Thursday, March 24, 2005

Wistful Zingers

I'm weighing whether to spend several hundred dollars with a hard drive recovery service to retrieve some crucial data from my failed hard drive. The lowest quote I've received is $400 and the typical quote is between $800 and $1,500 - who knew these things were so expensive? And all this for a 40GB drive that cost $100 back in 2000? Does anyone have any pointers to cheaper solutions?

I may well need to go for this if I'm unable to locate my backups; the irony is that all I need is about a cd's worth of data from one directory of this drive. This could well turn out to be the most expensive cd in history if my archival search is fruitless. Let's keep our fingers crossed that I won't need to tighten my fiscal belt.

In any case, herewith are this month's nuggets for the Toli Scrapbook. This time we have wistful zingers on the theme of war and a sense of ineffable waste - a sense which is certainly applicable to my current mood...



"And as I was going, I was just thinking how the war have spoiled my town Dukana, uselessed many people, killed many others, killed my mama and my wife, Agnes, my beautiful young wife with J.J.C and now it have made me like porson wey get leprosy because I have no town again.
And I was thinking how I was prouding before to go to soza and call myself Sozaboy. But now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run and run and run. Believe me yours sincerely"

Ken Saro-Wiwa - Sozaboy
A novel in Rotten English. 1985




We were the leopards, the lions. Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas. And all of us - leopards, lions, jackals and sheep - we'll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.

Delivered with gravitas by Burt Lancaster as Prince Salina in Visonti's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963)




Aureliano doesn't understand "how people arrived at the extreme of waging war over things that could not be touched with the hand". He is like Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart, unmoved by abstractions but provoked by cruelty, by the sight of victimization. This is the way that American isolation, another long solitude, ends in film after film.

Michael Wood ruminating on the lessons of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude




The things which happen to men
Happen also to God;
But being of his own making
He can cope with them
Better.

Kwesi Brew - Flower and Blood
African Panorama and Other Poems. 1981.




"And anyway, what do you mean by 'historical'?"
"Well, it's like this war that's coming... "
"What war?" said the Prime Minister sharply. "No one has said anything to me about a war. I really think I should have been told. I'll be damned," he said defiantly, "if they shall have a war withought consulting me. What's a Cabinet for, if there's not more mutual confidence than that. What do they want a war for, anyway?"
"That's the whole point. No one talks about it, and no-one wants it. No one talks about it because no-one wants it. They're all afraid to breathe a word about it"
"Well, hang it all, if no one wants it, who's going to make them have it?"
"Wars don't start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions."
"Well, you seem to know all about it," said Mr. Outrage, "and I think should have been told sooner."

A prescient Evelyn Waugh - Vile Bodies 1930.

See earlier zingers.

See all toli zingers

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Disaster Recovery

Good resolutions are like babies crying in church, they should be carried out immediately.
— Modern Ghanaian proverb

He who laughs last probably made a back-up.
Murphy's 7th Computer Law
There's nothing like a failed hard drive to reveal the adequacy (or lack thereof) of one's backup procedures. Back when I chronicled last year's disasters (lost wallets, lost keys and lost bags amongst other sundry mishaps), I extolled the virtues of SLOCE (Save Lots Of Copies Everywhere) and patted myself on the back as far as my procedures in the digital domain went. At work, my hardware woes are legendary; for some reason, and I suspect that there are huge power surges on my side of the building, hard drives seem to fail with alarming regularity when they come near me. So I should be no stranger to my primary machine dying on me as happened yesterday.

I normally do weekly backups of critical data to cd, over the network and occasionally to yahoo briefcase. When I remember I also email myself copies of important documents so that I can benefit from google's filesystem. I know that I skipped a backup last week hence, at worst I should be only 2 weeks out of date.

Now here's the thing: I can't find the last backup cd. Worse, I can't find any backups cds labeled from this year. Indeed, the last labeled backup cd that I can find is from last October. This is of course cause for panic, where have I been putting my backups for the past 6 months? They aren't in the normal spindle or anywhere I normally store my backups. Did I decide to vary their locations? I know did backups when I went to Ghana so with a little searching around I should be able to at least find a Christmas snapshot. But, I know, I know! I've been backing up this year. The search continues for a recent backup...

As you may have noticed, I been fairly prolific in the past few weeks - a result of work winding down a little. Sod's Law (or Murphy's law as the Americans put it) would figure that disaster would strike at the most inopportune time. Indeed it was just as I was starting the computer up, vaguely contemplating that I needed to do a backup, that those fateful sounds of metal scraping metal made their presence known.

So what's the damage: in the past 2 weeks there have been tax returns, the 5 technical articles I had been working on, the 2 patent applications, the 15 Toli fragments that I was putting together and about 20 pages of the finally restarted novel. There's likely more I'm missing but that's the most painful at the moment. sigh...

Now I have to buy new drives, locate operating system software, and search for the install cds of the various programs I normally use (if I can't find the binaries on my other machines). As I sit here, trying to copy whatever remains on the drive (and contemplate plumping for the several hundred dollars that TechFusion would charge), I curse myself that I haven't followed my own advice thoroughly or automated what I should have.

Posting might be light while disaster recovery proceeds.

disaster recovery


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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Inauguration à L'Africaine

Back in January I attended the inauguration of Ghana's President John Agyekum Kufuor into his second term in office. Accra's finest were in their element; Ghanaians don't need much prompting for ceremony - if funeral attendance can be one of our great social pastimes, imagine what a happy occasion can bring about.

I was escorting my mum who, like almost all the women present, was decked out in a colourful kente outfit. One of the President's Special Initiatives is on textiles so the word had gone out in the media encouraging everyone to wear Made-in-Ghana clothing. There was mostly kente but also lavish lace, agbadas and batakaris on display. Actually hers was a highly unusual kente, traditionally most go for the orange/yellow/green variety. Having seen the cloth before it was sewn, my father and I had been puzzled by it, we couldn't imagine what it would look like when complete and, as it ended up, the seamstress had deconstructed the kente strips and reinvented it beyond anything we could have envisioned.

Mum at inauguration


I'd never been to an inauguration before and didn't think I'd ever have occasion to do so again, so it was tongue-in-cheek when I groaned grudgingly that I would rather watch the event on TV. Everyone saw right through my pose, and rightly so.

The main ingredients of such events are what one would expect: pomp, circumstance and pageantry. In this instance, there was an added component: chaos. I should elaborate somewhat on the latter quality of the occasion...

One of my favourite plays is Les Chaises (The Chairs) by Eugene Ionesco which is a classic in the Theatre of the Absurd. Its plot is about a nonagenarian couple who are waiting in a lecture hall arranging chairs in preparation for a lecture and interacting with a host of invisible participants. The language and the stage directions are minimalist and ridiculous, but such fun to follow or act out. The play is hilarious, bleak and an object lesson in futility much like the chaos that was to ensue during the proceedings. As it turned out my prime impression of the inauguration was that everything boiled down to a matter of chairs.

Les Chaises


Now this was quite surprising to me, it should plainly have been a numbers game. After all, the state protocol officials knew exactly how many people they had invited and how many minders they would have. And they had unlimited budgets and the vast grounds of Independence Square available to them. You can't gatecrash events where 6 heads of state and a cohort of dignitaries are in attendance, at least I would hope the security would be tight enough to assure that.

So let's start with this: the President's family didn't have any seats.

