Thursday, January 17, 2008

Certainty is Overrated

"Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our ignorance." - Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2005, p.x.

"Could you make a pattern out of any of this? Stitch together the seeming randomness into something that had meaning? Is that what life was about, he wondered: trying to make that pattern, to have things make sense?" - Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay, 2007, p. 319.

As someone who has been involved with software implementation for many years, I am ashamed to admit that I am still surprised when projects don't proceed as planned. After all, a lot of very smart people are involved in software design, business analysis, project management and the actual implementation. But inevitably, stuff happens.

Sure, we put together risk management plans, we set milestones and work breakdown structures, we work on communication strategies, and we capture experiential knowledge. We do, in short, everything humanly possible to eliminate uncertainty and randomness. In hindsight, we almost magically recognize patterns that we should have anticipated or even recognized when they were happening...but we didn't.

In the quote from Ysabel, it is a fifteen-year-old wondering about the nature of life. We might inwardly smile and think the kid has a lot to learn. In the quote from Taleb's book, we recognize the wisdom of someone with plenty of experience.

So why the surprise? Why the shock when things don't work out as planned?

The simple answer is that the fifteen-year-old is always with us, no matter how old we get chronologically. No matter how much wisdom we accumulate, no matter how experienced we might become in the ways of the world, no matter how systematic we are in our methodological skepticism, randomness and uncertainty hardly ever become our companion.

I see this in myself all the time. I look for the patterns. I try to predict. I map out the typical and common pathways.

Yes, I am more aware than ever before about what I don't know, about what can't be known, and about the utility of uncertainty. But still...what the world wants is certainty. Even if it is overrated.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Donate unused computer time to charity

The World Community Grid is a simple way for individuals to make a difference by donating unused time on their personal or business computers to charity, specifically to scientific research into health, environment, malaria, and AIDS research.

Why bother?

Think of this as a no-effort, no-cost way to provide the most advanced technology yet known to reduce scientific research that would otherwise take many years to complete to just a few months.

Only 5-10% of the available resources of standard notebook and desktop computers are used on a daily basis. Whenever someone leaves their computer for a few moments, attends a meeting, or otherwise leaves their computer turned on but not active with work is, in effect, a waste of valuable resources. The idea behind grid computing is not only to use some of that wasted time and resources but to coordinate those resources in tasks that go far beyond what the most advanced super computers can perform, simply by harnessing many simpler computers together.

How does it work?

Technically, all one has to do is register online with the World Community Grid, download and install a small "agent" software program on your computer, and then, well, nothing else. Whenever your computer is idle, the agent will request information on a specific project from the server, perform calculations, and then send data back to the server.

Is it safe?

The short answer to this question is Yes. The most recent agents use SSL for encrypted communications between the client and server.

How do I know what I've contributed?

If you are like me, you will want to see what your donation is actually doing. This is accomplished by opening up the front-end of the agent software on your system and then viewing the results. On my personal computer's Windows Vista operating system, the agent software is called BOINC for Windows (The World Community Grid doesn't write this software - grid computing can be used for many purposes; I've just chosen to highlight charitable research. BOINC stands for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). The BOINC client tells me the project and the tasks/applications underway, lists messages between client and server, provides overall statistics, and shows a graphic of overall disk usage.

The Point System

In the BOINC client - because it is a generic piece of grid computing software - you won't see the World Community Grid's point system. It is the point system that tells you what contributions you have made both as an individual and as a member of a specific team. Being a member of a team, such as Cancer Fighters, gives you that added emotional boost of seeing how a group of people can make a difference.

But to get your individual and team statistics, you'll have to use the task tab's link to My Grid which will then take you to the web site where you can see how many points you've generated, your ranking among everyone participating worldwide, and providing a link to your team's web site. There is also a link to your team statistics - my current team is the American Cancer Society's Cancer Fighters (although I will likely change this in the near future).

Will my computer's performance be affected?

The BOINC client allows the individual to create preferences for how their computer resources will be allocated, including, for example, whether or not to allow grid computing when on battery power for notebooks. There are specifications for when to start computing after the computer has been idle, day of week overrides, multiprocessor settings, switching between specific project applications, network connectivity options, even disk and memory usage constraints. The defaults generally do not affect performance. If you are concerned, though, you can always use the agent software to suspend or abort any task at any time.

Who are the current partners in Canada?

Apart from the host technology company, IBM, there are currently only 10 Canadian partner organizations. This is something I want to change...quickly. Here is a list of the Canadian partner organizations:

  • AIDS Committee of Toronto

  • Centre de recherche informatique de Montreal

  • York University

  • United OneHeart Foundation

  • UserFriendly.Org

  • Junior Achievement of Canada


  • York Technology Association

  • Canadian Information Processing Society

  • Information Technology Association of Canada

Congratulations to these partner organizations - but we can do even better in Canada, can't we? Currently, Europe has, by far, the largest number of individual members donating resources.

Ironically, one of the most recent World Community Grid projects - Help Conquer Cancer - is headed by Igor Jurisica of the Ontario Cancer Institute (Princess Margaret Hospital and the University Health Network)). So joining the grid as either an individual member or as a partner will immediately benefit Canadian cancer research.

Partner obligations are simple:

  • post World Community Grid information and logo on your website

  • encourage individuals within your organization to join as members

  • create a team and install World Community Grid on a minimum of 10 computers

  • electronically accept the Trademark License Agreement

Are there any presentations available?

