall order. I really understand how difficult this is. I think that only Apple can pull it off!

By the way, I am really pleased with my new iPad Air! Tim, this is a terrific Apple product that meets every expectation of mine and even exceeds a few!

Odds and Ends Monday

November 21, 2013

A Few Days Late…

Since September, it seems that I have been spending more hours a week in the air than I have spent on the ground working. This is a real drag on my lifestyle and relationships. I’m not a party animal type, but I do enjoy putting a movie on my 10 ft. screen, cranking up the volume just a bit, and sipping on a glass of decent Cabernet now and then – or spending a long lunch with a good friend and catching up on their going-ons. Instead, I pull up a cheap armchair in a hotel room somewhere more often than not for the news on an HD TV before turning off the lights. It’s not really so bad, I suppose. Heck, I don’t have HD TV at home – I need one for Christmas!

So, to the tid-bits:

My research on wireless security initiatives is progressing – I have a solid use-case set for airport communications along with a comparison of the various technologies that are applied on the airport surface. The AeroMACS WiMAX profile proves a winner compared to any other wireless technology being considered by the civil aviation industry today. The only significant shortcoming for WiMAX is the susceptibility to interference in the assigned frequency spectrum. A jamming signal in the same spectrum looks a lot like a very effective denial of service attack. I think this particular threat makes a good topic to focus on.

I am reading a fascinating book by Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia. This is an historical account of T.E. Lawrence’s time in the Middle East during the First World War. Lawrence’s battlefield is familiar to me after my years in Saudi Arabia. Aqaba, Wadj (Wejh), Yenbu, Rabegh, Jeddah, Tabuk, Medina, and so many more. These cities on and near the Red Sea were all familiar to me in the 1980’s. There was something wonderful about the expanse of the desert and the variety of the landscape that I really found beautiful and absorbing. The people were hospitable, and some were anxious to meet me and talk over tea in the suqs (the markets). Most people I came to know on the Red Sea coast had no significant knowledge of their history. In Tabuk, there was a very old locomotive from the Hejaz railway from the World War that was sitting in a few pieces on its side rusting away in the sand. I convinced the Mayor and the local cleric at the principle Mosque to right and reassemble the locomotive and erect a plaque to tell the story. I was happy to have paid for the plaque. I wonder if the locomotive and my plaque are still in that Tabuk city park today.

Lawrence in Arabia is captivating, and it tells the story of Lawrence’s exploits so superbly that I can almost imagine my way back in time. Anderson is a sharp scholar with a keen wit who presents the historical context masterfully. Read this book!

My quarterly excursion to Rice University in Houston over the weekend allowed me some quality time with old friends. David and I recounted a few “sordid” stories of our college days. Marta and I automatically engaged in a very European kiss cheek to cheek three times for luck. Greg and Lissa filled the empty seats at our table for brunch, Davy swooped in at the last moment, and we all thoroughly enjoyed a few casual hours walking the campus after so many years away. The campus is still a comfortable place for me to stroll about in.  Ten hours driving and one night In Houston was quality decompression time after so many trips to Europe – and to DC, Montreal, DC, Cleveland, DC, Phoenix, DC, DC, DC, DC…

Speaking of Cleveland, that City is turning around a bit. There are nice renovations in the entertainment district on the lake, and there are new affluent developments and a wonderful nature park near the airport. The city is “abuzz” about it’s music scene, and the people of Cleveland are optimistic about their future.

