Monthly Archives: April 2009

Where Did All Your Work Go?

In any workplace you’re going to have people who work at completely different rates to each other. For myself I tend to get given a problem or project to work on and I’ll stay on that one item until I’ve finished it. However I typically finding myself running into a blockage, usually either having to wait on someone else’s work or an external vendor in order to continue working. This leads me to a strange situation, as I will typically have several things going at once all at various stages of being blocked by one thing or another so I’m left with not a whole lot to do. The other side of this coin is that I’m always able to help out others in the office, even when I’m supposed to be working on numerous other projects. This did get me a few raised eyebrows in the past.

I initially put this down to being incredibly efficient at what I was doing and everyone else was just slacking off. Looking more closely at what others had been doing I had noticed that most of them would actually be working in a more parallel fashion, doing several different things at a time and progressing more gradually overall. What this meant for them was that a setback in one of their projects meant that overall their workloads didn’t suffer and they could continue on with their other tasks.

This was an interesting concept to explore when the whole Information Services section took a day off to do an Extended DISC assessment. This produced some interesting results, with the majority of the workplace scoring high on the S rating, the rest I with a few outliers in the D and C categories. I was only high D in the organisation which the instructor picked up on very quickly. I work in a typical government department and having majority of high S workstyles is common, with high D ratings being more common in areas of sales like real estate or consulting. My work profile also came out as the “Lone wolf” someone who strives on a challenge and prefers to lead rather than be led. Apparently this is a good work style to have as a contractor, since I’m usually hired to complete or lead projects that organisations don’t typically have in house skills for.

It was a real eye opener doing the DISC assessment as they also gave us ideas and tools to use so that we could co-operate better as a team with vastly different work styles. I found that instead of blazing in with wild changes I should submit my ideas more frequently with a lower rate of change. This makes them a lot more palatable to the typical S culture of a government workplace, and usually ends up with the project getting quite a lot more support. I tried doing this with my current upgrade project and it went from a re-purposing of server replacement funds to a large scale infrastructure upgrade over the course of a couple months. It really showed the power of proper communication.

So, if you’re like me and you’re constantly finding yourself waiting on others or out of work to do try to figure out your colleagues work styles and work around that. It also works for the other side of the coin here two, if you find one of your work mates finishing their work extraordinarily quickly use them to your advantage. You’d be surprised how much people like us love to help out.

Social Networking – The Voyeur and Exhibitionist Unleashed.

With the increasing prevalence of social technologies more and more of our daily life is becoming part of an online community. Increasingly spending leisure time at the computer is no longer a “geeks only” activity and what we’re seeing is the transition of what people would regularly do through another, less public, medium onto online sources viewable for almost anyone who would want to see them. What is truly surprising is how people willingly share some of this information, until you consider the origins of these social applications.

Take a social group (friends, colleagues, etc) what are some of the main activities that such a group might carry out? Going out to places, sharing experiences about recent events, chatting about topics and so on. In essence social networking tools have just enabled a greater audience to use the Internet as a more convenient place for them to gather, and as such they will use it as they would say a table in a coffee shop, sharing experiences and the like. This is the two sided coin of exhibitionism and voyeurism, we all want to share our lives with other people and we’re also intersted in learning about others.

Sites like Twitter and MySpace take it one step further. Instead of it being focused directly on a circle of friends it’s more about your own personal space on the Internet that you can just happen to share with your friends (and let everyone else know who your friends are). These sites are more suited to people who’s personality tends towards the exhibitionist in them, as it’s basically an open invitation for anyone to come in and have a look at their life. They’re also a boon for the more voyeuristic types as well, since they can get a glimpse of someone’s life without them knowing about it.

It’s this strange combination of unleashing two sides of a (usually) socially taboo coin that drew a lot of people to these sites in the first place. We all know someone who has 300+ friends on Facebook and know full well that at least half of them are just on their to bump up their friends count. However this is exactly what would attract them to the site, since they now have a captive audience of 300+ who will get all their status updates and delightful quiz requests. On the other side there are those who want to see what people they used to know are getting up to, sometimes out of a slightly twisted desire to see if they’re doing better then them (basically a real time high school reunion, with all the lovely embarrassment/embellishments that come with it).

