Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

Utrecht

September 8th, 2007
Filed under: General, Internet, Society | Huibert @ 3:17 pm

Today I spent the day in Utrecht visiting with my family the place where my father and I grew up. I hadn’t returned to The Netherlands in over a decade and my memories where starting to get blurry. It was certainly very emotional, although I think that neither my father nor I would ever consider returning to live to Utrecht.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the town, it is a medium-sized city with romantic canals that is very enjoyable during the summer and even though the rain can be depressing during the rest of the year I am convinced that it is possible to have a complete, happy life there. However, I cannot picture myself living there, as life seems to move much slower than in larger metropolitan areas.

One could argue that with the Internet (and I was able to get excellent download speeds in Utrecht) it is no longer necessary to live close to large cities in order to get many of the benefits that people normally associate with places like New York, Paris or London. I am not convinced. There is much more to live in a large city than being able to easily buy the latest and greatest. Small cities tend to favor status quo while largest cities spur competition and innovation. This doesn’t mean that innovation is less likely to appear in smaller cities or rural areas, it is just less likely because it is less necessary and there are less opportunities to share ideas with other interested parties. That is why I feel that I would feel quite lonely if I had to return to my home town. I could be wrong, though as Utrecht is only about twenty miles away from Amsterdam. Could it be that this old city combines the benefits of a small town and a large metro-pole? Possible, but it didn’t seem that way to me.

I think that small towns located close to major population centers have a bright future. Knowledge workers usually no longer need to go to the office every day and that could mean a major change in the way people choose where to live. After decades of observing people move to large urban areas, we could be close to witness a major behavioral shift. Last year, after attending WWDC I went to Carmel and Monterey with my wife. I think that I (as well as many others) could easily picture myself living there, enjoying the benefits of a small town and the relative proximity to San Jose and San Francisco. What is the difference with Utrecht? Well, for a technologist Amsterdam doesn’t compare to the Bay Area and the weather is much better in Carmel than in Utrecht.


Putting my Apple TV to good use

August 22nd, 2007
Filed under: General, Internet | Huibert @ 3:53 pm

When I bought my Apple TV I was planning to use it primarily to watch video podcasts on my plasma TV. It turned out not to be such a great plan, I have many devices already connected to it and there where no connections left. Since my wife hasn’t bought into the benefits of ipTV, the device was left virtually unused for several months.

However, since becoming a manager I have been working harder and exercising less. As a result I have been slowly gaining weight. Don’t worry this blog entry is not about fat blogging, I sincerely believe that the whole concept is quite silly. Since I do not want that trend to continue I have decided to take action. Last Saturday I bought a treadmill and a new LCD television set to which I have connected my Apple TV. Now I can exercise early in the morning while watching my favorite TV shows and video podcasts.

Since I have only been exercising for only five days I do not know if this will yield any results, but what I can assure is that exercising while watching TV is really fun. Yesterday I walked just over three miles and if I hadn’t run out of podcasts I would have worked out longer. As a result I have a message for Robert Scoble. I used to hate you and Podtech.net for being so prolific because it was becoming hard to keep the pace with all the shows you produce. Now the situation has changed, I need your help, I need more content to get fit quickly…


Second life is hell

May 22nd, 2007
Filed under: Apple, General, Internet, Mac OS X, Macintosh | Huibert @ 4:22 pm

The idea of becoming a Second Life user never made much sense to me. My current life is simply too busy to allow me to spend much time in any immersive virtual universe. However, it seems that many within IBM do not share my opinion. In fact, the company has recently increased it’s presence on this virtual world. The most recent proof of IBM’s interest in this technology was the life coverage of the inaugural session of the Impact conference on IBM’s virtual island. This conference is a major event for customers who are planning to deploy SOA solutions based on IBM technologies. Since I work closely with WebSphere products I thought that it could be interesting to participate and use the opportunity to discover this world everyone is talking about.

You probably know that even though I work at IBM I am a long time Apple user. So, logically I downloaded the Second Life Macintosh client on my 17” MacBook Pro. That was my first mistake. A big mistake. The Mac client is so incredibly slow that it is simply unusable. But the problem goes way beyond performance. This is a straight port from the Windows version with no concessions whatsoever to the Apple Human Interface guidelines. Frankly I do not understand why Linden Labs decided to develop (and release) such a crappy port. In my opinion they would be better off asking instead their Apple customers to use Parallels to run the Windows version, at least Mac users would not be so disappointed.

