Comments from Frankston, Reed, and Friends
Saturday, January 19, 2002
BobF at 4:55 PM [url]:
I'm here at Jerry Michalski's retreat and gotta try the Kyocera too.
It'll be great someday--but for, now, it's a way to keep posts short.
DPR at 12:27 PM [url]:
I'm posting this from my Kyocera 6035 Smartphone...using Blazer as a browser and wireless.blogger.com.
It's very cool to blog when you are out taking a walk.
Thursday, January 17, 2002
BobF at 10:33 PM [url]:
The obsession of coding!
I feel better after reading David's note because I've been spending time recently getting my utility programs to do just what I want or, at least, closer to what I want. Of course, I don't know what they should do before I write them.
I normally shy away from the use of the word "coding" since it focuses on the mechanical aspect but it is a good word. One form of coding is marking up a document so we know what parts of section headers, abstractions and other entities. Coding is a way of adding meaning. (Yes, that is purposefully and intrinsically ambiguous - programming is a rich source of concepts).
Programming can indeed be boring and exasperating. It's like writing, expressing yourself can be wonderful but having to write "I will behave myself" 100 times is torture.
But its best, programming is a very powerful experience. You are creating something that does something-something that doesn't just sit there but something that can be an extension of yourself.
Just because I can program doesn't mean I am a programming in the sense that the writing the code is my job - it is the way I express myself. And I am "understood" by devices, not just people.
I work best when, at each step, I have something that works and is useful. The problem is that as long as it almost works or can work better, it is hard not to just do a little more. After all, a little less sleep won't be that much of a problem � why is it so bright outside so late at night?
Often in the middle of a project it is easy to decide that it is a total waste of time but when it works, that is forgotten and what remains is not just the satisfaction of the creative process but something useful. And you wonder why you waited so long.
Seymour Papert at MIT pointed out that we don't have a good language for describing dynamic systems. This is why I accept anthropomorphic terminology, it's the best one can do. But with the concepts of programming we can do much better.
Programming, coding, scripting, defining rules - however you want to describe it. It is a basic part of being literate. David is right; too bad so many people only see it as a dry mechanical task.
DPR at 8:56 PM [url]:
The Joy of Coding
I've been spending the last few days coding, essentially non-stop. Last night I spent till about 4:30 am tracking down some subtle bugs, only to get up at 6:30 again to head off into Cambridge for some more joint coding with David A. Smith and Andreas Raab, in for a few days from Cary, NC, and (East) Germany respectively. We've been "sculpting" together in Squeak, one of the coolest and most powerful development environments around.
Coding is fun, especially when the problems are subtle, the tools powerful, and the architecture you are framing out keeps surprising you with new insights into unanticipated ways to think about things.
So few of my peers in their late 40s and 50s get a chance to think and sculpt in code anymore. It's too bad. Back when I was a VP and Chief Scientist at Lotus, I tried to make sure I spent 50% of my time doing technical work, just to keep my knowledge current - and 20% coding. How can you manage people, and organize complex projects, without knowing intimately how it feels to create?
But the real secret is the amazing Flow experience of coding (apologies to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). What we need is a new Alex Comfort or perhaps a Richard Simmons to bring these joys to the masses.
Wednesday, January 16, 2002
BobF at 11:32 AM [url]:
A name is not a name
I didn't want to belabor the points about naming too much but I just ran into another example.
I used to use a TLA (Three Letter Acronym or, when applied to human names, Initials). And I didn't notice that my mail started going to someone else until my wife asked about the strange address. Turns out that my outlook address book had been updated, perhaps as a by-product of using Accucard (via Corex) which is a nice idea. It provides a very useful "exchange" for business cards so that the owners can update them for me
But since Outlook looks up each address anew, there is a real loss in the stability of the handles I use for sending mail. We had the same problem with "X.400" which was the international standard for e-mail systems. It had an "O/R" name (Originator/Recipient). Instead of "firstname.lastname@example.org", I would ask for "Joe in Detroit" or some other set of qualifying information. X.400 was created by the telecommunications industry (AKA the phone companies or PTTs (Postal Telephone Telegraph)) organizations. These people seemed to want to replace the (relatively) stable phone numbers with a friendlier name. Perhaps they were thinking of the post office which does take descriptions or nostagia for "central" where one would ask a human operator to place a call. This descriptive approach works fine as long as there was an element of judgment and things change slowly.
But for email addressing the result is perverseness where your intentions become silently distorted. Despite its problems, the "user@domain" address is a relatively stable handle. At least it's far better than a system in which the meaning of my description easily gets corrupted without any indication.
