Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Don't Pirate, Support Alternatives

People just consider the marginal cost of the media when they steal it and don't consider it as theft. But most of the cost is for the licence, you've stolen a piece of data, just like one can steal an idea or steal a name or steal a title. You don't deprive the owner of the item, but you do deprive him of the value of your extra copy.
If I steal your idea without your permission and implement it and gain from it, without giving you your cut, then I have deprived you from those gains.

What really disgusts me is when people justify piracy this way as their means to acquire material if they don't agree with the price and distribution mechanism. That's the same kind of thinking as that of a thief, a thief doesn't want to pay the price of something so steals it instead. That is bad for everyone. If one is really angry at the movie, music and software production and distribution industry or their prices and media, stop consuming their stuff.

For example, it's better to switch to Linux than pirate a copy of Windows. If you pirate a copy of Windows you create a dependence on the product with the bad price and distribution method, where you will land yourself in a position where you have to purchase the product anyway. If you switch to Linux and throw your support behind it instead, you're contributing to an improved alternative, Linux grows, gets better and beat Windows.

Stop listening to big music record label chart noise and rather support artists that offer you their music through distribution methods you agree with instead.  There's a darn lot of good music out there like that, and the big record labels will lose your business and learn to adapt or go out of business.  If you pirate the chart rubbish instead then you develop a dependence on formula music and at some stage will cough up for their music, shows, merchandise or be influenced by it if they're used in advertising.

Do your bit.  Support Linux, eMusic, Spotify, Rdio and Netflix.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

We Don't Need No Population Control

Yes, the world can't sustain the current level of growth of population forever if everything else continued to be done in the same way.

The reality is, everything else doesn't continue to be done in the same way.

If we kept on using wood like we did 100 years ago, we would have run out long ago. It's not because we suddenly came to this realisation, it's because we ended up in a position that other materials are better and cheaper to use and used more of that instead. You know, economics.  Population growth through birth is also subject to the same economics, these things adjust themselves, it's beautiful.

Starvation is not an issue of a lack of resources today, it's because of the lack of efficiency and distribution and horrible economic atrocities committed by the governments of some third world countries.  We produce more food than we consume, and waste some, yet people go hungry in other places.

Just because the problem in these areas would affect less people if there were less of them, doesn't mean the solution would be to make less people.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Life in the First World, and London

You leave the house, with your car parked in the garage, where you could get to the garage through an inside door. Garage door opens electrically with motors.  You drive to work, you park in the parking garage underneath the office, get out and walk to take the lift up to the floor where you work.  After work you can drive past the ATM and get some cash out, and to the drive-through take out and get some food, and drive home, and park in the garage.

When you go shopping, it's to a mall, where you can park. The mall has a roof over it, so when it rains the water doesn't fall onto your head when you move between shops, and has air conditioning so you don't break too much of a sweat doing your shopping in summer, or heating in winter.

It's only when I moved to London that I realised this way of life is not obvious, and people spend much more time just getting the basics done like getting to work and back and shopping, and also less free time to spend with friends and family.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tech Bubble Popping

I've lived through the previous tech bubble, but was only an employee. It didn't really require a lot of cash back then to start up, depending on what you are doing. A shared server at an ISP or university and some perl scripts could get you going. Racks of modems in your garage to start a small ISP. What really drove the bubble was that larger companies would buy these small operations, often including shares in the bigger company, and package them together into a group which then in turns gets sold to even bigger companies like Cisco or do an IPO.  This is not very different from what's happening at the moment, except the action on the IPO front is not as strong.

Things also got crazy because a company's turnover could mostly be based on paying Cisco, Microsoft and Compaq money for equipment and software.  It was all based on growth of revenues, not profits, so moving stuff in expensive chunks while spending all your investments cash gave you that growth.

I know some people who didn't sell, they remained small in comparison but are still in business today and doing very well.  My advice is that if you sell, make sure you get some cash for it to park somewhere to use during the bad times when raising cash will become impossible and skills will be cheap when you actually do have cash.  Parking might mean an asset you can borrow against when it's hard to get funding based on a promise.  Don't sell with a deal made up of mostly shares in the acquiring company, based on an assumption that tries to time the market. Most experts can't even time the market right.

Apart from that, keep making stuff people outside of the technology industry use and give them value that is worth paying money for, and try not to make it depend on things you get during a bubble: easy funding and clients with easy funding. Trust me those things are hard to determine, you only realise how much of your client base also depended on the bubble after it's over. Most importantly the effects of bursting bubbles take several years to unravel, so don't think that if you're still fine a year after the crash that you are in the clear.

