Baroque Cycle – 2nd Rotation

I just finished reading the remarkable “Baroque Cycle” by Neil Stephenson.

The Baroque Cycle by Neil Stephenson

It’s a 3-volume, 8 book, 3,000 page historical fiction covering a pantheon of characters, in the late 17th and early 18th century. It’s about international trade, wars, espionage, heists, slave-trade, cryptography, enlightenment, alchemy, the Newton-Leibniz calculus controversy, piracy, Cromwell, vagabonds and lords, monetary policy, the age or reason, English and French monarchies, baroque architecture and city planning, King Salomon’s Gold, South-East Asian warlords, duels, unrequited love, the Plague, horology, Tzar Nicholas, buried treasure, Catholic-Protestant-Puritan battle for ascendancy, sea voyages, hand-to-hand combat with period arms, the Inquisition, the fire of London, The Royal Society, and 20 other joyously interconnected ideas.

What is more it is imbued with colorful heroes and villains, many based on unimaginably detailed research of real people living at the time. It carries on at a good pace and many sections leave you smiling and shaking your head at the vocabulary and virtuosity of this remarkable author.

The Baroque cycle is an epic masterpiece by a genius.

It is so good, that this is the second time I’ve read it.

Preserving History is Not a Spectator Sport

Yesterday, I spent the whole day copying home movies off of DVDs onto my computer hard-drive.  I was doing this as an act of historical preservation, one of many that I have done over the years. As I was feeding disk after disk into the computer, I reflected on the effort needed to fight the ravages of time …

Pop Quiz: Name Your Great Grand-Mother

As my family’s self-appointed archivist, I have taken it upon myself to capture my family’s narrative, images and memories. Over the years I have developed an extended family tree, have recorded miles of video tape, have transcribed thousands of words of narrative, have interviewed family members on audio tape and have taken thousands of pictures. I have also documented a mission of rediscovery where I joined my father on a trip to Poland to visit the village and the people who saved him during the war.

As the child of a holocaust survivor, I know too well that the memory of people and of entire human societies easily vanish. I have made it my mission to capture and record as much personal history as I can. I now know quite a bit of my parent’s story. Less of my grandparents. And sadly, still almost nothing of my great-grandparents. This is true of most people I know, and we are the poorer because of it. So, for the sake of my children (and their children), I have adopted this archivist quest so they don’t suffer from historical myopia where only the last generation or so is in view at any one time.

A Menagerie of Media

Starting in the early 80’s, I started taking photos on cheap point-and-shoot cameras and gathering the prints into albums. At the time, film negatives were a nuisance and sadly were never kept. Later that decade, I moved to 35mm slide film for the superior quality and the experience of viewing images up on a big screen.  My grandparents and my uncle had taken beautiful B&W photos and large format colour slides, so I also gathered and cataloged these as well.

In the late 80’s I bought a film camera that used state-of-the-art cassette tapes. I took hours of video of my sons growing up, family events and of goofy canoe trips with my friends. During the 1990’s I upgraded to a 35mm still camera and to a move compact video camera. In the 2000’s I upgraded again to digital cameras and digital video.

Video Cassette Video Mini-Cassette
VHS Paper Photos
35mm Slides


I also gathered old letters, official documents, postcards and other gems of the lives of my parents and grandparents.

My wife is my co-crusader in the fight against the ravages of time and memory. She keeps a daily diary, writing her life’s story and the interplay of her family and friends. Every night she writes a page or two. Every year, she starts a new volume. In the basement are boxes with over 30 volumes, as she has been writing without pause since she was nine years old.

Entropy Never Sleeps

Paper letters, diaries and photographs along with magnetic tape and plastic DVDs all have life spans determined by physical forces. According to the experts, well managed, acid-free cotton or linen paper can last over 500 years.  Magnetic tape has 25 years before the content is at risk. Interestingly, even DVDs are not expected to last more than 50 years. But even these numbers can be optimistic. The content stored on these physical materials are subject to local destruction; the entire Library of Alexandria went up in smoke after only 250 years in existence, even though the papyrus and vellum scrolls in it probably could have lasted much longer.

What is the best to store these historical treasures? My answer is threefold:


  1. digitize the material to mitigate physical degradation of the media over time
  2. relentlessly adapt the digital content to newer storage media as technology advances makes previous storage media obsolete
  3. physically disperse the content to mitigate the forces local destruction (purposeful or accidental)


So, besides the oral tradition of telling stories, the only real hope of keeping my family’s history alive is to digitize it, transform it from time-to-time and to disperse it.

