30 July 2006

Microsoft playing catchup to Jini?

I just saw The Ray Ozzie Experience and almost ROTFL.
"A world of many devices, all connected and managed by the Web".
Isn't this what Scott McNealy was telling us like eight years ago? Remember "WebTone"? Welcome to the party, Ray Ozzie.  Sorry that you're so late! M'afraid the beer's justabout finished...

Isn't this exactly what Jini was designed for? (And I'd infinitely sooner bet my life on technology as mature and carefully designed as Jini than on anything MS is ever likely to come up with.)

27 July 2006

Why is CSS so damn HARD?

Seems to me that the whole CSS model is pretty poorly designed.  It shouldn't be so damn hard to implement a website design.  I'm not talking about bleeding-edge Zen Garden stuff; I'm talking about very simple layouts.

For a start I prefer liquid layouts: That graphic designers coming from more traditional media hate fear and loath the concept, I understand.  Its a mindset - the user has partial control over how a thing looks - and many graphic designers have trouble dealing with their inability to guarantee pixel-perfect alignments.  Perhaps the user wears hectic prescription glasses, so 18pt fonts are a reasonable default for them.  Get over it.

Secondly, I'm no n00b at CSS.  Whilst I'm hardly a professional CSS designer, I think I understand the concepts and details pretty well, and I've fumbled my way around a fair number of web designs using CSS with results that have attracted fair compliment from people who do that stuff professionally. (No, this blog is not currently an example! That's what I'm working on.)

But its still so damn hard!

One of two thing I think are needed: either
  1. a redesign of CSS that works to a "springs 'n' struts" layout model, or alternatively a "springs 'n' struts" model that can get compiled to CSS2 (possibly on the fly as a filter), or
  2. the additional of another "position" mode in CSS - "absolute-relative" positioning - absolute positioning of an element, but relative to the containing box.
Number one is unlikely (except maybe as a translated/compiled language), but number 2 is possible without breaking existing CSS-based layouts.

It would sure make simple layouts a hell of a lot simpler to implement.

24 July 2006

Reports of the Death of Email Greatly Exagerated

So there have been a couple of surveys among college students indicating that the surveyed population mostly uses IM to keep in touch with their social circle.  They only ever use email to contact companies and "old people" like their parents, and view email as "old fashioned".  This has led some commentators to pronounce the Imminent Demise of Email as communication channel in the Internet.


Social Networks are Killing Email? - I think not! What we are seeing here is the confluence of two things:
  1. Younger people have more time on their hands, and so are more inclined to spend some or much of that time in online communities, or social networks. (Newsflash: Social networks are nothing new.  We've been doing social networks since before we fell out the trees!)  As a result they tend not to use email, preferring IM, as email lacks an immediacy - we're seeing the impatience of youth.
  2. As one ages, one's priorities, as well as the demands on one's time, change.  Therefore, the preferred modes and channels of communication one favours are likely to change with age.  Duh.  Why do I love my cellphone more than my landline?  It does voicemail.  I can disconnect without missing anything.  There are times - many times - when I prefer to disconnect.  I truly won't miss anything important in the endless torrent of attention-grabbing shit, and I need time to myself.  Time to stop and think. Time to reflect.  And I'm not insecure about it.
So, in a nutshell, we see 1) the impatience of being young, and 2) the insecurity of being young, reflected in some surveys that say that young people don't much use email.

And from this, people are extrapolating Email is Dead?  Let's see the same surveys done on the same populations 5, 10, 20 years from now, and lets see how their channels of communication have changed then.  Perhaps then we can begin to draw some conclusions, instead of this bogus pseudo-science.

Otherwise I will stick to my premise: Death of Email Greatly Exagerated.

Disclaimer: I am in my mid-40's and have two sons who fall into the "youth" category, one at Rhodes University, the other a hotshot Software Developer.  As such, my views may be biased.

21 July 2006

Why Advertising is Broken

Brad Feld started it with his Three Constituencies post.  Stan James followed up with some very interesting insights on the model set-up by Brad.  Go! Read them; I'll wait here.

In thinking about this model and all it implies, I started drawing a diagram to keep the value-flows straight in my head, and suddenly something I've been mulling over for some time popped clear in my mind:  Why Interruptive Advertising is Dead.