A rant – air travel is horrible and getting progressively worse. The airlines cast new equipment and changes in procedures as improvements. Well, new and different don’t often translate into better as far as I am concerned. I have flown in new American Airlines Airbus 319’s several times in the past few weeks. These planes are a bit noisier than Boeing equipment, and the seats are more compact. Width aside, every other seat dimension is 3-4 cm (about 1-½ inches) too small. The armrest is particularly uncomfortable for me as it is too short for my elbow to find a resting place anywhere except for directly on the seat marker that has sharp edges sticking up above the surface at the end of the armrest, and it is too low causing me to lean sharply to one side or the other. Lumbar support as far as it goes is in the wrong place, the headrest is at my shoulders, and the upright incline is set too vertical at about 8 degrees instead of a more comfortable 12 or 15. These seats are designed for children! The power and entertainment system hardware is on the floor to one side of the seat bracket, and it is a huge assembly that takes away precious room under the seat with sharp edges that really aggravate my ankles. There is no storage place at the seat for a magazine or newspaper or tablet or laptop making a drink or food incompatible with anything work or entertainment-related – worse than before, if you can imagine… The entertainment system has an awkward user interface that requires a terrific number of selections to find – to fine what? There is no content available without making a purchase. What was airbus thinking? What was American Airlines thinking? The surface looks good, but it is simply bad design when you peel back the vernier… If you spend 40 hours a week in the air, you will quickly notice these elements, and you will grimace.

Last night’s Rice Alumni event was quite interesting. What lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Well, we heard all about it in the Texas Theatre where Oswald was apprehended. What a neat venue for this event! The missile crisis was bluster and bluff by Niki, and plugging the military-industrial complex by Jack. When backed into a corner, Niki pushed missiles into Cuba to retaliate for US missile installations in Turkey that the president may not even have known about, and we had a real stand-off. “Want a war?” Khrushchev  asked, and Kennedy said, “No, but there are a few terms and conditions in that contract…” Cooler heads prevailed, and it was a good thing they did.

I am finally home for awhile. Good!

A “Who Dun-It” Murder Mystery for You

November 10, 2013

I like a mystery, don’t you? The 2012 trial of Scott Peterson for the murder of his wife and unborn child, and most recently the trial of Martin MacNeill for the murder of his wife both hinged completely on circumstantial evidence. Inconclusive Coroner findings, no witnesses, hypothesis after hypothesis, emotional testimony of loved ones all led to guilty verdicts in both cases. Who really did the murders? I was swayed by the depth of circumstantial evidence in the Peterson case, but I am not so convinced in the McNeill trial. At the end of the day, only Peterson and MacNeill know what they each did.

Let me take you on a journey back in time to 1972 – actually, let’s go a bit further back to August 1968 when I joined the Boy Scouts Troop 800. I recall walking into my first troop meeting at the church, and just before I opened the door, an older boy jostled me with a smile and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Macon Hill. I’m one of the Patrol Leaders. What’s your name?” I was shy as a kid, but Macon was naturally friendly, and I was glad that the first scout I met was Macon. I liked him – he was lanky and a bit athletic looking with  brown hair that had a slight wave in front, and he smiled easily when he spoke. “Go inside and find a seat. I have to get this meeting started in a few minutes!” Macon earned the rank of Eagle Scout – I remember his Court of Honor. He had ‘the right stuff” – a leader in the troop who I looked up to. He had “grit”, but he didn’t have guile or malice. I enjoyed Macon’s company in the troop.  He was a few years older, so we were never close friends, but I liked Macon.

Here is a grainy picture of Gordon Macon Hill. I didn’t know that his first name was Gordon until I googled him. He looks older than I remember – maybe this is from 1974:

Gordon Macon Hill

Or, maybe this photo is from a St. Marks School yearbook. There are several sources on-line for reprints of school yearbooks. You can purchase one at Amazon.com to see what everyone even remotely associated with the murder looked like back then:

(Reprint) 1971 Yearbook: St. Mark’s School of Texas, Dallas, Texas

In 1972, I learned from a family friend that Macon was in terrible legal trouble. He had been arrested for murder. Here is the story that Macon related to me:

In February (1972), he and several friends from St. Marks went to a party where alcohol was served (all were under age). After the party, he and Bobby went to another friend’s house to “crash” for the rest of the night. Around noon the next day, Bobby Sammons was found shot to death in the shower. The Police were called. He didn’t remember anything clearly from the night before. He didn’t kill Sammons, and he had no idea who did.