Network Storage and Cloud Storage

Hard disk are mechanical machines. Their parts wear and then crash. It’s not a question of if, but only of when.  A solution to this issue is to set up a storage scheme where two or more hard disks have mirrored content. In that way, if one of them crashes, the other has a complete copy of all the information. Then, you just replace the defective hard-disk, and the set of content is copied across. Now you are back to steady-state again. I have set this system up in my house using a consumer device called DLink DNS-323. It is a little box connected to my network with a pair of hard disk in it. Software running on all the computers in the house continually copy important files from the local hard-drives over to the DNS-323. If a computer hard-drive were to crash, we could restore the content from the DNS-323 after replacing the hard-drive. Even if a file is mistakenly erased, we can get it back from the DNS-323.

But this isn’t just a disk-in-a-box. The DNS-323 is a dual-disk device.  If a disk in the DNS-323 were to crash, our back-up information wouldn’t be lost. That is because the other disk in the box has a perfect copy. I can simpley swap out the defective disk for a new disk and the content from the other disk will be automatically copied over.

D-Link-DNS-323Hard disk redundancy on the network

That’s a good step to preserving important family memories, but it doesn’t address the need to physically disperse content. Remember, everything in a building is at risk in a theft or fire, even dually-redundant hard-disks put in place by skilled geeks.

The current best practice in information storage is to put your content in the cloud. What this means in practice is that your content will reside on redundant and backed-up hard-disks connected to one or more servers somewhere in the USA. So, if your local copy of your content is damaged or destroyed, you can (in theory) simply download a copy from your cloud storage provider. Mind-you, all of this is contingent on keeping up your annual payments, having your provider stay in business throughout the years, and having the fabric of our society staying together so that services like these don’t end up like the Library of Alexandria. Admittedly, these are a lot of assumptions.  So, realists that I am, I consider the cloud to be a medium-term solution to the problem of content preservation.

There are plenty to choose from, but I ended up signing up with a service called Crash Plan.  I have set up my family computers so that they all copy important content to both the DND-323 and the Crash Plan servers in the cloud.

Crash PlanOnly 6 months to go before all my home videos are uploaded ….

You have to have some patience with this set up. The connection between our house and the Crash Plan servers (in Minnesota, they tell me) is through the family Internet DSL connection. With 400GBytes of video data queued to upload through only 400Kb/sec of upload bandwidth, this initial process is going to take over 6-months!

One thing about history is that it teaches us patience.


I don’t know why, but lately, I’ve been studying ants.

It started with a reference in a Richard Dawkins book to the work of E.O. Wilson — the famous mymecologist (a $10 word for ant biologist). Wilson is credited with popularizing the controversial area of sociobiology – an evolutionary explanation of social behaviors such as altruism and aggression.

I have recently read a number of books on ants including The Leafcutter Ants by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler and also Before The Swarm by Nicholas Griffin.

Evolution has imbued many ant species with mind-numbing social organization and economic sophistication. Some species form super-colonies with millions of individuals. These species have evolved the specialization of agriculture – they have been farming fungus millions of years. The Ants and their fungus have formed a mutualistic dependence so that particular species of fungus are only found in Ant colonies — no where else in nature. The ants form massive marching columns to go out to cut fresh leaves and stems. They don’t eat the leaves (they can’t digest it). Instead, they bring back the pieces, chew them and secrete special liquids onto the bolus, and then feed the fungus with it.  The Ants grow and eat this one specific species of fungus and the fungus uses the Ants to bring it organic matter and to weed out parasites and competing species of fungus.

Something like 99.99% of all the ants in a leaf-cutter colony are sisters. There is usually only one queen who is an egg-laying machine. She produces virtually all female workers who, according to size and age, taken on specific tasks within the colony. In some species, they switch tasks when they reach a certain size or age.

The colonies can be huge (acres of underground tunnels, chambers and air ventilation shafts) and are built up over decades.

Atta cephalotes carrying a leaf with nestmates hitching a ride

The queen will produce male and ‘royal’ offspring (female ants capable of reproduction and flight)  only a few times — right before mating season. When these princesses are ready to leave the next for their mating flight, they grab a chunk of fungus and lodge it in a special cavity under their head.

