Ursula Le Guin

The woman who has fired my imagination for more than forty-five years has received the US National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In her acceptance speech she reaffirmed her power. A wonderful author and great human.

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“Technology standardization is commercial diplomacy”

Paul Ford has a very good article in the New Yorker on the cut and thrust involved in the making of standards, in particular, the making of Web Standards.  My post’s title is a direct quote from Stephen Walli, who is mentioned in the article as “a veteran of many such [standardisation] efforts”.

The article brings back memories (both fond and frustrating) of the time when I was embroiled in the standardization processes swirling round the OSF and X/Open groups. I got to count Stephen as one of my friends and travelling companions from that time. As Stephen wrote:

Technology standardization is commercial diplomacy and the purpose of individual players (as with all diplomats) is to expand one’s area of economic influence while defending sovereign territory.

Ah, yes, I remember it well…

Posted in Computers and Internet, IT Architecture, Organizations | Leave a comment

Celebrating Hetty

One of the pleasant things about living in the Dutch countryside is that we get to participate in traditions that are non-existent or being eclipsed in cities. One such tradition is Noaberschap (neighbourliness). Martin and I are the Noaste Noabers (closest neighbours) of Herman and José. This means that we are responsible for organising the rest of Herman and José’s neighbourhood (Buurt) in times of celebration or need.

Herman is a dairy farmer, and last month one of his cows, Hetty 176, reached a milestone. In her 14 years of life, she has produced 132,000 litres of milk and 10,000 Kg of fat and protein. That, coupled with the fact that the farm has been in existence for 101 years, meant that it was clearly time for a celebration. So last Friday evening, the Buurt gathered in a neighbour’s barn, and we decorated an arch with greenery and paper flowers (red, white, and blue, the colours of the Dutch flag). Late in the evening we took the arch round to Herman and José’s and erected it in front of the entrance to their barn.

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Yesterday, the Buurt, together with Herman and José’s family, friends and farming colleagues, met in the barn to celebrate Hetty’s achievement. There were representatives from CRV (a Dutch cattle herd improvement company) to present a ribbon to Hetty and a certificate to Herman. Martin and I, on behalf of the Buurt, put a laurel wreath on Hetty, and presented gifts from the Buurt to Herman and José. More speeches followed, including an emotional one from José, who reminded us that farmers do not have an easy life, and that good farmers care about their animals above and beyond the call of duty. José is very proud of Herman, and rightly so.

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The afternoon was rounded off by a meal at a nearby restaurant hosted by Herman and José. A very good day.

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Build 9879 Of Windows 10 Has Removed “Smart Files”

Microsoft has just released a new interim build of their forthcoming Windows 10 operating system: build 9879, and blogged about the changes here.

I notice that Gabe Aul (leader of the Data & Fundamentals Team in the Operating Systems Group) trumpets that the build has “cool new features”. Er, no, Gabe, what you have done is to remove a cool new feature that was introduced in Windows 8.1, and thereby damaged the user experience.

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft introduced the concept of “smart files”. These are small placeholder files, which represent the actual files stored in the OneDrive cloud, and which appear in the OneDrive Folder hierarchy listed in the File Explorer. Here, for example, is the contents of a OneDrive folder (“Beside the Seaside”) being viewed in the Windows 8.1 File Explorer:

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In Windows 8.1, the only indication you have that you’re looking at a smart file, rather than a full-size file is that “Available online-only” message at the bottom of the File Explorer window.

Other than that, to all intents and purposes, smart files look like the actual files, but they are usually a fraction of the size. They just hold the thumbnail and the metadata of the files they stand in for. In the example above, the selected image (in OneDrive) is 5.1 MB, but the smart file shown in File Explorer is just 44 KB in size:

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Because the smart files hold metadata, it means that you can use File Explorer to search your OneDrive folders. This is also better than the online OneDrive Search, which can only search on filenames.

When a smart file is opened for editing, the actual file is automatically synced down onto the PC and opened instead. After use, the user can choose whether to keep the full-size file (which is then automatically kept in sync with the file in OneDrive), or go back to using a smart file to save space. This choice can also be made at Folder level, so that the contents of a Folder can be either “offline” (i.e. full-size files are in the PC’s folder and kept in sync with OneDrive) or “online-only (i.e. smart files are used in the Folder to save space on the PC or tablet).

