Saturday, June 30, 2012

Today's "I was wrong" - Netflix, Amazon, and availability

Earlier this morning, I wrote a post in my tymshft blog entitled Amazon cloud failure – non-tech CAUSE, but tech REASON. This post, a follow-up to an earlier tymshft post entitled The decidedly non-tech reasons for computer system failures, dug into the Friday night failure of several Amazon-hosted services, including Pinterest, Instagram, and Netflix. The immediate cause was the weather, but weather alone cannot bring down a system.

In this morning's tymshft post, I opined:

Does Netflix require five nines availability? Well, that depends upon its users. I’d be willing to bet that most Netflix users haven’t thought about five nines availability. In the pre-Netflix days, back when people used to congregate in buildings called “movie theaters,” we didn’t necessarily think about five nines availability either.

In addition, I don’t know if Amazon promised five nines to Netflix and the other companies. My bet is that they didn’t promise it. My guess is that Amazon offered a higher availability option to the companies, and the companies rejected the offer for price reasons, sticking with a lower availability level. What could go wrong?

Well, the blogger could go wrong, that's what could go wrong. My assumption that Netflix hadn't purchased high availability was incorrect, according to Data Center Knowledge:

The latest outage was unusual in that that it affected Netflix, a marquee customer for Amazon Web Services that is known to spread its resources across multiple AWS availability zones, a strategy that allows cloud users to route around problems at a single data center. Netflix has remained online through past AWS outages affecting a single availability zone.

Forbes provided a little more detail, including a tweet from Netflix's Adrian Cockcroft:

What’s interesting is Netflix seems to have the multi-region redundancy built in, but ran into issues with Elastic Load Balancing, which is the portion of Amazon’s service that tells web page requests which servers to get them from, connecting user requests to functioning instances. Or at least that’s what this tweet from Adrian Cockcroft seems to imply:

@jakeludington @wh1t3rabbit lost instances
in one zone, but lost ELB traffic routing to the zones that were
working… gradually coming back

— adrian cockcroft
(@adrianco) June 30,

So it appears that Netflix took a number of steps to ensure high availability to its customers - but something still went wrong here. Netflix is presumably looking at the issue right now, and may or may not reveal what it finds (it may choose not to reveal this because doing so could benefit Netflix's competitors).

Regardless, my tymshft post had an erroneous assumption.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jane, the robots, and medical privacy

This is a rough account of a story that's been taking place for over a year.

Jane (not her real name) was a mother with a then 11-year-old daughter. One day Jane went to the emergency room in severe pain, which turned out to be pain in her left ovary. Ultrasounds were performed, and a total hysterectomy was recommended. Medical personnel from St. Rita's Medical Center told Jane about a procedure called robotic hysterectomy, which allowed more precision than a hysterectomy performed using older non-robotic methods. Jane consented to the procedure, and apparently the procedure went well - so well, in fact, that a conversation like this subsequently happened.

"Jane, this is Wanda at St. Rita's. How are you doing?"

"Great, Wanda!"

"That's good to hear, Jane. I'm glad that St. Rita's robotic surgery worked well for you."

"It certainly did, Wanda."

"I'm glad you feel that way, Jane. Um, Jane - St. Rita's would like to tell your story. We wouldn't include specific details, of course, but we wanted to let other people know about the robotic surgery procedures that we can perform, and how they can help patients to recover more quickly."

"What would I have to do?"

"Nothing. We'd just need to take a picture of you, and we'll take care of the rest."

"Now this wouldn't go into detail about the nature of my surgery, would it?"

"Of course not, Jane."

Now perhaps some of this is open to debate, but at least some of these events took place. Jane's picture was taken, and St. Rita's shared Jane's story - including Jane's real name and the age of her daughter - in a page 3 ad in the May 21, 2011 edition of the Delphos Herald.

But wait - there's more! They ran a billboard also. The billboard didn't include Jane's name, but it did include her picture along with a quote attributed to her:

Robotic hysterectomy was my answer.

That billboard and quote caught the eye of Steven Hodson, who shared it in a WinExtra post.

