Technology


The Wall Street Journal recently (Thursday July 14, 2011) published an article in the Marketplace section where various analysts reported valuing the company at $100 billion and upwards. Redpoint Venures’ Geoff Yang notes that Facebook created a new ecosystem – the ‘social web’. His valuation was based on a $25BB market in online ad revenue with Facebook having a 27% share. In 2015 that $25BB will grow to $45BB and Facebook’s share translates to $7BB in revenue. Add in the local advertising market today estimated at $133BB and project that to the future for $150BB. With the Internet taking 20% and Facebook 20% of that, add $6BB in revenue. Add in international revenue and the estimated 2015 revenue goes to $19BB. With a P/E of 25, Facebook is worth $140BB in 2015. The high end of the scale in the report was $240BB valuation. Some of the higher P/Es are undoubtedly because Facebook is still a private company, lots of investor want in, and the law of supply and demand is active.

Going back to Geoff Yang’s comment about a new ecosystem, the thing about ecosystems is that they contain lots of niches, some beneficial and some not so beneficial. Looking at Facebook as a social media, people automatically assume that Facebook is about communications. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, Facebook has the ‘potential’ to be a communications tool but to be specific, one has to remember that, as Claude Shannon established, communications requires three elements: a sender, a channel and a receiver. Social media over the Internet is clearly the channel and the millions of members participating are senders. I am not so certain about the receivers.

Facebook is a means for participants to throw out to the world (dare I say ‘vomit’) pithy comments about life, mostly as a means to assuage their egos and establish that their thoughts are somehow worthy of publication. Admittedly, blog writers succumb to the same predisposition, as do contributors to refereed journals. In our case as well as the case with journals, we impose some sort of peer review.

The problem comes when participants believe and expect that Facebook is, in fact, a means of communication, when it typically is not. Personally, being inoculated by Inter-relay Chat (IRC) in earlier days, I know enough to not assess my self-worth by a post or response to a post that comes flying my way, and do not participate in “flame wars”. There are lots of people out there using Facebook with less unassailable egos, fragile personalities and low self-esteem. When these persons become involved in Facebook interactions; and the inevitable trolls and digital demagogues line up like sharks at a chumming, the potential for damage is high.

In verbal communications, most people learn quickly that a self-imposed delay between thinking and speaking is a survival trait. Facebook provides minimal feedback to reinforce an equivalent delay between thought and post. This is not a new concept – books have been written on email etiquette. What is new is that email did not have the potential to impact participants to the same degree. Technology has provided enablers: streams of friend’s posts requires bandwidth; computational power; and storage – all of which have made significant improvements over the last ten years. The result of which is a much more rapid and wider dissemination of accidental stupidity and intentional cruelty.

A 2009 report showed that 1 in 5 divorces are attributed to Facebook. Verbal bullying on Facebook has been reported and is increasing. Blackmail related to Facebook posting of photos is noted. Some interesting work on the phenomena is found here.

Returning to Facebook’s valuation, an infelicitous confluence of factors – high valuations, widespread usage and the potential for material damage (psychological – resulting in treatment costs; suicides, etc.) make Facebook an obvious target for tort lawyers. Expect novel theories of liability to emerge directly in proportion to Facebook’s rising valuation.

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The other night I needed to get some work done. Work that required access to my employer’s network. Access that required me to install the VPN software on my new laptop. And that’s when things started to go wrong.

You have to register with the VPN provider before can dowmload their VPN client. And it’s not just any registration process — it is a highly secure one that looks like some command and control freak setup the process. First you have to give them everything from your phone number to your job title. Then you have to come up with a password that has not only letters and numbers — get this — but mixed case. Because I’m sure crackers are getting into the provider’s web site to download this free software via exhaustive password guessing instead of just registering for free on the site. Happens all the time.

But just in case I forgot the password to download free software I got to pick not one, but two security questions. And oh — my login name has to have between 9 and 50 characters, with no spaces, at least one letter, and may contain numbers. I couldn’t make something up this silly.

So, I registered. Eventually. After going through maybe 200 “errors” presented by the regristration page screen was…. another page that said “Your session is no longer active.”

The second sign that something was wrong was… it didn’t actually work. Yep, every time I entered in a new user id it was … simply forgotten at the login screen. And the password reset screen.

One more point of joy — clicking on the “Log in” link at the web site’s home page gives you “The page you have requested is not available.” I’ll bet.

So I try copying over the MacOS application directory from my old laptop. And this is when I realized that the VPN provider folks are fools. It looks like the installation sprays its contents over a wide variety of directories, like some kind of … Windows install. If you just copy over the Application directory you find out that the crapware expects to find a library installed in /Library/Frameworks/.

Around the time I realize that this resembles a Windows install, I realize that most Mac OS users would never put up with this — Steve Jobs would have someone executed before putting up with this. The distinguishing difference between Windows users and Mac OS users is that one wants to use a computer and that the other wants to get work done — so there must be a Mac OS solution to this.

