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Archive for July, 2006

A Post on Blogging

It was inevitable, but here it is: a blog post on blogging.

When I tell people I blog, I get fewer and fewer blank stares. Lots of people ask for my address, and a few rant about how “every idiot has a blog, they are a plague.” But who’s blogging, and why? First of all, the sheer volume is astonishing: a recent analysis by Technorati showed that:

  • There are about 36 million web logs;
  • That number doubles every 6 months (about 75,000 new ones each day or 1 / second);
  • This rate of increase has been consistent for the last 42 months;
  • 55% are still active after 3 months;
  • About 10% of bloggers post every week;
  • There are 50,000 posts made every hour.

Another fascinating factoid is that only about 30% of blogs are written in English (down from 40% a year ago) with the next most frequent language Japanese (expanding) and Chinese (contracting). A fairly constant 17% are “other” languages. This is in contrast to the Web, which is overwhelmingly English.

Now its certainly true that most blogs are fishwrap or worse. Any idiot with an online account and 10 minutes to spare can create a blog through any of a number of zero-skill-required services, including this one (WordPress). In effect, the cost of entry and the cost of publishing are as close to zero as you can get. Websites, on the other hand, are relatively expensive, require design savvy, and at least some programming ability. If they’re so easy, does this mean blogs are worthless? Because some specialize in nonsense are they all just ravings? Absolutely not.

First of all, blogs reflect people’s personal lives — what’s important to them, what they think, what they’re doing. They’re as active as the blogger wishes to make them, weekly, daily, hourly. They have huge reach, you can read your favorite blogger anywhere the Internet reaches, at any time. The high incidence of languages other than English shows that everywhere people are talking very directly to each other in a very personal and obviously (for some) engaging way.

So what if millions don’t read your blog? Blogs allow interest groups, families, or whatever, to talk to each other. For a student blogging from college, 20 people in their family is exactly the right audience. Blogs support a universal human drive to communicate, to form groups, to find other people, to be engaged. Many of these are online diaries, is this so bad?

Next, blogs are a potentially powerful business force. If the right 50 customers read your blog, you are in good shape. If the wrong 50 customers decide your service stinks, 5,000 people will know about it from their blogs. Do the math: with 75,000 new blogs every day, and 99.9% of them irrelevant drivel, that still leaves 75 new blogs every single day that have something meaningful in them that might impact your business or its environment.

As the email system staggers under the load of spam messages, contacting customers via “newsletter” emails is almost impossible because half or more of even subscribed emails will be killed by spam filtering. A useful blog is soon to be the only way to get to these customers.

And finally, the big-circulation blogs — the ones read by tens of thousands every day — are part of the inexorable force that’s restructuring the distribution and consumption of news and opinion, generally to the detriment or death of existing media outlets including both print and even TV. Because people who write blogs also read more blogs, stories of various outrages or injustices that get blogged get distributed to an audience of millions in a matter of hours. The Chinese, Google, General Motors, and others have found out to their loss what a powerful force this is.

Blogging isn’t a just fad; all blogs are not created equal; blogs add value and engagement to families, organizations, and businesses; this is the new calculus. It may look frivolous and unimportant, but so is water until it forms a tidal wave.

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This is a follow-on to my post below “Will We Fiddle while the Internet Burns?“. Two more events go to show how the Department of Homeland Security continues to miss the boat on anything related to securing our networks against attack by either foreigners or home-landers:

First, DHS has now published its National Infrastructure Protection Plan (pdf available here) which contains what the IT industry considers only passing and inadequate references to cyber security, and is regarded as relatively useless as a framework for performing risk assessment and management by corporate or other governmental security or information officers. To say that the NIPP glosses over cyber-security is a considerable understatement.

Second, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who worked on a bi-partisan set of recommendations to Secretary Chertoff regarding cyber-security, has published an editorial that sharply criticizes Chertoff in this area and points out how many key positions under the cyber-security czar remain unfilled, as the Czar’s position is being filled by a temporary contractor (as my blog points out).