I did some more digging, and shared more of the story (with an angle on future medical procedures) in a post in my tymshft blog.

That tymshft post resulted in the following comment from "Zion":

This woman on the billboard is my sister in law. She never said that quote, it was created by St. Rita’s. In fact she’s likely going to sue them over the quote and over telling the entire world about the hysterectomy. The only thing she had agreed to have the billboard say was that robotic surgery worked for her, not the specifics about the type of procedure.

Now most of you realize that many of the quotes in advertisements and press releases were never actually said by the people who supposedly said them. The quotes are usually written by a marketing person, and go to the person who actually said them for approval. If Zion is correct, Jane never approved the quote, and never approved use of the word "hysterectomy" in any part of St. Rita's marketing campaign.

Now St. Rita's may claim otherwise, and may even be able to point to a signed contract in which Jane gave her consent to all of this.

But the whole episode shows that there is a wide range of practices regarding medical privacy. On the one hand, United States medical personnel are under stringent privacy restrictions - so stringent that my wife cannot find out medical details about me unless I give specific consent.

On the other hand, everyone in Ohio knows about Jane's uterus. And she's not smiling.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Oh-oh! The pound of Brixton

No, this is not a post in my Empoprise-MU music blog. This is a post in which I ask the question, What is money?

At the end of the day, money is an item (a piece of paper, a piece of metal, an ear of corn, or perhaps even a virtual currency) that is assigned a particular value by two people who use it in exchange. Perhaps this definition is not technically correct, but the key part here is that two people agree upon the value of the money.

I live in a place where three hundred million people (or most of them, anyway), agree that the United States Dollar has a particular value. Even people outside of the United States assign a value to our dollar.

There are currencies that are issued by other governments. Some are convertible to other currencies, while some are not.

And then there are currencies that are not issued by any government at all. The chief example of this is gold. (A question to companies that sell gold - if gold is so valuable, and its value is expected to skyrocket if Obama or Romney or Marilyn Manson becomes President - anyway, if it's going to appreciate in value so much, then why are you so willing to sell it to me?)

And then there is a currency issued by the B£ Community Interest Company called the Brixton pound. Let me tell you about it:

To begin using the B£ all you need to do is:

Exchange pounds sterling for B£s at issuing points
Spend B£s with participating businesses (instead of sterling or in part-payment)
Ask for B£s in your change
Accept B£s yourself if you trade in Brixton
Ask your staff or suppliers if they will accept (part) payment in B£s
Give B£s as gifts or to pay for informal activities, e.g. baby-sitting
… and keep them circulating!

The idea is a "locals-only" concept of having people in Brixton do business with other people in Brixton. But there's no reason why the Brixton Pound couldn't be adopted by people elsewhere, such as in Ontario, California.

At the time I wrote this post, there was one establishment that allowed you to change Brixton pounds back into pounds sterling. This helps people accept the currency. Of course, if you prefer pictures of David Bowie to pictures of the Queen, you'll keep the Brixton stuff.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The short-term answer to the question of why I was wrong about Microsoft Surface

On Tuesday afternoon, I published a post in my tymshft blog entitled "The death of real operating systems, continued (and why I was wrong about Microsoft Surface)." While much of the post discussed the changes that have occurred in operating systems since the early 1980s, I opened the post by admitting that I was "100% incorrect" about Microsoft's Monday announcement:

Last week, when rumors started flying that Microsoft was planning to release a tablet that it manufactured itself, I ventured the opinion that they would do no such thing. Why not? Because Microsoft, unlike Apple, depends upon relations with hardware suppliers. I figured that Microsoft would concentrate on getting the operating system right, and then would help Hewlett Packard, Dell, Asus, and the other hardware manufacturers to come up with the best tablets out there.

Then, on Monday afternoon (California time), Steve Ballmer began his presentation...[O]nce Ballmer started talking about Microsoft’s thirty years of hardware experience, I knew that my prediction was 100% incorrect.

