google toolbar for Firefox

Yep, like everybody I've switched to Firefox. I'm just a slave to fashion.

But I'm addicted to the Google Toolbar which only works under Internet Explorer.

Fortunately, there's an open source project that duplicates the toolbar for Firefox called Googlebar.. Just installed it a few days ago. It works great and has some features that Google's doesn't. One that I found intriguing was the ability to restrict a search to a given institution of higher education.

Very nifty gizmo…

Anonymous Blogs – another tool for community-building

The Annual O’Connor Christmas Day Christmas Party always produces a few really interesting conversations. This year I talked to an old friend (who will remain anonymous – you’ll see why in a minute) about using blogs as a way for people to talk to each other without revealing their identity.

This kind of thing has been happening on the Internet ever since the beginning, but public blog site (like Blog Spot) make it MUCH easier for “normal people” to set up an anonymous space than most of the preceding tools.

So natcherly, this morning the New York Times runs a story about an anonymous blog. Pretty darn handy. The story on the Times site is about Anonymous Lawyer, a fictional web site about life in a Big Law law-firm. A great example of an anonymous site, run on a public blog service.

In this case, eventually you find out the identity of the author of the site, but only because he allows that to happen. I imagine there are lots of blogs out there where it would be very hard to figure out the real identity of the person posting.

Another possibility would be to set up a “private group” on Yahoo Groups. That would tend to keep your posts off the search engines — a drawback to Blog Spot is that most of their blogs get sucked into the search engines (I’m not sure whether you can make a Blog Spot blog “private”).

If you have a finite group of people in the group, you could all share the same user-name and password when posting to your blog/group and thus add another layer of anonymity to the conversations.

Marcie’s blog is an example of a site where identity is consciously “managed” within narrow limits. She’s very careful not to reveal the location of our farm, because she doesn’t want people to come visiting unannounced. For a long time, you also wouldn’t have been able to get in touch with Marcie except through the blog, although we recently changed that.

So — if you’re an organizer looking for a place where identity can be masked in order to have candid discussions, consider a blog on a public server.

Digital audio enhancement

I've always liked to hang out with people who are REALLY into what they do, often to the point of being irascible and grouchy because there's nobody for them to talk to as a peer.

One such fellow is Steve Emly, the founder/proprietor of Emcom. Steve is into network monitoring at a level that defies description and I love learning from him.

Son Richard and I are embarking on the (probably ludicrous) project of converting my vinyl record collection to digital and I came across another fellow who's at the “guru level” during the process of looking for “de-click, de-pop” software to clean up my beat up old vinyl.

I don't know what his name is, but I **know** that he's another person who's functioning at that supremo-geek level — I would love to meet him some day. BTW, I know it's a “him” because he's got to be the curmudgeon narrating the video on his web site. Bet the house.

If you ever want to learn about digital audio recording or digital sound enhancement, head out to Enhanced Audio or the associated TracerTek (which seems to be down today, but is the bigger/better site). Download copies of his free demo software and the tutorial that goes with it. Spend an enjoyable half day narking around with his DC Six software and you will be a whole lot smarter than when you started.

He's into cleaning up old records, but he's also really into forensic audio. You know, where the cops have bugged your office, you've used loud music to cover up your conversation about the big drug deal? He's got some killer software that will remove the music and leave the conversation behind. Very much reminded me of the old movie Blowup. Some of the demos are to die for. Definitely a great geek holiday that you can take from the comfort of your workstation.

Browser add-ins — including spell-checking for web-based forms

I'm a terrible speller (although much better now that I get constant feedback from my word processor). I've become so dependent on the spell-checking that I find it bothersome when it's *not* available — as is the case when filling in web-based forms like this one that I'm using to compose this blog entry.

But my troubles are over. Thanks to Julio's recent post about extensions to Firefox and Internet Explorer I'm now happily spell-checking my blog entries with the IESpell spell-checking add-in to Explorer. It's free (for personal use anyway). Lots of other handy stuff out there too. Thanks for the pointer Julio!

Watch my posts become more erudite!

Applying lessons learned during Y2k, I rediscover Peter de Jager

I'm heading into a big project, and as part of preparing for it I revisited the site I maintained while participating in the Y2k preparations for my home town of St Paul, MN.

