Monday, 14 September 2015

Mouse Marksmanship

I'm going to have a little rant now. Apologies to all!

WHY do our computers still require "mouse marksmanship"? You know the problem: where you have to spend ages waving the cursor around and over a thin line of pixels, until the cursor finally changes to a double-headed arrow, and you can grab and drag the item - perhaps a wall between two panes in a program's window. Or where there are several tightly-packed buttons and, unless you're accurate, you click the wrong one...with disastrous effects?

Touch-screen interfaces are no better. In fact, they're worse, since fingers are even less accurate than mice or trackpads, and - worse still - they obscure the user interface (UI) elements they're supposed to be interacting with!

I mean...seriously...why is this still a thing? We're perfectly capable of designing operating system interfaces, and applications, that can make sensible guesses as to the user's intention. We can create UI elements that don't need this kind of fine movement requirement - frustrating even to regular users; literally impossible for some to use.

"Mouse marksmanship" makes the whole thing hostile to anyone with a hand tremor, anyone with co-ordination issues or some classes of disability, anyone with even moderate visual difficulties - and everyone else, too.

It's just crap. It's decades-old design, inherited from the 1973 Xerox Alto, and we need to get past it.

Monday, 1 June 2015

HPV Vaccination Risks, Versus Cervical Cancer

This article arises from a Facebook commment I made in respose to this Independent piece on the risks of HPV vaccination.

Girl being vaccinated
(Wikimedia Commons)
Well, let's crunch this. We don't have cohort sizes, but the following are reasonable assumptions:
  • All childhood vaccinations other than HPV are given to both sexes equally;
  • The takeup rates of all childhood vaccinations are approximately equal, including HPV;
  • Reporting rates for adverse reactions are approximately the same for each type of vaccination.

Thus, the cohort size for any given first-five-years vaccination will be approximately double that of HPV (as this is a single-sex vax). Given the variations in diphtheria-type vaccinations (particularly given that some of these are administered in adulthood as top-up or travel vaccinations), I propose to compare MMR (very specifically a first-five-year vax) and HPV.

Scaling appropriately for gender, this gives HPV a 10.3-times greater adverse reaction rate than MMR over the ten year period measured. And of these adverse HPV reactions , 31.4% are classed as "serious".

However, this tells only part of the story. HPV vaccination for schoolgirls was only introduced in 2008, with a catch-up campaign to try to vaccinate older schoolgirls starting a year later. Thus, the HPV cohort is actually likely to be smaller than that of MMR (even given the MMR scares), and the adverse reaction ratio proportionately higher. I can't quantify these, as I don't have figures.

It's clear that the adverse reaction rate is high enough to be of concern. That said, the concrete figures equate to an averaged rate of around 1,000 per year of HPV vaccination (taking into account an estimate of the catch-up uptake rate), giving a serious-reaction rate of around 300 per year. Although that looks high, the number of 12-year-old girls in secondary education in England alone in 2013¹ was about 285,500.

I don't know what the HPV vax uptake rate actually is. I also don't know what the ratio of English schoolgirls to UK-total schoolgirls is. For convenience, let's say the two ratios are about the same - I suspect they're pretty similar - so we appoximate that the cohort size is 285,500.

Based on the above figures, that makes (for HPV) the adverse-reaction rate 0.35%, and the serious-reaction rate 0.10%.

HPV smear (Wikimedia)
HPV infection smear
Wikimedia Commons
According to Cancer Research UK², the incidence rate of cervical cancer in the UK was 3100 cases in 2011. Granted, not all of these will have been caused by HPV, but my understand is that the considerable majority are. Ten-year survival rates for cervical cancer are 60% at present.

The morbidity rate from HPV vaccination has not been reported, but will be tiny compared to even the severe-reaction rate, otherwise ther would have been a media storm.

My reading of these numbers is that the death risk from vaccination is orders of magnitude lower than that from cervical cancer. So, on the basis of comparison of death risks - and on the assumption that vaccination protection lasts long enough to make a significant difference to cancer incidence rates, vaccination is highly advisable.

If we draw a comparison on harms to health between severe vaccine reactions and incidence (but not morbidity) of cancer, and using the same assumptions as above, the risk from cancer is still substantially (i.e. a substantial multiple) higher than that of vaccine reacting. Hence, vaccination on this basis is very advisable.

Note that I have constrained myself to purely the cervical cancer risks here. HPV vaccination - again assuming its protection is sufficiently long-lasting - also offers protection against a number of other cancer-related and non-cancer-related risks.

¹ https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2013
² http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/cervical-cancer

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Yes Minister: Who Watches the Watchmen?

[Although this has one similar element to another Yes, Minister sketch I posted here, I thought it worth publishing. It was inspired by the Government's decision not to follow through with mandatory porn filters at ISPs. I have to suspect there's a little glimmer of truth behind the fiction. This time, to honour the recent Yes Prime Minister theatrical production, I've put it in stage play layout, not the usual teleplay format.]

