Archive for September, 2012:


Classical Ideas

So, a Tory MP may or may not have called a police officer a pleb.

The reason this makes the news is not that we find the term pleb particularly offensive, but because it shows that Tory politicians are all the same – that they are bad people who believe they, the monied elite, are better than us (and by us I mean the middle class journos who are making a song and dance about this).

Except it doesn’t.  However this might fit the story we want to tell ourselves about what Conservate politicians are like (and, as a liberal, I’m pretty keen to tell myself that story from time to time), all we have is statistical evidence that maybe one member of the Conservative party has class based prejudices which show themselves in a moment of anger.  It is true that all the evidence from people talking about Andrew Mitchell suggest he isn’t the nicest guy – but sometimes people like that turn out to be particularly effective in doing certain jobs.

However, more to the point, assuming for a second that Andrew Mitchell should be sacked for having insufficient class sensitivity to call someone a pleb, then we need to ensure anyone who has ever called anyone a chav should also be sacked.  Because what pleb means to the public schoolboy, chav means to the middle classes – essentially: someone who, due to the education they received, financial situation of their parents, accent and dress, are to be despised.  And, while I’m at it, its equally bad to assume public schoolboys, even Bullingdon Club members, consider the population to be made mainly of ‘plebs’ – from my experience it is, at most, a small minority – the rest are, again, the class based imaginings of a resentful middle class.  Don’t think that the outcry over Andrew Mitchell isn’t just as much about class based resentment as any comments he may or may not have made.

But there is another element of class based resentment, which I worry is a little more insidious - in that it seems to be agreed upon by almost everyone across the political spectrum.  And because, as far as I can tell, it is not only wrong, but harmful to the quality of life of – well, almost everyone in the world.

The idea is that : There exists a class of scroungers, people who live a life of luxury without putting in a day of work in their lives.  Also, they tend to have lots of children, which in some way means they get to live an even more luxurious and more work free life.

Now, I’m not denying there are some families who live, generation to generation, on welfare.

What I am saying is that, if the life they live is the most they want, then good for them.

What I’m also saying is “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all live the life we want without having to work?  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we, as a society, decided to make that a goal, rather than the concepts of economic growth, which often keep us trapped in lives we don’t want to lead”

I’m not, for a second, suggesting that everyone become lazy, TV watching, drones – you’re back to the class stereotypes if you even considered that.  Without a day job, I would be busily learning, writing, coding, thinking, creating – all on my own.  Some of my ideas and creations would be useful to others.  I’m sure people would take those ideas on and develop and improve them, sanding down the rough edges that I may prefer to leave unfinished.  In short, I would be providing value to society… and I think, left to their own devices, most people would.  The value might be a different sort of value from what we have grown to understand in the education to factory or office to retirement to grave treadmill – but people want to be useful, they want to both give and receive – they just need the opportunity.

Even if we had the money to fund giving everybody a state mandated living allowance – and that we could do so without weird inflationary effects – I wouldn’t suggest switching over to this new model tomorrow.  There is a need to remove (and ideally automate, rather than sending oversees) the jobs that people don’t want to do.  We’ve already started.  The servant has been replaced by the hoover and washing machine.  We should not fear the loss of jobs through automation, but we should try to make up for them, by making it increasingly possible for people to live without he need to do someone else’s work.

Right now when a job is automated, we put the spare labour back onto the job market, which lowers the amount people are paid to do similar jobs, which ultimately means we are all working harder to stay where we are.  When people predicted a three day week, they were optimistic that there wouldn’t be enough work – instead we find that every time we finish one job early, there is more work to be done  or else we will be out competed by someone who is willing to put in more effort in order to gain a rung or two ahead of you on the (material) ladder of life.  We can’t, as a society, win if we keep on going in this direction.  We are in an arms race which, at best, will lead to us burning out rather than burning brighter.

So when you hear the cries of ‘scrounger’, don’t ask ‘How can we get rid of that?” ask ‘How can we get more?  How can we raise everyone’s basic level of living so that, should I want, I too can be a scrounger?’.  It should be a goal of society for us all to be able to do exactly what we want, for us to aim for our highest potential, rather than the highest level of corporate management we can fill.

 

The note that I hope would say more

It hasn’t been easy.  There is one big, almost insurmountable issue: For Adelina, a home is where you bring people into your life, where you entertain them.  An empty home is an empty heart.  For me, A home is the place you go to after a day out in the world of other people. It is my castle, my cave, my refuge.  For me, a full house is an
invasion.

And this year it has got worse. Adelina has been working alone at home – she needs more people.  I’ve been busy leading a technical project, being interrupted, jostled and stuck in meetings with other people all day.  We both needed our respective homes more than ever – and neither of us got them.  And that begins to put a strain on a relationship.