As to email addresses you can look at an essay I wrote a few years go. I realize there are no perfect solutions -- it's just that some are far less perfect than others.
Tuesday, January 15, 2002
BobF at 11:55 PM [url]:
All I want to do is a little timeshifting
Even though I call myself a curmudgeon, I'm really an enthusiast who knows that things don't need to be unnecessarily clunky. Since I've been writing about the problems with telecom, it's appropriate to give an example of what we all run into. I want to record a TV program. I can do this with a standard VCR or PCR (PC as a recorder) and if the broadcast were on a standard cable channel I would have no problem. But TechTV is on a "digital" channel so therefore I can't get it as a digital stream but require a special set top box with its own tuner. But this tuner provides no interface for my computer to control it.
There are workaround such a device that sends IR signals to the box but in order for that to be reliable I need to able to read the lights on the STB to make sure I know what state it is in at each point. It seems much more important to hold "content" in a death-grip than allow those who are paying for it to be able to make it more valuable to ourselves without having to ask permission first.
To add insult to injury, I think there is a patent on the obvious idea of taking the one-way IR interface and reading the lights to create a closed loop interface. Closed loop means that I see the results of my actions. Without this feedback, blindly sending a string of commands to the device might work great in a demo but in the real world where I don't know the current state and can't be sure all signals reach the device, the result is one more source of perverse unreliability.
I can sympathize with TiVo and others who have tried to solve this problem by negotiating with the current providers. The same ones who have chosen to make the process awkward out of fear of what would happen if we were given the option of making our lives better and getting more enjoyment from their creative work.
Vertical integration has the potential for developing nicely integrated solutions but such integration makes it difficult to provide alternatives for components. In the case of the telecommunications industry the ability of the incumbents prevent the marketplace from providing alternatives by controlling the pipes that deliver video streams (AKA television, AKA content). It's normal for people to look at the current offerings and not imagine how much better it can be. In a real marketplace the onus is on the new entrent to demonstrate the value of new products and solutions. The problem is much more difficult if the incumbents don't even give others the opportunity to demonstrate what is possible though not yet imagined by most people.
BobF at 6:31 PM [url]:
Clarification on my DNS Comments
In looking at some of the responses to my comments I realize I need to emphasize that I am not saying that users should ever type obscure names. In fact, you should be able to type "JohnSmith". The problem is that with the current approach of a single namespace this is impossible and very likely wrong. By moving the naming out of the plumbing layer into "social space" we can then use mechanisms like the catalogs and the "phone book". But much better since you can use your personal phone book so that when you type "JohnSmith" it works for you. And you can allow your friends to type "JonDoe's JohnSmith".
This is far better than having to remember that the name is "JohnSmith1827171". In fact, that's what AOL email addresses look like for the same reason. And once you observe that an Email address is just like the DNS entry, you can also start having your own email addresses that don't have to change just because you switch service providers or jobs.
BobF at 5:04 PM [url]:
Broadband�Just say no
Again, Dan Gillmor has it right.
"Broadband" is little more than a scam to present the Internet as just another television channel. It's as if the railroads were asked to run the airlines as local feeders to the train terminals.
The basic problem is that we have an inherent conflict of interest. Companies that provide content (such as television delivery) and services (such as telephony) are given complete control over the first mile of connectivity between our homes and offices to the rest of the world. To incumbents, it is just the last mile of a one-way delivery system with a minor concession to "broadband".
What we need is a structural separation with one industry that is focused solely on (Internet) connectivity. Other, separate companies would provide the services and content. We had a similar remedy in the 1950's when the television networks were no longer allowed to own the production companies. Why do we now tolerate a situation in which cable companies are allowed to decide what we can watch and when? Why do we tolerate a situation in which phone companies disqualify customers for DSL rather trying to figure out how to provide as much Internet access as possible as inexpensively as possible?
The telecommunications companies themselves recognize that we will have gigabits of connectivity everywhere and that voice telephony will no longer be a source of revenue. And then they "lose it" or, in psychological terms, they are in denial, and continue business as usual. They should be the ones doing the structural split before it has to be mandated.
The question is not whether the transition to connectivity will happen, but when. Just as the end-to-end principle (yes, the same David Reed wrote it) gave the Internet vigor; the process continues as we replace the quagmire of the Regulatorium with simplicity and a virtuous cycle built upon connectivity..
You can read my BeyondTelecom and other essays for more on this topic.
DanB at 2:41 PM [url]:
Gillmor: Broadband debacle
Dan Gillmor says some of the right things about "broadband" deployment in today's weblog post.