JIM HACKER'S OFFICE

Jim Hacker at his desk. Enter Sir Humphrey Appleby, trying to balance smugness and sympathy, and not altogether succeeding at either.

SIR HUMPHREY: Bad news, Minister. Apparently, the Internet Service Providers are up in arms about your new censorship initiative.

JIM HACKER: Censorship?

SH: The, um, sensitive-site blocking proposals?

JH: Oh, the child protection measures!

SH: Quite so, Minister.

JH: Well, what are they complaining about this time? The last time I spoke to them, they were whinging about how porn was using so much of their - uh -

SH: Bandwidth?

JH: Bandwidth, yes - that they couldn't afford their electricity bills!

SH: The last time you spoke to them, Minister, was just before the previous Election.

JH: That's as it may be, Sir Humphrey, but I wish I knew why they've changed their tune so suddenly.

SH: Bandwidth has become cheaper in the past few years Minister, but then you - sorry, the present Government - passed legislation forcing them to record and store every web search, email and file request. For every user. For a decade. I think they might have taken it a little personally.

JH: Heavens above! It's not that big a thing, surely, blocking the porn unless the customer opts in?

SH: It might be wise not to antagonise the ISPs, Minister.

JH: Why on Earth not?

SH: That new legislation - let us imagine a situation, Minister, where a Minister's internet use records were obtained by, say, a journalist friend of the head of an aggrieved Internet Service Provider? And published?

JH: I see what you mean, Sir Humphrey. I'm sure my own records would be quite unimpeachable -

SH: An interesting choice of words, Minister.

JH: - yes, well, um ... but there might be others...

SH: Indeed.

JH: So what do we do? If that's what's at stake, how can we stop it now? It's policy!

SH: Perhaps, if I might suggest ... a public consultation? There's already something of an upswell of opinion against the proposals. Canvass the public, gather the views, then cancel the policy as a demonstration of popular democracy in action.

JH: Sir Humphrey - that's ... genius! Do it!

SH: Yes Minister.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Dear %%FIRSTNAME%%,

Recently, you were kind enough to complete one of our online surveys, following a purchase of our products.  We hope you are satisfied with your purchase, and enjoyed participating in our customer satisfaction research.
We would be very interested to hear your opinion on our surveys, and receive any feedback you would be kind enough to share with us about them, so we have devised a very short questionnaire for you.  We promise it won't take more than 5 minutes of your time, and it would really help us to fit our future research to our customer needs.  If you could spare us those five minutes, please click here to take you directly to the first questions.
Thank you, and our very best wishes,
%%SURVEYCLIENTSHORTNAME%%
Now, I'll admit right now that this is a spoof.  I haven't yet been invited to participate in a meta-survey...but it's only a matter of time.  It seems to me that business has become survey-mad.  You can't buy anything online, can't even enter a commercial website without being offered the "opportunity to assist us in our customer satisfaction research", before, during or after the event - or perhaps all three.

So let me ask: Why has business become so neurotic?

Accepted, it's a good thing to understand how your customers feel about you.  In a store (you know, those places in High Streets and shopping centres?), you could get someone with a clipboard and a smile to poll random shoppers.  If you're already a household name, you could hire a telephone research company to call random people and get their opinions.  So why is it unreasonable to do the same thing online?

Well, it isn't unreasonable at all - in moderation.  Unfortunately, some companies have taken it all a bit too much to heart.  Surveys after every single purchase.  Surveys before you're even allowed onto the website.  Surveys that won't let you leave the website without declining them.  Surveys hitting every single person who visits, every single time.

This. Is. Not. Necessary.

And it makes your business look deeply insecure.  Not a sales-friendly message.

If your (prospective) customers realise that they're going to be pestered by a "needy" vendor every time they come near...guess what?  Yep, that's right, you're now officially working for the competition, and you're making great contributions to their revenues.  You might even get named in their quarterly conference call.

Perhaps, after all, you ought to do a survey asking customers or visitors how they feel about your survey strategy.  I guarantee that if you do, and you act on the results, it'll be the last survey you ever do.

And your customers - those who haven't already drifted away - will love you for it.

Monday, 25 June 2012

What to do when your business goes wrong


There's two reasons why things don't go the way we want.

1. The Universe is a source of infinite possibilities. You're doing the right thing - more or less - it's just that you can't plan for everything, and something just slapped you in the face for trying:

2. You've got it wrong. The Universe and a number of your colleagues and customers have been trying to tell you so, but you won't get the hint until they explain through the medium of breakdance to a soundtrack co-written by Björk, Metallica and Wagner, sung by Ruby Wax and a backing chorus of penguins.

The trick is to identify which category applies.

Yes, I'm being flippant, but the principle stands regardless. As I'm hinting, the problem is often ego: we're damned sure we've got the Next Big Idea, and despair at a Universe that doesn't "get it". So how do we tell?