Just about every single Y2k link on that site is busted now, although one is selling some strange kind of medical nostrum that's not likely to live up to it's claims of Improving My Life In Every Way.

But one of the links led me to the new site run by Peter de Jager. For those of you who don't remember, Peter was considered by many to be the person who first voiced the Y2k problem in terms that were compelling enough to get people off the dime. Opinions vary — some think Peter was a nutcase, sounding the alarm for a non-problem — and I agree, Peter got a little shrill at times. But I also think he's a very good thinker and did us all a great service by sticking to his guns.

I'm glad to see that Peter is still thinking, writing and active. I recommend his publications pages if you are interested in large-scale change management projects (like I am).

Network Attached Storage (NAS) is for the masses now

Another instance of a huge price drop changing the nature of a market. I just bought a quarter of a terabyte of backup storage for the server that this weblog and my other web stuff runs on. How much do you think a quarter of a terabyte (250 gigabytes) in a network attached, standalone backup server cost me? Remember, not too long ago people were paying $50,000 for a terabyte…

Well, i just paid $350 ($300 with the rebate) for a Buffalo Linkstation.

Those of you who've messed around with NAS and SAN know that those things are often a pain in the neck to install too, right? Well, this one took longer to get out of the box than it did to get it up and configured on the network.

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be NAS vendors. The world has changed. Oh, did I mention that it's a print server too? And that you can hang an additional quarter of a terabyte on there for another few hunnert bux?

Friends of mine at ETA Systems used to say “a supercomputer is defined as the fastest computer of the moment” and the same can be said of NAS and SAN. So I imagine a few of you will point out that this isn't a very big storage system these days. But it's big enough for a whole lot of folks that the EMC's of the world used to go after.

Pretty cool gizmo.

Philadelphia wireless project — I can't make the numbers work

Here's my daily dose of rants and puzzlements. Today's revolves around the recently-announced wireless project in Philadelphia. Like lots of folks, I'm hoping they'll make it go. Like lots of folks, I can't quite figure out how they're going to make the numbers work. Here's why.

Get an envelope out, we gonna do some figuring on the back of it. Let's see here, the Philly folks say they're going to light up the whole town for free Internet access. Ok, great. Presume all the geek problems away and let's say they get it lit. Now, if they really finally run with “free” they've basically replaced all the ISPs in town. Well, maybe that's ok. After all maybe this is an amenity that cities should do, like roads and sewers and stuff. Here's where the numbers get hard…

If residential Internet access is free, then most everybody will switch to it. Some significant percentage of 1,000,000 households. First “numbers” problem — how much is upstream access for all those folks going to cost??

Get your envelope out. Let's say we give everybody up to 3 mBits (kinda like cable). And let's assume that people aren't all going to use it at the same time. That's called “oversubscription” and everybody does it – ISPs, phone companies, you name it. What oversubscription ratio? For the sake of the envelope, say 30-times. So for every megabit of upstream access, we can sell 30 mBits of “downstream” or customer access. Or 10 customers (remember? 3 mBits/customer). So for every 10 customers, we need another megabit of upstream access for those peak times (after supper).

If most of our 1,000,000 households switch to our free service, we gonna need a *lot* of upstream access. Let's say 20% of the households sign up. 200,000 customers means we have to buy 20,000 MBits of upstream access. 20 GigaBits! Wow! A T1 line is 1.5 MBits, so that would be 13,000 T1's. That a lot. Ok, Internet access is overbuilt and getting really cheap, so maybe they've got a really good deal. Maybe $10/month per MBit (that's cheaper than anything I've heard of, but hey, benefit of the doubt that's my motto…). $200,000/month for upstream. $2,400,000 a year of taxpayer money…

Once the customers have signed up for Internet, any time anything goes wrong with their computer that they can't understand, who they gonna call? The ISP, that's who. So now Philly's got to provide help-desk support for 200,000 customers. Let's say each customer calls once a year with a hard question that takes an hour to answer. 200,000 hours a year. People work 2000 hours a year, so that's 100 people answering help-desk calls at, say $50,000/year. Hmm, $5,000,000/year…

See where this is heading? I could run through all the rest of the stuff that an ISP does — network maintenance, upgrades, fixing people's connections, paying the bills, etc. Roll all that up in a ball and it looks to me like you've got at least $10-15 million/year to keep it running.

