The unbearable lightness of being… Snowden

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Sep 302014

I read the news today (well, on the weekend, actually), oh boy. It seems that the Internet is coming under attack in the East. It made me wonder about the poster child for Internet utopianism: Mr. Snowden, in his lavish or maybe squalid Moscow apartment.

China has, of course, been a strong “administrator” of Chinese Internet for a long time now. Everyone there and here expects the regime to nose in on and strong arm service providers, search engines, portals, and users in their age-old quest to control everything about that society. But we all had such high hopes for Russia after the fall of the Wall in ’89. Democracy and capitalism would roll through the former Soviet Union like Siberia-bound train. It seemed to start pretty well, and then members of the billionaire oligarchy ended up in jail, their assets nationalized. Punk rock girls went to jail. People disappeared. The president, despite following constitutional rules slowly and steadily became an imperial government of one. Flash forward and the old bear is annexing Ukrainian sovereign territory and fomenting insurrection with some soldiers that they lent to (or “allowed” to go fight with) rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During this period, as everyone knows, Edward Velcro-hands absconded with classified secrets of the US and other governments, secured while he was a trusted contractor to the National Security Agency. Instantaneously, in the heady days of Wikileaks and Julian Assange’s 15-minutes of fame, Snowden became a hero to patriotic freedom lovers the world over, not least within the civil rights and other such communities in the US. So roundly loved and lauded was he, that he immediately fled the country first for Hong Kong and then for the loving embrace of Mother Russia. This, of course, so that he would not be tried as a thief and traitor.

The secrets about “Five Eyes” and US/other government surveillance of its own citizens showed clearly that the Western governments about whom he had discomforting information to reveal were not doing very good things–to their own citizens. To make a long story short, the whole episode and Snowden himself always speaking from Russia via video catalyzed and crystalized popular awareness of the dangers of the Internet. That is, it revealed that the Internet is not a utopian garden where there is peace, love, and understanding (except for the Nigerian scammers…), somehow removed from the rest of the world. It also showed that governments were bringing the rest of the world–all that bad stuff–to this electronic Eden.

What was revealed but did not obviously trouble those who were troubled by the trouble that Snowden found himself in was, in fact, that the world is a nasty place. The kind of ugliness that we see on television drama and in movies actually happens someplace in the murkiness of the shadows and behind closed doors. Moreover, it happens because while civil rights and protection from government encroachment on one’s privacy, to pick a popular theme in this situation, is important, national security might trump it. That is, its a judgment call: your privacy or your safety? It is arguable that we elect our governments to fall on the side of our safety when things get rough. But that is not the point here.

What Western governments were exposed as doing was in and of itself bad. But what Snowden exposed was tactical information that eliminated any kind of advantage in a bigger forum–like international affairs. In any case, the point is that although he is a wanted man, he is alive. He propagated navel gazing and pontificating about these subjects to the point that one has to wonder whether the safety issue has been sufficiently, artificially, and probably disastrously poisoned. But that’s enough back story and evangelizing.

Why I thought about Snowden this weekend is because of the laws that Tsar Putin is intending to have enacted. Specifically, Putin intends to extend the state’s right to control the Internet in Russia. The details can be found elsewhere, but the broad strokes are that any individual with a blog read by more than 2000 people will be considered a media outlet and subject to the laws governing media organizations. Portals, search engines, and other service providers online must operate specifically off of servers located in Russia which would be firewalled at the Russian border AND fully subject to the state having unfettered access to all logs and records. There’s more.

About Edward Zhivago, I wonder if he’s at all disheartened by this turn of events? It’s not like he can complain much about it. Perhaps he’s morally OK with the situation because the Russian snooping and surveillance would follow the rule of law, such as it is? Let’s admire the fact that Putin has no intent of spying on his people from the shadows: he’s fully up front about it. In any case, I prophesy that if he is as smart as alleged, he won’t be making any video appearances at SXSW castigating this unfortunately imposition on the privacy, rights, and freedoms of Russian Internet users. Or, if we do, it will only happen once.

I will NOT stop whining about the $25 baggage fee

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Sep 192014

Domini Clark’s (@tgamtravel) piece in the G+M today feels a little like mom or a schoolmarm’s finger wagging. Don’t whine about the new checked bag fee with Air Canada, Westjet, and Porter; there are plenty of other places where you spend much more than that and could save is the advice. Spot on. As a regular business traveller though, the advice is going to generate more irritation for me.

