December 2008

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The first time our kid heard us talking about the Condé Nast Building — 4 Times Square — he thought we were talking about the “Candy Ass Building”. So that’s what we’ve been calling it, ever since.

Anyway, NowPublic has a story about cutbacks there. The main photo is one I took. See my comment there for more.

Nova or lens flare?

I’ve been shooting stars and planets the last few nights (see here and here), as the Moon passes by Mercury, Jupiter and Venus. It’s the kind of thing obsessives do, when they combine devotions to astronomy and photography. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to identify a few of the stars in the neighborhood Venus was visiting, when I found a star where none should be.

Take a look at the two photos above. The original one on the right is here. On that one I note names and other data for all the main stars in the shot other than the bright blue one near the middle. It’s not on any start chart I’ve consulted. Sooo… what is it?

My fantasy was a nova of some kind. But I doubt that’s it. Judging from the color alone, I’d say it’s a lens flare. Meanwhile it was fun doing detective work with The Kid.

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Earlier this month I blogged about something I’d like called a “Micki”: a wiki that works like an outliner. Now, thanks to mind-opening help from Dave, I’m looking to edit existing wikis with an outliner. That’s a great place to start. I’m writing this blog in an outliner. Why not a wiki?

MediaWiki is what we like to use at the Berkman Center. It’s what we use for ProjectVRM, and it’s what Wikipedia uses. And it has an API. This is good.

The first thing I want to do is edit pages. Wiki pages have outline characteristics. For example: section headings, subsections and smaller subsections. Each is a level — same as with outlining — and each is created by flanking the heading with larger numbers of equal signs:

  ==section heading==

  ===subsection heading===

  ====smaller subsection heading===

Lists also follow an outline mode, again with levels. As it explains here,

  * ”Unordered lists” are easy to do:
** Start every line with a star.
*** More stars indicate a deeper level.
*: Previous item continues.
** A new line
* in a list
marks the end of the list.

And…

  # ”Numbered lists” are:
## Very organized
## Easy to follow
#: Previous item continues
A new line marks the end of the list.
# New numbering starts with 1.

No, that wasn’t all too clear to me either, but what matters is that wikis do outlining. So it only makes sense that outliners can do wikis. Why not? That was Dave’s question for me, and I’m running with it.

There is another reason, in addition to my own personal wants and needs here. I think outlines are excellent ways to organize personal data stores — a subject of work and discussion at ProjectVRM.

Along those lines I had an interesting conversation with Brian Behlendorf yesterday, about how we manage receipts for online purchases. I think what most of us do is just search through old emails for keywords, or sort by moving receipts and other commercial correspondence to a dedicated mailbox.

I’d like to organize them in outline form. And re-organize them as well. By vendor. By date. By item purchased. By category. By how much I paid. The list can go on. If we come up with a standard or consistent way for vendors to report the data to us, so much the better. (That’s downstream, but it’s very much in the scope of our ambitions for VRM. We want to tell vendors how to help us in consistent ways, instead of different ways inside each of their silos.)

That’s a digression, but it’s relevant to the degree that outlining is a model for organizing the miscellaneous-yet-organizable nature of all the subects we care about more deeply than at a single level.

There’s something about the flat nature of wikis that serves to disorganize things. I think outlining can help with that. So let’s start inside individual pages and see what new we can do.

Back to the API. I see stuff here about searching, actions such as login and logout, doing queries for text, data, edits and site info, formatting output…

I don’t see anything here that looks like it welcomes editors. So here’s where the dumb questions start. Can you use text editors such as vi or emacs to edit wikis? Or are wikis so bound to their own editing system, with its own markup conventions, that they don’t welcome editors (including outliners, which I think of as a kind of editor, though that might be too limiting)? Dunno yet. Just starting here.

Mike Arrington says Bloggers Lose the Plot Over Twitter Search:

  Wow. Loic Le Meur asks for a simple feature on Twitter search – the ability to filter results by the number of followers that a user has to make sense of thousands of messages – and the blogosphere calls for his head.

  For the record, I agree with Loic. Being able to filter search results, if you choose, by the number of followers a user has makes sense. Without it, you have no way of knowing which voices are louder and making a bigger impact. It’s a way to make sense of a query when thousands or tens of thousands of results are returned.

  Of course, I’m pretty sure I can live without this feature, too. I’m failing to get too worked up over it. But the outpouring of emotion from bloggers is surprising me, and I thought I’d seen just about everything when it comes to blogging.

Jeff Jarvis says Attention + Influence do not equal Authority, and sources a thoughtful John Naughton post, where John sources “Steven Lukes’s wonderful book in which he argues that power can take three forms: 1. the ability to force you to do what you don’t want to do; 2. the ability to stop you doing something that you want to do; and 3. the ability to shape the way you think.” My post below also visits that third point. Another old post, We are all authors of each other, expands on it. The gist:

  I don’t think of my what I do here as production of “information” that others “consume”. Nor do I think of it as “one-to-many” or “many-to-many”. I thnk of it as writing that will hopefully inform readers.

  Informing is not the same as delivering information. Inform is derived from the verb to form. When you inform me, you form me. You enlarge that which makes me most human: what I know. I am, to some degree, authored by you.

  What we call “authority” is the right we give others to author us, to enlarge us.

  The human need to increase what we know, and to help each other do the same, is what the Net at its best is all about. Yeah, it’s about other things. But it needs to be respected as an accessory to our humanity.

I think the reason we get upset about What Twitter is Doing, or What Google Is Doing, is that we are too dependent on them.

The Net and the Web are environments that encourage and support both our independence and our interdependence. Single-source one-to-many forms of dependence, such as we have on Google and Twitter are old-skool scaffolds of dependency, within and around which we will build forms of infrastructure where we become ever more fully independent and interdependent — without BigCo or HotCo intermediation. They may be involved, but not as Absolute Necessities. Not as silos. Not as walled gardens we can’t leave.

