Seeping Bogs

I’ve just recently read a blog entry by JeffOoi (our blogger MP from Penang) about blogs. He refutes certain false claims made by Lim Si Pin (he must have gotten teased a lot when he was at school, with a name like that!), Gerakan Deputy Youth Chief, about blogs. You can go read his entry for more details.

Jeff is right to say that Lim Si Pin got it wrong when he said that the popular blogs mentioned, were only started 3 years ago. Assuming that he was not ‘misquoted’ (as oft happens to Malaysian politicians), this clearly shows that Lim Si Pin has no knowledge of the Internet. It took me less than 5 seconds to verify that Jeff’s and RPK’s domains go back to 2003 and 2004. So, Lim should be called out on making outrageous claims like that.

Since I’m trying to make my blog a little more educational, I will now teach everyone how to actually check the ‘age’ of a particular domain name. In this case, I will use Jeff’s own blog, jeffooi.com, as an example. The key to doing it is to use the WHOIS service. If you use any *nix based platform, you can just open up the command line and type:

$ whois jeffooi.com

This will return you a page of information and the most pertinent bits are here:

Updated Date: 25-apr-2007
Creation Date: 09-may-2003
Expiration Date: 09-may-2009

So, this is possibly a case of ‘lau peh bo kar kia’ (father not teaching his son — notice how concise the chinese phrase is). Being the son of our former Minister of Communications and Multimedia, it is rather sad that he knows nothing about the Internet. Considering the dynastic tendencies of politics in Malaysia, this is not a good start if he wishes to have any credibility, and inherit his father’s former post, one day.

Lim Si Pin is again wrong, in saying that blogs are a 10 year old technology. A quick check on wikipedia will show that blogs are much older than that. From wikipedia, the word ‘blog’ is generally accepted to have been coined in 1997, but blogging, in it’s various forms, existed far earlier than that. If you go through the article on the timeline, it brings you through several periods of it, pre-1990s. In fact, it is very difficult to pin down when the whole notion of blogging started, which brings me to my final point.

Jeff claims that Dato’ Shahrir Abdul Samad’s former personal website is not actually a blog (he presently blogs on blogger and judging from the number of votes he has on his poll, his readership is probably similar to mine). This is where I draw the line, or rather not draw one. It’s very difficult to define if a personal website is a blog or not. In fact, according to wikipedia, defining a personal homepage is difficult to begin with, and I tend to agree with that.

Defining a blog is also rather difficult. If you define a blog as a log and by the ‘regular updates’ it receives, I would ask you to define ‘regular’. Some blogs are updated regularly (like mine!) while others are never. If you define blog by the ‘type of content’ then it’s rather difficult in differentiating a personal blog from a personal website since all the content is personal by nature. If you define a blog by the ‘structure of the site’, then it’s again difficult because these sites are all just a collection of words and links anyway.

So, while I do agree that Lim Si Pin made a bunch of inaccurate comments, I do not really know if Jeff’s final claim is true or not.

Microstores n'est pas?

“The reason we put User Account Control into the platform was to annoy users. I’m serious.” — David Cross, Microsoft (Apr 10, 2008).

When your product managers talk like that, you know that it is the beginning of the end. Everyone knows the the bald Steve only knows how to copy the reality distorting Steve when it comes to designing products. But now, there are rumours that Fudzilla is considering a retail move, and will open up it’s own chain of stores, much like the Apple Stores sprouting everywhere. This must either be a belated April Fool’s joke or it’s a very bad sign of things to come.

According to the rumours, the stores will pack various products, from the failing Zune to the barely profitable Xbox and other nondescript keyboards and mice. They are even planning to have a place where customers can bring their problematic PCs to be looked at and have it fixed, just like how Apple does it with their ‘Genius Bar’ concept. Now, there are many reasons why it will fail, and I will try to spell out some.

