Tuesday, August 08, 2006

AOL driveby haiku

I feel like a gawker crawling past a traffic incident... CNET has an excellent collection of excerpts from the AOL search log repository. They read like poetry. I’ve assembled some “found haiku” out of them.

User 1515830

chai tea calories
divorce laws in ohio
curtains; i hate men

User 4331025

wastewater jobs mass
revenge for a cheating spouse
first date dos and donts

User 100906

should you call your ex
hes just not that into u
addicted to love

User 3544012

harley performance cafe
circumsize pictures

User 591476

how to stop bingeing
pregnancy on birth control
how to starve yourself

I’m almost as fascinated by what the searches reveal about people’s attitudes to the technology as what it tells us about their lives. While many users just type in keywords, from time to time they let their guard down. It almost sounds as if they’re looking for someone to confide in. For example, user 1515830 types in some crisp searches like “chai tea calories” and “curtains”, but also let’s slip “can you adopt after a suicide attempt” and “i hate men”. Eliza, where are you when we need you?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Not your father’s paper

1985 doesn’t feel all that far away, if you’re beyond a certain age. Ronald Reagan started his second term, the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, and Rock Hudson died of AIDS. And yet, judging by newspaper reading habits, we’re now living in a completely different world.

In 1985, 45 percent of newspaper readers spent some or a lot of time reading about TV/movie/entertainment schedules; it’s down to 29 percent today.

In that year, 44 percent read the business and financial news; it’s grown to 60 percent.

I was most struck by two topics that didn’t even appear on the list in 1985. Nowadays, 63 percent read articles on technology, and 77 percent follow health and medicine topics. Technology, health and medicine are so much part of “our modern world” that it’s hard to imagine that they were barely covered a mere twenty years ago.

Source: A Pew Research Center study on the changing news landscape

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Science vs. religion

Chris Davis brought me up short in a letter to the editors of New Scientist (29 July 2006). He points out that one of my basic assumptions – that science and religion can co-exist amicably – may be a convenient fiction.
“[S]cience and religion tenaciously pretend - at least when in each other's company - that they "respect" each other. In recent times this nonsense has started to dissipate, and the camps are becoming more honest about their mutual antipathy.

“And they are right to be so. Both science and religion claim superiority in the fundamental search for truth and the nature of reality. They encroach absolutely on each other's territory, as they battle for the minds of the populace. There is no reason to be abusive to each other, but to deny that a conflict exists at all is naive, and confusing for honest seekers after truth encountering the matter for the first time.”

Descartes crafted the entente between science and religion. The dualist assumption of two non-interacting worlds meant that scientists and priests could each have their own domain: body/mind, things/souls, physics/metaphysics. This carved out room for science to flourish unencumbered by the authority of the Church.

The Intelligent Design debate may signal a return to the struggles of the 17th Century, such as those over the ideas of Spinoza. It’s a fight for hearts and minds, the stuff of politics and propaganda. Davis’s closing line reveals the why school textbooks are the battle ground: “It is these undecideds and newcomers - especially children - to whom both sides owe honesty.”

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

No big bang

Just after I post something on Vista, I (belatedly) read a Ballmer comment on the topic. From InformationWeek:
Microsoft made one big, wrong decision that led to Vista's delays, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told financial analysts during his meeting with them last week. The
company took a Big Bang approach and tried to overhaul all of its operating system's core components simultaneously, an approach that eventually led to a fiery development crash. "We made an upfront decision that was, I'll say, incredibly strategic and brilliant and wise -- and was not implementable," Ballmer said. "We tried to incubate too many new innovations and integrate them simultaneously, as opposed to letting them bake and then integrating them, which is essentially where we wound up."

In the heyday of "Integrated Innovation" I told anyone who would listen that it was a misguided strategy, and that the company should "Innovate, then Integrate". Just a pity I wasn't able to persuade the people who mattered.

Of course, they may still not get it. It's unnerving when a CEO believes that a decision that was not implementable could still be "brilliant and wise".

An endless vista

After yesterday’s bad news about Microsoft’s next operating system (Vista testers to Microsoft: Even the bugs aren't stable yet), I’m beginning to think the unthinkable: perhaps Vista will never ship.

Oh sure, something called Vista will ship next year; marketing and licensing imperatives demand it. And sure, it will be but a pale shadow of the vision when the project started; no product ever makes it out the door will all the intended features. I’m beginning to doubt, however, that the platform that ships will be what Microsoft needs it to be. It could become the Big Dig of Redmond. Even though it is eventually finished at vast over-runs, major flaws will continue to appear throughout its life.

There was relief at senior levels in Microsoft when Windows XP shipped. It wasn’t clear, even then, whether a substantial upgrade to such a complex product could be accomplished. Many years have passed since then, and many demands have been added to the wish-list. The code base is a hairball, the result as much of business decisions to lock in customers and preclude anti-trust action as of engineering philosophy. It is so large, interconnected, and poorly documented that any upgrade is a mind-boggling feat.

The important question, though, is not whether and how Vista ships; it’s what happens next. My impression is that the Windows NT code base, as built, is too complex to be the basis for substantial growth. However, there is no alternative in the wings. The NT code base, on which XP and Vista are built, has run out of steam sooner than planned. There is no code which is to Windows NT, as NT was to Windows 95.

The catch is that Microsoft doesn’t have the means to start from scratch, even if it had the time. It doesn’t have the resources to fight a two-front war. Wall Street balked at the investment that it’s making to match Google; it cannot now spend yet another $2 billion to replace its core operating system.

The twilight of the operating system as the engine for innovation may come sooner than I expected. The company may quietly decide – Steven Sinofsky and Steve Ballmer may already have decided – that future OS upgrades will be incremental rather than substantial. Attention is shifting to the network, and hosted applications. Microsoft will be fighting on Google’s ground.