Saturday, November 29, 2008

So very metrosexual

It's that time of year again when management of companies sit around and scratch their collective pate's and try to decide what to do for the year end (very pc) function. Fortunately I am not generally involved in these deliberations, so it was with some curiosity that everyone arrived at work, swimming costume at the ready, to be whisked away to destinations unknown. Rumour was rife as to why we needed to bring swimming costumes but no hats nor suntan creme; my personal favourite was that we were going to indulge in a spot of mud wrestling.

After all the anticipation we ended up at a day spa; for an end of year party? at a day spa. You could see that everyone was a little uncomfortable to start with since it is not the kind of thing that guys tend to do, even if they are in IT. Manicures, pedicures, facials, massages, sauna, jacuzzi and plunge pools kept everyone entertained and amused the whole day and it was fascinating to watch how everyone, guys especially really got into the swing of things; even the ones that I thought would be reluctant. Before we knew it, the day was done and we had to leave the peace and tranquillity to get back to the hubbub of life.

That evening I drove through to pretoria to meet some people in hatfield which is pretty studenty happening kind of a place and used my tomtom for the first time and I must say that it passed with flying colours. The home stretch was particularly great because I came out of a parking lot in a different direction to that which I went in and was completely disorientated but the GPS had me on the motorway going home in no time at all. Fantastic, what a toy!

Saturday morning broke at 05:00; time to get up and ride and the very last thing I felt like doing was just that but get out I did and carl and I did a 94km ride including krugersdorp hill. We did it at a rather slow 23km/hr but it was still quite a ride, significantly more difficult than the 94.7 and I definitely felt much better for it. When I got back, caron was at work so I had a great lunch at woolies while I read the newspaper and then caron met me at a sports bar, another novel cultural experience, to watch new zealand annihilate england. New zealand are just awesome, how they haven't won every single world cup is beyond me and I am starting to think that winning it requires a substantial amount of luck as well as being a pretty good team.

From the sports bar we went out to movies to see "body of lies" which was reasonable and that brought to a close a very satisfying and enjoyable two days. Sometimes life down here just really sucks; I think that we have to put up with so much crap that when things do actually go right we savour it just that much more.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Do we believe what we read or read what we believe?

This was prompted by a section of Ben Goldacres "Bad Science" book where he refers to the following published paper titled "Importance of the lay press in the transmission of medical knowledge to the scientific community" by DP Phillips, EJ Kanter, B Bednarczyk, and PL Tastad.

"BACKGROUND. Efficient, undistorted communication of the results of medical research is important to physicians, the scientific community, and the public. Information that first appears in the scientific literature is frequently retransmitted in the popular press. Does popular coverage of medical research in turn amplify the effects of that research on the scientific community? METHODS. To test the hypothesis that researchers are more likely to cite papers that have been publicized in the popular press, we compared the number of references in the Science Citation Index to articles in the New England Journal of Medicine that were covered by The New York Times with the number of references to similar articles that were not covered by the Times. We also performed the comparison during a three-month period when the Times was on strike but continued to prepare an "edition of record" that was not distributed; doing so enabled us to address the possibility that coverage in the Times was simply a marker of the most important articles, which would therefore be cited more frequently, even without coverage in the popular press. RESULTS. Articles in the Journal that were covered by the Times received a disproportionate number of scientific citations in each of the 10 years after the Journal articles appeared. The effect was strongest in the first year after publication, when Journal articles publicized by the Times received 72.8 percent more scientific citations than control articles. This effect was not present for articles published during the strike; articles covered by the Times during this period were no more likely to be cited than those not covered. CONCLUSIONS. Coverage of medical research in the popular press amplifies the transmission of medical information from the scientific literature to the research community."

Ben Goldacre's conclusion is that, with reference to newspapers, "Despite everything we think we know, their contents seep in, we believe them to be true, and we act up them, which makes it all the more tragic that their contents are so routinely flawed".

I think it fair to say that it is an easy extension to make from newspapers to books and everything written on the web. What we read seems to influence us whether we like it or not.

No wonder religious folks find it so difficult to read opposing views and, at least to a certain extent, vice-versa.