Since I do not have Windows installed on my Mac (why waste valuable disk space) I decided to try to install the client on my ThinkPad. There is no doubt that the client works much better on Windows. That doesn’t mean that the graphics are great, though. The Second Life client uses an old game engine to render the 3D world and it shows. However, what really made me mad was how complicated it is to get past the initial training island. The process is cumbersome and unintuitive. The first thing that you will see after landing on he island is a bunch of people who are totally lost, asking each other what to do to exit the island. If you have played games before that is not too difficult to understand, you just have to learn how to accomplish some tasks and earn stars for acquiring new skill. When you collect all the stars you can move on to the “real” second life world. The problem is that the training process is long and filled with bugs. You have to complete the tasks in order and without interruptions, otherwise you may be unable to get back in certain situations(despite many signs that allow you to retry a particular test).

The most frustrating part is that if you decide to leave your training session, when you come back you will find yourself in an inconsistent state with the objects collected so far and your last position but no stars (although it seems that the application remembers which tests you already passed, which causes additional problems). Be prepared to create a new character (and start from scratch) if you run into one of these situations. To make things even worse, there is no way to skip the training which is totally unnecessary for younger generations used to play online games.

To make a long story short, I was unable to complete the training in time to attend the event. It is clear to me that Linden Labs has spent no time whatsoever to make sure that newcomers have a great initial experience. They have a lot to learn if they want to grow beyond the geek population that is currently playing with their technology. As for me, I will never use it again unless they produce a decent Mac client and they offer true compelling content not available elsewhere on the Internet.


Jobs is wrong, R&D dollars do matter

May 17th, 2007
Filed under: Apple, Internet, Mac OS X, Macintosh | Huibert @ 9:03 pm

Last February I bought a PS3. That is right, a Sony PlayStation 3. If I were to believe what seems to be the general opinion on the Net, I would have to conclude that I must be extremely stupid because I could have bought a much better console for half the price. That is at least what most of the Wii fanboys out there would want everyone to believe. Thank God I am old enough to be immune to peer pressure and therefore able to take my own decisions.

The Nintendo Wii may sport innovative controls and offer some fun games but it uses graphics that will make it obsolete before the end of 2008. Just compare any Wii games to games developed exclusively for the PS3 like Resistance: Fall of Man or Motorstorm on an 1080p screen and you will understand. It is clear that the Wii is less expensive than the PS3, but I would argue that it is simply a cheaper device.

Wii gamers tend to dismiss the fact that the PS3 supports Blu-ray. They are wrong, dead wrong. Since I started buying movies in this new format, I have never looked back. There is simply no way for me to go back to the traditional DVD format, the difference in both image and sound quality is so incredible that you have to see it to believe it.

My PS3 lives in my TV room, and is placed just under my 42” plasma screen. Three cables is all I need to enjoy an amazing multimedia experience. That is really important to me because the proliferation of cables is something you really want to avoid if you care about aesthetics. How many cable would I need to use if I had to buy a Blu-ray player in addition to my game console? How-much would that cost?

If you ask me, I will tell you that I am extremely pleased with my PS3 and that I totally recommend it. So, where do the negative comments come from? Short answer, kids who do not have the budget to buy a PS3 or a big flat TV for their room. You simply do not care about graphics quality or cable proliferation when you play on a small screen in your room or dorm. If you add to the mix a sense of treason towards Sony for producing an expensive console that most teenagers cannot afford, you get what we are currently witnessing, a violent, systematic backlash against the console.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand these kids. They are frustrated because they feel that a product designed for them can only be purchased by adults like myself. Sony probably made a mistake by creating a console not targeted at their traditional customer base. However, that does not mean that the Wii is better than the PS3, that is not true, there are no facts to back that claim. While I am aware that sometimes a cheaper product can be better than more expensive options it usually is simply not true, even if a legion of loyalists say so.

That takes me to a comment Steve Jobs made recently at the annual Apple shareholder meeting. He said that if effective R&D depended only on money, Microsoft would have been able to release great products. That may have provoked some laughs in the audience but it concerns me. If Steve thinks that Apple is winning against Microsoft because the Zune failed miserably or because the Mac market share has increased slowly but steadily over recent years, he is missing the whole picture. Apple faces multiple threats from Microsoft and most are much more serious than what they have been battling so far.

