Monday, May 31, 2010

An ineffective email conversation

We cover the importance of precise, conversational writing on the Internet.

The following is the start of the transcript of an email conversation about ordering laptop computers that lasted more than nine months. The conversation eventually involved nine people. It was frustrating and ineffective because the people did not heed the basic guidelines we have suggested for Internet conversations -- they did not carefully read messages, did not respond to specific requests, did not meet commitments, and failed to quote previous messages to maintain context.

Many people wasted time in this exchange, and the funds were poorly spent. By the time the laptops arrived, the vendor had introduced a newer model.

The transcript begins as a conversation between me (LP) and the School administration (SA), School purchasing department (SP), and the University purchasing department (UP). It began in mid August 2009, when I informed the SA that my laptop warranty was about to expire, and I needed to replace it. The first reply was positive, but the commitment made in it was subsequently forgotten and ignored.

From: SA
To: LP
Date: Mon, 17 Aug 2009 23:26:44 -0700

I talked to the dean about getting a laptop for you using the grant money. The answers are as follows:
...You should get a new one no later than Oct. 1
...Your laptop should be no more than $2,200 as budgeted

Based on this, I sent a note to UP:
From: LP
To: UP, SA, SP
Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 2:21 PM

I would like to purchase a laptop combining funds from my foundation account and the $2,200 allocation from the Dean.
I would like to move ASAP because the warranty on my current laptop expires in a couple of days. Sorry for the rush.

And received this reply:
From: UP
To: LP, SA, SP
Date: Tue, 18 Aug 2009 14:29:52 -0700

1. Send the configuration from the Dell web site. [SP], can you forward a Req with the % that you are paying from the Stateside.
2. Also forward a PO from the Foundation

Then SP took responsibility from UP -- they said they would handle it.
From: SP
To: LP, UP, SA
Date: Wed, 19 Aug 2009 15:24:20 -0700

Thanks for the information. Also the grant is not processed via the Procurement Office (you are off the hook), this is a Foundation purchase. We have a Dell rep we work with on these types of purchases.

Also I have not gotten the information on the account being established. Once that is done, I will notify you and send you information on how to contract the rep so you can request an equote. I'd have you do that now but the equote has an expiration date.
I was worried about the warranty expiring, so asked if I could speed the process up by configuring the laptop sooner:
From: LP
To: SP, SA
Date: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 3:34 PM

> Once that is done, I will notify you and send you information
> on how to contract the rep so you can request an equote. I'd
> have you do that now but the equote has an expiration date.

Could I contact him or her now and start the process? I am in a rush because the warranty on my current laptop is going to expire in a few days, and I am *highly* dependent upon it.

I did not get a reply from SP, but did get a reply from SA:
From: SA
To: LP, SP
Date: Wed, 19 Aug 2009 19:13:07 -0700

Larry - let me look into the situation and I will handle

SA followed up with:
From: SA
To: LP, SP, UP
Date: Thu, 20 Aug 2009 17:57:08 -0700

On Tuesday I will check and see if there is some money in a grant I have that I could use to purchase a laptop for Larry.

A week later, I followed up with SA, quoting his earlier message:
From: LP
To: SA
Date: Thu, 27 Aug 2009 12:39:19 -0700

>On Tuesday I will check and see if there is some money in a
>grant I have that I could use to purchase a laptop for Larry.

I have a configuration ready to go -- are the funds available now? My current service contract has expired, and that is worrisome.

And received this reply:
From: SA
To: LP
Date: Thu, 27 Aug 2009 14:03:02 -0700

No the funds are not available - we have not yet received the grant approval - I expect to receive any day.

But, nothing happened, and my warranty had expired, so two weeks later, I followed up with SA, again quoting his earlier message:
From: LP
To: SA
Date: Thursday, September 10, 2009 4:16 PM

> No the funds are not available - we have not yet received the grant
> approval - I expect to receive any day.

Has there been further news on this?

And SA replied:
From: SA
To: LP, SP
Date: Fri, 11 Sep 2009 17:38:09 -0700

News on what?

This was just the beginning, eventually nine people were involved in the conversation, which stretched out over nine months. I got the laptop in June, 2010.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

SSD: faster storage; faster Internet

I got a Dell laptop with solid state storage (SSD) instead of a rotating magnetic disk drive (HD). As shown here, the SSD is about twice as fast as my desktop computer and 4 times as fast as my old laptop with a hard disk.

These benchmarks are not 100 percent comparable (the machines had different configurations and operating systems) nor realistic (they only test raw read/write speed), but they show a clear advantage for SSD.

The speed difference is confirmed by my subjective sense of the SSD machine -- program load times feel much shorter.