Firstly, retail is a very different business from that of a software monopoly. Unlike Apple, these people have always been an software company while Apple has always been a hardware company that pushes boxes. Apple sells their products at a price premium, and has customers who are generally not looking for a commodity item. Therefore, their stores are like boutiques, where people go for the experience and to buy products that will stand out in a crowd.

PC retail is famously cut-throat, with razor thin profit margins. PC stores are generally like your grocery stores, where you go to get something that meets a need, at the lowest possible price. The only way to make a profit is to push products by volume and keep costs down. They won’t be able to keep costs down, for reasons that will become apparent soon. And just like grocery stores, there are already too many of them around and they need something to bring people in.

Secondly, they lack a flagship product to drive people to their stores. They do not have a single market leading product that can be used to entice people into their stores. Apple had the market leading iPod to draw customers into the stores. Once the customers were in, they will use their reality distortion field to try and push other products. To this end, Apple has an end-to-end product line, such as a MacBook for you to manage your tunes on, and it goes from there.

Now, look at the PC computer market. There are already too many other grocery stores doing it. The only credible product that can possibly bring customers in, is the Xbox. But this single product does not fit well with the rest of their products. It’s a singular product within it’s own ecosystem. You won’t be buying any MP3 players, keyboards nor mice to go with that. They just don’t have a good mix of products that help to sell each other.

Thirdly, and they may actually be banking on this, is their customer service. They may be able to turn a tidy profit from fixing computer problems. Goodness knows that if they open up an ‘Idiot Bar’, it will be swamped by customers who have problems with virii, spyware and crashing systems. It is safe to predict that this would be their main way of bringing customers in-store.

But there is a big drawback from this. They would not be able to fit the counter in-store. They would probably need to rent a warehouse or a stadium somewhere, to be able to handle the volume of customer service issues coming in. Goodness knows that they’ll need to hire hundreds of technicians per store, just to reinstall Windows for customers.

According to some analysts at Gartner, this week, Windows is collapsing and the situation is becoming untenable. That’s why there has been a flurry of various rumours and news in recent weeks. Usually, when something is in their death throes, they tend to lash out randomly. And I see this as them, trying random things, while they still have some money in the bank to play with.

PS: Everyone has always suspected bald Steve of not having all the marbles in the right place, but this is just too out of this world to believe in.

* image credit: theonion.com

Drain Brains

“Simply put, Admiral, you have already used the stick. It’s time to use a carrot.” — Dr Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica (S2E10).

A news story appeared in TheStar today, regarding our government medical students who are studying overseas. The article goes on to describe the phenomenon where “medical students sent abroad to study on government scholarships, many costing more than a million ringgit each, are breaking their 10-year bond by refusing to return and serve in public hospitals.”

Since I’m not a medical student, I wouldn’t really know their motivations to do such a thing. But the article did bring up a few arguments that seem to indicate the sad perception on the part of our government. I shall try to explain:

  1. It says that the excuse these undergraduates often give is that they want to do their two-year housemanship overseas and continue with sub-specialisation courses. But when they do so, they may then get employed and become eligible for registration in Britain. With the pay they are getting there, it’s highly unlikely they will come back and serve.
  2. Due to PSD’s perceived lenient treatment of such students in the past and a paltry penalty of RM160,000 each before 2003, it encouraged undergraduates, who have seen many of their seniors being let off, to follow suit. The government is now seriously considering suggestions to make errant students repay twice or thrice the sum of their scholarships as punishment.

Both these points raised by Human Capital Development division director Datin Madinah Mohamad, only show that the government is looking at things from a monetary viewpoint. If it was a pure question of money, I would expect less scholars to break their bond as not many people can actually afford to pay back that kind of money. Additionally, I also know for a fact that there are even local doctors who have not completed their compulsory government service because of various reasons.

While I do agree that pay is an important factor, anyone worth their salt will know that it’s not everything. Career progression and having a suitable environment to pursue interesting work is just as important, if not more so. That is why so many organisations are trying their best in creating a healthy work environment in order to retain people.

