Monday, December 28, 2009

The 2009 Rocket Prediction Tally...

God, I hate the year-end prediction wrap-up. The PREDICTIONS are fun, I can just sit here with a whiskey pounding them out, but the wrap-up? Gah!!! Fact checking, looking things up. This is actual WORK man...sigh.

Fine, fine....alrighty then. Let's see what sort of a score I can give myself this year - and see if I can outdo my 2008 75% hit ratio. I kinda doubt it since 2009 was so flippin' all over the place, but...let's get started:

I made 10 predictions at the start of 2009, and tried to cover the gambit from consumer electonics, to services, to the tech industry in general.

  • Economic recovery begins in early Q3 for the tech and housing industries.

    It may not feel like it to everyone, but the economy is definitely picking up steam. In my professional life, I have seen ad revenues increase significantly, and the number of available startup opportunities is on the rise. Both of these things began around August-September of 2009.

    In more measurable, and less subjective, trending - the numbers show that the number of layoffs dropped significantly in November, and the leading economic indicators began rising in the US around the end of the summer.

  • The Obama Administration revitalizes the tech industry within 6 months of taking office.

    OK, I'm going to play fair here. The tech industry is in the midst of a recovery, but this "prediction" I made was pretty vague. Could have meant anything - so I don't really want to claim it. (Of course, I'm not claiming it as a loss, either.) Also, Aneesh Chopra is currently defending himself against Jon Stewart, so, uh....

  • MEMS technology for low power / flexible displays hits the market.

    OK, second time is the charm, but I'm still taking it. MEMS (microelectronic and microelectromechanical systems) display technologies are moving mainstream - whether its from the cleverly named Qualcomm spinoff (although its probably not a good sign that their COO just left at the end of December), or the nanotech from eInk and others, smaller, flatter, less-power-consuming displays are appearing everywhere. It powers your Kindle, Nook and Sony eReader, and its making its way into still more displays, but it's clear that the nano-based, low-power displays are here. (We'll know more after the Consumer Electronics Show in January.)

  • Android phone sales hit iPhone numbers before end of year

    Eh, chalk this one up to wishful thinking. Android, however, has started to show its promise in a major way as the year progressed. The plethora of Android based phones that we were promised last year, has started to make its way onto center stage. TMobile has the CLIQ and MyTouch, and, of course, the Verizon Droid needs no introduction. I can tell you from my professional experience, that video access by Android devices is way up, and info from AdMob shows both the distro of Android handsets as well as Android claiming 24% of all smartphone usage as of the end of November - mostly due to the Droid.

    Still, total Android units are well below those of the iPhone, although a number of industry research firms are claiming Android will move into the top two spots within the next year or two.

  • Digital delivery of home media makes a measurable change in broadcast TV numbers

    The numbers are speaking for themselves here, which is why I liked this prediction - its easy to show. it may not be your grandpa and grandma, or even your parents, but viewers are beginning their shift to online - or at least - digitally stored media. Not only has iTunes, Amazon VoD, and Netflix experienced rapid adoption this year, but so has streaming services like Hulu, which now gets as many views as pay cable. In addition, DVR (digital recording and local storage of broadcast television) content has finally been started to be taken seriously.

    In the fall, TheCW and Fox unwittingly entered an experiment. Both networks pitted popular genre shows (Fringe, and Supernatural) against each other. The result was that the Nielsen ratings for both shows (along with CSI, Grey's Anatomy, Flash Forward, and others) tanked. In fact, they dropped so much that Fringe, bizarrely enough, was moved to a "on the bubble" (for cancellation) category. However, once people woke up and Nieslen published it's DVR view numbers, it became clear that these shows maintained their viewship numbers, but were simply timeshifted. I suspect the viewing numbers will increase again, once digital downloads from Amazon and iTunes, and digital streaming from Hulu and the network websites are taken into account.

  • Significant drops in Blu-Ray player prices combined with content publisher pressure to release existing titles in a new format will push Blu-Ray disc sales past DVD disc sales

    Note: all units in the graphs below are in millions. At first glance, this doesn't appear to be a win. Using sales information available from HMM/Nielsen, unit sale market share of Blu-Ray is about 14%. However, when plotted on a dual access along side of DVD sales, an interesting trend occurs.

    Spurred on by a 12% drop in Blu-Ray disc prices throughout the year, plus the availability of inexpensive Blu-Ray players and the ubiquity of Blu-Ray titles, 2009 Blu-Ray sales trajectory is outpacing the 2009 DVD sales trajectory. This indicates the beginning of the adoption curve for Blu-Ray and the end of the adoption curve for DVD.

