Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A security conundrum in Between Silk and Cyanide

One of the advantages of being a fairly public person (having written a book and having a popular-ish blog) is that I have a small coterie of regular correspondents who send me interesting links and thoughts. One of these is a gentleman who sent me a copy of Leo Marks' Between Silk and Cyanide as a gift.

Along with the book came a cryptic note that there was an unsolved mystery in the book. Later I asked him about the mystery which turns out to be this passage:

I've thought about this and am having a hard time coming up with a solution. What could one agent be told that he would not forget but would be unable to recall? Something he could pass on (not in writing) to the other agent, but that if captured and tortured he'd be unable to reveal.

Any clever thoughts?

PS The only thing I got reminded of was this paper: Passwords you’ll never forget, but can’t recall. Perhaps PANDARUS took a photograph (or many photograph) and showed it (them) to MANELAUS. One would have meaning to MANELAUS but not the others, to PANDARUS none would have meaning.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The lost world of physicality

This is a blog post that I hope elicits responses, because I'm interested in people's examples and arguments. And pointers to books or articles on this subject. These thoughts are half formed, so don't expect a 100% perfect blog post.

I think that the world of TV, computers, video games has caused us to lose our connection with the physical world. Add on top of that fear: fear of letting children play in the street, fear of chemistry sets, fear of ultraviolet light. This combination means that people (and especially the young) spend hours indoors away from the physical world immersed in virtual worlds.

Now, I'm not against virtual worlds, but they're not the same thing as real worlds. Real worlds are filled with dirt, hazards, sensation, pleasure, effort and more. The virtual world is clean, colourful, free of danger and effortless. What I'm interested to discover is what we've lost by making that transition. What does it mean that virtual success comes without effort?

Books: as books move to electronic form they take on a different meaning. The words of the book transcend and the physical presentation is lost. On the Kindle every book is Twilight. In the real world the physical book has a meaning of its own: it's the book your wife gave you as an anniversary present, it's the book your late father got part way through and you dare not remove the bookmark he left in place, it's the children's book read and read until the pages are torn and worn. These physical remnants augment the book with personal meaning.

Sex: what happens when pornography becomes the default means of getting sexual pleasure. Does fantasy start to wither in the brain? If every fetish or desire is available (for free) at the touch of a button what happens when we are presented with a real other person to have sex with. And what's the cost of reality not matching screen fantasy?

Making: as a child I had Lego, Play-Doh, and other toys to occupy my hands. Now imagine that these are all virtualized and I play with them on screen. There's no difference felt in my hands between them. No texture, smell and pliability of Play-Doh, no satisfying click of Lego, no hunt for the right coloured piece. If an infinite amount of virtual stuff is available does my imagination atrophy? If I can always find the right coloured, right sized Lego piece is this an advantage or a loss because I'm no longer forced to invent?

Children: as an adult man I'm now viewed by many to be a threat children. I can't be seated next to a child flying alone on a flight. I'm afraid to talk to a child in the street, and we've seen schools instituting policies against any sort of physical contact between children and teachers.

UV: at the same time as these effects have been felt there's been another insidious problem: the War of the Sun. Prohibitions on going out into the Sun unprotected from its rays without sunblock (above SPF 15) have reached the point that vitamin D deficiency is being seen by doctors.

Do restrictions and effort help nurture creativity? What do we lost when the world surrounding children is closed up inside the home, in from of a pixelated screen with fear outside the front door and an infinite supply of on tap edutainment?

I think we need to walk away from the screen, out into the sunlight and touch the real world. It's out there.



Friday, August 26, 2011

My email to Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook developer relations

Back in 2007 I sent the following message to Mark Zuckerberg about the state of developer relations. I had been working with the Facebook API and felt that Facebook didn't really care about its external developers.
My unsolicited thoughts on how Facebook is handling developer relations
Mark,

You don't know me, I have been a technology VP in the Valley for years and
lately I've been coding Facebook apps in PHP. Thanks for opening up the site.

I'm also active in the developer forums, and I think Facebook could do a
better job of how it handles developer relations. I think it would be 
valuable if you appoint someone as a developer advocate within Facebook.

Here's how I imagine you could greatly improve the developer experience:

1. Have the developer advocate hang out in the forums and be a face that 
developers see on a regular basis. This person isn't expected to answer 
all the technical questions; they are there to be an interface between 
Facebook and the developer community.

