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When Big Data becomes Bad Data

The subject line in today’s email from United Airlines was friendly. “Alan, it’s been a while since your last trip from Austin.”

Friendly, yes. Effective? Not at all close.

Alan, you see, lives in northern California, not in central Texas. Alan rarely goes to Austin. Alan has never originated a round trip from Austin.

My most recent trip to Austin was from SFO to AUS on Feb. 13, 2011, returning on Feb. 15, 2011. The trip before that? In 2007.

Technically United is correct. It indeed has been a while since my last trip from Austin. Who cares? Why in the world would United News & Deals — the “from” name on that marketing email— think that I would be looking for discounted round-trip flights from Austin?

It is Big Data gone bad.

We see example of this all the time. A friend loves to post snarky screen shots of totally off-base Facebook ads, like the one that offered him ways to “meet big and beautiful women now,” or non-stop ads for luxury vehicles. For some reason, Lexus finds his demographic irresistible. However: My friend and his wife live in Manhattan. They don’t own or want a car.

Behavioral ad targeting relies upon Big Data techniques. Clearly, those techniques are not always effective, as the dating, car-sales and air travel messages demonstrate. There is both art and science to Big Data – gathering the vast quantities of data, processing it quickly and intelligently, and of course, using the information effectively to drive a business purpose like behavioral marketing.

Sometimes it works. Oops, sometimes it doesn’t. Being accurate isn’t the same as being useful.

Where to learn that art and science? Let me suggest Big Data TechCon. Three days, dozens of practical how-to classes that will teach you and your team how to get Big Data right. No, it’s not in Austin— it’s near Boston, from April 8-10, 2013. Hope to see you there— especially if you work for United Airlines or Lexus.

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Happy Thanksgiving

Tomorrow Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. This is an odd holiday. It’s partly religious, but also partly secular, dating back to the English colonization of eastern North America. A recent tradition is for people to share what they are thankful for. In a lighthearted way, let me share some of my tech-related joys.

• I am thankful for PDF files. Websites that share documents in other formats (such as Microsoft Word) are kludgy, and document never looks quite right.

• I am thankful for native non-PDF files. Extracting content from PDF files to use in other applications is a time-consuming process that often requires significant post-processing.

• I am thankful that Hewlett-Packard is still in business – for now at least. It’s astonishing how HP bungles acquisition after acquisition after acquisition.

• I am thankful for consistent language specifications, such as C++, Java, HTML4 and JavaScript, which give us a fighting chance at cross-platform compatibility. A world with only proprietary languages would be horrible.

• I am thankful for HTML5 and CSS3, which solve many important problems for application development and deployment.

• I am thankful that most modern operating systems and applications can be updated via the Internet. No more floppies, CDs or DVDs.

• I am thankful that floppies are dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

• I am thankful that Apple and Microsoft don’t force consumers to purchase applications for their latest desktop operating systems from their app stores. It’s my computer, and I should be able to run any bits that I want.

• I am thankful for Hadoop and its companion Apache projects like Avro, Cassandra, HBase and Pig, which in a only a couple of years became the de facto platform for Big Data and a must-know technology for developers.

• I am thankful that Linux exists as a compelling server operating system, as the foundation of Android, and as a driver of innovation.

• I am thankful for RAW photo image files and for Adobe Lightroom to process those RAW files.

• I am thankful for the Microsoft Surface, which is the most exciting new hardware platform since the Apple’s iPad and MacBook Air.

• I am thankful to still get a laugh by making the comment, “There’s an app for that!” in random non-tech-related conversations.

• I am thankful for the agile software movement, which has refocused our attention to efficiently creating excellent software, and which has created a new vocabulary for sharing best practices.

• I am thankful for RFID technology, especially as implemented in the East Coast’s E-Zpass and California’s FasTrak toll readers.

• I am thankful that despite the proliferation of e-book readers, technology books are still published on paper. E-books are great for novels and documents meant to be read linearly, but are not so great for learning a new language or studying a platform.

• I am thankful that nobody has figured out how to remotely hack into my car’s telematics systems yet – as far as I know.

• I am thankful for XKCD.

