Taoffi's blog

prisonniers du temps

The social vs. networking

Numerous of the latest events reveal as much of collisions between technology and social activities.

You may have a look at some of Zeynep Tufekci's articles to get an idea about how broad the problem is.

Information Technology seems to have grownup immersed in its own technical problems with little regard to the social role it might (or might have to) play.

It is somehow astonishing, for instance, to watch how a company like Facebook does not seem to grasp few simple responsibilities about what it may / may not sell or buy and to whom. And how it came up at the end by admitting that a 'human' check is required over ads sold on its network!

Definitely, some technology companies seem to have grown up from their technical issues to at least one social notion: profit.

Unfortunately that cannot be enough. May they just recall that even profit is constrained by laws and, accessorily, some fundamental ethics!

Thuggish practices in businesses

I keep being surprised of the number of unmentioned violent incidents we live everyday while condemning violence is a common theme in all occasions. We seem to agree that exerting violence in some form is condemnable, but accept (or at least keep unmentioned) other forms of violence that are often the seeds of the condemnable type.

One common type of violence, that many people live without even having the right to talk about, is violence exerted in the workplace. Harassment in businesses is more and more a common practice. It even seems to have been elevated to some high level of craftsmanship or art, all with its own techniques!

If we try to summarize violence as an act of offering the choice of: 'Do that or otherwise die' / 'You did not do that, you deserve dying', that would exactly be the significance of harassment in the workplace: 'Do that or otherwise be fired' / 'You did not do that, you deserve being fired'. Where being 'fired' ultimately means: have no resources, and, most probably Die! (Or at least, join those beggars you just met in your commute this morning!)

I can hardly consider such situations otherwise than a violence exerted on people.

I wanted to talk about this subject after having found myself in a real situation during a mission at a small company where nervousness among the people was perceptible in a way I did not see before. In the workplace, you could easily guess who are the 'foremen' specialized in people harassment (themselves being harassed by others …less visible!). The thick ambiance all being clothed into artificial ways of 'humanization' through – more or less superficial – parties, drinks, games and the like. But which could not mask the ambient anxiety.

On the ethical side, such violence is questionable.

Not surprisingly, on the productivity side that had negative effects too. You cannot be creative nor productive by fear.

The global technical level and practices of the company were rather 'low' by many standard measures. But you could not find an ear that may accept changes, or just accept discussing change proposals. The thick ambiance turned the business activity into sclerosed processes deaf to change. 'Change' became Fearful!

All that activity (and violence) were of course performed through, allegedly, 'Agile' and other artifacts which are sometimes just words decorating the worst unethical practices and bad results you can imagine!

 

Anecdotally, the company's business was: 'to help businesses in investigating unethical practices'!

No need to mention: I was fired J

Inspiring Jargon

I read:

"Arianespace… announced […] that two satellites it had tried to launch to join the European Space Agency's Galileo constellation, had entered a "non-nominal injection orbit"—in other words, gone wrong"  

You probably now know how to better say "I got a bug" (when it is just a "non-nominal behavior")!

Microsoft case: going monochrome

On the Windows Phone 8, the latest MSFT phone OS, you have a nice Theme selection option, which says:

"Change your phone's background and accent color to suit your mood today, this week or all month"

Quite attractive!

The feature proposes two settings:

  • Background
  • Accent color

 

On 'Background', you have two options: Light / Dark

On 'Accent color', you have a palette of 21 colors (which seems to be a pretty little choice on a device that, according to the manufacturer, can display 65000 colors or more!)

I should admit, that not having a choice is in a way less time consuming. May be this was the initial OS designer's intended objective.

 

Now let us leave WP and go back to the desktop machine to have a look at Microsoft Office 2013.

Here too, you have a nice feature to select your theme.

You have the choice between:

  • White
  • Light gray
  • Dark grey

 

The difference between the three is really too subtle:

I tried them all, and ended up by selecting 'Dark': a little more readable!

On another point: after all the literature about the 'user interface design guidelines', it now seems that Microsoft Office apps are the only applications that can keep being outside of any graphical constraints. Those guys are really too spoiledJ

 

Conclusion

It seems that someone at MSFT has decided to re-form our education about colors. The 'monochrome' seems to be the new MSFT User Interface Strategy (you can check yourself: Windows Phone, Windows 8, Office 2013…)

Some people may find this abusive… but, in a way, we are much less embarrassed with this new reduced theme strategy… we may gain more time to think about things more useful!

The piteous story of FBI vs. LulzSec!

Few days ago, many press articles exposed what was supposed to be spectacular action of the FBI against LulzSec.

The main ‘spectacular’ action this time was that the FBI succeeded in gaining the ‘cooperation’ of one young man who was, more or less, part of the young people's movement.

The ‘cooperation’ of this poor scared young person, lasted 10 months… from June 2010 to March 2011, where he sometimes worked ‘full nights’ for the FBI to deliver his colleagues and friends in the best (illegal) conditions!

According to the press news (relating FBI personnel declarations), the operation ended up by arresting 4 suspected persons (all over the worldJ).

Apparently not hoping for many more suspects through its new agent, the FBI decided to throw him away by revealing his identity to the press! (Not very much encouraging collaborating with those people… isn’t it?)

