Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Distortion is rewarded, that's why it happens

Quite by accident I ran across an interesting article today by Edward Tufte. If you are not familiar with Tufte, he's probably the world's leading authority on how to present data for maximum impact with minimum distortion. I purchased a copy of his seminal work The Visual Display of Quantitative Information many years ago from a brick and mortar bookstore but you can conveniently buy it at

Anyway, Tufte was engaged by the Congressional investigation into the explosion on re-entry of the space shuttle Columbia. In the article he is quite critical of the use by Boeing consultants of Microsoft PowerPoint to communicate the findings of their investigation into the inital collision on launch of a piece of insulating foam with the wing of the shuttle (which ultimately led to the disaster).

As bad as the Powerpoint presentation is, and all of his criticisms in the article are perfectly valid, I think he misses the point. PowerPoint is simply the medium. I don't beleive it caused the mis-communication, it simply facilitated it. (1)

I say this because I stumbed across the article after a day spent frustrated at a similar phenomenon (which not co-incidentally also has as its source a government agency), and it's not the first time I've had this type of experience.

Imagine trying, as I have been, to design a complex hardware and software system which must balance multiple competing objectives (cost with functionality with usability with security with compatibility and so on). A system which will cost millions of dollars, be used by thousands of employees and affect hundreds of thousands of the agency's clients and be distributed across hundreds of locations nationally and globally.

Now imagine being asked repeatedly, as I have been, to reduce your design to a single PowerPoint slide. What's more, imagine being asked to avoid using any of the standard notations that the software industry has developed to ensure semantic precision in its models, but instead to limit yourself to the standard slideware pallete of boxes and arrows.

In doing so you have to ensure that your slide communicates the complex design patterns that you have adopted to incorporate everything the software industry has learnt in the past 40 years. But you also have to keep it simple because the people selecting this multi-million dollar system don't have any knowledge relevant to evaluating your design.

Here's my point. In the end people sell what people buy. The Boeing consultants who created the PowerPoint slides that Tufte so rightly criticises did so because that's what their market demanded. The root cause of the problem is systemic and has to do not with deficiencies in the people doing the analysis, but in the processes which weed them out in favour of those who can spin a line to those too ignorant to know better, but unfortunately empowered to decide.

Had they wanted to use PowerPoint to communicate a clear message that forced people in positions of authority to make hard decisions they certainly could have. The problem is you only get to make such a presentation to politicians and their lackies once.

(1) Having said that, let me add this. Anyone who uses one of the standard PowerPoint outlines for a serious presentation is an idiot. I've used PowerPoint a thousand times, and I've yet to have a message to communicate that fitted one of those cheezy outlines. Perhaps when I start selling real estate (and hell freezes over) that will change, but until then create your own outline, one that logically follows the train of thought that led you to whatever conclusion you want to present.

A new challenge

My first run today was down the upper section of Buddy's which was very windy, across Calf Roper and then down Tornado which brought a new challenge - a hard wind blown crust atop a foot or so of soft snow. It definitely challenges your technique as you alternate between skiing on top of the snow and in it. I managed OK, but didn't by any means nail it.

To avoid the wind I moved to the BC bowl and worked on my bump technique on Norther, BC Liftline, Blizzard and Surprise. The soft powdery bumps were lots of fun and quite forgiving.

The sun even showed its warm (well warmish, or at least not so cold), glowing face for a while, but I timed my day perfectly because the snow and wind have just moved back in with a vengeance.

My goal this season is to ski 100 days. Five down, 95 to go. I don't know if I'll make it, but this time last year I'd only been out once and was waiting impatiently for it to snow. What a start to the season so far!

Update (3.30pm): I spoke too soon about the weather. The sun is out and the wind has stopped. I should be back out there skiing, not in here working. Hold on a minute. What the hell am I complaining about?! There's always tomorrow...

Monday, November 28, 2005

Too much of a good thing?

I never thought I'd say this but maybe we've had too much snow in the last couple of days.

"What? How can that be?" I hear those of you not blessed to live in Steamboat asking incredulously.

Well I got to the top of the mountain this morning and pointed my skis down what is admittedly one of the easier black diamond runs, but it's still fairly steep, and basically I went nowhere. The snow was so deep - at least half way up my chest - that there was simply too much resistance.