So is this really a problem? Well, from a very recent AP story:

The State Department is investigating “anomalies” in its unclassified computer system, the agency said Tuesday, declining to comment on a report that the department’s computers had been hacked.

The Associated Press said the State Department detected large-scale break-ins of its computers last month in its headquarters and offices that deal with China and North Korea.

State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck confirmed only the problem was not a computer virus and that an investigation was under way.

So yes, it is a problem. And its a problem now. And, incidentally, the investigators believe the attacks originated in east Asia.

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People in the Administration have been working feverishly of late to make the case that grossly intrusive and unconstitutional surveillance of American citizens is the only way to Unearth Terrorists and Save Civilization. Supposedly the data mining techniques developed by banks and credit card companies could be harnessed to process all the data in emails and phone calls and the guilty parties would be relentlessly driven into the daylight. Therefore, we should feel that trading our constitutional rights to privacy is a small price to pay for this increment of safety.

As if to bolster this, they have just lately (and will continue to do so increasingly leading up to the election) trucked out a couple of really pathetic “terrorist cells” of deranged and disconnected individuals in a couple of cities who are charged with “plotting terrorism.”

Unfortunately, the actual effectiveness of all this surveillance is completely an illusion: the processing of eavesdrop-acquired data through data mining techniques will NOT lead us to terrorists and will NOT enhance our safety. Bruce Schneier, a true expert in security issues and the CEO of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc., has prepared an interesting analysis of why it can’t work, and I strongly recommend that you read it.

When I was at US Bank, I worked implementing a real-time credit card transaction analysis system that identified transactions that were likely to be fraudulent, so they could be stopped before they took place. This software worked because we could “train” it (for about 9 months) to look at millions of transactions a day, and over time as we told it in retrospect which of the transactions had been fraudulent, it began to extract patterns of transactions that it could project would be fraudulent. And even after a long period of training, we got false positives — things that looked bad but were in fact just out of character for some particular cardholder, but were OK.

So, millions of transactions a day and very typical patterns of fraudulent transactions make credit card data mining systems work. However, to quote Schneier,

Terrorist plots are different. There is no well-defined profile, and attacks are very rare. Taken together, these facts mean that data mining systems won’t uncover any terrorist plots until they are very accurate, and that even very accurate systems will be so flooded with false alarms that they will be useless.

Do I have a better solution to finding terrorists here in the US? No, I don’t. I’m not a counter-terrorism expert. But I can see, through thoughtful analysis, what won’t work, and as a citizen I can only encourage the government not to waste its time on these things. No doubt they feel they must do something, but doing the wrong things won’t increase safety and will just waste time and money.

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If any of you got to listen to Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska trying to explain “net neutrality” a few weeks ago, you would understand why I get so nervous when Congress tries to stick their oars into the Internet soup. If you didn’t, listen to this audio clip, he is completely rambling and almost incoherent, and obviously doesn’t understand the subject matter at all. This from the Chairman of Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee. He can’t say 10 words in a row about the Internet but he can advocate legislation for it!

Senator Stevens voted against Net Neutrality. This is, I might add, the same Senator Stevens who managed to get the millions appropriated for the famous “bridge to nowhere” up in his home state last year. But that’s another story. This one is about Net Neutrality and its a subject every Internet user ought to be very interested in.

In its simplest form, Net Neutrality means that all Internet transport providers, whether they run a core backbone or they’re a local Internet Service Provider, will carry all traffic that comes along and just deliver it to the user without prejudice.

What Senator Stevens voted for, and what his patrons the telcos what, is to restructure the Internet along the lines of the current cable-TV franchise approach — where you subscribe to a service provider and you get the only “channels” they offer, other “channels” will receive greatly reduced service levels. So, for example, if your cable TV provider doesn’t offer History Channel, you just can’t get it, or have to pay extra for it.