For awhile, now I have held it as an article of faith that interruptive advertising is dead, just the body hasn't stopped moving yet.  (And if you think the Death Throes of the RIAA/MPAA business model has been messy and ugly, you probably ain't seen nothin' yet!)  For example, I never see popups (very interruptive stuff!) because Firefox blocks them with the preferences I have set.  The Adblock/AdblockPlus plugins block most other advertising that might reach me, and the recently-installed Flashblock plugin catches the remainder.  Do I hate adverts?  You bet!  I find them consistently irritating, irrelevant to my purposes, intrusive and obnoxious.  I've yet to find any exceptions.

Ya, ya!  We've all heard the bullshit: "Advertising informs you about products and product choices..."

Well, if there's something I want - a new house, a new car, some food, a holiday, a PC - I go out and shop for it.  Then I'm still not interested in adverts because they lack the substance I need to make a buy decision.

With the recent availability of Explorer 7beta3 (if you are so hooked into MS products that you simply can't give them up) every major browser now has ad-blocking.

What about TV?

Yes.  What about TV?  Its mostly boring and irrelevant.  The programming is mostly apalling, the news banal.  I doubt whether I watch an hour of TV a week any more.  I'm getting the content I want elsewhere.  If there is the occasional show I want to watch, chances are I'll timeshift it anyway and skip the ads there, too.

I truly believe that interruptive advertising is dead.  Permission-based advertising, and something I'll call Entertainment-based advertising, though is a whole new bundle of opportunities!

My diagram, based completely on Stan's blog explains why:

See the problem?  All around the value chain there is a fair exchange of value given and received (or something like it.)  Except when we come to the advertiser's relationship with the consumer.  One way only.  No wonder most of us resent and loath ads.

Thank you Brad and Stan for paving the way to this understanding of precisely why Interruptive Advertising is Broken.  The fact is that your interrupting me is a form of force: you believe you have to force your content onto me since I probably wouldn't want it otherwise.  And you're right!  I wouldn't.  I don't.  You give me nothing in return.

The truth is that interruptive marketing has always has been broken.  It's only recently that we consumers are in a position to do something about it, and we're doing so with a vengeance!
"There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands"
- Richard Bach, "Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah"
There's a hell of a lot of opportunity in getting beyond the "need to interrupt", too, and it hinges on the advertiser giving back fair-value to the consumer in turn, but this post is already too long.

19 July 2006

When Funding Falls Through

Just received email to the effect that the funding deal we were hoping for has fallen through.  Again.

I confess I'm rapidly losing faith - not to mention running out of money to keep the roof overhead.

We've been trying to get funded for about six months now, with a conspicuous lack of success.  I freely admit that for part of the time we were simply not trying very hard: the deal on the table was too tempting for us.  We were close enough to the investor that we had no need to draw up a very formal business plan for pitching (though we certainly did have an internal operational/development business plan) so we were pretty lackadaisical about the whole thing.

A couple of months into the negotiation it became apparent that the amount of money we were negotiating would be insufficient to get the business as far as "revenue generating", and the amount we would really require was more than the angel-group were willing to invest; "Too rich for our blood!"  Fair and reasonable; indeed the right decision for all concerned, since we would otherwise be throwing money at a venture doomed before it started.

So we then had to spend considerable time working up a reasonable (I think!) "pitch" business plan for another angel investor.  They're the ones who have turned us down this morning, and I can understand and sympathise with their reasons - essentially they feel that the market we wish to tackle is just too tough, and we are neophytes in the space.  We agree.  We've known it all along, and addressed those problems in our business plan, but evidently it wasn't enough to convince them to part with (about) USD 1million.  That amount will get us about to public-Beta in a timespan of about 4 months.

So.  Anybody know of an angel/venture group wanting to get into the social-web space in a venture that has real-world revenue streams (i.e. We're not planning on ad-revenue) in a USD45billion/year industry? (And Yes, that's a "b", not an "m".)

17 July 2006

Anything New Takes Time

I recently added "Crossroads Dispatches" to the ever-growing list of blogs I keep an eye on.  I liked the fusion of touchy-feely and hard-nosed reality.  Something like my lifestyle that attempts to fuse web entrepreneurship with self-sufficient living and growing my own food.  Something like Sushi - the blandness of Rice with the Bland/Salty fish and the BITE of Wasabi.