Of course when I did find a really steep pitch and managed to get moving it was an absolute hoot. But you really, really, really don't want to fall over in this stuff because if you do you can spend hours trying to find your skis and poles and then trying to reattach them. I wasn't that unlucky; my skis didn't release, but just trying to untangle them and stand up was exhausting enough to finish me for the day.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Powder day!

Only two days ago I expressed a hope that the first powder day for the season might not be too far away, but today exceeded my wildest dreams. Only day four of the season and we had waist deep champagne powder on the top of the mountain!

I managed to find good stuff all over, most notably on Buddy's, Storm Peak North and Rainbow, but the best of it was definitely amongst the trees on Closet.

And it's still snowing, so it looks like there'll be more of the same tomorrow!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Season 05-06: Day 2

Another beautiful day in Steamboat! It was surprisingly warm in the sun even though the air temperature was still low enough to make snow, which you were reminded of as soon as you got in the shade.

Today some runs on the top of the mountain were open so I tried Buddy's and Rainbow. I started off on Rudi's and took Blizzard for a little more challenge on my way down to the Storm Peak Express. Blizzard is one of those runs that looks OK for a lower intermediate but it has some awkward spots which quickly lead to lots of sliding and scraping. With a thin cover that means plenty of sticks and rocks poking through. Definitely one to avoid until it snows some more.

I found some soft deep stuff off the groomed trails, but it was a little granular and fairly heavy so I came unstuck once or twice. Definitely not the "champagne powder" Steamboat is famous for (but not nearly as bad as that wet, heavy 'Sierra cement'), but the weather forcast for tomorrow and Sunday is for snow, so the first powder day may not be too far away!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Opening day

Well it's opening day and so the countdown clock at the bottom of this page has done its thing and will count down no more (at least until I feel inclined to reprogram it to count the days until the end of the season, but it's way too early to think about that).

There's more snow than there was for opening day last year although not as much as some earlier seasons. However the nights have been cold so they've been busy making plenty of the artificial stuff, laying down a solid base for the high traffic areas.

Only about 10% of the mountain is open today but another 10% will open tomorrow including some runs on the top of the mountain and before we know it there'll be a ton of snow and more skiing than I can handle in a day.

So for today a few runs on upper Vagabond, Rudi's and lower Rainbow (which had the perfect combination of sun and snow texture) and my legs were done.

Welcome back ski season and happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Real cowardice

According to Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R), "Cowards cut and run".

Well no.

What cowards do is attack the integrity of others who have made far greater personal sacrifices for their country.

What cowards do is refuse to be straight about what it really means if we "stay the course"
  • How long it is going to take? One more year? Two? Ten? Twenty? Will our grandchildren still be dying in Iraq?
  • How much is it going to cost? $300 billion? $500 billion? A trillion? Will we mortgage the future of every generation to follow?
  • How many more lives will be lost? Another 1,000? 5,000? 60,000 or more like Vietnam?
What cowards do is continue to sacrifice the lives of others to a lost cause because they can't face the political consequences of admitting that they've screwed up and the situation is beyond saving.

So who are the real cowards?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Here but not here

I received an email from a relative in Australia last night which included the line:

"It's Monday here but I suppose it's still Sunday there."
(When you have family on the other side of the international date line you're constantly asking "what day is it there?") To which I replied:
"Well not really. It's Monday here as well, at least for me."

Through until December 22nd I'm working on a proposal for a customer in Australia. I declined the invitation from my team in Australia to haul my body across the pacific for a fifth time in something like seven months to help them with this, having returned from Australia only six weeks ago. Instead I promised to work on Australian Eastern Summer Time for the duration of the project so we could interact in real time. Which means that on Steamboat time I'm working afternoons and evenings, Sunday to Thursday.

I'm not complaining since it frees me to ski in the morning once the mountain opens on Thursday! Plus I'm free to ski all day on Fridays which are less crowded than Sundays (not that crowds are a big problem here except on the major holidays, and even then our idea of crowding is relative.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Have they no shame?

It turns out that not only did Sony implement a criminally intrusive copy protection scheme but in doing so they violated the copyright of others! It seems their copy protection software incorporated open source software without complying with the open source licensing requirements.

Sony's reaction to this whole episode as been light on humilty and heavy on the sanctity of intellectual property. If they can't respct other's intellectual property why should anyone respect theirs? All I can conclude is that these guys are shameless hypocrites.

Screwing your customers is never a sustainable business strategy. Will the major record labels and movie studios figure this out before they are consigned to the dustbin of history?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I don't like soccer but...