Data portability is part of it. So is service portability. We will always have BigCos like Google and HotCos like Twitter, to help us out. They are necessary but insufficient members of the future infrastructure where we are free to take or leave any of them — while also appreciating what they do.

We aren’t there yet. How fast we progress depends on how much we embrace our need for independence.

Beyond mediation

We are all media now, right? That’s what we, the mediating, tell ourselves. (Or some of us, anyway.) But what if that’s not how we feel about it? What if the roles we play are not to pass along substances called “data” or “information” but rather to feed hungry minds? That’s different.

Michael Polanyi* calls that hunger our heuristic passions:

  Scientists — that is, creative scientists — spend their lives in trying to guess right. They are sustained and guided therein by their heuristic passoin. We call their work creative because it changes the world as we see it, by deepening our understanding of it. The change is irrevocable. A problem tat I have once solved can no longer puzzle me; I cannot guess what I already know. Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different. I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed a gap, the heuristic gap which lies between problem and discovery.

Polanyi was a scientist before he took up philosophy. But his lesson applies to all of us who inform purposefully — rather than just mediate — because it recognizes natures of inquiry and influence that far exceed mediation alone. Even The Media aren’t just conduits. Newspapers and magazines have institutional imperatives of the same mind-enlarging sort.

Back in 2003 I wrote, “Blogging is about making and changing minds… about scaffolding new and better understandings of one subject or another”. Jay Rosen ran with that, adding that blogging “is an inconclusive act”.

It’s with this in mind that I read through John Bracken‘s rundown of 2008′s Most Influential Writing About Media. Lots of great stuff I missed, or would want to visit again.

Earlier this morning I answered a call for advice from a friend at a major newspaper. This led me to revisit the “ten helpful clues” I blogged in October 2006, and expanded slightly in March 2007. I’m not sure if this had any influence, but it’s encouraging to seeing nearly all ten suggestions followed, at least to some degree. (I knew the ice had truly thawed when the LA Times hired superblogger Tony Pierce, who now also tweets.)

Two that stand out as unfinished business: 8) Uncomplicate your websites, and 10) Publish Rivers of News. These two are becoming essential now that Apple will be selling iPhones through Wal-Mart. Nothing from a paper loads faster or says more in less time than a news river. (Here’s more from Dave, whose innovation it is.)

There are “mobile” versions from some papers. The Washington Post’s, for example, is well suited for mobiles, and may qualify as rivers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the iPhone defaults to http://ww2.ajcmobile.com, which is a much better way to read the paper, even in a full-sized browser, than the paper’s main page, which has the curretly customary spread of clutter — especially advertising. (Although the AJC kindly puts the advertising below front page editorial, rather than crowding editorial within acres of advertising.) My old home-county paper, the Bergen Record, is NorthJersey.com online, and has an awful ad that peels down a corner of the front page to reveal a pitch for VW. This makes me dislike both the site and VW. Color me gone.

Anyway, I’m still encouraged. Progress is being made. And I have a feeling that the current economic downturn will make it move faster.

* Forgive me: as an undergrad philosophy major Polanyi was about all we studied — or that I remember, anyway. Classmates Stephen Lewis and Tom Brown stuck with the discipline and remember far more.

Bonus link.

Sez here Israeli Consulate to host Twitter Press Conference on Gaza. I learned that from Gilad Lotan‘s helpful compilation of perspectives at Global Voices on Israel’s Gaza Operation.

Management wall

I love this video.

JD Lasica at Social Media has put up a list of front-line 2009 conferences.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be attending fewer of those kinds of conferences this next year, while I get more heads-down with and Linux Journal work. The current calendar includes several VRM-related conferences (plus the usual IIWs), Public Media ’09, Supernova, LinuxWorld, OSCON, Reboot and Lift. When VRM takes off, it will become a topic of other conferences as well — and that alone should push me past another 100,000 miles on United next year.

That’s actually small potatoes compared to what many other business travelers compile, especially ones who travel frequently across oceans. I flew to Europe four times last year, from Boston to London, Paris and Amsterdam (hubbing through Frankfurt, Zürich, Warsaw, Chicago and Washington). That seems like a lot, and it is; but I’m guessing that two trips from anywhere in the U.S. to anywhere in Asia would yield the same sum of miles, or more.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to make travel better with VRM: by providing passengers with the tools required to improve airline service. I might have more to say about that in the next few days, or after we get back to Boston from our very pleasant family vacation in Santa Barbara. (Which is just a  paradise right now.)

Bonus link to an old but still relevant Conor Cahill post, plus the comment I just appended to it (currently pending approval):

I realize this is an old thread, but it comes up at the top of a search for United Global Services, so it’s still current in that respect.

I’ve been 1K for three years running, and flew at least two full-fare business class flights overseas from the U.S. in 2008. I’m also rather publicly a United flier, with over a dozen thousand photos taken from the windows of United planes. (Plus thousands of photos tagged United, UAL and United Airlines.)

Before that I was a Premier or Executive Premier flier on United, going back to the early 90s.

But in the current economy no clients are funding business class flying for the near future, and my total miles with United are still a bit short of a million. So I figure if I reach GS, this will have to be the year for it. Otherwise, ain’t gonna happen.

By the way, my experience with United has included nothing bad in all the time I’ve been with them. My only persistent complaint is an odd one: I don’t want upgrades to business or first class if it’s not to a window seat. I’ve been offered several upgrades this past year to aisle seats and have turned them all down. (I accepted one that did go to a window seats.) One time this past year I was upgraded to an aisle seat and it annoyed me badly because the seat I gave up in economy had a windwow. Yet I still managed to shoot this set in a hurry while the woman with the window seat next to me was asleep.

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Does fine wine have traffic?

Dave naming Jay Rosen Blogger of the Year made me think of wine. As I said in a comment to Dave’s post, Jay is a sommelier of fine links. Especially in his tweets. They are always interesting, always helpful at driving a Larger Understanding of What Journalism Is At Its Best, and What Journalism Is Becoming.

Jay is also a helluva fine blogger.