In Crossroads Dispatches: Living Takes Time, Thinking Big Takes Time, Ms Rodriguez writes about how many fast-paced people discover that going more slowly really enables them to go faster, but only after some (often severe) personal crisis.

This brings to mind the oft-touted common wisdom of Internet startups: "If you can't get something up and running within a couple of (days|weeks|months) you probably don't have anything. You probably don't understand what it is you're wanting to build."

What horse-shit.  Frequently this comes from people who are not programmers, and who have no clue of all the intricacies and complexities involved in designing, building, debugging, deploying, managing and enhancing an application; least of all a distributed application.  Now try this all by yourself. You get to do everything yourself.  There's nobody else to lean on to put together the graphics or to install the database or to spot the stupid mistake that's going to take you half a day to figure out by yourself.  There's no-one who will listen to your ideas and tell you when you're spouting crap or just in love with the smell of your own shit.

Its hard work, and it takes time.  Lots of time.  And you're better off going slowly than trying to meet the bullshit expectations of some alleged common wisdom. 

As you may gather, I have been working on a new New Venture for some weeks now (which also accounts for the sporadic and irregular blog posting) and am about halfway through the development cycle.

15 July 2006

Goodbye (again!) to Flash

Finally I got pissed-off enough to remove Flash from all my PCs.  For a long, long time I resisted installing Flash, because all I had ever seen was annoying animated ads that bypassed my Adblock and Image-download restrictions through the use of Flash.  Then, along came broadband, and a few things worth watching on YouTube and a couple of other places.

So having had Flash installed and enabled in my browsers for a couple of months, now, I have come full circle back to my original position: It is just not worth it.  For the one or two worthwhile videos or whatever that I want to watch I can manually re-enable Flash.  For the rest I say , "Away with You, Worthless Rubbish."

13 July 2006

What I Really Want In a BlogSystem

Now that I'm getting the hang of this "blogging" thing (humour me in my misguided belief :-), I find myself writing more than I ever did - and that's great!  But for a couple of misguided influences and accidents as a kid I might have ended up as a writer, so perhaps this is my way of playing catchup.

Prompted by the provocative "What would I do different if I had to start my blog over?" I started to mull over what I would really like to see in a blogging system.  In fact I was discussing this just the other day with "Lemnik" who tells me he is thinking of writing a new (probably Open Source) blogging system.

Tags vs. Categories

Firstly I want every post to have a set of tags associated with it, rather than having to pigeon-hole posts into categories.  Categories may work for some people, but not well for me, and tags can certainly fulfil the same function.  They also allow you to put a single post into multiple "categories". So away with Categories, and in with the Tags.

Multiple Authors

Many blogsystems do this.  Just not Blojsom.  There are a number of good reasons why Blojsom is the software that suits me best, not least are its awesome integration capabilites.  It sports just about every kind of API for blogging, but the one serious shortcoming is that it pretty-much assumes  "One Man, One Blog".  "Person" if you're feeling particularly politically sensitive.

All the Right Pinginess

Blojsom really scores here.  It will ping any blog aggregation service or search engine whenever you update your blog, and its as easy as entering the notification URL of the site into the blog settings.

Comments and Trackbacks

Of course. With spam-controls. Optional, too - some people want to turn them off, and with good reason.  On the other hand the comment setups could be a lot better - much more like forum systems.  Mostly its just a linear list of comments, and needs something much more "conversational".  And should include something from all those trackbacks, too.

Built-in Ratings

Yes, there are an ever-growing number of "rating" sites and tools out there, but how hard would it be for my blogsystem to have one built-in?

Easy Linkiness

Again, there are lots of services that do this.  I use a few of them to keep my various blogrolls, but its not difficult to provide an easy way to capture the URLs of blogs I want to list in a blogroll, and could easily include the sort of OPML/Atom feed capabilities that allow integration with the wider world.

CSS and Templates

Open up the CSS.  Most blogsystems seem to hide it away.  Blogger is a good exception, where its right out there in the template.  But god help you if you screw it up!  No going back!  Good way to make not-too-confident-in-the-first-place users really, really nervous about hacking the look&feel of their site.  Some goes for templates.


Two themes, I think:

1) Enable a much more open, multi-way conversation with my readers.  Enable them to help me articulate this stuff I'm blogging (whatever that ma be.)

2) Give me more choices in how I structure the thing - make the structures flatter, more open to integration (if I want it.)

No doubt I'll think of many more features the moment I press the "Publish" button...