That said, if you currently have a business that at least breaks even and doesn't make all your money off technology customers, then you're already at an advantage.  During a bubble salaries are very good and it takes some guts not to get lured in by an easy salary and rather take the initial cut in income to do a startup instead. When the music stops and you are still turning some profit you will be glad.  You will be cutting expenses, but you won't be without a job.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Redistributing Wealth in the Eurozone

I find the dynamics of the expectation of countries having to bail out other countries in the Eurozone quite interesting.

Normally, inside a nation, say France, you have wealth distribution since politicians and the public can, through taxes, take money from the rich in order to help the poor. This works where the notion exist that it's fair to take money from the rich, because the rich are rich because of luck or power, or whatever and the poor are those who are less fortunate.

Now it gets interesting where you get the same dynamic in the Eurozone, where the countries that can't manage their economy well because of their bad policies, corruption, incompetence, etc. want to get financial assistance.  They want countries that have managed their economy well to bail them out.

It gets extra interesting, since Germany is a country where wealth is not something that was created because of imperial conquest or the likes, or because of abundant natural resources. They lost a war, and half of the country was even under communist rule until two decades ago. They achieved their wealth, and Merkel in particular don't see having to pay some kind of achievement guilt tax as being fair.

The real irony here is that the countries that are in financial trouble, are mostly so because of taxing success and cushioning failure.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Piracy Crackdown Doesn't Need a Strong Case

In New Zealand news today it is reported that the warrants for Kim Dotcom's raid weren't exactly legal.  There have been a lot of reports of the weakness of the charges brought against Dotcom.

The reality is, having a strong case was never a priority to the FBI.  It's just part of a crackdown effort.  This tactic is not new, and has worked in the past.  I'm thinking of a piracy crackdown about 20 years ago. Back in those days, it was a network of dial-up bulletin boards, and people who would commit phone fraud to upload and download data, operating as couriers, in groups. The boards would often fund their hardware through credit card fraud, and many of them made money selling tapes full of pirated material.

The crackdown involved raiding the boards, getting the user details, tracking the phone numbers of the users, and getting various people raided in various countries.  A lot of the time the cases would collapse in court on various technicalities, but it would be a year before people would get their seized computer equipment back.  The authorities in all the countries involved also learned who these people are, and how they go about their ways.  The crackdown was a success.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Baby Boomers and Generation X and Y in the Workplace

Some people try to categorise the behaviour of people in the workplace with what generation they are.   Like Generation X people do this, and Baby Boomers do that.  Personally, I think that behaviour at work have little to do with the period that people grew up in and more with the age these people are at the moment.

When you're young and start working, you have grown up spending most of your teens being exposed to the latest trends in information distribution, whether it's computers and the internet now, television before that, radio before that, newspapers before that, books before that. You have a hard time comprehending the world without these sources.

There is always a new source of influence for a newer generation. Any group, regardless of generation type, usually benefit from better access to information and education and mental stimulation than anyone before them.  Whether they use it is a different matter, but the options are there.  The point is that what decade you grew up in influences your taste in music and fashion more than your attitude to work and behaviour in the workplace.

When you're done with formal education (or simply done with being a adolescent) you still want to question a rigid work environment and still want something more like your student environment where you were surrounded by people who wanted more freedom. It's normal to question large organisations and culture, partly because you're at an age where you are not in control of the business world or government yet.

After that, you're at the age of having a family. Then all of a sudden giving the best to your family matters, and you start to work hard. The baby boomer thing is a mostly Anglo-Western society thing, where there was population increase. If you look at any area with large populations in Asia, middle class people are very competitive and have to work very hard in order to maintain their class level.

When you're younger, being loyal to an employer doesn't matter so much, because your nature of exploring makes you change your job, friends and surroundings, and you move around a lot, in order to have more experiences and find what you like. When you get older you don't seek this excitement and you seek the comfort of your family and children and grand children and an established community

You realise how much of your money during your life you have wasted on entertainment and depreciating material goods. You also realise soon you'll be at the age that you won't be able to work any more, so being efficient with money is important. You also realise that you won't be in the position to move easily if your environment changes, or be in control of your society any more, so for you a stable society is important.

You are tired of the stresses of having to think up new solutions to the same old problems, and do things slower and in a pragmatic and disciplined fashion as you have developed through your life.  You start to become more conservative, and even your political opinions shift this way.