Here is a synopsis from the appeal trial records in 1974:

The last time the deceased, Bobby Fred Sammons, Jr., was seen alive by any of the witnesses other than appellant was when he left his home with the appellant at approximately 12:30 a.m., February 20, 1972, to spend the night at the home of Milburn “Mibbs” Matthews. The body was found in a shower in the Matthews’ residence around noon. Sammons had been killed by three shots from a .22 caliber pistol which was found in the appellant’s car.

Macon was arrested for the murder and convicted in Collin County Court (I believe) in May, 1972. Macon’s conviction was appealed, and the conviction was upheld on January 9, 1974. Here is judge Douglas’ formal Opinion for the appeal:

HILL v STATE | Leagle.com

Macon consistently maintained his innocence. He told me that he was honest with his police interviews, and that he had not lied or mislead in his testimony. He did not know who the murderer was, and he had no reason to suspect who the murderer was with any certainty, so he did not even speculate.

On March 25th, 1974, Macon was found hanged in his jail cell at the Collin County jail in McKinney, Texas. You can read the Associated Press account of the apparent suicide here:

Brownwood Bulletin, Tuesday, March 26, 1974, Page 3

Macon was buried in Dallas:

Gordon Macon Hill (1954 – 1974) – Find A Grave Memorial

And not to forget the victim Bobby Sammons:

Bobby Fred Sammons, Jr (1955 – 1972) – Find A Grave Memorial

That’s Macon’s tragic story.  But there is more to the story – there always is… Before I get to that, I have to say that I am surprised about just how much information I was able to “google” in just a few minutes for somewhat insignificant events that happened more than 40 years ago. A small town murder is just a blip on the timeline of the world. Look what I could find with one query! What I can not find is the trial transcript from his 1972 conviction – I want to read that. And I can not find the record of Macon’s Eagle Scout award.

Why my interest? Well, Macon’s conviction was based solely on circumstantial evidence, and the recent high profile murder convictions of Peterson and MacNeill were also based solely upon circumstantial evidence. I am always surprised when a murder prosecution is successful  without a witness. But what really prompted me to spend a few minutes to surf the web and write this post was a dream I had one night a few months ago where I could hear Macon’s young voice say, “Brian, I didn’t kill Sammons. Will you find out who did?” I am certain that my subconscious is “connecting the dots” while I am sleeping, but until a few months ago, I had not thought of Macon since his death when I was in my early teens.

There is always more to the story – like I was saying… Here are the few tidbits I can recall:

The murder happened after a drunken night with “the boys”. Were these just drunk kids playing with a loaded gun? I don’t think so. Macon knew about gun safety. His family owned a ranch in the Palestine area of Texas, if I recall. I learned to shoot a gun  with some instruction from Macon and his father during a scout campout at Hill ranch one weekend.

There were rumors that a member of the jury had been approached by someone and encouraged to render a guilty decision. Just unfounded rumors at the end of the day.

While waiting for his appeal, Macon was free on a bond. He spent some time living with a teacher of his from St. Marks and his family who were also friends of our family. Macon received death threats over the phone while he was waiting for his appeal – one reason he was living with this teacher and his family. He had a car accident where it was suspected that his breaks had been tampered with. His teacher was convinced that someone was trying to kill Macon before he could testify at his trial.

Macon was gay. He never told me so, but I knew. He hung out with a few boys at St. Marks who a few I suspected were gay, too. Even at the age of 13 or 14, I could figure that out. His teacher confirmed my suspicion. We wondered if that somehow figured into the motive of Sammon’s killer. Was there an adolescent gay encounter with an unwilling or regretful partner? Or a jealous lover spurned who committed suicide? …or who committed murder? Who knows what event lead up to the murder. I believe the “jealous lover spurned” did it – whoever he was.