When anyone makes an incorrect prediction, my primary interest isn't in laughing at the person who made the bad prediction. What interests me are the factors that led the predictor to share the errant prediction, and the factors that caused something else to happen instead.

So why did Microsoft build its own tablet? Steven Hodson covered this in a FortyTwoTimes post entitled Microsoft Finds Its Balls. A brief excerpt (language warning):

Even though, for all of its history up until this point, Microsoft has maintained, for the most part, a hands-off approach when it came to the hardware side of the computer business it is an attitude that has constantly come back to bite them on the ass....

After all there is no getting around the fact that OEMs operated on slim profit margins and as a result had no qualms about using hardware that was very often just barely able to meet any requirements that Microsoft set for Windows, or their other software, to run on. Then on top of that we were forced into bundling hell with software trials of all kinds being stuffed into the machines creating a frankly shitty user experience.

What about my argument (and the arguments of others) that this could endanger Microsoft's relationship with its OEMs? Hodson had some words about that also:

One of the standard arguments that is always used when it comes to why Microsoft shouldn’t get into the hardware business is because they could potentially turn away their OEM partners that they need in order to sell their Windows operating system.

If this was proved wrong anywhere it is with the success of the Xbox, even though they did have a really rough first generation with the console, and to a lesser degree with Windows Phone. With the Xbox Microsoft ‘designed and engineered’ the complete experience and with Windows Phone they set the phone hardware requirements in stone.

With the imminent launch of Windows 8, and the effort t o bring about their vision of a cohesive ecosystem Microsoft has a lot riding on their efforts and especially when it comes to the tablet. The last thing the company needs is another decade of bad user experience because of OEMs.

We saw this hard stance when it was reported that HTC wouldn’t be getting any licenses for Windows 8 when it comes to their tablets.

Hodson goes on to state:

Personally I have absolutely no sympathy for the OEMs as they are only reaping what they have sown after years of treating consumers as nothing more than cash cows.

Yet while this isn't as drastic a shift for Microsoft than I thought it was a few days ago, it's certainly a shift nevertheless. We'll have to see how consumers - and enterprises - react to Microsoft Surface.

And if the OEMs believe that they could do a better job than Microsoft (or Apple), then perhaps they'll create an earth-shattering Linux tablet that will make both the iPad and Surface seem obsolete.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why I don't wear a dress to work

Laura Lepisto is getting two new dresses.

Ordinarily the news of a woman getting two new dresses is (at least to us men) fairly inconsequential. The only thing less inconsequential would be the news that the woman is getting two new pairs of shoes.

However, Lepisto is a figure skater, and although she no longer competes, she still performs in public exhibitions. Therefore, she posted a picture on her official Facebook fan page of her visit to Biancaneve, the new shop of her dressmaker. (If you look at the picture, you may recognize one other famous Finnish figure skater, by the way.)

In some ways, figure skating is an atypical sport. It certainly requires significant athletic ability, skill, and strength. But at the same time, there is a great emphasis on presentation. What music shall I play? What dress shall I wear?

One of my first thoughts upon seeing the photo and dwelling on this was, "Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't have someone make special kits for him."

It only took me a few seconds to realize why.

Ronaldo, unlike Lepisto and Kiira Korpi, plays in a team sport. When Ronaldo plays for Real Madrid or for Portual, he has to wear the same kit as his teammates. When LeBron James plays for the Miami Heat, he has to wear the same uniform as his teammates. Figure skaters compete individually or in pairs, and have no such restrictions.

The same distinction exists in business. While there are some people who are sole proprietors, many people work for companies, or run companies. And if you're in a company, you have to work as a team. If a 1970s IBM mainframe salesman were to report to work in a tie-dye shirt, he would be frowned upon, to put it mildly.

Even if you are a sole proprietor, your range of self-expression is limited. Many sole proprietors consult for other companies as consultants or temporary workers, and are therefore expected to follow the norms of the company where they work - a lesson that Michael Hanscom learned all too well. For those who have forgotten the story:

“Okay, here’s the first question. Is this page,” and here he turned his monitor towards me, letting me see my “Even Microsoft wants G5s” post from last Thursday, “hosted on any Microsoft computer? Or is it on your own?”