• I am thankful that Oracle seems to be committed to evolving Java and keeping it open.

• I am thankful for the wonderful work done by open-source communities like Apache, Eclipse and Mozilla.

• I am thankful that my Android phone uses an industry-standard Micro-USB connector.

• I am thankful for readers like you, who have made SD Times the leading news source in the software development community.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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The joy of being a geek: 60-core chips, self-driving cars

So much I could write about today. The U.S. presidential elections. Intel’s new 60-core PCIX-based coprocessor chip. The sudden departure of Steven Sinofsky from Microsoft, after three years as president of the Windows Division. The Android 4.2 upgrade that unexpectedly changed the user experience on my Nexus phone. All were candidates.

Nah. All those ideas are off the table. Today, let’s bask in the warm geekiness of the Google Self-Driving Car. The vehicle, an extensively modified Lexus RH450h hybrid sport utility, lives here in Silicon Valley. The cars are frequently sighted on the highways around here, and in fact my wife Carole saw one in Mountain View last week.

Until today, I had never seen one in action, but at lunchtime, the Self-Driving Car played with me on I-280. If you’re not familiar with the Google Self-Driving Car, here’s a great story in the New York Times about one of the small fleet, “Yes, Driverless Cars Know the Way to San Jose.”

I encountered the Google car going northbound on I-280, and passed it carefully. Many cars lengths ahead, I carefully changed into its lane and slowed down slightly — and waited to see what the self-driving car would do.

The Google car approached slowly, signaled, moved into the next lane, and passed me. I was taking pictures out the window — and the Google engineer sitting in the passenger seat smiled and waved. It was just another day for the experimental hardware, software and cloud-based services.

Yet, why do I have the feeling of having a Star Trek-style First Contact with an alien artificial life form? It is wonderful living in Silicon Valley and being a participant in the evolution of modern technology – both at the IDE and behind the wheel.

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Hurricane Sandy can’t stop the tech from Microsoft and Google

windows-phone-8It take a lot to push the U.S. elections off the television screen, but Hurricane Sandy managed the trick. We would like to express our sympathies to those affected by the storm – too many lives were lost, homes and property destroyed, businesses closed.

Microsoft and Google had scheduled tech events for the week of Oct. 29. Build took place as scheduled on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash. Google cancelled its New York City launch event and offered its products rollouts via blog.

The big Microsoft news was the release of Windows Phone 8, with handsets from HTC, Nokia and Samsung set to go on sale starting in November. This follows, of course, the rollout of Windows 8 and the Surface with Windows RT ARM-based notebook/tablet device on Oct. 26.

Everyone that I know who has talked to who has used a prerelease Windows Phone 8 has been impressed. (I have a Windows Phone 7.5 device and find the Live Tile apps to be quite usable and exciting. I look forward to installing Windows Phone 7.8 on that device.) Through a strong program of incentives for app developers, there are many flagship apps for the phone already.

There are three compelling messages Windows Phone developers:

  • You can use Visual Studio and familiar tools to build apps for Windows Phone 8.
  • Windows Phone 8 is almost identical to Windows 8, so there’s minimal learning curve.
  • Windows Phone 8 is a reboot of the platform, which means you’ll face few competitors in the app store, called Windows Phone Store.

Of course, the downside is:

  • The installed base of Windows Phone 8 is nonexistent, compared to gazillions of iOS, Android and even BlackBerry OS.

If I were an entrepreneurial mobile app developer, I’d give Windows Phone 8 a try.

Google’s news was much more incremental: More hardware and a minor rev of Android.

The new hardware, announced in the Google Official Blog, is a new phone called the Nexus 4 and a 10-inch tablet called the Nexus 10. The big tablet has 2560×1600 display – that’s the same resolution as many 27-inch desktop monitors, and I’d love to see one.

Google’s seven-inch tablet announced during the summer, the Nexus 7, came only with 16GB of RAM and WiFi. Now you can get it with 32GB RAM or GSM-based cellular connections using the HSPA+ mobile standard. These are good hardware upgrades, but aren’t “stop the presses” material in the weeks surrounding the launch of Windows Phone, Windows Phone 8, Surface and Apple’s iPad Mini. Heck, the tablet doesn’t even have 4G.