    Although the raw sales numbers won't catch up until mid-2010 at this rate, I'm a big enough of an asshole to still claim the win for this prediction.

  • As Apple pushes deeper into double-digit territory for laptop sales, several serious viral attacks begin in the Mac community. Lack of adequate protection combined with consumer hubris will make the problems significant.

    It began right in the beginning of 2009, actually, in late January - coming on board your lovely OS X laptop with, you guessed it, pirated versions of iWork '09. First recognized as a threat by Intego Securities on January 22, and calling itself Black Orange (these virus writers have awesome marketing departments, I must say!) it spread like wildfire through the community, indicating the number of people in the union of the Venn Diagram who think its a) ok to cop a piece of software, b) safe to be on a Mac. The virus was so efficient (well, the host was) that it was still prevalent as late as April.

    The iWorks virus was followed by a parade of virus, malware and other yummy bits on the Mac, which - through no lack of coincidence - hit the 10% market share magic number briefly in Q2. The heightened sense of reality finally caused the "gold standard" in windows and linux based antivirus protection, Kasperksy, to release a version its antivirus software for the frakin' October.

    Mac boards have been all a swirl with confusion this year, some folks still claiming it wasn't possible for Macs to get a virus, and some irresponsible download services blogging that anti-virus companies were fear-mongering to get Mac users to buy anti-virus software. Yeah, not so much.
  • At least one other additional security exploits occur in the basic structure of the aging internet protocol and backbones, forcing a rethink of the way packets are carried over the Internets

    Late in 2008, Dan Kaminsky's now famous DNS security flaw was revealed to a stunned panel of internet backbone companies. Many complied (thank you Comcast) many did not (screw you Time Warner), but once patched, the 20+ year old security flaw seemed under control, and the fears were to be put at rest...

    ...until this year. When not one, but three other DNS flaws were uncovered.

    Seriously, guys. It's over 25 years old. It was invented by a newly minted PhD at the request of guy who just wanted to clear up his own bookkeeping for 12 friggin' computers.

    OK, I'm not giving these guys enough due, but come on. My bank records are using this thing. Let's clean it up and start again, please.

  • Windows 7 arrives at the latter-half of the year, but the PR damage done by the mishandling of Vista's public perception plus the stillborn Microsoft marketing campaign PLUS John Hodgman ensures a tepid reception to the new OS.

    Ok, I'm kinda happy about being wrong about this one. I'm not a big Microsoft torch bearer, but I'm not an Apple apostle either. Competition is a good thing, and having viable operating system on the market that hasn't been pre-tarred and feathered is an excellent thing. (Apologies, Linix ...but, come serious please. And Google OS, you're still vaporware, at least in '09.)

    Windows 7 is pretty damn remarkable - it made a 1G, 5 year old laptop of mine run like I just bought it yesterday, whereas Vista had it crawling to a stop upon boot up. All indications are that the market loves it too, and its been a critical darling since the reviewers got ahold of the alpha versions of the OS. If Microsoft's ass-backwards, destined-to-get-in-its-own-way marketing crew couldn't stop this product, Hodgman never stood a chance.

  • Yahoo breaks up into its original component companies, or at least puts them on the auction block, before Q4.

    Effing Yahoos. No, they didn't divest....
    ...or spit up.
    ...or fall apart.
    ...or grow.
    ...or shrink.
    ...or fade away.
    ...or come on strong.

    What they did do was spend the year playing c-tease with Microsoft, and coming up with this winning multi-bazillion dollar ad campaign. "Yahoo! It's You?"

    Eff You! Seriously. What EXACTLY do you guys do for a living? Search? Ads? Email? IM? WHAT? Really, I'd love to know. Oh, that's right, you reactivated rocketmail! Sweet! You know what? I've been missing Compuserve lately, think you could re-animate that dead tissue, too?

    Sorry...I'm just bitter at losing a point on this one.
OK...let's just total these puppies up and see how I did...

10 predictions...I was right or dead even....7 times. 7 out of 10. 70%. That's a drop from last year. Huh. Uh...well...uh....

...damn Yahoo.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Don't Cross the Streams...Why? It Would Be Bad.

Ok, this is less of a blog post and more like one of those public safety announcement thingies... I spent the better part of today, when I should have been making damn certain I remembered how to fillet a bronzini in time for Christmas dinner, straightening out a Chrome and Firefox mess.

