Friday, December 31, 2004

Disaster relief opportunism

I did a search on Google for 'tsunami disaster relief', and then had a look at the returned results, both the sponsored results as well as the text matches.  Every one I looked at (and I looked at about the dozen top links returned) directed me to contribute to relief funds whose target beneficiaries were unspecified. Yes, they were all relief, but every one of the organisations had a charter far more broad than the disaster whose relief I might want to contribute to.

This is disappointing. I don't donate to the United Way because I'm never sure where my donation will go, nor am I overly pleased with their overhead ratio (admittedly, I researched the overhead several years ago, things might have improved). Instead I usually donate to single-purpose charities whose beneficiaries I specifically want to target.

There are arguments for another approach, of course. A problem inherent in donating to single charities is that high profile problems (notably AIDs, cancer, heart disease) will get the majority of donation, whereas any number of equally (or sometimes more) deserving charities are starved for attention and dollars.

Be that as it may, if I am concerned about where my donation will be used, I wasn't able to develop a comfort level with the tsunami relief funds I found in a brief search.

It seems ironic that those organizations sponsoring ads on Google have had enough time to buy ad space for "tsunami", but not enough time or perhaps inclination to create specific funds that would solicit my interest. But they're happy to use public attention on the tragedy to replenish their general coffers. In a world in which smaller scale tragedies like a single drive-by shooting victim has a charitable fund for their dependents organised through a church or bank, larger organisations should find creation of such targeted funds a simple matter. That is, if they were interested in fulfilling the implied promise of collecting under auspices of a specific named tragedy.

Tsunami warnings: how, precisely?

Webmink blogged on conspiracy theories surrounding the tsunami. A poster to his mailing list reported that the Thai government purportedly chose to not warn the public:

... without definitive proof of an imminent tsunami, the meteorological department dared not issue a national warning lest it be accused of spreading panic and hurting the tourism industry ...

We're all thinking about the tsunami and wondering what effect something like that would have on us. Many of my own thoughts are about what kind of warning system could have made a difference.

I have no faith that there is any way to adequately inform people of something like this. No doubt more could have been done in Thailand, Indonedsia, India, Sri Lanka etc to warn in the tourist and 'business' regions that might be affected, but how to get timely warning to residential (and in many cases low-income residential) areas? And somehow I imagine that warning all the rich tourists and leaving poor citizens to fend for themselves would go over ... oh, about as well as lots of research funding for AIDS but much less for TB, despite TB being more prevalent and cheaper to treat (well, historically).

Even thinking out the 'western' world it isn't clear. I live in the San Francisco Bay area in the US. There are a great many areas close to (or sometimes a little below) sea level, and I can't think how people there would be effectively warned. There are a whole bunch of office buildings - are authorities going to call them all? Thousands, of varying sizes? I don't imagine workers are watching the TV for some sort of news flash. Do the authorities have some sort of triage system, priorizing calls based on organization size? I can see the next round of conspiracy theories already.

There are lots of beaches without lifeguards or any other sort of official presence. Coastal hiking trails. Marinas at which there might be any number of people in their boats. Wetlands parks. Low-elevation residential areas.

How is one to get a timely warning to any of these places?

[Comments from my previous blog]

1. a reader left...
Saturday, 1 January 2005 9:02 am
Maybe via SMS? The NYT has a story, linked from

Simon Phipps

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Products and organizational culture

Is software development, software development? That is, is there a core competency in development that is unrelated to what is being developed?

Dare wrote:

One reaction which is obvious in hindsight is the assumption in this post that Microsoft shouldn't abide the fact that Apple is dominating a market it isn't directly engaged in. This is such a natural way of thinking for Microsoft people ("we should be number 1 in every software/hardware/technology related market") that it is often surprising for non-Microserfs when they first encounter the mentality.

This was in response to an open letter by Robert Scoble about getting Microsoft into the 'Pod business.

Interesting to me is whether it is reasonable to expect one organisation to excel at all kinds of software. I think different kinds of software demand a different mindset during
development. Differing priorities more than opposite goals.

As one example, think about games vs operating systems.

Games developers focus on new, flashy, aggressive push-the-envelope use of hardware. In some cases they probably anticipate the next generation of hardware, or even the next generation of overclockers. Stability is less important than texture and grit and larger-than-life experience. And if you push a little too hard and it crashes from time to time, well, not critical. So long as you meet the the Christmas buying season.

Operating system developers have almost the opposite goals. Stability, on hardware old and new, is (or should be) job #1.

I could come up with more examples. You can too.

But if there are different goals, is there one organisational culture that excels at both? That encourages boundless envelope pushing on the one hand and utter stodginess on the other?

By analogy, can corporate accounting and outside sales report to the same organisation? Is it reasonable to expect that they should, and if they do, how well will it work?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Are there two sides to every story?