The operating system update is Android 4.2, which is still called Jelly Bean. There are plenty of consumer features, such as a spherical panoramic camera mode, and a smarter predictive keyboard. The ability to support many users is a good feature, and one frankly that is long overdue for these expensive tablets.

Expect to see more about Android 4.2 at AnDevCon IV, coming up Dec. 4-7, 2012. Maybe someone will bring one of those 10-inch tablets so we can see the screen.

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Apple’s victory over Samsung should drive innovation

The jury is in: Samsung was found to have infringed upon Apple’s numerous mobile patents. The jury’s verdict form, handed down in the United States District Court in San Jose, Calif., found that in many cases that the “Samsung entity has diluted any Apple trade dress(es).” What’s more, Apple proved “by a preponderance of the evidence that the Samsung entity’s direction was willful.”

Ouch. This is the worst case scenario for Samsung. Forget about the US$1.049 billion in damages that Samsung is supposed to pay Apple. What this means is that the jury agreed with what everyone knew simply by looking at the hardware and playing with the software: the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is just like the iPad.

On the short term, this ruling is going have a chilling effect not only on Apple, but on every maker of Android devices. The more similar the devices are to Apple’s iOS phones and tablets, the more scared the hardware manufacturers are going to be. (That is, if the verdict stands and isn’t overturned on appeal.)

We can expect to see a lot of introspection within the Android ecosystem. Google, Samsung and the other device manufacturers will look close, really close, to make sure they stay away from the specific patents cited in this case.

We can expect to see software updates and hardware guidelines that will take Android devices farther from Apple’s devices.

On the short term – this will depress sales of Android devices. On the longer term, we will see a ton of innovation that will truly differentiate Android from iOS.

For too long, Android handset- and tablet-makers have been trying to get as close to the iPhone and iPad design as possible. It’s not laziness or a lack of technical savvy, in my opinion. It’s just that Apple has done such a good job of defining the smartphone and tablet that consumers expect that, well, that’s just how the platforms should work.

Salespeople want to sell Android devices that are identical to Apple devices, only less expensive.

Consumers who choose Android are sometimes making those selections based on technical merit, but are sometimes looking for something that’s just like an iPhone/iPad, only different. Perhaps they want more memory, perhaps a bigger phone screen, perhaps a smaller tablet screen, perhaps a slide-out keyboard, sometimes a removable battery, sometimes simply a brand that isn’t spelled “Apple.”

Of course, with rumors that Apple is about to release a 7-inch iPad, the job of Android tablet companies is only going to get harder. In my own informal polling, folks who have purchased 7-inch tablets have done so mainly because Apple doesn’t sell one.

For the next year or so, Samsung and the whole Android community will fall back and retrench. That will involve unleashing innovation that may have been stifled, as they preferred to imitate the iOS designs instead of pushing their own ideas.

Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery – but in the smartphone and tablet markets, imitation is off the table. For good.

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The new Microsoft logo

The temptation to write about Microsoft’s brand-new logo is almost unbearable. I’ve been trying to resist but… okay. I can’t resist any longer.

Microsoft has a new logo. It has color squares reminiscent of the four color blocks in Office, SharePoint, Visual Studio, and so-on, with the word “Microsoft” spelled out in type. The Pac-Man-like bite out of the letter “o” is gone.

You can see the new logo in this blog post from Jeff Hansen, General Manager, Brand Strategy, Microsoft. Hansen writes

The Microsoft brand is about much more than logos or product names. We are lucky to play a role in the lives of more than a billion people every day. The ways people experience our products are our most important “brand impressions”. That’s why the new Microsoft logo takes its inspiration from our product design principles while drawing upon the heritage of our brand values, fonts and colors.

Ahhh. When I see companies redrawing their logos, I’m reminded of ship stewards rearranging the deck chairs. Don’t they have something better to spend their time on, their money on, than redrawing a well-recognized, 25-year-old logo? Think about the signs that must be remade, documents that must be reprinted, business cards, brand identity handbooks, and so-on. The ROI for this is what?