It started as all of these things do: an impulsive swapping out of a beloved piece of software over a minor "difference of opinion." I thought if I strolled around town with Chrome for a few days, Firefox would see the error of her ways and come crawling back on hands and knees...

It, uh, didn't quite work out that way, of course.

Like a lot of folks out there, I use XMarks (formerly "FoxMarks," until they realized that locking themselves into a specific vendor in this market was most likely foolish) to sync my browser bookmarks cross platform between instances of Firefox on windows, mac and ubuntu. I had previous played with Chrome before, but didn't use it in earnest because it never had addons/extensions. Now, of course, it does - meaning I could use most of the tools I had previously used over in Firefox, including XMarks.

After installing Chrome on Ubuntu, I added the XMarks extension, fired it up, and...VoilĂ ! Bookmarks in Chrome, nicely organized. It worked so well, I installed Chrome + XMarks on Windows7 and OSX. (See where this is going?) Look! HA! See that Firefox? She new and shiny, and she has all the accessories that you have. I don't need you anymore...and I never think about you.... were really nice to me all those years. Maybe I can forgive your weight problem. I mean, what's a half a megabyte of extra poundage anyway? It's just baby fat! Oh....come here, you saucy minx....I'm sorry. Chrome didn't mean anything, she was just a fling...

Uh oh.

When Firefox came back up, XMarks engaged....within 15 seconds consumed 99% of the CPU, and the hard drive was pounding.

Now, XMarks has never been very good about admiting problems: they have a tendency to ignore the really tricky, hard-to-reproduce stuff and concentrate on the easier issues in their forums. (Last year when Foxmarks was transitioning to XMarks, 100's of us in their forums started complaining that XMarks would often not install in Firefox. There were little to no responses from them on the topic, and the problem mysteriously disappeared during one of their releases.) So, I didn't expect to find much in their forums about this issue, and then I happened across this little ditty:

"...after syncing Chrome, Firefox gets an "Other Bookmarks" folder added, which is really just the name of Chrome's bookmark root..."


The XMarks people have yet to respond to this thread, and the other folks in the forum have so far just noted that its an "annoyance" to have Other Bookmarks in the bookmark tree - but, no kids, its much more insidious than that. Since Other Bookmarks is the root of the Chrome bookmark tree, but to the Firefox bookmark manager it appears as a folder, when sync'ing a Chrome-written bookmark tree back to Firefox, you've just established this nice little recursion:

Firefox Tree ->
Other Bookmarks Folder ->
Chrome Root ->
Firefox Tree ->
Other Bookmarks Folder ->
Rinse ->

And, as an added bonus, if you use the "automatic sync" function inside of XMarks, you are guaranteed to pass this recursion rule on to the XMarks Mother Ship, who will propagate it down to all of your other Firefox instances that have auto sync turned on. Yay! The longer you let XMarks attempt additional syncs while you figure out what is happening (yeah, that's me) the deeper the recursion layer, and very shortly your CPU and hard drive will be maxed out. Double yay!

How do you get out of this mess? XMarks isn't sayin', and if you try to delete the recursive folder Other Bookmarks from your account, XMarks refuses to let you do it because it's identified that folder as the root folder of your bookmark tree - which, of course, it is on Chrome.

After a day of fiddling, there are really only three ways to do this, ranging in frustration from "Oh Thank God I'm so lucky" to "Sigh." (Oh, and needless to say, all of these methods require you to uninstall XMarks - or disable it - from Chrome first, or you'll be back where you started.)

  1. Locate a machine that does not have XMarks set to auto sync, yet still has your most recent bookmark list. You can then use the XMarks "force overwrite of server" function to push your local bookmark tree up to the XMarks server, which will then propagate the corrected tree to your other Firefox instances. No harm, no foul.
  2. Log into and restore your bookmark tree from a point prior to your first Chrome sync. This will, of course, lose your most recent bookmarks, but stop whining like a little baby and grow a'll find that porn again.
  3. Turn off XMarks auto sync, then use your bookmark manager in Firefox to delete the Other Bookmarks folder. This will take some time if XMarks did many sync attempts before you figured out what was going on. Alternatively, you can delete it manually by going to the location of your Foxmarks bookmarks on your drive and blowing away the Other Bookmarks entry. On Windows7 this is located here:

    ..Users\[your XP user name]\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\bookmarksbackups

So, there you have it. XMarks is a great tool if you have multiple browser installations, multiple laptops, or just want a good way to back up all those bookmarks...but, like all sync'ing solutions since the dawn of time, it's also a good way to propagate mistakes really, really fast.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Nerdliness of Language

I spent my college years (undergraduate and graduate) steeped in science and math. Practically every waking moment which was not spent studying science and technology was spent reading about science and technology. (Well, ok... there were illicit substances, poker, certain ladies of my acquaintance, and God knows what else ....but...after all that then there was science! ...well...bratwurst....then, bratwurst and sandwiches. Crap. Ok: Illicit substances, poker, women, bratwurst, and sandwiches...and THEN science.)