Now, I'll admit I'm no expert here - but I've run six companies to date, with results varying from complete success to abject failure, so at least I've some experience and a few mistakes from which to winnow an answer.

And that answer seems to me to be metrics: impartial ways of analysing your idea, your approach, your cashflow - to find what's good and what's bad. If things are going wrong, you need to find out where the point of failure is, and be prepared to discover it's you.

Every company has a product, whether that's a widget or a service. That's the starting point.

If it's not selling, find out why. If it used to sell, but isn't now, what's changed? If it's selling, but not making money, understand your cashflows: are you charging enough?; are your overheads too high?; have your unit costs risen unnoticed?; do you have a problem getting invoices paid on time?; are returns killing your profits? Is your marketing pitch-perfect, being seen in the right places, and cost-effective?

It's by no means a comprehensive list, of course, but it's intended more to help you stop and try to take an impartial view. If you find that too difficult because you're "too close to the business" - and a lot of people do, it's not unusual - buy in an outside opinion. A business consultant to look at your business end-to-end. An independent accountant to scrutinise the cashflow model. A surveyor to poll your customers, current and (critically) past. A marketing consultant to examine how you're promoting your business and products, and check your media coverage for message and volume. If you're uncomfortable with any of these, that's probably the one to go for first! (We instinctively avoid exposing our weaknesses - it's a primal thing.)

If you don't understand why things are going wrong, and getting in help sounds too much like admitting fault, then - excepting Divine intervention - your business is doomed anyway: sorry, but that's how it is. The outcome might be that anyway, but at least you can walk away with your head held high, and eyes on the next chance.

On the other hand - and even now, I believe this is the most common outcome - you may well find that there's a kernel of value in the business that just needs food, water, time and effort to germinate into profits, if you've the will to do what's needed.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

An open letter to Werner Vogels, Amazon's CTO

Dear Werner,

Firstly, I want to congratulate Amazon for the remarkable success of Amazon Web Services, and the remarkable vision that gave rise to it. I've been a user of AWS since before most people in the industry had heard of it. AWS has completely changed the technology startup model: no longer must a funding proposal include $100k or more of machine room fit-out and infrastructure - in fact, many startups that would have needed venture funding can now grow purely on turnover, paying for their infrastructure at the same rate that the infrastructure's generating cash.  The impact on Big Business has been no less revolutionary, allowing a tighter fit of cost and need than ever before.

But it's startups that I wanted to talk to you about.

I was one of the many who encouraged AWS, through feedback forms at your technology events, and mercilessly lobbying your staff, to introduce a Developers' Conference.  I was delighted to read, after the London events this year, that you had listened, and that the first re: Invent AWS Conference has been scheduled for November 27-29, 2012 in Las Vegas. This is a really positive move, and reinforces the message that Amazon is putting as much effort as possible behind developers.

I have no doubt it will be oversubscribed. And it will be tempting for Amazon to exploit that fact, and charge substantial rates for delegates. I think that that would be a very, very bad idea.

I know you're very well aware of this but, since this is an open letter, I'll say it for the audience anyway: this year's startups will be Amazon's biggest income generators a few years from now. The problem is that right now, those self-same startups aren't flush with cash.

Silicon Valley companies can just send delegates for a short hop over the hills. The picture is very different for those of us outside North America: airlines typically charge around $1600 extra for a return flight - even in coach - if we don't stay over a Saturday. So whether we do that, or take the hit for a shorter stay, it's going to cost us $2,500 or more just for flight, hotel and living expenses...per delegate. That's a big hit for a small firm. And each delegate's just taken a week out of the office, when they could be generating value. That's a lot different to a short internal flight and two nights at TI.

I won't belabour the point - but I will make this bald statement: if Amazon chooses to make re: Invent a profit centre, not a loss-leader or promotional write-down, I do believe it will have a negative impact on your business five or ten years down the line - an impact far more substantial than the cost of staging re: Invent.

I don't want that to be the case. I'm an outspoken and enthusiastic advocate of AWS, and I don't want to see you lose your global thought leadership in cloud computing provision, because so far your ideas have all* been absolutely on the money, you've anticipated my every cloud need to date, and you're way ahead of your competition.

So please, make it easy for us startups, and not just the North American ones, to send our delegates to re: Invent. And we'll do our damnedest to help you fly, too.

Thanks for listening - all the way from the very start to today.

Jon

(* Well, apart from not allowing non-North American requesters use Mechanical Turk, but we'll let that ride. :) )

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Must-have Android apps

I get asked this a lot: what are the Android applications I would struggle to manage without? Here's a list. I'll add links as I go along, but if you can't find an app and I haven't linked, drop a comment and ask for it, and I'll update the page for you.

