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Archive for the month “August, 2013”

What do you mean…mail ROOM?

I work in a two-story office. On the first floor of the office there is a small room in which one wall is occupied by a number of slots, with names of people underneath each slot.

For my younger readers, let me explain that this room is called a “mailroom.” A long, long time ago, companies such as my employer would receive tons of mail every day, most of which was addressed to particular employees of the company. Someone in the company would go through all of the daily mail and stick in in the appropriate slot. Later in the day, employees such as myself would go to the mailroom, look at our particular slots, and get our mail.

Residential users and small company owners may not realize this, but business mail to non-executive individuals at large companies has declined over the years. Even a couple of years ago, I could count on receiving mail almost every day. Now days or weeks go by where I don’t get anything in my mailbox in the mailroom.

Part of this is due to personal circumstances. Product managers tend to get more snail mail than proposal writers, so there’s been a natural decline as some (not all) mailers realize that I’m no longer a Motorola product manager.

But part of this is due to technological changes. If you’ve read my business blog, you’ll recall that I have been getting a free subscription to a magazine that talks about Information and is published every Week. Well, lately I haven’t been receiving it any more. And it’s not because the magazine removed me from its subscription list; it removed EVERYBODY from its subscription list. This was announced earlier this year in a press release that began with the most compact collection of mumbo-jumbo ever assembled:

Today UBM Tech, the global media business that brings together the world’s technology industry through live events and online properties, announces a strategic shift in the company’s focus toward a unique business model. UBM Tech will combine its industry leading event brands with its industry leading digital brands in a community-driven business model underpinned by deep analytics illustrating community interests and behaviors. This proven community model supports peer-to-peer learning and education, industry information and training and provides marketing solutions for the industry.

Huh?

Once you decipher the words above, you realize that this business model isn’t all that unique. Oh, and the press release writer forgot to use the verb “engage.”

But if you can’t decipher the words above, it all becomes clear by the time you get to the eighth paragraph of the press release. Yes, the eighth paragraph.

UBM Tech will cease to provide print publications as of July 1, 2013. InformationWeek will continue online, where it’s [sic] strong brand and loyal audiences will benefit from the new community model for greater engagement.

OK, the press release writer worked “engagement” into the techbabble. I was getting worried that UBM Tech wasn’t being trendy enough.

But UBM Tech isn’t the only company that’s failing to populate my mailbox. Other computer publications have ceased their print editions, and even the solicitors are moving away from clogging my box in the mailroom and are clogging my e-mail instead.

And our company mailroom is becoming a desolate place.

The funny part is that some of my co-workers have mailboxes that are full. But it’s not because they’re getting tons of printed mail; it’s because they haven’t been to the mailroom in months and therefore haven’t picked up the few pieces of mail that they are getting.

Eventually large companies are going to do away with mailrooms altogether – if they remember to eliminate them. More than likely, mailrooms will just become empty rooms with the names of former employees (and some current employees who have been around for decades). New employees will stumble into the rooms, stare around in wonder, and try to figure out what these rooms are.

(At the same time, of course, mail delivery itself may become obsolete. But that’s a completely separate topic.)

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Trends vs. fads

Here is how Wikitrends differentiates the two:

Trends are differentiated from fads primarily by longevity. While fads may come and go as quickly as a “flash in a pan,” trends are longer lasting and often herald more permanent cultural change. While fads can be fun, only trends are stable and enduring enough to move society and build a business plan around.

Of course, in the heat of the moment it’s difficult to differentiate between trends and fads.

Before you take Wikitrends as gospel, however, consider that it also came up with the following statement:

Be a leader… Follow us!

Huh?

Google, Where’s My Car?

Bill and Ted were walking out of the women’s lingerie store with embarrassed looks when they began looking for Ted’s limousine. All of a sudden Ted stopped walking.

“Dude, where’s my car?” exclaimed Ted.

“I dunno,” replied Bill. “It was here just a few minutes ago.”

“Let me think,” said Ted. He scrunched up his eyes and rested his chin on his fist. “Oh, I know!” he suddenly said. “Did we send the car to go get beer and chips and salsa?”

Bill scrunched up HIS eyes. “I don’t think so, man,” he finally said.

Ted started jumping up and down. “I know! I know!”

Bill looked at Ted as if Ted were jumping up and down or something. Ted explained: “I was READING something.”

“Reading?” Bill asked with a puzzled look. “What’s that?”

Ted adopted a professorial stance that he had learned from music videos. “Reading,” Ted explained, “is when you use your eyes to look at your screen but you’re not looking at pictures of cats playing beer pong. When you read, you use your eyes to look at words and stuff.”

Bill nodded.