DanB at 10:46 AM [url]:
An added benefit to weblogs
Part of an email I sent to Dan Gillmor:
Do you feel like you're part of the pamphleting of the old days (except you also have a newspaper behind you...)? I think one of the good parts of a blog is following back refer links (or checking blogdex and daypop) to see what others wrote about what you wrote. I find it very instructive. Also seeing which people link to which articles. More people link than write emails. It's kind of like knowing not just what people write in letters to the editor or author, but also what they said when they see a friend and say "I think you should check this out..."
Also, see my old essay: "Pamphleteers and Web Sites".
Monday, January 14, 2002
BobF at 8:02 PM [url]:
My friend, Chris Herot (at herot.com) sent me a pointer to an article on the Smart Kitchen in the December 12, 2001 issue of Forbes. The good news is that it wasn't yet another article on the wonders of talking to your toaster. David Reed has pointed out that people confuse smart appliances with the idealized 19th butler would know just what you want without you even having to say it.
When ATM machines were first deployed many people predicted that they would fail because people would prefer to speak to tellers. Imagine if ATMs tried to give us full multi-media experiences? We go to ATM machines to avoid social niceties so we can focus on the simple task at hand. Email is another example�instead of imitating the formal business letter, it generally has an informal style.
For some reason appliance makers think they have to add "Internet" stuff to make their products better. Just gluing a web browser to the front of a refrigerator is inane. I might choose to do it myself but it adds no real value to the refrigerator beyond continuing the tradition of the "refrigerator magnet". While the magnets are important cultural artifacts, replacing them with a web browser misses the point.
Appliance makers should be asking how to make their appliances better, not cuter. They are already using computation within the devices. What is lost in an attempt to be cute is that the Internet is really about connecting things. Browsing and e-commerce are just minor applications. Rather than worrying about how to display the latest view of the "detergent of the week" web site, I would be very happy if the washing machine could just give me a status report so I (or to be honest, my wife) would be able to coordinate washing clothes with other activities.
And that's the real point�the value of mundane utility vs glitz. Even at dial-up speeds that were thousands times slower than television, the mundane utility of the Web trumped the glitz of Interactive TV.
We don't want no smart(assed) appliances. The Internet gives us something new�the ability to connect things. And that is far more exciting than seeing my washing machine and dishwasher trying to entertain me by singing selections from popular operas.
My activities on industry committees and in attempting to add capabilities to my own has have reinforced my belief that we can provide a lot of utility by connecting our devices and adding computing capabilities. My challenge in working with manufacturers is in making them understand the value of the technology in industries where the biggest budget item is often choosing the color of the paint.
DPR at 1:56 PM [url]:
Names and Places
Bob and I are on the advisory board of a startup, called MetaCarta, with very cool technology around geographic information. I noticed that they became a bit more visible today as one of two companies mentioned in a NY Times article on technology for homeland security...
While reading Bob's post below I had just finished thinking about MetaCarta's capability to bridge the gap between human notions of place and computing's notion of place. My neighborhood, my town, and my region have placenames that are easily captured in a name. But it would be absurd to expect the post office to disambiguate all the possible ways I refer to places when I talk and write. But we get along just fine in naming places to each other. Postal addresses help, but no one asks the post office to create the perfect all purpose place naming system.
So one way to think about Bob's proposal is to think about it as having two parts: 1) limit the DNS to a role in naming analogous to the post office's role in naming locations, and 2) create a general mechanism (his meaning-free names) analogous to P.O. boxes, that are used to locate entities that have no inherent location.
BobF at 12:19 PM [url]:
The Tragedy of the .Coms
Note: This is an experiment. I am posting this to this blog instead of sending it via email but the writing style is more akin to my email than a polished essay. Do expect typos and confusion. I will attempt to correct them though no promises. Good writing takes a lot of work and time. My goal here is sufficient writing on the assumption that it is better to risk saying something than suffer in silence. This isn�t always true but is the theme here.
In response to http://www.siliconvalley.com/docs/opinion/dgillmor/dg011301.htm �`Google effect' reduces need for many domains�.
Skipping past the �damn it, I�ve been telling everyone this� with http://www.frankston.com/public/essays/DNSSafeHaven.asp as an example. That essay needs updating but I�m hoarse from shouting and from beating horses that refuse to die.
I�m glad to see more emphasis on the fact that �.com� names are nothing more than a lousy keyword system. But unlike most such bad designs, this one is foisted off as fundamental technology and does real damage by infesting the Internet.