BUSINESS TOOLS

  • Dropbox - this is a biggie. I have Dropbox on just about every computer and device I use, and it's completely indispensable for me. You create a file in your Dropbox directory, and every other device receives and is kept up-to-date with it. It's my hippocampus, and I'd be in a major pickle without it. I use the app to access files in my main Dropbox, but don't often create new ones for Dropbox from my 'Droid. Which is why I need a couple more Cloud applications:
  • Xmarks. It's Dropbox for browser bookmarks, and I have it on every browser I have.
  • Catch Notes. It's Dropbox for ad-hoc notes. Enough said.
  • Skype. When you're on a decent hotel wi-fi, thousands of miles from base, and you don't want to pay roaming costs to call home, or fire up the laptop, there's nothing better. Sorry, SIPP fans, but there it is.
  • Documents To Go. Yes, I punted cash for the full version. DTG isn't perfect, and it doesn't yet support OpenOffice/LibreOffice formats, but it's the best office suite I've tried on Android so far.
  • Barcode Scanner. Does what it says, and understands quite a few 2D code types too.
  • CamCard. I recently tried to revive my business card scanner, only to find that Kensington, dear little moppets that they are, haven't bothered paying someone a few quid to recompile their drivers for the 64-bit version of Windows 7. The current crop of card scanners isn't that cheap. Then I had a bright idea, and checked out what was available for Android. Bingo! CamCard does vastly better recognition than any PC app I've tried, and can add to the phone contacts, to Google Contacts, and also maintains its own list. Job done. The free version's recognition's just as good, but it's worth punting for the paid one. It's a damn sight cheaper than a hardware scanner, so let's not be stingy!
  • CallRecorder. For when you need to remember what you said!

GENERAL TOOLS

  • AndroZip. It's a file manager and decompresser rolled into one.
  • Battery Indicator. Your battery level shown as a percentage. Simple, effective and completely necessary.
  • AVG Mobilation Antivirus. Possibly the worst ever name for a product, but it does the job.
  • London Travel. Not the most sophisticated or attractive app of all time, but it's perfect for finding out the next train from anywhere to anywhere else (not just London!), seeing the latest Tube line status, working out the nearest London bus stop, and so on.

PERSONAL TOOLS

  • Google Sky Map. For any astronomer, this is a must-have. Just wave your phone at a part of the sky, and the digital compass, GPS and accelerometers allow the app to show you exactly which stars or planets you're looking at. Bonus points to Google for "Night mode", when it renders in red on black, so you don't lose your night vision. If only I could interface it to my 'scope, for a point'n'slew operation!
  • Google Earth. You know it, you use it, and you need it on your 'Droid.
  • Aldiko. By no means perfect, but probably the best e-book reader for the Android at the moment.
  • TED. It's like giving your brain cosmetic surgery. Loads of inspirational videos for free.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Microsoft's old tricks will doom Windows on tablets

Amazing. Just when I was actually starting to like MS again (after decades agin), they fall back on their old bad ways.

In a recent Register article, the Mozilla Foundation and Google have been complaining loudly that Microsoft will only be allowing Internet Explorer as the default browser on ARM-based tablets and devices running Windows 8 - or Windows RT as it will be called on those platforms.

For those of us with recall slightly better than the common-or-garden-pond goldfish, this brings back memories of the antitrust battles that were fought in the US and in European courts as Microsoft tried to monopolise first the browser space, then the media player space. In both cases, MS gave their own products "most favoured nation" status, with private programming interfaces not provided to rivals. In both cases, MS tried to make their own product inherent to the operating system, restricting or even preventing rival products' attempts to allow themselves to be default. In earlier times, Microsoft even (allegedly) committed occasional "dirty tricks" that deliberately caused their competitors' programs to misbehave, and appear to be buggy, in unfair comparison with MS's own.

And now it's happening again.

The antitrust lawyers will have a field day with this. MS will be stomped on from on high in the US and European courts, and end up paying a fortune and opening out the OS again, just as happened before.

Compare Microsoft's market capitalisation with Apple's and Google's, over the past ten years. They tell their own tale. MSFT's been on a slow slide over that period, and the upcoming news isn't good.

The problem is a lack of vision at the highest levels.

Microsoft's principal market is in desktop and laptop PCs, particularly in business - and desktops are rapidly going the way of the mammoth. Microsoft's laptop market share is under pressure from Apple laptops, and Apple and Android tablets, and it's only going to get worse unless MS acts. Rather late in the day, Microsoft has seen that it must have a tablet proposition, or fail; hence the genuinely innovative Metro user interface.

They've also spotted that Intel-architecture processors aren't future-proof any more, and that ARM is making more and more Intel products look decidedly yesterday's news. Compare ARM's and Intel's growth, and it's plain to see the trend. So, MS had to come out with ARM versions of their key products before market drift made them (MS, and their products) obsolete.

There have been signs of a change in Microsoft's course. For about the first time, the company has been engaging fairly with the open source community. They've started to innovate, at long last - Metro being a case in point. And, of course, addressing the ARM-based portable devices was seismic in its impact.