It is good that the government is trying to plug the stupid loophole, in the first place, asking the students to pay back only a fraction of their education cost. However, punishing future scholars by making them pay twice or thrice the sum, is an even stupider idea. Nobody should be ‘punished’ for trying to pursue a better future, which is the whole idea of getting an education in the first place.

Which is the reason why I think that the government does not quite have a handle on things. This whole idea of punishing people is just endemic of the wrong way of looking at things by our government. You can either choose to use the stick or the carrot. It becomes stupid to use the stick, when everyone else is using the carrot. The prime example is our neighbour, who dangles all kinds of carrots to attract our Malaysians over to the other side of the causeway.

Everyone realises that we are having a serious brain drain issue in our country. I hazard to guess that human capital may actually be one of our major exports. Goodness knows that a significantly large portion of the workforce, driving our neighbour’s economy, is Malaysian. I was recently told that there are 15,000 of our bankers working in Hong Kong. I won’t be surprised if the Malaysian diaspora working worldwide, numbered several hundred thousand.

I pointed out to a friend that to encourage scholars to work in Malaysia, the government had to look at more than just the monetary issue. Opportunities are much more important than money. My friend said that these scholars had a duty to go home and should not need to be encouraged at all instead. I disagree with that point of view as I do not believe that ‘forcing’ anyone to do anything is going to be a good thing for anybody. I doubt that anyone would want to be treated at a hospital by a doctor who was forced into the job.

It is true that they have a duty to the tax payer, but there are many other parameters that feed into the equation. If the conditions back home were promising, these scholars would naturally come home to serve. If the conditions back home are not, then these scholars would have to choose between their duty and self preservation. Unfortunately, nature has wired each of us for the latter and in the end, the carrot will win.

So, if the government wants to retain their own scholars, use the carrot, and I don’t mean money. Give these people the opportunity to do their work and do not drown them in senseless bureaucracy.

PS: Battlestar Galactica rocks! It has so many wise quotes that I have used in so many blogs.

Mathematical Beauty

hotornot

According to this article, it seems that some boffins in Israel have come up with a mathematical algorithm to determine just how beautiful a woman is. The core idea behind their algorithm is the Golden Ratio (1.618), which is generally believed to be aesthetically pleasing, by renaissance artists. In order to scientifically verify their results, they compared the scores to the ones from Hot-or-Not, a beauty ranking website. However useful this algorithm is, it sounds like a solution screaming for a problem. So, I’ll put on my businessman hat and try to think up a few creative ones.

The most obvious application for such an algorithm would definitely be in plastic surgery. Surgeons already use computer models to help patients visualise their future look and make any necessary corrections. Now, plug in this algorithm and they can even score a woman on how she will look after the surgery. The more artful surgeons may even base their surgery fees on the score, charging exorbitant amounts for a perfect 10.

An alternative application would be for industries where beauty is important, such as acting, modeling or even beauty pageants. Numbers are already important for these people, such as dress size, height and other measurements. So, tacking on an extra number would not be too difficult to do. Obviously, physical beauty isn’t everything, but this tool could be invaluable in helping to screen people out, if someone was diabolically ugly, for example.

Another possible application is for settling bar bets. No longer would guys have to argue about how hot a woman is. All they would need to do is take a photo and upload it to a computer that will spit out a score. This can even be done entirely by mobile phone these days. Ageless arguments can be settled for less than the price of a pint. This might just be the golden standard scale on which, all women in the world will be judged by in the future.

Which leads me to the ultimate application for such an algorithm. This tool would be terribly useful for teenage girls who are self absorbed in their own appearance. Instead of just reading the numbers off a bathroom scale and seeing how they look in a mirror, these girls can now stand in front of a webcam and have an objective score assigned by a computer. This would just do wonders in shaping their self esteem for adulthood.