When this feature was introduced, Mona Akmal (a group program manager for SkyDrive – what OneDrive was then called) blogged that:

In the Windows 8.1 preview we saw consumers using SkyDrive in two distinct ways. The first group of people are very conscious of what they have saved to disk and most of their files are online-only. We found that the majority of people using smart files take up 80% less disk space than they would without smart files. The second group of people are on the other end of the spectrum: they explicitly chose to have all their files available offline, and so have their entire SkyDrive stored locally.  This showed us that users understand smart files and are tailoring the feature to their needs.

Fast forward a year, and now Gabe Aul is telling us:

People had to learn the difference between what files were “available online” (placeholders) versus what was “available offline” and physically on your PC. We heard a lot of feedback around this behavior. For example, people would expect that any files they see in File Explorer would be available offline by default. Then they would hop onto a flight (or go someplace without connectivity) and try to access a file they thought was on their PC and it wasn’t available because it was just a placeholder. It didn’t feel like sync was as reliable as it needed to be. For Windows 10, having OneDrive provide fast and reliable sync of your files is important. Starting with this build, OneDrive will use selective sync. This means you choose what you want synced to your PC and it will be. What you see is really there and you don’t need to worry about downloading it. You can choose to have all of your OneDrive files synced to your PC, or just the ones you select.

In other words some people clearly don’t understand smart files. So smart files have been removed for everyone. Gabe, this is not a “cool new feature”, this is removing a cool new feature.

What we have now is a very basic experience. Either a OneDrive folder or file is synced to the PC, or it’s not. That, in turn means that the Search experience is now completely broken.

For example, here’s what I see when I search for photos of our dog Kai in OneDrive using the File Explorer of Windows 8.1:

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Search has found 11 images with the tag “Kai” from within three separate OneDrive folders, and as it happens, all of these are smart files, since I don’t have the contents of these folders held offline on my PC.

In the new build of Windows 10, however, the same search only returns two results:

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Why? Because I only have one folder (“Beside the Seaside”) synced to my PC, all the other folders (e.g. “Walking the Dogs”) claim that they are empty:

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Of course, it’s only empty on my PC – in the OneDrive Cloud, it has photos of Kai. However, I also can’t search for photos of Kai in OneDrive – the online search doesn’t search tags, only filenames.

In summary, the removal of smart files is a huge step backwards. All Microsoft had to do was to use an overlay icon on files to distinguish between a smart file and the full-size original, and everybody would have been happy.

But no, Microsoft has removed a cool feature and broken the search experience completely. This does not bode well for Windows 10 as far as I’m concerned.

Addendum 15 November 2014: This removal of smart files has caused something of a disturbance in the Force. So much so, that Microsoft has moved to respond with a comment from a OneDrive team group program manager, Jason Moore:

Wanted to jump in here and address some of the questions and feedback we are getting about the changes we rolled out yesterday. As we look at the next version of OneDrive, we are working very hard to make sure it provides the best experience possible for our customers, and a big part of that is getting the sync model right.

We hear the feedback on placeholders, and we agree that there many great things about the model – for example, being able to see all your files in the cloud even if they are not all sync’ed to your PC. However, we were not happy with how we built placeholders, and we got clear feedback that some customers were confused (for example, with files not being available when offline), and that some applications didn’t work well with placeholders and that sync reliability was not where we needed it to be.

So, we stepped back to take a fresh look at OneDrive in Windows. The changes we made are significant. We didn’t just “turn off” placeholders – we’re making fundamental improvements to how Sync works, focusing on reliability in all scenarios, bringing together OneDrive and OneDrive for Business in one sync engine, and making sure we have a model that can scale to unlimited storage. In Windows 10, that means we’ll use selective sync instead of placeholders. But we’re adding additional capabilities, so the experience you get in Windows 10 build 9879 is just the beginning. For instance, you’ll be able to search all of your files on OneDrive – even those that aren’t sync’ed to your PC – and access those files directly from the search results. And we’ll solve for the scenario of having a large photo collection in the cloud but limited disk space on your PC.

Longer term, we’ll continue to improve the experience of OneDrive in Windows File Explorer, including bringing back key features of placeholders.

So keep the feedback coming. We’re working every day to improve OneDrive, and customer feedback is a hugely important part of that.”