The best blogs — to me, at least — are ones that enlarge your understanding of the subjects they visit. They are less about attracting visitors as they are about attracting interest — in subjects, rather than in themselves. They have high substance/vanity ratios. While some may make money from advertising, that’s not what they’re about.

They also challenge conventional wisdom and popular beliefs, including their own. The second sentence of Jay’s latest post starts with, “But I’ve since realized…” To grow is to change. Who wants to be who they were ten years ago, much less say what they said back then?

Anyway, I gotta go off and run more errands. Just wanted to pause in the midst and say amen to a good choice.

Merry Linksmas, everybody.

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But is it food?

That was what my wife asked about a nice gift that was also comprised of an unfamiliar substance in a circular tin container that had arrived at the house recently. Our kid still described the contents’ appearance as “Silly Putty with nuts in it.”

Tasted better than that. Pretty good, actually.

A pause, in the midst of the day’s third and longest flight delay, to note that David Weinberger has a wise and helpful piece about the Rick Warren matter at NPR. Dig it.

Video 1.0 is TV, low-def camcorders, VCRs, analog and HDTV as it now stands: in the form of “HD” that’s much prettier than SD but is still packed with artifacts because it flows through pipes (both wired and wireless) that limit how good it can look, and that flow only in one way: from producer to consumer. It’s everything we’ve seen up until now.

Video 2.0 is vividly described by Simon Aspinall of Cisco, who rocked Telco 2.0 last month with a vision of what TV over telecom can become. It’s also unpacked nicely in Video will be nearly 90% of Consumer IP traffic ty 2012, in the Telco 2.0 blog. Note the “to”. This is still TV. In Video 2.0, TV still predominates, even if there are a zillion “channels” and much of it is widening the sphincters of the cell phone system.

Video 3.0 is two way. Or many-way. It’s with, not just to. And its “def” is truly high, and not compromised by current channel-defined bandwidth constraints. This is what will disrupt both telecom and cablecom in a huge way, unless they get on the side of all producers — including the people they now call consumers. The opportunities here are enormous. I think telcos are especially advantaged in this sense: telephony is naturally two-way, and has been ever since the 1880s. Now is the time to think about how we return to that in a big way. Telcos may be getting hammered flat right now, but there’s a groundswell underneath there. Just watch.

Let it Snow

We were flying along in the bus when wham: it started snowing. Heavily. Now we’re creeping along through Westchester, and the road is clearly getting a little dangerous. There’s an inch or so on the ground now, and it’ll probably get a lot deeper before it starts raining later and turns it and turns it all into slush. Or “wintry mix,” as they now call it.

Love the weather map above, though. Looks like a flag.

Arg. I’ve got the picture, but WordPress won’t let me put it in this post. Dunno why.

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Picture These

So I’m here in the Bolt Bus from Boston to New York. There’s wi-fi on board, and power outlets in the backs of most seats. But the wi-fi is slow, so I’m on a Sprint EvDO card. Getting about 1Mb down and .6Mb up. Not bad.

Anyway, I’ve recently uploaded a pile of photo sets to Flickr, where my inventory of photos is now approaching 26,000. Here is a list of just a few sets, mostly shot from airplanes and other moving vehicles:

Wow. It’s snowing now. Hard. We’re still in Connecticut, approaching the Westchester border. The Weather.com map is quite colorful:

Hm. Not taking. Guess I need a separate post for it.

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Energy into Energy

A friend close to What’s Happening in several industries, plus the Obama Transition Team, tells me all the action is around Energy. It isn’t just that everybody’s Going Green. It’s just recognizing that everything infrastructural we talk about these days, from rebuilding bridges to waste management to the auto industry bailout, involves recognizing that what we’ve been doing since we replaced horses with cars has about run its course, and that it’s actually a Good Thing that the economy is grinding to a near-halt, forcing not only a reassessment of many formerly given assumptions, but that new ideas are springing up where large failures are being buldozed aside.

It is with this in mind that we should welcome posts such as Transition Team Weighing Blockbuster Housing and Stimulus Proposal, at SolveClimate. See what you think.

Wahyd of Manifest has an original idea for saving the Out of Town News landmark at the heart of Harvard Square.

I’ve been amazed since the Net first came along at how poorly it’s understood, even by people whose job is understanding it. Which includes me.

The more I’ve looked into the problem of Understanding The Net, the more I’ve realized that it’s a kind of infrastructure — yet not very structural. How can protocols be structural? Easy: when you rely on them, which is what infrastructure does for you. It’s common stuff that everybody relies on.

Anyway, I just put up Why Internet & Infrastructure Need to be Fields of Study, in Linux Journal. See whatcha think.

Call it a micki

I’m sitting here with Tom Stites talking about wiki maintenance, and what a pain it is. And it occurs to me that what I want in a wiki is MORE, the ultimate outliner — a program I dearly loved from when it was ThinkTank all the way up until I finally gave up on Mac OS9/Classic, which was the last thing it ran on. Nearly all my writing was done in MORE, because it allowed me to organize and re-organized hierarchies of topics, quickly and easily. It also helped me think, which is what one should be doing when one is writing stuff.

Wikis are flat. All topics are at the same level. This is fine for an encyclopedia, but lousy for, say, projects. Joint efforts such as are not flat. They have topics and subtopics. These change and move around, and this is where an outliner like MORE is so handy. With a few keystrokes you can move topics up and down levels, back and forth between higher-level headings… You can hoist any single topic up and work on that as if it were a top level. You can clone a topic or a piece of text and edit it in two places at once. I could go on, but trust me: it freaking rocked. There was no faster way to think or type. Hell, I’m typing this in one of its decendents: an OPML editor, also written by Dave Winer.

Anyway, just wanted to say, here in the midst of an unrelated local conversation, that wiki that works like MORE remains on the top of my software wish list for the world. Trust me: it would make the world a much more sensible place. And make both individual and group work a helluva lot easier.