Those hours were spent both in the pursuit of science (experiments, study, history of science) and in the camaraderie of people who - while not necessarily like minded - believed in the same constructs and principles. It framed our conversations, and moved us to a common point of conversation where we could agree, argue, discuss, and laugh. Thought of another way, it gave us a reason to drink together.

All of those hours, days, weeks, years of being in that community - the commonalities of prose became apparent. There is an elegance to this distortion of language that is very similar to any collection of people searching to find a common ground: sports fans, religious adherents, vegetarians, punk rockers, opera buffs, comic book fans...every subculture under the sun. It's a slang, of sorts, applied to descriptions of terms, ideas and concepts. A way of communicating complex ideas with a minimum of words. It's almost a subconscious attempt of the mind to contract the language. The slang is picked up from contractions of scientific, engineering or mathematics terms, of course, but more interestingly, some is picked up from the street, from pop culture, and from the daily banter of everyday life.

Limiting the conversation to computers for a moment, much of the slang is famously known - the world knows what a virus is when applied to computers, or morphing when it comes to computer graphics. Curiously, the language of the digerati sometimes migrates in the opposite direction, back out to the street: Crashing almost needed no explanation when it was introduced to a population newly enamoured with personal computers. People were more than happy to apply the term to themselves when they stayed up to late, or couldn't work any more for the day. Busy executives are quick to tell people that they are multitasking, even though few of them understand what that term actually means.

Perhaps it is because computers have a symbiotic relationship with the public that the language barrier between the geek and the street is two-way permeable, but other, more esoteric, fields of study that isn't quite the case. To the outsider, hearing common, everyday terms used in technical or scientific descriptions may sound odd, harsh, or lend themselves to misinterpretation. The field of mathematics is chalk o' block full of an odd juxtaposition of language, phraseology and street slang. The use of the word trivial doesn't necessary mean that something is easy, but rather that something is "well understood by everyone in the room, so shut the eff up so we can get on with the real conversation." ("There's no need to go into the proof of the prime-number theorem here, Bob, it's trivial.")

Because of this re-purposing of common words, whenever the outside world hears mathematicians, computer scientists, or comic book fanboys talk - the result is often confusion or misinterpretation. While this is understandable - and should be predictable by most of "inside language" participants - real trouble begins when the press gets involved. Having worked at government science labs for the first half of my career, I was often interviewed by the press and media - and the resulting, published "interviews" were most illuminating. I very quickly learned to change the use of my language whenever I wished to convey information to anyone outside the group.

This misinterpretation of common words and terms can lead to amusing confusion in the public discourse, often revolving around computers and the internet - a "computer virus" although likened to biological viruses, are not biological viruses. Other times, this language makes its way out into the public discourse and is disastrously misinterpreted. The Large Hadron Collider has captured the public imagination, largely due to these language misinterpretations. (Thank you, Dan Brown, for adding to the mess....and I'm sure the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and the Vatican also thank you for adding to the popularization of misinterpretation.)

Scientists, because of the nature of their work and the natural honesty that comes with scientific inquiry, cannot say anything is certain - even if all evidence brought to bear on a topic confirms a theory or model, a (good) scientist will always feel compelled to say "I am 99% certain that this is true." So, when LHC researchers were asked if the LHC could generate a singularity that could destroy the earth, the physicists responded that they were 99.999% sure that it would not. This, of course, was picked up by the news media and translated as THERE IS A SLIGHT POSSIBILITY THAT THE LHC COULD GENERATE A BLACK HOLE THAT WOULD DESTROY THE EARTH. Don't even get me started on the press and H1N1.

Occasionally, however, there are people who fully understand the disparity between language inside a specific group and laypeople, and deliberately exploit those differences to further their own agendas. This isn't comical misinterpretation or unfortunate misreadings, it is a deliberate manipulation of the media and, by extemtion, public opinion by using what looks like corroboratory evidence. Most recently, we've had the e-mail that was stolen (I won't use the word "hacked") from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit - apparently by...well, no one knows who, or at least no one is saying anything.