As they bitterly reminded us, they had stood throughout all the proceedings in the 2000 inauguration. This year they stoically stood their ground, demanded that the right thing be done and were determined to cause a scene. "The last time, we could blame the previous government, we didn't have time to prepare a transition. This time, we're in power... Look at this! Look at this!"

Eventually chairs were fetched and a temporary canopy was rushed to the scene. Of course, the canopy was still being assembled when the Speaker of Parliament and his clerks made their way to the podium to start the function.

The Chairs


Then there was the case of the chiefs. African chiefs have large retinues and even the lowliest of sub-chiefs will insist on no one sitting in front of them. An hour before the scheduled start, as the extent of the chair fiasco became evident to all, 50 or so chiefs decided to take up the seats reserved for the Members of Parliament. Imagine that: the inauguration is supposed to be a sitting session of parliament. All the newly sworn MPs and their spouses were supposed to be in that section. They'd walk out in a rage. So there was a scramble to somehow manufacture some chairs for the chiefs and then to find the right way to phrase the requests to have these members of the Council of State take them up. There was a minor hitch when it was heard that that someone, and no one knew who, had forbidden plastic chairs. What comedy, don't you think? We're just lucky the Asantehene was not in attendance and had sent a representative in his stead.

Not to belabour the point or to sound too prissy, but as I sunk into my own chair (How I got it? I won't discuss) and tried to cajole my face in an expression of quiet expectancy, it seemed to me that having burly workmen ushering plastic chairs over a sitting Baroness Amos (UK) and dodging past President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah (Sierra Leone) was stretching things a bit.
"Oh! Excuse-o Madame".
The Chairs


Then there was the Master of Ceremonies for the occasion, who mangled every name and title: to take a few examples, ascribing Sierra-Leonean citizenship to South African Deputy President, Jacob Zuma. President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso suddenly became Gambian. "Big Mama", Mrs Obasanjo discovered that she was actually the First Lady of Niger not Nigeria, and so on. That last one at least got a correction, President Olusegun Obasanjo can be poker-faced like the best of them, but there are some things that even he can't handle. The Nigerians, and there is no society more hectic than theirs, would never tolerate disorganization on this scale. Needless to say, the MC's every utterance occasioned squirming for all in attendance. You could just see the members of the diplomatic corps flinching and preparing their communiqués back home. The IMF and World Bank types were sporting self-satisfied smirks confident that they have every reason to dictate to us.

A few other items of note. It was also the first and last time I saw Gnassingbe Eyadema, President of Togo, in the flesh, with his customary dark glasses and impassive bearing. A mafia don if ever there was, he was weeks from his death.

And the sight of the judiciary. Have you ever seen their like? Wearing wigs and Etonian robes in the almost Saharan heat. Lord have mercy. The members of the Supreme Court made even the numerous clergy look sedate (Ghana is currently in grip of a new Christianity).

judges


The event was almost derailed and dignitaries were kept waiting for hours on display in the midday heat by the shenanigans of the opposition who had thrown the proceedings in parliament into uproar by deciding to renege on the consensus agreement of the nomination of the Speaker of Parliament. Nothing could start until the speaker and the leaders of the house were elected. It was all a means of sticking their thumbs in all our faces and embarrassing the assembled cast.

At one point, as the voting was taking place in parliament, the rumour spread at the square that the opposition were about to boycott the inauguration since, as befitted their minority status, the votes were sure to not go their way. My mum pointed out that that was very unlikely: she'd have loved to hear the conversations between the minority MPs and their spouses, who had done their hair and nails the previous day and got up early to dress in their finest linen or kente, explaining why they were planning to head home. In the event they showed up, but about half of the spouses didn't have seats. That was actually a good thing: a hundred glamourous women standing in the sun make a picturesque and arresting spectacle. Speaking for myself, I was a keen watcher. The photographers also could pretend that they were at the fashion shows in Milan or Paris.

An inaugural speech is not the most flamboyant of things, it lacks the drama of a State of the Union address, nevertheless it's an occasion to strike a certain tone. Let me tell you about this inaugural speech:

This is a speech that survived at least
  • 2 corrupted floppy disks
  • an urgent dispatch of a courier with USB thumb drive on hand
  • 3 oh-so-secure webmail postings to Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo mail accounts since the government mail and VPN system was out of order at the time.
On the day itself, there no amount of consternation when it turned out that the version printed in the inauguration brochure had succumbed to either a typesetting flaw or, more likely, a Microsoft Word bug wherein major sections were either deleted or repeated or somehow munged. Evidently no one had bothered to proof-read the piece. I know some people who were holding their breath, praying that the President's copy was ok and that he wouldn't look idiotic or incoherent.

kufuor inauguration


The speech survived all that and was delivered actually very well by Mr Kufuor. The framing device was simple, start with the following:
A story is told about a conversation that took place during the independence celebrations, between the then American Vice President Richard Nixon, who represented the United States at the Independence Day celebrations, and Sir Charles Noble Arden Clarke who was the last Governor of the Gold Coast, newly turned Ghana.

Vice President Richard Nixon is reported to have asked Sir Charles: "will it work?" In other words, Vice President Nixon was asking, will the great historical experiment they had launched, of an independent African state work?

Sir Charles is reported to have paused awhile and pondered over the question; and then answered: "It will have to work." Presumably he must have meant that as the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence, Ghana needed to succeed to set an example for the rest of colonial Africa.
Lay out the broad strokes of your various policies, and then end triumphantly:
And here I believe I speak on behalf of my compatriots when I answer the question posed by the then Vice President Nixon some 48 years ago about the prospects of the newly independent Ghana; "will it work?" he asked.

I say: yes, it is already working, and with God's help, we will make it work even better.
Strong words indeed and you might say, somewhat belied by what I've written. Discoursing on incompetence is mostly painful for someone as proud as I am of my heritage. If minor things can't even be organized, what about the messy business of development? Or perhaps I'm making too much of these things wringing my hands for comic effect?

When you watched the news later on, or read the reports in the media, there is no sense of the live wire and musical chairs flavour that characterized the event. Three paragraphs on the BBC website, one paragraph in the wire services and New York Times. The story was "the President was inaugurated, there was a little snag in parliament, foreign presidents were present, the speech was well received". That's the extent of coverage our small part of the world typically receives.

And maybe that's all that matters then. The weather was fine, the harmattan had come with a vengeance and cast an almost sandy mist that dissipated the heat of the midday sun, There was music (the 20 foot ceremonial drums were out and beaten dramatically), horn blowers blew loudly, there were brass bands and inspections of the guard, a 21-gun salute, there was dancing by nubile women (though not quite as the Swazis do it), and praise-singing by criers. Everyone looked good and strutted like peacocks. The crush of people was intense in the square and the crowds were jubilant. Kufuor is known as the "Gentle Giant" and is a highly popular politician. The NPP supporters knew how to celebrate and indeed it was hard to summon any cynicism in light of their evident happiness. The young men beating drums, inventing new chants and doing spontaneous line dances, were exuberance itself.

I'll conclude though by writing about one of the most vivid images that returns to my mind a few months on. The Libyan representative had one of Gaddafi's legendary female bodyguards attending to him. This woman mesmerized me more even than anything I've written so far.

bodyguard


To give some context, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi normally travels with a few planeloads of female bodyguards. They are typically young, beautiful and fierce things. There is some dispute as to whether they are a mere eccentricity, a simple harem-in-disguise or rather the notorious, Amazonian vanguard of his security services.