One of these threats is the XBox 360. The device has sold well over ten million units and is therefore much better positioned than the Apple TV to win the battle over the living room. The other significant threat is Silverlight, a recently announced technology that has the potential to change forever the way we interact with web applications and move content creators to the Windows platform. Both products are good examples of healthy innovation coming from Redmond and are the result of investing billions of dollars in R&D.

When I read that comment I felt that Steve Jobs was trying to cover the truth and use us, Mac loyalists, to continue spreading that tale that you can do much more with much less, much in the same way that Nintendo fanboys spread the tale that their cheap console is much better than the expensive one. Apple has grown a lot over the last year but R&D spending has not benefitted significantly. In order to remain competitive, Apple has relied a lot on open-source technologies to produce innovation. In fact, some of the most touted improvements that will be included in Leopard (ZFS and DTrace) actually were created by Sun Microsystems. That has worked well so far for OS X , but it is clear that Apple lacks the R&D punch to create and push new standards in new areas, unlike Microsoft or companies such as Sun Microsystems, Oracle or IBM which are perceived to be much larger but have a comparable market cap value to that of Apple.

Right now, the big technological battles are raging around the technologies that will be used for the next generation web interfaces. Adobe (Apollo), Microsoft (Silverlight) and Sun (Java) are the main players that are fighting for this strategic market. Apple is not participating in this war or even endorsing one of these technologies. Come on Apple, we all know that you can do better. Spend more on R&D, your future is at stake. Unless you move the puck yourself, it may become harder and harder to know where it will be.


More on productivity

May 1st, 2007
Filed under: General, Internet, Society | Huibert @ 10:42 pm

According to this BBC article, the authorities in India’s premier engineering institute, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Bombay (Mumbai), have cut off internet access to students in hostels at night. They apparently feel that 24-hour internet access is hampering students’ academic performance and overall personality development.

I agree. I am most productive when I do not use the Internet. Opening a browser window is just like opening a chocolate box (if you are into chocolate), there is such a wealth of interesting and entertaining information available that it is hard to just look at what you really need. Fast Internet connections only make this problem worse. A slow connection helps people realize that they are wasting their time. With fast Internet connections, you do not have to wait and therefore time flies. Before you realize it, you have spent too much time surfing the web.

Shutting down Internet access is not a good solution to improve sound Internet usage. Reducing the bandwidth is. Modem speeds are generally decent enough to allow students that require critical information at 3AM to complete a term paper, to access Google and Wikipedia. However, slow access will make sure they do not waste their time on YouTube or other Web 2.0 sites.


Good question

April 24th, 2007
Filed under: General, Internet, Society | Huibert @ 10:41 am

I am a big podcasting fan. I usually spend about two hours a day listening to mainly tech personalities interviews. This is a nice way to understand industry trends and learning about cool new projects. Here is a list of some of the podcasts I subscribe to:

The more I listen to interviews, the more I get upset when I hear that most interviewees follow the exact same pattern when asked a question. They usually will start answering by saying something like “Excellent question” or “That is a great question”. That feels so fake when you hear it over and over again. It is obvious that there is some form of consensus in the US (I haven’t seen signs of this spreading to other countries yet) that this is the correct way to behave during an interview. I understand that by acquiring this habit you some additional time to think about your answer and you may even please the interviewer. However, while this technique may have been effective at the beginning, when few where using the technique, now that everyone has learned it, it just feels unnatural and even plain silly, specially when the question isn’t that brilliant.


Inconvenient solutions

April 20th, 2007
Filed under: Internet, Politics, Society | Huibert @ 3:58 pm

There is no doubt that the movie “An inconvenient truth” was able to change the perception of where our world is heading if we fail to act. The movie, combined with high gas prices and the war and Iraq was able to shake consciences and get our society moving. I am amazed by the incredible amount of business initiatives related to new renewable energy, plug-in vehicles, recycling and conservation in general and I am sure that everyone gets excited at the prospects these new technologies create.

I think however, that we are being misled. Most people seem to believe that we can solve the problem by changing slightly our behavior and applying new technologies. The truth is that we will need to go further. Initiatives like ethanol adoption may reduce foreign oil dependency in the US but consequences on the environment are far from clear. The Brazilian experience with bio-fuels is far from conclusive with many experts blaming in part deforestation in that country on the growth of the sugar cane plantations which are needed to produce that fuel. Other fuels perceived as alternatives to oil like diesel or hydrogen have their own issues. With really clean energy sources such as wind or solar growing too slowly, our only real option is to reduce energy consumption. Besides energy, the world is facing other problems such as lack of drinking water or food. How is that possible? Never in history has so much food been available and the same applies to water. The problem is simple, there world population is now six billion and counting. Since we cannot easily increase food, water or energy supply, the solution has to come from reducing the last variable, human population.