I know that we boffins rarely get to see the sun, much less women, but this is plain pathetic. There’s not much use in knowing if someone is superficially hot. If they had designed an algorithm that could help other boffins get these hot women, that would be something that I’d take to the bank.

Alright, I know that this entry was a little ironic, but I won’t be surprised if they do really well in this superficial world that we live in, where everything is about appearances.

Idiot Banking

I’ve just read a recent article which says that from now onwards, online banking customers may be held responsible for losses if they have out of date anti-virus or anti-phishing protection. From the banking code, which you can download online, the provisions in section 12.11 clearly state that:

If you act without reasonable care, and this causes losses, you may be responsible for them. (This may apply, for example, if you do not follow section 12.5 or 12.9 or you do not keep to your account’s terms and conditions.)

And if you check up what section 12.9 says:

Online banking is safe and convenient as long as you take a number of simple precautions. Please make sureyou follow the advice given below.

  • Keep your PC secure. Use up-to-date anti-virus and spyware software and a personal firewall.
  • Keep your passwords and PINs secret.
  • We (or the police) will never contact you to ask you for your online banking or payment card PINs, or your password information.
  • Treat e-mails you receive from senders claiming to be from your bank or building society with caution and be wary of e-mails or calls asking you for any personal security details.
  • Always access internet banking sites by typing the bank or building society’s address into your web browser. Never go to an internet banking site from a link in an e-mail and then enter personal details.

I feel that this is a fair move to make. A bank cannot possibly be held liable for a customers’ mistakes especially when such matters are entirely beyond their control. However, in order to be able to enforce this, the banks would also need to take steps in order to educate their customers on online security and also potentially equip their customers with the necessary technology.

As much as I’d like to take this opportunity to deride a certain popular OS for being so insecure that it’ll leak personal information out onto the Internet like a sieve, it would be very unfair for me to do so because, the operating system is only part of the equation in computer security. The weakest link in computer security has been, and always will be, human stupidity.

From the list of items in the document, it seems that the banks are familiar with all the common techniques of tricking customers into revealing their personal details. Phishing is a common method that has caught many people off guard. Spyware installed on a computer can easily intercept useful passwords and PINs and divert them to some unknown third party. In fact, cross site scripting is also a common technique that wasn’t listed but that is something that the banks are liable for, not the customer.

However, there is also a potential danger with this move, especially for customers that do not use the above mentioned popular OS. For example, in my case, there isn’t even an anti-virus software for me to install even if I wanted to, simply because there are essentially, no virii to clean. So, the anti-virus software clause may give the banks a way of weaselling out of their responsibility if I ever get my account drained.

So, I do wonder about the further technological implications of this. I can imagine a scenario where a class action suit might be filed against the maker of the above mentioned popular OS by disgruntled bank customers who had their online accounts drained due to security holes in the system software. If the numbers are large enough, it will definitely happen.

I can also see a good business opportunity for makers of security software. Personally, I think that security software is a dastardly scam. But, these companies can expand their offerings by partnering with selected banks to provide customers with free trial copies of their products, which will essentially force customers to buy their products.

Seriously, if we take basic precautions even when crossing the road, there really isn’t any reason not to take precautions when using a computer. It’s just that the education isn’t there yet. Ultimately, I do think that it is a good move, that will at least, increase public awareness in computer security, which will eventually lead to safe computer use and a safer Internet for everyone else as well.

Parliament Uncut

Parliament Uncut #1
Recently, our new Minister of Information has announced some minor changes to our dearest RTM television channels. Beginning the end of this month, RTM will broadcast live parliament proceedings whenever parliament is in session, between 10:00 and 10:30am daily.

Broadcasting parliament proceedings is a common practice in most democratic countries as a means to encourage accountability and transparency. It serves to inform and educate the public on various national issues and it also allows the voters to gauge how their various MPs are performing at their jobs. So, it is certainly a move that I feel is, although long overdue, thoroughly a welcomed one.