These attitudes to life and work isn't determined whether you grew up in the swinging 60s or are of Generation Y, it's just simply how you progress as you age and how you act your age at work.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Random Visitor

One evening, many years ago, when I was living in Johannesburg, I was sitting talking on the phone when I saw movement on the side of the house where no one ever walks. Next thing I know, this blonde woman, not bad looking and nicely dressed, walks into my house.   Past me and my housemates, into my bedroom and climbed into my bed and promptly fell asleep.

A few hours later she got up, walked around the house a bit, and realised she didn't know anynobody. She introduced herself as Dr Conneley and seemed somewhat embarrassed. We told her it's fine, we don't know her either. She went back to sleep in my bed.  My one housemate was out, so I slept in his bed instead.

The next morning she woke up and realised she was so drunk the night before, that she walked into the wrong house one street away, and promptly left.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Receiving Signals from a Distant Civilisation

I think receiving signals from a civilisation, that has gone extinct by the time we received it, would still be a very exciting.   Mainly because if we're lucky we might receive hundreds of years worth of signal, and we can learn a lot about them, e.g. their culture, their technologies and language etc.

It's going to happen regardless, if we pick up a signal we can assume the society has either died out already or advanced significantly. We'll also know it's likely a very long time before they'll even be able to detect that we exist

In other words there's no point for making contact, but the amount we can learn from it will be tremendous.  It will also change society dramatically knowing that we are not alone, and would put more importance on space travel for us.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Online Gambling Industry

I've worked for a very large online gambling company for a couple of years, and I wrote this during my last week employed by one.  This was in response to someone commenting about the fact that they have an IT job at a land based casino in Vegas and really shouldn't be in that job because they don't know what they are doing, but get paid fairly well anyway.

I think this kind of thing is normal in the industry. First you have an industry where many land based casinos have little competition because of license restrictions making it hard for new entrants, and many online casinos had little competition because they were brave enough to operate in a legal gray area that any well run business wouldn't dare enter. That's apart from the fact that it's a type of business that takes money quickly off the majority of people who mistakenly think they're luckier than probability theory determines.

The industry is slowly maturing and the margins are getting lower. For land based casinos it's purely because of the credit crunch. For online casinos it's both the economy and because of increased legislation and the enforcement of it.

What you end up having are two things: One is that many of these companies were founded by people who would likely fail in other businesses but somehow ended up in this one that made lots of money easily. For online gambling this includes a lot of young entrepreneurs who did well but actually have no experience in how to keep a business running when margins are considerably tighter. The second thing is that just like the actual product, people in this business have a bit of a gambling mentality themselves. They took a risk and it paid off.

What is happening now is that as the profit margins are coming down dramatically, you have budget constraints so a lot of cuts are being made. Then you have people with no experience in making things more efficient when margins are lower, so the cuts are generally in the wrong place. It's all due to a lack of experience or even the ability to manage budgets and risk properly which is incompatible with a high risk gambling mentality.

The result is that you have lots of people with no experience and no contribution getting high paying jobs not doing much, and this lasts for a while before the company is really able to weed these people out. People with real skills and experience are surrounded and outnumbered by these types. It's hard to fix. It actually requires a dramatic culture change which is a very hard thing to pull off in companies that have been enjoying very big revenues and have people involved who developed egos over this and can't let go.

One good thing comes from this. It means there's a lot of gaps in the market for companies that can offer a better product with lower overhead. We'll see both this happening, and the big players merge and consolidate to get some efficiency gains.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Swimming in post-Apartheid South Africa

I grew up in South Africa as a white boy and saw the whole end of apartheid thing. Because of the previous regime a town would generally consist of white suburban neighbourhoods not unlike you'd expect in the US with a commercial centre with malls and whatever, and then just outside of town would be a black 'township' that had dirt roads and most people lived in metal and wooden shacks and basic brick houses and would take the bus or minibus taxi into the main white town if they had work.

The town I lived in had a public swimming pool, and as facilities were being opened to all races this was opened too. The white population of the main town was about 8,000 people and the township had about 25,000 people in it. The black kids from the townships were obviously very keen to try out this swimming thing, especially since they had no pool up in the townships. The pool became very busy with lots of black people. None of them had any swimming experience but the whole thing went without any major drowning incident. The white families were very freaked out by this influx of black skin and stopped going to the pool. They also spread stories about how the pool is now 80% urine and all sorts of stuff, which my dad could debunk easily since he actually specialised in municipal sewerage systems.

Anyway, by the next summer the whole swimming novelty wore off for the black kids, and most of them stopped going to the pool. That summer was great. It was a massive pool with diving boards, and every afternoon we were about 4 white kids and 8 black kids that had the entire pool to ourselves. We all got on fine and had a good time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Trip Down a Gold Mine.