...I'm still excited that the Aussie national soccer team has qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1974.

Soccer is a poor relation in Australia to other forms of football (Aussie Rules, Rugby Union and Rubgy League) with its main base in the Greek and Italian communities. Nevertheless Aussies are sports nuts, so being the fourth most popular football code still means plenty of participants and supporters. The home leg of the qualifying round against Uruguay drew a crowd of more than 80,000 to the former Olympic stadium in Sydney.

There are plenty of Aussies playing at the top level in Europe so it isn't so surprising that the Socceroos would be at least competitive on the world stage. I don't have any expectations of Australia winning the World Cup, but I'll be more than satisfied if we get to beat England along the way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Calm after the storm

A cold front passed through Steamboat yesterday, bringing with it plenty of snow and near blizzard conditions for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon.

All is calm now and the sun is out, although it's deceptively cold outside. Things are looking good for the start of the ski season in a little over a week!

P.S. this is the view from my home office window. Makes it hard to concentrate on work!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Goodbye Peter Drucker

Noted management writer and thinker Peter Drucker died last Friday aged 95. The world will be a poorer place without Drucker who virtually invented modern management theory in the 1930s.

What I most admire about him was that he represented the triumph of substance over appearance. Long after he became famous he remained at a small college where he could focus on his work, he was never interested in the received wisdom or popular theories but instead had his own deeply considered views on things and he was much more interested in understanding the daily grind of making a company efficient and profitable than the cult of leadership that infects modern business.

And of course he managed to stay active and engaged and continue to make an real contribution at an age when most of us are long gone (if not physically then at least mentally). A wonderful role model for anyone who believes in the importance of ideas and intellect.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Netflix delivers eventually

Further to my post on my initial experience with Netflix, my first DVD arrived on Thursday - that's four days not one.

In the meantime I reported it missing. They have quite a neat facility on the site for doing this and it seems as long as you don't report an unusually high number of DVD's missing, it's factored into their business model.

Interestingly, the replacement DVD was shipped on Thursday and arrived today, which taking account the fact that the Post Office was closed yesterday for Veterans Day, meets their one business day target.

It's only a sample size of two with a mean of 2.5 days. I suspect as I collect more data it will eventually settle around 1.1 or 1.2 i.e. 80 or 90% will arrive in one day with the occasional one taking longer. It probably was just bad luck that it was my first DVD that took the slow boat/train/plane/truck or whatever.

From this experience I've decided that their one DVD at a time plan is a waste of money. I've upgraded to the two DVDs at a time plan so I can always have one to watch while the other is in transit.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

There is hope yet

I am greatly encouraged by the news that the good citzens of Dover, PA threw out all eight members of the school board who were trying to slip Intelligent Design into the science curriculum.

I suspect more than a few parents were worried that little Johnny and Jenny wouldn't have a chance at a good job at Microsoft or Boeing or GE unless they learnt some, you know, real science.

Interactive Mountain Cam

It's now less than two weeks (or a 'fortnight' in the British English speaking world) until the Steamboat ski resort opens, so now is the time to start anxiously monitoring the state of the mountain. For those who can't simply look out their window like I can (yes, I am trying to make you jealous) check out the new interactive mountain cams. Here's an example I just captured.

Apart from normal camera controls (pan, tilt and zoom) there are also presets that allow you to quickly zoom to a favourite view. You may have to wait until the previous user is finished 'looking around' (each time you grab control you get 40 seconds) and you'll need to have java applets enabled in your browser security settings.

As a computer geek who loves to ski, as far as I'm concerned this is way cool.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Somewhere there is a plumber...

...I'd like to beat the crap out of. Actually, it might not be one plumber, it's more likely to be two or three different people.

Let me explain. We recently moved to a new condo. One of the faults our building inspector detected was seepage around the base of both toilets, something which we asked the seller to rectify and which was agreed as part of the purchase contract. Their idea of fixing it was to caulk around the base, sealing the water in temporarily but not fixing the underlying problem. After a couple of weeks the water seeped under the tiles and up through the grouting, necessitating further repairs.

It seems the problem goes back to the construction of the building which is only five years old. The drain pipes were installed too low, so that when the tiles where installed the flange sat below the level of the floor so that the toilet didn't make good contact with the wax ring that provides the all important seal. Whether the problem was one plumber or two, it's inexcusable. It's obvious a bathroom floor is going to be tiled, so the person installing the pipe should have allowed for that, and then it would have been readily apparent to the person installing the toilet that the flange was below the level of the tile and therefore a double wax ring was required.