“Anyway,” Ted continued, “I was reading this article on TMZ that explained how someone hacked Willow Smith’s car. It was like a computer hacker or something, and the hacker just caused Willow’s car to drive off! Luckily she wasn’t in it.”

“Dude, you’re high,” Bill replied. “That could never happen.”

[POSTSCRIPT: AS I NOTED IN ANOTHER POST, NO SYSTEM IS 100% SECURE. AS DRIVERLESS CARS ARE DEVELOPED, ATTENTION WILL NEED TO BE PAID TO THE SECURITY OF THESE CARS, AND WE WILL NEED TO REALIZE THAT SOME CARS WILL BE HACKED – ESPECIALLY WHEN CAR OWNERS DON’T BOTHER TO PASSWORD PROTECT THEIR CARS BECAUSE “IT’S NOT IMPORTANT.” THIS RISK, HOWEVER, DOES NOT MEAN THAT DRIVERLESS CARS SHOULD BE SCUTTLED ENTIRELY; LIFE IS FULL OF RISKS.]

Why am I being invited to fly to a telecom conference?

I recently received an e-mail invitation to the TelcoVision 2013 conference.

TelcoVision is North America’s premier event devoted to Tier 2, Tier 3 and Tier 4 broadband service providers. As telcos, cable companies, and other communications providers move to all-IP broadband engines TelcoVision sets the course for innovative new services, revenue and profit growth in this highly dynamic market.

Unfortunately for them, I’m not in the telecommunications industry. I see that James Taylor is on the schedule, but it’s not James Taylor the singer; it’s some other James Taylor.

But in addition to the fact that I’m outside the target audience, there’s another odd thing about this. If this is a conference for telecommunications broadband providers, why is everyone flying to a single location for the conference? “Yes, we’re going to promote broadband telecommunications, but let’s all ignore the technology we’re promoting and fly to Vegas!”

And we all know that people who fly are eco-terrorists.

The man of the future, re-visualized

Larry Rosenthal shared something, and as is his wont, he added a brief comment. In this case, his comment was “geekbot 3000.”

I have a slightly different view about the post that Rosenthal shared, a post from the Future and Cosmos blog entitled The Man of the Future Visualized. The author, M Mahin, took some time to gather up the latest thinking about how technology can enhance our bodies.

And before some of you complain that cyborg body enhancements should never be pursued, remember that we’ve been enhancing our bodies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For example, I wear glasses. Now my glasses may not handle Foursquare checkins, but they allow my body to do things that it could not otherwise do. To a point, I have no problem with enhancing my body to make it better.

To a point.

However, when deciding whether or not to implement a particular body enhancement, it is wise to look at both the advantages and the disadvantages of such a move. Now perhaps it was beyond M Mahin’s scope to analyze this, but it’s certainly something that you should do before you plunk down your six million dollars to buy the Cyborg belt and its accessories.

Let me look at two examples of body enhancements cited by Mahin. Here’s one of them:

The Cyborg Belt … serves as a monitor of all of the future man’s bodily functions. The future man does not have to go to a doctor for a physical examination to find out how his body is doing. He need merely look down at the vital signs display on his belt. If there is any medical problem such as high blood pressure, cancer, or high cholesterol, the vital signs indicator on the Cyborg Belt will alert the man with a flash of warning messages.

There’s only one thing that is not mentioned. Yes, the vital signs indicator will alert the man to medical issues. But others will be alerted also.

You can guarantee that if some entity is going to pay a lot of money to implant a medical monitoring system in your body, then at a very minimum all of the readings will go to your health insurance provider.

Why? Because your health provider will NEED this information to take care of you properly. After all, you are not the trained medical professional; your health insurance provider is.

And it’s also a near-guarantee that the readings will also go to your national medical governmental agency – in my country, the Department of Health and Human Services. Or perhaps to the Food and Drug Administration. Or perhaps to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Why? Because various government agencies are mandated by law to ensure that citizens take care of themselves properly. In past generations, governments could pass laws (or try to pass laws) to accomplish these goals – ending child labor, prohibiting alcoholic beverages, prohibiting the purchase or large sugared soft drinks. Now with a Cyborg Belt, government agencies will actually have the power to enforce these laws. Smoke that crack, eat that double cheeseburger…you WILL be corrected.

But that pales in comparison to one of the other body enhancements:

The orange arrow points to the future man’s Supercard. The Supercard is like an identification card, a credit card, a bank ATM card, and a passport, all rolled into one. The Supercard is embedded into the future man’s flesh, so there is no chance of him losing it. It is good that the future man cannot lose his Supercard, because if he lost it, it would be impossible for him to function in the complicated society in which he lives. Since every future citizen has his Supercard embedded into his flesh above his wrist, there is no danger of one person pretending to be another.