Do you believe what you read or read what you believe? It would seem that we do indeed tend to believe what we read. Going further I think that we also tend to read what we believe because reading what we don't believe creates dissonance (nice new word this!) and that is uncomfortable.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Open Source Economics

I was talking to jason a few weeks ago, actually it must be more like 6 or 8 weeks ago, about open source software and he was questioning how it actually works from a business point of view and I didn't have a very coherent answer to give to him. I've never really thought much about it and I am sure that someone somewhere has probably delved into it in great detail. My answer may still not be that coherent but for what it is worth; here it is.

Restating the question so I can keep in mind what I am trying to answer; the question is "How can I make money if I open source my creative work, thus enabling my potential or real competitors to compete with me on a level playing field?"

I think that this should be split up for the sake of discussion into several statements;

1. "The objective of the person making the statement is to make money; not indulge in an altruistic venture."
Although some people are altruistic in parts of or in some rare cases all of their lives; most people are not and I would find it pretty hard to believe that all open source developers are entirely altruistic. Since open source software doesn't seem to be going away something must be driving it and I think that to answer this, one should consider the net benefit of open source to the creators of the creative works rather than the benefit of the created work in isolation. If one were to give away a small value, being the time invested in creating the creative work, but in return receive a much larger value being the time invested by other people in their creative works which one uses; although no money has changed hands, value certainly has and one would be a net beneficiary.

2. "Releasing a creative work under an open source license really is "giving it away" for other people to use pretty much as they please within the limits of the open source license."
Software, like knowledge, has an unusual property in that it may be shared as in "given away" with both the giver and receiver maintaining full use of or access to it. I think one of the basic problems with understanding open source is the very human resistance to "giving it all away" which is in essence what one is doing as the author of an application or work released under an open source license. Again, one really needs to look at net benefit rather than the isolated return from the creative work in question because although you are indeed "giving it all away" the "all" only describes what is being given away and not what is being received. As long as what is received is of more value than that given away, there is a positive reason to participate.

3. "Competitors really would have access to your creative work and therefore be able to compete against you on a level playing field."
True, competitors really would have access to your creative work but that does not necessarily mean that they are competing against you on a level playing field. There are many aspects that together contribute to the succcess of an enterprise and only some of them relate to the actual product being sold. Alternatively, if what one is giving away isn't in the same playing field that one competes in, the whole question goes away altogether because it may not be possible for a competitor to really use it against you.

I would like to divide businesses up into two categories for the sake of this discussion; those that develop and sell software (open or closed source) and those that don't actually sell software but use software in the production of something else that people pay for be it a services or physical goods. I think that the first category of software creators is in for a rough ride and may even be doomed mostly because the second category of businesses are constantly looking for ways to decrease costs in the production of their services or physical goods. If one way for them to do this is to create applications that are open sourced and in return they gain access to a much higher value by being able to use other peoples open sourced applications; they will do so. Moreover, since they are not trying to derive income from the sale of the actual software produced as it is a almost a by-product of whatever they are actually producing, it is going to be very difficult for the first category of software developers to match. In other words, it is in the interests of those businesses whose products are not software to support open source initiatives since for relatively small amount invested, they can derive substantially more value than invested. Of course there are always going to be free-loaders, those who use but do not contribute anything in return but aside from the unfairness of this, as long as there is a net benefit to those that do contribute; they will continue to do so.

For those that produce software products that they sell and in turn pay for the software products used in the production of their own products there is no moral dilema between closed and open source but they had better hope that their product isn't or doesn't become someone else's by-product. By "someone else" I am not meaning the monolithic business typically thought about but could be universities, businesses or just groups of interested individuals whose interest in the product isn't monetary.

For those that produce services or physical goods, it is in their interests to support open source software since by doing so they are able to derive disproportionate value for the value invested and if they don't have a moral backbone, this ratio tends towards infinity since they don't pay for anything but simply decrease costs.

So, the simple answer is "You can't" but that is not to say that open source does not have a valuable part to play in business in the future.

I feel sure that I will revise this at some later stage but these are my thoughts to date.