  • The following link provides a 2-minute video into how the technology works (it was produced in November 2004 and doesn't mention some of the newer projects).

  • Or, if you prefer a slide presentation about becoming a partner organization, you can see how it works here (last updated 17-Sep-2007).

  • If you like podcasts, listen to this overview of grid computing.

  • Here is an IBM PDF overview.

  • Finally, an interview with Dr. David Foran, a scientist with the Help Defeat Cancer project.

Unused computer processing may well constitute the single largest untapped resource available to humanity today. Let's leverage that resource wisely and charitably.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Last Bastion of Analog - an idea re-"Kindle"d

My wife and I are talking about downsizing - smaller accommodations, fewer "things", less clutter, minimal household responsibilities. But as soon as we get talking, I know the conversation is going to turn quickly to my library. You see, I love books and I own a lot of them. They are stacked everywhere in our house, in every room, on almost every table, on shelves, on and under pieces of furniture, beside the bed and recliners - you name a location and you'll find a book within reach. Yes, even the ubiquitous bathroom reader on top of the toilet tank in each of three bathrooms.

The book and the magazine are, if you think about it, perfectly designed devices. Unless the book is too heavy or awkward to hold for some other reason, the reader quickly finds himself immersed in the experience, not even noticing the device, something which can't be said about a lot of other devices I use daily. Whether it's a notebook computer, an iPod, a Smart Phone, a Blackberry, or a camera, it would be an exaggeration to say that the experience is immersive.

So when I made a commitment recently to my wife to reconsider my habit of buying and storing books everywhere in order to participate in our joint downsizing initiative, I had to wonder almost immediately whether I had made an unforgivable blunder. I began to reconsider my old Toshiba PDA which I had successfully used to read PDF and Microsoft Reader books until the unit died. Unfortunately, my newer Blackberry and do-almost-everything Windows Mobile 6 HTC 6800 device, and even my notebook computers, are not that great for reading immersively. And if I am truly honest, even my older Toshiba PDA didn't really qualify as a totally immersive experience either.

I've considered opting in to Safari for my addiction to IT and programming reading material, and, at a mere $40 per month, it seems to be a cost-effective alternative to buying $80 computer books at Chapters. But, I would need a notebook computer with me any time I wanted to steal a few moments to do some reading. Forget the bathroom, although there have been moments when I've been immersed in an episode of 24 when I've taken along my notebook instead of fetching the nearest bathroom reader book. Too much information...I know!

But this evening I've discovered a device which somehow bypassed this techophile and avid book reader until I opened an email from with reference to an online article entitled "The 25 Most Innovative Products of 2007" and read about Amazon's Kindle. Even though the EVDO-based wireless network is not yet available in Canada, and even though the available units were all bought up within a little over 5 hours when first released by Amazon, I'll be avidly waiting for Amazon to authorize shipments to Canada. After all, this could be the best way to have my cake and eat it too. Books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, even my MS Word-based business documents, plus an online store when the network is available in Canada - just about the most effective way to downsize a library without jeopardizing the experience of reading.

This might just be the way to breach the final bastion of the analog device!

Thursday, January 03, 2008


I love geeky electronic items. So today when I read about something called My-iButton on's Money Talks by columnist Jim Bray, I was intrigued. As Bray writes, My-iButton is a lapel tag that is programmable and offers a small video screen and speakers embedded in the "name tag". It's a rechargeable advertisement (about 8 hours worth before you need to recharge) that you could wear in a variety of scenarios. shows a number of typical scenarios where it might be useful: a waitress advertising the speciality of the day; a father showing off a photo of his children; cheerleaders promoting their sports team; well, you get the "picture".

Jim Bray obviously has mixed feelings about the device. Writing for the Post Chronicle on 17-Dec-2007, he wonders aloud whether it's just "Advertising OD". Quoting My-iButton's CEO Richard Quintana, Bray admits that the technology's impetus came from throw-away political campaign buttons, a kind of ephemeral collectible. Quintana wants to make these kinds of buttons recyclable and reusable. And, to be fair, on that level the device makes a lot of sense. If you attend trade shows as a promoter, if you are involved in a political campaign, if you have to wear a lanyard at conferences regularly, why not invest in something that you can adapt and reuse?

But Bray rightly wonders aloud whether the device will simply become another way to inflict poor taste and questionable causes on other people. Maybe. But T-shirts with slogans, buttons, bracelets, bumper stickers, and ads superimposed on hockey boards, football fields, and other sporting events isn't going away any time soon.

One example of a company promoting the advertising possibilities is XSCAPE. You can download and view their PowerPoint presentation here.

Another interesting alternative is a custom device mentioned in an article by Bob and Joy Schwabach, namely using a video iPod. Of course, the video iPod is a lot more expensive than an $80 My-iButton.

Personally, I can see this being useful for anyone doing trade shows or manning booths at conferences. WWITPRO, for instance, is often represented at user-group booths at Microsoft TechNet events. If we wore a device like this, and if they had not yet become a common device, it would be sure to attract attention and interest. But that's part of the problem. If you get in on the action quickly, you can capitalize on the fascination factor. But give it a few years when everyone is sporting personal advertising and the novelty will quickly fade.