After mating, they dig a burrow, remove the fungus and start to farm it. She dosen’t eat any of it until the crop is well underway and she has produced enough daughters to tend it properly.

After studying this, I can’t help but feel humbled.

eBook? eGads!

I don’t want to make too big a deal about it, but I got a Kindle for my birthday and I found the impact on me to be a little scary.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noted that eReader devices and their associated eBooks are becoming quite popular. Over the last couple of years, they have emerged to become a significant element in the rapidly evolving cyborg that is modern western culture. The price had recently come down on the latest generation of these devices and thus I felt I was ready to satisfy my intellectual and geek curiosity. I let my wife know I would be interested in one. So, on the day of my birthday, she “gave” me the one I had chosen and ordered the week before.



Its a Book on a Screen. Get Over it.

So what? What’s the big deal?

Reading is important to me. I read not just for the decadent escapism of a good book; I read to satisfy my need to understand who I am and how the world works. It’s hard to describe, but I read for sort of the same reasons a bodybuilder works out … for the fitness it provides. I feel ‘flabby’ if I’m not reading — unfit intellectually and spiritually.

When I was in my teens, I read fantasy and science fiction books. Isaac Asimov, David Niven, Harry Harrison and JRR Tolkien were among my favorites . Then, in my early twenties, after reading Douglas Hofstadter’s amazing Godel, Escher, Bach , my appetite changed to a craving for psychology, natural history and sciences. As I read more on these topics, I followed references and reviews and I found myself increasingly gravitating to books written by the great thinkers of our time. I sought out authors who could explain nature and human-kind through writings in science, natural & human history and philosophy. Lately I begrudgingly find myself developing a taste for well written literature that explores elements of the human condition ( such as Neal Stephenson ).

What I have read over these years has significantly molded who I am and my perspectives on how the universe works. I have steadily collected a library of hundreds of books.  Scattered at home and in my office are the seminal works by Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, Steven J. Gould, John Keegan, Jared Diamond, Robert Wright and others. These works have shaped my understanding, have structured my thoughts and have helped to dispelled the fog of my ignorance.

Almost like a child with a security blanket, I have kept my books close to me all these years. I never borrowed books — I almost always bought them so that I could keep them. For example, I can lift my head up from this computer screen now and can see dozens of books (“my” books) on the shelves of the family room. There they sit stacked and scattered sedately on the shelf. Some have been with me for 35 years. Just glancing at them brings back into focus their key messages and the feeling of wonder I felt when I first read their pages. Once in a while, I pull one out read a passages to my sons when we are discussing a pertinent topic. Most of the time they just lay there quietly. But even so, it brings me a gentle pleasure knowing that I can walk over and take one down and once again be bathed in their knowledge.

LCD?  Thou Upstart!

So, how would a cold electronic slate stand-up to the majesty of the printed book? Was it silly to assume that a skinny, inorganic doodad would somehow matching the stately presence of a well bound codex? Was I just wasting my money on a fad? There is only one way to find out. I decided that I was going to give this a fair shot, but I secretly thought it going to be a short lived experiment.

First, it is important to say that Amazon has done a decent job with their latest generation eReader. Its design and functionality has a lot going for it and it is priced reasonably ($139). Many have written reviews on the Kindle hardware and user experience ( so I won’t). Suffice it to say that the reading experience is surprisingly good.

To ease my transition (and give the doohickey a fighting chance) I also ordered the nice leather cover with the integrated light. This addition nearly doubled the purchase price, but aesthetics are important. It made the glass and plastic device feel more like a ‘real’ book.

Kindle cover

eBook in a Book's Clothing

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. eHyde

Soon after firing up the device and using it for a while, I noted a curious change in how I read.

I didn’t just buy an eBook at the eStore, download it onto the eReader and start reading linearly, as I did a regular book. Combined with the power of the public Internet, the Kindle gave me access to dozens of important books I was interested in, but would have never had taken the troubled to find or to buy. It is not well known, but the copyright on many books expire about 70 years after the author’s death. At that point, the intellectual property reverts to the public domain. That means there are no royalties to be paid and anyone can copy and publish the work.