On the one hand, that's a lot of money. On the other hand, compared to losing money on ballparks and stadiums and roads and sewers and economic incentives for people to move in, maybe it's not. I'd love to see the numbers for that project.

"IT doesn't matter" debate

I missed this rumpus when it first happened. Nick Carr wrote an article in Harvard Business Review in 2002 called “IT Doesn't Matter” which triggered a heck of a debate.

I ran into the debate yesterday when CNET published this summary and rebuttal on their site.

I like the premise — that IT is becoming a commodity and needs to be managed that way. Lots of interesting parallels to other industries — electricity, railroads and (a new one for me) machine tools. There's been a very healthy debate over the article, which Nick has collected on this page for your reading enjoyment.

This is another angle on my earlier rant about why tech startups are a dead end.

XP SP2, virus scanning and adware blocking software

Everybody's hyperventilating about how SP2 “breaks stuff” today — here's a typical article that ran last night. I wish they'd describe this in less dramatic terms. 'Turns out they're talking about the impact of having the firewall turned on by default, instead of turned off (which is the default up until now). So a better version of the headline would be “XP SP2 needs to be reconfigured if you use certain apps” or some such…

Which got me thinking — why doesn't Microsoft bundle anti virus and anti adware software in too? Sure, it'll annoy the companies that have made a business out of fixing MS flaws, but so what? 'Sure would make life easier…

Assuming this will never happen, here are the (free – well, donations-accepted) packages I currently use.

AVG Anti-Virus software

Spybot Search and Destroy – anti adware/spyware software.

I was pleased to see that Consumer Reports just gave Spybot the nod as a “good thing” in their latest issue.

RNC — a time of great innovation

Ok, I'm a Democrat. Might as well get that out of the way early. But if the tables were reversed and all these folks were aiming all this cool community technology at the DNC, I'd still be pumping out my engineer's victory salute.

Local Twin Cities Type Guy Paul Schmelzer has written up a great piece on his blog summarizing the technology that will be used by various demonstrators at the RNC in a few weeks.

I'm glad to see that the community-technology movement is still coming up with great new ideas to tweak the establishment and have some fun at the same time. Carry on, peepul!

What if congress could vote electronically?

I woke up wondering what would change if legislators (at any level, local through international) could vote over the Internet. What’s the implication of that (inevitable, although maybe not in my lifetime) change in the way that representative government takes place?

Here are some initial thoughts before heading off to the farm this morning.

Legislators;

– would spend more time in their home district

– would be more influenced by the voices of the people they represent

– would be harder for lobbyists to reach

– wouldn’t need to be paid as much (since they would only need one residence)

– would spend less time on travel

I think there are some great quality, performance and cost enhancements possible here. I’ll keep editing this for a few days…

Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water

David Coursey has a piece this week about MindJet’s Mind Manager software that caught my eye. I like David’s stuff a lot — like the Baby Bear he’s usually thinking about stuff that’s in the “just right” place for me, not too far out there in rocket-science exotic whacko new-idea land, but not talking about stuff that I’ve looked at six months ago and already evaluated.

read on for more observations about mind-mapping software and the community-collaboration connection… Continue reading “Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water”

Taking on a project to change the world? Lessons from founding VISA

Every once in a while conversation will turn to trying to solve a problem that has people stumped — like the lunchtime conversation today with my friend Bruce McKendry in which we decided to take on the problem of fixing health care. Yep, you heard it here first. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Something Bruce said (“this is a problem that needs to be solved outside, or along side, the existing institutions”) reminded me of Dee Hock. ‘Bet you haven’t heard of Dee Hock, but your life has been influenced by his creation. He’s the person who led the project that created the VISA network and thus solved a problem that was vexing all the banks that were creating their own independent bank-card systems and going broke in the process.

Hock’s solution was to form a new kind of entity (VISA) which allowed the banks to cooperate and compete at the same time. The story of the creation of the VISA network is a fascinating tale. Dee Hock decided to generalize from that experience and see if he could help others apply the lessons-learned to their big complicated problems.

He made up a new word, “chaordic”, to describe this process of bringing order out of chaos and formed an organzation to carry on the work. The Chaordic Commons is their home on the ‘net.

Read on for notes, commentary and useful links into their site… Continue reading “Taking on a project to change the world? Lessons from founding VISA”