Now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I am going to quote a passage from the Biblical book of Revelation – specifically, Revelation 13:16-17:

Also it [the second beast] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.

Now I realize that many of my readers do not believe that this is a divinely inspired sentence, and that even those who do believe so have a number of interpretations of what these words actually mean.

So, bearing in mind that there are over six hundred and sixty views of the words above, what’s wrong with such a system?

A universal mandatory financial system such as this will only work if the governing body managing it is good. Now the Bible, of course, takes it as a given that this particular financial system is being run by someone who is VERY bad. And a non-Christian who happens to be a libertarian or an anarchist would also conclude that such a system is a recipe for disaster.

But even if you believe that one world government is a good thing, it is clear that such a system would need a huge number of built in safeguards to prevent abuse, since one little infiltration of the system could create economic chaos, and could literally result in death and destruction.

You know the safeguards that Microsoft has built in to ensure that the monthly Windows patch distributions don’t turn all of our computers into terroristic zombies? Well, a worldwide universal financial system would need safeguards that are six hundred and sixty orders (or more) of magnitude beyond what Microsoft does today.

And that’s just two examples. If you go through the entire list of body enhancements, you can find positive aspects to them…and negative aspects to them.

Of course, this is true of any technological advance. They all come with positives and negatives. But before we all become Steve Austins, we need to consider the ramifications of such a move.

Christie Aschwanden, Eco-Terrorist?

Any new technology brings with it both positive and negative aspects. Sometimes the negative, or the positive, aspects of a particular technology are ignored. Christie Aschwanden ignored the negative aspects of one particular technology, and admitted as such:

I would never commute to work in a Hummer, leave the house with all the lights on, or send my recyclables to a landfill, and yet, for most of my life, I proudly engaged in an activity far worse for the environment than any of these other eco-sins….

Before I reveal Aschwanden’s eco-sin, I would encourage you to sit down. You will be shocked at the activity that she enjoyed throughout her life.

…I jetted around the world.

Eco-terrorism? Look at the numbers:

A nonstop flight from San Francisco to New York puts you on the hook for 2.23 tons of carbon dioxide. Fly first class, and the extra space you occupy bumps you to 5.59 tons—more than twice the 2.2 tons you’d emit driving a midrange car 7,500 miles. It’s not just aviation’s carbon emissions that make it so bad for the climate, it’s also factors like vapor trails and ozone as well as where a jet’s emissions occur—in a sensitive part of the atmosphere where their effects become magnified. Scientists call this effect “radiative forcing” and calculations that don’t include it can make flying seem deceptively benign. Don’t be fooled: Every time you get on an airplane, you’re helping to shove a Bangladeshi’s home under water.

She then shares the following observation:

[I]t’s easy to act like an environmentalist when it means buying cool new stuff like reusable grocery bags, a high-efficiency washer, or a hybrid car. When doing the green thing requires actual sacrifice or a substantial change in lifestyle, well, that’s where most of us draw the line.

For Aschwanden’s additional observations, including what she learned by staying within 100 miles of her house for an entire year, read the rest of the article. You may also want to read Pradheep Shanker’s share of a related Bloomberg article.

Aschwanden is not the only person talking about airplane pollution in general, and radiative forcing in particular. CNN:

The airplane has become, for many, climate change public enemy number one. And for good reason, say environmentalists. The air travel sector now carries the label of “the world’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases” according to Friends of the Earth (FoE), with airplanes pumping out more than 600 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year. That’s nearly as much CO2 as the African continent annually expels.

The aviation industry’s official contribution to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions tally, however, gives a very different impression. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), aviation globally only accounts for around 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

That figure has environmentalist up in arms. They say it fails to take into account a process known as radiative forcing, where the impact of emissions from planes in the upper atmosphere — according to the UK-based Aviation Environmental Federation (AEF) — are greater by a factor of 2.7 — or more. Once radiative forcing has has been factored in, the total contribution of aviation to greenhouse gas emissions looks more like 12 percent to 13 percent.

You can also see Wikipedia, or this Infowars-published claim that airplanes can actually help to COOL the planet from the effects of global warming. (The Carnegie Institute’s website is here.)

We live in complex times.

Internal control, 14th century version

In a recent Facebook comment, I noted that I have interests that are derived from my employment in the automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) industry. Most of you would shake your heads if you saw my Facebook statement – “‘Type 2’ is my life” – but for a relatively small amount of people concerned with AFIS interoperability, my statement makes perfect sense, and leads to other penetrating questions such as “Binary or XML?” It’s not exactly “boxers or briefs,” but it will have to do.