Now Gaddafi has sponsored almost every misadventure in the sub-region for the past 30 years, and there have been many, many coups-d'états and rebellions in Africa. You didn't have to start out claiming you were against imperialism and the US to get a cool million from the man of the Little Green Book, you could launch your escapade and only afterward discover that you needed financial help to stabilize things (as was the case with Rawlings).

Incidentally, when Zimbabwe finally unravels in the near future, we'll find out just how much of its patrimony Robert Mugabe has turned over to the good colonel's hands in order to remain solvent. The couple of visits our Muammar has made to Harare in the past 5 years bode ill for that country.

In the particular case of Liberia and Sierra Leone, the mischief was unpardonable. After he escaped from jail in Somerville, MA, Charles Taylor went to train in Libya and started his guerrilla war in Liberia with Libyan help. 15 years later, and 5 countries destabilized, it stands as one of the most destructive and bloody episodes in West African history, something that will take a generation or more to recover from.

Some of the child soldiers who were press-ganged into biblical savagery by Taylor's Sierra Leonean partner-in-crime, Foday Sankoh talk about their Libyan "mother" who was there all along in the background orchestrating much of the mayhem. I've watched or listened to many a documentary about these child soldiers, it is haunting stuff indeed.

The elliptical figure that appears, time and again, in the nightmarish accounts of kidnappings, conscription, forced drugging, hacked limbs, summary amputations, rape as a matter of course, and even that lugubrious standby, cannibalism, is presumably one of those notorious women from Gaddafi's entourage. Who knows if "mother" actually wielded the weapons herself, she was right there in the midst of it, drenched in blood diamonds.

I am not too keen on the word evil, like Ian McEwan, I lean towards the notion that "there are only people behaving, and sometimes behaving monstrously". So you can imagine why I forgot all about the chaos around me and simply stared at her in awful awe. This one was tending towards middle-age. She was a little stout and was dressed unobtrusively as befits someone who is meant to guard someone, in this case the foreign minister or other Gaddafi had deigned to send.

I stood 3 rows behind, admiring the aura of quiet professionalism as she ushered her man to his seat and took up her position to the right of the podium. Her practiced eye was always roving over the crowd, alert for mischief. Only the American and British bodyguards looked comparably sharp and tough.

As for the various African bodyguards, they weren't much of anything, burly but you wondered what a determined foe would do to them. The Nigerian ones had eaten too much eba; it was fufu in the case of the Ghanaians. The Senegalese accompanying Abdoulaye Wade seemed almost effete, tense and frail. The South African ones were only concerned with securing a chair so that their aide-de-camp, could sit behind Zuma. Indeed Miss Libya was the first to react when there was a minor scramble near the VIP section, dispensing a sharp elbow that put paid to some over-enthusiastic paparazzi-type.

I spent most of the inauguration transfixed, wondering if it was this particular woman, or perhaps her sister or one of her close friends, who was in Sierra Leone, seconded to that rogue band of malfeasants. I still wonder you know.

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Handling Rogues

One of the most interesting issues in diplomacy is how to handle prickly characters. One thing that has always impressed me is the frequency with which a skillful and determined negotiator can arrive at a neutralizing accommodation. Often one's gruesome interlocutor can be induced, cajoled, bribed or coerced. In rare cases, there can even be genuine conversions and, by sheer argument, you may lead someone to their Road of Damascus.

It's a mostly thankless task though, requiring patience, perceptiveness, a keen understanding of history, human foibles and an ever-optimistic outlook. There are exceptions of course that can cause even the most wizened diplomat to turn to drink. Sometimes, as say with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, or the irascible clan warlords in Somalia, you're simply wasting your time. They never had any intention of settling and were just humouring you, if they were even persuaded to make it to the negotiating table. The prototypical case in the last decade was Milosevic.

I recall people telling me in the 90s that having Charles Taylor of Liberia wearing suits and sipping champagne in hotels was better than anything. "Maybe he'll get used to it, calm down and stop causing trouble". Wishful thinking of course. In the end, Taylor held Liberia hostage, won a "free and fair" election - his campaign slogan: "you killed my mother, you killed my father but I will vote for you", and proceeded to loot at an impressive and unprecedented scale, a more savage Tony Soprano as it were. The timber forest and diamond mines in the sub-region will never be the same.

The same was said about the Sierra Leonean lot, and here choice expletives need to be thrown at Reverend Jesse Jackson who intervened to force a disastrous settlement without making warring groups disarm. How the Country Preacher ever came to be seen as an expert and, more worryingly, as someone who could shape Clinton's foreign policy is still beyond me. Surely there should be more than racial affinity to make someone an authority? Or maybe, like those appointed to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, it was a case of who you knew. If you don't know what you're talking about, don't bring yourself: people's lives are at stake here. In the event, the Sierra Leonean catastrophe was a close-run thing and it took all of the efforts of ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping mission, and a judicious deployment of a battalion of British paratroopers to staunch the bleeding.

In any case, the story of the almost incestuous relationship between otherwise notable African-Americans like Leon Russell and Louis Farrakhan and miscreant African leaders deserves a fuller exposition at a later point. A brief sketch though: there's a two-way back-scratching that is at work here. On the one hand, there's the glamour of proximity to presidents that tickles the inflated ego ("Look here: a photo of me with President so-and-so. Did you know, he took the whole day off to chat with me!). And on the other hand, there's a aura of legitimacy that the African counterparts craves by association with this distinguished American ("Running a country is so easy, why not get some face-time with this guy, we can drink some fine wines"). Some have speculated there has been an element of monetary lubrication in these affairs whether it's plots of land, mining concessions or the ever-propitious perennial: flashy jewelry (blood diamonds anyone?). I'm not so sure that these shabby interchanges need much prompting since it's a perfect quid-pro-quo. The populace of these countries will show up for these affairs dressed in finery, sing and dance to puff up your sense of importance. They lay it all out for you. There's a power imbalance of course but when you're poor, you'll take any entertainment you can. Once you've stuffed your suitcases with loot and finally returned to DC or Atlanta, you should know, however, that your contempt is fully reciprocated.

What is interesting about the current situation in Congo is that many in the media are willing to go for go for the jugular to stiffen the spine of the 'international community' in how it deals with rogues and warlords. Take this recent piece from The Economist, The UN gets tougher:

"In January, Congo's transitional government invited five of Ituri's militia bosses to become generals in the still-chaotic national army, in the hope that they would encourage their troops to disarm. The new generals all say they are looking forward to serving their country, but some appear to be carrying on as before, snapping orders into mobile telephones from their air-conditioned rooms at the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa, the capital.

Little in the militia bosses' history inspires confidence. Your correspondent was once the unwilling guest of one of them, Jerome Kakwavu, a former traffic warden whose men control the town of Aru, on the border between Ituri and Uganda. During the course of a week, Mr Kakwavu publicly executed three of his own men, nearly flogged a ten-year-old soldier to death and kidnapped two Ukrainian pilots. He was hospitable to your correspondent, however, offering him the use of his sex slaves and the companionship of his pet baby chimpanzee."