Whoever you are, shame on you. A plumber who can't install a toilet so it doesn't leak is about as incompetent and pathetic as you can get. I'm a computer geek who's not particularly handy, but having installed a grand total of one toilet before, I know how to do it right.

Shame also on the developer, Wintergreen Homes, who ought to hire competent people and supevise their work.

As for the previous owner, who lives in a condo with two leaking toilets for five years? Gross.

Finally, thanks to Matt at Mountain Resorts who fixed the problem right. If any of you other guys what to learn how to install a toilet properly, I suggest you give him a call.

The last line of defence?

I've avoided weighing in on the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court because unlike Harriet Miers he appears to at least have the basic qualifications required i.e. a demonstrated capacity for jurisprudence and / or legal scholarship. Beyond that I don't believe the confirmation process should be about trying to "stack" the bench with activist judges who will distort the law to favour policies they approve of (I'm not naive enough to believe that's what will happen - I'm talking about how it ought to be).

What concerns me a great deal more is that both Roberts and Alito are simply the latest installment in a long line of judges that fail to appreciate that the US Constitution creates a Federal government of limited and enumerated powers and that Supreme Court is the only real defence the individual citizen has against the inevitable tendency of all governments to want to accumulate a much power as possible to themselves. What we really need are justices who err in favour of the liberties and rights of citizens. What we are getting are justices who have a history of finding in favour of the power of government, something that the current Supreme Court really doesn't need more of.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Netflix fails to deliver

I signed up for Netflix on the weekend. I decided to start out with their cheapest plan - one DVD at a time for $9.99 a month to see how it works and quickly built myself an impressive queue of DVDs using their very user friendly site (which owes an awful lot to the "recommendations" technology pioneered by

They claim that the DVDs will typically be delivered in one working day. I created my queue on Saturday but my first DVD didn't ship until yesterday (Monday) afternoon which of course wasn't early enough for delivery today. Sure I live outside a major urban area, but I'm only 160 miles from Denver which according to their map is one of their warehouse locations.

I won't go so far just yet as to say "shame on Netflix" but I'm already considering whether I'll continue past the free introductory period. The biggest problem I see is that these guys don't appear to work on the weekend. I know the post office is closed, but they ought to be there 9 am on Monday when the doors open ready to ship the weekend's orders. Otherwise if I watch a DVD on Wednesday night, post it back on Thursday, they receive it Friday afternoon and don't ship the replacement until Monday afternoon, I don't receive it until the following Wednesday. Which clearly isn't going to work.

Update: It's Wednesday evening now and I still don't have my first DVD. I'm less and less impressed. At this rate I'd be lucky to be able to watch more than two DVD's a month.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Pearl Lake

My parents are visiting from Australia at the moment so we took a trip out to Pearl Lake today. It's about 30 miles north of Steamboat in the Elk River valley.

The combination of the snow by the water's edge and the sun reflecting off the water and flitering through the trees gave it a magical look.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Steamboat snow and sunrise

A few inches of snow overnight and now the sun is coming out. Can it get any more beautiful than this?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

They breed 'em tough... Bentonville, Arkansas. No wonder Wal-Mart, which has its headquarters in this town, is unstoppable. Check out this story about a guy killing a deer with his bare hands.

Call me a wimp, but if I ever find a deer in my bedroom, I'm closing the door and calling someone with a gun to take it out!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Take your Digital Rights Management...

...and stick it where the sun doesn't shine.

It seems a certain major music label has been caught out invading the inner workings of users' computers in order to lock down usage of their copy-protected CDs. If you want all the gory technical details, read this article by the guy who detected the offending program. For the less technical, what you need to know is that when you play one of these copy-protected CDs on your computer, it installs software which comprises your operating system at the lowest level, creating all sorts of new vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit, and is virtually impossible to uninstall.

This is just the latest installation in the long running saga of the major labels and studios trying to screw their customers through unbelievably restrictive licensing agreements. But this one approaches the level of criminal stupidity. I'm not a guy that uses intellectual property created by others without paying for it since I'm in the business of selling my own intellectual endeavours. I've got nearly 400 purchased CD's in my collection but I can tell you one thing. I will never, ever, ever buy another CD from Sony BMG.