I heard an interview with psychologist Drew Weston about the way we process discussion and debate, which I found fascinating. He was commenting on journalists presenting "both sides" "as if the midpoint of two biased views is somehow reality".

I've long been disturbed by the way reporters seem to work - I joke that if a reporter finds someone who believes the sun comes up in the west, the reporter will publish a story on the debated sunrise and present both sides fairly.

This isn't objective journalism. Paraphrasing Weston, it isn't objective to portray as opinion the undisputed or undisputable truth.

I've been chewing over some conservative Christian rhetoric recently, and perhaps this is a way to think about it.

On the night of the recent US election, ex Bush speechwriter David Fromme commented that religious conservatives only want respect for their views. This is a clever casting of the debate, because of course we all want to be reasonable. Reason is good. Bias is bad. But by awarding respect to views, are we agreeing that the views are respectable?

I'm not about to respect some of the views I hear, but I will respect the people who hold them, so long as their behaviours are respectable.

Mormons are taught that alcohol is bad, and they choose to not drink it. Fine. They don't tell me I can't drink. Fine. I respect them for having an opinion, expressing it, and living their life consistenty with regard to that opinion.

The problem I have with many religious conservatives, and Fromme's casting of what they want, is that they don't merely want respect for their views. What they really want is to change my behaviour based on their views. They're changing laws to preclude actions inconsistent with their views.

And while I treat them with respect for having and living their views, I cannot respect their desire to force me to live their world view.

Nor am I able to respect the journalist's desire to afford objective treatment to such unreasonable expectation.

It's fine to report on differing views of when life begins. Reporting on a debate of whether abortion should be legal, as if such were a legitimate debate, that's a cop out of real journalism. Because a debate on abortion is really a debate on the ability of a group with particular belief system to regulate the behaviour of another group with different beliefs, and that is exactly what a constitutional democracy is intended to protect against.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Ironic ads by Google

Google needs to start a new service: Ironic Ads by Google.

We've all seen the ads Google placed on both its search results and content pages in the web. When I visit some web pages that have a deal with Google, keyword searches against the page content are used to select ads "the reader will potentially be interested in".

This seems to make sense. I go to a page talking about an product, and might get ads offering that product for sale.

Where this gets to be more amusing is when the content page (in Google parlance) is actually a negative reference. A bad experience report against a consumer product. An argument against a public policy. Google's keyword search of the page identifies the same keywords, and then offers ads for the product being discussed.

I got thinking about this today in reading MinkBlog's article on RFID and privacy, which article I recommend by the way. The article points out that if RFID tags aren't disabled when they leave the sales/delivery chain, they can go on being used to track individuals.

The irony is that in an article about the perils of RFID for privacy, the ads placed by Google are for ... you guessed it ... RFID providers.

I can't help it. It's funny. Google should figure out a way to detect negative pieces, and then offer this service deliberately.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Lies, damned lies, and statistics: artists don't see file sharing as a threat

I enjoy reading Good Morning Silicon Valley, usually.

But a few days ago, in a comment regarding music file sharing, John quoted a survey:

Only 28 percent of the 2,755 musicians surveyed saw file-sharing as a big threat to creative industries.
What would be interesting to know is the relationship between income and the perception of whether file-sharing hurts. Or perhaps the relationship between whether one has been signed to a media label and opinion on whether file sharing hurts.  The fact is, there are dramatic differences between subpopulations within this survey.

And there is admission that the survey was conducted by self-selection. How many big-name musicians do we imagine responding to such a survey?  I suspect only a few, at best, and so the survey speaks only about the attitudes of the disaffected artist. To the extent it speaks for any.

I can imagine one's attitude towards the publicity offered by file sharing might depend strongly on whether one has a record company contract providing promotion. Given the problems in survey design evidenced here, I feel perfectly within my rights to entirely explain away the result as being related to whether the artist had professional promotion. Even more, I am interested to see that even 28% see file sharing as a threat, when I imagine a survey population that is strongly (or even entirely?) biased towards the disenfrachised.  To my mind, this result is suggestive of the opposite conclusion to the one reported.

I simply cannot understand why anyone would conduct such a worthless piece of research, or publish the results when done.  Or then report on it (John!). Apart from to rant at the insanity, as I am doing.

Ok, ok, hyperbole aside, I can imagine why someone might conduct and report on a bad survey - activism. But not why a reporter would then report on the survey, as opposed to reporting on the activist intent. Or simply ignore it.

I hesitated to blog this one, because my feelings about filesharing technology are generally positive, and I didn't want my negative comments about the shoddy use of poor statistical methodology to be interpreted as I disagree with the point being made. I'm really only commenting here on the statistics.