Squandered Victory a Fascinating Talk

Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, spoke yesterday at a special PARC forum on “Our Squandered Victory and the Prospects for Democracy in Iraq”. I must admit, I was skeptical that I would find him an agreeable (or even informed) speaker – I’m not a great fan of the Hoover Institution. But he knew his stuff, was right on the money about the money (the billions spent on this war), had lots of those “where did they get those guys” stories of screwups in Iraq (our guys – not their guys), and presented a thorough convincing argument for how badly the administration has bungled the job from an insider’s perspective.

Why is he an “insider”? Apparently Larry Diamond was asked by Condoleezza Rice to go to Baghdad as an adviser to the American occupation authorities. Diamond wasn’t an Iraq war supporter, but he said he thought creating a “viable democracy” was important. He was there last year.

One of the best speakers I’ve seen this year. He answered every question, and met critics head-on. I wish more Americans could talk to him as someone who’s really “been there”. It’s one way to cut through the spin and make your own “fair and balanced” decision.

TCP Protocols and Unfair Advantage – Being the Ultimate Pig on the Bandwidth Block

Little item from the testing side of proposed TCP protocols on stack fairness from the Hamilton Institute at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

According to Douglas Leith:
“In summary, we find that both Scalable-TCP and FAST-TCP consistently exhibit substantial unfairness, even when competing flows share identical network path characteristics. Scalable-TCP, HS-TCP, FAST-TCP and BIC-TCP all exhibit much greater RTT unfairness than does standard TCP, to the extent that long RTT flows may be completely starved of bandwidth. Scalable-TCP, HS-TCP and BIC-TCP all exhibit slow convergence and sustained unfairness following changes in network conditions such as the start-up of a new flow. FAST-TCP exhibits complex convergence behaviour.”

What’s this mean? Simple. In order to get more for themselves these approaches starve everyone else – the “pig at the trough” mentality. But what might work for a single flow in a carefully contrived test rig can immediately start to backfire once more complex “real world” flows are introduced.

There have been concerns for years that these approaches could wreak havoc on the Internet if not carefully vetted. I’m pleased to see someone actually is testing these proposed protocols for unfairness and the impact on network traffic. After 30 years of tuning the Internet, taking a hammer to it protocol-wise isn’t just bad science – it’s bad global policy.

When Your Bandwidth Runs Out

Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher had an amusing item about how awful it is to be successful enough to “run out of bandwidth”. “SiliconValleyWatcher was off line for about 6 hours as traffic surged above our monthly quota. And I couldn’t open up the pipes because there was no way to buy more bandwidth online. I found that I would have to wait until the next morning and email the sales department!!!”

This little problem is why you negotiate with a managed service provider for overage bandwidth. A good ISP should be calling Tom about his burst, not waiting for Tom to call call them after his blog has been knocked offline as punishment for the sin of being successful. But negotiating bandwidth overages when you are a small business isn’t usually done – everything is so “on the cheap” that even simple contract items (which could be automated) don’t exist. Is it any wonder I run my own datacenter?

I wrote about this in one of my essays on datacenter management and monitoring. I’ve been told that no one needs to know this stuff anymore, because everything works perfectly. Think that’s the case?

Jitter, Jitter Everywhere, But Nary a Packet to Keep

I was looking over the end-to-end discussion on measuring jitter on voice calls on the backbone and came across this little gem: “Jitter – or more precise delay variance – is not important. Only the distribution is relevant”. This dismissive little item of a serious subject is all too commonplace, but misses the point the other researcher was making.

The critic assumes “fixed playout buffer lengths (e.g. from 20 to 200ms)” to calculate overall delay. But do these buffer lengths take into account compressed versus uncompressed audio? If not, the model is faulty right there. The author admits his approach is “problematic” but then assumes that “real-time adaptive playout scheduling” would be better – but then the measurement mechanism becomes part of the measurement, and you end up measuring this instead of the unmodified delay – which doesn’t help the researcher looking at jitter and delay measurements for voice.

But there is a more fundamental disconnect here between our voice-jitter researcher and his jitter-is-irrelevent nemesis – jitter does matter for some communications – it just depends on what problem is being solved. And it is careful definition of the problem that leads to dialogue.

Opinion: Getting “Beyond Fear”: A Security Expert’s Prescription for A Safer World

My review of Bruce Scheier’s new book Getting “Beyond Fear”: A Security Expert’s Prescription for A Safer World is now online at Security Pipeline.

I must admit, I had a difficult time with this one. I’ve reviewed other security books, including one by Bruce before, but those are usually “insider” books on the hard tech aspects of security (see “Perspectives on Computer Security” and Under Lock and Key”, Dr. Dobbs Journal). But Bruce took a different tact with this book – he wanted to talk to ordinary people about how they could deal with security. And he expressed to me privately that he was frustrated with how difficult it was to reach that audience.

And I could see why he had a problem. The marketing of security books is very masculine, very secret agent man, but opening it up Bruce wrote a very readable book about fear and security. Since secret agents and hackers are thought not to feel fear, this doesn’t mesh.