Quote du jour

Lessig: Take the money out of politics (and here’s a specific proposal for doing that), and then come back to me to talk about the good, public regarding reasons why Congress is stepping in to “save the auto industry.”

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Stephen Lewis has made a decades-long study of both the charms and absurdities of national and ethnic legacies. His most recent essay on the matter, Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries, unpacks the growing distance between the ideals of the Internet and the realities of dysfunctional nationalisms, and the failures of the former to transcend the latter.
He begins by describing his frustrations at trying to obtain podcasts of This American Life while overseas:

As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web. Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States. Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks. Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues. By outsourcing exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

Meanwhile, you can hear This American Life for free over the Net on hundreds of streams from the U.S. based public radio stations to which NPR wholesales the program for the stations to sell to listeners (who contribute on a voluntary basis), making the restrictions even more strange. Steve continues:

The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Steve also spends a lot of time in Turkey, a country where his own blog (the one I’m quoting here) gets blocked along with every other blog bearing the .wordpress domain name. Lately YouTube and Blogger have also been blocked. (For more on who blocks what, visit the Open Internet Initiative.)

These sites and services are easy for governments to block because they’re clustered and silo’d. Yet on the Internet these clusters and silos, once big enough, take on the character of countries. In this New York Times piece, Tim Wu says. “To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king”. Talk about retro.

Steve continues,

This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.

Well, Google does have accountability to its customers, most of which are advertisers. Which makes the whole thing even more complicated.

Meanwhile the promise of the Net continues to be undermined not only by wacky forms of counterproductive protectionism, but by our own faith in “clouds” that can often act more like solids than gasses.

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So the Wall Street Journal runs Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web, by Vinesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads. It’s dated today, but hit the Web yesterday. Among other things it says,

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

I declined to post on this yesterday because I suspected that this was simply a matter of edge caching: locating services as close to users as possible, to minimize network latencies and maximize accessibility. Akamai‘s whole business is based on this kind of thing. Much of what we now call the “cloud” — including conveniences provided by Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others — are back-end utilities that benefit from relative proximity to users. It’s all part of what Nick Carr calls The Big Switch.

As Richard Whitt of Google puts it here,

Edge caching is a common practice used by ISPs and application and content providers in order to improve the end user experience. Companies like Akamai, Limelight, and Amazon’s Cloudfront provide local caching services, and broadband providers typically utilize caching as part of what are known as content distribution networks (CDNs). Google and many other Internet companies also deploy servers of their own around the world.

By bringing YouTube videos and other content physically closer to end users, site operators can improve page load times for videos and Web pages. In addition, these solutions help broadband providers by minimizing the need to send traffic outside of their networks and reducing congestion on the Internet’s backbones. In fact, caching represents one type of innovative network practice encouraged by the open Internet.

Google has offered to “colocate” caching servers within broadband providers’ own facilities; this reduces the provider’s bandwidth costs since the same video wouldn’t have to be transmitted multiple times. We’ve always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis.

All of Google’s colocation agreements with ISPs — which we’ve done through projects called OpenEdge and Google Global Cache — are non-exclusive, meaning any other entity could employ similar arrangements. Also, none of them require (or encourage) that Google traffic be treated with higher priority than other traffic. In contrast, if broadband providers were to leverage their unilateral control over consumers’ connections and offer colocation or caching services in an anti-competitive fashion, that would threaten the open Internet and the innovation it enables.

But there is a political side to this. The WSJ is playing the Gotcha! game here, “catching” Google jumping “the line” across which its postion on Net Neutrality is compromised. According to Whitt, it’s not.

Net Neutrality as a topic is complex and politically charged. One can argue with Google’s position on the topic. But I don’t believe one can argue that edge caching deals are a compromise of that position, simply because these deals are nothing new, and do nothing to squeeze other companies out of doing the same kind of thing (so long as Google doesn’t make the deals exclusive, which it says it’s not doing).

Hat tip to my colleague Steve Schultze, who is on top of this stuff far more than I am.

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While repairing Searls.com (which should be back up soon), I had my sister, who has a searls.com email address, delete her old account and create a new one. She did this in Apple’s Mac Mail program, which I don’t know or use.

All her sent and received emails are now gone. Or invisible. I don’t believe they’ve been erased, but I don’t know. Can anybody help here? Where are the files stored, and what would the files be called, so she can search for them?

Thanks!

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Under reconstruction

nbsp;Searls.com is down, and has been for a number of days. There was a RAID failure, and things got worse from there. We had to take the whole thing down and rebuild it. I’m hoping it will be up again in a few hours. Meanwhile, all mail to searls.com addresses is giong nowhere. Just letting you know.

Oh, and redirects from doc.searls.com to the much longer and non-memorable address of this blog aren’t working either. That should change shortly as well.

Thanks for your patience. If you’ve got any, you’re doing better than me.

- Doc

Utilities in deed

Change.gov is the main place where the President-in-Waiting takes advice from the public. One item there is MPAA’s Key International Trade Issues, detailed in this .pdf. You can’t search or copy the content of that file because it’s a graphic. I guess the MPAA decided it would rather not post the text somewhere.

Alas, Change.gov doesn’t let you link to individual comments, so you’ll just have to hunt or scroll down to find the one by “skywriter”, who says,

I like the public utility analogy. The DEA can’t shut down a person’s electricity because they ‘suspect’ a person is growing pot in a back room of their house, nor can they shut off their water, why should a ‘non-governmental agency’ (No, MPAA, you are not a government agency no matter how much you like to think so) push for an ISP to cut off a person’s internet because you ‘suspect’ they might be doing bad things with their connection? Treat internet access like a utility, I say.

One goal of Net Neutrality, Wikipedia currenty says, is “A neutral broadband network is one that is free of restrictions on content…” By that angle alone the MPAA’s is a bad idea. Hard enough just to get the Net to people and keep it running for the good of everybody. Let’s not turn the Net into TV (which is censored… try saying “fuck” over U.S. airwaves), or worse — into a branch of Hollywood. Least of all by legislation.