Do not worry, I am not proposing at all to start World War III or executing minority groups. What I would like to see is an open debate around the subject. What people should understand is that if for one generation (25 years) each woman only had one child, all the catastrophic prophecies mentioned by Al Gore would probably not happen. I am really puzzled by the fact that a solution as obvious as this one (although extremely hard to implement) is not even mentioned in most discussions. However, if we do not discuss the matter, it is very unlikely that parents will even consider the impact on the environment of having a large family.

Over the last few decades, in most countries (even the emerging ones), birth rates have been decreasing steadily. One reason has been the fact that parents have been bombarded with (not always obvious) messages on TV, movies and radio telling them not to have more children than they could afford. As a result, parents in those countries feel that they have the obligation to provide their children with good education, long vacations, and abundant clothing. As a result, couples have reduced the number of children they decide to have. That message has been good for children, parents and society in general. Why not slightly update that message now and include the fact that small families are good for the planet too and repeat it all over the world until everyone gets it?

We all know why. Such a message goes against the holy scriptures of most large monotheistic religions. Of course, at the time, the goal of their leaders was to outgrow their competitors to convert non-believers, by force if necessary, which made large armies a necessity. Today we face a planetary crisis. We need to discuss the options with an open mind. If this means upsetting some religious bigots, I personally don’t care much. More important issues are at stake.


The value of Product Certification

April 20th, 2007
Filed under: General, Internet, IT Insight, Society | Huibert @ 9:35 am

During this week Technical Leadership Exchange, attendants could take up to three product certification tests for free. On day 1 I decided to take the “Developing WebServices with Rational Developer 6.0″ exam since it was a topic I was quite familiar with. I found the exam to be pretty easy, specially considering the fact that many questions were related and that some questions provided the answer to others.

The same day I passed that exam, one of the members of my team failed the “DB2 version 9 fundamentals exams”. That was totally unexpected, since he is an experienced Information Management IT Specialist. I decided to take the same test the next day to find out how hard the exam really was. Just for the record, most of my database experience has been working with Informix. I am a DB2 certified professional but I took the exam four years ago with version 7.1 and I have never installed or used DB2 version 9. To make thing worse, I had to complete the exam in 45 minutes (instead of 90) because I was running late for dinner. So, how did I do? Not extremely well, but I was able to pass the exam.

So, how is it possible that I could pass the exam while a more experience engineer failed. One explanation is the test’s heavy focus on SQL. Despite being called DB2 fundamentals, few questions are really DB2 specific. Anyone with a solid SQL knowledge can obtain a good score even without having used that particular database engine. That is a serious problem, we cannot expect employers to know the contents of a particular exam. We should expect the title of the certification to clearly describe the skills being tested. However, that does still not explain why an experienced professional can fail such a test. The answer is quite simple, English fluency. Most product certification tests tend to be quite confusing with many answer options looking very similar. That is fine if English is your primary language, but not for those who are not fluent in English.

I feel that this is unfair. Although I do not care much about product certification when evaluating candidates, many managers do. Candidates who do not speak English well are being double taxed, first when being evaluated on their foreign languages skills and later when asked about their technical skills. Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if the fact that a country like India is known for the technical skills of it’s people this is due to the fact all students speak English and therefore have easier access to technical information. Having lived in many countries around the world I can tell you that, in my experience, stupidity is evenly distributed and so is intelligence.

So, what is the solution? For starters, product certification tests should be available in multiple languages. This shouldn’t represent a large effort for companies such as Cisco, IBM or Sun. I am convinced that if this happened, the number of certified engineers in regions like Latin America, Europe and Asia would rise dramatically, unveiling new business opportunities in countries that currently are not seen as investment worthy.

However, that is obviously not enough. Universities in non-English speaking countries should acknowledge how key the proficiency in English is to their student’s success. Unfortunately, in many countries national pride is preventing government from taking serious actions. This is too bad as it is taking away opportunities from people that truly deserve them.