And I quite agree, I'm all for quiet negotiation, entreatments and face-saving accommodations, but that should be for the diplomats. The commenting class, and I am a proud, keyboard-wielding member, often has the strength of the moral high ground. Let's simply call a spade a spade and shame these bastards.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Technical Arteriosclerosis

Engineers are funny people. I write this not because many are socially maladjusted but in recognition of the peculiar language that we tend to use. As in any community, our patois is borne of the interchange of often clever in-jokes. For example, this is why we say that things are fubar or that we talk about bugs (see a discussion of The "First" Computer bug).

The language of disease permeates our discouse whether it's talk about viruses, worms, innoculation, heartbeats and other sundry terms. The spectre of war also raises its dismal head. Security folks talk about black hats, white hats and use euphemisms like attack vectors. The most lucrative sector in the industry is now security as if in response to the 'global wars' that are supposedly being fought. I find it a little distasteful since there's an imputed morality in our choice of terms.

Of late, the linguistic trends in techology have been about decline and fall. Perhaps this was because of the apocalyptic fin-de-siecle hype and millenial angst about Y2K or maybe there's a wider sociological trend at work. Whenever monopolies have risen (and we have a few in the business) and over-reached, the Last days of Pompeii have loomed in the popular imagination.

Take "When good interfaces go crufty". The title alone make me want to start wiping the sleep from my eyes. I've been coming across both crufty and crusty increasingly in my work.

And what about "Software decay, Software rot"? The things we deal with must be increasingly gangrenous. The reality check of the bursting of the tech bubble is likely the motive force in these coinages.

My latest term of choice is Technical Arteriosclerosis.

I encountered this term while reading a very good paper about new paradigms in the design of network systems, Developing a Next-Generation Internet Architecture (PDF) (html via the Google cache) - it's also mentioned in a shorter presentation (PPT).

Bob Braden, David Clark, Noel Chiappa and others, who were there at the inception of the end-to-end internet that we have, almost give the impression of having thrown their hands in the air. Some have given up on the idea of IPv6 ever being widely adopted or of finding evolutionary solutions to the leaks in the abstractions of existing networks (the rise of middleboxes, NATs and the consequent loss of Internet transparence as well as the coupling in DNS names of location with endpoint identifiers etc). They coin the term as follows.

In general, an increasing collection of point solutions leads over time leads to a design that is complex, tangled, and inflexible.

The Internet is exhibiting this technical arteriosclerosis today.

In their context, I fear that their alarm is a touch oversold. I see some light at the end of the tunnel - what are STUN, Midcom or Behave if not evolutionary and pragmatic remedies to the internet ills? Not to mention that people are building on useful things on this here existing internet. I hate NATs as much as any thinking person yet a Linksys box sits in front of my cable modem, like most everyone I know.

I like the term, technical arteriosclerosis, because it's a very accurate description of a piece of code I'm currently dealing with. Although this it has just gone through its first release, I am afraid to touch it for fear of killing the patient. Clogged arteries have been the mainstay of my day job for the past few months.

In this context I came across a useful discussion of these issues. As ever, everything goes back to the Linux Kernel where all issues of technology manifest themselves in microcosm as architectural parables
(Alan) Cox explained that he and Torvalds sometimes have different approaches to fixing a problem, due in part to their different responsibilities. As the maintainer of the development kernel Torvalds needs make sure the kernel code is easy to maintain, while Cox is more interested in kernel stability and is not so worried about "hacking" the code to get it to work.

"One of the hard problems to fix are design errors," said Cox. "These are a pain because they need a lot of refactoring. Linus' approach is to re-write it to a better design. But to get a stable kernel you tend to do small horrible fixes. Linus is very keen to have maintainable code, while to have a stable kernel I'm keen to have code that works."

I laud the impulse of Braden et al, but there's a hint in their response of an inclination towards the "rewrite from scratch" point of view (the Linus point of view). In software design, Joel Spolsky has persuasively made the case that this is tragically flawed. Cox would side with Joel I think. The linux kernel oscillates between these different forces. More generally, these competing dynamics shape the architecture of the systems that we engineers build.

Allow me to go for hyperbole if you will:
The signal challenge of this technological age is the response that system designers choose in response to technical arteriosclerosis.

And this decision will gain increasing importance since the systems we build verge almost immediately towards overwhelming complexity. The jury is still out about which is the right approach and perhaps both tendancies are needed at different times as market needs evolve.

One bright light I have found in this respect is in the reaction to RSS that has its expression in the development of the Atom publishing format and protocol. The elements are as follows: early diagnosis of the clogged arteries, development of a clean and tight specification, running code, a lightweight touch in anticipation of system evolution and, most of all, architectural leverage like I keep harping on.

[Update: April 6 2005]

Also very relevant is this further discussion in the Kernel Mailing List. A thread ostensibly about version numbers for the Linux Kernel, it very quickly boils down to this sociological and design issue I've outlined, namely the tension in software development between 'stability' and 'api cleanliness'. The Alan Cox and Linus Torvalds debate continues apace.

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Sunday Night With Jill Scott

Sunday night at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston, March 13 2005.


Jill Scott and her crack 13-piece band brought the Big Beautiful tour to Boston last Sunday night. Ostensibly this was in support of the Beautifully Human album. As it turned out though there was a whole lot of the first album, Who is Jill Scott?, on display.

As I've noted previously, I've seen her twice before, first when she was an unknown in a small club and then 9 months later at a prestigious venue where she was pleasantly surpised by the double platinum plaques and critical acclaim that had started coming her way. She took an extended break from music "to attend to her mariage" but came back in a big way in the past year. She is fresh off winning a Grammy in that category designed for left-of-center artists who won't sell the tens of millions: Cross My Mind won Best Urban/Alternative Performance.

There is no opening act; she starts with a track appropriately called Warm Up in which a dancer brings some urban ballet flavour to the proceedings. The dance was a little off especially given that the Boston Ballet is right around the corner and that we in the audience were expecting earthy soul. Sadly also, us New Englanders were not be blessed with Common appearing on the same bill, something New Yorkers had enjoyed just days earlier. Still how often does every thinking person's favourite soul sister come to your town?

They start out in church mode with Golden the first single and a welcome radio-friendly return. After the first chorus, they flip it house style (ala East Coast mix). It becomes hyperactive dance music and she wails away in the Gloria Gaynor mould to the accelerating beat. It's a canny way to make sure that the band has woken up and is ready to keep the Sunday night audience moving.

The Jill Scott aesthetic is interesting: if you've ever seen the movie Love Jones, you'll know all about it. There's an urban appeal and refreshing down-to-earth quality to her. She walks down the same gritty Philadephia streets. Her tastes are suitably proletarian. It's soul food from cheese steaks to collard greens. Her man is one step above FUBU but is not averse to the bourgeois stylings of Sean John.

When she performs live, she aims straight for the heart. The idea is that of the unassuming girl next door: Jilly From Philly. There's so much love and good will in the building reciprocating to her. She's so warm-hearted and beams at being here performing for us. She looks good and there's that sense of vulnerability that can't be faked. The Girlfriend has a keen condescension detector and even forgives Jill the "interesting" high heeled shoes she's wearing. A mistake Jill laughing acknowledged when she came out for the encore wearing slippers.

The subtitle of both her albums is Words and Sounds and as she informs those seing her for the first time, maybe two-thirds of the crowd, it's not just about the music: it's also about the talks. An integral component of a Jill Scott show is her spoken interludes. At times it's almost like a 1-woman musical theater show as she mimes performs these interludes, inhabiting the various characters - a cast that includes annoyed girlfriends, cheating men, and the breakfast disputes of the hen-pecked and their demanding significant others.