There’s a good chance that the best picture you can put on your HD screen doesn’t come from your cable or satellite TV company, but from your new HD camcorder. As time and markets march on, that chance will only get larger. That’s because the there is a trade-off between the number of channels carried and the quality of each channel. That quality compression shows up as “artifacts” in the picture itself. Gradations of shading and color, such as in a blue or gray sky, turn to a mosaic of blocks. (In this shot, I show how grass on a football field has pimples.) Carriers compete more by the number of channels they carry than by the quality of each channel.(There are exceptions to this, but on the whole that’s what we’ve got.) Meanwhile your camcorder quality only goes up.

And as camcorder quality goes up, more of us will be producing rather than consuming our video. More importantly, we will be co-producing that video with other people. We will be producers as well as consumers. This is already the case, but the results that appear on YouTube are purposely compressed to a low quality compared to HDTV. In time the demand for better will prevail. When that happens we’ll need upstream as well as downstream capacity.

So here’s a piece in Broadband Reports that shows how carriers can be out of touch with the future, even as they increase the capacities of their offerings. An excerpt:

In upgraded markets, Comcast is not only upgrading existing speed tiers ($42.95 “Performance” 6Mbps/1Mbps and $52.95 “Performance Plus” 8Mbps/2Mbps tiers became 12Mbps/2Mbps and 16Mbps/2Mbps), but is adding two new tiers to the mix ($62.95 “Ultra” 22Mbps/5Mbps and the aforementioned $139.95 “Extreme 50″ 50Mbps/10Mbps).

One recurring theme we’ve seen in our forums is that the new speeds have many users downgrading. In both forum threads and polls, many customers on Comcast’s 16Mbps/2Mbps tier say they’re downgrading to their 12Mbps/2Mbps tier — apparently because they don’t think an additional 4Mbps downstream is worth $10. Customers used to be willing to pay the additional $10 for double the upstream speed, but there’s no longer an upstream difference between the tiers.

That last line is the kicker. Comcast apparently still thinks that downstream is all that really matters. It isn’t. For anybody producing a lot of photography or video, upstream not only matters more, but supports activities where the user can see the difference.

In fact there isn’t a lot of perceived difference between 12Mbps and 16Mbps on the downstream side. Either is fast enough for a YouTube video. But on the upstream side, you can see the difference. In my case, that difference appears in the progress bars for pictures I upload to Flickr.

A few months ago I upgraded my Verizon FiOS service from 20/5Mbps to 20/20Mbps. The difference was obvious as soon as it went in. The difference will be a lot more obvious to a lot more people once those people start sharing, mashing up and co-producing higher-definition videos.

Just watch.

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Quotes du jour

“Do we settle with the scumbag or make lawyers rich?” – a friend who has been probing this question.

And “If it has to go through legal, it isn’t a conversation.” From Justine at BrainsOnFire. Via John Moore, via Valdis Krebs.

Yo!Yo!

Lessig returns to Harvard. Local souces confirm. Heres the tweet. Watch the blog for more. (Here it is.) Overheard among the locals: Aslan is on the move.

I don’t envy providers of wi-fi at conferences. Nor do I envy anybody else in a risky business, even when they charge a good buck for it. But I do appreciate them. I forget the name of the outfit that provided wi-fi at PC Forum in days of yore, but they delivered the goods. Wi-fi nearly always worked there. Bravo to Esther and her suppliers. We miss them.

On the other hand, wi-fi at most conferences sucks rocks. There are all kinds of reasons, usually boiling down to demand hosing supply. Sometimes it’s because the hotel just doesn’t have the pipes for it. Sometimes it’s incompetence, equipment failure, software failure, or some combination of the three.

Last year at here in Paris, the wi-fi failed on Day One, and worked on Day Two. While waiting for a plane afterwards (which I’m doing again now), I talked at some length to a young guy who worked with Swisscom, which provided the Net to LeWeb. He told me that they hadn’t anticipated all the iPhones that would be trying to connect at the same time as all the laptops.

This year I was told that Swisscom was again the supplier. But this time Day One and Day Two both sucked. Connectivity was occasional at best, and completely down at worst. I found it useless. The startup competition was hampered severly by it, since the companies couldn’t strut their stuff.

Some context: LeWeb was bigger this year, and I would guess that well over a thousand laptops and other devices were trying to get on and do stuff simultaneously, much of the time. Yet Swisscom no doubt promised to deliver, and Loic and crew had every right both to expect them to deliver — and to refuse payment should Swisscom fail.

I haven’t talked with Loic about this, but I would hope that he could collect damages for Swisscom’s failure. Because when you’re putting on a show caled LeWeb, your Net provider should guarantee that Le Web is available to attendees and participants. I dunno if Loic got that guarantee, but I hope he did. Because what happened was surely damaging to a bunch of people, including both attendees and organizers, who didn’t deserve it. They put on a great show.

Here are pix from Day One. I’ll put up Day 2 after I get back home to Boston.

[Later, now in Boston] Here’s LeWeb’s post on the same topic. Its bottom line: Nothing worked basically, it has been totally unprofessional and unacceptable from a major supplier such as Swisscom.

The predicable catastrophe of Sam Zell buying the Tribune Company was perhaps best forecast (or at least remarked upon) by Hal Crowther. My response at the time was (and still is) here.

Bonus link. Another.

On departure from Zürich to Paris yesterday the ground was shrowded in gloom and haze, but above it the sky was clear and crystalline. I sat purposely on the left side of the plane to get a view, even though I knew I’d be photographing the scene against the sun, which would be low in the early afternoon on a day approaching the Winter Solstice. Worse, the window looked like it had been cleaned with fine-grit sandpaper. Still, I got some nice shots with my old Tamron zoom and the Canon Rebel Xti (borrowed from the excellent and generous Rebecca Tabasky, a colleage at the Berkman Center).

