Tag Archives: reviews

What I'm Digesting: Good Reads from the First Week of January

Government Procurement is Broken: Example #5,294,702 or “The Government’s $200,000 Useless Android Application” by Rich Jones

This post is actually a few months old, but I stumbled on it again the other day and could help but laugh and cry at the same time. Written by a freelance computer developer, the post traces the discovery of a simply iphone/android app the government paid $200,000 to develop that is both unusable from a user interface perspective and does not actually work.

It’s a classic example of how government procurement is deeply, deeply broken (a subject I promise to write more about soon). Many governments – and the bigger they are, the worse it gets – are incapable of spending small sums of money. Any project, in order to work in their system, must be of a minimum size, and so everything scales up. Indeed simply things are encouraged to become more expensive so that the system can process them. There is another wonderful (by which I mean terrifying) example of this in one of the first couple of chapter of Open Government.

How Governments Try to Block Tor by Roger Dingledine

For those who don’t know what Tor is, it’s “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” Basically, if you are someone who doesn’t want anyone – particularly the government – seeing what websites you visit, you need Tor. I don’t think I need to say how essential this service is, if say, you live China, Iran or Syria or obviously Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or any of the other states still convulsing from the Arab Spring.

The hour and 10 minute long speech is a rip roaring romp through the world of government surveillance. It’s scary than you want to know and very, very real. People die. It’s not pretty but it is incredible. For those of you not technically inclined, don’t be afraid, there is techno-babble you won’t understand but don’t worry, it won’t diminish the experience.

The Coming War on General Computation by Cory Doctorow

Another video, also from the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin (how did I not know about this conference? pretty much everything I’ve seen out of it has been phenomenal – big congrats to the organizers).

This video is Cory Doctorow basically giving everybody in the Tech World a solid reality check the state of politics and technology. If you are a policy wonk who cares about freedom of choice, industrial policy, copyright, the economy or individual liberty, this strikes video is a must view.

For those who don’t know Cory Doctorow (go follow him on Twitter right now) he is the guy who made Minister Moore look like a complete idiot on copyright reform (I also captured their twitter debate here).

Sadly, the lunacy of the copyright bill is only going to be the beginning of our problems. Watch it here:

What Re-Releases of Star Wars can Teach Us About Art and Product Management

The other day I noticed this tweet fly by in the twittersphere

 

 

 

Was this a complaint? In light of the fact the internet was rife with complaints about changes to the movies in the Blue Ray release of the original trilogy, I suspect so. While I do harbor Lucas a small amount of ill will for the disaster that was Star Wars Episodes I, II and III the more I think about his re-releases the more I think he is doing something rather interesting by adopting ideas from the software world, challenging notions of art in Hollywood and striving to constantly keep an old asset relevant. Considering all this, I also think there are lesson here for all of us. So, accepting the fact that half the world out there will think I’m wrong, and the other half will think this is just about extracting money from fans… here are nonetheless some thoughts.

Keeping an old asset relevant

Unlike the rest of Hollywood, I think Lucas should be applauded. Whether you think his updates are good or bad, he is, at least, trying to add value to his products long after they leave the theater. I actually remember enjoying watching one of the updated re-releases and trying to see if I could spot all the differences between the original Star Wars Episode IV (v1.0) and the newer Star Wars Episode IV (v1.1), it was fun…

But Lucas’s updates feel all the more interesting and relevant an experiment given the movie’s genre. There is a real risk that at some point the special effects in Star Wars are simply going to become so dated that the whole things will feel massively campy (some might argue that’s already happened – maybe I’m blinded by nostalgia), but integrating in newer effects might help prolong the movie’s relevance. I’m quite confident that there are lots of children out there who, despite their parents fanatic devotion to original Star Wars trilogy, can’t get over the fact that the special effects feel out of date. Maybe it’s easier for them to engage the movie when they see a little CGI? I’m not saying these releases are necessarily successful in hitting this target, but at least he is trying. There are lots of products (not to mention websites) that I wish the creators had gone back and updated… Sometimes the changes make it worse, but often the product was headed for obsolescence anyway, so the changes kept it relevant.