Unfortunately, the old-school leadership has undermined these welcome initiatives. Microsoft hasn't yet stopped covert operations around open standards, a pattern we all remember from allegations of ballot-stuffing on standards committees. And this most recent anti-competitive behaviour shows once again how Microsoft's leaders seem locked in an early-1990s time warp, and yet appear to have learnt nothing at all from the company's history of causing costly and ultimately unsuccessful court battles.

Microsoft's corporate investors can have only limited patience. Microsoft needs vision. Time for a change at the top, before their leaders squander the rest of Microsoft's share value.

Monday, 23 April 2012

HTC, and the cliff

As reported in ITProPortal, HTC's Creative Director Claude Zellweger, speaking at a recent trade event, believes that HTC should drop physical keyboards for haptic (on-screen, with a buzz when you touch a "key") ones.

Yeah, because there's nothing that improves usability of a smartphone more than having half the screen real estate eaten by a haptic keyboard, is there?

The Desire Z, with the flip-out keyboard, was probably the best all-round handset HTC ever made. It was (and is) a passable laptop replacement for short trips, and it's pocketable. As a business tool it's near-perfect, far better than anything Apple's produced.

And now they're also saying that underpowered batteries are necessary "in order to respect design principles"?

On precisely which planet do "design principles" not include the practical needs of their customers?

Obviously HTC believes that they're channelling the late Steve Jobs' "reality distortion field". Sadly, they're going to discover that at the end of that field is a steep cliff, and they're walking backwards towards it, waving cheerily back at the people frantically trying to warn them.

Bye, HTC. It was good while it lasted.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

King's Cross - the Heisenstation

I've been working on a little theory. Non-British readers might be interested in this as a piece of cultural information, particularly if they're planning to be in London for the 2012 Olympics. Be warned - there will be math! You don't need to understand it to get my drift, though. Skip any bits that look too tough, it won't matter.

Regular rail travellers between East Anglia and London will have noticed that at King's Cross station, platform assignments for the outbound trains can be a little...random. Not only that, the assignments are often made with only about five minutes to go before the scheduled departure time.

Now, it's easy to put this down to simple incompetence. After all, on the European continent, timetables routinely show both the time and - crucially - platform of each departure. And these aren't just terminals, most are through stations dealing with a massive volume of traffic, and they can be handling trains from neighbouring countries too. Compared to that, dealing with a much smaller number of arrivals at a single-country*1 terminus ought to be easy, yes?

Well, it probably is. So why can't King's Cross get it right? I believe the answer lies not in hopelessly inept staff and incompetent rail networks but in quantum physics.

In brief: King's Cross is an Heisenstation. Or Heisenbahnhof. Or both.

If you have any familiarity at all with popular quantum physics, you'll have heard of Shrödinger's Cat. If you haven't there's a slightly silly explanation here. It's a(n almost) practical illustration of Werner Heisenberg's*2 Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum indeterminacy. (Let's leave it as a thought experiment. It might get you in trouble with the animal rights activists if you tried it out for yourself.)

In our Heisenbergian imaginings, King's Cross exists in a superposition of states for any given train planned to depart, each state corresponding to a possible platform. If all platforms were available, the state equation would be:
|ψ> = p=011p>
Keen readers will note that this appears to start from platform 0, not platform 1. Yes, that's right. King's Cross (KGX) acquired a "platform zero" a few years ago, to the delight of mathematicians and programmers everywhere.

However, King's Cross is a working station, and moreover it's English, so you can almost guarantee that some platforms will be unavailable. Let's define the vector of excluded states (platforms) as:
|χ> = p=011 (|θp> if unavailable(p))
So our final superposition is:
|ψ> = (p=011p>) - |χ>
(Bonus assignment: do this using state probabilities instead.)

So much for the math. Now some more concrete stuff. (There's too much concrete around KGX already, but we'll let that aside.)

Normally, humans are considered to be quantum observers, whose observation during the progress of an experiment collapses the probability wave function and settles it to a final value. In other words, the presence of people waiting for the platform indicator to show the assigned platform for a given train ought to settle the platform assignment immediately. This leads us to a startling assertion:

Passengers do not count in, and have no relevance to, the operation of King's Cross

A little contemplation, combined with bitter experience, will quickly confirm this prediction by practical demonstration.

Which leads us to the question: how does that wave function collapse? How do we ever achieve a platform assigment?

It is my contention that the qualified observer must in fact be a person outside the system, someone for whom the platform assignment is a matter of no direct consequence, someone who, in effect, doesn't care.

That would be the station staff.

Extra credit assignment

For extra credit, prove or disprove the statement: at King's Cross, it is possible to know with absolute certainty, at any given instant prior to departure, either a train's platform number, or its actual departure time, but not both.

Next week

In next week's tutorial, we attempt to calculate the overall directed Brownian motion effect on the disabled, slow or elderly of the "platform rush", as more agile and able-bodied commuters jostle past them, competing to secure their seats on the train following the last-minute platform announcement.

We will also explore the likelihood that any given member of those less-able passengers will manage to find a seat once the fast-moving passengers have been seated, taking into account the probability of the late-scheduled train having already departed before they could get to it.

