Friday, March 31, 2006

Major ActiveX breaks coming soon to a website near you

Microsoft lost a patent dispute over the way InternetExplorer renders multimedia content. If your website uses ActiveX, Flash or Java Applets then a "patch" that Miscrosoft will be releasing on April 11 will likely break your site :(

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Open sourcing intelligence

In an interesting move the US Intelligence have put a large number of documents that were captured in Iraq shortly after the invasion, but have yet to be translated and cataloged, on the web for anyone to view.

This is a really bizarre thing to do. Firstly, it shows that gathering intelligence is not a priority. Secondly, so much "noise" is going to be generated by unqualified translations (Iraqi babelfish anyone?). I suspect this was instigated via embarrassment when tapes from this pool of documents provided evidence that Saddam did have WMD, but what a strange thing to do.

Who is General Failure and what is he doing with my country?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Aliens are among us

Google are proving what many of us sci-fi fans have long suspected: aliens are on Earth. The evidence? Crop circles and hovering cars.

Are they from outer space, or are they the evil Crab People?

[Crab People]

Friday, March 24, 2006

UPS workers go Agile

An interesting story on Business 2.0 today looking at some unconventional business practices. This one about UPS caught my eye:

How does UPS keep 220,000 drivers and package handlers on time? Wireless transmitters, reliable trucks, and a world-class logistics network are critical, of course. But managers have their own safeguard against slack. Every morning, and often several times per day, managers gather workers for a mandatory meeting that lasts precisely three minutes.

The talks start with company announcements, from benefits updates to bulletins about software upgrades on drivers' handhelds. Then managers go over local information: traffic conditions or customer complaints. Every meeting ends with a safety tip.

The meetings ensure that workers are always kept in the loop, and the 180-second limit helps enforce systemwide punctuality. If drivers are late to start their routes because meetings run long, they'll earn overtime pay and deliver fewer packages--exactly what UPS strives to avoid. The practice has proven so successful that many hourly office workers now start their days with a three-minute huddle of their own.

The same article mentions Bloomberg's new Lexington Avenue headquarters in Manhattan which resembles a cross section of a beehive, with workers exposed on each level:

CEO Lex Fenwick, who sits at an open desk on the sixth floor surrounded by some 125 sales and customer service staffers, doesn't mind the praise he's received for the striking design. What he cares about most, though, is the view he has from the catbird seat. "I know quicker than any piece of damn software when we have a problem. I can see it right in front of me when it happens," Fenwick says. "I watch the phone calls; I see the stress level on faces. Someone can look at me and say, 'We've got a problem.' What does it allow me to do? Get on someone to fix it in seconds. The communication this setup affords is staggering."

Never underestimate the benefits to communication by co-locating your team.

And the finally an interesting business model (nothing to do with agile, just interesting):

Since its launch in 1998, Honest Tea has become the top bottled-organic-tea brand in the United States. Sales have climbed an average of 65 percent per year, and revenues recently hit $10 million. What's its special brew? A funding formula gave the founders zero equity until they doubled the company's value.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dark Matter... and the US current account?!

An interesting theory I came across that tries to explain why, despite a growing US current account deficit, US income from overseas assets is consistently stronger - and doesn't look like slowing any time soon - than foreigner income from US assets. The answer? "Dark matter" intangibles that aren't being measured.

Interesting how they borrowed a science term. What's next? Hyper-drive bonds?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it a ... Perpetual Trust Preferred Security

I've seen a few stories in the press recently about a new breed of hybrid security that has characteristic of both stock and bonds:

This year, Wall Street is expecting a flood of hybrid offerings from U.S. companies, especially banks looking to refinance older, more costly debt. By some estimates, U.S. banks could sell up to $40 billion in hybrid securities in 2006, a more than fivefold increase over last year... Recent moves by regulators and credit rating agencies are making a new line of hybrids particularly attractive to banks looking for a cheaper way to finance stock buybacks and acquisitions... Such offerings are treated by the rating agencies as equity... The bank that issues either of these hybrid securities gets to claim a tax deduction on the interest payments.

I'm really puzzled why the IRS lets companies cliam a tax deduction on the interest payments. Might have something to do with the inheriant risk the interest payments will not occur if the investment does not meet a minimum financial target for that payment period.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Universal Jaws

Those wacky guys from the US military are at it again:

...Engineers funded by the US military have created a neural implant designed to enable a shark's brain signals to be manipulated remotely, controlling the animal's movements, and perhaps even decoding what it is feeling...

Reminds me of Universal Soldier, just wetter.

When Software Attacks: Survival of the fittest

On the weekend I borrowed The Software Conspiracy from my local library. This was a book printed back in 2000 that focused on the crisis in the shrink-wrap market: users are more interested in features than in quality, the software companies know it, and there is no incentive (financial, legal or other) for the companies to change their ways.

I would argue that the pace of innovation has slowed down in the last few years, so some of those bugs are finally getting fixed. However, most computer users are now conditioned to accept poor quality software in both their work environment and home environment (I still get annoyed at having to reboot my set top box a few times a week, I'de be really upset if I had to reboot my cell phone).

In the book the author compares shrink-wrap software with software that powers the space shuttle:

...Unsure that a simple process could make the shuttle's computers reliable enough, NASA chose to just put redundent computer systems on the spacecraft... Instead of builing a computer program and putting an indentical version on five different computers, NASA gave the specifications for the shuttle software to five seperate teams and had them write seperate programs. Then, when the shuttle needs to do something like calculate orbital information, the seperate and independent computer systems all compute the oribital information, and then vote. Hopefully all systems agree, but if they don't, the majority rules...

I don't know if NASA still uses such an approach (they use a single operating system for their probes), but could this approach be used for developing software for other markets?

Maybe. Let's have a look at how this might be done.

Why would you take this approach?

  • You absolutely need a particular application - failure is not an option. You might need it to ensure future cashflows, might be a legal requirement, etc.
  • Reliability is critical.

How could you manage the development?

If a "majority wins" approach is used then you will need at least 3 different implementations, and definately an odd number of implementations. You could divide the effort amongst 3 different internal development groups (make sure they don't talk to eachother!), or contract the development to 3 external companies, or a combination of both. In-house develop the layer that decisions the responses from the competing systems (could be the UI layer of the application).

What are the pros?

After a short while (production release, plus another development cycle) it should be clear which of the implementations is most suited to that environment. You can collateral damage the failures and continue to deliver to the business...

What are the cons?

  • Increased cost.
  • Overhead of running a number of similiar systems in parallel.

Crazy? Maybe. The cost of such a development approach would be reason enough to kill off the idea in most markets. Still, if survival of the fittest is good enough for nature, isn't it good enough for corporates?