For example, lets say that you get your Internet hookup from (say) ComCast. ComCast could contract with Yahoo to provide search capabilities for its customers. Then if you should decide that you would rather have Google search, well, too bad. ComCast has contracted with Yahoo. Want Google? Oh, that’s part of our “bonus package” and its $10 / month extra (this is just an example, but it illustrates the principle).

Or worse, it could be under these proposed regulations that you would like to use Skype, but your ISP (say for this example, Qwest) has decided they have t heir own voice-over-IP service that they charge for, and Skype competes with it. So, they can either block or provide only minimal bandwidth to Skype, thus rendering it useless as a service.

Or, they can go to the Washington Post and tell them they have to pay, say $100,000 / month to have their contect delivered “with the same service level” as the LA Times, which is paying the telco for that positioning as the “authorized newspaper of Qwest Internet (or whoever).”

In other words, the big telcos, who have missed the boat repeatedly in dealing with the Internet, want by legislation to recapture you as a customer and be able to both surcharge you and also charge content providers to have their content carried over the telcos’ Internet wires. Remember when these geniuses wanted to surcharge your residential phone line if you had a modem on it, because you were “burning up our equipment?” They don’t want to add value, they just want to extract money, and when they can’t do it in the marketplace they want to do it through legislation.

And it thus falls into the province of clueless honks like Senator Ted Stevens to write legislation that attacks one of the most basic and cherished attributes of the Internet: that everything is carried across the system and delivered to the user without prejudice, without surcharge, without corporate finagling and delay. This is not something we want to have happen.

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CEO-bashing is in favor these days, especially against the greedy ones that feel that no salary and benefit package is too rich for them regardless of their company’s performance. I willingly join that bashing, don’t mistake me. But there are CEOs who are worth their pay, and you only have to look at Enron to see the difference, and what happens when you don’t have the right one.

Now, (the now-late) Ken Lay is widely held to be a crook, and that’s wrong. He was a poor businessman and he lacked judgement, especially about people. He believed that there was no problem that couldn’t be fixed by the right PR. When things stared to unravel, he lied. And he hired and promoted Jefferey Skilling and Andrew Fastow, who were crooks. Mostly, he looked the other way.

Looking the other way is not an option for a chairman, or a CEO. When Skilling bailed out, Lay tried to take the reins but he lacked the ability or desire to plow into the day-to-day blocking and tackling of running a company. He didn’t understand the basics of the company he thought he had created, and its fairly clear he didn’t really want to.

He had the president he really needed, before Skilling: Richard Kinder. As a Texas oil billionaire and one of President Bush’s main patrons, I’m not a fan of him personally. But he’s a real businessman who understands the day-to-day hard work that’s required to make a business operate: checking deals, judging people who propose them, following through to the details, looking constantly for trouble. He left Enron in 1996, when the company was still something, because he understood tangible assets and felt Enron’s strategy didn’t involve enough assets. And Ken Lay reputedly felt he was not imaginative enough.

Kinder was imaginative enough to buy Enron’s liquid-gas pipeline system (as it turned out, one of Enron’s few actual operating assets), and today Kinder Morgan controls 30,000 miles of pipeline and transports two million barrels of gas a day. He’s truly a billionaire. And, unlike Lay, Skilling, and other more typical CEOs, he flys coach on scheduled airlines.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times says it pretty well in a recent article:

No, the tragedy of Ken Lay is that, right up until the end, he never fully understood what he’d done wrong, or his own considerable culpability in his company’s demise. [snip] And in the end, it was his desire to see things as he wished them to be, not as they really were, that was his fatal flaw. He never really had the judgment a good chairman or chief executive has to have.

Ken Lay has paid the price — I’m sure the guilty verdict killed him — but we all will pay the price for his mistakes. Not just Enron workers who lost their jobs and their pensions, all of us, and for a long time. That’s why good CEOs really matter.

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