Amazon provides a good number of these older public-domain books for download on their website for free or for a nominal amount (a dollar or two). But other brilliant projects such as, are taking on the job with a passion — digitizing huge libraries of older books and making them available for free download. The size and diversity of their catalog is stupefying. I have downloaded (for free!) seminal scientific and literary milestones including Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, Newton’s Principa Mathematica, the complete works of William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, chunks of Encyclopedia Britannica, books of poetry by Robert Service, The Koran, etc. etc. Say what you will about the deleterious impact of the internet on our culture, Internet + Gutenberg Project + eReader = boon to literacy.

On the Kindle, you can search and annotate the eBook’s text. You can share you annotations using social media. You can pick-up reading where you left off on your PC or your Smart Phone (it syncs everything up). You can change font size. You can highlight an unfamiliar word and get a pop-up dictionary explanation in just one second. You’re not just passively reading, you’re busy doing stuff.

In three months, I’ve downloaded more than two dozen books (and several audio books to boot). However, having a book does not mean reading a book. Since early October, I have managed to read only five eBooks cover-to-cover (note the soon-to-be arcane reference to covers):

Einstein: His Life and Universe Walter Issacson
The Einstein Theory of Relativity H.A. Lorentz
Two Years Before the Mast Richard Henry Dana Jr.
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Anabasis Xenophon

I have started reading a dozen others (where ‘started’ is anything from ‘skimmed a few pages’ to ‘read a chapter or two’) .

That being said, it was easy to read the five books on the Kindle’s eInk screen. I didn’t suffer. I got as much out of them as I would have if I read them in paper form. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I liked it.

Now for the scary stuff. The Kindle has turned me into a distracted and impatient reader. Over the course of a few months, my reading has changed from a slow stroll down a leafy lane to a game of over-caffeinated hop-scotch. No more do I reach over to the bed table and select from a stack of 3 in-progress books, one of which I will advance a dozen or so pages before I drift off. Now, I grab my eReader, peruse the twenty or so eBooks I have downloaded and then jump into one for a little dip. If it is boring or I don’t get a buzz off one, I pop back up and then dive into another one. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

Interested in reading a bit more of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography? Hop in and scan a page or two. Are his musings too arcane?  No problem, let’s see what Darwin had to say about animal husbandry in 19th century England. The device remembers where you were and takes you back to the location you last left off. Had enough Victorian discourse on pigeon plumage deformation under artificial selection? Time for something a little more timely. Let’s check out the front page of the New York Times (yes, the Kindle has WIFI and a web browser built in). Etc. Etc.

Reading is no Longer A Spectator Sport

So what does this all mean?  What conclusions do I draw from the experiment? Is the eReader/eBook a good thing or a bad thing? It’s tough to say.

As Melvin Kranzberg said, technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.  In this case, Mr. Kranzberg is right on. eReaders and eBooks are not neutral. What they are doing is changing the nature of the medium.

With almost 10% of books sales now e-books, the marketplace for the written word is just starting to feel the change. Traditional media such as newspapers and magazines have struggled to try to monetize their content on the web now have found a possible channel for electronic distribution through eReader devices (eBook readers, general purpose devices such as iPads). Venerable brands like the New York Times and the Economist may yet survive the inexorable implosion of their print businesses.

It is not just the distribution channel for books that will undergo change, but the concept of a book as a static lump of text is also up for grabs. Neal Stephenson is in the midst of a fascinating experiment of writing a book as an on-line only serial novel. Together with Greg Bear, he is writing the core story with chapters released every month or so. Readers ‘subscribe’ to the book and download chapters as they are published. Specialized apps are available for all the major Smart Phones, pads and eBook readers.  But here is where it gets interesting. The authors are also producers in the sense that they are working with artists, film-makers, game designers and us, the end-readers, to create a rich interactive social-world where the story takes place.


Don't just sit there reading, get busy

Check out the Mongoliad for more information.

This and other social-media based projects may be pioneering a change to the very concept of a book. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

It is trite to quote Marshall McLuhan famous aphorism, but the old man couldn’t have been more right. The medium is the message.

Old and Improved

This week, I had an interesting exchange of emails with colleagues from the old days . We worked together on the Ontario Telepresence Project, a multi-disciplinary, multi-year, multi-million dollar research project in the area of Computer Supported Collaborative Work. The 3-year project pioneered the use of videoconferencing in group settings and explored the intersections of sociology and technology before way before it was fashionable to do so.