At the end of the column, the suggestion is to NOT check bags, after all business people can go a full week without checking a bag. Well thank you very much! It’s damn near impossible to find overhead space on a long-haul flight, like Vancouver to Toronto, because of all the casual flyers who check a bag and then bring two giant dufflebags on board. Seriously. More than once I’ve had to check my bag either at the gate (looking for volunteers) or after boarding and establishing that there is no place for my stuff.

This is not a solution. Maybe the rest of the article should have been augmented by saying, “Hey! The baggage fee is being levied on the bare-bones lowest frills fare. Buy one grade up or pay to put your clothes on the plane.” Which, by the way, does not change my mind about the fact that this levy is just another usurous bite into my wallet.

 Posted by on 19 Sep 2014

Innovation Fads, Fashions, and Trends

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Sep 142014

So much ink; so much paper! So many pixels! So many task forces! Thank God for the bottomless pit to mine for answers to Canadian innovation challenges. The proposals are as many as there are lobbies and hobbies. And every one of them has merit. But every one of them is doomed by narrowness and inadequacy. That’s because, as the girl said to the boy: “It’s complicated.”

The focus of well-meant public musings and counsel tends toward specific, actionable, and obvious drivers of the problem. The result? There ought to be more public and private investment at every stage; better training and skills; government intervention; coordinated geographic clusters; stronger commercialization; more creativity and risk taking; a focus on entrepeneurs; or a focus on enterprises. And on and on.

Less considered, probably because they make crystal clear causal arguments cloudy at best, are the softer facets of the ecosystem. There are one or more steps removed from the direct “this-then-that” connection between action and outcome. Also, innovation tends to be diagnosed discretely from other economic and social challenges, such as productivity decay. This is the result of a schooled reductionism that segregates systemic problems into constituent parts as if complex problems can always be solved in pieces and work when reassembled. But that’s not how complex systems work.

Setting aside my cynicism about the motives of those voicing positions, each contribution adds valuably to the discussion. But that discussion remains isolated, technocratic, and mired in detail. Consider only the example of innovation and productivity as a holistic pair.

Everyone who has sat through an executive discussion of new revenue contrasted with reduced cost knows that the latter goes straight to the bottom line. CFOs fall all over the second option. And yet, productivity is in decline in Canada. Why? Among the reasons is a “waste not, want not” ethic that would make a Puritan blush. There is also the discount sticker given to Canadian businesses by our chronically weak dollar. Let’s not forget government subsidization/protection. All of this cuffs the market’s invisible hand that might otherwise force competitive price drops, in turn demanding greater productivity—perhaps through innovation?

Weak demand for productivity innovation weakens the drive toward technologies, processes, and business models that address these challenges. Only among a few exceptions, such as mining, are businesses innovating—or investing in innovation—for productivity gain. In other cases, such as oil & gas, their cups have spilleth over so much that being unproductive is inconsequential.

That leaves the glory of consumer-directed innovations. Consumers want cool technological toys that may (the jury is still out) make them more productive. It’s true—or at least it’s said, which is the same thing apparently—that mobile devices make business people more productive. It’s also true that many consumers are also business people. But is WhatsApp or FaceBook or the iPod creating productive commercial capacity? The argument for “yes” is dubious at best.

Consumers reward these innovations though, or the successful ones anyway, explicitly with revenue or use; less explicitly through the idolatry of consumer products and the business people associated with them. Investors reward such innovations with easier and more valuable rounds of financing, and grand payoffs at Initial Public Offering. This all despite many of the longest-lived and profitable technology businesses, such as Microsoft and Oracle and Salesforce and SAP, innovating around commercial/management productivity. But they’re not Facebook or LinkedIn are they?

Defocus consumer innovation! Blackberry (RIM) lost its edge and lead not primarily because of threats in the consumer space but because it chased that space and forgot that its lead and advantage was due to its impact on industrial productivity. Also consider that while it’s true Henry Ford made the automobile a mass consumption product, his enduring legacy is the conveyor belt: the productivity innovation that allowed for the consumer delight.

So what’s the point? Simply this: all of those many answers to the innovation problem could be instrumental elements of a successful change to Canada’s innovation trajectory. Maybe… in some combination… or in some sequence…. But merely refocusing toward innovations that genuinely address how to make Canada’s businesses more productive, first at the edges then at the core, would set the stage for solving multiple economic challenges, including productivity and innovation, and fabricating a virtuous cycle updraft to raise all parts of the economy.

I use “F-Words”

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Sep 122014

I use “f-words” in mixed company. Well-bred professional, management, and executive types recoil in disgust. One might think that they would be inured to f-words. But they seem to hold themselves above all that.

Of course, the most troubling f-word is not the one on the tip of your tongue now. This one sounds “eff” but starts “ph.” Try saying philosophy in the company of busy career people; just be prepared for rolled eyes and that piteous expression that says you just don’t get it.

