Friday, May 21, 2010


For the next month or so expect postings here to be infrequent. I'm more likely to post short snippets on Twitter or Google Buzz during this time.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Friday, May 14, 2010

Uncanny Friending

There is an urban legend that Eskimos have many different words for snow. The truth is the Aleut languages have about as many words for snow as does English, but allow descriptive suffixes to be attached to any word to form countless variations.

Consider the English words we use to describe human relationships, and the distinctions they convey in meaning:

sisterstepsisterhalf sister
significant otherfiancéespouse
friendjust friendsfriend with benefits

We use adjectives to add huge amounts of information in a single word. "fiancée" conveys one meaning, that of a beloved person. "current fiancée" conveys an entirely different meaning, a disposable relationship given a label for convenience.

Now consider the words we use to describe relationships in social networks:


Why do we find this unsatisfying? I believe it is a corollary to the Uncanny Valley effect in robotics and computer games: "friend" is close enough to the real description of the human relationship that we find it unsettling. If the term were more inhuman, less shaded with meaning, it would not be so maddening.

The term "like" has a similar problem: who wants to like something unpleasant or unsavory? Clicking "like" is meant is to express interest, but the terminology is close enough to the real intention to be maddeningly imprecise.

I also suspect this vaguely unsettling feeling will resolve itself in a few more years online: the words friend and like will simply lose all meaning. We'll know this has been achieved when people stop using air quotes to distinguish online friending versus real life friends.

This genesis of this musing came via an insightful tweet by Marshall Kirkpatrick:

told my wife that google "results from your social circle" showed me because we are friends. she insists we are more than that. true :) less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Marshall Kirkpatrick

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Death of Copper Predicted. Film at 11.

copper RJ45 and fibers held in a handEvery handful of years we ratchet up the Ethernet link speed: from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps in the early 1990s, to 1 Gbps in the mid 1990s, to 10 Gbps in the early part of this century. 40 Gbps is the next target. At the 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps transitions naysayers maintained that copper cables would never be able to meet the required signaling rates and that optical would prevail. The same doubt is now being voiced about 40 Gbps.

During the 1 Gbps and 10 Gig transitions, optical media became available several years before copper, and then the initial 10 Gig copper specs were limited to patch cable distances of 10-15 meters. 40G will repeat the story with optical products already available, substantially before copper. Nonetheless I'd wager 40G copper transceivers will eventually appear in some form.

Yet this time, optical will win. Not because of the technology or limitations of copper wire, but because of economics. Economics used to be in copper's favor: simple install and no expensive lasers. Copper could ride the silicon technology curve, throwing ever more DSP power at the problem. Times have changed: cat6a and cat7 cabling is as difficult and expensive to install as fiber, and solid state laser components allow optical transports to ride the silicon technology curve.

  • Like fiber, cat6/7 cables have a minimum bending radius. Pull too tight and the cable can no longer handle long distances.
  • Like fiber, cat7 does not tolerate being stretched. Stretch a 100m cable by a centimeter and its performance suffers.
  • Even padded cable staples put too much pressure on the cable. cat7 must run in a tray or conduit, and the bulky shielding means fewer of them will fit.
  • cat7 cables are very sensitive to connectorization. The crimp tool you used for cat5e won't do.

The other problem with copper cables is that they are made of copper, an actively traded commodity. The chart below shows the raw material cost of copper over the last century, normalized to the US Dollar in 1998. During much of the late 1990s and early 2000s copper was cheap by historic standards. In the last few years the commodity price has trended back up due to demand, without a matching increase in new supply. If there is a natural ceiling for copper pricing where the market will seek alternatives, we do not appear to have hit it yet.

Price of copper since 1900 in 1998 dollars

(data source: US Geological Survey)

I'm not predicting that 40 Gig copper transceivers will be impossible. On the contrary, I suspect there will be two solutions brought to market: a very short reach spec using RJ45 patch cables, and a 100m spec which imposes more painful requirements like cat7a/cat8, use of multiple cables, and electrically better connectors (presumably also manufactured, not connectorized on site). These products will eventually appear, substantially lagging optical product availability.

I simply suspect that the economics no longer work in coppers favor: patch cables from one side of the rack to the far corner will be long enough to have to worry about install quality. If the pressure from zip-ties fastening the cable to the rack threaten the operation of your network, you're better off using fiber.

The genesis of this post came as a comment on Stephen Foskett's excellent Pack Rat blog. It is an excellent resource, highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Privacy vs Voyeurism

Much has been written about privacy online. When Pandora reveals our friend's music tastes it makes us slightly uncomfortable, even if we enjoy the new music suggestions which result. When our friends can unknowingly reveal information about us, we find it disturbing. Facebook privacy currently dominates the discussion, but the trend of all online activity has been more sharing and less privacy.

I use foursquare, which allows friends on that service to see your location when you checkin. Earlier this week a friend checked in to the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

Hospital Heart/Lung monitor screen

A checkin notification is devoid of context; there was no indication if it was routine or emergency. Certainly if one had just rushed a child to the hospital one wouldn't bother checking in... but what about hours later? What about an extended stay, after initial panic subsides? Where detail is lacking, the mind fills in possibilities. After thinking about it for a while, worry overcame reservation and I sent email asking if there was anything I could do to help.

As it happens, the visit was completely routine.

It felt weird, asking if everything was ok. I was acting on the basis of information which even just a couple years ago would not have been available to me. Back then I would only have known if he'd informed me directly, and in that context asking if I could help wouldn't have seemed even slightly awkward.

Even if it hadn't been a routine visit, even if there had been help I could provide, reaching out on the basis of a foursquare checkin would have still felt weird. Why is that? I think it is a form of guilt, as using social media in this way feels a bit like voyeurism. In this case it was information the person had chosen to share by explicitly checking in on foursquare, but down in the subconscious it is still equated to clandestine spying.

As online privacy recedes, I think we're all going to be experiencing this feeling more often.

Thoughts on Sharing

Society does not inherently guarantee our privacy. It never did. The privacy most of us enjoy is actually anonymity. Celebrities struggle greatly to keep any portion of their lives out of public view; when you discard anonymity, privacy tends to go with it. As communications technology improves, the bar to achieve a degree of celebrity is lowered. I suspect the further back in history you go the difference will be the geographical radius of ones renown, not its impact.

We're rushing into a world where a huge percentage of the population will experience the advantages and disadvantages of losing anonymity in their daily lives.

  • The eCommerce site will know your approximate net worth.
  • The customer service response will be finely tuned to the likelihood your displeasure could damage their business.
  • Product companies will assemble marketing lists of people who are statistically more likely to buy their product. Not by placing ads in venues they are likely to frequent, but by targeting them directly.
  • When I look for a dance class for my daughter, I'll know if her friends are already enrolled somewhere without having to ask them.
  • Insurance as we know it today will fade away, uncompetitive. It will not use actuary tables, it will be essentially an auction based on a tailored risk profile.

We might recoil from this, but I suspect it is not something which can be stopped. The technology has reached the point where these things are feasible, and there is a huge economic incentive to do so. A concerted effort to stop it results in the technology being less visible, not absent.

Update: Louis Gray, the friend whose hospital checkin triggered this musing, has posted some thoughts on location-based services and what information we make available to others.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Safe Food Design: Hot Dogs

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement calling for the redesign of foods which pose a choking hazard to children. Among the foods listed are hot dogs.

I humbly present my proposal:

Hot Dog cut to resemble octopus tentacles