The SSD should also consume less power and be more reliable than the equivalent HD.

It is interesting to consider the trade off between running network applications like Google Docs versus local applications like Microsoft Word as storage and Internet speeds increase.

Today I have a 3 Mbps link to the Internet at my home, so my old laptop storage access is about 100 times faster than my Internet connection. With SSD, that jumps to around 400 times, favoring local applications.

If, as the (conservative) FCC plans, I can upgrade my Internet connection to 100 Mbps, the pendulum will swing back toward network applications. If Google's vision is realized, and I can connect at 1 Gbps, network applications will look still better. Furthermore, once an application is "fast enough," additional speed does not matter.

On the other hand, SSD performance is also improving -- it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Which applications are already fast enough on the Internet that you choose them over local applications? Which are close?

The Zen of Internet reading -- a bad example

Much Internet writing is conversational, requiring careful, mindful and often critical reading. This example illustrates hurried, thoughtless reading.

An enthusiastic, but rushed administrator at our university recently sent the following message to the university president and vice presidents, with a copy to our dean and faculty:

Subject: CSUDH Ranking...

Hello All… FYI on this news that CSUDH was ranked #9 by Forbes Magazine as a Best Buy in Online MBA Degree Programs.
You can
I followed the link to learn more, and it turned out that Forbes had not ranked us or any other school -- they merely posted a press release from a company called on their news wire.

GetEducated maintains a database of online degree offerings and their cost. We were listed ninth cheapest among non-AACSB schools. This is indeed an accomplishment, but it is not a #9 ranking by Forbes Magazine.

The person sending the message had not read the Forbes post carefully.

After checking GetEducated, I sent a clarifying message to the same people who had received the initial email.

Subsequent to my message, they sent 19 emails congratulating us on our ranking by Forbes. The people sending those messages had quickly glanced at the initial email, felt good about it, and expressed their feeling. They did not follow the link in the initial message or carefully read my message.

This is an example of the problems that can arise when one is not a critical and mindful reader on the Internet. The problem is exacerbated when the reader uses a phone -- they will be less likely than desktop or laptop users to follow links and carefully read longer posts like the GetEducated press release.

Positive results using Twitter and a wiki in a collaborative writing assignment

Last semester, I used Twitter and a wiki to illustrate collaborative writing and the writing of short documents in a Network News assignment. The student response was positive, so I will repeat the experience.

I started a class Twitter stream for links to current events relevant to our class. I told the students to follow the feed, and posted about 125 items during the semester.

The writing assignment was near the end of the term. Each student selected a particularly interesting post, and summarized it and its relevance to the class in a short document. Once the summary documents were polished, the students added them to a wiki page, creating a collaboratively authored Network News report for the term.

For more detail, see this post on the assignment and survey results.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ward Cunningham on the invention and role of the wiki

Ward Cunningham invented the wiki to facilitate discussion of programming technique between himself and some colleagues. (His original wiki is still evolving).

Moira Gunn recently interviewed Cunningham and a colleague about one of his current projects, ZoomAtlas, a geographical wiki with the ability to draw as well as write.

I edited the interview, excerpting Cunningham's comments on the invention of the wiki, his motivation, and role of wikis (7 min 44 sec).

As you hear in the interview, Cunningham invented the wiki to solve a problem he had, and he decided not worry about permissions and authorization, because he trusted the members of his community to be responsible.

He sees wikis as doing things that could not be done another way. For example, one could not have created the Wikipedia by paying experts, but it has succeeded as a volunteer community wiki. (The Wikipedia founders first tried to create an online encyclopedia by conventional means and failed).

Friday, May 07, 2010

Intel Light Peak -- goodbye USB?

We have seen many examples of early prototypes of devices that eventually became main stream. Intel hopes to replace your USB cable with an optical link they are calling "Light Peak."

Here you see a demonstration of a laptop streaming two simultaneous HDTV programs to a television set. The black box between the laptop and display will eventually disappear, leaving a USB replacement.

Today's USB 2.0 connections have a speed of 480 Mbps, while Light Peak connections will begin at 10 Gbps in both directions. With mass production and engineering refinement, speeds would increase well beyond that. This is a common pattern -- one technology approaches its limit, and is then leapfrogged by a new technology.

This also seems to happening as electronic flash storage replaces rotating magnetic disk drives. Many portable devices already use electronic storage, and flash is beginning to be used in laptops and servers. (I've ordered my next laptop with flash storage).

If Light Peak succeeds (and it may not), it will dramatically alter the speed relationships between input/output and storage devices and memory, resulting in significant system redesign.

Can you think of other instances in which a new information technology has replaced an older one? What did we use for storage before hard drives?