In medieval England, as with other countries, there was a problem in that people�s names couldn�t serve as reliable �handles� for purposes of ownership and, more important, taxation. The Domesday (or Doomsday) book established stable names so that if you moved or changed professions you still kept the same name. Thus Surly Miller would become a nice blacksmith but would keep the same name. Imagine that you were Dan of the Mercury. Of course one shouldn�t carry a radical change too far. Imagine how confusing it would be for women to have their own names rather than just being considered as part of their husband�s holdings.
A thousand years later few people still understand the concept of handles that are not overloaded with descriptions and other implicit agendas. The DNS serves are important purpose in creating stable handles that can be used to reference a set of records which include the �A� record that translates the name into a set of IP addresses and �MX� records that are used for email delivery. The DNS, while not perfect, works quite well. The problem is not the DNS itself but rather it is in overloading it with a stupid keyword system. The idea that one could name one�s lab machines �Saturn�, �Jupiter� and �Uranus� is fine. Humans find such handles useful even though as one swap boards around it sometimes becomes difficult to know what pieces retain the name and the seventh planet provides humor for the immature. And, in the early days this system worked for Universities and the small number of early participants though even then there were some questions like whether �Miami� was the school in Ohio or Florida. Letting each community like �.edu�, �.gov�, �.mil�, and �.com� was an attempt to reduce the problem as long there were few participants. Oh yeah, there are other countries, so we gave them worry about their own rules.
Unfortunately this made the problem management and created worse problems by raising the ante on the names and requiring the creation of rules about the use of the names that added an agenda with terms of service. Thus you had to be an educational institution (by someone�s measure) to become a �.edu�. An extreme form would�ve been a �.xxx� domain that presumed that there was a clear, unambiguous, unchanging and authoritative definition of pornography.
Authoritative? That a problem in its own right � to use the example of www.via.com � who is vouching that this is the real �via�. It even presumes that we�ve nailed down the meaning of �identity� � something that is akin to being able to translate all poetry from one language to another. The classic example is the �vodka is strong but the meat is rotten�. That�s a classic example of the early attempts at language translation for �the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. My point is that this is an arguable translation since the idiomatic translation is not necessarily the correct one. It is not just na�ve and foolish to expect that the DNS can provide an unambiguous translation of a name, it is irresponsible to pretend that we can have an algebra for trust.
Even worse, we have the pre-medieval concept of a magic name that can be used as an instrument of control. If you offend anyone your name will be taken away. Thus if the RIAA doesn�t like the music you have, you lose your �.com� name. This doesn�t really take you off the net but it does provides an opportunity for mischief on the part of those who are trying to prevent what they see as mischief.
The use of names for commercial purposes has resulted in an artificial scarcity of �good� names and thus a high annual fee for the use of the names � you can�t even own your name! This means that the names must go bad after a period thus guaranteeing that the Internet must unravel! And it also means that names get reused and the links you have on your school site �go porn� without notice. This has made schools fearful of links. We see the same problem with phone numbers in real stories in which a rape hotline becomes a sex site. Remember that the phone numbering system was created by Strowger when he discovered that calls to his funeral home were being redirect to his competitor by a phone operator (person who connect the calls).
Somehow we�ve slipped down a slope from a simple mechanism for stable handles and now find ourselves in the company of the saber tooth tigers in the La Brea tar pits.
One of the weird aspects of this �.com� debate is that we have clear examples of commercial mechanisms and their limits. The trademark system demonstrates the complexities and compromises necessary for even a simple system of identifiers. Unlike the DNS, near counts. So we can�t have a Rolleks watch. But we do make distinctions between industries and allow Cadillac to be the name of a car, a dog food and a show polish. Names can be reused geographically also.
This is in sharp contrast with the �.com� system in which a simple typo sends one to an entirely different site � usually a porn site. The use of �.com� names is a major factor that makes it seem like the delivery of porn (or to be precise, the delivery of eyeballs to porn sites). I�m not passing judgment on content; I�m just pointing out that human (or �wet space�) systems take such human factors into account whereas a plumbing system like the DNS doesn�t.
And it shouldn�t have to. As I pointed out, the problem is not the DNS, the problem is the misuse of this basic mechanism as if it were also a social mechanism. It is as if we confused the word �true� in mathematics with the word �true� in English and expect that �no no!� meant yes. Sometimes it does as in �there is not no exit � just follow the egress sign�. But usually it is simply emphatic. Flammable and inflammable are synonyms while cleave and cleave are antonyms. Sorry, that�s a bit aside but demonstrates the complexities and richness that the DNS cannot and shouldn�t try to capture.
So, with apologies to Laurel and Hardy (for those who remember ancient comedians), �another fine mess you�ve gotten me into�. One can understand how we started out with a simple mechanism that solved a real problem � it was too difficult to maintain the �host� table that mapped names to IP addresses. The DNS automated the process and allowed the management of the names to be distributed to zones that defined subtrees of the naming system.