We looked for an answer, and there only seemed to be one way both of us could stay happy (and ensuring we both stayed happy – and sane – was the most important factor in this decision).

And so Adelina will soon be moving out.  She’s moving to a house in Cambridge which she can stay at for the next six months – after which… well, this is still a work in progress.

This is where it gets complicated.  Because I’m used to the idea of the break-up from the media.  We’re meant to be fighting and throwing plates at each other.  Our marriage is meant to be over.  My only chance is meant to be after much soul searching to realise I was totally in the wrong, race through a busy city, catch her as she is about to board an aeroplane and reunite in front of a crowd of cheering onlookers who have all been won over by our public display of romance.

But this isn’t a break up.

Adelina and I still love each other.  This is what has made this decision so easy – and also so difficult. We still want to spend time with each other.  We still care for each other.  We still believe that we are an ideal partnership – and soul mates.  We’re not looking for other partners.  All of our social plans, and plans for trips and holidays together remain firm. Our marriage is not over.  Not by a long shot.

There are some advantages – with more time to myself, I’ll be able to give Adelina more of the husband she deserves.  We’ll be able to date each other again and bring back the romance which can get overlooked when you’re both caught up dealing with life.

Are we kidding ourselves?  Maybe.  This is an experiment.  All we know is that something has to be done – and this is by far the best thing we can think of doing.  By all means, if you have any better thoughts, send answers on a postcard to the usual address.

This is going to be hard.  It isn’t the way I wanted my life – our lives – to go.  Its going to take some adjustment.  Its going to take a lot of soul searching for me to deal with a lot of issues from my path.  I’m happy that we both still have a chance to be happy, together (if living separately).  I’m going to be trying my damnedest to make our marriage work.  But I’m sad I won’t see Adelina anywhere near as often as I have got used to.  I’m sad that – in a sense – I’m not going to be sharing as much of my life with her.

Overall, I don’t know how this is going to work.  I don’t know what issues are going to arise.  It might be either the thing that makes us, or the thing that breaks us.  What I know for sure is that in the last few days, since we made the decision, Adelina and I seem closer than we have been in a long time – and that gives me hope.

Right now, because I’m still trying to work through my emotions, I don’t really want to talk about this.  At least, not yet. I’m not sure that there is anything to say that I haven’t said here.  But this isn’t something I want to hide – its the next phase of Adelina’s and
my life.  It’s unusual, but I don’t think anyone ever thought Adelina and I were normal. We are both excited and scared by this change in our circumstances.

Wearing it on my sleave

ScratchInput SteveMann self portrait

Wearable computing.  Thats what we called it, back in the late nineties when I was at university.  It seemed like a great idea, never being away from my computer, instant ability to connect to the internet.  We wondered about the best way to do it – I was fantasising about a belt which could hold a twenty-four hour battery pack, some sort of input device – perhaps using combinations to buttons to let my type – or maybe a joypad spread 50:50 between my trouser pockets (though the thought of what using that might looked like was an issue) and, of course, some sort of output device strapped to my arm.

Later in life I got a Nokia Communicator.  These days I have an ageing Android phone, and I’m well behind the times with wearable computing.  The phone is now doing the job of the wearable computer – it does everything we wanted and more, in a more sensible and more acceptable looking way.  The reason I’m behind the times, is that wearable computing has become fashionable.  Its about being up to date, more than it is about the technology.  I’d bet the people drooling over the latest iPhone weren’t impressed by the technology like we all were a few years ago – they just wanted something new and cool.  And thats cool like a pair of jeans, not cool like the demo of Xen on ARM I saw the other day.

But I don’t want to talk about the new iPhone, because its a step improvement, not a game changer.

I want to talk about the iPod Nano.  Because the iPod Nano has been changed from a square to a rectangle.  And this interests me no end – because you can no longer put it into a watch strap and use it as a watch.  And this seems to me to be a weird decision from Apple.

Now, I’m not going to say the iPod nano was the publicly acceptable face of a phase of wearable computing we haven’t yet reached – mainly because I never saw anyone wearing them as a watch.  But those what straps sell.  And some people love their Nano watches.  And Apple must have been aware of this – because they sell the watch straps in their stores.

And I can’t believe Apple were unaware of the Pebble watch which was causing a lot of buzz earlier this year.  I can’t believe Apple don’t want a part of that market, somewhere down the line.

And so, the only reason I can think of for stopping people from using the iPod as a watch is that Apple have plans (possibly vague plans, but plans nonetheless) to enter that market.  Amongst the possible ideas I can think of are an iPhone on your arm (unlikely – watches make for ungainly telephones), an ipod touch on your arm (plausible) or an apple TV on your arm (interesting concept, bordering on the plausible).  Battery size would be the big issue for all of these, but we aren’t so far away from it being possible.