Personally I got into this whole social networking thing for two reasons. The first was that a lot of my friends were on it and were using it increasingly to organise events and get togethers. This got my foot in the door so to speak, and I stayed as it became a great tool to keep in touch with my friends in far off lands. The second was after I discovered LinkedIn, as I began to use social networking professionally. Although I do question the benefits of doing so currently.

In essence these online social networking sites are just another playground for groups of people to do things that they would normally do, just through a different medium. Whatever attracted them to these sites originally existed in the real world first and it’s no surprise that these sites have brought their real world problems along with them.

The Biggest Untapped Market.

As I dragged myself out of bed this morning on a lovely 4 degree Canberra morning I was greeted by a commercial which I hadn’t seen before (unfortunately it’s not on Youtube yet). It was for Nintendo’s line of Brain Training games and it featured a 30-something woman talking about how much it improved her life and how easy it was to take around with you. Taking a step back from the ad I remembered something that Nintendo said a couple years ago when it announced the Wii console:

    Introducing… Wii.As in “we.”

    While the code-name Revolution expressed our direction, Wii represents the answer. Wii will break down that wall that seperates videogame players from everybody else. Wii will put people more in touch with their games… and each other. But you’re probably asking: What does the name mean?

    Wii sounds like “we,” which emphasizes the console is for everyone. Wii can easily be remembered by people around the world, no matter what language they speak. No confusion. No need to abbreviate. Just Wii.

    Wii has a distinctive “ii” spelling that symbolizes both the unique controllers and the image of people playing it. And Wii, as a name and a console, brings something revolutionary to the world of videogames that sets it apart from the crowd.

    So that’s Wii. But now Nintendo needs you. Because it’s really not about you or me. It’s about Wii. And together, Wii will change everything.

Nintendo decided to break the trend that everyone had been following since the dawn of the gaming era, catering to the people who like to play games and continue to play games regardless of their changing situation. I’m a pretty good example of your run of the mill gamer, I’ve been playing games for most of my life and no matter my current situation I always have a couple games on the back burner I want to play through. That won’t change for a long time to come, so there will always be a market for people like me, we’re repeat customers.

However, there are more people out there who don’t play games regularly then those that do. Nintendo, a company that has prided itself on capturing the younger market with their mostly G rated line up, was well poised to make the leap of faith towards that group of people who did not identify themselves as a gamer. Couple this with a extraordinarily cheap console and you’ve got yourself an under the Christmas tree winner, something Nintendo was extremely proud of.

It’s not just Nintendo that aimed their marketing canon at the non-gamer market. World of Warcraft, the worlds most popular paid for play MMORPG, took the idea of a massively online game and did two things to it. Firstly they built it on their wildly successful Warcraft line of lore and IP. This helped them drag customers who had traditionally favoured them for their brilliant line of RTS games across to the world of MMORPGs. Additionally Blizzard made the game highly accessible to people who didn’t usually play games, with the hardware requirements to run the game incredibly low allowing most store bought PCs to be able to run the game.

In any emerging market the biggest area of untapped potential is always going to be the people who aren’t using your product or service. Nintendo and Blizzard did a great job of capturing a market that didn’t exist for them before they tried and have both become leaders in their respective fields. I put this down to them, whilst not being the market leaders in their respective fields, having the initiative to see the untapped potential and take a risk on capturing it.

Maybe the struggle of not being at the top is what lead them to try and innovate in this way in the first place.

Visiting Other Worlds (or Why Relativity is Your Friend).

It seems more and more we’re discovering planets outside our solar system and now we’ve even managed to find one that has some very interesting properties:

Exoplanet researchers have discovered the lightest exoplanet found so far. The planet, “e”, in the famous system Gliese 581, is only about twice the mass of our Earth. The team also refined the orbit of the planet Gliese 581 d, first discovered in 2007, placing it well within the habitable zone, where liquid water oceans could exist.