Exclusively is a spoken word song in this vein, about the early morning encounter at the grocery store with a nameless woman who is able to detect her post-coital posturings:
She sniffed [...] She sniffed... She sniffed, and sniffed and sniffed then finally, "Raheem, right?"
Gettin' In the Way is like a shot of testosterone and pure anger. Jill is prepared to take off her shoes to fight for her man. Like Pam Grier in Foxy Brown, she may even have razor blades hidden in her afro.



A Long Walk demonstrates what an inventive wordsmith she can be and how easily she can deconstruct romantic liasons. Do You Remember is about nostalgia and as befits the theme is a sing-along around a camp fire.

It's Love is a jam done go-go style. There are snatches of the bassline break from Minnie Riperton's Baby This Love, popularized and repurposed in A Tribe Called Quest's Check The Rhime. This is all just to let people know that she's down, that there's a sophisticated and funky musical sensibility at work here. The band is loose, the horns blow with abandon. The crowd is out of their seats.

The one-two punch of The Way and Love Rain framed the turbulence that was at the heart of her debut. We all know the words and we made a beautiful sound with her if I may say so. The band has fun with what have become latter-day standards. The horn section is a standout and makes everthing worthwhile. It features Jeff Bradshaw on trombone. He was more subdued than in the past, apparently he proposed to his girlfriend on stage at the previous show, one wonders if there was a touch of apprehension in the air. The trumpet and saxophonist are excellent. The latter, Steve Something-or-Other picks up a flute that is the most welcome complement to the instrumentation and heightens the musical excitement in my mind.

She's still obsessed with food, from barbecue sauce, "Put some on it even if you're vegan", to "Scrambled Eggs and Grits" which is the punchline in the former song. The latter features that all-time vivid metaphor: "Loose like bowels after collard greens."

One is the magic # proves that she can sing opera in the Latin mode. The Mexican trumpet welcomes us to a fiesta. It's two months before Cinqo de Mayo but we are transported to Latin America or is it spain. Plus there's the defiance of the chorus "There's just me / One is the magic number". It's clever and fun.

Slowly Surely is again all about uplift, about recovering from that old desperate love, the maze of love. Every one who's had their heart broken can relate.

Those were songs from the first album. Some of the best of the new songs were missing in action; teasing and feinting us with 30 seconds of Bedda At Home and 2 phrases from I'm Not Afraid are not enough. And not having Family Reunion isn't compensated by her recounting of a funny story about her cousin, a barbeque and a woman in furs choking on her food and a surprise reinvention of the Heimlich maneuver. Those who burnished the grassroots appeal for you want to go on the trip with you. Sure she talked about the making those songs, but damnit, I wanna hear them too.



Talk to Me (Break it Down / Spell it Out) is lovely soul, it starts out reminiscent of any track from Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness' First Finale and then it goes firmly into jazz mode with cabaret swing. She's trying to show versatility, she swoons and scats like Ella Fitzgerald. The horns add accents to what becomes a big band tune.

A few comments on soul singers doing jazz: Jill Scott has an awesome vocal instrument and can do almost anything she wants with it. However:
  1. When doing the jazz thing make sure your musicians can play in that idiom. The horn section was fine but the bass and drums stay in a funk pocket and don't swing. Her take on the jazz soul thing was better in last year's collaboration with Common on I am Music for his Electric Circus album. That was a dream team affair full of musical virtuosity; Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Questlove on the drums and Common's syncopation and verbal dexterity in a hip-hop cadence melding well with her superior vocal stylings.
  2. Of this generation of soul singers, Bilal and Amel Larrieux have the purest jazz sensibility. Erykah Badu follows closely as a stylist who does a mean Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone impression (see Green Eyes) and can embue her voice an emotion that is close to her core. The straight up jazz stylists, from Lizz Wright on, are more authentic. Rachelle Ferrelle would frankly embarrass Jill in a jook joint cutting contest.

The Fact Is (I Need You) is the anthem to female affirmation with the background vocalists doing a slow and classically-influenced burn. I suspect that she will point to the lyrics as the Jill Scott manifesto
I can be a congresswoman or a garbage woman or police officer or a capenter / I could be a doctor and a lawyer and a mother and a "good God what chu done to me?" kind of lover / I could be / I could be a computer analyst / The queen with the nappy hair raising the fist or / I could be much more and myriad of this
Cross my Mind is an epic song that deserved the Grammy. Its wistful mood is that of reminiscing about old flames and relationships that didn't work out. Were they good for us?

Only one song was off, Can't Explain. The musicianship was actually very good, the colourings by the horn section (especially the flute) were spot on. I suspect the fault in that particular song was the following: as a lyricist she's very wordy. It normally works well but sometimes brevity is the font of musical wisdom. Anyway it's far better on the album.

Whatever is the emotional heart of the concert. Beautifully Human was essentially a celebration of married life, of monogamy and of a deep exuberant love. Whatever is consequently a pure celebration. Live, it is the best expression of where Jill Scott's journey has taken her. She's loving every bit of married life. I'll admit that my heartstrings caught a bit as I rose to my feet for this and did my shower singing with the entire audience. To top it off, the coda reinvented the tune as a salsa escapade and her percussionist took us all to Havana.

For the triumphant encore she brought out Not Like Crazy, a new song that is simply virtuosic and full of flourishes including a great saxophone solo to punctuate things. She finishes with He Loves Me, and mimes the ingenue flashes of the first flashes of love. This was written when she found her man and we all sing along recognizing as we all do that emotion she well captured. We're all hopeful we've found our soul-mates.

My only criticism of the concert is that she keept to a similar framework as the last album and tour. Having been there in the small clubs at the start when she wasn't known and evangelizing and spreading the word-of-mouth, there wasn't enough of the new album for my liking. A more adventurous artist would have changed the show. I can't imagine someone like Erykah Badu being that conservative, indeed Badu had to be forced to sing her old tunes. The patter of the old show serves as intimate and seductive introductions for mainstream newcomers to her vibe but I want to get a sense of where Jill Scott is at today on her trip. And we only got a partial sense of that in Whatever and Not Like Crazy.

There are few appeals as direct and disarming as Jill Scott, someone who loves performing, an authentic wordsmith and perhaps soul music's warmest and most endearing and expressive voice. She aims for different vocal colourings, the keen sensibility of the horn section and now the flute augment things nicely. The production values though don't take her out of her comfort zone of traditional soul with a little gospel and spoken word thrown in for good measure. Labelmates and poetry auteurs Floetry are in much the same mould. I wish the Hidden Beach label would press for more experimentation but they seem to have a formula that works and gets broad appeal.

Back when I was awarding the Toli Music Awards last year, I gave Amel Larrieux the nod over Jill Scott, noting then that my inclinations were for a more angular musicianship even though singers like Scott were sure to sell more records. That's still mostly the case but it's like the difference between Bill Cosby, America's sweater-wearing dad whose universal humour is that of the irascible curmudgeon, and Richard Pryor who fearlessly, and in his very personal way, reminds us of the pimps, hookers and drug dysfunction that are an integral part of the American dream.

Last Sunday night, the dynamic artistry of Jill Scott was a very appealing contender and almost made me want to join the mainstream. She has settled on something that will continue to have great success and has grown in a laudable way. In a very canny way also, she seems to have groomed a very loyal female cohort. Of course, in matters of consumerism, where the women go, the men will follow.