Ironically, the audience I thought Bruce spoke best to inside the covers was women! Women are often neglected in discussions of security, because it is commonly viewed (even by women editors) that this subject is too “manly” and too “technical” to attract their attention.

But here we are, reading about security patdowns that seem like groping sessions and women terrorists from Chechnya blowing up airplanes. How women can be excluded from consideration or from the responsibility of informing themselves about security is beyond me – yet the publishing bias persists.

I originally tried to place a longer piece discussing security and the role of women in our society in more mainstream press, simply because the tech audience is decidely male. I hoped to reach the women and girls currently undergoing the humiliations of an overworked and underfinanced security grid. But after a lot of those cited rejections, I finally gave up and placed it (suitably modified) with an editor I know in a solidly male tech publication. I’m grateful to Mitch Wagner of Security Pipelines for allowing me to discuss Bruce’s book in the context of recent security debacles. I only hope that the guys reading it will pick up a copy for their wives, mothers, and girlfriends, and encourage them to read it because a woman said so. Because despite what the mainstream press editors will tell you, women still need to know how to evaluate security before it becomes a danger to them and others.

Streaming Video is Hot – Why is it so “Clunky”?

Cory Treffiletti (Carat Interactive) wrote in Online Spin today “Streaming video is hot right now, and it’s only getting hotter as broadband becomes more pervasive… The way video is currently viewed online still seems somewhat clunky. It feels as though we’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If you see the current executions, we’re placing video into existing ad spaces. We’re pushing video into banners and buttons rather than coming up with new presentation architecture. We need to re-evaluate how we see the Web and how we place video inside of it.

At last – a realization that there is an “architecture”! My take on this tech:
“Exactly! I was in a meeting with a major publisher a few months back and all he thought he could do was an ad. Why? Because it was too expensive to create and produce new content dynamically in the short time frame he required, even though they have the writers and editors already. When they tried in-house video shoots and hired a video guy to handle production, it took weeks to months to see the rushes! They get out news daily, and it took weeks for the guy to tinker something lousy together. He hated that video guy, because he needed to create new content now and knew that the traditional video production way was a dead-end for his deadlines.

All he wanted was a writer chatting up the latest gadget in a minute, with a 5 sec promo, and maybe clips of conferences and stuff. Oh, and he wanted it to be top-quality, sound great, have his company branding look pro, and be available immediately so he could see how it was received with instant email reports (so he could show his sponsors). And it had to be economic, because he wanted to do it ALL THE TIME, not once a quarter.

He didn’t want software tools mucking things up. He didn’t want to wait weeks to see the results because he had to get out the review ASAP! He didn’t want to book time and spend $$$ for a pro film crew for a 2 minute discussion of the Apple IPod when he’s already got a cool digital camera and knows how to use it and knows what he wants to hear. He wanted it on the web on his site instantly, and he wanted the results (metrics) in his email as soon as something happened.

ExecProducer said “sure, we already do all this”, and he got it. He shoots his review, emails the clips off to a special email address, and instantly a produced movie to his specifications with titling, music, technical correction (audio/video), desired formats for anything ranging from a video cellphone to a DVD, and reports – kind of like a video ATM. From the time he hits “send” to the first “view” on the web is about 2 minutes. His hair is growing back.

And with a few minutes effort he’s done for the week. Actually, since it was so easy, he’s talking a daily newscast. More content means more sponsors and ad messages. And they watch it, because they trust their favorite journalists to tell them what they want to know. And so it goes.

It just took a bit of ingenuity. But that’s what Silicon Valley is famous for, isn’t it?”

Cory went on to say “What about a site that is purely a video interface? What about typing in a URL and coming to a TV station? Does the future hold the possibility of a pure video interface with flash layered on top? Companies like Maven and Desksite offer experiences that are similar to this but are housed on your desktop rather than online. Why can’t we foresee this experience online as well?”

My take on this tech:
“What about a site that is purely a video interface?” ExecProducer has been doing that for years with privately generated and produced content. Our partners include business consulting firms like Valux with their MinutePitch offering (see Rob Enderle’s mention in his article “The Death and Rebirth of the Movie Industry” and the CoolClip Network, among others. MinutePitch, for example, provides private channels used by sales to communicate with key customers, entrepreneurs doing custom pitches for investors and partners, and execs and managers reporting to corporate, but Hollywood style with music, titling, and all the bells and whistles that we always get from TV but don’t get from boring raw clips.

There’s a lot happening right now with innovation in video media production, deployment, and analysis. You’ve just gotta look.

Hotels, VC’s and Vanity Video

As I was watching a venture capitalist earlier this week push a MinutePitch (by Valux) of a security startup (he said “Very cool video”), I was thinking how nice it would be if someone would use my video production engine ExecProducer for family stuff. After all, we started on this route because it was just absolutely horrible pulling together our family videos of Hawaii using conventional video edit software (unfamiliar features, inconsistent/nonexistent format selection, synch and other technical errors creeping in, tool malfunctions – you name it).

