Oprah Time: Crypto by Steven Levy

I had read Steven Levy’s previous works Hackers, Insanely Great and Artificial Life earlier on in my PR career. Along with Fire In The Valley and Accidental Empires, Levy’s books had provided a great insight into the technology industry and the cultural forces behind it.

Crypto is more of the same as the counter-cultural belief systems that begat the Whole Earth Catalog and the Homebrew Computer Club clashed head on with the security apparatus of the US government. Some of the descriptions around public cryptographic usage like PGP and MailSafe were analogous to what we now call the social graph in terms of issues of personal trust, privacy and differing types of relationships and interactions. The book also makes interesting reading because it takes you back to a time when technology moved forwards in leaps and bounds of public perception.

Its hard now to feel the same excitement about the internet now that we’ve lived with it for the past decade and a half, when I moved into my present house I considered my broadband connection as important as getting the utilities sorted for my move. ADSL was as important as electricity for me. And with that ubiquity had gone the magic.

Levy communicates the principles of modern cryptography well and leads the reader through the myriad events that let to modern cryptography and why it is so important. (Hint: how do you think it is so hard for criminals not to buy things on your credit card once you’ve shopped at Amazon, YesAsia, the iTunes Music Store or Pizza Hut?)



Some of my blog posts are written on the fly often in reaction to something that has happened or something that I had as an idea and didn’t have the time to develop it fully. A couple of cases in point, my blog post on things I learnt to make long-haul business travel more palatable was created over two weeks whilst I was on the road and when I got back. My post on Spokeo was started in December, and I added a few bits and pieces while I waited for material from Harrison that never came.

Yojimbo is a kind of sketch pad for ideas and a scrap book where I can keep related links and images. There are other products out there like DEVONThink Professional, which is a great exceptionally thorough product in its design, performance and feature set: but too involved for what I needed.

I like the intuitive nature of Yojimbo and its light agile nature:

  • Not being too feature-rich to make working with it hard, which also plays into the creation of a clean user experience as you can see from the screen grab.
  • Being a small application that runs fast, even when my thinking doesn’t

Part of the approach that makes Yojimbo my killer app for blogging and organising thoughts is its heritage. Bare Bones Software have produced a number of lean applications that have been essential users for Mac uers over the past decade, in particular I can recommend downloading the free application TextWrangler which facilitates text manipulation without all the features that get in the way from even the simplest word-processors like TextEdit. I find it really handy for editing the HTML tags on my links of the day postings.


Thanks to Lifehacker for a handy software plug-in that allows you to play a range of different video file formats through QuickTime.I also love the application icon design, a much classier reinterpretation of the Swiss Army knife than the Really Useful Company logo.

Gleaming the Chrome

In the 1980s there was a cheesy film called Gleaming the Cube where a skater (Christian Slater) investigates the murder of his adopted brother at the hands of gun-runners. (Despite featuring Tony Hawk as Buddy the film sucked.) At the moment many people are procastinating over the imminent death of the desktop PC at the hands of web services (read web 2.0 companies).However this isn’t the whole truth, in fact the future of the desktop PC and the web lies in those in the industry call the chrome.

When you download Google toolbar, use the search box in Firefox or Safari or use a desktop widget to access content online you are already ‘Gleaming the Chrome’. This is the point at which the line between web and the desktop experience blur. According to those in the know its where ten per cent of search enquiries occur already.

With services like desktop search and online storage web companies are looking to blur the boundary between desktop and web even further. For a good while Microsoft has talked about improvements in search being about the places and way in which consumers can search; bringing the battle of web supremacy back to its heartland of the desktop.

Apple’s Leopard operating system beta had a very interesting feature which wasn’t discussed; the OS would include the ability to programme it using Ruby on Rails: a ‘relatively’* easy-to-use programming language gaining favour with many web developers and the basis of many really cool web services.

The details are too sketchy at the moment but it means the chrome could be reinvented in a whole pile of different and very interesting ways on the next generation Macs.

As one final aside, Guy Kawasaki, when asked what he would do to improve Yahoo! suggested that the company put three engineers in a garage to come up with an awesome browser Yowser that integrated the Yahoo! services.

It’s all about the chrome baby.

* It’s still too hard for a klutz like me to do something wicked cool with it, but in the hands of a competent developer and some good ideas, its the bomb.

A source of constant disappointment

As you may have seen over the past few days parts of the American media seem to think that the launch of Microsoft’s new operating system is turning into a bigger disaster than the war against terror. They’re wrong for two reasons:

– The war against terror is majorly messed up because of poor leadership which has betrayed the countless men and women who have been serving their countries selflessly

– Even in the unlikely event of Microsoft going bankrupt in the morning and the business and associated ‘intellectual’ properties disappearing into a puff of smoke (I sooo wish it were true), there are numerous viable alternatives from pirate Windows software (nice price, shame about the code), GNU/Linux, various flavours of Unix (Solaris, Openware, Mac OS X, netBSD, FreeBSD etc)

Let’s put Longhorn into perspective:

– Whine number one – its late, duh show me an IT project that isn’t late, or over budget. Ever heard the one about the sales man who walks into a client, promises them the earth and then gives the programming team three weeks to build it and is then surprised when it doesn’t deliver. Microsoft is bigger than everyone else so does things like this on a bigger scale.