(*1) The United Kingdom is a country, damn it! I know because every bloody web form in the world says so.
(*2) Yes, I know, there were others too. Let's not get Borhing about it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

How To Survive Your Next Interview

[From a posting of mine to the cam.misc newsgroup]

Forget how-to-be-interviewed books. No, really - forget them. They're a waste of your money and time. I can probably condense the most useful advice into a single blog posting, so here goes.

RESEARCH YOUR TARGET

Know what the organisation has done, what they will be doing (the Press Releases section of the website is a gold mine!), and about the part of the business you're targeting yourself towards. Find out the names of the people in charge of that part of the company, and whether they've been in the news recently.

Research the company itself in the online news sources.

If you understand finance, pull their financial records for the past few years. You can often do this through Yahoo! Finance or similar for free, or Companies House's "WebCHeck" [sic] for smaller UK companies - it only costs a few pounds. Find out where they are in their growth cycle, and whether they're on the up or the down generally. A good number to look at is "cash in hand" - compare with turnover. Do they have the reserves to keep them going if things go pear-shaped? Remember a few quotable numbers for the interview.

RESEARCH YOURSELF

Seriously! I've lost count of the number of candidates who can't remember their own CV at interview, and have to be prompted (by a stranger) about what they've done in their own life! Make sure you know the companies, the dates of employment, and what you did there.

For each organisation, go over in your mind what you did, what skills you used, what you did wrong, what you did right, what responsibilities you had, how the job assisted your career growth and path, and what lessons you learnt.

RESEARCH YOUR INTERVIEWERS

Find out who's interviewing you, and all you can about them - what they did in previous jobs, what they're doing now, their blog posts, tweets and so on. LinkedIn is handy - and if you're researching me for your next interview, my LinkedIn profile is here!

You're probably not going to mention much if any of that stuff during the interview, but it will give you a real insight into the people you're hoping will be your future colleagues. That said, if you can remember one or two facts about what each interviewer is doing at the company right now, or has said at recent conference talks, that might be worth dropping in casually. People like to be remembered and respected.

UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY WANT

Read the job spec forwards and backwards: commit it to memory. Remember the points where you fit it. Remember the points where you don't, and be prepared to say what you plan to do about it.

Also look at the company's website Careers section and find out what else they're looking for - after all, if you're not a perfect fit for one job, it doesn't hurt to say: "OK, I can see I'm not going to be ideal for you for this job - but I see you're also looking for a [...]. Would it be helpful to discuss that with you, or with your colleagues that are dealing with it, whilst I'm still in the building today?"

BE HONEST - BUT POSITIVE

Don't, for pity's sake, in response to those horrible "What are your weakest points?" questions, come up with something corny like "I'm just too modest/perfectionist/...". Trust me, interviewers will cringe inside when they hear them.

Instead:

* Understand your shortcomings - and how you plan to overcome them in the future.

* Understand your strengths - and what you plan to do with them.

* Understand your future intents - what you expect to be doing years hence. It's absolutely acceptable, by the way, to say, "I'm following the fun, doing the stuff that I enjoy most. What that will be may change a lot in five years time, so I'm open to where life will take me." You might think it sounds wishy-washy and indecisive, but you're showing adaptability and enthusiasm. And if it they don't like that, and want someone with a fixed career trajectory, did you really want to work for them anyway?

Be prepared to say, "I don't know - but I'm very willing to learn, and [if your CV supports it] I've an excellent track record of picking up and using new skills on the job."

BE PREPARED

1. Bring several copies of your own CV with you. Sometimes rogue agencies have been known to - shall we say? - polish CVs...vigorously. If you turn up at interview, and you're not what they were expecting, it reflects badly on you first! Being able to put your original CV in front of your interviewers ought to help out, if they're asking questions about skills you don't have, or don't have to the level they were given to expect. It's pulled me out of an agent-inspired crisis more than once - and yes, I do still get interviewed, although it's as a consultant these days.

If you do do that, make it clear that you're not doing an end-run around the agency, just trying to put the best information to the interviewers, "from the horse's mouth", as the saying goes.

2. Go to Staples or Office World and buy a set of narrow-point whiteboard markers. If there's a risk you'll have to write on a whiteboard - and it happens often - doing it with great big chisel-tipped markers never allows you quite enough space. Narrow-point markers give plenty of room for additions, corrections and notes. Just remember to write large enough for them to read...and bask in the admiration when they see how well prepared you are.

3. Consider buying a pico-projector you can plug into your laptop - and bring the laptop, loaded with whatever tools you will be likely to need. MS Office or LibreOffice software suites are a must-have; for electronics engineers, bring suitable capture+design tools; software developers should have a suitable development environment installed and tested; accounts people will need a credible commercial package. Just make sure you've practised connecting and setting up the kit quickly beforehand, and that you're completely familiar with e software!