Macon’s suicide in the Collin County Jail was a mystery. Where did the belt come from? A number of people my parents knew suspected that the Collin County Jail guards did a few of their own executions of inmates that got off “too easy”. I frankly find that really hard to believe, and I think I dismiss that outright. Who really knows what happened.

It costs a small fortune to send a child to St. Marks School for Boys in Dallas – even forty years ago. St. Marks was an exclusive school with children from wealthy and powerful families in the Dallas area. Would a prominent family try to shield their child from the scandal of this kind of tragedy by influencing events during a trial? Try to kill the suspect who knew too much about the personal life of their reckless son? Bribe the jailers to take matters into their own hands? Again, who really knows…

I am sure that Macon was innocent.  So, if Macon didn’t kill Bobby Sammons, then “who dun-it”? I’ll dig a little further when I have some time!

My Many Communities Make my Head Spin!

October 19, 2013

The past several years have seen significant changes in my somewhat introverted demeanor. I find myself overwhelmed today by the many communities that I participate in. Here’s a taste of my “circle of social circles”:

I have a “significant other”, and my “other’s” friends – we’ll call that two circles (one especially significant).

For one of my clients, I coach a local product team and a Japanese product team – two circles. Associated with this client, I work in the WiMAX Forum’s Aviation Working Group, the RTCA’s Special Committee 223, EuroCAE’s Working Group 82 and ICAO’s ACP Working Group S – four circles. Google these if you want to know what they are!

I am the chairman of the WiMAX Forum Aviation Working Group. We have a protocol team and a certification team that I direct. We have a team devoted to FCC and FAA interaction that I oversee. We have a planning team for an annual Aviation Conference  in which I am a key contributor. Four more circles.

I belong to the IEEE, a global professional organization for engineers, and I participate in the local chapter, in the IEEE’s communications society, computing society and security society. Four more circles…

I belong to the System Dynamics Society – another circle.

I am the chapter president of my university’s engineering alumni association. We have a steering committee. We have an events team, and each event we hold has a “champion”. We have a communications team with champions for internal and external communications. That’s three circles. Because of my role in the local alumni association, I serve on the alumni association board of directors – add another circle. And I still participate in the local alumni association with no regard for department affiliation – add yet another circle for a total of five.

I am the President of my HOA. I have been doing this for about a decade. We have a Board of Directors, a crime watch team, a landscaping team, a perimeter wall maintenance team, and a newsletter team. Each team has a “champion” and periodic meetings that I participate in. That’s five circles… Because of my role in the HOA, I work closely with my City Council – add one more circle for a total of six.

I have circles of friends. College friends, Rockwell / Alcatel friends, ham radio friends, neighbor friends, “friend” friends who I have met along the way. I have lots of long-standing friends. Let’s call that four circles. I have a LinkedIn community and a Facebook community – two more circles, and the FaceBook community is really a circle of circles, but I’ll count Facebook as only one circle…

I look around me, and I notice that most people my age have a seemingly small handful of social circles. Mature adults are focused on jobs, family, and perhaps church – maybe a dozen communities at the most. I believe that the older you are, the harder it is to split your social focus, and the more reluctant you are to spread yourself too thin. By contrast, people coming out of college today typically have dozens and dozens of social circles and communities that they participate in.

I have to be frank, I find the large number of communities that I participate in frustrating. I like continuity, and I like intensity in my relationships. I like to know “the story” of every person I know, and I want to have credibility and integrity with every person I know – that takes time – a lot of time, and I have precious little time today. I have had weeks when I  traveled for more than 40 hours not counting sleep or work time – just the travel time. Time is a precious commodity, and it is sucked up in gulps by each community to which I belong.

I wonder how “solid” the communities of a twenty-something are. Are younger peoples’ relationships more shallow and fleeting today? I believe that is the case for many. If so, might that be the case for their lifetimes? Is this a social phenomenon that will impact politics, work and family in the coming decades? Is a social scientist studying this? I think this is significant.

