Water Scare

The latest issue of India Today has a cover story on the water crisis facing much of India. And then, this AP story says:

Many of the world’s natural underground reservoirs are diminishing rapidly, threatening the drinking water of millions of people and compounding the ravaging effects of drought and famine, the United Nations warned Wednesday.

Across Africa, Asia, Central and South America, groundwater levels are dropping as much as 10 feet a year, largely due to intensive irrigation, the U.N. Environment Program said in a report released in London.

As aquifers subside, sea water seeps into the water table in coastal areas, making the water undrinkable, co-author John Chilton told reporters. The problem is causing the ground to sink in major cities, including Mexico City and Bangkok, and will force small farmers out of business, he said.

Quite a scary future. Add to it the fact that the monsoons in India seem to be delated by 8-10 days this year. Nature fights back?

Will Wright at PC Forum

PC Forum has published the transcript of Will Wright’s talk. Will is the creator of the Sims. “These are the three rough areas I want to cover: topologies, dynamics and paradigms. Topologies are the structure of a system: what the elements are and how they relate. The dynamics define how the structures change through time. And the paradigm glues the two together. It gives us tools for understanding the ways topologies are changed through dynamics.”

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The Future of Personal Computing

TheTechMag.com has an article by Kirk Kirksey:

The transformed PC will look like a piece of paper thats right a plain ol piece of paper. The complete machine will be around 1/16th of an inch thick, and have two functional surfaces, however in this context, front and back will have no meaning.

Floating molecular processors interconnected with clear, conductive plasma will drive the whole thing. Embedded in the machine will be nano cameras, high-speed satellite connectors, and teensy surround sound systems. Attach a DVD to one side of the machine and the movie will play (in HDTV quality) on the other side.

Although the most popular machines will be rectangular, endless sizes and shapes will be available. A flawless handwriting recognition engine will digitize input entered on either side of the machine. No more Graffiti. This input will be recognized in any orientation and language. Neatness and standard character formations are not required. Typists can use a projected, holograph keyboard.

Wires will disappear completely from the computing landscape. Floating transmitters will beam images and sound to unconnected earphones and screens embedded in sunglasses. All Internet connections will be made via satellite links.

Batteries are a thing of the past, too. Power will be delivered via a kinetic engine, like mechanisms that recharge wristwatches by harnessing the movement of the wearer.

Last but not least, the machine will be durable. Because of the molecular nature of the processors, you will be able to fold your computer into smaller and smaller packages.

Blogs to Manage Projects

Jonathan Peterson writes that “blogs + RSS + trackback pings + Google would be significantly more powerful than whatever is currently in use in 95% of IT organizations.”

Lets look at a blogged IT organization:

1. Each developer and/or development team would keep a project blog with RSS.
2. The Project Manager would subscribe to all those blogs and would publish a roll-up blog with links to details of various issues.
3. The program manager would subscribe to the RSS feeds for every project or team that impacts his project portfolio and would publish his own blog.
4. The Powerpoint deck would now have live links to blog entries at the program office level.

Haystack – the Universal Information Client

Slashdot has a discussion on Haystack.

Haystack is a tool designed to let every individual manage all of their information in the way that makes the most sense to them. By removing the arbitrary barriers created by applications only handling certain information “types”, and recording only a fixed set of relationships defined by the developer, we aim to let users define whichever arrangements of, connections between, and views of information they find most effective. Such personalization of information management will dramatically improve each individual’s ability to find what they need when they need it.

Haystack looks into the use of artificial intelligence techniques for analyzing unstructured information and providing more accurate retrieval.’ Unlike some attempts I’ve seen in the past to pull it all together on my desktop, Haystack shows some promise — One of it’s more useful features allows you to take the information you’ve been wallowing through, and have Haystack continually refine a ‘dynamic hierarchy’ until you get what you need. Haystack also performs some neat tricks such as combining Email, IM, web pages, etc. into a single inbox.

We should try it out.

Marketing Trap

How do SMEs grow their business? Its a question I’ve been pondering because we find ourselves in what I am calling a “marketing trap”. SMEs spend limited money on marketing (ads, PR, etc.) which limits their reach to potential buyers which in turn limits their new business. The biggest challenge for SMEs is not cost control (they already have a good handle on all that they are spending) but new business opportunities. The products and solutions are there, what is missing is the knowledge of who it can be useful (the prospects).

So far, the options are few – build a direct sales team or set up a channel. And then, perhaps back it up with some advertising – which is very expensive. Of course, if there was enough business being generated due to the ads, it would be another story, but in most cases, that does not happen because SMEs typically do not indulge in repeated advertising. The other possible options: direct marketing via post or by email (spam).

How does one get out of this marketing trap?

The Internet plays a very limited role in the marketing efforts for most SMEs. What is needed is an “information marketplace” – buyers should be able to say what they want, sellers should be able to talk about what they have to sell, and they should be able to find each other. Information needs to flow two-way between the smaller companies. Most are in each other’s neighbourhood, but don’t even know of each other’s existence. How can we solve this problem?