“It’s on mine. Well, it’s on a hosted site that I pay for, but no, it’s not on anything of Microsoft’s.”

“Good. That means that as it’s your site on your own server, you have the right to say anything you want. Unfortunately, Microsoft has the right to decide that because of what you said, you’re no longer welcome on the Microsoft campus.”

And before you criticize Microsoft, see what Hanscom himself said immediately after his firing. And Hanscom, incidentally, is doing just fine.

But this and similar incidents only prove that unless you have the talent and capability to survive completely on your own, without depending upon others, you're going to have to live up to a "dress code" - not only in dress, but in actions.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Who gets credit? The Israeli-Spanish-Israeli Robocop World Cup Facial Recognition glasses


By way of introduction, I remember a "field trip" that I took when I was in the MBA program at Cal State Fullerton in the late 1980s. One day we visited two Toyota facilities in southern California - a manufacturing plant, and a corporate office. The one thing that I remember from that day were the differing stories that we got from the two locations. A manager at the manufacturing plant clearly stated that Toyota was an American company - a statement that makes sense, since Toyota was obviously manufacturing in the U.S. But by the time we got to corporate headquarters, the people there were saying that Toyota was "of course" a Japanese company.

In truth, Toyota is a Japanese company when it's in its interest, and an American company when that's in its interest. As a California employee of a Virginia-based subsidiary of a French company (with critical functions based in Texas), I know this all too well.

Which brings us to the Robocop glasses.

I thought that I had written about the World Cup Robocop glasses in the Empoprise-BI business blog, but it turns out that the only time I wrote about the World Cup in this blog, I talked about alcohol.

So let's go back to this story in Dvorak Uncensored from April 2011.

Brazilian police will use futuristic ‘Robocop-style’ glasses fitted with facial recognition equipment to identify and root out troublemakers at the 2014 World Cup.

Since I work in the biometrics industry, there were a couple of statements that caught my eye:

The system can compare biometric data at 46,000 points on a face....

The camera will generally be used to scan faces in crowds up to 50 metres (164ft) away but can be adjusted, if searching for a specific target, to recognise faces as far as 12 miles away.

I was wondering which company provided the technology for this, but I was unable to discover this at the time. The only thing that I found was in this Brazilian article:

Segundo o major Agostini, atualmente o equipamento é oferecido por um representante de uma empresa de Israel.

However, the name of the Israeli company itself was not identified.

I recently went to search for more information on this, and I ran across this item:

A small, young Spanish company, Ex-Sight, sells a leading edge technology for facial recognition that will be used by Brazilian police during the 2014 World Cup.

Well, even if I couldn't find out about the Israeli company, at least I could find out about the Spanish company that's working with them. So I went to Ex-Sight's website and actually found the hardware that the Brazilians were using, complete with the Robocop look.

The name of this Spanish product? xEye Yoav.


Now I took four years of Spanish in junior high and high school in Virginia (and I still have a connection with Virginia - my employer is headquartered there), and perhaps my Texan and Cuban teachers missed some vocabulary, but I don't recall learning the Spanish word "Yoav."

I dug deeper:

Ex-Sight.Com LTD
Etgar 2 Tirat Carmel 39032, Israel 39032
Tel: +972-777-841262
E-Mail: Sales@Ex-Sight.Com

World Wide Distributors:

175 175 - Ramal dos Menezes Street
São Paulo - SP São Paulo City,
Zip Code 02469-000 Brazil
Tel.: 55 -11- 2236 1422
Fax.: 55 -11- 2236 6789

Mr.Elazar Lozano Vidal
Ex-Sight España, C/ Ponent, 5 Alicante
Telf: 635654933 | Fax: 966873300
Mob: 628720760

So it became clear what happened. In order to score brownie points with Spanish business promoters, Ex-Sight positioned itself as a Spanish company. But when it works with investors, it probably positions itself as an Israeli company. And I'd be willing to bet that in order to get the World Cup business, it positioned itself as a Brazilian firm.

