Tuesday, September 06, 2005

How to Subscribe

There are basically three ways to subscribe to a weblog.

Browse regularly for new content.
This is fine for blogs that are updated every day. But as a reader I prefer bloggers that only post when they have something interesting to say, rather than ones that feel themselves under some kind of compulsion to post regularly.
Register with a service that sends you an email whenever there is new content.
This is fine if you like receiving email. But it might be a good idea to check the privacy policy before you give people your email address.
Use newsreading software or service that picks up an XML feed (either RSS or Atom). Material is published simultaneously in two formats: HTML and XML. Personally I prefer this option. It allows me to read news and commentary material in my own time, it allows me to subscribe to lots of infrequently updated blogs, and I seem to have better control of my subscriptions that way. I currently use Bloglines, which is a free web-based service.

And many people in the software industry share this preference. It is likely that XML feeds will be supported by lots of new software, including the next wave of browser.

All blogs from Veryard Projects and from the DontPanic Collective produce an XML feed, to support option 3. All these feeds go through Feedburner, which means that they can be read in either RSS or Atom format. Read more about subscribing with XML feeds.

For those who prefer email, I have registered all the blogs with Feedblitz. You can subscribe to as many blogs as you like, and Feedblitz will email new postings to you. Read Feedblitz privacy policy.

I have adopted this solution with the expectation that these services will transmit our content cleanly. If you experience any problems (from technical bugs to inappropriate advertising) please let me know.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Productivity or Creativity?

Various bloggers including Ross Mayfield and Martin Geddes complain about interruption and its effect on productivity.
But what about the effect on creativity? In Empty Words, John Cage wrote:

If there is any experience more than another which conduces to open-mindedness, it is the experience of being bothered by another, of being interrupted by another. ‘We are studying being interrupted.’ Say we do not practise any spiritual discipline. The telephone does it for us. It opens us to the world ‘outside’.

John Cage, Empty Words Amazon UK Amazon US
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Monday, October 11, 2004



The network is the, the network is the computer (Sun), the network is the platform (Linux, Orange) (for innovation, for services). the user is the platform, the user is the expert.

The soldier is the network, the network is the battlefield.

The medium is the message (McCluhan), property is theft (Proudhon).

The purpose of the system is what it does (POSIWID)

The customer is king. The customer is god. The voice of the people is the voice of God. (Vox Populi, Vox Dei).

Knowledge is Power, God is Love, ...


Here is a wide range of statements, whose only common element is the word "is".

What is the algebra of these equations? Are the terms interchangeable? Does the statement remain valid if you reverse it? Can we combine these statements transitively?
The soldier is the network.
The network is the battlefield.
Therefore the soldier is the battlefield.
What does it mean to equate this with that? Are the two terms literally or metaphorically equal? Perhaps sometimes it just implies a weak association: when you find X look around for Y.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Email Problems

Many people still have milk and newspapers delivered daily to the doorstep. You have to tell them to stop when you go on vacation, otherwise there is a stack of stale news and rank milk awaiting your return.

I get a daily delivery of poorly spelled and curiously punctuated email into my Inbox, inviting me to partake of various strange potions and ambitious financial and anatomical services. Some of the senders of these interesting messages are kind enough to send many identical or similar copies. Although much of this email traffic is filtered out, it remains in a separate folder on the server, in case I need to inspect it.

If only I could contact the senders of these interesting messages, I could ask them to hold their fire until my return. Alas, they shyly conceal their kindness behind false or stolen names.

As a result, my mailbox was full within 2 or 3 days of my leaving for vacation. (Nice and hot, thank you for asking.) Any email that was sent me after this time would have been rejected and possibly returned. If you have sent me an email in the past couple of weeks, I probably didn't get it. Please resend.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Business Collaboration Framework

[cross-posted to Software blog]

A strange notice appeared on the BCF website before it went off the air, from which it appeared that the various parties building the Business Collaboration Framework had not managed to develop/sustain satisfactory terms for their own collaboration. Something to do with IPR.

As a result of the lack of any policy statement that can be evaluated by our legal advisors we are compelled to concur with the potential risks and exposure identified by Mr. David Marsh, UN/CEFACT Legal Rapporteur, during his presentation at the May Plenary session. Accordingly, we have had no alternative but to inform the UNECE that Ge-BAC has suspended all active project team participation by its employees within UN/CEFACT and its Groups.

Further, on the advice of our legal counsel, Ge-BAC has suspend its hosting services for the TMG and BCF web sites, as well as the TMG list server, in order to avoid legal challenges related to the ownership and distribution rights of the IP reflected in the content of all online material. Ge-BAC regrets this action, but as a small company we must avoid all unwarranted potential legal actions. At such time as the UNECE can successfully provide IPR policy documentation, we will evaluate the acceptability of that policy to our business operations and continued full participation in UN/CEFACT activities.