“Gliese 581 d is probably too massive to be made only of rocky material, but we can speculate that it is an icy planet that has migrated closer to the star,” says team member Stephane Udry. The new observations have revealed that this planet is in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist. “‘d’ could even be covered by a large and deep ocean — it is the first serious ‘water world’ candidate,” continued Udry.

A bit more information on the system here.

It would seem like this planet system would be a great place to investigate. It’s close, about 20 light years or so away, has several known planets with one being a veritable haven for extraterestial  lifeforms and of course would be a great boon to science as a whole. Problem is, 20 years at light speed is still 20 years needed to be self sufficient and enclosed in what could be a very small space ship.

Or would it?

Enter our good old friend Albert Einstein and his Special Theory of Relativity. Among his various predictions using this theory the important one (for this discussion) is that of time dilation. In essence Einstein postulated that as you approached the speed of light the passage of time would slow down for you, but not for an observer. So whilst us sitting back here on earth would perceive a light speed ship taking 20 years to reach the Gliese system for them it would be a mere 6 years (assuming a light acceleration of 1g, with 2g it drops to 3.5!), something which would seem a lot more palatable to those people who dared to brave the final frontier.

The great thing about this is that it’s not a linear scale, larger trips of up to 400 light years or so only take the time up to about 11 years or so and even cross galaxy trips of millions of light years don’t add much extra time. Sure, for the people aboard the ships it might not be the greatest thing to arrive at their destination and find that we invented faster the light travel and got there before them (and that whole “everyone you ever knew is dead” thing) it still brings a small sense of joy to me that, no matter what, humans would be able to explore the universe in its entirity with just a normal lifetime. Sure our space technology isn’t up to light speed travel yet but we’re getting very close.

No matter how small a step this might be, it does bring my dream of visiting other worlds one step closer.

diag21

Straight Line Theory.

Way back in my college mathematics days I came up with a simple yet highly philosophical theory about people’s motivations, goals and the direction that they take to get them. I came up with it initially when tackling the problem of parking somewhere, and the seemingly strange way people would attempt to park as to avoid walking too far. The idea came from the basic mathematical principle that the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line. Take the example we have below, a typical car park with the destination labelled:

diag1

Now, the typical behaviour observed in this kind of situation is for the first row (1-1 through 1-6) to fill up first, as they are perceived as being the closest to the destination. However, this is not the case, if we draw in a circle originating from the center of the goal we’ll see the direct straight line distances between the spots and destination, shown thusly:

diag21

The distance to the destination is actually about the same for 2-1 and 1-3, however most people would only take into account one dimension when thinking about the shortest path to their goal, and 1-3 looks much more attractive then 2-1.

This theory applies to almost any endeavour that someone may undertake during their lifetime. The quickest path to your goal is always the one with the smallest amount of deviations from the path. You’ll notice people who don’t reach their goals are often distracted from their desired path easily, and instead end up taking a wobbly path to their goal instead of heading straight for it. I’ve known quite a lot of people who are very successful despite their experience in a field and when questioned about it the response is always the same: “I knew what I wanted to do and I just went for it”.

I thought about this idea constantly for a long time and I ended up asking myself, do mathematicians lead significantly different lives to “normal” people? The question is inheritly flawed, as all of us lead decidedly different lives from what anyone could call normal, and I’m sure we all have different definitions of what a normal life entails. Rather, I came to the conclusion that depending on what your passion is in your life your perspective will change because of it. I’m an IT engineer and as that all my problems get framed in terms of technology and processes. Someone who is say a nutritionist will frame their view around keeping their mind and body healthy and so on. It’s an extrapolation on that old saying, when all you have is a hammer all your problems look like nails.

So, whatever you do in your life look for the straight line. Keep your eye fixed firmly on the goal and start walking directly for it, you’ll be suprised how quickly you can achieve something when you don’t let other distractions get in the way.

Notice Anything?