Whatever it takes.

P.S. Ex-Sight's blog is here.

P.P.S. For those who are biometrically inclined, here's a comment that I left on the Dvorak post back in the day:

Update – I am a member of the Biometrics group on Yahoo!, and I posed my question there. Dr. James Wayman posted a thorough response, and while I won’t attempt to reproduce the whole thing here, Dr. Wayman did say that one way to perform facial recognition calculations is via vector analysis in which a single vector may consist of the pixels from the image. Thus, it is correct to state that it is possible to use 46,000 “features” in facial recognition comparisons. Dr. Wayman referred to the definition of “feature” in ISO/IEC SC37 N3971, and although I haven’t reviewed that document, I trust Dr. Wayman on this one...

Scanning through all of the Dvorak comments, I was unable to find any reasonable explanation for the "12 miles away" claim.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Voting fun - don't let the customers see the sausage being made

Technically this is not a business story, but it certainly has a business application.

Today is primary election day in California. My usual routine is to go to the polling place when it opens at 7:00 am, vote, and then head to work. Today my routine was a little unusual, since polling places have been moved around this year. I found the new location, found the actual polling place, and then had to find parking. I ended up parking underground - underground parking in Ontario, California - go figure. (A few minutes later, when I left the polling place, I discovered that I had parked in the business' "employee parking" area.)

So I went up to the actual polling location, which in California is designated by a bunch of signs (mostly of the "no electioneering here" variety). Right at 7:00, I walked into the room where I was supposed to vote, and got to observe the polling workers, who were clearly not ready for any voters to arrive.

The most visible (and audible) polling person was a guy who was standing there, loudly questioning a woman. "Where are you going to put the name register?" he continuously asked, and not in a helpful way. It also became clear that he was not the person running the polling place; he was just the person standing around and asking questions. The woman took the name register from a table on the left side of the room to a table on the right side of the room, and then took it back to the left again.

Meanwhile there was a woman in the back of the room who was on the phone. I think that she was the person in charge, but I'm not sure. She was telling someone that they hadn't received something or another that they needed.

After I stood there for a couple of minutes, the guy stopped asking questions and turned around and saw me. "Can I help you?" he asked.

"I'm here to vote," I replied.

He explained that they weren't quite ready yet, and that voting couldn't start until a particular person said that the polls were open.

Someone else noted that it was ANOTHER person that was supposed to say that the polls were open.

Then everyone went back to doing whatever they were doing - one woman on the phone, the guy asking questions, and everyone else just standing around.

By this time it was 7:05, and I was thinking to myself, "Do I really want to be the first person to cast a vote at THIS precinct?"

As everyone continued to scurry around, I turned around, walked back to the underground parking, and drove off to work.

The one bright spot is that when I get back to the polling place before 8:00 pm - that is, IF I get back to the polling place before 8:00 pm - the polling workers will presumably know what they are doing, and perhaps loudmouth guy will have gone home to ask unhelpful questions of his neighbors.

The bad thing? That underground parking was pretty limited, and by the time the Democrats come to vote (you know the deal - Republicans vote early, Democrats vote late), there won't be any parking available.

I miss my old polling place. The parking was more flexible...

Friday, June 1, 2012

He forgot "social" - the John Heckers jargon sentence from hell

John Heckers crafted the following sentence:

“We need to seamlessly engage 24/7 initiatives through best-of-breed actionable, client-facing items and proactively create 24/365 niche markets through backward-compatible, future-proof enterprise-wide e-services without turnkey systems.”

I think Heckers fit just about every bit of jargonese into that sentence. One word that was missing was "social." However, Heckers wrote that sentence in 2009; I'm sure if he rewrote it today, he'd sneak "social" in there somewhere.

Needless to say, Heckers opposes jargon. Usually. Read this to see the three instances in which jargon SHOULD be used.

And if you really want to look at best of breed, here's the game for you.

And before you brag about your 24/365 service, look here.

P.S. I subsequently realized that Heckers did forget one term that is commonly used.

TDB represents a paradigm shift in the way database applications are developed.