Tag Archives: via-postie


I dropped a friend off at the suburban train station in the intense nor-easter that dumped 10 inches of rain on us recently. My friend has taken to wearing a very handsome bowler hat, of which I am slightly jealous. The wind plucked his hat off and sent it rolling around the parking lot in fast large circles. We laughed at our mutual delight in getting to experience, in real life, a classic cartoon troupe.

I have since been reminded of another cartoon troupe.  When I was young, to illustrate what a rube some character was, he would sign a contract by making an X on the dotted line. And so I was pleased to observe a gentleman signing his credit card purchase by swiping the pen on the terminal screen from left to right making only a horizontal line. As I like to see if I can get a reaction out of the retail clerk I’ve taken to drawing a little smillie face when I sign on those terminals.

Signatures have legal standing, and some years ago the Feds authorized industry to go forth and invent some standards for electronic signatures. We now have a multitude of such systems. I was greatly amused by this one:

In that example the user signs by typing into the top box. In the lower box there then appears a faux signature. It’s a cartoon signature! Giving the impression that somebody actually signed this using a pen.

The Smart Grid as Big Brother

Another entry for the collection of devices to automate guard labor. The folks at Pay Technologies sell widgets that disable stuff if the loan payments aren’t made on time. It’s another good example of how these system are first deployed to control the behavior of weak players in the economy. PaytTech pitches their system to car dealers who want to sell to people with lousy credit.

Where to start? Talk about a tempting hacking target! There must be a similar system sold to utilities, landlords, industrial equipment lessors, and mortgage holders. This sentence sounds like litigation just waiting to happen: “Should the customer miss a payment, the vehicle will be disabled at a time when it is least likely to be in use ( i.e. 4:00 a.m.).”

I’m thinking this casts a different light on the phrase “smart grid.” Adding a guarding function to the smart grid’s function changes the pitch to utilities.  In addition to enforcing their own billing they could sell enforcement services to others, e.g. the mortgage holder and landlord.  It will take years for the consumer protections, due process, and appropriate security procedures to catch up.

I have a bad feeling that anybody with a bit of hacking skill and experience using the PaytTech dealer UI would be able to do a lot more damage that this  guy who disabled an entire fleet of cars.

Telephone, a Mac SIP phone

I’m enjoying this  simple SIP phone for the Mac called Telephone.

It handles multiple accounts nicely.  It has a very discrete UI.  I particularly like that for touch tone entry you just type on your keyboard.

Works well with Gizmo Project, and hence with Google Voice.

As far as I know Google is the only player in the VOIP market still offering any kind of free dial-out.  There used to be a few vendors who gave away a few minutes here and there by they all seem to have dried up.  So much for free lunches.

Calling 800 numbers is often still free, and that’s what I’m usually calling where I end up on hold for long periods.

micro-gossip account linking

Quite a few years ago now I spent many months thinking and working on the Internet Identity standardization. At the time we spent a lot of energy on what we called “account linking.” We blocked out lots of scenarios; for example linking the account at your stylist to your account at the tailor so your color preferences could move back and forth between them. I don’t believe I saw this scenario coming.

In all the scenarios I recall working on the end-users had relationships with vendors, called accounts, and the idea was to create schemes that enabled vendors to flesh out their model of the end-user by trading data with each other. In the best case they would do that after getting the end-user’s permission.

Alice might have accounts with Sam and Tom; account linking would enable Sam and Tom learn more about Alice by exchanging info in their account records. Better to ask Alice to permit that, absent that permission Alice, and I, call that gossip.  Sam and Tom are talking about her behind her back.  The intent of these designs was, and is, to make Alice comfortable before she notices that Sam is pitching products to her based on info that only Tom could have known.

In the above screen capture YouTube is offering me gossip about Betty. In effect YouTube is saying “I know something about Betty you don’t know.” The mind boggles at how many different ways YouTube and it’s parent, Google, might have come to know of my interest in Betty. For example possibly GMail told YouTube; or DoubleClick. Maybe they scrapped Twitter’s friend network, Twitter makes no effort to protect that data.

Maybe …. this is really about the old kind of account linking. They want to exchange info with other vendors and they are hoping I’ll hit those buttons across the bottom of the dialog.