Have a look at the top of your web browser, notice anything different? If I’ve done everything correctly you should now be looking at this page from www.therefinedgeek.com.au and not my old address. Yes I decided to listen to my peers and buy the domain name. For now the DNS routing to this address is a bit hacky but that will all change come the 26th when I get my static IP address, so if the site is down temporarily it’s probably because my Internet disconnected and I had to manually update the host record, but I don’t see it staying down for long.

When I first built this site I was doing it mostly to get some exposure to web technologies, predominately Windows 2008 server and the goodies that it comes with. I was happy with a DynDNS account that would automatically route everyone to my website no matter what happened to my connection, but that all changed after one of my old friends contacted me.

Whilst getting a domain name was always on the table I had never really considered the potential benefit of getting one. Sure there’s the whole brand recognition stuff and the small amount of prestige from having a unique name on the web but what really got to me was how someone else could be making money off my work, without even having to do anything apart from hosting a DNS service. I guess he knew one of my weak points and wanted to help out; I get pretty motivated when I find out someone is making more from me then I think they should ;)

It’s also a natural progression from a site that started out as just a test bed for various web technologies but evolved into the creative outlet I use it for today. I’ve also never really worked with a proper domain name and if you were unfortunate enough to come across the site whilst I was getting everything right you would’ve been greeted by various levels of errors, funny looking pages and redirection loops. All part of the process, and it was a good hour of fooling around to get everything right.

So, update your bookmarks, RSS feeds and whatever else you may have this site flagged as. I’ll probably keep the old link up for a little while before turning it off, as I don’t want people relying on that one :)

Working with People who are Smarter than You.

The government department I’m currently working for recently embarked on buying a new HP Blade environment to upgrade their VMware cluster, something which I had a big hand in getting done. It was great to see after 5 months of planning, talking and schmoozing management that the hardware had arrived and was ready to be installed. My boss insisted that we buy services from HP to get it set up and installed, something which I felt went against my skills as an IT professional. I mean, it’s just a big server, how hard could it be to set up?

The whole kit arrived in around 27 boxes, 2 of them requiring a pallet jack to get them up to our build area. This was clearly our fault for not ordering them pre-assembled and was an extraordinary tease for an engineer like myself. I begrudgingly called up HP to arrange for the technician to come out and get the whole set up and installed. This is where the fun began.

After chasing our reseller and our account executive I finally got put onto the technician who would be coming out. At first I thought I was just going to get someone who knew how to build and install these things in a rack, something I was a bit miffed about spending $14,000 on. Upon his arrival I discovered he was not only a blade technician but one of the lead solution architects for HP in Canberra, and had extensive experience in core switches (the stuff that forms the backbone of the Internet). Needless to say this guy was not your run of the mill technician, something I’d discover more of over the coming days.

The next week was spent elbow deep in building, installing and configuring the blade system. Whilst this was a mentally exhausting time for myself I’m glad he was there. When we were configuring any part of the system he’d take us a step back to consider the strategic implications of the technology we were installing. I made no secret that I barely knew anything about networks apart from the rudimentary stuff and he did his best to educate me whilst he was here. After spending a week talking about VLANs, trunks and LACP I firmly understood where this technology was taking us, and how we could leverage it to our advantage.

Initially I felt very uncomfortable having someone constantly question and probe me about all the principles and practicies of our network. I’m not one to like being out of control, and having someone who is leaps and bounds smarter then you doing your work makes you seem redundant. However this all changed after I got up to speed and starting asking the right questions. It began to feel less like I was being lectured and more I was being led down the right path. Overall I’m extremely happy with my boss’ decision to bring this guy in, as the setup I would have done without his help would have been no where near the level that it is today.

In any workplace it’s always hard to work with someone who’s a lot smarter then you, especially if they’re your subordinate. Whilst I can’t find the original source for this quote (paraphrased) I’ll attribute it to my good friend, Nick:

A bad manager will surround themselves with people who either agree with everything they say or aren’t as smart as them. A good manager will have a team of people who are much smarter in their respective fields then them and use their advice to influence their business decisions.