However, some friends have harped that it’s the time chosen is not a very good one as it’s during mid-morning when most people would be at work. But there’s obviously some rational in choosing that time.

Firstly, it’s probably the timeslot with the least number of advertisers. So, filling up with something as boring as parliamentary proceedings, would not affect the bottom line much. Then, it is a good opportunity to gauge interest before evaluating whether or not to start a dedicated parliament channel similar to BBC Parliament.

But the main concern would actually be the actual show that we will be seeing. I would think that the opposition members who have always complained about not getting any airtime, would relish the opportunity at getting free airtime now. Hopefully, they’ll later expand the timeslot so that we would be able to see more of the parliamentary proceedings.

Regardless, I do think that it is a good overture that there are some changes happening in government. Whether or not we’re moving in the right direction is yet to be seen. But it is still good to know that we are moving somewhere, one step at a time.

Actually, everyone should make sure that we support this move and tune into the parliament proceedings everyday. Somebody should actually automate the task of recording the broadcast at 10am each day and uploading it to YouTube. It is something that is fairly trivial to do, with the right knowledge and equipment.

Engineering Terrorists

I had at first thought of writing about something else today, but seeing that I came across this gem of an article, I thought that I’d write about this instead. According to the article, an engineers’ personality traits make them excellent field operatives (i.e. on the ground terrorists). When I read the quote below, I didn’t know whether to take it as a compliment or an insult.

Engineers ideally make excellent strategic planners, and they make excellent field operatives. They think differently from how other people think

Regardless, I was very interested in what these special personality traits were that set us apart from normal people. So, I looked around and found a very interesting definition of an engineer. For this, I will just quote an excellent definition from a letter published by the Institute of Engineering & Technology here. It goes like this:

It may be easier to define an engineer by what he or she is not. An engineer is generally not a scientist, but takes scientific discoveries and applies them to the real world. An engineer is not a life scientist. An engineer is not a mathematician, but can do sums better than any accountant. Some engineers display excellent art capabilities – but they are not artists.

Engineers are creative, imaginative, capable and resourceful. Engineers make things work and bring ideas from the drawing board to real tangible entities. In Victorian times, engineers built big things. Now, while engineers still build big things, they also create things based on that great 20th Century discovery – electronics.

It’s easy to see that engineers created the canals, roads and bridges, the boats, cars and lorries. But engineers also created and operate telephone networks. Engineers bring the TV signals to you and designed the TVs in your house. Engineers made the rockets that flew man to the Moon, launched satellites that keep the world talking and designed and built the satnav in your car.

Engineers designed the medical equipment that allows you to see inside your body. Engineers created the radar and avionics systems that allow planes to land safely. Engineers designed the chips that are at the heart of everything ‘electronic’.

Engineers can be infuriating because they have an innate intuition about all things mechanical and electrical. To quote a delightful Dilbert cartoon – we have ‘the knack’. We are not without fault, though. We never read instructions and before spell check we could not spell. We don’t suffer fools gladly, we may be insecure – which explains why we take the lid off just to see what’s inside, we may be a bit ‘nerdy’ and we hate being told what to do!

When I give this message to teachers who are responsible for bringing on the next generation of engineers, I remind them what was said about Thomas Edison when he was at school. He was told that he was too stupid to learn anything, that his mind was ‘addled’. His inventions are too many to mention here, but you would not be reading at night or making phone calls without his engineering discoveries.

Charles Curry FIET
Ross-on-Wye

That, I think, is a wonderful definition of an engineer. I guess that being people who hate being told what to do, it makes us natural rebels. Then, being slightly insecure, makes us easy targets for conversion. Finally, being creative, imaginative, capable and resourceful, makes us ideally suited to independent field work.

So, it isn’t inconceivable that we would actually make good terrorists. The fact that we know how things works on the inside, does help when you’re trying to figure out how to take it apart. It doesn’t mean that all of us have suicidal tendencies though!

PS: I can totally relate to the part about not suffering fools gladly! d: