Monthly Archives: May 2009

Ideals of Life: No Achievement is too Small.

I’ve often seen people crushed under their own desire to achieve greatness. It would seem that when confronted with a large task or ambition instead of breaking it down into simpler and more manageable tasks we see each step we take as an exercise in futility. A great many self help books will describe such a process as making small achievable goals for yourself constantly, rather than work on what may amount to an insurmountable problem. Using this idea of small but constant achievement is something that I have used continually throughout my life and something that I more recently came to see the benefit of.

In my teenage years I was critically underweight, being around 185cms tall and weighing about 60kgs. From a BMI perspective this counts as “underweight” although that was pretty obvious if you were just to take a look at me. I didn’t suffer from any eating disorders I just didn’t put on weight no matter how much I thought I ate. When I turned 19 I started doing traditional Wu Shu and Tai Ji and after about a year I’d gained about 10 kgs. Whilst I didn’t end up gaining anymore after that (and stopping Wu Shu due to work commitments 2 years later) it did show me that as long as I kept at something and made small progress constantly I’d eventually end up where I wanted to be. More recently one of my friends (who I did Wu Shu with) put me onto CrossFit and after only about 3 weeks of regularly doing their work out of the day I’ve noticed significant improvements in my health and physique. They also encourage setting goals like beating your own personal bests and the like.

I think this idea came to me from my background in engineering. With any problem I was given whilst studying there was a heavy emphasis of breaking everything down into its most basic forms so that it would be easier to comprehend. I often found myself with assignments that looked so huge that I could never complete them, but after the first couple I got into a routine to solve them. It usually went something like:

  • Open a new document and put the title down
  • Fill out all the housekeeping bits
  • Get the sections outlined
  • Start work on the code/electronics
  • Fill out a couple sections
  • etc

Getting the title down always seemed to get me over that initial “its way too hard” hump and kicked me off in getting things done. We had quite a few assignments that were semester long and I wouldn’t be able to complete certain parts before we’d covered them, but having the framework down really helped keep me motivated to get it done a long time before it was due.

We all face challenges in our lives and no matter what kind of person you are there will be times when you feel like your surrounded by insurmountable tasks on all sides. The key is to identify what you can do to chip away at it because once you find that, your problem doesn’t look so big. I believe Lao-Tzu summed it up perfectly:

A journey of a thousand miles began with a single step.

Pop Tech Abuse.

I’m not what you’d call typical when it comes to my taste in music. Whilst I can easily identify the kinds of music I like (trance, dance and all that. You know, pops/clicks/whistles stuff) I don’t really listen to much of the top 40 or anything similar. If the radio is on in the car on the way to work it’s usually tuned to Triple J, mostly because of their enigmatic hosts and interesting news programs. However recently whilst over at a friends house I was introduced to the current Top 40 on MTV’s music list, and something caught my ear.

One thing that I’m a sucker for in any kind of music is well done vocoding. Making people sound like instruments triggers something in my head that just makes me like the music, no matter who is singing it. I think this is what attracted me to Daft Punk in the first place, as their album Discovery made heavy use of vocoding. Take a gander over at the current ARIA Top 50 and the song currently at the top is The Black Eyed Peas’ Boom Boom Pow. Here’s the film clip to give you an idea of what I’m getting at:

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Another one that’s apparently been staying high in the chart’s is the Pussy Cat Dolls Jai Ho (You Are My Destiny):

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Now these songs aren’t exactly vocoded, but they use something that runs along very similar lines and indeed most artists who were using such effects for a long time were using vocoders. The product I’m referring to is AutoTune, made famous most recently by T-Pain who has used it extensively through all his songs. This I believe is what has lead to many of these chart topping hits to start using it again not only to give the singers perfect pitch, but to also give them that vocoded “Cher” effect that everyone is talking about.

It was an interesting bit of technology for me to come across. I initially heard about it through a few news articles mentioning its wide spread use throughout the pop music industry. Since I had dabbled in music creation before I knew once I had a fiddle with the software (which I did, and it’s very interesting) I could easily identify who was using it and who wasn’t. After sitting through about 10 songs of the top 40 I was surprised at just how many of them were not only using it, but blatantly copying each other’s effects.

I guess this is indicative of what pop culture encapsulates. New and different doesn’t last that long as it either goes one of two ways. The first the “new” idea is something that catches on and then everyone else in the industry tries to emulate that success. The second being that it isn’t popular and it falls by the wayside, forgotten until someone tries it again. The use of Autotune to produce pitch perfect and augmented vocals for songs used to be a small niche typically relegated to the electronic and alternative music styles. Thanks to the popularisation from T-Pain and other AutoTune cohorts we’re seeing everyone latching onto this idea. However, I can’t help but think that this is only a temporary phase and given another year or two there will be another popular sound or effect that will start making the rounds.

For now though I don’t mind people abusing this piece of tech at all. Whilst the songs I’ve posted aren’t my usual kind of thing they’re easy for me to listen to, and I enjoy the effect that AutoTune provides. Granted there are some instances where they should be banned from AutoTune life for trying to (and horribly failing) emulate the more experienced players, but you’re bound to get that with anything popular. It seems though for at least a little while longer I may be delving into the realms of popular music and seeing if they attempt to be innovative with this new bit of pop tech, or they just keep abusing it like they do with everything else in their industry.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that the owners of the videos posted don’t like embedding. I’ve added links to the videos so you may click through to them. Enjoy!

Conroy Backs Down.

I’ve blogged numerous times before about the Internet Filter and it had been all quiet on this front up until this morning when I got wind of this:

THE Rudd Government has indicated that it may back away from its mandatory internet filtering plan.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy today told a Senate estimates committee that the filtering scheme could be implemented by a voluntary industry code.

Senator Conroy’s statement is a departure from the internet filtering policy Labor took into the October 2007 election to make it mandatory for ISPs to block offensive and illegal content.

Responding to questions from shadow communications minister Nick Minchin on how the government may go about imposing the internet filtering scheme, Senator Conroy said that legislation may not be required and ISPs may adopt an industry consensus to block restricted content on a voluntary basis.

“Mandatory ISP filtering would conceivably involve legislation … voluntary is available currently to ISPs,” Senator Conroy said.

“One option is potentially legislation. One other option is that it could be (on a) voluntary basis that they (ISPs) could voluntarily agree to introduce it.”

In response Senator Minchin said he had never heard of a voluntary mandatory system.

Senator Conroy responded with “well they could agree to all introduce it”.

It’s becoming more and more obvious that this is unpopular legislation and it seems the government has been in damage control ever since. This has barely hit the news for over 2 months and the next part we hear about is Conroy saying that all ISPs could voluntarily implement the filter, something which I find incredibly naive.

With the proposal in such a shambles, with them admitting that they’d need to write laws to get it implemented, one has to wonder why are they continuing with something like this? Whilst I’m sure this is a move done to keep Rudd at bay it would seem that Conroy is caught up the old dollar auction game. With such an investment in pushing this considerably unfavourable policy he can’t be seen to be backing down now and be forever seen as being weak on unpopular but “just” causes. So now he’s reduced to this vocal gymnastics to describe what really would be a voluntary mandatory system.

Whilst the policy isn’t completely gone, what with the joke of the trial still continuing, even if it gets implemented it will be horribly ineffective and will prove a talking point for the next election. I’m actually quite surprised how little attention this policy has received in the media considering that it would be a great point of ridicule for the opposition to bring against the Rudd government. They missed the boat when it came to slugging them on the budget but this has been an ongoing joke for over 6 months now. Maybe the opposition thinks no one cares.

That’s probably the most scary part about policy like this. When it first came out I was fine with the idea, allowing someone like me to continue to use the Internet as I wished and anyone who wanted filtering at the ISP level could get it. However when it began to change into something much more hideous I realised I couldn’t stand idly by, but I can’t say that much of the public at large. Talking to my family and relatives I found that most of them were in favour of such horrible ideas, mostly because they had no idea about what it actually meant for them. This kind of ignorance is what scares me as it allows things like this to slip under the radar, slowly eating away at our civil liberties.

This was also why I began to take an interest in politics. Staying ignorant of what my government in power was doing on helped them to pass legislation I disagreed with. Keeping myself informed about what they were doing enabled me to make sound voting choices when it came time, and I’m (mostly) thankful for it. Sure I voted in the party that brought this policy on us but that’s exactly what my previous post on micro democracy was all about. Had I had the option to vote out “Internet Filter” I would have, but we’re still in an age where democracy (and society) isn’t granular enough to handle people like me who would love to micro manage their government.

One day I’ll hear the death knell of this policy, one day.

382px-tom_anderson

The Changing Face of the Modern Geek.

Just as the IT industry continues to reinvent itself every 10 years so it also appears do the people in that industry. Whilst the term IT is relatively new when compared to many other trades it has still managed to capture a stereotype. What is interesting however is how the image of the typical IT geek has progressed over the past few decades from a lab worker to now something completely and utterly different.

ibm_7030

Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

In the early days of large computational clusters many technicians would look like this. Well dressed and with an almost business like demeanour. It was part of the culture back then as many of these types of systems were either for large universities or corporations, and with big dollars being shelled out for such systems (this was the IBM 7030 Stretch which would cost around $100 million in today’s dollars) this was kind of expected. I think that’s why the next generation of geeks set the trend for the next couple decades.

bill-gates-marketing

Image courtesy of Microsoft.

A young Bill Gates shows what would become the typical image conjured up in everyone’s heads when the word geek or nerd was uttered for a long time to come. The young, tall and skinny people who delved themselves into computers were the faces of our IT community for a long time, and I think this is when those thick rimmed glasses became synonymous with our kind. It was probably around this time that geeks became associated with a tilt towards social awkwardness, something that many people still joke about today. What’s really interesting though is the next few steps I’ve seen in the changing geek image.

davidfilojerryyangImage courtesy of JustTheLists.

Jerry Yang and David Filo, the first of a generation of what most people call Internet pioneers. Whilst I can’t find a direct link to it Yahoo had a bit of a reputation for a very casual work environment, with t-shirts and sandals the norm. It was probably because of their success from coming straight out of university and into a successful corporate world, where they grew their own business culture. This kind of thing flowed onto many of the other successful Internet companies like Google, who lavishes their employees with almost everything they will ever need.

382px-tom_anderson

Image Courtesy of Robert Scoble.

Tom Anderson, one of the co-founders of MySpace is not what you’d call your typical geek with a degree in Arts and a masters in Film. You’d struggle to find him even associated with such titles, yet he’s behind one of the largest technical companies on the Internet. Truly the face of the modern geek aspires to something more like Tom Anderson then it does to a young Bill Gates.

I found this interesting because of the company that I keep. We all love computer games and the latest bits of tech, but you’d be hard pressed to find among us anyone you could really call your stereotypical geek. I think this is indicative of the maturity that the IT industry has acquired. The term IT Professional no longer conjures up an idea of a basement dwelling console hacker with thick glasses, more it gives the impression that you’d expect from a professional in any industry. Something which carries with it a decent chunk of respect.

I guess the next step is when we start seeing Joe the IT Professional used in political campaigns.

We Have the most Interesting Problems.

No matter what you do you’ve got to have a bit of pride in what you’re doing. I’d love to tell everyone that my sense of pride in my work comes from my long line of successful projects, which I will admit do give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but more and more I think it comes down to this: Give me any IT system known to man, be it a personal computer or corporate infrastructure, and guaranteed I’ll find a problem that no one has ever seen before and won’t even try to explain.

This came up recently with our blade implementation I mentioned a while ago. Everything has been going great, with our whole environment able to run on a single blade comfortably. Whilst I was migrating everything across something happened that managed to knock one of our 2 blades offline. No worries I thought to myself, I had enabled HA on the farm so all the virtual machines would magically reappear. Not 2 minutes later did our other blade server drop off the network, taking all the (non-production, thank heavens) servers offline. After spending a lot of time on getting this up and running I was more than a little irked that it had developed a problem like this, but I endeavoured to find the cause.

That was about 2 weeks ago and I thought I had nipped it in the bud when I had found the machines responsible and modified their configuration so they’d behave. I was working on reconfiguring some network properties on one machine when I suddenly lost connection again. Knowing that this could happen I had made sure to move most of the servers off before attempting this so we didn’t lose our entire environment this time around. However what troubled me wasn’t the blade dropping off the network it was how I managed to trigger it (a bit of shop talk follows).

VMware’s hypervisor is supposed to abstract the physical hardware away from the guest operating system so that you can easily divvy it up and get more use out of a server. As such it’s pretty rare for a change from within a guest to affect the physical hardware. However when I was changing one network adapter within a guest from a static address (it was on a different subnet prior to migration) to DHCP I completely lost network connectivity to the guest and host. It seems that a funny combination of VMware, HP Blades and Windows TCP/IP stack contains a magic combination so that when you do what I did, the network stack on the VMware host gets corrupted (I’ve confirmed its not the VirtualConnect module or anything else, since I had virtual machines running in the same chassis on a different blade perfectly well).

I’ve struggled with similar things with my own personal computer for years. My current machine suffers from random BSODs that I’m sure are due to the motherboard which is unfortunately the only component I can’t easily replace. Every phone I had for the past 3 years suffered from one problem or another that would render it useless for extended periods of time. Because of this I’ve come to the conclusion that because I’m supposed to be an expert with technology I will inheritly get the worst problems.

It’s not all bad though. With problems like these comes experience. Just like my initial projects which ultimately failed to deliver (granted one of those was a project at University and the other one was woefully under resourced) I learnt what can go wrong where, and had to develop troubleshooting skills to cope with that. I don’t think I’d know a lot about technology today if I hadn’t had so many things break on me. It was this quote that summed it up so well for me:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.

That quote was from Michael Jordan. A man who is constantly associated with success attributes it to his failures, something which I can attest to. It also speaks to the engineer in me, as with any engineering project the first implementation should never be the one delivered, as revising each implementation lets you learn where you made mistakes and correct them. There’s only so much you can learn from getting it right.

This still doesn’t stop me from wanting to thrash my computer for its dissent against me, however :)

Ideals of Life: Losing Yourself.

This post is going to form the basis of a new category of posts here on The Refined Geek which I’m calling Ideals of Life. A couple years ago I made a habit of writing down one or two sentences that described a philosophical ideal that anyone could ascribe to every day just before I went to bed. These were often reflective of my mindset of the time and embodied one of the ideals that I unconsciously believed in. Writing them down reaffirmed my commitment to these ideas, and I’ll share one of them with you today.

Ever since I was a child I’ve been told that I was a dreamer. I can remember catching the hour long bus to my primary school and gazing out of the window endlessly contemplating the outside world. As I got older I never stopped doing this, I merely wondered more about specific topics, rather then having my mind wander aimlessly. During one of my nights of musing over my journal of thoughts I began to realise the importance of losing myself in something, whether it be gaming, thought or conversation. I summed it all up with this point

Let yourself get lost in something every so often. To experience life to the fullest, we must also escape from it.

It’s a twofold point deeply rooted in escapism. I’ve found that often get heavily focused on a few topics or activities at a time and that losing myself into something else from time to time gives me perspective on things that I might be missing. Initially this thought was confined to escaping through games as at the time I was playing through Dreamfall: The Longest Journey which dealt with ideals similar to this. However over time I found myself getting lost in other activities, such as research. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up one article on Wikipedia only to find myself still researching the topic hours later.

I’ve also begun to believe that this ideal also encourages passion in any endeavour you might undertake. You can find many examples of people who are so engrossed with something that they lose their identity when they become involved in it. This is an amazing characteristic and it’s something I note in the truly altruistic individuals that exist in this world. Whilst I can’t remember the real source for the following quote I can attribute its paraphrasing:

I have no need to defend my ideals, they defend themselves. – Eamon Logue on the topic of Buddhism

This I feel embodies the essence of losing yourself. Eamon was no longer a man defending a point or a belief, he was merely manifesting the ideals of Buddhism through himself.

So become passionate, lose yourself in something every so often and gain perspective on your life. Once you find something that you can truly lose yourself in, the rest of your life takes on a new level of meaning.

Grab for the Green.

No matter which industry you look at these days everyone is trying to go green. The idea in itself is riddled with many challenges as traditional business processes must be reworked in order to reduce the impact on the environment. Whilst the benefits to the company implementing the green technologies are usually intangible I can’t help but wonder about the other side of the coin: those who are selling their products as green solutions.

The climate of the world is changing, we know that for a fact and more evidence is piling up to show that we’re responsible for what’s happening. Whilst the governments of the world fight it out over strategic plans to combat the impact that humans have on the climate many business, in an effort to generate good will, have begun implementing green programs in order to reduce their environmental foot print. This doesn’t stop the green initiatives from costing money however, and the global financial crisis has seen funding dry up for these programs and many corporations looking to save a few dollars will look to their green projects to cut.

This hasn’t stopped all the big names in the IT sector from pushing green on their customers. Last year I was involved with HP and VMware for upgrading our current environment. I don’t think I could go 10 minutes with either of them without them mentioning how part of their technology reduced greenhouse emissions in some way. Granted they were both pushing technologies that can actually reduce the amount of power used and therefore carbon emissions but the solution didn’t come cheap. Whilst this wasn’t an issue for us at the time (since we were replacing the hardware anyway) it made me think about places that were pursuing such ideas solely as a green initiative. The projected benefits of the new project was something in the order of 600 tonnes of CO2 saved each year. Translating that into real world dollars that’s approximately $7000 (using NZ carbon tax prices) saved, something which is really a drop in the bucket when the new system cost in excess of $250,000. The question then is, how much goodwill is generated by implementing such a project? I’d hazard a guess it’s not that much.

I guess I shouldn’t of been surprised as with any hot topic like climate change there are going to be people who want to cash in on everyone’s desire to be seen as doing the right thing. Emission Trading schemes are a brilliant example of this, especially in places in the USA where the regulation around emissions trading are hopelessly lax. It gets even worse when people market themselves as green or carbon neutral, when really they’re far from it. I guess I have a bit of a bugbear when it comes to something which is marketed as carbon neutral when in fact, the act of producing emissions in one place and offsetting them in another are two completely separate events. Is something really was carbon neutral it wouldn’t emit anything in the first place.

I support the move to more sustainable technologies, just not the ones marketed under the green banner. Companies that have been practising sustainable business have no need to rethink their current strategies. A great example of this is Apple. They have a habit of not letting out a lot of information about their business practices and this unfortunately made them a prime target for Greenpeace. However,  shortly after they began their attack Apple responded, shooting them down in flames and showing that they had long term plans for sustainable business.

From a personal perspective I do as much as I can without impacting on my lifestyle. Things like turning off lights when I don’t need them and car pooling. If everyone made these easy changes I’m sure we’d see a bigger impact than many of the proposed measures, but that’s just a bit of hand waiving math on my part :)

Transforming Democracy Through e-Government.

In many modern democratic countries the choice of leadership often comes down to two parties who hold the majority of power. This is then augmented by having many other less powerful parties who, whilst they don’t hold any significant power by themselves, help to ensure that other less mainstream ideals are still represented in the decision making process of the country. However they still have to choose a preferred side to default to which returns the small amount of power they wield back to one of the two major players.

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others.” – Winston Churchill

For the most part this works well. Having two major parties constantly at each other does lend to most policies undergoing a considerable amount of scrutiny and you can be assured that if there’s anything truly damaging in a piece of legislation that the opposition will ridicule the government for it. However the act of voting someone in doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with all of their policies and directions, as no candidate can accurately represent the individuals desires for the leadership of the country. This is probably my one of my beefs with the two party system, whilst I can vote people in based on a political ideal I can’t vote out legislation that I might oppose. So whilst I do have representation in the form of a candidate that I had a hand in electing once they’re in office I am at their mercy when it comes to creating and voting on legislation.