I’m guessing the plane was about a hundred miles from the shot above. Closer for some of the early ones, and much farther for some of the later ones, some of which feature Mont Blanc, the only peak I could easily identify. I’m hoping some of the rest of you can fill in the blanks.

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One of the most common expressions in geology is “not well understood”. Which is understandable, because most rocks were formed millions to billions of years ago, often under conditions, and in locations, that can only be guessed at. One of the reasons I love geology is that the detective work is of a very high order. The work is both highly scientific and highly creative. Also, it will never be done. Its best mysteries are rooted too deeply in the one thing humans — relative to rock — severely lack: time

Anyway, I’m here to suggest that two overlapping subjects — infrastructure and internet — are not well understood, even though both are made by humans and can be studied within the human timescale. The term “infrastructure” has been in common use only since the 1970s. While widely used, there are relatively few books about the subject itself. I’d say, in fact, that is more a subject in many fields than a field in itself. And I think it needs to be. Same with the Internet. Look it up on Google and see how many different definitions you get. Yet nothing could be more infrastructural without being physical, which the Internet is not.

Anyway, as I write and think about this stuff, I like to keep track of what I’ve already said, even though I’ve moved beyond some of it. So here goes:

More from allied sources:

And now I have to fly to Paris, to have fun at LeWeb. We’ll pick up this and other subjects there.

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Coming to our senseless

The New Hacker is a nice segment in On The Media featuring wisdom from Chris Soghoian, a fellow Berkman Center fellow. Chris’s main point: by the lights of the Lori Drew decision, you’re a hacker if you violate any terms of service, because that’s essentially what the jury decided.

TOS (terms of service) are silly messes in any case and need to be unscrewed.

Speaking of which, Chris has two blog posts worthy of piontage, both along the same unscrewy lines: DMCA exemptions desired to hack iPhones, DVDs and Harvard team: Let consumers hack abandonware. Check ‘em out.

Back in the 80s junkies were stealing radios from cars. Now it’s GPS units. At Logan Airport, bright signs greet you in the parking lot: REMOVE YOUR GPS UNITS, or words to that effect. I forget exactly. But the point is, they’re bait for thieves.

We have had two stolen in the last two months, both from our parked car in the driveway. The first was a Garmin 340c, and it was sitting on the dashboard. The second was a Garmin Nuvi 680, stolen along with a bunch of other stuff, even though it was hidden.

That was yesterday. I found out when a cop showed up at our front door asking if we’d had a GPS stolen. I said, “Yes, last month.” He said “How about last night?” I said I don’t know. So we went to look at the car, and sure enough, it was gone, along with cables and chargers for varioius stuff, plus a mount for a Sirius satellite radio.

Turns out the cops caught some people in the act, though not at our place. But they found our GPS freshly stolen. They looked up “Home” on it and found our address. Handy.

So we went down to the station to retrieve it last night. Not all the pieces were there (it’s missing a mount piece), but it’s fine. The cops told us not to have any mounts on the dashboard or the windshield, or any exposed power cabling that suggests anything of value is hidden somewhere in the car. So now we’re charging the GPS indoors, and not connecting it to anything inside the car. We just lay it in a space between the front seats and let it work there.

Not exactly the way it was designed to be used, but safer anyway. Sad it’s come to that, though.

[A month later...] Now we have a new routine. The GPS and all cabling (including a splitter and charger cable for our iPhones) go in a dark bag that gets thrown among junk in front of the back seats. The GPS mount, a bean-bag affair, gets turned upside down (where it’s black and looks like nothing other than more junk) and stuffed under one of the front seats. It takes about 40 seconds to set up the GPS, but at least it charges in the car and works like it should. So far, no more thefts. It helps, however, to have a messy car.

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In The Office of Connectivity Advocacy, Bob Frankston argues for something we’ve needed a long time: prying the Net from the regulatory grips of telecom and cablecom, both of which are inside the FCC and part of a regulatory mess that traces back past the 1996 and 1934 telecoms acts, all the way to the railroad thinking and legislation that modeled those acts.

What we need, Bob says, is to re-frame the Net outside of telecom (which includes cablecom as well). The Net needs to be more than just the third act in a “Triple Play” sold by phone and cable companies. It needs to be more — and other — than just a “service” we get from monopolists operating in an old regulatory habitat.

Inside our homes we do not negotiate with, or pay, a “printing service” to use our printers. Nor are our phone and cable companies required to hook our computers and other appliances together inside our homes. As a result, there is no issue of speed, no need for “broadband”, because we enjoy much limitless network speeds without a “service provider” in the middle.

Some specifics:

We need a “Connectivity Strategy” with a champion; a “Connectivity Advocate” who is outside the FCC and is thus can focus on a positive agenda. “Internet Connectivity” is not a telecommunications service but something new. It is based on the idea that we can create our own solutions out of imperfect resources. And it has proven to be an exceptionally powerful idea.

It has allowed us to create new solutions by focusing on the end points of relationships rather than all the myriad points between. We’ve seen a similar dynamic with the interstate (defense) highway system that has been credited with adding trillions of dollars to the economy. The Internet-connectivity has the potential to do far more because it doesn’t have the limits of the roads and demand creates supply.

The challenge is to overcome the artifacts that we confuse with the powerful idea. We happened to have repurposed existing telecommunications infrastructure and thus the idea has become captive of the incumbents whose business of charging for transporting bits as a service is threatened. To add to this confusion we can easily spoof existing telecommunications services ourselves but still act as if only a carrier can provide the services.

Instead of spending so much time and effort forcing connectivity into a service framing we need to be able to focus on connectivity from first principles. After all, the Internet (as connectivity) and Telecom have no intrinsic relationship beyond their common use of electromagnetism to transport bits.

By having an Office of Connectivity Advocacy (I’m open to a better title) outside the FCC we can have a positive and proactive strategy. We have abundant existing resources that are lying fallow either because we don’t recognize what we have or are forbidden from competing with those who control are very means of communicating and the vital information paths we use for commerce.

So look at it this way. What we have inside the free spaces of our own homes is connectivity. What we have outside of our homes, through telco and cable systems, is broadband. The latter may seem desirable, but only in the absence of free (as in liberty, not price) alternatives.

Bob sees the Internet less as a physical infrastructure of CFR (copper, fiber and radios) than as a “bit commons” to which we all contribute. It’s an ocean rather than canals across a desert. Its nature is one of abundance, not scarcity. One can only make it scarce, which is what phone and cable companies do, even as they increase our broadband speeds to larger fractions of what we have at home for free.

Bob has specific recommendations for what an Office of Connectivity Advocacy would do. Read them and give Bob (and the Transition Team) constructive feedback. Here’s part of his post:

Initially the OCA would be charged with:

  • Empowering communities and individuals to create their own solutions using common facilities – the bit commons.
  • Education and research focused on achieving and taking advantage of end-to-end connectivity.
    • Educating Congress to understand the meaning and value of connectivity. Ideally it would play the role of providing a first-principles reality check rather than just checking for conformance to regulations. For example, a call is completed when the message gets through, not when a phone rings.
    • Assist the government in its own use of technology both for its own use and as an example for others. It could encourage technologies that have wide market appeal rather than just those that can conform to government RFPs.
    • Developing enlightened investment strategies which don’t try to capture all of the value.
    • Supporting research in using networking rather than the networks themselves.
    • Supporting research in how to get more out of existing physical facilities as well as encouraging new technologies.
    • Developing decentralized protocols for connectivity rather than today’s provider-centric IP
    • Working to simplify building applications using public connectivity (the bit commons). This could be mundane telemedicine, community information or …
  • Acting as an advocate for a transition from a telecom framing to a connectivity framing:
    • Evaluating existing assets and business practice afresh without the century old technical and policy presumptions.
    • Working towards a bit commons or common infrastructure including removing the artificial distinctions between wired and unwired bits.
    • Assisting in transitioning the existing telecommunications industry to industries supporting and taking advantage of connectivity.

At first glance the idea of the OCA may seem fanciful but it’s far easier to start afresh than trying to struggle out of the mire of the existing Regulatorium. We didn’t build the automobile by modifying stage coaches – we just used our understanding of wheeled vehicles to start afresh.

Starting afresh is essential to the telcos and cablecos as well. They need to see the Internet as something more, and other, than just a “service” they provide. Their existing phone and cable TV business models are in trouble. Charging for Net access is no gold mine, either. They need to start looking for ways of making money because of the Net and not merely with it. This is what Google and Amazon have done with “cloud” services. (Many of Google’s are in this list here. Amazon’s are here.) The only thing keeping the phone and cable companies from being in similar or allied businesses is a lack of imagination. Also a lack of appreciation for advantages of incumbency other than the ability to charge folks for broadband alone. These companies have waterfront property on the Net’s ocean. They also have direct relationships with customers. Those relationships can be used for much more than billing and essential services alone.

It would be much easier for these guys to start thinking outside their boxes if the Net were split off from the phone and cable regulatoria. And that Nick Carr’s Big Switch would happen a lot faster. (By the way, for thinking outside the box, it’s fun to read Nick’s post on Microsof’ts “trailer park” based cloud infrastructure.)

I wrote here,

Phone and cable companies today are in a lousy position to run the Internet business. Telephony and Cable TV are railroads and steamships. They “carry” the Net as a “service”, but the Net isn’t essentially a service. It’s just a way to connect things. Connectivity is what matters. Not “broadband”, much as it appeals within the context of phone and cable companies’ limited offerings and imaginations. Who will imagine what can be done when connectivity is freed up? Phone and cable companies? I’d rather bet on the people leaving those companies.

If phone and cable companies want to attract rather than lose its most original engineers, they it would help if they got out of the old regulatory frame and into a new one that separates the Net from their legacy monopolies.

More about Bob.

Bonus link: Beyond Telecom: Bob Frankston on the Future We Make for Ourselves. It’s is an interveiw I did with Bob earlier this year, for Linux Journal.

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Quote du jour

David Pryce on Live Government: For the first time in modern industrial society, governments have the chance to realise the potential embodied in Bill Joy’s observation that there will always be more smart people outside government than within it…

House cremation revisited

Nothing, I hope, will ever impress me as much as the Oakland firrestorm of October 20, 1991. At its peak a house was blowing up ever four seconds.  Hiller Highlands, a dome of land the looks straight west at San Francisco across the length of the Bay Bridge — one of the most desirable views in the entire world — was obliterated. The fire was so aggressive, so overwhelming, that at least one fire truck had to be abandoned.  The fire lobbed so much burning debris in its path that it leaped over two highways — 24 and 13 — and the Temescal Reservoir, to bring devastation to Oakland’s Piedmont section as well.

Close to 4000 residences (including houses and apartments) were burned in that one, in an area not much more than a mile across. I was on the Palo Alto Red Cross board at the time, and among those brought in to check out the devastation a day or two after the fire was out. Houses were erased by it. Cars were melted into puddles. Square holes in concrete, with puddles of metal around them, marked where deck timbers had stood. For some of the dead, there was no sign. Heat at the center of the fire passed 6000°, several times that required for cremation.

I’ve written about this before. I’m writing about it again (and again) because the subject is, well, close to home for me. We were in the evacuation area for the Tea Fire in Santa Barbara last month, and thoughts about how close it came — for the whole city –  still give me chills.  I was reminded again of the devastation by this Gigapan photo from West Mountain Drive. And revisiting this remarkable Google Map by grizzlehizzle. If you want an example of citizen journalism at its best, this is one fine example — from somebody who declines to say who they are, exactly.

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I need to get a haircut today. That fact got me thinking about my favorite barber, Kenneth Wood. I used to get my hair cut by Mr. Wood every time I visited my mother and sister in Graham, NC. I haven’t been back there so often since Mom passed in 2003, but I was sure, when I looked him up a few minutes ago, that Mr. Wood would still be at it. Sure enough, he is.