Jim Ulvog doesn’t get excited by Type 2 records. He does get excited by internal controls. He spoke about them in June, and has just returned to the subject. In both cases, he spoke of internal controls that were established long before any accounting standards were established in the United States of America. And as you can see from his most recent post, I’ve looked at the topic myself.

Both of the examples cited – one from the 4th century, and one from before the 1st century – concern religious organizations. (Ulvog advises non-profits on accounting issues.) As I read Jim’s latest post, I began wondering – when did internal accounting controls first appear in what we would consider for-profit businesses?

Well, I don’t know if this is the first instance of business internal controls, but Meril Markley has discussed the presence of internal controls in 14th century power corporations in Toulouse. Back then, power consisted of harnessing the rushing river waters to power mills. After some false starts, the Toulouse capitalists formed joint ownership ventures that functioned as “a legal person separate from its owners” – in other words, the modern corporation. (This concept of a corporation as a person is controversial today, as you can see when you read opinions on campaign financing.)

These joint ventures had shareholders who actually owned the corporation, and people who did the work. This arrangement presented some problems that needed to be solved.

Early on, the shareholders had to confront the fact that none of them were inclined to be involved in the messy day-to-day operation of the mills. They needed a way to delegate authority without losing control. Their solution was to elect from among their ranks an eight-member board to hire professional managers having the technical knowledge to keep the mills running while supervising the employees and serving customers. To prevent board members from getting the upper hand and eclipsing the ultimate authority of all the shareholders, they were elected two at a time to two-year terms with term limits. Mill managers were granted one-year contracts, and their performance was reviewed at the annual general meeting of shareholders. They were personally liable for any shortfalls in the accounts, while their reward for a job well done was another one-year contract.

Now that they had figured out how to run and control the corporation, the next problem to address was the problem of conflicts of interest. In the same way that a church treasurer can potentially be tempted by all the money lying around, the corporate arrangement included possibilities for fraud that had to be confronted.

They instituted rules prohibiting employees and their families from dealing in grain or from buying shares in the company. Neither shareholders nor their families could be employees. All transactions were recorded meticulously using a precursor of the double-entry system of bookkeeping. To police expenditures, the person recording an expense on the general ledger could not be the one who authorized it. Demands by employees for profit-sharing were quashed. Shareholders and employees were forbidden to lend money to the corporation, and vice-versa.

For more details, including the use of independent auditors, read the article.

Why Luddites will value old cars over new ones

So people are turning to typewriters so that the NSA won’t monitor their communications. In the next move of, um, reverse engineering, people may want to start driving old cars. Really old cars. This 2010 model is too dangerous:

Stomping on the brakes of a 3,500-pound Ford Escape that refuses to stop–or even slow down–produces a unique feeling of anxiety. In this case it also produces a deep groaning sound, like an angry water buffalo bellowing somewhere under the SUV’s chassis. The more I pound the pedal, the louder the groan gets–along with the delighted cackling of the two hackers sitting behind me in the backseat.

Yes, two engineers, funded by DARPA, have demonstrated ways to hack the computers in your car. And anyone who knows anything about security is not impressed with Toyota’s response:

Toyota, for its part, says it isn’t impressed by Miller and Valasek’s stunts: Real carhacking, the company’s safety manager John Hanson argues, wouldn’t require physically jacking into the target car. “Our focus, and that of the entire auto industry, is to prevent hacking from a remote wireless device outside of the vehicle,” he writes in an e-mail, adding that Toyota engineers test its vehicles against wireless attacks. “We believe our systems are robust and secure.”

Frankly, this is sort of like saying that “no one would ever fly two airplanes into a tall skyscraper.” Even if a hacking attempt depended upon physical access to a car’s data port, it’s easy enough to attach an electronic device to the data port, and communicate with the port via wi-fi. And, as the Forbes article notes, you don’t need physical access to a car’s data port; the car’s wi-fi can be hacked also.

I’m sure that Toyota’s internal conversations don’t mirror its external ones. Perhaps internal car ports will require extra security before someone can access them. And, of course, the hackers will defeat that extra security, and the merry cycle will continue.

You’ll note that I used the word “value” in the title of this post. It probably won’t happen, but it’s theoretically possible that people could create an economic demand for pre-computer cars, in the same way that Americans value older toilets that use more water.

Of course, the Amish come out ahead in any of these discussions. In fact, the Amish can even have a “driverless car” – if the horse knows the way.

P.S. As an added bonus, this investigation is going to be discussed at DEFCON – a conference at which DARPA itself (who funded the endeavor) is not welcome. Because DEFCON organizers know that if you tell someone that they can’t do something, they will always obey.

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