The same was true, by the way, for the last several movies based on the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew. Why was the Federation constantly redesigning its Star Fleet uniforms? But I digress.

Let’s not forget the 2010 logo redesign for the Gap, a chain of clothing stores. The social-media outrage about this logo change was so swift that the Gap reversed itself a week later. Amazing. You can read the whole sordid story here in Vanity Fair.

The new Microsoft logo isn’t terrible. But it’s not wonderful either. Yes, the colors tie the corporate logo to flagship product identities, but other tech companies like Google use similar colors with Chrome and other product lines. The new Microsoft logo seems utterly unnecessary – and the timing isn’t great.

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The handheld and the tablet, circa 1976

Let’s talk about the HP-67 and HP-97 programmable calculators.

Introduced in 1976, both those models hold place of pride in my collection of vintage computation devices – which consists of a tremendous number of older Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments calculators, as well as dozens of slide rules going back to the late 1800s.

The four-function pocket calculator was the feature phone of its era. Arriving in the early 1970s, they swiftly replaced adding machines. The HP-35 calculator (1972) with its trig, log and exponential functions, singlehandedly killed the slide rule industry.

Programmable calculators with persistent removable storage – specifically Hewlett-Packard’s HP-65 (1974) and Texas Instruments’ SR-52 (1975) – were the equivalent of the first smartphones. Why? Because you could store and load programs on little magnetic cards. You could buy pre-written packs of programs on those cards from HP and TI. There were user groups where calculator programs could publish and share programs. And there were even a few commercial developers who sold programs on cards as well.

Some of my earliest published programs were written for HP and TI calculators in the mid-1970s. A foundational part of my own history as a computer scientist was learning how to do some pretty sophisticated work with only a few hundred bytes of addressable memory. Not megabyes. Not kilobytes. Bytes.

In modern terms, we would call calculator programs distributed on mag cards “apps.” The HP-65 Users Library and the TI PPX-52 (Personal Program Exchange) were among the first app stores.

This brings me to the HP-67 and HP-97, which were introduced simultaneously at prices of US$450 and $750, respectively. They were essentially the same device – except that the HP-67 was a 0.7-pound pocket calculator and the HP-97 was a 2.5-pound battery-powered desktop model with a built-in thermal printer.

“Calculator” is probably the wrong word for these devices. They were portable computers – in fact, they were truly personal computers, albeit with a custom microprocessor, one-line numeric display and only 224 bytes of programmable memory.

Although the form factors and key placement were different – and the HP-97 had the printer – both used the same programming language. Both models had a mag-card reader – and a program written on one could be used on the other without modification. This was unique.

In modern terms, the HP-67 and HP-97 were like handhelds and tablets sharing the same apps, like the iPhone and iPad, or Android phones and tablets.

No matter how far we’ve come, we’ve been here before.

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Fast cars! Fast phones! And a new developer conference!

Toys, toys, toys. I love to read about new toys, especially sleek sports cars and nifty computerized gadgets. This week has been a bonanza – from two different directions.
You might think my focus would be on the big annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Actually, I’ve been more keenly following the happenings at the North American International Auto Show, which kicked off January 9.
Dozens of exciting cars and concept vehicles were introduced at the NAIAS, which is also known as the Detroit Auto Show. They include a smokin’ hot Acura NSX super car (pictured), the futuristic Lexus LF-LC, a new Mini Roadster, the four-door Porsche Panamera Turbo R, the fast-looking Mercedes SL550, the BMW i8 electric car… the list goes on and on.
A big part of the news from Detroit overlapped what was also talked about at the Consumer Electronics Show. Sure, CES features lot of “ultrabook” lightweight notebook computers, incredibly thin televisions, high-definition digital cameras, three-dimensional printers, even electric razors. But automotive computers were very much front and center.
There’s a lot more to computerized cars than iPod jacks or even streaming Pandora on a 28-speaker Bose sound system. Companies like BMW, Ford and Mercedes-Benz are integrating phone applications with vehicles’ onboard computers. The smartphone sends the car email and text messages. The car sends back real-time diagnostics. I’m told you can even make phone calls!
Soon, you will update your car’s firmware as often as you update your smartphone’s apps.
To change the subject only slightly: Let’s talk about developing smartphone software. You know that BZ Media – the company behind SD Times and News on Monday – produces developer conferences for Android and iPhone/iPad developers. We are proud to announce support for another platform at WPDevCon: The Windows Phone Developer Conference.
WPDevCon is coming to the San Francisco Bay Area from Oct. 22-24, 2012. We are currently assembling a full slate of workshops and technical classes, and the program will be ready in early March. However, we invite you to check out the website, www.wpdevcon.net, and of course, mark your calendar if you or your colleagues are interested in attending.
Want to propose a class? See the Call for Speakers and then drop me a line. Interested in exhibiting? Contact my colleague email hidden; JavaScript is required.
Which is more interesting to you, the latest cars at the Detroit Auto Show or the snazzy gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show?
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PR angels in the outfield