Learning from the Software World

Of course, if you don’t like the new versions one thing I think Lucas has done that is savvy (and frankly, helps line his pockets) is borrow from the software world and  functionally “version” the first Star Wars Trilogy. Yes, once again the initial release of the Blue Ray dvd will only have changes he is made (maybe it will include the original version as well) but eventually the original “classic” version will be released on DVD. As I outlined above, all this means is that there will be Star Wars Episode IV (v1.0), the late 1990’s Star Wars Episode IV (v1.1) and now the 2011 Star Wars Episode IV (v1.2). However, unlike many software vendors, Lucas is not ultimately forcing anyone to use v1.2. If you want to stick to v1.0, I’m confident it will be released on the format of your choice eventually. It’s like playing some of your favourite video games. Sure Civ V will come along, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play Civ III (or, obviously the best of them all, Alpha Centauri) anymore.

Of course the benefit of this is twofold. First, maybe everybody hates v1.1 and v1.2 (although I bet young fans really don’t care) and so sit around talking about it and cursing Lucas. Of course, this is still a coup. Imagine 30 years later, people are still sitting around talking passionately about your movie? That’s a pretty good outcome. Better still maybe there are Star Wars camps! The v1.0 camp is obviously largest, but I bet you’ll find v1.1 and v1.2 defenders. Now we have hours of endless debate! The fan base continues to be energized! Genius.

Challenging Notions of Art

But I also love that Lucas challenges peoples’ notion movies as art. The danger with the non-oral mediums is that the art itself becomes stale. Why can’t, or shouldn’t a movie evolve in the same way a spoken story might evolve as it is passed down? Why is it that a movie has to stay frozen in time just because it can?

There is a lot of art that we don’t treat that way.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (v1.0) can, frankly, no longer be seen, all we watch now are derivative works based on the text we happened to have captured, and even then, who knows how Shakespeare himself actually wanted it to be acted and directed (I’m sure someone is about to tell me I’m wrong on that front). But regardless, none of this has stopped us from enjoying the literally 1000s of Romeo and Juliet remakes that have been made since the bard wrote the “original” (which we all concede was itself derivative).

Even in the movie world we don’t let things lie. Endless remakes are made – sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. Isn’t Lucase fundamentally doing the same thing? I’d rather watch a remake with the original Han Solo than without…

Part of the joy of a great story is the ability to retell it. To re-interpret it and to make it relevant to new people. Maybe that is all Lucas wants to do. If you don’t like it, you can always go back to the original. But maybe by evolving his art, Lucas is creating a bigger audience and enabling his story to touch more, or at least new, people. Thinking of George Lucas the artist, I think I respect that.

Articles I'm Digesting: Feb 28th, 2011

Been a while since I’ve done one of these. A surprising amount of reading getting done in my life despite a hectic schedule. In addition to the articles below, I recently finished Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus (solid read) and am almost done Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, which, is blowing my mind. More on both soon, I hope.

Why Blogs (Still) Aren’t Dead…No Matter What You’ve Heard by Kimberly Turner

I got to this via Mathew Ingram of GigaOM. A few months ago there was some talk about the decline of blogs. You could almost hear the newspaper people rubbing their hands with glee. Turns out it was all bogus. This article outlines some great stats on the issue and lays out where things are at, and why the rumor got started. The sooner than everyone, from the newspaper writer, to the professional blogger, to the amateur blogger to the everyday twitterer accepts/realizes they are on the same continuum and actually support one another, the happier I suspect we’re all going to be.

The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks by Alexis Madrigal

Totally fascinating and fairly self-explanatory:

By January 5, it was clear that an entire country’s worth of passwords were in the process of being stolen right in the midst of the greatest political upheaval in two decades. Sullivan and his team decided they needed a country-level solution — and fast…

…At Facebook, Sullivan’s team decided to take an apolitical approach to the problem. This was simply a hack that required a technical response. “At its core, from our standpoint, it’s a security issue around passwords and making sure that we protect the integrity of passwords and accounts,” he said. “It was very much a black and white security issue and less of a political issue.”

That’s pretty much the stand I’d like a software service to take.