So whilst I felt inferior because my boss didn’t believe I was capable and the architect was leaps and bounds above my skill level in the end it turned out to be a great benefit to everyone involved. From now on I’ll be looking at decisions like this in a new light, and hope this is a lesson that all the managers out there can take to heart.

Sit Back, Relax, and enjoy the Recession.

Our beloved Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has finally used the R word to describe Australia’s current economic situation:

The worst global economic recession in 75 years means it’s inevitable that Australia will be dragged into recession,

The challenge for government is to cushion the impact of recession on business and jobs, through the actions we take, through economic stimulus strategy.

Up until now Rudd has been referring to the situation using terms such as economic tough times and making reference that Australia is not immune to the global economic climate. Whilst this would seem a much of muchness when it comes to describing Australia’s current economic position it is actually a powerful rhetorical tool. Some particular words love to wreck havoc with the stock exchange and recession is one of the bigger ones (with regulation being my all time favourite). Looking back to December last year the Federal Reserve Bank of America officially announced that America had slumped into a recession.  This was then accompanied by a huge rush in stock sell-offs and had the Dow Jones finishing almost 8% lower, its fourth worst drop in history. Official figures using certain words can really get people in the mood to sell.

Whilst Rudd’s announcement has done little to stir the market it does put people on notice that when the next quarterly figures come out they’ll probably be negative and this puts us into the technical definition of a recession. In reality this starts to get the execs thinking more about cost cutting, improving their returns on investment and adopting new strategies to cope with economic climate. In essence Rudd is attempting to pre-empt an announcement by the Reserve Bank so that people start thinking about it now, rather then panicking when the R word is used officially.

Whilst it’s a good move overall for Rudd there’s probably a few more things he could do in order to gear people up for the coming recession. His current focus of stimulating the economy through handouts, a few infrastructure projects and supporting small businesses will provide a decent amount of short to medium term boost to the economy. However there is little in the package about longer term investments or adjustments to the banking sector, and rightly so. After the initial down turn businesses will start to pick themselves up off the floor again, and the economy should start turning itself over as per normal. Rudd is doing a good job of keeping in everyone’s good graces and this will do well for him come election time. I’d be really interested to see what policies he brings forth when he doesn’t have to contend with the world falling down around him.

xperia1

Sony Xperia X1: Finally, Windows Mobile Done Right.

Let me premise this post with this one fact: I’m a confessed, huge, blubbering Sony fanboy. Ever since they suckered me in with the original Playstation I’ve been at early morning/midnight launch of their consoles, and I’ve happily parted with many dollars in order to get the console on the first day. I’ve never regretted doing this, especially with Sony’s habit of releasing consoles riddle with delicious exploits for the hackers to get their hands on. That, and they’ve now developed a nasty habit of removing features from their products in order to make them cheaper, something which I feel is a bit rough and doesn’t do them any favours PR wise.

So of course when it came time for work to replace my phone, you can probably guess who I turned to first to see if there was a suitable replacement.

Sony had decided that it needed to step into the arena of Windows smart phones and it’s first entry attempt is the Xperia X1 (which is sitting beside me as I type this). Sony can’t take all the credit for the handset however, as the internals of the handset were designed by smartphone giant HTC, who make pretty much every Windows smart phone you see despite the branding on the outside. This was a smart move by Sony as they whilst they have a small foothold in the laptop and UMPC market their experience with Windows based phones is nil, and established companies are typically risk adverse when it comes to cracking new markets.

They can take credit for a lot of other things to do with the handset. The overall design of the handset is stunning, with the body being mostly metal with plastic chrome flashing around the outside. This is one of the things that drew me to the handset initially, as it’s something different to the typical shiny black plastic you see on handsets these days. The arc-slider design, whilst by no means revolutionary, certainly adds a nice touch to the handset and helps to keep the device a bit slimmer then it’s counterparts.

Sony, as with most Windows mobile using companies, decided to rethink the default mobile UI and put their own system in. Traditionally this came as a re-skinning but many are now going for a complete overhaul of the default UI. The Xperia has a slight twist though, and that comes through the idea of panels.