As the show ends, the genuine warmth and humour show again and she reminds us why there's so much to love in Jilly from Philly. Instead of filing off triumphant and exhausted, she disarms us and stays on stage for a few minutes signing autographs and simply chatting and cracking jokes. She's just a girl from the neighbourhood after all, you may pass her as you walk the streets as you make your way to the grocery store.

And for the final note, picking up a flier handed to her from the crowd, she announces the after-party.

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Sunday, March 13, 2005

A REST Intervention

Responding to James Snell's article, Resource-oriented vs. activity-oriented Web services, a dissent in 4 parts and a contribution to the ongoing (never-ending?) debate on REST (Representational State Transfer), web services and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol)

  1. A Snap Judgment
  2. Changing The Frame
  3. Internalizing the REST style - A case study: WebSphere Portal
  4. An Argument by Analogy

1. A Snap Judgment


Sometimes you read or hear something that immediately strikes you as wrong-headed and sets you off. In the real world, if say you were in the same conference room, you might cross your arms, prepare to raise your voice a little as you ready a sharp retort. If you were on a mailing list, this is the kind of thing that will start you writing a lovely flame, complete with point-by-point rebuttals. I've learned dear lessons about the social cost and inadvisability of rushed (and rash) reactions in the online world, so I confined my dissent to bookmarking the article and tagging it with the following inchoate comment:
Completely missing the point about REST and what it means to "be on the web."
A knee-jerk response or snide and unfair commentary perhaps, but at least his piece didn't leave me indifferent like much of what I read on the web.

I've cooled somewhat in the intervening weeks, also I've re-read what Snell wrote and realized that I'd missed much of his point. It's a well-meaning and well-reasoned exposition; it's hard to argue with the form if not the substance. There are lots of caveats and "don't get me wrong"-s, cues that suggest a more nuanced picture than I obviously gave it credit. He's one of the good guys, a colleague with whose group I've often worked with, and this is very far from the typical (and occasionally disingenous) posturing of the REST/SOAP debate.

I'll start my considered dissent then by modifying my assessment: Snell does understand REST, he gets the point but is just cautious about its application and, like all of us, is struggling with the issues it raises. To him, it's just another approach in his toolchest, there's a sense of "different stokes for different folks" in his manner. Engineers are all about evaluating tradeoffs and pragmatism like his is often just sound engineering.

I think my initial reaction was coloured by having read too many journalists who cover the world of technology adoption and often cast things in the winner-takes-all mold. At ground level in the technical trenches where Snell and I live, the calculus of profits is less important; it is rather a marketplace of competing ideas and we're picky and conservative buyers on the whole.

Still in my dissent, I need to explain the second part of my statement which relates to the importance of "being on the web". There has to be a response in writing, if not in code. Ideas don't exist in a vacuum and I shouldn't take to some ivory tower, with Fielding's bible on hand, Prescod and Baker as prophets in the wilderness, and Bray as curmudgeon and loyal oppositionist-in-chief all the while pointing to Apache, Amazon, Yahoo, flickr, del.icio.us and others as favoured offspring and self-evident existence proofs. That's not a sufficient response.

2. Changing the Frame


Fair enough then, how best to articulate this lingering sense I have that Snell short-changes or side-steps the value proposition of the REST architectural style?

The following tidbit from another context seems strangely relevant here:
Oliver Hass, a 28 year-old chemist and graduate student from Oldenberg, Germany, wrote me recently about what the President's trip looked like to him. In introducing himself, Hass commented on "how necessary it can be for a chemist to forget about molecules and think about real problems."

In terms of technical advocacy, others far more experienced than I and have written eloquently and at length wonderful treatises about the virtues of REST and why wire protocols matter. Bray has a very good writeup on recent thoughts. There have been lots of attempts at articulating best practices even prominently featured in wikis. In recent months, Joe Gregorio has been embarking on the show me the code path, doing some of the most effective advocacy by plain example.

My gut feel is that the disposition of the debate will be ultimately be determined by running code and one engineer at a time, hence I won't add to the heated rhetoric. So then I'll make the advocacy argument by changing the frame, and casting the REST value proposition almost in economic terms, in terms of systemic leverage, pragmatism and ubiquity.

Positing, like Snell does, that is about a resource-oriented view rather than an activity-oriented view belies a significant question. Surely benefits would accrue if "activity-oriented" items were exposed on the web? Indeed, these days if you don't expose your offering or activity on the web, you hardly matter. If you're ultimately going to derive much of your value from web exposure, why accentuate the impedance mismatches between your technology stack and the prevailing architecture? For indeed there is an architecture to the web. This is evident when one considers the differences between HTTP 1.0 and HTTP 1.1. The REST style simply elucidates the philosophy of the underlying architecture.

For some reason, REST is much misunderstood; the handwaving description "the best of the lessons learned in developing the web" needs much elaboration, as does the elevator pitch version:
REST is defined by four interface constraints:
  • identification of resources
  • manipulation of resources through representations
  • self-descriptive messages
  • hypermedia as the engine of application state
Adopting the REST style is not a technology prescription or panacea; after all, an architectural style is not a programming toolkit. But there's a complexity and layering argument that naturally falls out of the REST viewpoint which should guide the applications that one builds.

The web is about identifying important resources and exchanging representational state. There are certain constraints that are made to enable global scope and evolution. Being on the web, is being an active participant in this scheme of things. Identifiers lead almost to having the location field as the command line. Resource modeling as your starting point sets you in direct consonance with this notion and exposes you to ease of composition. An information architecture that starts with hypermedia lends itself to the construction of simple interaction designs for both humans and machines, and there are huge amounts of tools readily available for this.

The question is then one of leverage; leverage in economic terms is all about making externalities work for you. The endpoint of this approach to system design is what I call a virtuous cycle of managed serendipity.

3. Internalizing the REST style - A case study: WebSphere Portal


At a certain point there were (at least) 8 different groups at IBM developing portal software. Incidentally, this is par-for-the-course in large companies; executives are often willing to allow this kind of competition as a kind of macabre survival of the fittest game - for a while at least. Two groups managed to ship products to customers, first Lotus K-station and then what was eventually the winner, WebSphere Portal. K-station was a product which, almost to a fault, embraced and leveraged the full range of web technologies. It demoed well, made pervasive use of CSS, DOM scripting, XML etc: web to the core in other words. Although it was a J2EE application, its fatal failing was that it shipped initially on top of Lotus Domino's servlet engine and database rather than on top of WebSphere Application Server and DB2. What became WebSphere Portal started by building on the right platform, its front end had what we euphemistically termed teething problems but it had a reasonable backend and the virtue of an architecture that looked like it could eventually evolve into the "one true portal".

As we consolidated all the efforts under the rubric of WebSphere Portal, there was of course a kind of triaging of the expertise and feature sets from the various groups. The Lotus folks emphasized collaboration and mostly owned that side of things but we also had a laundry list of technologies that we wanted to endow the platform with (from basic ideas about the way one used stylesheets for skinning, all the way up to a repartitioning of the architecture to allow more intelligence in browser clients and leverage of client side technologies that are now increasingly common). Call it youthful exuberance or perhaps in my case personal temperament, I argued each and every feature tenaciously and energetically. When it comes to technical argument, I'm not afraid to offend senior architects, product managers, or even distinguished engineers far beyond my station. In hindsight, we perhaps should have been more judicious in picking our battles because even though we managed to win many of the arguments, we lost one that we really shouldn't have. Mostly through sharp-elbowed bureaucratic maneuvering, the feature was accepted as a line-item but was marked as a nice-to-have, and then was deferred because "we didn't have the time in the schedule".