This just in, from the aptly named “Pitch Public Relations.” This particular fastball, sent to a technology analyst (me), was high and to the outside… though, one could argue, by my blogging the pitch, the agency is getting the coverage it wanted.

From: “Ann Noder”
Date: December 15, 2009 9:22:00 AM PST
Subject: New – Angel Book

Alan,

World renowned Spiritual Intuitive, Sonja Grace (www.sonjagrace.com) tackles the subject of death like no one else before, in her new 2010 book, Angels in the 21st Century: A New Perspective on Death and Dying.

I thought you might have interest in a review copy.

For nearly 30 years, Sonja has been providing clarity and guidance helping people worldwide to seek answers from within, as well as from the spirit realm. Thanks to her special gifts, she provides profound and unique insight, revealing how tuning into the Four Essential Bodies (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) provides each of us the ability to experience a life of happiness, in part by preparing us for the greatest passage of all: Death.

The book takes a truly hopeful and positive look at what it really means to die.

Please let me know if you are interested in taking a look.

Also, happy to provide more information, a jpeg of the cover, and/or an interview. Thanks!

Ann Noder
CEO/President
Pitch Public Relations(tm)
email hidden; JavaScript is required
Phone: 480.263.1557
Fax: 480.907.5298
www.PitchPublicRelations.com

@pitchpublicrelations.com

Pitch PR president Ann Noder (pictured) boasts on her website,

Plain and simple. Pitch Public Relations is about pitching to the media. We get your story, your product, your service, yourself in the news in a big way. We’re not talking advertisements or commercials here. We get companies featured editorially. So, how do we do it? Hey, we won’t give away all our secrets. But we start with a roster of media contacts that are unmatched – from magazine editors to television news reporters and everything in between. Combine that with savvy story placement and an aggressive work ethic and bingo – you have a formula for PR success.

Perhaps the secret formula should include, “Target the appropriate media.”

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Email messages without subject lines — grrrr!

nosubjectAmong the most peevish of my pet peeves are email messages that have no subject line. Why do people send them?

I know, I know, it’s generally accidental. Unfortunately, not all email applications warn users when they’re sending a message without a subject line. While most do warn, often you can set a configuration preference to disable such warnings.

The graphic is of the pop-up message that Mac Mail provides. As far as I know, there’s no way to disable it the alert. Good!

Memo to world: Sending email without a subject line is pretty rude. Subject lines help us find messages in our inbox, and also let us link threads together. Test your email software to make sure that it warns you. If it doesn’t, check your settings to turn that feature on (or back on).

Memo to my friend Nancy, who always uses the subject line “from Nancy”: That’s just as bad! I already know that the message is from you, since I see your name in the “From” field. I have a hundred messages from you, on multiple threads, and they all have the subject lines “from Nancy” or “re: From Nancy” — stop it!

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I love my super-comfy Steelcase Think office chair

chairI am consistently amazed at how comfortable my Steelcase Think office chair is.

For years, my back had been sore and stiff if I sat in front of my computer for more than an hour or so. In early 2005, I mentioned that to a friend, and he said, duh, buy a better chair. I guess it was time to replace the task chair picked up second-hand 15 years earlier.