Even though we offloaded the digital cameras every night, we had to wait until we got home for resources to complete the movie, and by then it was very arduous. This was one of the spurs to create automated production mechanisms, and then the paper and Berkeley trials and company and, well, you know how it is…. But we’ve been doing business video – not personal video – because that’s what the investors like.

So now I read that “Several hotels are offering guests the opportunity to capture their vacations on camera” by either renting cameras and printers or even creating a movie experience: “Guests who sign up for the Tribeca Grand Hotel’s “Director’s Cut” package can borrow a video camera and make their own movie about Manhattan. Computers at the hotel allow you to add special effects, cut unwanted scenes and lay a soundtrack. The package starts at $369″.

The only problem is it is really a bear to do all the movie editing and production. So wouldn’t you like to just shoot your movie, email your clips, and get back a produced and finished and polished video with titling and music and the beautiful intro scenes of the hotel and sights and end credits with the information about the hotel and when you did it? Wouldn’t that be just grand?

Of course, you can always go custom: “Visitors to King Pacific Lodge in northern British Columbia, Canada, can sign up for the ‘Last Action Hero’ package and have their adventures documented by a personal cameraman. Guests will receive a video to prove to the folks at home that they really did catch that big salmon or take a helicopter to a remote spot. Starring in your own movie isn’t cheap, however; the price is $5,150 a person”. Ouch!

I like my idea better – don’t you? 🙂

Programming Jobs Lose Luster – Live Free or Die

The NYTimes today discusses why bright engineering students are leaving the major to move to business even if they love science. It’s the jobs, stupid (to paraphrase James Carville). “U.S. graduates probably shouldn’t think of computer programming or chemical engineering as long-term careers” since “The erosion of ”deep code” and other technology jobs in the next decade is creating a high-stakes game of musical chairs for geeks, Silicon Valley recruiters say”. Sounds pretty gloomy.

Where do we go from here? If you are totally committed to a technology career (because you’ve already got your degree or career in it, or you have it as a calling), you’ve got to think smarter. As William Jolitz said last week in his article Misplaced Software Priorities in Cnet:
” We are in danger of losing out in the best and most interesting part of the software market. I’m referring to the development of high-level components such as user interfaces. These deserve our attention because they increase the value of what we can do with technology. Instead, we’re continually re-creating the same low-level infrastructure.”

The big win here would be to kick software innovation into high gear by clearing the decks to focus the innovation segment on the “race to the top” (as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has put it). People with big dollars then can take big risks for big opportunities.”

So as the motto goes, “Live free or die”.

Fun Friday: Jezebel is Gone, Bugs are Edible, and Disposable Camcorders

Well, Jezebel is gone. Jezebel, for those who don’t know, was the jaguar at Happy Hollow in San Jose. All my kids loved to visit her when they were little (the oldest is now 20). I always thought she was smiling. We will really miss her.

For all those programmers out there – if you are really sick of those tedious debug cycles, there is hope. You can actually eat those bugs – in Mexico. “It’s just like eating a regular hot dog, but with five or six times the nutritional value.” (Juan Garcia Oviedo, Biologist).

Lastly, you know something is on the edge of complete obsolescence when it’s still expensive to make but they have to sell it as a “disposable”. That what Benny Evangelista tried in his review of the Pure Digital Technologies disposable (kind of) camcorder. The reason they say you want one – it does 640×480 30fps, and you can trade video files. Funny thing is, I can do that with a digital camera. And I own it. And it’s small. And I can use the latest memory cards. Oh, and did I mention I own it.

For example, the Canon SD200 is a 640×480 30fps camera. Costs about $200. Uses standard SD cards you can buy anywhere. Plenty of room for switching cards or using a gig card. Has a very good editing feature for clips. You’re not limited to most recent clip or anything like that. Also has great image capability. My son Ben Jolitz used this camera for a short comedy feature film festival entry (high school level) this year called “Bots” (see “Fun Friday: How Many Robots Can You Name?”). It’s very very small and light – fits in a pocket. And he did a pro level production with it.

It has optical zoom, unlike the camcorder. If you want to spend more money, plenty of cameras have auto-stabilization (look at some of those Sonys, will ya, and they’re 60fps!!!). You’re not limited to 20 minutes – just switch memory cards, and they’re getting bigger for cheaper all the time.

I suppose if you want a DVD fast, this might work. But there are so many DVD burners on the market. While I always love labor saving processes, I just can’t endorse this one. Now, maybe if they decided to offer digital cameras instead…

Misplaced Software Priorities

For a perspective from William Jolitz, co-developer of 386BSD, on the need to separate “innovation” from “renovation” in design, read Misplaced Software Priorities today. While it may gore a few oxen – especially those who work in the architectural flatland of low-level software – given the rapid outsourcing of this very same area to low-cost programmers in India and China, it might be time to listen to an alternative view from a long-time Silicon Valley developer and entrepreneur who’s done more for the acceptance of open source than all the pundits put together.

Of course, if someone wants to stay low-level, they can always learn Mandarin, right?