This came up last night when I was discussing with my parents why I felt giving to charities was ineffective. Whilst the act of giving to charity is an altruistic ideal I feel disconnected from my act of giving and the impact that act will have on someone less fortunate then me. I proposed a system whereby they could track my donation using a unique ID and show me where the money ended up. So if I gave $50 I would love to see where that actually wound up, even if it was just 50 loaves of bread. I then thought that such a system could revolutionise the way the democracy works in Australia.

Let me lay out the specification for such a system for you and how it would be used in Australia. Currently everyone who pays taxes has a Tax File Number (TFN). Using this ID your tax dollars could be flagged and then put into pools of cash broken up into something like postcode or arbitrary number. When the government wants to fund something it draws from one or more of these pools and associates the funds with a project. Then using a web interface any Australian with a tax file number could log in and see where their tax dollars were being spent. You could actually see your tax dollars at work building hospitals or new schools.

A simple augmentation to this system would then be to allow all users to assign preferences for their tax dollars. This then forms the basis of micro-voting with your tax dollars. So say you support increased spending on education and a reduction in defense. You log into this website and select your preference for education as 1 and defense as 10. With enough participation in the system you in essence give the power back to the people and could mandate that the government allocate funding along the public’s lines (within reason of course).

I identify myself as a libertarian without most of the crazy (I don’t think markets are the answer to everything) and as such I see this as a way of giving people the choice to not only vote in the party that they align with but also allow them to have a say in the operations of the government once they’re in power. I’m also partial to the idea of taking some power away from lobbyists who have a considerable amount of power in democracies like the USA.

Of course this idea has its issues, and the majority of it would come down to voter participation. Whilst voting is mandatory in Australia the USA attracts about 50% to 60% of eligible voters to the polling booths. Given the additional option of this system I’m sure less than 100% of those people would want to participate which reduces the value such a system would have as resource for the government. Still even as an opt-in part of voting I still believe that it could prove useful and I believe initial implementations could be used by the government to form policies that the public at large supports, rather than employing political devices such as soft power to make the public believe that they’re getting what they want.

I guess the next question is, would this improve the democratic process?

Insource/Outsource, Onshore/Offshore, let’s call the whole thing off!

In rough economic times such as these many public and private sector industries look to cut spending in pretty much any place that they can. One of the hottest topics that comes up around this time is the one of outsourcing certain business needs (usually corporate services such as human resources and IT) to other companies who can do the same service for less than it would cost internally. Traditionally this is met with strong resistance as it typically means either a loss of job for the people who are being outsourced or a relocation to the new company headquarters. I often see people confusing the term outsourcing with offshoring which are really completely different ways of achieving a similar goal.

Outsourcing in Australia has a tainted reputation mostly due to the catastrophe caused by the whole of government outsourcing solution. This is due in part to the lack of capability of the outsourcers to deliver on their promises but some of the blame lies on the government of the time. Up until this initiative none of the big government departments (apart from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, who pioneered the initiative) had any experience dealing with a large outsourcing arrangement for their in house services. Whilst they did the right thing and sought expert advice this ultimately lead to the government deciding on the service providers based on the wrong, mostly cost based metrics. A subsequent review of the arrangements found the government wanting and the push to stop the outsourcing arrangements became even stronger.

Many departments haven’t recovered from this outsourcing arrangement and continue to use service providers for many of their IT services. In another life I was part of one such contract, working for Unisys as part of the IT services for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Whilst I was a minor player in the scope of things (I had nothing to do with the contract itself, but I was part of the new business team for about 6 months and a systems administrator for 6 months prior to that) it became quite clear during my time there why many of the outsourcing arrangements had failed.

The foundation of any big outsourcing arrangement is a large contract; and of course with any large contract there are going to be loopholes, missing requirements and misinterpretations. Once a contract like this has been signed corrections and augmentations to it are slow and cumbersome. When you’re working in mission critical areas, like DIAC’s visa processing area, finding out that a requirement isn’t met by the contract but can only be filled by the outsourcer means one thing: out of scope work. Anyone who has dealt with contract or project management will tell you that out of scope work either doesn’t get done, or you pay on a “time and materials” basis for the additional resources required. New business such as this is where outsourcers will make their money as most of these projects will be resourced by repurposing staff who are already fully paid for under the original contract. The bigger the deal the more room there is for this out of scope work to appear.

