Living In Olden Days January 22, 2010Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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Recently, a friend was kind enough to share with me an unusual book: the 1924 Ford Model T parts catalog. This beautiful book includes detailed drawings of most major parts, along with descriptions and pricing for every component of a Model T.
For each part, the catalog includes part numbers and the appropriate model year, as you might expect. But it also includes an odd item: a “code word.” What on earth is a code word, and why would you need one for car parts?
It turns out that back in 1924, people would often send their orders to Ford via telegram, a very early precursor to shopping on the web. Given that you paid by the word to send a telegram and that errors could be costly, you could specify your part using its code word instead of its part number and description.
Thus, if you were in need of a crankcase lower cover (part number 3101) you would send the code word “Closure.” This ensured that you would not wind up with a complete crankcase (part 3100), whose code word was “Closet.” That’s a big difference, since a crankcase lower cover would run you $0.35 while the whole crankcase would set you back $11.00.
There were also code words for shipping, so that the terse message “Closure Topersteen” would order one crankcase lower cover and ship it to you via standard freight. If you want to upgrade to express shipping, you’d use “Closure Toperig” instead.
We live in an age of glorious technology, which leads us to believe that previous eras were backwards and hopeless. In fact, people have always been clever and creative; they simply had different tools at their disposal. Using those tools, they crafted the best possible technical world, one that seemed glorious and amazing compared to previous times. Imagine how they lived in the olden days, when they ordered car parts by mail and had to wait three extra days as a result! Code words and telegrams were an amazing improvement.
As we struggle to build, deploy, and exploit all the new technology that comes our way, both personally and professionally, we would do well to remember that we will be seen as living in a hopelessly backward time. “Imagine,” they will say, “how people lived with such primitive tools. They must have been miserable!”
Not at all. We are always living in the best of all possible worlds, in the best of all possible times. And with luck, determination, and perseverance, we’ll continue to make it better and better.
A GREAT Idea January 20, 2010Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.
As some of you may be aware, a company has recently announced the invention of a new punctuation mark that can be used to indicate sarcasm. The so-called “sarcmark” is intended to clearly denote sarcastic comments, much as question marks and exclamation points confirm that a statement is actually a question or an exhortation.
Like me, your first reaction is probably one of extraordinary relief, with the burden of missed sarcasm forever removed from your written communication. How did we ever get along without a sarcmark before?
My second reaction is to presume that the creators of the sarcmark are simply engaging in a little viral marketing. Although the mainstream media is treating this as a real news story (surprise!), the entire concept is outlandish and impractical. That said, they are selling software that allows your PC to create and display sarcmarks, so there is a bit of entrepreneurialism in there as well.
It goes without saying that the sarcmark is doomed to fail. Not because it is a silly idea (it is) but because it is going up against too much legacy technology to ever succeed. From that perspective, the sarcmark does provide a useful lesson.
Modern punctuation was pretty much settled a few hundred years ago. There isn’t a lot of space (or demand) for innovation in this arena. Nonetheless, if we were all still writing everything by hand, you might be able to create a new punctuation mark and get some people to start using it.
Unfortunately, we produce most of our written content by machine. Those machines use standardized encodings for characters and standardized fonts for presentation. The idea that you could revise a standard like ASCII or Unicode to include a new symbol, let alone update a substantial portion of the thousands of fonts used worldwide, is ludicrous. The combined inertia of these systems overwhelms a tiny effort like the sarcmark.
As agents of change, IT leaders must carefully assess and understand the inertia that threatens every initiative we undertake. Is the inertia overwhelming? Will it crush our efforts? Is there enough value to overcome the challenge? With careful consideration, we can choose our battles wisely.
More importantly, is there a better solution that simply circumvents all that inertia? The best innovation occurs when a completely new path is developed, one that bypasses all the problems at hand. People are far more open to solutions that relieve them of the burden of difficult change and allow them to easily adopt new things.
In the realm of symbols, emoticons have succeeded in creating new symbols by easily combining existing glyphs into new patterns. No one tried to create a new symbol for “smiling;” they created the sequence “:-)” instead. By stepping around the inertia of character sets and keyboards and fonts, people developed a whole family of new “symbols” that expanded the meaning that could be inserted into a message.
As we tackle problems, we need to find more solutions that build on existing successful tools and avoid those that creation unwarranted, expensive disruption. At the very least, we stand a better chance of hearing “Nice job!” without needing a sarcmark.
Pick Your Bridge January 18, 2010Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
Regular readers know that I have some strong concerns about cloud computing, especially in the arena of security. I’ve enjoyed a number of vigorous debates with both vendors and fellow CIOs regarding their comfort level with cloud-based services. Personally, I’m comfortable moving small, non-material business processes to the cloud, but will continue to manage my core business applications in my own data center. Other CIOs are at different points on this spectrum, with valid reasons for their decisions.
Invariably, many of these discussions reach a point where a proponent of cloud stuff will point out that some very large companies have made big commitments to cloud technology, moving some or all of their infrastructure and systems to the cloud. The implication, of course, is that if these big companies are comfortable with the cloud, I should be, too. As my mother would be quick to point out, if these companies were to jump off a bridge, should I jump off too?
There is a comfort in following the paths of others, but there is no guarantee of success. The only thing that matters in a decision like this is what is important to your company. Other companies are making decisions based on their own criteria; they may or may not match yours. Simply assuming that large companies are somehow smarter than you may not be a wise decision.