Why? Even better than scribbling stuff on a whiteboard is projecting from your laptop. You're not going to be paid to write full-time with a whiteboard marker, so why start now if you're more comfortable with a keyboard? Plus, you're working in your normal and natural environment. Very handy if you get a bit nervous standing in front of inquisitors' stares - they're looking at the whiteboard, not your fingers. (It's a bit like a PowerPoint presentation, but far more interesting.)

AND ABOVE ALL

Be honest, and be relaxed. Think of it as a chat, not a starch-stiff interview; be yourself, be honest, and you'll come across as genuine and friendly.

UNDERSTAND WHAT EVERY INTERVIEWER WANTS

Someone who's honest (even at their own expense), who's bright, diligent, informed, interested, interesting and adaptable.

Half the time, the skills they'll need will have changed by the time your legs are under the desk, so don't be deluded that the job spec is the be-all and end-all. Your interviewers want to check your technical credentials, sure, but they're looking at you as a potential future colleague, and it's up to you to be that person.

Good luck.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Reloading the Winchester, and targeting the toes...

An article in ITProPortal today talks of a new heat-based recording method that could potentially allow hard disk write speeds in the terabytes per second range.

Here's what I wrote in reply:

Sorry, but I really couldn't care less. Any form of storage with moving parts is inherently power-hungry, and fragile in many different ways. We as an industry should be concentrating on solid-state persistent storage, specifically its price, density, reliability and speed, instead of maintaining the life support of a 1950s technology most of whose inventors will themselves now be pushing up daisies.

And I really mean it, too. Back in the late 80s, I was railing against moving-parts storage. It was slow, prone to errors and malfunctions, and one sharp tap whilst a disk was spinning would send the heads ploughing a trench across your company's vital data. So how did we do backups? Magnetic tape, whether massive reels of 1" tape, or little cartridge drives in your PC. More moving parts, and even more fragile media - fancy your chances of restoring from an 80s backup, even if you could find a working drive? I don't! Or perhaps floppy disks - worse even than tape!

Absolutely every moving-parts storage mechanism has had its failings - and its day - whether it be magnetic, optical, or even the good old-fashioned needle-and-groove vinyl record. We have the potential now for high-performance computing devices with not one moving part within, not even a CPU fan. For pity's sake, let's move forward without dragging the past on a long rope yoked to our shoulders.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

CES 2012: Microsoft's keynote. Speak it softly, Steve!

Last night, at the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft presented what they had claimed would be their last opening keynote. The most interesting points, though, were the ones that were unsaid.

As usual, Gary Shapiro, the Eternal Leader of the Consumer Electronics Association, intrduced it. His spin on the ending of MS's annual pre-show presentation: that it was a joint decision. I have my doubts, lots of them. Reading the body language, I'd say that wasn't entirely the whole story. There was a mawkish handover to Steve Ballmer of a framed set of photographs from previous keynotes that will sit well in a restroom somewhere in Seattle, and a lot of half-hearted back-slapping displays of mutual respect.

And this is where we hear the first big hidden hint. Shapiro kept the door open for a return from Microsoft post the 2013 Show. That in itself isn't so surprising, but the way he phrased it was - referring not to Steve Ballmer, but to "The leader of Microsoft". Ballmer looked momentarily struck by that, before getting back to speed. This is worthy of interest - a power play by Shapiro, pointedly showing a loss of respect for Ballmer, an acknowledgement of information obtained behind the scenes, or just the caginess of a natural politician?

There were some notable product announcements, mostly new allegiances and step-changes. The Kinect will become available for the PC, something that was blindingly obvious ever since it was introduced for the Xbox. Both Windows 8 and Windows Phone will have voice control at their hearts, successfully demonstrated by one employee...to need a little work yet. MSFT showed off the Windows 8 "Metro" interface - interesting, but hardly new news.

What were more intriguing were the several mentions of Windows 8 on ARM (regular readers will recall I broke this story about 15 months ago) - but no demonstrations. Telling, that, no? As a number of other commentators noted, Nvidia also failed to demonstrate Windows 8's ARM port in their own keynote, which left a hole in their presentation big enough to drive an x86-powered Ford (another MS announcement) through.

Back to body language, Ballmer's was just a little ambiguous - let's be more exact; he flinched - every time he mentioned the big February milestone for Windows 8. Even the extra leap day in the month this year might not be enough, he seemed to be thinking.

And finally, the biggie, the echelon of elephants stacked pyramid-style in the corner of the proverbial room...who would be taking Microsoft's place as the leading pre-show keynote?

I'm going to shuffle to the thin end of the branch I'm teetering on, and make a prediction.

Apple.

Well yes, obviously, huh? Not quite. Apple has pointedly eschewed CES for years, preferring to present to their faithful congregations at Developer Conferences and the like. There's never been a completely believable explanation, but it has to be connected to MSFT's guaranteed pre-Show spotlight. Apple has never liked sitting in someone else's shadow, particularly that of the owner of the predominant personal computer platform.