Standardization is an unusual enterprise, and its committees are often dominated by people of a certain personality type. But even so, one might have thought that those engaged in standardizing collaboration would have the knowledge and skill to construct an effective collaboration for themselves.

However, a standards effort must anticipate and represent all possible difficulties. The BCF collaborators clearly stumbled across some intractable difficulty, and had the clarity and wisdom to recognize it as such, instead of fudging it as other less self-conscious collaborators might have done.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Binary Advice

Why is it that the question "what do you think?" seems to call for a Yes(because)/No(because) answer?

Apparently, when Jeff Bezos asks people what they think of his latest crazy idea, they all say No Way. (Well, who wants to be a Yes-Man these days?) (Creative Generalist blog translates Bezos wisdom into poetry.)

Seth Godin reckons that "what do you think?" is the wrong question. Instead, Seth recommends the question "how can I make this project even MORE remarkable?".

In my experience, the question "what do you think?" is rarely straighforward, and I have learned to be cautious about the kind of answer I give.

At the start of a relationship, when a woman asks her boyfriend for an opinion about something she's wearing, he is inclined to say something pacifying. (Says: Yes that looks gorgeous darling. Thinks: We are already late, yes that's fine, can we go now.) In the middle of a relationship, the boyfriend is careful to mix a few negative opinions from time to time ("Perhaps it would go better with the pink"), in order to increase the credibility of the "Yes that looks gorgeous darling" when they really are in a hurry. (Thus the question is not treated as a one-off game, but as a tactical move in a continuing game.)

Here's another example. If a man is in therapy, he might come up with a plan to change his life; and before taking action he might ask his therapist’s opinion: what do YOU think. Perhaps there are some therapists who would give a simple Yes/No answer. But many therapists avoid on principle giving a client a straight answer to any question.

In logical terms, "What do you think?" is a perfectly good open question, that allows the recipient to express a wide range of feelings (including anxiety, envy, or excitement) or creative ideas, or perhaps even further questions. But in practice, the question doesn’t elicit these kinds of response. Maybe this tells us something about the people who are being asked this question, the context in which the question is put, and the implied relationship that the question sets up between the questioner and the questioned -- for example between Bezos and his selected expert. Maybe this tells us something about the egos involved, or about the asymmetry of power and enterpreneurship.

Even among equals, peer review only works under carefully contrived conditions. (Software engineering design inspections: perhaps. Academic peer review: certainly not.)

With all this in mind, I am not sure that simply changing the question is going to give Bezos better information. If Bezos is asking a particular person for advice, he needs to understand what kind of information or idea he would be open to hearing from this person, and then ask a question that communicates this openness.

I think what we learn from Seth's blog is: What kind of questions Seth would like to be asked -- by Bezos or anyone else. And perhaps even: What is the question that Seth will always try to answer, in addition to the actual question put to him.

For my part, my working assumption is that the "What do you think?" question is asking for something of value -- like consultancy. So that takes me into the ways that I try to add value as a consultant
  • asking questions that wouldn’t otherwise have been asked
  • making connections that wouldn’t otherwise have been made
  • developing alternative perspectives/frames/scenarios, that show something in a different light.
I don't see any point in just offering me-too opinions, either positive or negative. Straight answers yes, but not necessarily along the lines you were expecting.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Asymmetric Advice

Article by Chris Dillow in the Investors Chronicle , which claims that "advice to buy or sell shares is silly and patronizing".
Bye-Bye to 'Buy, Buy', July 16th, 2004
link for Investors Chronicle subscribers only

This is not just because such advice is inaccurate. It is because you simply cannot advise someone properly without knowing their particular requirements.

If I already hold a perfectly balanced portfolio, and I already have perfect information, any advice to me would be either superfluous or dangerous. If I don't hold a perfectly balanced portfolio, and I don't have complete or perfect information, the effect of a new piece of information and/or advice is unpredictable.

An investor receives investment advice concerning a given stock, and composes this with information and opinion from other sources to produce a composite picture.

Suppose the investor then decides to buy or sell the named stock, or some derivative thereof. This action is composed with other actions (past and present) to produce a given composite investment portfolio with given risk characteristics.

A valid composition should be aligned to the investor's particular requirements (objectives and risk preferences). The investor should only buy or sell if this improves the alignment between the composition and the requirements. Therefore, advice to buy or sell is not a mass commodity, to be disseminated to a homogeneous audience of retail investors, but must be tailored to the needs and circumstances of the individual investor.