It would thus appear that Microsoft has not in fact thrown the placeholder baby out with the bathwater, but is trying to improve it. That’s a good thing. However, it’s a pity that they couldn’t have been a bit more open about this upfront. Telling us that they were introducing cool new features, whilst in fact apparently removing one is yet another example of Microsoft opening its mouth, only to exchange feet.

Addendum 19 November 2014: Mary Branscombe has an excellent follow-up article on this whole debacle. Well worth reading.

Posted in Computers and Internet | Tagged | 14 Comments

What Did The Diva Say To The UN Secretary-General?

I know, it sounds almost like an old joke, but I thought something quite interesting happened a few days ago.

Scene: The UN International Centre in Vienna

Dramatis personæ: The Secretary-General of the United Nations: Ban Ki-Moon, and the Diva: Conchita Wurst.

Watch it and wonder. I really think the UN gets what human equality and respect for diversity means – unlike the Catholic Church.

Posted in LGBT Politics, Society | 2 Comments

The Rise of the Machines

Yesterday, I blogged about the Microsoft Band – the new wearable device from Microsoft that is aimed at people who do sports. Reading the press, I get the impression that relatively few commentators have understood what’s really going on here. Most of them are focusing on the device itself, and missing the real story. The device is a first generation attempt. It is limited, clunky, and will only used by early adopters. Better devices will inevitably follow, but that’s almost not the point.

The real point, and the real innovation, is Microsoft Health – the service in the Cloud where all the data collected by the Band can, and usually will, be held. Microsoft themselves talk about Microsoft Health being “the beginning of a journey”. It’s clear that the plan is that the data collected will be mined to provide value, and not just to you, but to Microsoft and its partners. I notice that Microsoft already has a connection not just between the Microsoft Health service and multiple (non-Microsoft) devices, but between Microsoft Health and Microsoft’s HealthVault:

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And just what is HealthVault? Well, it’s where you can store your health information and make it available to others: such as your health providers, and no doubt in the future, your insurers.

This is the inevitable rise of big data in the Healthcare industry. I think where Microsoft, and others, certainly Google, but maybe even Nintendo, are going is to aim for the point where their intelligent agents (Cortana, in Microsoft’s case) take on the role of your personal physician. It may seem farfetched today, but it is an inevitable endpoint of the changes that are happening all around us. There’s a McKinsey report that says that Big Data is the next frontier for innovation and competition, which may well be the case, but I can’t help feel that McKinsey hasn’t seen the writing on the wall when they state that:

There will be a shortage of talent necessary for organizations to take advantage of big data. By 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.

Um, sorry, but coming rapidly up on the inside are intelligent bots that have those deep analytical skills. Already, we have the fact that arguably the best oncologist in the world is not a human but an intelligent bot: Watson. We are rapidly approaching the position where for many jobs – not just assembly line workers, but white-collar workers and even the professional classes such as lawyers, doctors, and analysts – humans need not apply:

Last week, I attended a presentation in Silvolde, a small town nearby, which was given by Peter van der Wel – a Futurologist and Economist. He covered much the same ground as in the video above. While van der Wel was a self-confessed optimist about the technological changes that are heading our way, I’m not so sure. I agree that they will happen, but the resulting upheavals in society as we move from the pre-robot age to a post-robot one will not be easily managed. Today, most of us work to earn money in order to live. When it becomes difficult to find a job – any job – what will the impact be on society? I have no answer, but I think we “live in interesting times”, as the old Chinese curse would have it.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics, Society | 1 Comment

Microsoft’s Band-Aid

There have been rumours about it for a while now, but yesterday Microsoft announced the Microsoft Band, a wearable device that both tracks your health and provides notifications of emails, appointments and social media activity.

The wristband records the number of steps the wearer takes, the intensity of sleep, exercise performance and calories burned. It also tracks heart rate, location via GPS, skin temperature, perspiration and UV exposure. All that data is passed into Microsoft Health, a cloud-based service that builds up a picture of your physical activity and health indicators.

It’s clearly aimed at people who do sports, but I wonder whether Microsoft might not widen the target group to add others in the future, such as the elderly. Being on the wrong side of 65 myself, I would definitely be interested in a device that can monitor my health, and alert me when trends look to be going pear-shaped. A panic button might be a useful addition as well. And think of the add-on accessories – a Bluetooth blood pressure monitor for example.

As usual for Microsoft, the Microsoft Band is only currently available in the US, with no word as to when it might be expected elsewhere. I’ll probably be dead before it is available here.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics | 1 Comment