Gale Moore, who was a among the lead researchers on the project, started the conversation thread. She drew our attention to an article she just read about a ‘new’ group awareness system called myUnity.


MyUnity – dressed-up in all it’s newness

MyUnity is an awareness tool which presents you with an automatically updating visual contact list. It displays your buddy’s availability based on multiple sources of information about her. For example, it draws on the location of her cell phone and comparative snap-shots from her webcam.  From this (and other cues) it determines if your buddy is in and/or available. Pretty Cool.

Cool indeed.  However, it turns out that this idea has been around for quite a while. As a matter of fact, in 1997 a colleague and I built a product that did pretty much the same thing called Prorata.


ProRata circa 1997 – Ahhh, I was so handsome back then

Prorata grabbed a grainy, low-resolution, black & white snapshot from your buddy’s webcam about once in 15-seconds. It gathered a few of these together and displayed them in a kind of buddy-grid so that you could see roughly who was in, who was out and who was busy. We purposely didn’t grab real-time, high-res, colour images because we didn’t want this to be surveillance, but rather awareness. The social analogy was to make it like looking down a hallway and seeing someone seated at their desk. You see just enough to know their availability, nothing else.  We would know if the buddy was on the phone, sitting with a visitor, out of the office, etc.  Just like peeking into an office in real-life. And the best part is the you and your buddy’s didn’t have to explicitly set a flag to tell people your availability from moment to moment. We could infer this simply by glancing at the grid and seeing what you were doing. Chat and click-to-call features were also part of the application.

Now, Prorata was ahead of it’s time (a euphemism meaning I didn’t sell many copies). However, I like to think that it anticipated many of the group awareness/collaboration tools that followed.

It would be nice to say that this buddy-grid concept was my original idea, but it wasn’t. No — the concept was around and I ‘borrowed’ the idea from a tool called Postcards cooked up at the University of Toronto. Postcards also grabbed webcam images and displayed them on a grid. But it also took as one of it’s inputs the ‘door state’. Using the roller-ball mechanism of a regular PC mouse,  the researchers instrumented the hinges of our office doors so that the software could sense if our doors were open, ajar or closed.  These are important social signals and now we could use our doors as inputs to our PCs.  Nice!

Door Mouse

A rubber-band and a torn-apart PC mouse = door state sensor

However, the UofToronto’s Postcards application was itself based on still earlier work by Paul Dourish and Sara Bly called Portholes (see the Proceedings of the ACM CHI ’92 Conference pages 541-547). This tool also did the buddy-grid thing.

But wait — you guessed it, Portholes was itself based on even earlier work by Travers and Borning who presented on it at a 1991 ACM CHI conference on Human Factors in Software. I am sure the trail doesn’t end there…

Anyway,  as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Gale was bemused at the apparent novelty of the myUnity product. The implied question is: can a product really claim to be ‘new’ if it basically the same idea that was cooked up twenty years ago?

The answer is interesting.

Bill Buxton (who was our Principal Researcher on the project) responded to Gale’s email by pointing to a magazine article he wrote in which he ponders this particular innovation phenomenon.  In the article, he refers to the muti-decade incubation period for ideas as “The Long Nose of Innovation”. The nose being the stretched-out period of time before the adoption curve starts to take off.   Bill observes that it takes a very long time for a technological idea to spin and morph and grow into a mainstream product/service.  He points to a research study that traced the history of a set of core technologies in the CIT sector. The study found that it is not at all uncommon for a technology to take 20 or 30 years to mature from inception to a $ billion industry. Bill ends the thought-provoking article with this observation: “Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old“.

So, the take away message for me from our email conversation is that the game of innovation is not just about invention. Truly new stuff is important, but it’s not the whole story. Innovation is also about how you bring forward technologies that may already be invented, but in need of interconnection and clever transformation.

The technologies for the next $ billion dollar marketplace are likely close at hand.

To see a world in a grain of sand

I had a moment of awe during these ‘days of awe’ … but not the religious kind.

When I was a grad student at the Technion in the mid 80s, I designed a custom image processor on a microchip whose transistor channels were about 5 micrometers wide ( 5 x 10 ^-6   = 5  millionths of a meter). With this technology, I could line up about 15 transistors end-to-end across the width of a human hair. That seems as impressive to me now as it did then.