How many communities do I participate in on almost a daily basis? Hmmm… Let me count – 32 circles. On a weekly basis, I try to meet with each “circle” at least once either face-to-face or by e-mail, or on a conference call. Some days, my head is spinning! It really is…

Huh? What? What did You Say?

August 15, 2013

I am rarely dumbfounded by a conversation… Well, I am often dumbfounded, but I rarely listen to the end, and then suddenly stumble in mid-sentence and fail to ferret out something – anything of the intended meaning and context when we wrap up. I can recall three conversations in my lifetime where I left feeling total puzzlement because I failed to grasp anything my companion intended at the end. This naturally happens at the end of the conversations – all signs point to comprehension until – “zing”- suddenly, we “ran off the rails”, and nothing that followed made sense to me (or probably to either of us…). Just the other day, I had a forth such conversation. It was all I could do not to ask, “Huh? What? What did you say? What don’t you understand?” after an hour of obvious comprehension. So as not to embarrass anyone or alienate myself, I will ponder on this in the most abstract way I can.

I am talking with an acquaintance about an opportunity. It is a serous conversation. We are talking about millions of dollars of investment – years of work – a transformation of attitude – a paradigm shift. I can see aspects of the “plan” so clearly in my brain. I see the primary opportunity, the complimentary opportunities, the obvious risk set, the “forks in the road”, the tests and challenges, the measures of progress and success, and the endpoint… It is all pretty clear in my brain. I am listening hard when we start to explore the “forks in the road” because, suddenly, nothing my acquaintance is saying makes any sense. I call this phenomenon “orthogonal conversation”.

When I talk about strategic matters with a client, I “peel the onion” – pretty much the plan path as I explained above. I am particularly intent to explore the risk set and the forks in the road with every key player in my client’s organization if this is work-related – these are the nuances that can influence how decision makers’ think about a portfolio of opportunities, and these conversations can reveal significant new issues to me that my client never indicated (but should have…).

Now with my recent acquaintance, I am struggling to figure out 1) what significant concept I don’t know or understand that this other person does, or 2) what fundamental thing the other person does not understand? It’s one or the other because suddenly our thinking is inconsistent and nothing is making sense… Suddenly, the context has changed, the opportunity seems to have changed, and even the language has changed – the use of key words… I am still scratching my head wondering how to unwind this and get back on track.

Has that ever happened to you?

Let me take a little detour – just for a moment to make this “real” for you – an illustration of the puzzlement. While at Rice in a linear algebra class, we were handed a mid-term exam that I was certain I would do well on. The first page was easy enough. The second page was one that I couldn’t complete a single problem on. The science and engineering courses at Rice were known for testing on what you were not taught in class – “Can you extend the basics on the fly?” was the point of many of our exams. Here, I could not work through a single problem on half of the exam. I was really thrown off balance. Did I miss something fundamental? I was a bit “pissed off” and I was dumbfounded. The entire class was dumbfounded, I discovered. In the next class session, the professor returned the first page of the exams (every problem correctly answered for me) and explained that the erroneous second page was from an exam for his tensors class. “SORRY…”, he said. OK – felt better.

You can now imagine how I feel in these orthogonal conversations when suddenly, nothing makes sense. I had my fourth such conversation in my lifetime just the other day. I am still scratching my head wondering just how to get us back on the tracks…

“Zing!”

How Fast can You Change?

May 12, 2013

A friend asked me, “Brian, why has the economy seemingly stalled?” My spontaneous answer was, “Well, I don’t think that people can change their behavior fast enough to take advantage of the changes happening all around them. I think that people are overwhelmed today by the chaos. The consumer has been left behind.”

The puzzled look on my friend’s face told me immediately that he did not see the connection I was making at all. Rather than taking a step backward, or taking a second step forward hoping to see indications of understanding, I let the conversation take a different course. Let me peel the onion that I did not peel that afternoon – let me make a few observations…

1) Product innovation that is too rapid leaves the consumer behind. Have you ever stopped upgrading software because the new features were not obviously of any use to you? Still using Windows XP? Well, the product innovation left you behind.