A few ideas I was thinking of:

– get SMEs to create a wiki and a weblog: the wiki could be a single page that they update whenever they want describing who they are, while the weblog has a mix of what is new and content/ideas related to their business, thus showcasing their “intellectual capital” and helping others differentiate. Yes, a website could do this too, but most websites are just not easily updateable.

– as SMEs publish their buy/sell needs, this can become an RSS feed which others could subscribe to. Feeds can be based on product category or by company. The RSS feeds could be delivered via an Info Aggregator-like service to a separate mailbox to the subscribers. The RSS feeds could link to the appropriate post on the SME’s blog which describes the need, and a link to the wiki page to find out more about the SME.

– the issue here one could face is “tragedy of the commons”. There would be an incentive to “spam” the process. These companies could be filtered out. One could use ideas from eBay’s rating system here.

– what this allows is for SMEs to find companies locally. So or example, if I am looking to buy a knowledge management software, Google is not very helpful – I need vendors locally, who will understand my requirements and show me a demo.

There’s still a lot more to be thought, but I am beginning to think that if we can create such a solution, it could not only help us generate more business, but also showcase some of the newer technologies (blogs, RSS) to the SMEs. Of course, the first challenge would be to get enough SMEs to start using the system to make it useful. This is a co-ordination problem: enough SMEs have to come in simultaneously, and they would then all be better off than they were.

TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Mirror Worlds

In 1991, David Gelernter wrote a landmark book called Mirror Worlds. Heres an extract from an article about the book from Sohodojo:

Mirror Worlds is the most important book about the Internet that you can read. What is even more amazing? Mirror Worlds isn’t supposed to be about the Internet.

Ten years after its publication, the really impressive about Mirror Worlds is what Gelernter and all the rest of us didn’t foresee. The Mirror World is a magical Looking Glass; a transforming two-way mirror. The rapid growth of the Internet and its associated impact on the emerging global economy means that the model has become the system itself. The outside world is changing to reflect our lives inside the wired, network world we live in… not the other way around.

In Mirror Worlds Gelernter envisioned us mustering the resources and implementation efficiencies to allow us to build grand software simulations of government, economic and social systems. Then, by cleverly instrumenting the simulations to be real-time reflections of the system being modeled… you get a BIG BANG!

The simulation becomes something qualitatively different. It is a Mirror World. As more and more of our value exchanges and communication take place purely in cyberspace, the model is the system… we don’t have to build the simulation and instrument it… the model and the system are one and the same.

Steven Johnson wrote recently about Gelernters vision in a slightly different context:

In 1991, computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale University predicted in his book Mirror Worlds that advances in computing power and connectivity would lead to the creation of virtual cities: micro versions of the real world built out of data streams and algorithms instead of bricks and concrete…Fast-forward a decade, and evidence of Gelernter’s prescience abounds. Millions of people are active participants in virtual worlds that possess the economic and creative vitality of actual communities. The Net denizens who have built a homestead in massively multiplayer games like The Sims Online are the digital world’s equivalent of the postwar immigration to California. The worlds are so vivid that the players now take the virtual objects that they’ve accumulated in these gamesswords, houses, entire charactersand sell them in online auctions for real-world currencies.

In a true mirror world, data would be mapped onto recognizable shapes from real life. For instance, to find information on a local hospital, you would locate the building on a computerized map and click on it with an “inspector” tool. Within seconds, the big-picture data about the facility would come into focus: number of patients and doctors, annual budget, how many patients died in operating rooms last year, and more. If you were looking for more specific informationsay you were considering giving birth at the hospitalyou could zoom in to the obstetrics department, where you would see data on such subjects as successful births, premature babies, and stillborns. Information about how the hospital connects to the wider citywhat Gelernter calls topsightcould be had by zooming out.

Another key feature of Gelernter’s vision is what he calls narrative information systems. The data in a mirror world are time-based: The mortality rate at a hospital varies from month to month and from year to year, and a mirror world would record those changes. So with any variableor combination of variablesyou could reverse the data stream to see past conditions. This is a tool not only for making sense of the past but also for predicting the future: If you’re in the middle of an economic downturn and you’re thinking of moving to a new neighborhood, you might like to see how the real estate values fared during previous recessions. With a mirror world, you would select a neighborhood (or a city block, if you wanted that much detail) with the inspector tool and shuttle the data stream to 1990 or the mid-1970s or the late 1920s, as though you were rewinding a VHS tape.

Somewhere in this mix of tools and interactivity, a true mirror world is brewing. Combine the visual interfaces of SimCity, the up-to-the-minute data of My Neighborhood Statistics, the multiple inroads of Game Neverending, and you’d be able to create a true alternate universe, one that was mapped to real events. Ten years from now, a massive public planning operation like the one under way for the Ground Zero site might well be unimaginable without a mirror world. Photoshop pictures of the new skyline are nice but can’t answer the important question: How will this new space actually be used once it’s built? Will it be dreary, teeming, commercial, or diverse? Just create a virtual model of each proposal, download the latest economic data, populate it with users willing to participate as residents and workers, and press play.

The bloggers of the world are doing just that creating Mirror Worlds of themselves, and for us.

Tomorrow: Mirror Worlds (continued)

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