Work on Stuff that Matters: First Principles by Tim O’Reilly

Basically, some good touch stones for work, and life, from someone I’ve got a ton of respect for.

Love and Hate on Twitter by Jeff Clark

Awesome visualizations of the use of the words love and hate on twitter. It is amazing that Justin Bieber always turns up high. More interesting are how brands and politicians get ranked.

The Neoformix blog is just fantastic. For hockey fans, be sure to check out this post.

The Social Network and the real villains of the old/new economy

The other week I finally got around to watching The Social Network. It’s great fun and I recommend going out and watching it whether you’re a self-professed social media expert or don’t even have a Facebook account.

Here are some of my thoughts about the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here).

1. Remember this is a Hollywood movie: Before (or after) you watch it, read Lawrence Lessig’s fantastic critique of the movie. This review is so soundly brilliant and devastating I’m basically willing to say, if you only have 5 minutes to read, leave my blog right now and go check it out. If you are a government employee working on innovation, copyright or the digital economy, I doubly urge you to read it. Treble that if you happen to be (or work for) the CIO of a major corporation or organization who (still) believes that social media is a passing phase and can’t see its disruptive implications.

2. It isn’t just the legal system that is broken: What struck me about the movie wasn’t just the problems with the legal system, it was how badly the venture capitalists come off even worse. Here is supposed to be a group of people who are supposed to help support and enable entrepreneurs and yet they’re directing lawyers to draft up contracts that screw some of the original founders. If the story is even remotely true it’s a damning and cautionary tale for anyone starting (or looking to expand) a company. Indeed, in the movie the whole success of Facebook and the ability of (some) of the owners to retain control over it rests on the fact that graduates of the first internet bubble who were screwed over by VCs are able to swoop in and protect this second generation of internet entrepreneurs. Of course they – played by Sean Parker (inventor of Napster) – are parodied as irresponsible and paranoid.

One thought I walked away with was: if, say as a result of the rise of cloud computing, the costs of setting up an online business continue to drop, at a certain point the benefits of VC capital will significantly erode or their value proposition will need to significantly change. More importantly, if you are looking to build a robust innovation cluster, having it built on the model that all the companies generated in it have the ultimate goal of being acquired by a large (American) multinational doesn’t seem like a route to economic development.

Interesting questions for policy makers, especially those outside Silicon Valley, who obsess about how to get venture capital money into their economies.

3. Beyond lawyers and VCs, the final thing that struck me about the movie was the lack of women doing anything interesting. I tweeted this right away and, of course, a quick Google search reveals I’m not the only one who noticed it. Indeed, Aaron Sorkin (the film’s screenwriter) wrote a response to questions regarding this issue on Emmy winner Ken Levine’s blog. What I noticed in The Social Network is there isn’t a single innovating or particularly positive female character. Indeed, in both the new and old economy worlds shown in the film, women are largely objects to be enjoyed, whether it is in the elite house parties of Harvard or the makeshift start-up home offices in Palo Alto. Yes, I’m sure the situation is more complicated, but essentially women aren’t thinkers – or drivers – in the movie. It’s a type of sexism that is real, and in case you think it isn’t just consider a TechCrunch article from the summer titled “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men” in which the author, Michael Arrington, makes the gobsmacking statement:

The problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.

Really? This is a country (the United States) where women start businesses at twice the rate of men and where 42% of all businesses are women owned? To say that women don’t want to be entrepreneurs is so profoundly stupid and incorrect it perfectly reflects the roles women are shoveled into in The Social Network. And that is something the new economy needs to grapple with.

War makes facists of us all: Would you like to know more?

Starship_TroopersOver the years I’ve taken my lumps from friends for loving Starship Troopers. Most who haven’t seen it assume it is a dumb sci-fi action movie. But listen to the directors commentary and the first two things you’re told is that the movie is about “how war makes fascists of us all” and that the Federal Network “media sequences” are based on US World War II anti-Japanese propaganda films. Now that’s dark.

How dark? Well, I’ve always felt that Starship Troopers was to the film medium what 1984 was to books. Yes both are sci-fi, but more importantly they are bleak looks into how technology and power can merge to create a nightmare future (indeed, on a wild tangent, 1984 may be one of the best arguments for why we need an open web).