Well… by any simple arithmetic logic: 10 months of cooperation of such a great agent to simply have 4 suspects… that really seems pitiful.

Finally: The story seems in fact more about the recurrent failure of organizations like FBI to do their job (whatever this job may be!)

ShrekPoint

shrek With a little refactoring, this presentation can be quite good for SharePoint 2010:

“In this fully computer-animated fantasy from the creators of Antz, we follow the travails of Shrek […], a green ogre who enjoys a life of solitude. Living in a faraway swamp, he is suddenly invaded by a hoard of fairy tale characters, such as the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, and Three Blind Mice, all refugees of their homes who have been shunned by the evil Lord Farquaad […]. They want to save their homes from ruin, and enlist the help of Shrek, who is in the same situation…”

 

“While simultaneously embracing and subverting fairy tales, the irreverent Shrek also manages to tweak Disney's nose, provide a moral message to children, and offer viewers a funny, fast-paced ride.”

 

Back to basics: the Team vs. the Crew!

“If you don’t vent the drain pipe like this, sewage gases will seep-up through the water in the toilet, and the house will stink of shit”!

That seems to be a ‘clear standard’ taught to an apprentice.

Around such clear, understandable and concrete reasoning, you can build a product (or at least a knowledge) that is reusable and sustainable.

In his book “Shop Class As Soul Craft”, Matthew B. Crawford revisits the meaning, structure and alienation of Work and Knowledge in the modern era (particularly after World War II) and delivers a fresh and inspired view of the question.

One of the discussed subjects is the ‘Team’ rhetoric which appears to be the modern form for trying to definitively remove the individual from the image of ‘Work’.

 

“There is a sort of friendship or solidarity that becomes possible at work when people are open about differences of rank, and [where] there are clear standards.”

 

'Strategic' Pause!

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NOTE: I found that Dick Brass's article is an interesting insider view. That is why I decided to publish it here in its entirety.

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Microsoft’s Creative Destruction

By DICK BRASS

 

 

Published: February 4, 2010

International Herald Tribune

 

 

Dick Brass was a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004.

AS they marvel at Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon’s popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or popular Web services like Facebook and Twitter.

Some people take joy in Microsoft’s struggles, as the popular view in recent years paints the company as an unrepentant intentional monopolist. Good riddance if it fails. But those of us who worked there know it differently. At worst, you can say it’s a highly repentant, largely accidental monopolist. It employs thousands of the smartest, most capable engineers in the world. More than any other firm, it made using computers both ubiquitous and affordable. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office applications suite still utterly rule their markets.

The company’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer, has continued to deliver huge profits. They totaled well over $100 billion in the past 10 years alone and help sustain the economies of Seattle, Washington State and the nation as a whole. Its founder, Bill Gates, is not only the most generous philanthropist in history, but has also inspired thousands of his employees to give generously themselves. No one in his right mind should wish Microsoft failure.

And yet it is failing, even as it reports record earnings. As the fellow who tried (and largely failed) to make tablet PCs and e-books happen at Microsoft a decade ago, I could say this is because the company placed too much faith in people like me. But the decline is so broad and so striking that it would be presumptuous of me to take responsibility for it.

Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator. Its products are lampooned, often unfairly but sometimes with good reason. Its image has never recovered from the antitrust prosecution of the 1990s. Its marketing has been inept for years; remember the 2008 ad in which Bill Gates was somehow persuaded to literally wiggle his behind at the camera?

While Apple continues to gain market share in many products, Microsoft has lost share in Web browsers, high-end laptops and smartphones. Despite billions in investment, its Xbox line is still at best an equal contender in the game console business. It first ignored and then stumbled in personal music players until that business was locked up by Apple.

Microsoft’s huge profits — $6.7 billion for the past quarter — come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.

For example, early in my tenure, our group of very clever graphics experts invented a way to display text on screen called ClearType. It worked by using the color dots of liquid crystal displays to make type much more readable on the screen. Although we built it to help sell e-books, it gave Microsoft a huge potential advantage for every device with a screen. But it also annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success.

Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used. The head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches. The vice president for pocket devices was blunter: he’d support ClearType and use it, but only if I transferred the program and the programmers to his control. As a result, even though it received much public praise, internal promotion and patents, a decade passed before a fully operational version of ClearType finally made it into Windows.

Another example: When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.

Skip to next paragraphSo once again, even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged. To this day, you still can’t use Office directly on a Tablet PC. And despite the certainty that an Apple tablet was coming this year, the tablet group at Microsoft was eliminated.

Not everything that has gone wrong at Microsoft is due to internecine warfare. Part of the problem is a historic preference to develop (highly profitable) software without undertaking (highly risky) hardware. This made economic sense when the company was founded in 1975, but now makes it far more difficult to create tightly integrated, beautifully designed products like an iPhone or TiVo. And, yes, part of the problem has been an understandable caution in the wake of the antitrust settlement. Timing has also been poor — too soon on Web TV, too late on iPods.

Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.

As a result, while the company has had a truly amazing past and an enviably prosperous present, unless it regains its creative spark, it’s an open question whether it has much of a future.