This is an excellent example of Asymmetric Demand

Monday, July 05, 2004

Networking Software

Networks expand by invitation. I received several independent invitations to LinkedIn before I decided it was worth joining (since that gave me a ready-made network on LinkedIn). I have started to receive invitations for other networks, but I haven't accepted them yet. This is an example of the Change Agent Cascade pattern.

While these networks may be useful, there are several problems with them.

1. Commitment. If I join a network, I need to make it work for me. This means loading some contacts, carving a profile, responding to contacts. This is a cost, which I incur in the hope of some professional, social or other benefit. If I am not willing to make any effort, I might as well not bother.

2. Ambiguity as to the purpose of the network. Some networks have a rhetoric of mutual support, endorsement and referral. But it is hard to see how this purpose can be fulfilled when people load hundreds of undifferentiated contacts into the network. (I have received multiple invitations from people I hardly know, who appear unable to remove obvious duplications.)

3. Network inflation. Quantity pushes out quality. If someone has a thousand contacts, I presume he doesn't know many of them very well, probably hasn't even met half of them.

4. Duplication between networks. If I join multiple networks, I then need to replicate my contacts on each network. (I have had invitations from the same person to join his network on multiple networking platforms - I cannot see that this makes sense to either of us.) There seems to be no mechanism for federation between networks.

5, More radically, people are turning their back on networking - or at least being much more selective. Kirsten talks about Invitation Block. Seth Godin dismisses "It's not what you know it's who you know" as myth number ten. (For the purpose of these myths, see post on Protective Lies.)

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Finance Industry View of Security

The financial sector generally has a one-sided view of security. There are procedural obsessions to protect a company from certain risks, but there is often a blindness to the ways a company creates or amplifies other risks. Here are some examples.

1. Many companies encourage their customers to use publicly available data (such as date of birth and mother’s maiden name) as if they were secure passwords. Whereas many security procedures advise changing one’s passwords regularly, there is no mechanism for changing date of birth or mother’s maiden name. (Try ringing your bank and asking to change these details on your record.)

2. When I ring my bank, I have to provide lots of data to prove that I’m who I say I am. But when my bank rings me, they do not offer any data to prove they are who they say they are; and they produce a rather weak response when I demand proof.

3. My bank rings me with a “courtesy call”. But before they can get into the courtesies, they demand that I provide my security data. This behaviour could easily be replicated by a phishing gang.

4. My credit card company sends me credit card cheques, perhaps hoping to trick me into using them to pay my gas bill. These cheques are sent as part of a direct marketing campaign (aka junk mail). No doubt many people throw them in the trash without inspecting them properly, where they can be retrieved by criminals.

5. My online broker accidently broadcasts an email to a large number of customers, without properly concealing the email addresses of the recipients. Soon afterwards, I receive a load of spurious emails demonstrating that the list has got into the wrong hands.

The overall result of this lot is that the security of my financial affairs is reduced. Unless I am alert and savvy, I may be victim to a range of social attacks.

When I have complained to banks about these examples, the general attitude has been uncomprehending. The bank reassures me that if I can prove that someone has been dipping into my account without my consent, or that a credit card check has gone astray, then the bank will compensate me. But that’s not the point. There is an increased burden (transaction cost) on me. I have to detect and prove any fraud (Some bank customers have been themselves accused of fraud when they have complained of spurious ATM transactions.) Because of the increased complexity of the security risks, I am forced to devote more time and attention to the security and integrity of my financial affairs – for example checking my account more rigorously, carefully shredding my junk mail.

Many customers may be led into adopting less secure patterns of behaviour. A marketing phone call may catch us offguard, and we are overwhelmed with mail (junk and otherwise). Many people may start to think it okay to divulge their security information to casual callers, if they sound sufficiently efficient and plausible.

As the world gets more complex, there are many new security risks, and we cannot blame the finance sector for all of this. However, we might reasonably expect a financial service provider to understand these risks better than most of its customers, and to take some responsibility for managing these risks. The behaviour of many companies, and the response when challenged, indicates either that they don’t understand, or that they don’t care.

More on Asymmetric Trust.

News Update October 2004

Banks launch Bank Safe Online website. See Financial Times story by Josephine Cumbo, Personal banking e-fraud on increase (October 2nd, 2004)

Friday, June 04, 2004

Harry Potter and the OilFields of Azerbaijaan

The directors of Shell need to learn a new spell. When tormented by Investors (a dark creature that sucks out your CEO), lift up your wand, think of a Happy Memory, and invoke: EXPECTO PETROLEUM.

See earlier note on Estimation.

Further oblique references to the works of JK Rowling..

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Full Banking Details

I had a printed slip from my bank last week, attempting to inform me about their new terms and conditions for international payments.