So if you’ve never thought of Starship Troopers that way (or any way!) I can’t say enough good things about Scott Tobias’ revisit and analysis of the movie 13 years later. It is brilliant.

In fact, stop reading me, go read him.

Not only a far better articulation than anything I’d have written but it also goes places I’d never gone: Tobias’ observation that Starship Troopers is an allegory for September 11th before it happened is brilliant.

As an aside I also love Tobias’ analysis of Starship Troopers faux network television/internet – the Federal Network:

Yet the key to the Federal Network’s power isn’t necessarily the clips themselves—which feature such great cultural advancements as televised executions (after whiplash-swift justice) and barely censored “censored” violence—but the prompt at the end, “Would you like to know more?” That’s what makes it effective as propaganda: the illusion of knowledge, the illusion of choice, the illusion that people have control over their own destinies.

Sometimes that feels exactly like what we get from CNN/MSNBC and especially FOX News… but then willingly or unwillingly, in the first decade of the 21st century war has already made fascists of us all.

The Irony of Wente, Opinions, Blogs and Gender

Once again a Globe Columnist talks about technology in a manner that is not just factually completely incorrect but richly Ironic!

Earlier today Margaret Wente published a piece titled “Why are bloggers male?” (I suspect it is in print, but who knows…). The rich irony is that Wente says she doesn’t blog because she doesn’t have instant opinions. Readers of her column likely have their doubts. Indeed, I hate to inform Ms. Wente that she does have a blog. It’s called her column.

Reading her piece, one wonders if Wente has ever followed a blog. Her claim that women don’t like to emit opinions every 20 minutes struck me – as an incredibly active blogger – as odd. I post 4 times a week. Of course, as anyone who actually uses the internet knows, there is a blogging like medium where people are more predisposed to comment frequently (although not every 20 minutes). It’s called twitter. But if, as Wente claims, women are hardwired to not share opinions, why then – according to Harvard Business School – do women outnumber men on twitter 55% to 45%? Indeed, what is disturbing about the Harvard survey is that rather than some innate desire to have opinions, women suffer from the disadvantage of having their opinions marginalized for some other (social) reason. Both women and men tend to follow men on twitter rather than women.

But forget about the complete lack of thought in Wente’s analysis. Let’s just take a look at the facts.

Her piece starts off with the claim that men are more likely to blog than women. Of course Wente doesn’t cite (or hyperlink? the internet is 40 years old…) a source so it is hard to know if this is a fact or merely an opinion. Sadly, a quick google search shows Wente’s opinions don’t match up with the facts. According to a 2005 Pew Research Centre study (look! A hyperlink to a source!):

“Women and men have statistical parity in the blogosphere, with women representing 46% of bloggers and men 54%”

Awkward.

But it get’s worse. In The Blogging Iceberg by the now defunct Perseus’ Development Corporation claims that its research shows that that males were more likely than females to abandon blogs, with 46.4% of abandoned blogs created by males (versus 40.7% of active blogs created by males). That might even tilt the balance in favour of women… And of course, in France, that is what Médiamétrie has found, with over 50% French bloggers being female.

I do agree the men are potentially more likely to share their opinion than women. But there may be strong social reasons for this and it is clearly not that cut and dry. Many women have decided they want to share their opinions via twitter – indeed more women than men have. And of course, when it comes to being “quick to have opinions on subjects they know little or nothing about” men hardly have a monopoly. One need only look at Wente’s daily blog. Or, I meant to say, column.

Okay, that’s two blogs in one day. I’m taking tomorrow off.

Added March 19th: Nick C sent me a link to a fantastic post by Spydergrrl in which she points out that this was probably all a gimmick to get people to show up to an event Wente is putting on. It is a dark, unnerving perspective but one that sounds plausible. So, I say, boycott Wente’s event.

The PM’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service: The Good, The Bad, The Hopeful

On February 25th Paul Tellier and David Emerson – two men whose understanding of Ottawa I have a tremendous amount of respect for – released The Fourth Report of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service. It is a document that is worth diving into as these reports will likely serve as reference points for (re)thinking on renewing government for the foreseeable future.