Human Hair

A lock from a standard Homo Sapien

However a few days ago, I read a story about Intel’s recent announcement that it’s upcoming generation of processors will have transistors 32 nanometes wide, with a roadmap taking them to 22 and then 15 nanometers in just a couple of years. Fifteen nanometers is 15 billionths of a meter. That’s almost a thousand times smaller than the technology I was working with twenty years ago.

With Intel’s new fabrication technology, I could have lined up over 5,300 transistors end-to-end across the width of a human hair. In fact, fifteen nanometers is so small, that I would have had to take into consideration that I would only get about 60 atoms of silicon to work with in the transistor channel. Quantum effects start to make themselves felt at this scale.  I would have paid more attention in my quantum physics classes had I known that in only a few decades designers would bouncing electrons off of only a few dozen slippery atoms.

What gave me pause when I read the article was not just that the advanced fabrication technology I used for my Master’s degree had been eclipsed a thousand-fold. What I marveled at was the market pull for these ever-shrinking devices. To me, it is a complete surprise use that these ultra small, ultra cheep devices are now being used for. No one a few decades ago would dream that homes would have dozens of high-power processors in them and that middle-class teenagers would walk around with a half dozen powerful computers for their personal use (laptops, cell phones, music players, smart-chip credit cards, etc.). Today, my teen-aged kids would find it difficult to keep up their studies, their hobbies and their friendships without using personal processors and the computer networks that link them. In an incredibly short time, western economies and society have quickly adopted and become dependent on cheap CPUs, memory and networks.

In their book Connected , Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler coin an apt term for the species who’s behaviour is mediated by social connections — Homo dictyous — “network man” (from the Latin Homo for “human” and the Greek Dicty for “net”) . They use this idea in a slightly different context (as an alternative to economic-based analysis of human behaviour), but I think the term is apt in a more technological sense. We have become deeply dependent on our silicon devices in ways that we don’t even fully understand.

With Moore’s law , we can look forward to even smaller devices by the end of the decade. In fact, fifteen nanometers is just an order of magnitude larger than the size of a DNA molecule (about 2nm). So, it is not unreasonable to expect that transistors will be the size of DNA by 2020. They will also be extremely cheap, extremely low-power and extremely ubiquitous.

Imagine the possibilities.

Addendum: Things keep driving forward. In the 6-weeks since I wrote this blog. On Oct 29, 2010, Intel, Samsung, Toshiba announced a consortium aiming for 10nm chips by 2016.

Non-Business Books About Business

You can tell a lot about people by what they collect. For instance, when I was a teen, one of the ways that I would learn about the party host was to rummage through their stack of LPs. It said something about the guy’s personality if he had B.B.King and Hendrix albums on the top of the pile, vs. Donovan and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

As I got older, I would look through the books on the shelf. Dozens of heavily thumbed sci-fi pocket-books paints a different picture of personality than does 1000-page romantic epics (like The Thornbirds) stacked like bricks next to the bed.

Even in today’s electronic world, books remain an interesting indicator of personality. Business books are among the standard fixtures on the credenza of many of the business executives I know. The giant lettering screaming at you from the glossy dust-covers seem to be the sine qua non of the mahogany set. Often, my executive colleagues are sporting the latest just-off-the-press hardcover by the guru of the moment. Smiling at us from the back-page vanity photo, these authors extol us that our mission is in REENGINEERING THE CORPORATION, but we have to take on the SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE as go IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE but to be careful about CROSSING THE CHASM or else we may reach the TIPPING POINT.

Business Books

The Cream of the Business Press?

I read many of these kinds of popular business press books while I was studying for my MBA. As my studies were part-time and took 5-years to complete, I saw more than a few ideas come and go. New theories would contradict (or at least displace) the old ones. Firms that were highlighted for their ‘excellence’ were a few years later bankrupt and out of business. Authors which were lauded on talk shows for their brilliant insight were soon in the shadows of obscurity. Few of the ideas stood the test of time. I am not saying that their is nothing to learn from those that study the nature of economics and commerce. But the track-record of the popular business press is poor.