Perhaps the new features were not well thought out, and they were in fact duplicative or of no practical use to you. Phewy – why spend money for something you can’t use and don’t need for anything? That’s not a problem with you – blame the product designer for the ridiculous.

Perhaps, though, those new features are so different from what is familiar that you don’t see how they are useful. Even if someone points out how the new features are significant improvements on what was – significantly better tools, you might reason that if you don’t need those new features for what you do today, then why learn how to use them – nope, pass the upgrade by. Maybe that IS a problem with you. But you, my friend, are not alone if you fall in this second camp of consumer.

In the case of Windows, product innovation has left the consumer behind for a combination of both of the above reasons. If you discount Windows OS sales associated with new computers purchase, consumer upgrades from XP to Vista to 7 to 8 has been lethargic and reluctant and even painful – and getting more so with each successive release of the OS – and terribly disappointing for Microsoft financial results. Windows OS product innovation has left the consumer behind. And the Windows economy has stalled.

2) Product innovation that suddenly presents too many alternative products to the consumer leaves less room for a runner-up to succeed, and a bubble may emerge. Or a monopoly may emerge. How many consumers do you imagine shop for a large screen TV because of the 3D feature? In the near term, a crowded market quickly turns into a price-competitive market that squeezes new entrants out of the marketplace before a product sells a threshold amount that justifies the next cycle of innovation. Truly good products can disappear from a crowded market for no rational reason visible to the consumer. Companies fail. Innovators lose confidence and backers. In the near term, the good products in a crowded market don’t always win unless one product in particular is a true standout (Apple’s iPod). In the near term, this kind of market may become a bubble that bursts.

In the long term, mediocre products may be the only survivors simply as a result of deeper pockets of cash with their manufacturer, and being perceived as the least risk choice for the consumer. Monopolies of lackluster products may develop, and monopolies are inefficient markets over time. Inefficient markets full of ineffective products are not “vibrant” by any measure, and those markets will eventually stall or become declining markets. Monopoly markets are incredibly hard to upset with exciting competing products – after all, how fast can the consumer actually change?

Back to the question: How fast can you change?

I am a technology product manager. Once I launch a new product – a challenge in itself, I immediately plan for the innovation path. The problem for me in a nutshell is to innovate fast enough to challenge and out do the community of competitors, but slowly enough for the consumer to be able to appreciate the coming innovation, desire the coming innovation, and be able to change their behavior to utilize the coming innovation.

Apple succeeds in no small measure through evangelists. Apple recruits evangelists from their consumer population by engaging the consumer. Apple hosts developers conferences, hosts user forums, offers training in their stores, offers personalized shopping experiences, offers one-on-one services, etc. Apple has “genius” evangelists at every store to explain product features by way of solving customer problems. At every turn, Apple is working to propel the consumer forward through evangelism faster than if the consumer was left to their own devices.

Apple succeeds in no small measure by taking small incremental steps with their software. How different is MacOSX 10.8 from 10.7? 10.7 from 10,6? If you look at the release notes for the OS releases, Apple consistently touts more than 200 or 250 new features, but only several are significant, and the rest are nuances and polish. Apple sells the value of so many new features, but genuinely challenges the consumer to change their behavior on just a few. And how much is that new OS? Just $30 most recently… Heck, why not! Apple takes small steps with their current products.

Apple succeeds in no small measure by selling entire ecosystems that are smoothly integrated and virtually flawless. MacOSX / IOS / App Store / iTunes Store / iTunes Match / AppleTV / AirPlay / Photoflow / Bonjour is just one ecosystem. Apple has a communicator ecosystem (the iPhone is part), a developer ecosystem, an office productivity ecosystem, a hobbyist AV ecosystem, a pro AV ecosystem, an enterprise ecosystem. Apple sells a range of outstanding hardware platforms to suit these ecosystems. Apple ecosystems are all almost flawless – “and it all just works.”