Of all the things I might subscribe to, and all the things that Google knows about us, how in the world did product management (sic) at Google pick this one?

Guard Labor

I’m reading, savoring actually, a fascinating essay  on “guard labor” i.e. people paid to enforce the rules upon others.  The TSA, those guys at the front desk of office buildings that check ID cards, the mall cops, the supervisors who’s only role is to be sure everybody keeps their nose to the grind stone, etc. etc.  To first order guard labor is unproductive labor.

One fascinating story in the essay is about canning.  Unsurprisingly cans used to be sealed by hand.  That labor was skilled and scarce; and so they could organize to demand high wages during the short but intensive periods when the crops flowed in and had to be canned before they spoiled.  Naturally the canners sought alternatives and inventors were happy to sell them machines that promised to seal the cans – converting a labor expense into a capital expense.  Interestingly the machines didn’t work but the canners still bought them.  Why?  Because they could use, as a threat, to negotiate lower wages.

Look at this amazing photograph of a sardine canning factory.

These are packers, not can sealers though.

There is another fascinating story about long haul truckers.  If you drive a truck, but you don’t pay for the gas, then you tend to drive faster so you can get the job done and go home.  That tiny detail shapes the trucking industry.  Owner operators (i.e. small businessmen) have a competitive advantage on long routes because they drive slower so their overall costs are lower.  Well, at least that used to be the case.  Once technology allowed the fleet owners to monitor the moment by moment trajectory of the truck they could automate the behavior.  A lot of owner-operators went out of business.

That is, in effect, the same story as all of franchising.  If you can create guards then you can roll up small businesses into a franchise chain.  The guards might be technology based (as with the tracking computers in the fleet’s trucks), or they might be tight process and procedures (as with six sigma or some currently popular team programming methodologies), or they might be done with guard labor.  In most cases you use a mix of all the above.

Like “coordination cost” the term “guard labor” (with it’s hint of unproductive and oppression) is a good tool to stuff in your tool kit.  Enjoy the paper  (pdf).

hat tip to mtravers!

Microsoft using patents to shape standards

I’m writing this because Microsoft recently granted a limited license for some awesome intellectual property they acquired two years ago.  I want to temper the press accounts that are tending suggest they granted a generous license.

Almost immediately upon the wide spread adoption of patents industries fell into gridlock.  In a classic game of mutually assured destruction the individual firms in the industry would gather up patents.  Sooner or later somebody pulled the trigger.  If you lack a license to a patent the judge can shut down your entire business.

I think the first historical example of an entire industry shutting down was back in the late 19th century and involved the sewing machine makers.  That was in the days before antitrust laws.  So the captains of the sewing machine industry all got on the train and gathered in a smoky hotel room in Florida; where they invented the patent pool, cross licensing, etc.

An interesting side effect of a good patent pool is that it keeps other players out of your industry.  They only way they can get in is to accumulate enough patents to demand entry.

The anti-trust laws don’t prevent patent pools from arising.  They are common around industrial standards.  The players contribute, often under surprisingly murky terms, patents to a pool.  In this scenario the patents often play an interesting disciplinary role, if you try to implement the standard in a way the standards body considers offensive they remove your access to the patent pool.

Using IP rights in a disciplinary, or exclusionary, manner is also key to the solidarity of the FSF community.  Microsoft plays similar games as well.

For example Microsoft has a short list of psuedo-standards – i.e. standards they either wrote up entirely in-house or were the work of captive standards bodies.  You can see  that list here.  In entirely an entirely unexceptional manner they then grant a license to practice a limited amount of the IP on some of their patents.  Just what you need to implement the standards, nothing more, nothing less.  Of course a naive journalist might think these licenses are more generous then that.

The IP that Microsoft captured two years ago is incredibly useful for solving internet identity problems.  In particular it could be used to allow users to reveal only exactly the minimum amount of information required to do this or that.  If the site wants to know if your over 18, you can let them know yes, you are.  Proving it.  And revealing nothing else.  If the site wants to know if your credit score is over 550; it can do that that.  It’s incredibly clever tech.  It’s incredibly useful.  If your the kind of person who thinks patents should exist, but only for really really innovative ideas – well this is it.