Ten Excellent Books

Some Non-Business Books on Business

I am a technology executive and I too do a lot of reading about business. However, I rarely read business books. In fact, I believe some of the best ideas on the subject is in the realm of evolutionary science, psychology and in human history. In my reading of evolution (through such brilliant authors as Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright and Jonathan Weiner) I have learned about game theory, competition/collaboration, the interplay of genotype/phenotype, envorionmental fit, adaptation and human psychology. Douglas Hofstadter, Roger Penrose and Steven Pinker have taught me about the fundamental building blocks of the mind and how they form culture, morals, behaviours and norms. Through my study of conflict and military history (by such authors as John Keegan, Sun Tzu, Anthony Beavor) and the history of innovation/trade/economics (by Daniel Boorstin, Mark Kurlansky, Pierre Burton) reveal the manifestation of our evolutionary and psychological makeup in the interplay of leadership, technology, passion, risk taking and the pursuit of security, status and wealth.

The ideas in these books speak to the fundamental nature of who we are, how we interact with one another and the ways we can make our living in the world. Isn’t that what business is all about?

Inputs and Outputs

I am ‘tech support’ for my parents and in-laws. Whenever I travel to Winnipeg to visit them, I spend hours installing drivers, purging spam, defragmenting disks, installing printers and memory, etc. etc. 

During my last visit, my mother-in-law was telling me something about her ‘computer’. It took me a moment but then I realized she was actually talking about her CRT monitor. To her,  the monitor was the computer. That is because that is the part that she looks at. The glowing screen is where she receives feedback on her keyboard and mouse inputs and see the resulting outputs. She doesn’t interact with the grey box full of boards, wires and spinning disks — it is irrelevant to what she is trying to accomplish. To her (as to many people) the input/output transducers are the computer.

My mother-in-law’s cognitive model of computing brought to mind a time in the 90’s where I worked with a group of user-interface geniuses at the University of Toronto.  I was a research manager funding and promoting the work of professors, students and staff working on multi-disciplinary projects within the departments of computer science, engineering, sociology and psychology.  These folks were creating the intellectual framework for many of the user interfaces that we use today.

Hiroshi Ishii working the Active Desk at the Ontario Telepresence Project

I worked closely with a team that was on the forefront of what was then called Computer Supported Collaborative Work.  The Ontario Telepresence Project  built and experimented with numerous computing, audio and video systems to enable collaboration at a distance. It was there, years before the Internet became part of our society’s fabric, that I learned about distance collaboration through videoconferencing and computing systems.

Another one of my favourite groups were the Neural Networks guys.  This eclectic bunch were exploring how to create dynamic, adaptive computing systems which simulated how our brains learn.  Their research accomplishments were many, but among the most evocative for me was student Sidney Fels’ Glove Talk II.

Sidney Fels' Glove Talk II

Listen to the Hand (click for 30-second movie)

In Sidney’s own words:

GloveTalkII is a system that translates hand gestures to speech through an adaptive interface. Hand gestures are mapped continuously to ten control parameters of a parallel formant speech synthesizer. The mapping allows the hand to act as an artificial vocal tract that produces speech in real time. This gives an unlimited vocabulary in addition to direct control of fundamental frequency and volume. Currently, the best version of Glove-TalkII uses several input devices (including a Cyberglove, a ContactGlove, a three space tracker, and a foot pedal), a parallel formant speech synthesizer, and three neural networks. One subject has trained to speak intelligibly with Glove-TalkII. He speaks slowly but with far more natural sounding pitch variations than a text-to-speech syntesizer. 

It is incredible to think that this ground-breaking work was done 15-years ago and only now are gesture-based inputs finding their way into the marketplace.  Apple’s iPod with it’s gesture control is only the most famous example of many new products in this field.

I believe that increased processor speeds, miniturization and mobilitiy are important factors in bringing the benefits of information technology to our society.  But we will also need innovative, adaptive, intuitive user-interfaces which fit the way we work and interact.


Capped in the Back of the Head … a Lot

Over the years I have notice an interesting pattern in the way that innovations enter the marketplace. A technology that is intended for one purpose often finds greater utility and appeal in a completely different context.  The examples are many (the telephone, TNT, the gramophone, Teflon, and so on) and there is even a body of research on the subject.

Sometimes an innovative idea finds re-application in a market with diametrically opposed purposes to the one in which it was conceived. This week, I came upon an eye-brow arching example of this while I was researching telehealth solutions.

Dr. Mark Ombrellaro got impatient while awaiting FDA approval for a telehealth haptic system that enables a physician to remotely perform a physical examination of a patient.  This vascular surgeon developed a telehealth-enabled vest. A clinician using specially instrumented gloves moved their hands to teleoperate the remote vest. Through hand-gestures, the specialist would trigger the inflation or deflation of pneumatic cells on the vest to simulate a hands-on-body examination. So far, so good.