Getting Apple to lead the Show next year would be a stunning win for the CEA - and perhaps not before time. Although Microsoft has showed some genuine innovation (in Kinect and the Metro interface), for the first time in a very long time indeed, it's been very, very late to the smartphone party, and missed the tablet shindig completely. Almost everything Microsoft's done in recent years, other than in those two products, has been in response to Apple. Apple has shown leadership in interactivity, in design, in style, in robustness, in market-breaking new concepts and products, and MS has had to watch. Microsoft's plays in the non-PC markets have mostly been, by comparison, me-toos, whilst Apple now owns the mind-share in personal consumer electronics. And it /is/ the Consumer Electronics Show, no?

And there's more. According to today's figures, MSFT's market cap is less than 2/3rds that of APPL, and the trend is not in MSFT's favour. So now, MSFT is not only no longer the CE leader, it's not even the biggest player, and that's unlikely to change soon - or at all. Microsoft still has majority ownership of the PC market, but those figures are declining too, and the PC is looking more and more dated as a product, and as an architecture. Ballmer's the Captain on a leaky, listing and sail-shredded ship, and he's desperately casting around for buckets of tar. It's hard to know whether Microsoft needs a new Captain, or a new ship.

Gary Shapiro is a consummate politician. That's how he's kept his job as the CEA's leader and figurehead for so long. In his place, there's only one phone call I'd make, to fill the hole that Microsoft leaves in the Show programme, and it terminates at 1, Infiinite Loop.

The only question in my own mind is - was that call made before or after MS departed?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Don't occupy Wall Street - occupy the patents courts!

[From a comment thread in The Register]

For some time now, I've felt that patents have been over-used and over-priced...and heading for a big fall - not just in value, either.

They're being used not only to obtain value from invention - as was always the way - but now to stifle innovation, and - worse - also to set out deliberately to destroy companies. See Jobs' recently-published quotes on Android, and Apple's outspoken intentions towards Samsung, if you're in any doubt.

It feels like we're on the eve of a war. I think we probably are, but it will come from an unexpected direction.

In China, India and other emerging economies, patents don't hold back progress in the way they do in established economies. Sooner or later, the biggest Western governments will realise the potential consequences. At some point - and it may happen sooner than we expect - there must be moves to weaken patents.

That could come from a number of directions. The entry barrier to patent enforcement litigation could be raised by having the litigant place a large bond (say, three times the compensation/penalties sought) in court escrow, to be released to the defendant if the case fails.

Given that a lot of patents are spurious, the defendant could be granted a pre-hearing opportunity to overturn the patent by submision of proof of prior art or lack of inventive step - meaning that any litigant could be faced not only with the potential of financial disaster in failure, the risk of having their patents ruled invalid.

The actions of the court in enforcing the patent could be limited: an upper limit on claim size; a strictly limited window of opportunity to file claims (in effect, a statute of limitations on patent violations); the restriction of recourse to retrospective establishment of a court-set reasonable licence fee; the removal of any powers to ban sales of supposedly infringing items, except where the defendant has failed to pay the retrospective licence fee after a reasonable period.

One way or the other, the current patents system has to be fixed, and on a worldwide basis - and not just to protect business interests.

Otherwise the human race's dying words could well be, "We couldn't shoot down the meteorite, because the patent court grounded the weapon system."

Friday, 7 October 2011

"Human Resources" - the phrase that should have died a-birthing

My inbox was assaulted today by an email from a publisher that shall remain nameless, with the subject line: "Human Resources: Managing your Most Valuable Asset".

I unsubscribed at that point. Anyone who can't see the irony in that email title isn't qualified to pronounce on it, and I wrote as much to the company, expecting it to be forwarded to the digital shredder.

Much to my surprise, the editor emailed me back. And I'll give her full credit, she was courteous, even if she did justify the use of "Human Resources" on the basis that everyone else is doing the same: argumentum ad populum, for anyone who still cares about debating rules.

It would have been churlish not to have replied, so I did. Here's what I wrote:

Hi Name Omitted, and thanks for responding.

Having been in business for over a quarter of a century, and running them for most of the last decade, I'm painfully aware that "Human Resources" is a term in common use. However, that in itself doesn't justify its use: that's just following the sheep. Buzzwords can change. Some should.

Any company that truly does value its staff and their contribution to its profits - and wants to keep both - has to do better than speak of its people in terms that reduce them to the same status as a desk fan. The word "company" means a group of people with a common purpose - and that's what distinguishes staff from "resources". You could replace every desk in a business with a different model overnight, and trading would continue unaffected. Try doing that with staff...

It's rather ironic that we as a community finally managed to bring an end to the thoroughly unsavoury practice of treating women in business as objects - only to extend the same courtesy to everyone else too!

Oh well, rant over. :) Thanks again for your response - and if I can in some small way have moved your (personal and collective) views on "HR", I'll have had a great Friday!

Best wishes,

Jon

So, am I a lone voice in a confederation of the dumb, or a dumb schmuck in the confederation of the smart?