Two stories — After 55 years, a thoroughly unusual day
and Small-town barber attracts attention — ran last month in the Burlington, NC Times-News (which commendably does not bury its archives behind a paywall), remarking on Mr. Wood’s 55 years in one location  the Graham Barber Shop, still tucked under one corner of the Graham Cinema Marquee. It also notes that Mr. Wood has been cutting hair for longer than most people will live: 81 years in all. (He started in 1927.) During that time he also cut my father’s hair, my uncle’s hair, and all five of my cousins’ hair. He only left the business (though the shop stayed open, waiting) while serving his country during WWII. He must now be one of that war’s oldest veterans as well.

I blogged about him here in January 2003. Good to know he’s still going strong.

I shot a little photo set of Graham and Mr. Wood’s shop in January 2003. To see it click here, or on the picture above.

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Phil Windley, in The Conservative View on Guantanamo: “…a position consistent with basic conservative philosophy would argue for human rights and due process — not against it.”

It’s good that thoughtful conservatives like Phil are examining what went wrong with an administration that turned out to be conservative in label and loyalty, but not in principle. Looking forward to more of that.

Bonus Quote, by Thomas Paine, arguing amidst the French Revolution against the execution of King Louis XVI: “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates his duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Via Harry Lewis.

Tweet on

I’m at the WBUR open house “tweetup”, where I just learned about Tweetworks from Mike Langford. Thus the lego-like greater Twitter add-on zone grows.

After Murad Ahmed wrote Citizen journalists told to stop using Twitter to update on Bombay attacks in TimesOnline, and David Stephenson blogged a similar concern, Bruce Schneier responded with Communications During Terrorist Attacks are Not Bad. Specifically,

  This fear is exactly backwards. During a terrorist attack — during any crisis situation, actually — the one thing people can do is exchange information. It helps people, calms people, and actually reduces the thing the terrorists are trying to achieve: terror. Yes, there are specific movie-plot scenarios where certain public pronouncements might help the terrorists, but those are rare. I would much rather err on the side of more information, more openness, and more communication.

I’m sure there was wrong information coming across Twitter during recent California fires as well. But whenever bad things happen — whether caused by bad luck or bad people — good will and good people out-care and out-perform the bad.

The best mainstream media piece I’ve read yet about this topic is Citizen Journalists Provided Glimpses of Mumbai Attacks, by Brian Setzer and Noam Cohen in the New York Times. The first four grafs:

  From his terrace on Colaba Causeway in south Mumbai, Arun Shanbhag saw the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel burn. He saw ambulances leave the Nariman House. And he recorded every move on the Internet.

  Mr. Shanbhag, who lives in Boston but happened to be in Mumbai when the attacks began on Wednesday, described the gunfire on his Twitter feed — the “thud, thud, thud” of shotguns and the short bursts of automatic weapons — and uploaded photos to his personal blog.

  Mr. Shanbhag, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said he had not heard the term citizen journalism until Thursday, but now he knows that is exactly what he was doing. “I felt I had a responsibility to share my view with the outside world,” Mr. Shanbhag said in an e-mail message on Saturday morning.

  The attacks in India served as another case study in how technology is transforming people into potential reporters, adding a new dimension to the news media.

Actually, a new medium. And a new methodology. And a new way to invest the best, far more than the worst, in human nature.

Going from San Francisco

Got some nice shots of San Francisco and Marin on Sunday, as we flew off to Chicago on the first leg of the trip home from Thanksgiving in California. Actually, my kid shot most of them, since he had the window seat. Shot some other stuff too, which I’ll put up later.

Mount Tamalpias (better known as Mt. Tam) looms in the background, and Mt. Beacon in front of it.

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has some principles for (our government-in-waiting). I just signed the petition.

Mostly I’d like documents to be in .html or .txt, instead of .doc and .pdf, or worse. That would be a great start.

My son found the perfect way to interrupt my absolute concentration on work this evening: by pointing out that the Moon, Venus and Jupiter were forming a jewel-box of an arrangement in the evening sky. And sure enough, they were. So I took a bunch of shots, of which I kept the two that comprise this set here.

If you’re in the West, somewhere amidst the Pacific or the Far East this evening, you’ll see it too.

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So I’m looking around for a fact. Specifically, an answer to this question: Who came up with CRM — Customer Relationship Management — as an idea (and later as a software and business category). It must have come from somebody, or somecompany, somewhere, right?

I just looked up History of CRM on Google. I’ve tried other search terms. It’s a slog to swim upstream against the torrent of promotional BS. Wikipedia’s entry is blah, and without any historical references.

Anybody know?

Grinding at the hub

We left SFO at 11am yesterday, and got into BOS at 3am. The delay in the middle was at ORD: O’Hare. We arrived at 6pm to find that our 7pm flight had been delayed to 9:10. After going to dinner at the Macaroni Grill (chosen after tweeting a request that was answered nicely by Todd Storch), we parked our butts at the gate, where the departure time kept moving back until it was nearly 11pm. For a long time there was no gate agent at all. But the board behind the counter kept rolling the departure time outward. I finally became one of those travellers who stretches out and sleeps with head on knapsack.

The plane for our flight never arrived, so United put us on another one with fewer rows, which made for even more fun. I felt sorry for whoever didn’t get to Chicago on the plane we couldn’t take.

I did sleep for the whole flight to Logan, then got to bed at 4, and up at 6. Now I’m back in the saddle, at my desk in our apartment.

The biggest relief here is Internet speed. On the road everything seemed slow. The hotel in Morgan Hill, CA barely cleared dial-up speed. The house where we hung out was okay (about 500k up and down), but seemed to take forever to bring anything up. My Sprint data card outperformed every wi-fi connection I encountered.

Here at the apartment we have 20Mb symmetrical service from Verizon FiOS. The hub-router thing craps out a lot, but otherwise it’s rock-solid and makes Net access into a relatively wide smooth highway. The only better connectivity I’ve experienced is at universities.

Anyway, good to be back. Now off to work.