Those blank faces better “get it” soon themselves. Our privacy and maybe even democracy could depend on it. After all, not every tectonic shift is as blatant as the revelations of Edward Snowdon or as arrogantly, publicly contemptuous as the Fair Elections Act. Pay attention to the every day stuff!

Today’s transactional immediacy of business and government work is not an historical novelty. There was no time when these practical people were more inclined to think deeply about what they were doing. What may be different now is the measure of disdain for anyone who challenges business or government plans and actions more deeply than what the pervasive “value proposition” pap answers.

If we refrain from contemplations of epistemology and such, and stick to ethics and the sunnier(!) side of existential questions, philosophy is about purpose. That has to be clarifying for professionals, and is about as close as most organizations get to schwerpunkt (a typically consonant-ridden German word that means concentration point or main effort).

When I say philosophy in this company, I often mean, “What do you believe?” Not as in, “We believe the world wants a device that will allow them to…” That’s actually, “We think…” Rather, as in, “We believe that people need to remain connected to other people; we believe our purpose is to provide devices that…” Despite reading and abiding by directives such as Start With Why (Sinek, 2011), this kind of descent to expose the core assumptions of “Why” is one nobody really wants to take.

So why is that kind of philosophical pondering held in such disregard?

First, it’s hard. It requires rigorous thought, due consideration, and alternative points of view. None of which is acceptable in an environment of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) rules or unconsidered braying of partisan vitriol.

Second, it’s still hard. It demands a sense of right and wrong. That then presumes you might stand for something, ideally something that can be argued rationally from some principles. Rampant specialization and narrow awareness does not lend itself to this capacity.

Third, it’s unnecessary. After all, whether its Mill, Burke, Rousseau, or Jefferson, there are philosophies a plenty to choose from and no need to waste time on such things now.

Fourth, well… it’s hard. Given the preference for action—any action!—to indicate ability, quality, and value, taking time to muse over that action gets indicted as regressive to say the least.

It’s true that some fundamental underpinnings of philosophy are timeless—give or take a millennium, otherwise we wouldn’t still look to Plato. But other philosophy is more set in a time and place—give or take a millennium or continent, so it needs to be refreshed from time to time.

Given the rate society is evolving in technology’s wake, we need to take a little time to continually consider whether our core values remain operative in practice. At the very least, we should give a modicum of respect and an ear to those who do it professionally, casually, or within the confines of their daily toil.

The problem with not thinking about these things and, worse, discouraging those who will, is that these things are affected by rapid innovation and change anyway.

The seemingly outrageous privacy invasions by governments is not the product of a sea change in method. It was a steady dripping of unconsidered change that allowed the method to metastasize into what it’s become: something odious. And, it all took root in so many innocuous “consumer benefits.”

The outrageous bill that is to be the Unfair Elections Act (2014) is only possible because over time we have largely become so blasé about hyper-partisan drivel and the corruption of governance by politics that many people see nothing especially egregious about the bill’s content. And so it now threatens a foundation of our society. That represents six years’ effort on the part of Canada’s New Government.

So let’s all throw around the f-word until it’s so common that everyone does it. We’ll all be better for it.

Gwyn Morgan: the apologist

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Sep 092014

I read this op-ed piece in the Globe & Mail this past weekend by retired CEO Gwyn Morgan. Before I could respond in the G&M comments section, there were approximately 400 comments which, using the first 50 or so as a sample set, were about 90% on the side of pillorying the man. To their credit, the G&M readers did not object merely on loose philosophical grounds–the kind that Morgan raised in his 700 words; they responded on mass to the unadulterated hypocrisy. When you can tell the shill is the shill, the ruse no longer works.

That pisses me off because I really wanted to take a shot at the plutocrat who felt compelled to make a plea that readers of the Globe & Mail stand up and defend corporations! Seriously! They are under attack and need defending by corporate CEOs, executives, and other cheerleaders. Those damned, Communist, lefty haters of all things capitalist were ganging up on business. And, damn it, it’s just not right.

Again, to their infinite credit, the commenters in the Globe’s comments section for the article were substantially NOT wing-nuts. Their points were… well… pointed, well thought out, cogent, articulate, caustic in many cases and decidedly NOT about business or corporations. One could even, as an apologist for the masses, say say that they were remarkably likely to say, about corporations and business exactly what the scorpion said to the frog in the old saw joke: “it’s in their nature.” And that’s OK.