My search was exhaustive: I was willing to spend serious money to get something good. After visiting several “real” office furniture stores – places like Office Depot, Staples and Office Max have a lousy selection, imho – I fell in love with the Think.

What I like is that it’s essentially a self-adjusting chair. The Think has extremely few adjustments, and the back is made of springy steel rods. Plus the mesh fabric means that my back doesn’t get all hot and sweaty on a warm day. (You can read about the ergonomics at the Steelcase site.)

Some even pricier chairs I tested, like the Steelcase Leap and the Herman Miller Aeron, were much more complicated, and much less comfortable. With an Aeron, I literally can’t find settings that work. With the Think, it only took a minute to find the right settings, and I haven’t changed them in the past 2 ½ years.

While I can’t claim that the Think is the best premium office chair, I believe that this is the best investment that I’ve ever made in my work environment. I paid about $700 for it in 2005 at an office furniture store in San Francisco.

There are a few different versions available. Mine is the original model with mesh back, cloth seat and adjustable arms. Today, Steelcase also offers leather or vinyl coverings, fixed arms or armless, and optional headrests and lumbar supports. That makes it complicated again! When I got mine, the only option was fabric color. I chose black.

So, if you sit at your desk/computer for hours at a time, and if you’re using a cheap task chair, consider an upgrade. Try the Think — maybe it’ll work for you, maybe it won’t. (My wife tried mine out, but didn’t care for it.) The important thing is that you get a good chair that fits you well, and is comfortable. If you’re sore and stiff, duh, buy a better chair.

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Greetings, Earthlings and Script Kiddies

cobra wheelWelcome to my blog. It has to start somewhere, and this is where it starts. And the trek had to start sometime; it should have started a long time ago, but it didn’t, so here we are.

This blog will be a spot to discuss topics of professional and personal interest to me, mainly focused on the realm of information technology, focusing on software development, security, enterprise computing, and the like.

Let me start with a story software hacking that begins, oddly enough, with an automotive service experience.

Earlier this week, I took my beloved 1993 Mustang GT to the Ford dealer for a routine maintenance, which includes a tire rotation. At about 11:00 am, I got a call from the service advisor: “Mr. Zeichick, I can’t find the key for your wheel locks. Where is it?”

I drove back to the shop, we searched high and we searched low. We couldn’t find the special key, so we skipped that part of the service.

But now I’ve got my mighty steed parked in the driveway, with a missing wheel lock key. What if I get a flat? I need to get those locks off pronto!

Wheel locks are a nuisance. However, I have expensive Ford Cobra rims, the dealer advised that their TTL (time to live) without locks would be less than a week. Ever since, I assumed that the wheel locks would do a decent job protecting the vehicle. How can I get them off without damaging the wheels? Gosh, this is going to be hard.

Time to ask an expert. I went to my local Sears hardware store with a spare lug nut, and asked my favorite salesman if he knew how to jury-rig sockets, wrenches, pry bars and other implements to get the wheel locks off. “Relax,” he laughed, and referred me to the “SK 2-Piece 1/2-Inch Drive Wheel Removal Kit” designed expressly for removing damaged lug nuts and wheel locks.

Five minutes after getting home, the lock nuts were removed, without damaging the wheels or bolts. And three of those five minutes were spent finding the half-inch socket set.

My confidence in Sears went up – while my confidence in wheels locks went down. If I could buy this tool “over the counter” at my local hardware store, then presumably anyone who wanted to lift wheels would already have one. Bottom line: those wheel locks wouldn’t have even slowed a thief down. Ignorance was bliss. My ignorance could have cost me, big-time, especially if those had been really expensive rims, or if the car was routinely parked on the street, instead of in my garage.

When it comes to people who want to break into your system, there are two types: technical experts, who will use their superior knowledge and experience to find and exploit your Web site or application vulnerabilities – and “script kiddies,” who will simply apply pre-existing hack techniques and use tools created by other people. Just like any petty thief could buy the wheel-lock removal kit at Sears, so any script kiddie can download hacking tools for free.

Now I’m hunting for a better grade of wheel lock… and you should be making sure that your own app-security measures won’t fall to the first script kiddie who decides to target your applications and data with an over-the-counter tool.