The American and British press were all over this, with the usual screaming headlines, like this doosy from, of all places, the New York Times:

In the NY Times article, Andrew Revkin discusses how the email appears to underscore a belief in a conspiracy of climatologists who seek to convince the world that our climate is crumbling before our eyes. The language device that Revkin uses to passive-aggressively enforce the possibility of a conspiracy is of the worst kind of direct manipulation: The infamous double-ditto! (Or, rather, "double ditto,")

In one e-mail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical “trick” in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend. In another, a scientist refers to climate skeptics as “idiots.”

There is more, of course. The article is laced with names, double-dittos, nefarious snippets from the stolen correspondence, and "I told you so's!" from fringe climatologists, like Patrick J. Michaels. Michaels may or may not have been a climatologist for the state of Virginia - no one really can tell - but he is most definitely a climatologist at The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank cum lobby group in Washington DC that strives "to achieve greater involvement of the intelligent, lay public in questions of (public) policy and the proper role of government." Conveniently located in DC, Cato Institute members are frequent guests on chatty panel and talk shows aimed at public policy. Michael's himself has a number of books on the market on how climate change isn't gonna be so bad, and potentially beneficial, so between the books and the Face-The-Nation circuit, he's doin' just fine, thank you very much.

Swinging the spotlight back on Mr. Revkin and his word-play article in the NY Times - perhaps I can help him out a bit. The email that was stolen (again, not hacked) from the CRU contained hand-wringing (choice bits like “the fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t..." are sprinkled throughout the article), insults lobbed at the anti-global warming camp, and - most importantly - the use of the word "trick" in conjunction with showing trending.

To his credit, Revkin does include a not-quite-a-quote from Michael Mann, a climatologist at Penn State, where Mann explains the use of the word "trick:"

He said the choice of words by his colleague was poor but noted that scientists often used the word “trick” to refer to a good way to solve a problem, “and not something secret.”

Even thought Revkin didn't properly include a quote from Mann, that explanation is something any mathematician would understand. Having spent years in a math department at my university, "trick" was a word that was used over and over again. It is not used to imply that something is being covered up or misled, but rather that something clever is being done to remove some steps from a process. Essentially, it means that a sort of mathematical shorthand is about to be employed - a way to get from point A to point C by skipping B.

With the hand wringing, that's just good science. Predictions made in the 80's about warmer climates appearing in the 00's have not happened. The implication is not that climate change is wrong necessarily, but rather that the model used to show the climate shift in the 80's was most likely faulty. (Actually, if climatologists had not mentioned the temperature not fitting the model, then there would be grounds for a conspiracy.) In my travels through science, business and public relations, I have found that the hardest concept for laypersons to understand about science is it's most basic precept: science is, by its nature, self-correcting. It holds no public office, it has no allegiances, it is not loyal to the men and women who study it. No matter how beloved a theory is, no matter how many careers depends on a specific conjecture, no matter how old and established an idea is: if data surfaces to contradict the established model, the scientific method demands you throw the model out or find a way that a legitimate modification adjusts for the new data.

To the layperson, this mode of being is 0ften interpreted as waffling, knowing all along that a theory or model was wrong, or a simply as a reason why science doesn't work. Rather than a principle of great objectiveness, it's often used as an excuse to doubt the validity of the scientific method in public discourse. Is it better to steadfastly believe in something that has long been proven to be inaccurate, or is it better to course correct as you move forward, adjusting to new information as it comes in?

Finally, the insults. Yup - I don't doubt it. I think that anti-climate change folks have been insulted by climatologists who believe in climate change. I think that climate change believers have been insulted by anti-climate changers... both, probably pretty frequently. In public and in private. It's human nature. If you're honest with yourself, you do it all the time - I sure as hell do. (Allow me to prove a point by throwing myself on the alter of demonstration: vegans are dinks. There. Was that so bad, really?)

The point here is not whether climate change is happening, or if there is a Giant Global Conspiracy (tm) of climatologists to scaremonger, as some believe - the point is that, taken out of context, words are tools. If used as intended and left in the context in which they are placed, they are sharp, efficient, surgical. If, however, they are separated from their owner's intent through careless or malicious use, they are blunt, crude instruments causing more harm than good.

If you read something that sounds outrageous - in science or politics - chances are pretty good you should listen to your inner editor. Do yourself (and the originator of the words) a favor and google a few things: look up the author, look up the sources, look up the facts.

*Cartoon by Chris Madden