In the earliest days one could get away with keeping a list of IP addresses on a piece of paper, the DNS worked with a small number of keywords that worked in lieu of a directory system. But this mechanism cannot scale. I�d�ve preferred to say couldn�t scale but we are still trying to scale it up to the �real world�.
As Gillmor�s article reminds us, people know it doesn�t work and are learning that they better not rely on it. But societies have a way of maintaining dissonance � even when something doesn�t work we maintain the myth it does. How many people are still afraid to swim for an hour after eating a peanut or sterilize baby�s bottles while letting them crawl on the floor putting everything in their mouths?
Even among those who know that there is something wrong with the DNS, there is a fear that it can�t be changed. This is troubling since we know the systems doesn�t work and can�t work so why pander to impossible expectations and deny us the ability to have stable linkages and a marketplace for better solutions for how to translate a description of what we want (at least, what we want in terms of linkages to sites on the Internet)?
The good news is that the problem is very tractable! Once we recognize that people already use search engines in preference to the DNS it becomes apparent that the DNS is not the keyword system of choice and it is only going to become worse as we create more TLDs (Top Level Domains) such as INFO and NAME and then repurpose others because initial like TV and TO happen to have cute meanings in some languages.
The bold step is to remember the Domesday book and sever the linkages between wet space (human) use of names and the use of names for stable linkages. To avoid confusion I�ll refer to the latter as a �handle� though even there �handle� is part of CB lingo which itself borrowed from the world of ham (amateur) radio. Clearly naming cannot be defined in an RFC (Request For Comments � an Internet design memo).
The handles in the DNS should be devoid of semantics. They have no intrinsic meaning and only serve as a pointer to a site. (Technically a pointer to the records that include a pointer to the site). Just like we have many ways to lookup a phone number using descriptions, names or cards, we can have a variety of ways to go from a description such as �Movie showing down the street� to a stable pointer to the corresponding site.
How do we get there from here? The first step is to create a new (and final?) TLD called, perhaps �TLD�. It hosts handles without semantics � perhaps just numbers. And since there is no longer anything magic about a single �.�, the generation of names can be delegated to avoid too big of a load on a single registry. The actual assignment of handles is no more complex than handing out the next available number to people online at a bakery. OK, it�s a little more complicated because rather than just handing out successive numbers, these would have check digits and other mechanisms to assure that most typing errors wouldn�t result in pointing to the wrong site.
But people would rarely type in the names themselves. They would follow descriptions and the keep the handles in their documents or local address books.
Without the deadening effect of the DNS�s claim to be the authoritative keyword system, I would expect a flourishing marketplace in solutions that are far better than the DNS for finding things and for managing ones links.
Since the handles would never be reused the net itself can become much more stable and since the links themselves will not be repurposed simply because one forgot to renew ones lease on the name, it becomes much safer to link to other sites. Sites may disappear but it is far better to have the link fail than change meaning.
We also get past the paranoid view that ICANN is a conspiracy to keep the DNS from working right. The problem is that it can�t do the impossible. Unfortunately, it is not doing the one thing that is possible which is to moot the current �.com� naming system and shift us away from the fantasy that there is a single source of unambiguous and authoritative meaning. Rather than attempting the impossible, ICANN should return to its roots in Jon Postel�s office and do little more than hand out the next available handle to each comer.
This is all too obvious. Yet I continue to find myself getting hoarse saying that time is neigh!
Sunday, January 13, 2002
DPR at 4:52 PM [url]:
Perversity of the USG attempts to protect privacy
The privacy statements being received from phone companies, banks, etc. these days result directly from Congress's way of thinking about how we should be protected from companies sharing our data with others..
Perhaps we need someone else intervening, instead. Suggestions:
- class action lawsuits. Surely Lerach or someone like him can figure out an angle to get a few hundred million or a billion out of this. Perhaps the latest iteration of the copyright laws can be asserted - after all, for most of us, our art is expressed in our life choices, and data about is analogous to recording our performances and reselling them.
- generalized strikes. It works in France.
- state governments. 50 hungry states can probably do better than one regulatory bureaucracy run by Congresscritters who get feted by these companies all the time.
- pre-emptive patents. Remember one can patent a business method, which gives you the absolute right to prevent others from using it - there is no requirement in the law that you have to practice the patent, the entire right is the right to exclude others from doing so. Let's file patents on every possible innovative use of private information, and donate the patents to a foundation that promises never to license them, and to litigate against anyone who tries to exploit those techniques. (that will give us 17 years, anyway).