2. Open up the bug database to developers. If you publish your bug databases 
and allow comments you'll gain a great deal of credibility in the developer 
base. People will have a place to sound off and developers will get a feel 
for how things are progressing.

3. Create 'test.facebook.com' which is a clone of the current site but 
accessible to developers only and which can be used to test the new versions 
of FBML etc. that you'll be creating. This will help fix a lot of problems 
before rolling out to the main site.

4. Publish your up time statistics for apps.facebook.com. Tell people 
immediately when you detect problems. One of the biggest frustrations
is that opacity of the developer team.

5. Fix the application directory. I won't say exactly how here as there 
are many suggestions in the developer forum and I'm sure your team has a 
TODO list for this anyway.

I realize you didn't ask for my ideas, and thank you for reading this far. 
If you have questions you can find me on Facebook.

Cheers,
John.
That email got me an interview with Facebook which went nowhere because I wanted to stay in Europe and they wanted me to move back to Palo Alto. Looking back I'm sad I didn't get further with the process because I still think they do a poor job of handling developers. When I was programming regularly on Windows the state of support and documentation was marvellous. Facebook's was frankly shoddy.

Facebook has just announced that they are moving their support to StackOverflow. Whilst StackOverflow is marvellous this feels more like the company outsourcing a problem that should be core to them. If they want to love developers (as one recent post put it) then they need to embrace them. They also announced that they will have a f8 developer conference this year.

Let's hope the threat of other social networks that do understand developers makes Facebook take big and small developers seriously.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Number of police officers shot dead in the UK by decade

I came across a Wikipedia page listing the names of all UK police officers killed in the line of duty. Given that shootings are quite rare in the UK I thought it would be worth looking at how many have been killed each decade.

That's 68 police officers shot dead in 110 years.

Monday, August 15, 2011

'Sea trials' of a commercial 'Ponyo' boat

So, I bought a little putt put boat to complement the one that I made.

Here's a little film of it being tried out in a swimming pool.



Here's a closer shot of the little boat. It's entirely made from recycled materials. The heat comes from a sort of spoon containing a small wick and filled with candle shavings. In this photograph the spoon is inserted under the boiler.

And here's the spoon itself. I'd already used it and had filled it up with shavings from old birthday candles (they seem to burn very hot and work well).

On the bottom of the boat you can see the two tubes from which water shoots to power the boat forward.

With the roof slid off you can see the little boiler inside. The top surface moves making the pop-pop sound when the boat is moving.

And here's a shot of the top interior showing the markings of the (Italian) can of wood filler from which it was made.



Sunday, August 14, 2011

AirBnB's strange apology

After the mess between AirBnB and a blogger named 'EJ' I received an email from them containing an 'apology'. I've used quotes there because there's something, to me, that doesn't ring true in the apology. Here's the first paragraph of the email I received (my emphasis):
Last month, the home of a San Francisco host named EJ was tragically vandalized by a guest. The damage was so bad that her life was turned upside down. When we learned of this our hearts sank. We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up. Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post trying to explain the situation, but it didn’t reflect my true feelings. So here we go.
First, the feeling of paralysis. If true this is a ridiculous thing to admit. The company has massive financial resources, a large staff and should easily have been able to overcome paralysis. Is it possible that the paralysis they felt was entirely legal? That they felt paralysed because they were worried that doing something would set a legal precedent that they'd have to live with for years to come?

Second, the blog post that didn't express the CEO's feelings. What? If you read the blog post it's pretty clear that it was an attempt to maintain the fiction that everything was going to be ok for... AirBnB.

The second paragraph of the email reads (again my emphasis):
There have been a lot of questions swirling around, and I would like to apologize and set the record straight in my own words. In the last few days we have had a crash course in crisis management. I hope this can be a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts.
The valuable lesson is just the sort of righteous claptrap beloved of some people in Silicon Valley who think everything is a lesson, or a learning experience, and an example of spinning for something positive.

Reading the mail I have a hard time believing the second part about trusting your instincts. I guess that they did trust their instincts when they wrote the first blog post and asked the blogger to take down her original blog post. Their instinct was to protect AirBnB and their investors.

It's true that the rest of the email does apology profusely and outlines ways that AirBnB will improve. That's all good, but I'm left with the distinct feeling that I would not trust the management of AirBnB.