Irony: incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

However, getting a healthcare product into the market requires enormous time and effort. Not content to fritter away the months and years while his patent for the telemedicine system worked it’s way through the health care bureaucracy, he turned to his brother who worked at a VP of Sales & Marketing at a gaming company. Together, they re-implemented the idea (with some interesting modifications) as a force-feedback device for first-person shooter games.

Click above to watch a geek get capped

The telehealth vest was altered so that it works with popular PC-based video games of the shooting, driving, monster-killing variety.  The user puts the vest on together with an optional helmet and jacks into the control unit. The control unit connects to the PC. Then, when your character in an on-line game gets jostled, bumped or shot, you get a “pneumatic thump” to the appropriate area on your torso or head.

Bang, bang, thump, thump, you’re dead. 

What is interesting here is that a device that was originally intended to help care for people, has been subverted to one which simulates hurting people. The market is bigger and the commercial returns are likely better than the original idea.

The irony is delicious.

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

With only the odd break, I have been a jogger for over 25 years.  I don’t go far and I don’t go fast but I am regular. Four to five times a week I slip on my running shoes and hit the street (or basement treadmill in the winter).  Some of the many things I like about jogging is that it takes little in fancy equipment, you can do it any time, you don’t have to go somewhere or book something to do it, it’s simple, and you don’t have to be seen wearing some mega corporation logo (which I hate to do).  So, I  surprised myself earlier this week when I let myself get sucked into buying a matching electronic pedometer when I purchased a new pair of sneakers. Not just any pedometer, but one from the marketing monsters Nike and Apple.

Nike + Ipod = distraction nike ipod display

Nike + iPod = Personal Area Network

There are two pieces to the kit. A sensor/transmitter slips into a specially built cavity in the left-shoe foot-bed.  The sensor uses a piezoelectric accelerometer and a proprietary 2.4GHz radio transmitter. The non-replaceable battery is supposed to be good for 1,000 hours of active use (it goes to sleep when still). The receiver is a small plastic rectangle that slots into a generation 2 or 3 iPod nano.  Any significant movement of the sensor results in a link being established with the receiver and your in business. You can upload your stats to a website and trend your workouts, compete with others, etc. They have sold hundreds of thousands of these things since the launch in the summer of 2006. I must admit, it has been fun to play with as I jogged. I could see real-time updates of my speed, distance and calories.

Peek-a-Boo, I see You

Having bought the gizmo spontaneously without my usual compulsive pre-purchase research on the internet, I spent some time shortly after my first workout to see what’s what with the product.  Cutting through the marketing clutter, I came across a real eye-opener.  Shortly after it’s launch, some enterprising young engineers from the University of Washington figured out that the device had some serious security flaws. They figured out that the transmitter did not establish an encrypted channel to the receiver, that the transmitter would send signals even though the receiver was not in range and that multiple transmitters could be detected by a single receiver.  Using low-cost electronics equipment, they hacked the receiver so that could pick up any transmitter in range and display the transmitter’s unique ID on a computer.

cheap Wifi tracking device for Nike+ipod Google map of nike+ipod people

Follow the bouncing jogger

$200 Distributed Surveillance System

Not content with a single short-range detector, then hooked up some cheap electronics to a linux board and added a WiFi wireless antenna (total cost < $200) so that they could show how a bad-guy could deploy lots of these things around a campus and detect nike+iPod transmitters as they came in range.  Finally, to add salt to the wound, they constructed a website that displays the whereabouts of all the nike+iPod transmitters detected by their grid of WiFi devices onto a Google Map. The result of this exploit is a poor-man’s surveillance system that can track and trend where you are and where you have been.

A lot of attention has been paid to the privacy issues associated with unsecured 802.11 networks, RFID tags and open Bluetooth networks.  These clever kids from Seattle have demonstrated that even proprietary consumer wireless devices can present a security nightmare in the wrong hands. This cautionary tale should give us folks in the telehealth business pause. We have to think about the security posture of the many wireless telehomecare bio-telemetry devices that will be pouring into the market in the coming years. What do we need to do to insure that the data from these devices never finds their way onto a Google Map?

For more information on the hack, see: .