The Bad:

On the rough side, I have a single high-level comment: These reports are likely to be as close as we are going to get in Canada to Australia’s Government 2.0 Taskforce (on which I served as part of the international reference group) or Britain’s Cabinet Office Power of Information Taskforce Report (which would have been tremendous to have been involved in).

To be clear, this is not the fault of the committee. Its terms of reference appear to be much broader. This has to predictable consequences. First, relatively little time is dedicated to the general reorganizing of society being prompted by the now 40 year old internet revolution is only carving out a small role. The committee is thus not able to dive into any detail on how the changing role of information in society, on open data, on the power of self-organization, or the rising power and influence of social media could and should re-shape the public service.

Second, much more time is dedicated to thinking about problems around HR and pay. These are important issues. However, since the vision of the public service remains broadly unchanged, my sense is the reforms, while sometimes large, are ultimately tweaks designed to ensure the continuation of the current model – not prompting a rethink (or the laying of groundwork) for a 21st century public service which will ultimately have to look different to stay relevant.

The best example of the implications of this limited scope can be found under the section “Staying Relevant and Connected.” Here the report has two recommendations, including:

The Public Service must take full advantage of collaborative technologies to facilitate interaction with citizens, partners and stakeholders.

The Public Service should adopt a structured approach to tapping into broad-based external expertise. This includes collaboration and exchanges with universities, social policy organizations, think tanks, other levels of government and jurisdictions, private sector organizations and citizens.

These are good! They are also pretty vague and tame. This isn’t so much renewal as it is a baseline for a functioning 20th century public service. More importantly, given some of the other pieces in the report these appear to be recommendations about how the government can engage in pretty traditional manners (exchanges). Moreover, they are externally focused. The main problem with the public service is that its members aren’t even allowed to use collaborative technologies to interact among themselves so how can they possible be ask to collaborate externally? As I say in my OCAD lecture and my chapter in Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice – a digital citizenry isn’t interested in talking to an analogue government. The change required is first and foremost internal. But advocating for such a change is a major effort – one that will require significant culture and process change – which I haven’t found so far in the report and which is probably beyond its scope.

The Good:

That said, when the report does talk about technology and/or collaboration – it broadly says the right things. For example, in the section Creating A Modern, Enabled Workplace the report says:

creating a workplace that will attract, retain and empower public servants to innovate, collaborate and be responsive to the public. Among other things, this must include the adoption of collaborative technologies that are increasingly widespread in other sectors.

And, perhaps more importantly, under the section Strengthening Policy Capacity: A Relevant and Connected Public Service the report states:

A public service operating in isolation runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. We believe that the quality of policy thinking must be enhanced by additional perspectives from citizens, stakeholders and experts from other jurisdictions and other sectors (e.g. business, academia, non-governmental organizations). We believe sound government policy should be shaped by a full range of perspectives, and policy makers must consistently reach beyond the National Capital Region for input and advice.

Furthermore, the Public Service now has an opportunity to engage Canadians, especially younger ones, through the use of Web 2.0 collaborative technologies such as wikis, blogs and social networking. These offer an excellent way for the Public Service to reach out and connect.

Again, great stuff. Although, my concerns from above should also be reiterated. A networked public service is one that will need new norms as it will function very differently. The task force has little to say about this (again because of their expansive purview and not through their own fault). But this issue must be addressed in full. I frequently argue that one reason public servants are so stressed is that they live double lives. They already live in a networked workplace and play by network rules in order to get their job done, however, they are perpetually told they live in a hierarchy and have to pretend they abide by that more traditional rule set. Double lives are always stressful…

The Hope:

As the committee moves forward it says it will:

…consider and advise on new business models for the Public Service with a view to creating an innovative and productive workforce that continues to deliver increasing value for money by taking advantage of new tools and technology;

I hope that open data, open systems and some of the ideas around a network government I’ve been advocating and talking about along with numerous others, get in front of the committee – these all represent building blocks for a significantly more flexible, innovative and product public service.