What feature was it, you might ask? There was no way to bookmark anything in WebSphere Portal.

The portal at that point bore the vestiges of an idiosyncratic framework (Jetspeed) that in my opinion actively fought against being bookmarked. No one at Lotus could fathom that a web application could ship without bookmarking. We couldn't even do the simplest use-case from K-station: when creating a place, you couldn't send an email to new members inviting them to it. An email could only direct them to the home page, once they logged in, they'd then have to navigate to the item in question and as we'd made it flexible to skin navigation, there was no easy way to describe how one would navigate to that item. The immediacy of collaboration, of "people, places and things" was irrevocably lost. I argued almost to disgust: "This is the web! Resource identification is a key tenet, almost the most important principle. It's a fundamental flaw" etc. to no avail.

It took 3 releases for this feature to be implemented and enabled in the default installation of the portal. Throughout, we continued to lobby, until the chorus grew too loud and it wasn't just "those Lotus folks" making the argument. Being able to bookmark places, pages and portlets is fundamental for many reasons beyond simple usabilty. At a first order, you were now able to paste a url in an instant message to co-workers so they could join you and see what you were looking at, at that moment. But also, almost overnight with this feature, many layers of complexity were shed in the portal framework.

Programmability in the web sense was immediately enabled, the portal became a composable platform and we were able to layer the Lotus Workplace offering on top of it. URIs give visibility to intermediaries and so things like caching (where we had cool technologies like Dynacache) were far more easily enabled. Similarly for logging and profiling the portal, we could use the same tools for processing logs as exist for regular web servers like Apache. We had new opportunities for pipelining and filter chains (to do transcoding if needed). We had more options for load balancing, we could decide to deal with remote portlets through iframe invocation rather than through immature and complex protocols like WSRP. And so on...

My biggest regret is that we hadn't been bloody-minded enough to do a stealthy check-in of the hacked prototype code for enabling a modicum of url addressability that we had developed. Instead, by being consensus-minded corporate citizens, we had allowed our platform (and users) to suffer for 3 years because it hadn't internalized this most basic aspect of being a web application framework. WebSphere Portal only acknowledged the web in its name once it embraced this part of the REST ethos and it hasn't looked back since. Indeed after internalizing resource identification, the product has taken to heart most of the other tenets of the web style. It still has some ways to go but, from that point on, it was no longer odds with the web.
As an aside: where there is friction and impedance mismatches, there inevitably will develop an ecosystem of consultants with palliating bromides and band-aids on hand. All companies claim to be "focused on the customer", my own company has the virtue (or some would say the failing) of encompassing the widest range of products and services and is apt to make money whether one buys hardware, software, or services from it. If the choice is between profitable software that internalizes the lessons of a platform and rank consultant-ware, I opt firmly for the former. Maybe I'll change my mind if I become one at some stage, but consultants, though often necessary, are mostly irksome from my standpoint.

4. An Argument by Analogy


The supposed or acknowledged (PPT) deficiencies of the REST architectural style (reliability, asynchronous event notification etc.) are to my mind good problems to have. It strikes me though that these criticisms of REST system design, while fair, are mostly concerned with boundary cases; in other words, the balance of optimization that the web style has gone for makes these mere irritants not failings. The response should be much like that typically given to those who discounted the 'best effort' internetworking or to the bellheads who harp on quality of service and see the internet as a toy. I don't see the quality of calls preventing the ubiquity of cell phones. In that case, the virtues of mobility long trumped reliability. Network standards like ethernet and TCP/IP that are the core of the Internet have succeeded and scaled because they used abstractions that embraced simplicity, transparency and existing systems. The web was able to co-opt everything in sight (from ftp to gopher to whatever newfangled scheme we'll come up with next) with only minimal constraints for the sake of scaling and composition (like the concessions to, and explicit recognition of, the interplay with intemediaries - caches and so forth). Google (pdf), Yahoo, eBay and Amazon have interesting takes on addressing these deficiencies and already operate on a global scale.

Martin Geddes, discussing a different problem, ever-quotably and far more concisely than I'll ever be, works himself to the same fundamental conclusion:
Solutions based on URLs tend to be less "efficient" than custom-designed solutions, but more resilient in the face of change. (Sound familiar?) I casually note the rapid rise of URL-friendly blogs and wikis, and the relative obscurity of vertically integrated collaboration tools like Groove.

I saw a good example of "URLization" from Joi Ito the other day. Product managers at various companies are being encouraged to use Technorati to track commentary on their products. If your product doesn’t have a clear, unique URI, then you’re in trouble...

This all brings me to my big question: on the Internet, if something doesn’t have a URL, does it really exist? Or has it just disappeared into the analog memory hole, only existing as a memory in the brains of the humans it passed through?

That's the heart of the matter, debates about "programming models" aside, this is an argument about systems design and technology adoption. If your nascent technology stack doesn't leverage, or as I think is the case in many of the WS-* protocols, actively fights against integration with the web, you're guiding yourself towards obsolesence. The REST orientation is about acknowledging the "good enough" factor implicit in the web architecture. Choosing to embrace the ethos of that layered style is arguing for leverage and simplicity. The value of ubiquity and managed serendipity that are often the outcomes of this approach should speak for itself.

Returning to what provoked this outburst, I write to James Snell: thanks for getting me thinking enough to put these thoughts together, my arms are uncrossed and there's even a smile on my face.


See also: my other REST writings.

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Friday, March 11, 2005

Inamorata

(a portrait of Miles Davis)

Inamorata.
Mission: Music, Masculinity.
Master Of The Art, Music.
Who Is This Music
That Which Description May Never Justify?
Can The Ocean Be Described?
Fathomless Music,
Body Of All That Is.
Live Everlastingly.
Man Initiate Inamorata:
Your Music Art Tomorrow's Unknown Known Life.
I Love Tomorrow.

by Robert Conrad
From Miles Davis - Live-Evil (1970)

See also: Miles Ahead


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The Long Tail of Software

It's always gratifying when people independently grapple with the same ideas as you and come up with different perspectives. Even better is when this becomes a conversation such as the blogosphere can serve up and aggregators can monitor...

I've recently been ruminating about People, Processes and Things and so, I was immediately drawn to Joe Kraus, erstwhile of Excite and Jotspot founder, who delivers a wonderful essay and insightful presentation (PPT) about The Long Tail of Software. Read it for the concentrated insight and great care with which he makes his argument - borne of the practice he's gained pitching his company for the past few months.

Handwaving a bit here, he essentially takes on Barry Briggs' notion of The Decade of Process - anointing the primacy of processes in business, and adds the key insight of the necessity of lots of customization (since no two businesses do things the same way) and also that processes continually evolve. Then he melds it with one of the most successful memes in technology of the past year, The Long Tail concept, lovingly detailed in Wired, pondered in a blog and due, for a book, and triumphant tour ala Malcolm Gladwell or Jared Diamond real soon now.