For legal music users, DRM is not the issue, the EULA is

April 2nd, 2007
Filed under: Apple, General, Internet, Mac OS X, Macintosh, Society | Huibert @ 3:31 pm

Today Apple and EMI announced that starting in May the iTunes music store will sell more expensive, higher quality, DRM-free songs. Most analysts have focused just on the fact that by releasing its music catalog with no DRM, EMI and Apple are signaling the beginning of the end for digitally protected media. They herald this fact as an important win for consumers and everyone seems to applaud the move.

I think that most analysts are missing the point. While I dislike DRM as much as the next guy, I really believe that DRM-free music is not as important to consumers as many seem to believe.

Today, a customers who buys songs from Apple can play the music on up to five computers and on a single iPod. That seems fair to me and I have not found myself so far in a situation where I felt limited by those restrictions.

DRM-free does not mean free to share with an unlimited number of friends. It just means that you can move it around with no restrictions, as long as you remain within the limits of what is allowed by the EULA. Since neither Apple nor EMI have indicated what the EULA will look like, everyone is assuming that the terms EULA will be similar to what you get today with Fairplay, but that may or may not be the case.

During an interview today Steve Jobs stated that “Our point of view has been that we’re not offering customers anything here today that they can’t get on every CD that’s shipped. Right? They get DRM-free music on every CD that is shipped today. So, we’re not offering anything online that they can’t get on a CD today”. That is true, but there are serious limitations to what you can do with a CD.

For example, making multiple copies of that CD to allow multiple family members to listen to it simultaneously would probably fall outside of the fair-use provision. In some countries, ripping a CD to listen to the music on a portable device could still be illegal today (Australia had this problem). Those examples clearly demonstrate that DRM free music does not equal to more rights for the end user. In fact, CD owners today have clearly less rights than iTunes music store customers. That means that legal music buyers should wait for the EMI EULA before rejoicing.

There are many examples of extremely restrictive EULAs. Microsoft provides great examples. For example, even though Vista Home does work in a virtualized environment, such as Parallels or VMware, this is forbidden by the EULA. Also, Windows licences cannot be installed on multiple machines or transferred from one machine to another. So, should the EMI EULA be written by MS (or the RIAA) lawyers, we could be in for a major disappointment.

Today is a great day for those not concerned by the legal restrictions that come attached to the licensing of digital media. For those of us who try to abide by the law, things may not look as good as they appear.


Meaningless work

March 16th, 2007
Filed under: Internet, Society | Huibert @ 12:08 am

For the last six working days I have been unable to use my IBM Lotus Notes client. It turns out that a duplicated record on an LDAP server was responsible for the mess. Finally, after spending hours over the phone pleading for help, IBM’s internal help desk was finally able to diagnose and solve the problem. However, as expected, after such a long period of time without accessing my e-mail, my account was jammed with unread mail.

It took me ten hours of non-stop work to go through my unread e-mail and delete enough worthless mails in order to just be able to re-activate my account (at IBM we cannot send messages unless our inbox size drops under a 200GB limit). That made me think. If after so much work all I could claim was to have cleaned my inbox (which offers absolutely no business value) I am not sure that better communications are helping my productivity. In fact, it seems that I spend almost two hours a day working on useless mail.

Ever since I was a small child my parents taught me to analyze at the end of the day if it had been productive. Always ask yourself, what did you do today? That was a message my mother kept telling me. I guess that after much repetition, it finally stuck with me and I now feel either guilty or disappointed if I was unable to do something productive or meaningful during a particular day.

However, mail is not the only problem. Browsing the Internet is also an activity that quickly reduces personal productivity. Despite all the virtues of this technology, I know that I am far more productive when I am disconnected, with no distractions. However, since this happens less and less, in the end, it is just a matter of personal discipline. Everyone must learn how to set daily or weekly personal objectives for themselves in order to evaluate their productivity and correct automatically any deviations before receiving complaints from their boss, teacher, spouse or kids.

I am somewhat worried that schools do not spend time teaching children a skill that is so important. Learning it is critical to a successful life. However, while it is nice to know that you should not waste your time, it is also clear that the information overload that we are facing forces us to work longer hours just to obtain the same results.

There have been many proposals to fight spam. One such proposal included charging a low, nominal fee for e-mail (say US$0.01 for example). This was an interesting idea, since it would made the business of spam much less profitable. While the idea was interesting, it was impossible to implement, on a global scale. However, such an idea could easily be implemented inside the enterprise. If every employee knew that adding someone to the cc list did have an associated cost, we could finally start reducing the ridiculous amount of mail that is currently killing the knowledge worker.