Offshoring is an augmentation to the outsourcing idea. In essence this means moving a labour force to another country or location where the services can be provided with a better rate or some other value add. The best examples of these are the call centers in places like Bangalore where the labour is cheap and plentiful. Government agencies in Australia typically shy away from offshoring arrangements due to the data sensitivity problem (government data going overseas? Hello wiretap). I’m more opposed to offshoring arrangements then outsourcing as for most of the outsourcing arrangements I’ve seen they have kept jobs in Australia. Granted the profits then fuel someone else’s economy but given the choice between less jobs in Australia and sending some money overseas I still be behind keeping people working in Australia

No one’s innocent when it comes to failing outsourcing arrangements and the Australian government learned that the hard way. Whilst many departments continue to outsource some of their IT services they are continually improving their contracting process, enabling them to get the delivered services and savings they were looking for. Probably one of the biggest steps forward is the demonstration that if the outsourcer doesn’t deliver, they’ll get the boot for someone else. Sometimes you have to hit them where it hurts before they’ll straighten up.

Personally I’d only consider outsourcing if I was building a company from the ground up. I’ve seen what happens when an established IT department gets outsourced and it isn’t pretty. A company built around these principals however tend to thrive on them, and that’s something that established companies lack. Most savings that are achieved with outsourcing arrangements can be achieved internally as well, it just requires that the current IT department be as motivated to keep their business as the outsourcers are to get it (something which I’ve found sorely lacking).

Now to outsource my job so I can relax at home…… :)

The Oldest Form Of Advertising.

Everyone knows someone (or is that someone) who’s so involved in a certain hobby or profession that they can spout the latest news about anything in that field. I often do this to my friends with things about space since I can’t help myself when and often lose hours trawling through Wikipedia and online space publications. It’s these kinds of people that advertisers love, since they’re basically a captive audience for their marketing and are basically employees working as pro bono evangelists. There’s nothing companies love more then getting something for nothing.

So enter Viral Marketing. Whilst the term itself has only been around for the past 12 years or so the concept has been around for quite a lot longer. Probably one of the best examples of this was Charles Ponzi’s famous Ponzi Scheme which went viral very quickly as news spread about the amazing returns on investment he was offering. Its this kind of reaction that many marketing companies try to achieve these days by targeting “high value” individuals who will do a lot of the grunt work for them. In the end the hope is that the advertising critical mass will be hit with little involvement from them, and hopefully without the public at large knowing it was orchestrated by them.

Up until recently the public of Australia hadn’t experienced a successful viral campaign, but that all changed when a love-struck waitress found a coat left behind by a dashing man. The story had all the elements of a great love tale: a chance event, love at first sight, tragic departure, a small clue and a desperate struggle to find the “one”. It’s the kind of thing that the media loves to grab a hold of because it’s got something in it for everyone and makes for a great chat over a coffee (It was on most of the morning shows, but few of the more serious evening programs). From the start people were sceptical, but it managed a good few days of press before someone decided to do some actual investigation and find out who she really was. There was of course a bit of backlash from the community at large who felt they’d been led up the garden path and were astonished that advertisers would do such a thing. There was a brief period after the whole thing came apart where the media actually educated the Australian public about such campaigns, something which I found quite refreshing.

Viral campaigns are a double edged sword when it comes to drumming up hype for your desired product/service/idea. Sure you might end up creating an environment where the product advertises itself (like it seems to do with any Apple product) but at the same time you give up control over what the outcome might be. Whilst you might be successful you have to take caution not to make a fool out of the people you’re advertising to, as the bad news will spread just as quickly as the good. Additionally it’s hard to gauge the results of a viral campaign as they’re notoriously unpredictable, unlike more traditional methods which have decades of research behind them.

I guess it all comes down to an old Japanese proverb: “If you believe everything you read, better not read”. As always, keep a sceptical eye on the media and practice self education on anything that someone might posit to you.

That’s not to say that all viral campaigns are bad or misleading, some are actually quite entertaining:

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