Having seen great demos of Jotspot and the way it handles schema evolution, about the only thing missing in the product is an explicit addition of tagging and metadata ala del.icio.us for it to be buzzword nirvana. It's almost there. I'll try not to be too flippant nor indeed, something of an echo chamber, since I obviously think there's the kernel of a very powerful notion here. Annotating and customizing business processes seems to be an interesting space in today's software world.

Suffice to say that this bears attention especially since the venture capitalists haven't drenched this sector as yet. I'd hazard though, that a pitch like Kraus's could well be the spark that makes things combust, especially when there are so many memes to mine. The big integrators and consulting firms have long been in this space as have any of the platform vendors and they will be tenacious competitors. I'd hazard that Jotspot or SocialText are already keenly watched by those who do strategy and marketing, if only so that sales teams have a response ready for competitive bids.

For larger businesses, it has always been ease of integration with existing infrastructure that matters when it comes to purchasing decisions. The insight of the Long Tail though is that there are huge opportunities in targeting small and medium businesses, the kind that the big guys only pay lip service to. It's more than enough of a market even if you don't get the WalMarts. Incidentally, Paul Graham touches on this almost in passing recently.

All this of course is predicated on accepting the primacy of the "process" view of things, I've argued that the "people" view (communication and group-forming) might be another lucrative area to focus on, and a viewpoint potentially more exciting or motivating for developers. Tradeoffs like these are the stuff of engineers or historians, entrepreneurs or CEOs, however, have to bet on something.

Lastly, wearing my prediction cap, leverage will be everything in this oncoming scramble. Web-native software (i.e. software that is easily addressible and customized) will be the fastest mover in the space. The usabilty issues in evolving schemas and handling annotations are going to be the key differentiator. There should be lots of give-and-take in the software that ensues because real world processes are forgiving. There's always someone who knows how the process is meant to work no matter what the rulebook says. Our research folks and product development teams are going to be burning the midnight oil and that's a good thing. Kudos to Krause and others for the exhilarating glimpse of what is to come.

Like Miles Davis said, "I love tomorrow".

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Groove Musings

I suppose I should comment on Microsoft's acquisition of Groove Networks and Ray Ozzie's ascension to the post of Chief Technical Officer. Certainly there was a little buzz in the corridors of Lotus yesterday (virtual corridors of email, discussion forums and Sametime chats for me since I was working from home). I'm sure there'll be "official" responses in due course but some ground-level musings are in order.

First there was a surprise factor: Microsoft hasn't made significant acquistions of late (or perhaps they have but nothing significant has manifested itself recently). Their previous investment in Groove notwithstanding, an acquisition goes far beyond hedging once's bets.

Second was the overwhelming human interest angle and that sense of wonderment that occurs when dramatic things happen to people you know or are vaguely related to. "Bought? Bought!" For me it was remembering the period a few years ago when friends and acquaintances were interviewing at Groove - back when it was a startup in stealth mode, and even the vague soundings-out about any potential interest on my part. Perhaps they would now be Microsoft employees.

Sidenote: hearing reports that the interviewers at Groove wouldn't even discuss the product that they were developing put paid to any incipient wisps of enthusiasm from me. Engineers, especially curious technologists like me, like to discuss platforms, designs and architecture. I'd be beyond handicapped without that kind of stimulation in an interview. Also, if I remember correctly, at the time I was on the most interesting project I'd worked on in my professional life. IBM was quite good at weathering those dot-com seductions with lots of challenging technology.

Third is a strategic angle. There's a sense of cousinry in the offerings that Groove, Microsoft and the Lotus/IBM portfolio straddle. Vague concepts like productivity, collaboration, 'groupware', shared spaces, presence, messaging, replication and offline-use abound, whether in marketing theory or in product practice. These are ideas that Lotus folks live, breathe and hopefully develop in software. Consequently there's a little curiousity as to how things will pan out in the future. The C.T.O. position seems somehow significant in this respect.

Lastly, and most important to me, is the technology angle. In the speculative marketplace of ideas that the technology world is, a track record is about the greatest currency there is. Ozzie can mint his own currency on Lotus Notes alone. Also he, along perhaps with Joel Spolksy and Tim Bray's Technology Predictor Success Matrix, has written definitive treatments about software platforms and ecosystems and how to husband them. I tend to evaluate all the software platforms and frameworks I encounter or create with these words in mind. It would serve everyone well to read (or re-read) Ozzie every now and then. How does your technology or framework-du-jour stack up in this light? And if it doesn't, what are your plans for getting it there, and how long will it take? I suspect that such questions will be asked a lot in Redmond in coming months. In grasping at answers, I have only one clear hint: this web thing begs to be internalized and, more to the point, duly leveraged.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Inside Lotus

I've been asked to moonlight at the Inside Lotus blog. Ostensibly, my presence in that corporate blog is to give a human face to the corporation and also because it's more fun to mix development perspectives among the marketing that tends to go on in "corporate" items. I still have to get my bio posted on the site and to find an appropriate photo but I thought I'd get started. The format is meant to be short and snappy but as you might know, I tend to pontificate, so I'll likely write expanded entries here at the Toli. Anyway here's the first post.

Explaining Software Designs


The ever-incisive writer, Malcolm Gladwell, has been on a whirlwind promotional tour in support of his new novel, Blink which is about snap judgments and unconscious decisions. In a recent interview, he spread his focus to sports
JM: Talk a little about tennis coach Vic Braden, the subject of one of your anecdotes. He says, "We haven't found a single (tennis) player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does."

MG: Braden's experience is really interesting. He would ask, say, a world-class tennis player to describe precisely how they would hit a topspin forehand, and they would invariably say that they rolled their wrist at the moment of impact with the ball. And then he'd do a digital analysis of videotape of them actually hitting a topspin forehand and find out that at the moment of impact with the ball their wrist was rock solid. They didn't roll it at all. The expertise of a world-class tennis player, in other words, is instinctive, which means that the knowledge behind their actions is buried in the corners of their brain. They hit a ball unconsciously.

JM: Is that why, quite often, great players don't make such great coaches?

MG: Yes, that's precisely why top athletes so often make bad coaches or general managers. They often don't really know why they were as good as they were. They can't describe it, which means that they can't teach it and they quickly become frustrated at their inability to lift others up to their own level. Mediocre players -- or non-athletes -- tend to make better coaches because their knowledge isn't unconscious. It's the same thing with writing. I know very little about science. But I think I write about science more clearly than many scientists, because I have to go over every step, carefully and deliberately.


Gladwell's words were echoing in my ears when viewing a talk given by Bram Cohen at Stanford. Cohen is the programming wizard behind BitTorrent which is responsible for something like 35% of the traffic on the internet these days and which has gained a life of its own. Listening to him explain the intricacies of his software, I was struck by the number of times he freely admitted that he wasn't sure why things worked the way they did or how he came about to make certain design decisions. He was only able in retrospect to give a hint as to the why and how and oftentimes it was a case of hand-waving or of "magic numbers".

A big part of my job is trying to clearly articulate sofware design and architecture to fellow developers, UI designers, the documentation writers or even to the users of the software. Engineering is all about tradeoffs and pragmatism in the face of complexity. When you have spent time struggling with some coding or design problem and come to some sort of solution, it's often the case that you find it a little difficult to describe the core of your design. I envy those who are able to consistently present great and clear technical rationales for their work and to get at the heart of the matter. Maybe there is a kernel of truth to Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."


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