10 July 2006


I think JSPWiki is one of the greatest pieces of open source software out there anywhere.  It might not be well suited to everytone running a small website on a shared host because it requires a Java servlet container for hosting, so demands a slightly higher level of expertise than the PHP junk that's out there.

That said, it drops into place and "just works" for a fast tryout or evaluation.  At the same time most of the flexibility needed for large-scale, sysadmin-run deployments is easily available, and its not an "all in one big step" thing either: you can gradually add the finer-grained controls as you need them.  Any Java-capable sysadmin will have no difficulty.

Furthermore, there is an active, healthy and, above all, friendly developer community.

I am using JSPWiki to run the "static" content side of this website, with only myself allowed to create, delete and edit pages.  (Indeed, only I am allowed to log in!)  Its perfect for the task.  All I have to do now is hack the templates into something nicer to look at. :-)

08 July 2006

Blogosphere Blues

I hate the word "blogosphere".  It sucks.  Its just an ugly word.  The person who thought of it should be shot.  Come on!  Own up!  We know you're out there, and, Google willing, we'll find you eventually!

So, not one to accept generalised wingeing, I propose a replacement: Blogsphere.

There, see?  By dropping just one little letter, its a whole heap more palatable.  Although I confess it does remind me of "Vogsphere"...

02 July 2006


Robert Cringley makes an excellent point: we should own the "last-mile" infrastructure ourselves. Instead of farming it out to that bunch of robber-bandits the phone and cable companies, we should build and own it ourselves, co-op style. He quotes Bob Frankston as proposing that this last-mile infrastructure be implemented as Fibre To The Home.  (Unfortunately the second half of his article meanders off into a meaningless rant about Microsoft that does nothing to further the discussion of community-provided infrastructure.)

Now, self-built-and-maintained local-loop optic-fibre infrastructure may be feasible in the more densely populated parts of the USA, and possibly Europe, but no way here in Africa, least of all in a rural area such as I choose to live in.  Far more reasonable for us to look to WiFi for that answer.  Wireless makes a lot more sense in most locations, anyway, in that the maintenance burden is much smaller, being localised to the wireless nodes themselves.  Fon is targetting precisely this space, and I wish them much success with the model.

The fatal weakness in the scheme is still the backbone.  Fon, in common with Frankston's idea, both assume that the local loop connects to some "large infrastructure backbone" provided by ISPs who will remain neutral bit-carriers.  Dream on!

Furthermore, there is the interesting (to me) question of whether it is at all possible to maintain a global internetwork during the disruptions likely headed our way as we descend from the cheap-oil plateau.  It takes serious amounts of energy, time, money and organisation to maintain a large-scale wired infrastructure such as existing telephone and cable networks. 

Currently my 'net access is via the state-monopoly phone company, Telkom, who are either totally bent on network control and continuing access restriction (resulting in the most expensive network access in the world!) or they are simply total incompetents: they can/will not provide proper two-way network access.  It is impossible to run a server at my end of the 'net, due to the configuration of their firewalls and proxies.  This is not a network!  Something that telcos are constitutionally incapable of understanding due to the nature of the networks they have been running for decades.

The whole discussion of community-provided infrastructure resonates with something I have been giving quite a bit of thought lately: Internet3.0 - The Community Provided Internet.

Drawing on the theme of Web2.0, characterised by much web content being generated and provided, edited, filtered, and rated by the community,  together with Frankston's idea of community-supplied last-mile wiring (whether fibre, WiFi, WiMax, laser or carrier pigeon) I believe we should be building community-owned-and-run long-haul networks - community-driven Internet backbones.

I am well aware that there have already been some successful efforts to build trans-America wireless mesh networks, and this is precisely the model I think we should adopt.  I do not propose or expect that we would aim to replace existing wired infrastrucure.  Wired networks have distinct reliability and bandwidth advantages over wireless; this is inherent in the physics and operating environment.  We can and should, however have alternative routes for IP traffic that reside outside the hands of corporate and government control.

This last issue is difficult. Many repressive regimes would and do restrict access to wireless spectrum, including South Africa where it is technically illegal to establish a wireless link to your neighbour without a license.  Licenses are unobtainable, and the charge for a license is prohibitive.  Fortunately we have a strong tradition if civil disobedience in such matters!

The time to build a global wireless mesh of networks is now.
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