If someone sends me money from overseas, using electronic funds transfer (EFT), a surcharge will be imposed on me if the sender fails to provide "full banking details". But this kind of completeness rule is dependent on the bank's notion of completeness, not mine. Although I could probably make a reasonable guess, the bank might always say "Aha you forgot to include the XYZ code, so we will apply the surcharge, nyah, nyah".

As it happens, I was talking to the call centre on another matter and the woman asked if there was anything else, so I asked what "full banking details" meant. She wasn't sure, so she logged a request for someone else to call me and explain.

A few days later, someone did call. Full banking details means the IBAN number and the SWIFT code, plus Bank Name and Address. IBAN number is printed on my bank statement, together with a Branch Identifier Code, which is apparently equivalent to the SWIFT code (how was I supposed to know that?). Four items of data. Oh no, make that five, because she added the Account Name as an afterthought. Good thing I asked.

Of course, the person sending me money now has to find a way to insert these banking details into a local banking form, which doubtless has entirely different fields. (That must be why the ten million dollars from Nigeria hasn't arrived in my account yet.)

Think of the system implications of extending a completeness rule. Imagine a transaction that was complete last week, but is no longer complete, because we have changed some code from optional to mandatory. The transaction is still valid at the point of entry, but it is now incomplete relative to some downstream context. The transaction still works, but is no longer cost-efficient. (Perhaps we can make a lot of money from small surcharges before anyone notices.)

Think of the asymmetry involved when the bank fails to publish a specification of "full banking details". The bank can alter the way it handles some class of transaction without notifying its customers, perhaps even without working out the likely effect in advance, and we end up being surcharged. This may be a cynical ploy by the bank; but it may simply be that they do not suffer the consequences of their own incompetence, so they have no incentive to do things properly.

See also Finance Industry View of Security

Monday, May 17, 2004

Knowledge Reuse and FAQ

[cross-posted to Knowledge and Uncertainty blog]

A body of knowledge often contains a (hyper)document called FAQ - "frequently asked questions". But the word "frequently" is often a lie. There are three possibilities.

Never asked questions. Here is some miscellaneous information we want to put out, which we didn't find anywhere else for. We have made up some phoney questions, to make it appear as information pull instead of information push.

Once asked questions. Here are some obscure and awkward questions which we've been asked once, and hope never to be troubled with again, so we'll dump the answers here.

Genuine reuse. We have identified some common threads among the many questions we have been asked, and designed some generalized answers.

FAQ often represents a transitional stage in the production of knowledge, somewhere between adhoc and fully commoditized. FAQ is inevitable, because the fully commoditized knowledge always leaves something to be desired. Thus properly interpreted FAQ documents may expose some misalignment between the production of knowledge and its consumption; although they are often carefully composed in an attempt to cover up any such misalignment.

Monday, February 09, 2004


How many incidents took place on September 11th, 2001? The answer to this philosophical question, currently going through the US courts, is worth billions of dollars in insurance claims.

How many threats are there? Some Americans apparently see the troubles in the Middle East as one undifferentiated threat. For example, Joan Didion quotes Paul Wolfowitz as saying
Iraq's weapons of mass terror and the terror networks to which the Iraqi regime are [sic] linked are not two separate themes—not two separate threats. They are part of the same threat.
Joan Didion, Politics in the New Normal America (New York Review, October 21, 2004)

We make sense of the world - as we make sense of a string of words - by punctuating it. Is there a full stop between one hijack and the next, or merely a comma? Does Saddam Hussein represent a new chapter, or a continuation of the same sentence?

American policy is full of implicit (or sometimes explicit) punctuation. The concept of self-defence depends on punctuation – delimiting the self (person versus nation), delimiting the delay between action and reaction. The legal status of Guantanamo depends whether it is situated within the USA or not. (The US administration seems to want to have it both ways.)

Anthony Lewis, Making Torture Legal
(New York Review July 15th 2004)

Economic transactions also depend on punctuation. If I am travelling to and fro between two cities, I can save money by booking a series of roundtrip tickets each spanning at least one weekend.

Communication and control, contract and change - these are all critically dependent on having accurate and robust punctuation. This is one of the most important reasons why systems engineers and process engineers need to model information properly.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Reserve Judgement

The boss of Shell appeared on television - apologizing "unreservedly" to his shareholders.

This is an interesting metacommunication, given the fact that what he was apologizing about was a perceived loss of reserve.


The category "weapons of mass destruction" is a rhetorical one. It covers those weapons (nuclear, biological and chemical) that happen to be covered by various treaties, restricting their trade and deployment.

It is always worth looking at the set-theoretic complement of such a category (in other words, the set of everything else). Perhaps we can invent the term WSI for all non-WMD.

Weapons of Superficial Injury
Weapons of Slight Irritation
Weapons of Small Inconvenience

It follows logically that WSI weapons are completely okay to trade and deploy, anywhere in the world.