It turns out that Mac OS has the VPN built in. But wait… it requires a shared secret, which it is very careful to not let you see. However, it is stored in an encrypted form. Thinking once again that most people wouldn’t put up with this I start googling for a solution — and find a web site that will decrypt it for you. And possibly harvest it as well.

So, as a result of wanting to get work done, and school boy security engineering, I’m sending the shared secret over the Internet to a site I’ve never heard of to decrypt it.

Awesome!

Amazon.com, the world’s most popular on-line retailer has unveiled a new subscription service known as “Amazon Prime”. For just $79 a year Amazon.com is offering free two day shipping on all of your orders (except those which Amazon deems ineligible for the service). Sounds like a pretty good idea right? Especially if you make a lot of Amazon.com purchases. I’m certainly behind businesses trying to find that new competitive edge it takes to stay on top. Ordinarily I would just see something like Amazon Prime as a nice piece of new business strategy. The one problem is now that Prime is out Amazon is blackmailing users into using it.

You see recently my wife and I put in an order to Amazon.com for a guide book we wanted for a trip to Europe. We’re leaving in three weeks, so we wanted to be sure we’d get it on time. The book was in stock and was eligible for Free Shipping, with a listed shipping time of 3-5 days. We purchased it and checked out with no problems, all very routine. Imagine our surprise that evening when we got an e-mail estimating the delivery date at three weeks. We decided to call Amazon to see what the issue was. Maybe the guide was out of stock and their system had been incorrect? No problem there we’d just select another one, so we dialed in prepared to switch our order. The explanation we got blew our minds.

Evidently in the Amazon terms of service they have the right to hold your items for later shipping, and the 3-5 days is just the time it takes from leaving the warehouse. We’d never had this kind of delay before so we were a bit surprised, was there a problem? No. Amazon is just trying to get folks to sign up for Amazon Prime (which we were offered an upgrade to, one month free trial). In fact if we upgraded today our book would ship immediately.

How sneaky and dishonest! All of my respect for Amazon.com has just been flushed down the drain. We bit the bullet and upgraded, not to prime, but two day delivery as we couldn’t chance it with the guide given our travel date, but we will be thinking long and hard before buying from Amazon.com again in their future. Their sneaky little game may have just cost them two customers.

-Angry Midwesterner


So have you ever heard of Microsoft Soapbox? Yeah, me neither. Planned to be Microsoft’s answer to YouTube, this isn’t some flashy new service Microsoft is rolling out with Bing, but the stillborn project which first debuted over three years ago. Now, with the obvious market dominance of YouTube, Microsoft is going to be cutting the chaff from the wheat. In a market where the money is on the web, and not the OS, Microsoft has consistently failed to reinvent itself into something dynamic, new, or cutting edge.

The death of Soapbox isn’t important because of the failure itself. It instead represents a mental change at Microsoft, as they retreat from ground they had originally intended to fight for. Bing is likely their last stand for relevance in the internet world, and one which they will likely lose to Google.

-Angry Midwesterner


Barack Obama kept the man that George Bush reluctantly appointed SecDef as his SecDef. This is truly a bizarre thing but I suspect that it will go down in history as one of the smartest things he did. I’m willing to believe news reports that Obama didn’t entirely want to do this either. Think about it, you’re basically saying “gosh, I have to keep the guy appointed to a key job by the deeply unpopular guy I’m replacing….” It doesn’t look pretty politically for all sorts of reasons. But whatever the politics of the decision, it seems that the two men have developed a very functional relationship, and not a moment too soon given the fact that, not to put too fine a point on it, we are in two wars and dealing with numerous other unpleasant contingencies that require attention from men with guns.

Take a look at Gates’ recent speech to the Air War College, though. For those of you who don’t know, the Air Force is one of the greatest bureaucratic warrior organizations around. They are fantastic at this, the acknowledged masters, so Gates pretty much has to win roll the USAF to win this. Anyway, the speech is worth reading in its entirety but I’ve extracted a few choice bits. It’s full of a refreshing empiricism that seemed lacking in Rumsfeld, e.g.,

Another theme underlying my recommendations is the need to think about future conflicts in a different way. To recognize that the black and white distinction between irregular war and conventional war is an outdated model. We must understand that we face a more complex future than that, a future where all conflict will range along a broad spectrum of operations and lethality. Where near-peers will use irregular or asymmetric tactics and non-state actors may have weapons of mass destruction or sophisticated missiles as well as AK-47s and RPGs. This kind of warfare will require capabilities with the maximum possible flexibility to deal with the widest possible range of conflict.

Another important thing I looked at was whether modernization programs, in particular ground modernization programs, had incorporated the operational and combat experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem with the Army’s Future Combat Systems vehicles was that a program designed nine years ago did not adequately reflect the lessons of close-quarter combat and improvised explosive devices that have taken a fearsome toll on our troops and their vehicles in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.