I travelled down a gold mine once. A proper gold mine in South Africa. First we went down 2.3km, changing elevator half way because one elevator can't go that whole way. Once at the bottom, we got onto a little train that travelled 6km down a little tunnel to where one of the more profitable parts of the mine was, it produced 40 grams of gold per cubic tonne of rock. We saw the people working there and had a go at the drill ourselves.

Apart from it being very hot and humid, the most striking thing to me about the whole trip was not the depth and engineering achievement of all of it, but the people. This mine worked around the clock, 8000 people worked down there in a 24 hour period. They did very hard work, and very dangerous work. This affected them psychologically.

We travelled down the elevator with some miners, and with them was a guy who tried to kiss everyone in the lift. Like a crazy person. We were told that's not unusual, there are people that would try to beat you to death if it looks like you are going to touch one of the bolts that holds the elevator together.  Accidents happen, people lose friends, people are trapped underground in absolute dark for many hours at a time, sometimes they don't make it in the dark, or their friends don't

People of all races worked in the mine, they all got equal treatment based on their input, and they go through all this for a piece of metal which is hard to think of being worth that cost.  I'm sure conditions are a hundred times better for workers in these mines nowadays compared to decades ago, but they're still no picnic. As long as there's a worth, mines would offer an employment package that would make people choose to work in these conditions.  The more we're going to start valuing the human cost of mining, the more expensive these materials are going to get.  That is, until we innovate to get this work done with machines instead of humans.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Roll your own Unix or something similar

I came across this very interesting tutorial by James Molloy on how to roll your own Unix like clone, with nice, detailed, step by step instructions.  It assumes your development environment is going to be a GNU/Linux environment.

It's aimed at developing a *nix like operating system on x86 architecture.  All the way through setting up a development environment, boot loader, interacting with the screen, dealing with interrupts and the timer, user mode, etc.

This tutorial can be used as a guide for creating any operating system, or simply boot programs, for x86 and x86-like architecture, for example the RDC CPUs used on devices like the Bifferboard.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Introduction to VMWare vCenter Operations

I'm busy looking at VMWare vCenter Operations Enterprise.  I've never dealt with it before so it could be interesting.  I'm going to give an overview of what this product is, where it comes from, and what it tries to achieve.  I'll also give some first impressions as a user of it.

It appears that VMWare bought a lot of products in order to give their customers various comprehensive IT management capabilities for their software and platforms.  Like with most big vendors buying other software products and integrating it with their own offering, I expect some quirks with the integration.

VMWare vCenter Operations started life as a product called Alive by Integrien.  Integrien was acquired by VMWare around August 2010, so VMWare has had some time to assimilate the product to make it their own.  vCenter Operations comes in a few different sizes, Standard, Advance and Enterprise:
  • The smallest is Standard which handles up to 1500 vSphere deployments, so it's not that small.
  • Advanced is Standard plus Capacity IQ, VMWare's capacity planning product.
  • Enterprise is a whole combination of things. It includes what Advanced has, plus Smart Alerting, vCenter Configuration Manager and then deep integration with major monitoring products on the market (including the open source varieties).  This enables it to also include a view of non-VMWare environments, inside and outside of the organisation (e.g. physical builds and other providers like Amazon)
VMWare's strategy with this combination is to bring performance, capacity and configuration management closer to each other.  They also want to make sure vCenter Operations integrate deeper with other VMWare products, which can be both a good and a bad thing.

What this software aims to give you is a powerful dashboard for your enterprise.  It basically allows you to view the status and health of your applications, systems and infrastructure, help you find faults, the cause of these faults and alert you on faults.  It also makes an attempt to predict faults that may happen in the future, and also goes as far as trying to show the financial impact of faults or underutilisation.

Anyone with experience of monitoring and management tools knows getting the above right is no easy task.  A lot of customisation needs to be done, and the interface has to be flexible enough to be able to build the right views.

The interface for vCenter Operations is a web interface, a fairly usable one.  It's very customisable, and you put together views in a portal and widget style.  It also has a lot of graphing and other graphical features, making it look attractive during a sales presentation and when showing it to management.  That said, in a large environment a new user will still need to be shown where to find what they are after and also need some help in setting up their dashboards the way they want.

With regards to health and thresholds, the product tries to rely on setting these by itself mostly.  In a large environment, and especially in a dynamic virtualised environment, it's impossible to manage thresholds individually.  The product makes note of what it believes are normal trends in the operation of a system, and alerts when there are anomalies.  If they get this right, it would be very good, but this is also not an easy thing to achieve technically, so it will be interesting to see how well this works out.