Nobody is suggesting business or corporations are bad (or good). I think what I understood from the comments is that there are others like me. We appreciate what capitalism and laissez-faire not only has to offer but what it’s generated economically and socially for all of us. We laud “business” as a noble pursuit. But, let’s not by any stretch of the imagination let anyone believe that we’re caught up in the nonsensical argument that a CEO “deserves” 50x, 100x, 500x the compensation of the average employee. Perhaps the entrepreneur or owner who has been “at risk” deserves that kind of reward. But an overpaid employee with nothing “at risk” does not–no matter what Gwyn Morgan might have to say.

And even at that, let’s be honest, the largest of corporations–where highly overpaid capitalist employee-CEOs hide out–are not a place where you would find anybody with real capital “at risk.” The risk such as it were disappeared a long time ago. These are for the most part money-printing machines (i.e., banks) wherein the only real risk is the utter incompetence of its human brain (read: CEO and executive). So… if there’s no risk involved, then the (one could easily argue, “absurd”) profit extracted out of the economy that moves to shareholders or to non-taxable off-shore domicile is nothing more than a clever wealth transference mechanism that takes from the 79% and moves to to 1%. Note that I left the bottom 20% out because, in Canada, they are either net benefactors of social assistance or meaningless contributors (i.e., collateral damage) anyway. And that just doesn’t sit well.

So, take it from me, a genuine laissez-faire capitalist and free market democrat. What the rest of society doesn’t like is corporate welfare assholes pretending they are hard done by, offloading the downside risk and the cost to everyone else while they take in the risk-free upside benefits… and then whine about it in a national newspaper.  Gwyn, turn in your capitalist membership card.

IT Security and the rise of the Data Chemists

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Sep 072014

The days of perimeter protection for online security and privacy are dwindling. Those tried-and-true approaches for safeguarding data and ensuring organizational and individual data security are destined to the quaintness of punch cards. Relying on them as the paradigm of security for extensive or elaborate IT implementations that have a future is not wise. There is a better way.

The concept of perimeter security is inspired by the notion that if you put all your eggs in one basket then you have but one basket to guard and protect. It is a castle, high on a hill with thick stone walls and drawbridges over impassable moats. The stuff inside is safe because the bad guys are kept at bay. Until it’s not.

One problem with perimeter security is that it depends on meeting force with force. So attempts to breach firewalls and ports are met with clever shields and redundant blocks. That is not a bad thing; it’s just a recursive cycle that probabilities suggest will always end in breaches. Moreover, it hardly matters how strong the perimeter is: once there is a crack, everything is in jeopardy. Since things have to move across the perimeter to function properly, the perimeter is porous by design, raising the odds of compromise.

To deal with the hole-y perimeter and make it reasonable for individuals to pass we take cues from the Old Testament. The Gileadites augmented their perimeter, keeping out the Ephraimites by demanding everyone crossing the border say the word “Shibboleth.” To make an old story short, those that could not were obviously trespassers and were dealt with in a decidedly Old Testamentary way. The concept introduces the demand for secret password identification.

In prevailing IT security, a previously established password presented at the perimeter gets compared to the one held behind the perimeter walls. This system can be compromised on the outside by capturing the password or matchable token from the individual to whom it belongs. Alternatively, the store of passwords/comparables inside the perimeter is, in fact, a geometrically more valuable treasure.
This approach is ever-less effective. In fact, it is practically a law that the value of perimeter protection is inversely proportional to participant sophistication.

So, what is the viable alternative? In Introductory Financial Management many years ago, I was introduced to the concept of diversification. It refers to investing in assets of varying risk profiles so that the aggregate risk would be more readily predictable. There is a lot of calculus and probabilities math behind this, so it must be scientific. Those who avoid scientific language might be inclined to describe diversification as spreading the risk or not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Critically, the risk is inherent in the value of the asset itself. If data is the valuable asset and the risk is that its acquisition by unauthorized parties can result in privacy or confidentiality breach which could have significant financial impact, that sounds a bit more like securities. In which case, managing risk more like a financial wizard becomes sound policy.

This challenges a core assumption of today’s IT security, being that one can prevent breach from happening. In other words, we presume and measure from zero, trying to keep the needle there (like airline safety). After all, if there is a lot of valuable data in one spot AND breach will affect lots of data and people, ANY breach is catastrophic and must be prevented. This base notion results in a course of action that takes us along the path that IT security has followed thus far.

What if that presumption were inverted? Instead, accept that there will always be (many) breaches. Then the goal cannot reasonably be to prevent them all, but rather to make them small, unprofitable, and essentially meaningless. In other words, diversify the risk away. This different starting point will result in a different approach. (That is the intent of encryption, but it should be quite evident that encryption alone is necessary but not sufficient in the cyber-security arms race.)