We have to be prepared for the wars we are most likely to fight – not just the wars we’re best suited to fight, or threats we conjure up from potential adversaries with unlimited time and resources. And as I’ve said before, even when considering challenges from nation-states with modern militaries, the answer is not necessarily buying more technologically advanced versions of what we built – on land, sea, or air – to stop the Soviets during the Cold War.

Of course, a pretty speech doesn’t make reality. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and in Washington there are many: Contractors, the military itself (sadly), Congress, etc. But if the SecDef doesn’t make a real, realistic hard-nosed but not dictatorial, empirically-based start at reforming the Pentagon bureaucracy, who will?

Now it’s up to Obama to back Gates again. Choosing the right man for the job is probably the easier part.

What is it about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics that attracts the socially inept? I’m not just talking about the lack of hygiene issues some dorks have, the tendency of geeks not to bathe, or even the very disturbing lack of respect for personal space some open source weenies display. Specifically I’m talking about the inability of many dweebs, especially in technology, to understand when and where certain types of jokes or behaviours are appropriate. It has lately come to my attention that the cadre of foul smelling basement trolls, behind the (incredibly useful) open source plotting tool gnuplot, have decided it’s perfectly professional to throw up a pornographic picture on their tool’s manual. Sure it’s “just a line drawing”, but it’s the kind of line drawing that if you used as your background at work would get you sued for sexual harassment, and rightly so.

Evidently the nerds behind gnuplot don’t get out of their filth ridden cave very often, or if they do, rarely see beyond their bristly neck beards, because otherwise you’d think they would realize that this sort of objectification of women, *especially* in a field where women are under represented, and often intimidated by the chauvinistic exclusionism which pervades the field, is not cool in a professional context. I’ve talked to many people who are angry about this particular infantile prank, and the worst part is, it seems the folks at gnuplot have been asked several times to take down the image, or move it off of the professional portion of the site. A quick Google search turns up a lot of irate messages from people who have been trying to get the gnuplot folks to have shred of adult conscience with no avail.

I’d like to ask our readers to write to the gnuplot dev team (gnuplot-beta@lists.sourceforge.net), and ask them to move this image off of their tool’s site. It’s degrading to women, disrespectful to professionals in the field, and utterly unprofessional. I’ve sent my own message, and if I don’t see some change, will likely be reporting their behaviour to the IEEE and ACM, both of which have codes of conduct which prohibit this sort of behaviour in professional contexts.

Hopefully this is a very poor representation of the men in the field. I’d like to believe professionals in technology have grown up a bit, but displays like this one make me doubt the maturity of anyone who works with computers. Left unanswered, stunts like this reinforce the unfortunate opinion that behavior like this acceptable in a professional context. Its no secret that the field of CS is currently lacking in raw talent, there simply aren’t enough Computer Scientists at the present as evidenced by the current trend of outsourcing amongst top companies. The field needs more creativity, diversity, and skilled professionals. By behaving in a way that excludes women, the socially ept, and men with an adult sense of humor these bozos are pretty much ensuring CS won’t be recruiting the kinds of people it needs.

In the past year or so, I’ve gotten pretty serious about photography. One of the things I’ve discovered both through my own experimenting, and by reading a number of excellent books on the subject, is that there is this magical device called a “polarizing filter” which, believe it or not, will make a good 95% of your outdoor pictures worlds better, just by slapping it on, and rotating it until the sky turns a deep and magical blue. While just about every photographer knows this little trick, I’d bet they don’t know the history of this incredible device. It’s a tale of war, of invention, and most of all, dog piss.

The polarizing filter was invented by Dr. Edwin Land, of Polaroid fame (hence the name), who had been studying the problem of making a polarizing filter for civil and military applications during his time as a student at Harvard, when he ran across work by Dr. William Herapath whose pupil, one Mr. Phelps, discovered that feeding a dog iodine and quinine caused it’s urine to form strange green crystals which polarized light, called herapathite. Dr. Herapath had spent years trying to grow a single large crystal of herapathite, to no avail, and had given up on the project. Land, inspired by these antics with dog urine, decided to go the opposite direction, and invented a process for forming many small crystals of herapathite, and lining them up properly so they would function as a single large crystal by forcing the, *ahem* crystalizing substance through narrow slits. His experiments were successful, and Harvard invited him back and provided him with space to continue his research.

World War II had several profound effects on Land’s invention. Reflections on the water made it difficult to spot submarines and other naval vessels, thus polarizing sunglasses were used to cut down on the reflected light, making it easier for scouts to spot ships at a distance. However while this increased the demand for polarizing filters, World War II also saw US soldiers coming face to face with the terror of malaria in the South Pacific. Large amounts of quinine were needed to treat these men, limiting the supply for polarizing filters. Land, ever the inventor, took this challenge as an opportunity and developed a new process for creating polarizing filters using sheets of polyvinyl alcohol stretched so as to pull the molecules into alignment.

This new method did not require quinine, and was actually found to create better quality filters than the older iodoquinine sulfate methods, and continued to be the dominate method for producing polarizing filters. Thus died the dog piss polarizer.

-Angry Midwesterner


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