Microsoft, on the other hand fails on all these strategies. Transitioning from Windows 7 to Windows 8 has compatibility headaches, fractured ecosystems, radical user interface changes (and challenges), steep pricing, and there is no one to sell the “goodness” or pull the consumer gently forward.

When I look around me, I see market after market filled with “Microsofts”, and not “Apples”. The consumer sees what I see, though they may nor comprehend what they see in the same way I do. The consumer sees a dizzying range of confusing products and services they don’t understand, fail to appreciate, and can’t really afford, and they are keeping their money in their pockets. How much money will YOU spend on a “flash in the pan” gimmick (if that’s how you perceive it)?

And by the way, more and more consumers over the past decade in particular are keeping more and more money in their pockets for essentials like food, shelter, medical care and transportation that combined are more and more often exceeding their incomes… You can’t understate this factor.

So, in summary, my friend, the economy is stalling because the vast middle class faces shrinking disposable incomes and mind-numbing, confounding choices in the market. There are exceptions, of course: the 1% is doing quite well, and there are in fact some excellent products and services in the market. But the 99% is largely keeping what little disposable income they have in their pockets (and not expanding their consumption of credit) because there is not much that is compelling to purchase.

Well, that’s my view when I wear my product manager hat!

Update – a follow-up question: “What do you think about Windows 8?”

I think Windows 8 is the most innovative Windows release in many, many years. The ability to flip from app to app with a swipe and the constant updating of the summary display with notifications are all terrific innovations I wish my iPhone had. This user interface is not quite ready for the desktop; however. And this user interface is a huge leap that brings too many changes too fast for the majority of consumers. I like it!

How fast can you change? Most consumers want to change rather slowly…

Contextual Communications Management – Do Away with I/O Overload!

February 18, 2013

I have been “cooking” this idea since about 2006. There was a day “in the day” when my ability to manage intrusive communications was obviously nil – a day of epiphany. On one miserable day, I was overwhelmed:

  • four meetings occupying more than 6 1/2 hours of the day;
  • more than 40 telephone calls to four phone numbers that I answered;
  • more than 40 voicemail messages on five messaging systems;
  • more than 250 e-mails sent to six addresses;
  • no complete record of calls I missed…

My clients were frustrated. I was frustrated.

I really faced three dilemmas:

  1. No Prioritization – the priority of one call was almost indistinguishable from the next unless I knew something related to the ID of the caller (if I even glanced at the Caller ID – if the ID was even displayed);
  2. No Integration – 15 separate communications portals…
  3. No Local Context – my telephone services interrupted my meetings as though every incoming call was more important than the meeting I was in (and some were).

I need only the sufficiently important communications right away – in only one stream – from any service – directed to any device – anywhere in the world I happen to be – with zero effort – without unnecessary distraction – all prioritized, summarized and logged. I call this concept Contextual Communications Management.

Since about 2008, I have been embarked on a campaign to influence AT&T, Apple and Google with features that will help me wrestle with the overwhelming communications environment I work in. I write letters, make phone calls, write white papers, draw pictures – anything that has a bit of promise to find implementations in AT&T, Apple and Google products and services.

Here is a simple process flow for incoming calls and voicemail messages to begin solving my problem (click for a higher res image):

Incoming Calls and Messages Managed

At first glance, I get two remarks from people – either “Huh?” or “Duh…” Either puzzlement or a brush-off as obvious. For any incoming call, I want to reject it (block it) if it will waste my time. If I don’t reject the call, I want to redirect it (forward it) if another person is a better resource to answer the call. If I don’t redirect the call, I want to ignore it for the time being (let the caller leave a message) if my present activity is more important. I want to answer the call if it is the best use of my time at the moment.