In the classic Simpson’s episode Krusty Gets Busted, Bart’s idol, Krusty the Clown, is accused of robbing the local Kwik-E-Mart. The entire town of Springfield rises up in opposition to Krusty. Bart is horrified to find that even his father Homer has turned against Krusty. Bart complains, “Dad, you’re giving in to mob mentality!” To which Homer replies, “No I’m not, I’m hopping on the bandwagon! Now get with the winning team!” In the end, of course, Krusty is exonerated when it is discovered that his evil sidekick, Sideshow Bob, was the real culprit.
So many technology decisions seem to become a choice between mob mentality and joining the bandwagon. In reality, what others do should not factor into the decisions we make for ourselves and our companies. We need to make a decision based on the unique merits of the case.
That said, critical market mass should be factored into a software or system decision, since it affects long-term maintenance and support pricing. Nonetheless, simply assuming that something is right because others are doing it is a poor decision process.
CIOs have to pick their way through these minefields everyday. Where will you find yourself today? As part of the mob, happily on the bandwagon, or following someone off a bridge? What would Bart (or your Mom) think?
Got A Marker? January 15, 2010Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
I’ve got a small confession to make. I am addicted to whiteboards. Not whiteboard markers, mind you, although the odor can be intoxicating. I mean whiteboards.
In meetings, I can hardly stand to not draw on the board. If something is worth talking about, it certainly warrants a diagram or two. I am a big believer in “boxes and lines” diagrams. If any two entities have a relationship, you can create a boxes-and-lines diagram to help express it better. Charts, trees, lists, timelines, you name it: I’d prefer to draw it out.
I’ve noticed that some people share my compulsion and others seem to have no need to leap up and draw things. My need is so great that it was a running joke among some co-workers as to how long I could hold out before jumping to the board. How could anyone live without a whiteboard handy?
Obviously, some people are wired for visual communication and others are not. Some people can read volumes of information and internalize it without the need for pictures. My brain is not so gifted; I need to explicitly render the relationship to fully understand it. I also like to color-code elements if possible, to further elaborate on important aspects of the diagram.
This affection is so bad that when I do not have a whiteboard handy, I am almost at a loss for words. Almost. In a pinch, I’ll sketch on a sheet of paper or a napkin, but it’s not quite the same as a full whiteboard. As much as I love words, they seem incomplete without a diagram.
Don’t get the idea that I’m any sort of artist. When I say “boxes and lines,” I mean boxes and lines and not much more. I once even took a course on how to doodle, learning how to create little people and other elements of quick sketches. It helped a bit, but you won’t find any of my work hanging anywhere anytime soon.
This deep desire leads to one of my fondest dreams: a world where everything is made of whiteboard material. Imagine being able to draw on the walls and doors and tables! A quick sketch on the dashboard of your car (while safely parked, of course) would be a wonderful thing. Jotting a note or two in an elevator or on a credenza might be just the thing to get your idea across in a pinch.
Sadly, as you move up the management ladder, the whiteboards diminish. Cubicle farms and team meeting rooms seem to be covered with whiteboards; management offices tend to have fewer, smaller whiteboards, often hidden behind a wooden panel or a projection screen. People at every level need to draw; why can’t we have whiteboards everywhere?
Losing Words January 13, 2010Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
In their 1972 hit Sylvia’s Mother, pop group Dr. Hook tells the story of a jilted lover trying to reach his ex-girlfriend, only to be stopped by her mother. As he pleads his case on the phone, the memorable hook of the song tells how the operator kept breaking in, demanding “forty cents more, for the next three minutes.”
As I listened to this song recently, it occurred to me that a younger audience might be puzzled by these unusual lyrics. What is an “operator?” Why would they be demanding money? Forty cents for three minutes? How would you pay them? Technology has marched on, leaving language (and old pop hits) behind.
The operator, of course, was a human who helped complete calls. Before cell phones, people used pay phones to make calls away from home, ponying up spare change to stay on the line. While the first three minutes might run you a dime (and later, a quarter), subsequent blocks of three minutes could cost a lot more. To stay on the line, you fed change into the phone.
To the modern ear, this sounds no different from instructions on how to tan your own leather or fashion a thatch roof. The concepts are so foreign that the words barely make sense. Yet this song describes things that were commonplace just thirty years ago!
Much of our language is derived from current technology, forming a common cultural base. As the rate of technological change increases, language cannot keep up, stranding all sorts of shared phrases. While amusing, I think it also creates an ever-wider disconnect between generations, making communication more difficult.
Even in the past ten years, many ideas have simply disappeared. Back last century, people needed to rewind things. Now, no modern device requires rewinding. We’re at the point where nothing spins to make music; how would a 50s DJ describe his world if unable to “spin stacks of wax?” People will soon wonder why we “dial” phones. I suspect that the number of US citizens that have actually operated a dial telephone is rapidly declining.
In a similar fashion, acronyms continue to shrink, encoding more information in shorter sounds. During World War II, acronyms started out as concatenated syllables from related words, pronounced as a single word. “CINCPAC” is the Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific, “CONUS” is the Continental US, and so forth.
By the 1960s, acronyms became individual letters strung together to make words (NASA, ASCII, etc). This happy state has existed for a while, and no product or process worth its salt is without a clever acronym that forms a related word.
Now we’ve started pronouncing the acronyms for shorthand abbreviations, creating new words. I’ve actually heard people say “lol” and “brb” in running conversation, without a hint of sarcasm. This is different from traditional acronyms, which typically represent nouns. Now we are collapsing and pronouncing verb phrases and even whole short sentences. This cannot be good for general communication.
What to do? Not much, I’m afraid. In between more-frequent trips to Urban Dictionary, I’ll go back to listening to Dr. Hook. They had another hit song that involved getting their picture on the cover of a magazine. As I understand it, a “magazine” is like an entire web site, printed and bound as a sequence of “pages.” The “cover” is the first page, and often had a photo on it. Imagine!