– Whine number two – it won’t do what you promise, you’ve cut out all the good bits. Ok, I’m going to let you into an IT industry dirty secret, marketing people lie. They believe what they tell you when they have told you it, but they lie. I know they lie, because I’ve taken their lies and written them in an easy to understand format for journalists to write about and jouranlists propagate those lies because they provide content that readers pretend to glance over whilst really checking out the job adverts and feeling aggrieved at the money they are paid. The content is a trojan horse to get those job adverts into their workplace because there are too many more interesting things to do in their own time

– Whine number three – its an omen of doom, Trey (William Gates III to those of us who know him well) has taken his eye off the ball and Monkey Boy Balmer has royally fcuked up, this would not have happened with Bill in charge. This one needs to be broken down into sections.First of all, Steve Balmer has done a good job fighting against the rabid autistic children that make up most of his employees, bringing it successfully through a shedload of antitrust lawsuits and helping put a more sympathetic government in the White House. Remember, Bill Gates’ video testimony helped with the finding of fact against the company in the first place and condemned Microsoft in the court of public opinion.

Secondly, when Gates was in the hot seat the company made some shocking errors:

  • Microsoft Bob – don’t know about it? That’s because it bombed
  • The Road Ahead (first edition) – ghost writers had to tear this apart and rewrite it replacing up to 30 per cent of the content, Gates had dismissed the Internet and missed the boat. They spent hundreds of millions before they caught back up
  • Cairo – during the development of Windows’95, Microsoft spent a lot of money developing some wicked cool technologies that improved searching for data on a computer amongst other things. Cairo was designed to unify the DOS and NT based products on one state-of-the-art platform (this unification happened much later with Windows XP). Along the way a lot of cool stuff got culled, the market got an inferior product which sold despite being launched with a Rolling Stones live performance of ‘Start me up’. Windows’95 went on to be a technological wasteland and an unprecendented commerical success.

Thirdly it takes more than a few penguins and unruly autistic children to take down the house of Microsoft. Why? Because thousands of IT people want to follow each other like lemmings rather than looking at alternatives that may provide their business with competitive advantage? The real compelling reason why Microsoft should not be scared – politico-economics. Below is a quote taken from the I, Cringely column of August 14, 2003:

Why aren’t Apple Macintosh computers more popular in large mainstream organizations? Whatever the gigahertz numbers say, Macintoshes are comparable in performance to Windows or Linux machines. Whatever the conventional wisdom or the Microsoft marketing message, Macs aren’t dramatically more expensive to buy and on a Total Cost of Ownership basis they are probably cheaper. Nobody would argue that Macs are harder to use. Clearly, they are easier to use, especially on a network. So what’s the problem? Why do Macs seem to exist only in media outfits?Apple is clearly wondering the same thing because the company recently surveyed owners of their xServe 1U boxes asking what Apple could do to make them more attractive? For those who own xServes, they are darned attractive — small, powerful, energy-efficient, easy to configure and manage, and offering dramatic savings for applications like streaming. Yet, Apple appears to be having a terrible time selling the things.

I used to think it came down to nerd ego. Macs were easy to use, so they didn’t get the respect of nerds who measured their testosterone levels by how fluently they could navigate a command line interface. Now, I think differently. Now, I think Macs threaten the livelihood of IT staffs. If you recommend purchasing a computer that requires only half the support of the machine it is replacing, aren’t you putting your job in danger? Exactly.

Ideally, the IT department ought to recommend the best computer for the job, but more often than not, they recommend the best computer for the IT department’s job.

Now another question: Why are Linux computers gaining in popularity with large organizations while Macs, which are based after all on BSD Unix, aren’t? While there is certainly a lot to be said for Linux in competition with various flavors of Windows (Linux is faster, more memory-efficient, more secure, has more sources of supply, supports many more simultaneous users per box in a server environment, and is clearly cheaper to buy), the advantage over Macintosh computers is less clear.

Again, it comes down to the IT Department Full Employment Act. Adopting Linux allows organizations to increase their IT efficiency without requiring the IT department to increase ITS efficiency. It takes just as many nerds to support 100 Linux boxes as 100 Windows boxes, yet Linux boxes are cheaper and can support more users. The organization is better off while the IT department is unscathed and unchallenged.

I am not claiming that every organization should throw out its PCs and replace them with Macs, but the numbers are pretty clear, and the fact that more Macs don’t make it into server racks has to be based on something, and I think that something is CIO self-interest.

Macs reduce IT head count while Linux probably increases IT head count, simple as that.

I didn’t come up with this very smart idea, it came from a reader. That same reader made the point that every part of an organization ought to be concerned with improving the bottom line, which is to say with being more productive. Yet IT typically doesn’t work that way. All you aspiring ‘Neutron’ Jack Welch’s out there, you have an ideal target to squeeze for efficiency get liquidating staff and taking technological change out of the hands of the IT director (better still fire his ass and buy the mortgage on his property for peanuts). Before you ask, outsourcing just ships the problem out of the country but not out of your life.