But it’s not obvious how to make the decision that the incoming call is the best use of my time. Let’s “peel the onion” just a bit. If you know the person calling or e-mailing or messaging, there is a basis to prioritize the call. Here is an example of that basis (again, click for higher res):

Who-Basis for PrioritizationIt’s not that complicated – my address book on my Mac has a category for “Priority” that I added long ago of Privileged (AT&T calls White-Listed; Apple calls VIP – their responses to my proposals), High, Medium, Low, Unknown or Denied (black-listed). Recognize the White List and Black List concepts from my Robocaller Blocker? Yup! My “RoboBlaster” focusses on identifying and blocking the lowest priority callers.

This just scratches the surface of Contextual Computing – utilizing the context of Who, What, When and Where to make automated decisions about communications, tasks, activities, collaboration and the presentation of information in the user environment.  A clever app will stop my phone from ringing in a meeting unless the caller has a higher priority than the meeting does. Get it? It’s not complicated, but that clever app will be! How to integrate all devices and services? That’s another problem I am writing about right now.

Look for my book on Contextual Computing at Amazon.com soon.  I’ll be sure to let you know how to order it when it is available.

APB – Missing, Dire Straits “Communique”

February 9, 2013

Calling All Cars – Calling All Cars.

We are issuing an ALL POINTS BULLETIN for the immediate recovery of a missing CD.

Please keep a lookout for Dire Straits “Communique”.

Last seen in the classic rock section of the CD stand about four months ago in the company of “Love Over Gold” and the rest of the gang’s discography.

Whereabouts are currently unknown. Any information leading to the apprehension of “Communique” will be greeted with a hearty embrace!

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This happens to me now and then, folks.  I loan stuff to friends freely – to be frank, I don’t recall lending this CD to anyone, lately… But worse (and far more likely), I am prone to ‘misfiling” items I return to my media library. With more than 4000 CDs “on the shelf”, misfiling has the same ramification as misshelving a book at a large library – it will only be found in the stacks by accident…

My spellchecker is griping about the word “misshelving”. Huh… Misspoken – 2 ‘s’s… Misshapen – 2 ‘s’s… Misspelling, misspending, misstate, misstep… Where’s my multivolume dictionary?

“Communique” is a terrific album – can’t wait to find it! And listen to it, again!

Most Fans “blow”

January 3, 2013

Today, I have been in the bathroom running the exhaust fan, at the stove running the exhaust fan, listening to the furnace blowing air, sitting at my desk with the APS fan rumbling on its worn bearings, with the external drive enclosure fans whirring and the computer fan whirring, too, and in the car with the blower on high to defog my windshield. I am surrounded by fans, and they are noisy buggers for the most part with disappointing airflow.

Most fans “blow”. They are lousy compromises on size, airflow, power consumption, vibration – and noise. There is one standout in fan design that I am aware of, and that is the fan that Apple uses with asymmetrically spaced impeller blades in their MacBook Pro Retina Display laptops. See about half way down the webpage:

http://www.apple.com/macbook-pro/design-retina/

I listened closely to a MacBook Pro Retina Display laptop fan running full blast in a Best Buy the other day – it was a quiet whir with a terrific rush of air out the exhaust ports off the laptop. With my ear pressed up against the case bottom where the fan was directly behind, I could just hear a soft whir. Marvelous. I had taken great pains to turn off the sound from blaring TVs throughout the store during a customer lull, and it was quiet – almost silent on the store floor. A largish number of sales staff crowded around me as I booted from a thumb drive with a fan speed control utility installed and set the fan to max speed. The fan was really, genuinely quiet. Impressive. I passed the laptop around, and the Geek Squad fellow listened and smiled. “Quiet. Really quiet. You should hear the HP laptop fans – they screech at high speed. These Apple fans are amazingly quiet.” Yes, they really are quiet.

If these fans with asymmetrically spaced impeller blades were made for bathrooms and kitchens, our homes would be much quieter environments. For desktop computers, APS cabinets and drive enclosures, and our offices would be much quieter. Even car AC systems would benefit.

Heck, why not for nuclear submarine propellers…

I want quiet flow, not “blow”.