Take this idea further. What if there were no stores of meaningful aggregated data? It would not be worthwhile to penetrate the challenging security of an online service if there were nothing useful to acquire. Nobody would bother to break into a bank vault for one bar of gold. The crime doesn’t pay. Such a circumstance would require CIOs and security specialists to become “data chemists.” It is nothing less than alchemy—in reverse. Take gold and turn it into lead (or its elemental components). The real magic is in the owner being the only one able to reconstitute it into gold—when needed.

So, where does this leave us? Unfortunately, without specific answers; but with an idea for alternatives in the post-perimeter IT security world. The next wizards of security and privacy will succeed when they courageously change the metaphor and the starting point for their practice.
Start soon though: Our privacy and confidentiality depends on it.

“User Experience” is nonsense

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Sep 022014

God damn Steve Jobs! It’s hard to dredge from memory or history another huckster who left behind such a legacy of dreck. Jobs was a tireless promoter who innovated relentlessly and—as legend would have it—single-handedly changed the face of the consumer world from personal computing to animated movies to music consumption and mobile telephony/computing. Love it or hate it; he did it.

But that’s not what I mean. The detritus in his formidable wake is all of the half-baked nonsense that others less capable have picked up. Where for Jobs the result if it would be a gastronomic delight, in other hands it becomes fast food. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Web world.

You see, Jobs was a man with vision, drive, and—to switch metaphors—the skills of a utility fielder. He was a showman and marketer with a sense for the appealing. He was an evangelist and salesman with a feel for the con. He was an industrialist with a grasp of production. And, allegedly, in his later tenure, became something of a strategist and commanding agent of change. What this adds up to is a well-rounded entrepreneur who knew inherently that even though he was reducing a complex mix of ingredients to a single catchy phrase, there was a lot of magic going on.

Those who worship at the alters of his several business religions are not so well versed. They do not appreciate that, just to hold the mystique for single-minded people like them, Jobs oversimplified and reduced to an aphoristic sound-bite, very complex conditions. They don’t get that Steve Jobs was a sophisticated carney and they are his marks.

Why do I rant? Because I am now fed up by the noxious and excessive blather from all levels of so many organizations about consumer experience or customer experience. Don’t get me wrong: such concern is paramount, or at least it will be until it proves unprofitable and therefore unacceptable to the stock market. To satisfy the customer—to make him or her or it categorically happy with your wares is fundamental to loyalty, repeat business, referrals, buzz, and ultimately revenue if not profit. And there is truth to the causal connection between the visceral experience with a product/service and the good outcomes noted above.

That said, the ham-handed Webheads roll this all up under the aegis of user experience. And then they reduce all of that holistic business complexity to what would properly be limited to user interface. When gullible and complicit executives support the cause user interface gets conflated with customer experience and the absurdities begin.

“So what’s the problem with that Mr. Pedant?” You ask. Not much except for how the UI (user interface) people—interaction designers really—get up on their hind legs and throw their weight around with the support of improbable, linguistic overreach. All of a sudden the interface carries dominion over all other possible aspects of customer experience. For instance:

  • A customer’s preconception of the product, from which his/her experience is anchored, starts with the ads and promotion. Shouldn’t Marketing Communications be in charge?
  • A customer’s sense of proportional value and the resulting positive/negative experiential feeling is critically related to the price paid. Why wouldn’t Pricing get the last word?
  • In the highly probable event of a problem with the product/service/Website, how the various customer service channels respond has enormous impact on customer experience. Why then does Customer Service not hold sway?
  • Let’s not overlook that an offering simply working (or not) has a clearly enhancing or detracting effect on one’s overall impression. So it seems that Operations ought to be the final arbiter of customer experience.
  • All this without even considering that the product group determines market need and value, and orchestrates all the above-noted constituent players and more—including the interface designers—to create and provide an offering to please customers and fill the company coffers.

Let’s agree that customer experience is valuable, but that it is the complex output of many inputs. Even if you make the dubious causal leap that customer experience equals success, it may or may not recognize that ultimately success is profit. And on this it merely muddies the simplicity to note that while touting the experience, Steve Jobs could shave Lincoln’s beard off of a penny. (Maybe that has had a little to do with Apple’s commercial success…)

To blithely dictate that user experience equals customer experience is wrong to begin with. To push that further and allow customer experience, which is actually now equal to user interface, to be the start and end or at least the dominant element of commercial input is simplistic, naïve, and unduly credits user interface (i.e., design) with too much.

Besides, isn’t this kind of hyperbolic overextension what “Marketing” is all about? Does nobody care that now Marketers have no real purpose let alone dominance?