Monday, November 17, 2008

94.7km, the 2008 edition

The weekend for the annual Johannesburg festival of cycling has come and gone and what a great weekend it turned out to be. On saturday I rode in the 40km mountain bike race which I completed in 2:28 which was a bit slow so I'm not very happy with the time. I do however have some mitigating circumstances because the course was very muddy, in fact by the end one couldn't see a patch of skin on my legs they were so caked in mud.
I didn't see the altercation but I did see the explosion of one rather rotund cyclist that was being overtaken by pretty much everyone; apparently a faster cyclist told him to "keep his line" which is a pretty normal thing to do and all you have to do is just ride straight until the overtaking cyclist is gone but this moron took it as a personal affront and tried to kick the other cyclist off his bicycle while hurling expletives like a machine gun. The overtaking cyclist looked absolutely dumbfounded as to exactly what he had done to generate this amount of vitriol; methinks fatty hasn't been laid for far too long!
Not too long afterwards we had a herd of cows crossing the path so we spent a few minutes waiting for them to clear and finally I had a novice, not sure how he got ahead of me, stop and cut across my path through a particularly deep and large mud puddle; that was me, wallowing around in about 6" of mud. So, as races go, it was pretty eventful.
Sunday was the main road race which the leaders finished in 2:03 for 95km and although the course doesn't have real hills, it isn't exactly flat either. I don't know how they do it, the 13 leaders finished on the same second so it must have been a terrific bunch sprint at the end. I had a great race and I think I have finally started taking in food early enough that I don't run out of energy before the end. I finished in a time of 3:03 which means that I was 50% slower than the leaders; pretty humbling! Nonetheless I had a great race watching the various charity raisers like the herd of "cows" cycling to raise money for choc or the guys doing 95km on a hand powered bicycle. As a girl I was riding with at that time said as we went past shouting encouragement, "I can barely do the 95km using my legs, I can't imagine trying to do it with my arms!"
When I wasn't riding I spent most of my time eating and sleeping and in recovery mode.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Duck that won the Lottery

I couldn't recommend this book enough to people that like to think that they think; in other words all us armchair philosophers. What the book deals with are short examples of phrases and arguments that sound good when they roll of the tongue but on reflection are either poorly thought out or completely misleading and although there is a small amount of moralising in some of the sections basically the book sticks to the topic at hand. Highly recommended but not exactly light reading.

Eish, Quiet Mountain is well ... Quiet!

Caron and I have survived 10 years of married life and given the amount of hours that Caron has been working we wanted some real peace and quiet and that is exactly what we got. Quiet Mountain is aptly named and at only an hours drive out of johannesburg is pleasantly close but it was like coming to a stop after a 6 hour journey; it feels a little surreal to 'do nothing'. We didn't actually do nothing because we read and slept and ate and had one walk which by normal weekend standards is pretty sloth like. Actually I wouldn't mind being a sloth at the moment!

Arriving, the first wierd thing that took some getting used to was that there isn't any reception at all. Instead there are speaker phones and bells located at strategic locations which actually works really well. One never sees the staff except when one actually wants something and with only 7 rooms, one doesn't see to much of the fellow borders either.

Above is the view from our front door which, although one of the more modest rooms, was quite comfortable. The tree on the left is a knobwood and viewed a bit closer looks like below. Not the ideal climbing tree I would say.

Being a sort of a semi-retired farm there were about a dozen cats around and one jack russel who thought it his duty to chase the cats. The cats, for their part would follow the jack russel around as he would chase the nearest cat. It was very strange seeming a dog with a moving entourage of cats slowly navigating its way around the garden. There were a couple of swans around as well which would've been quite the menace if they had been able to get out of their ponds pictured below.

There were actually two beautiful white swans but they shared more than their colour, they shared an inordinate love of biting anything they could get their beaks onto. I let them have a chew of my shoe which they found a bit distateful but not before I had a clear indication as to how hard they could actually bite. No wonder they used them as watchdogs during the second world war.

On sunday we went for a bit of a walk because I was tired of lazing around waiting for the gout to clear; not the brightest thing that I've ever done. Foot was really quite eina by the time we got back.

The food is fantastically good, I couldn't recommend it enough and John, the proprietor, is quite the queen of the castle and very entertaining indeed.

Overall it was a great break from the rush and hubbub of johannesburg.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Politics gets interesting

It really looks like there is going to be a significant new opposition party to the ANC and unlike all other parties, it will have the same struggle credentials and racial credentials as the ANC. This means that several of the traditional weapons used against the "all white" DP (which isn't) which wasn't part of the struggle are going to be ineffective against the new party. Hopefully this will lead to a new era when the actual policies and performance of the government and opposition get to compete on the public stage and the morons within all parties get recognised for the liabilities they are and get quietly sidelined.

There is a saying that "When things sound too good to be true; they usually are" and I hope that this is not the case with the new party.