I began pondering on the names:

iArm would cause trademark conflicts with Arm

iWatch sounds horrible – unless you’re talking about Apple TV on your arm

iBand has potential.  And brings to mind the various flexible displays which are coming close to commercial production, along with a clever magnetic ‘smart strap’ inspired by the iPad smart case.

If I’m right, and the iPhone is effectively uninteresting now, and the people pushing back the boundaries don’t feel like the iPhone is the place to work, then Apple have got to be looking at something new.  And Apple tends to do best when they become the first people to see the advantages of using new technologies to make a step change in existing markets (think of the micro hard drive for the original iPod, the larger sized solid state memory for the iPod nano, the capacitive touchscreen & multitouch for the iPhone or the retina display).  Right now the wearable watch is taking off (slowly, but step by step its happening) and a half decent low power flexible waterproof screen would be a game changer – especially if done with the design genius of Apple.

It’s only a thought, but Apple’s rise to dominance has always been about mobility and individuality.  We all know that the iMac and the Mac Pro are unloved, while the macbook (especially the air), the iPod and iPhone are where Apple’s heart is.  Apple TV never really fit in this slot – it felt like a horizontal extension of iTunes rather than something genuinely new.  It isn’t Apple’s core.  An iWatch – that just might be.

Could Apple be getting out of the watch market, so that when they enter it, they are doing something new, on their own?

The Ubiquitous Tablet

I’m not going to say anything about the new range of Kindles yet – that deserves consideration alongside whatever comes from Microsoft and Apple in the next month or so.  I do want to talk about the trend which is becoming clear with the pricing of the Kindle fire:  Tablets are becoming cheaper.  Tablets are going to continue to get cheaper.  We will stop considering tablets as expensive pieces of technology, and start considering them part of our lives – like we do with phones and wrist watches.

Here is my prediction:  Fairly soon, we will all own lots of tablets.  We will leave tablets littered around the house and workplace, and we will use whichever tablet is closest to us when we want to do something.

My key assumption here is that tablet UI development is not dead.  That one day, we will probably settle on a fairly common UI pattern for tablets – much as we have with the desktop metaphor for PCs – but it took us 15 years to firmly settle on the PC UI – and I’m going to guess there is another half decade before we come close to doing the same with tablets.

So what does this mean for how tablets should develop:

1.  We will not store our data on tablets.  We may cache our data on tablets, but the data will be stored in the cloud (or – possibly – on a server you own.  I think the cloud is more likely, but the geek in me likes the idea of being able to control my own data)

2.  Since I don’t think there will be just one brand of tablet, any more than there is just one brand of notebook (yes, you are allowed to use notebooks which are not Moleskines, just like you are allowed to use tablets which are not iPads), and since tablets will be interchangeably used, this brings into question native apps.  I don’t think native apps will die, but I think they will become less ubiquitous.  More and more, I foresee people using javascript and html based apps which they can access from any of their tablets.  Native apps will exist for a few purposes:

  • Games – assuming games are not streamed from your media centre box or somesuch, many games will remain native apps
  • Turning a particular tablet into a particular thing.  If I buy a 32″ tablet and decide ‘this will be my TV set’, then I might buy a specific native TV guide app for it.  In this case, the app will be an app you don’t want to move between devices – so it will be installed on a per device basis (perhaps with an access control list of approved users)

It is just possible that Android apps will become the default – but that seems unlikely.  Since you will want your personal collection of apps to move with you between devices (not having to install every app on every device), I think there will probably be initially space for an app which acts as an installer for these new apps in some way.  I don’t quite know how this will work – I’m guessing we’ll see it on Android first, followed by Windows, then Apple last.

3. Multi account tablets are not the way forward.  With tablets just lying around to be used this seems non-obvious, but my thought is that tablets should not be multi or single account, they should haves no account.  What I want is to go to a friend’s house I have never visited before, pick up his tablet and start using it – with all my apps there waiting for me.  If all the data (including your set of apps) is stored in the cloud, this isn’t a pipe dream, all it would take is some form of federated log in – I expect the best way to do this will be by bumping your NFC enabled phone up against the tablet.

You might worry that not having accounts with passwords might mean tablets get stolen.  I don’t share this worry.  Tablets are cheap, for most of the tablets we wil leave lying around and lend to friends, you won’t be bothered stealing them any more than you would steal the crockery from their dinner table.  Expensive tablets can till have some sort of pin locking mechanism before they let you in.

 

In thinking about this new, tablet, world, I’m wondering how far off we are.  Right now, I can’t see any reason why companies wouldn’t stick six iPad mini’s or Nexus 7s in each of their meeting rooms, to allow people to get to that email they need on the spur of the moment without having to bring in their laptop (and all the associated distractions).  Since these are special tablets with a special purpose (sitting in a meeting room), we might also want to install some sort of video conferencing app on them – each person having their own camera and being able to look whoever is speaking in the eye (or quickly go to another speaker and send a sidebar message), might well make multi-site videoconferences work.