YouTube Preview Image

The basic idea is that you can change between different default modes of operation for your phone. It’s actually not a bad idea and there are many panels out for things like Youtube and Facebook. They’re definitely a step up in terms of design when compared to the normal UI as they can take advantage of the IR trackpad at the base of the phone. The fish panel is a gimmick more then anything, but it’s a great thing to show people so they get a feel for what the phone is capable of.

What really suckered me in to this phone was is that everything just plain works. Every Windows mobile phone I’ve had has suffered from at least 1 or 2 shop stopping glitches that caused the phone to be next to useless around 50% of the time. My first ever phone, the O2 Atom Exec routinely suffered stability problems. After having it serviced (and the screen replaced, due to a drunken attempt at a commando roll) it would randomly turn itself off if touch, bumped or prodded. Something that was particularly distressing when you were on a call and needed to put it down to turn on the speaker. My most recent handset, the HTC Touch Diamond, did tick all the right boxes (size, weight, power, features) it also had a lovely habit of completely muting itself when someone rung, so that I could hear them but they couldn’t hear me. Several trips back and forth to the repair centre and online resources couldn’t turn up a fix. Pity I lost it as it would’ve made a great universal remote :)

The Xperia, whilst not a revolutionary piece of hardware or software does make some incremental changes that turn out to be a very usable phone in a delightfully sleek package. Sure it lacks an accelerometer and the IR trackpad, whilst a great idea, does turn out to be a bit lackluster but the build quality alone makes up for these lost features. Plus people won’t wonder why you’re so happy to see them when you put this phone in your pocket ;)

Overall I’m very pleased with my purchase and I’d love to see what else Sony has in store for this market. Whilst at the RRP of over AUD$1000 I’m not suprised that everyone is rushing out to buy one of these, but for the business and “prosumer” market it’s definitely in the ballpark.

Who you are Online.

The first five minutes you spend meeting someone make an impression that is hard to change once they’ve made up their mind about who you are. Show up to a professional interview these days in anything less than a suit and tie you’ll probably find yourself walking out of there with not a whole lot to show for it, no matter how well you fit the job. If you start with a solid first impression it is much easier to convince people of your way of thinking, whether that be giving you a job or inviting you up to their boudoir.

The same can be said for your online profile. In essence this is the parts of yourself that you have either purposefully put up there, social networking or otherwise, or have been put up there for you. Whilst it is still a new practice many employers now screen employees through a quick Google search, a hunt around Facebook or other social networking sites and then do the traditional call up to your referees. It’s that first look up of you online that could sway an employer one way or the other, and whether you think that’s fair or not is really beside the point.

I’ll be honest and say when I first thought of this blog I thought it would be a great platform to launch myself from professionally. There’s nothing better then handing a new potential employer or client a business card with your website address on it because, guaranteed, they’ll look it up to see what kinds of things you get up to online. Unfortunately for me, employers who overlook the card and go for a straight Google will probably find my Facebook page long before they find this, since it seems to come up at the top of the results all the time (Yes, yes Googling yourself is sad. But you knew I was a geek before you got here, right?).

Just like the real world though it’s not like this isn’t a manageable part of your professional and personal life. Really it’s all about putting on that suit for your online personality. The general sentiment I get from other people is that they feel Facebook is some kind of secret safe haven away from all the dangers of the Internet where they can bare all and not face repercussions because of this. When in reality, you should really treat it as you would in real life, if you wouldn’t want to share something would you really give them access to it?

I guess I’m fairly lucky when it comes to my online personality. The first two links are for Facebook and LinkedIn, which is probably what I want most of my employers to see first. My friends and I have an unspoken agreement where we don’t put up potentially damaging or criminal content (not that I’d have any of that anyway! ;)) and LinkedIn doesn’t really give you any avenues to make a complete fool of yourself. Going through the rest of it there’s a couple things from back in my programming days on google groups, and some references to other Klemkes around the world.

So treat your online self as you would your real self. Buy it a suit, let it go and party but make sure those two things don’t cross unless you want them to :)