Sadly though.  This tech could be solving a vast range of real world problems today.  It could have been solving them for years and year now.  So if you looking for an example of IP rights undermining innovation and real world problem solving – well this is it.

If you are looking for interesting examples of a company using patent rights to shape the market toward standards that they own and operate then – well this is it.

Of course nothing is to stop  foolish journalists from writing junk like: “This is a irrevocable promise by Microsoft that the company will not assert any claims against anyone using the technology that relate to any patents covering the technology.”  Which is bull.  You can use this IP only in implementing that short list of standards.  Only two on that list actually.  And I suspect only one of them, e.g. the standard that implies you have adopted Microsoft’s in house solution to the identity problem.

Moved Permanently

bash-3.2$ curl -I http://www.sun.com/
HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
Server: Sun-Java-System-Web-Server/7.0
Date: Fri, 26 Feb 2010 15:39:03 GMT
P3p: policyref="http://www.sun.com/p3p/Sun_P3P_Policy.xml", CP="CAO DSP COR CUR ADMa DEVa TAIa PSAa PSDa CONi TELi OUR  SAMi PUBi IND PHY ONL PUR COM NAV INT DEM CNT STA POL PRE GOV"
Location: http://www.oracle.com
Content-length: 0


Style as a Middleman

I’m reluctant to write this up.  I feel I’m wandering onto really fresh turf here.  Because this is really about style and design; and the various audiences that craft addresses.  Something I don’t really know anything about.

One thing that caught my fancy in the book “Buying In” was the idea that products are two faced, like the middleman.  Products you use in public, like an iPod, have one face they show to the public and another which they show to you.  To hear him tell it when the iPod first appeared cultural observers took two quite polar positions about it.  Some celebrated way it empowered a deeper intimate relationship between citizens and their music collections.  While some railed about how the white headphones created a tribe, a kind of social signaling, and members of this tribe were walling themselves off inside a cult of iPod.

There is a large literature that presumes most style and fashion exists to serve a social signaling function.  For example to denote membership in a tribe or to make the owner appear high-value.  And no doubt that is one function of style, but yet I’m starting to think such talk is often just a cheap shot.  It’s easy to see the signaling, the public face of the product.  It’s hard to see the private face.  Intimate relationship between the user and the product and intimate and complex relationship between the member and his tribe.

There are some products were this public/private tension is particularly high.  I have a beautiful scarf.  Nice enough that people feel free to comment on it.  But they have no idea how sensual it’s cashmere is, nor other things about it I’ll pass over.

In another portion of the book he mentions how some publishers engage claques to ride public transportation reading new books, carefully so other passengers can take note of their dust jackets.  In telling the iPod story it sounds as if Apple’s designers were largely unaware how the white headphones would create a unified field for the products branding.  That white headphone decision appears to have been forced by the white packaging.  Of course Apple is often quite aggressive in shaping the public face of their products.  The iPod on the table here is black, but the headphones are still white.

The public/private face of stuff takes a odd turn when you move into a private space, say someone’s home or office.  Corporate buyers sometimes decorate their offices with false signals to undermine the salesmen, i.e. photos suggesting hobbies the buyer doesn’t actually engage in.  I once scanned the book shelf at a party only to become confused by the diversity of the owner’s taste.  Later I discovered the owner was a publisher and he had a copy of most everything the firm had ever published.

I have gone into homes that are indistinguishable from a high end hotel suite.  I wonder then, does this mean the owners have no intimate relationships with stuff; or does it mean they are just that aggressive about keeping that information private.  I’ve been in the homes of some people so rich that they have rooms which reveal only a public self, while further in you’d find more revealing rooms.  People do manage their public presentation of self, and if you often bring people into your private home then your likely to manage it there.

Yesterday Karim came at this from another side, writing on “The Anti-Social Nature of the Kindle.”  He complains about how his Kindle denies him the ability to present a public face.  But I notice how Amazon, the middleman, stripped one of the product’s two faces of as it passed thru their distribution channel.  And while that must drive the publisher’s crazy, as Karim points out sometimes you want to reveal the public face of your stuff.