We haven’t yet seem the impact of the tablet on the world.  It will be a different impact from the PC – more like the impact of the mobile phone, but without needing the mobility, since ubiquity and cheapness works just as well.  My predictions are probably conservative – but we’ll see them happening, and they’ll probably begin happening in the next few months. Give it five years, and the idea of not having a tablet to hand will be a strange as going anywhere without your mobile.

 

The Art of Being Invisible

Invisible Man

Recently Citrix commissioned a survey into the public perception of cloud computing and it went ever so slightly viral.  Which was presumably the intent – to get magazines and websites to publish articles which link Citrix with cloud computing, rather than actually to learn anything new about the cloud.  I have nothing against this – Citrix is a company that is a big player in the growing cloud, but anyone who hasn’t noticed this (and many haven’t) probably still consider them to be ‘Those metaframe people’ – so any PR that works is probably a good thing.

What I found out from watching this unfold was:

Not many people writing articles about surveys actually link to the original source

Even when I got to the original source, I wasn’t able to locate the survey people were give, or the responses to those questions – just the results, as digested by the company.  Which means I have absolutely no idea of the context in which to put the results.

Most people who actually reported on the article didn’t seem to care.  They pretty much parroted the press release data.  Again, as I would have expected – that seems to be what tech journalism is all about.  But it would be nice to see more people out there who get some interesting data and actually think about it – and its implications – before writing anything.

And finally, as the survey suggests:  Not many people know what cloud computing is.

Which isn’t a surprise, because it is a made up term which loosely describes a whole bunch of tech industry trends.  In short, I think we can safely say it comes from those vague technical drawings of infrastructure where you might draw a few data centers, each with a bunch of servers and storage inside, then link them by straight lines to a picture of a cloud – often with the words ‘The Internet’ inside to suggest the data centers were connected together via someone else’s infrastructure.  As people are increasingly hosting there technology on someone else’s infrastructure, rather than in bits of a datacenter maintain by company employees we say that technology is in the cloud.

The public don’t know about this.  And frankly they don’t care.

And also they shouldn’t.

My day job is developing a key part of the infrastructure for the cloud.  Without it big parts of what we call the cloud wouldn’t work – or at best would have to work in a very different and less good way.  You will almost certainly have used part of this product in some way today.  And you probably don’t even realise it, or care.  So why don’t I care that no-one knows about the cloud?  Why don’t I wish more people would love my work and sing its praises?

Because, if I do my job well, my work is invisible.  Every time you notice anything about my work, any time you worry that it exists in any way, shape, or form, you’re keeping me up at night because I’m not doing my job well.

I’ll give you an example:  Electricity.  To get electricity there are power stations, huge networks of wires, substations, transformers, all ending up at a plug socket in your house.  You don’t notice these.  You don’t care.  Unless – that is – it all stops working… or perhaps you have some technical problem like trying to run a 110 volt appliance in the UK.  If electricity wasn’t invisible – if we had to ring up and request enough power for our TV set to run, then we would care more – and enjoy our lives a little bit less.

Cloud computing is actually all about making computing into a utility, just like electricity.  It is about not having to worry about where servers are.  It is about not having to worry about where your data is.  Now, some people have to worry about electricity – if you’ve ever set up a data center, you’ll know that you need to start caring about all sorts of issues which don’t worry the home owner.  Similarly, if you work in the IT industry, you’ll have all sorts of worries about aspects of CLoud computing which end users simply shouldn’t ever have to care about.

So if you ask a man in the street about the cloud – he should remain more worried about the sort of cloud which rains on him.  And, to determine how worried he should be, he’ll probably ask Siri on his iPhone.  And not care about how Siri takes his voice input, and uses vast numbers of computers to respond to it with data generated by metrological offices who process big data over vast grids of computers.  He won’t worry about anything which goes in between, and more than he worries about how to charge is iPhone when he gets home.

Consumers already have their heads in the cloud.  They don’t realise it.  and they don’t care.  because they are already used to it.  To them the cloud isn’t anything new, its just how things are these days.  As for companies and programmers – we need to make the cloud less and less obvious, less and less difficult.  One shouldn’t need to think about doing something in the cloud, because that should be the easiest way to do things.  We have to take the blocks of code we put together, and make them blocks which work across the cloud as seamlessly as they currently work across CPU cores.  We need to stop thinking in terms of individual computers and individual locations – and those of us who build the code need to make it easier and easier to do this.

We are already on our way.  But would I want to be the number one clod computing company?  No, I would want to be the number one computing company – because once everyone is in the cloud, the cloud vanishes, and we ar back playing the same game we always played.

 

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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