Saturday, January 14, 2006

End of an Era

Back in the early 90s when I was still considering a career tangentially related to materials science, I applied to work at a "dream job". At the time, I was hooked on fly fishing and passionate about the inter-mountain West. So it was natural to apply for a job at the RL Winston Rod company, which produced the best "plastic" rods (aka graphite) made as well as some of the finest split cane rods available under the tutelage of master craftsman Glenn Brackett. (I always wanted a Glenn Brackett rod but was never up to the full price. I did live in the Rockies for several years though.)

I wondered as the focus on fly fishing shifted to fast rods and saltwater if the classic rods of Winston would endure. The old IM6 rod (of which I've owned several) with its characteristic soft-tip was hard to beat as a trout fishing instrument. I was pleased to see the saltwater oriented BL5 step up to throwing big flies without feeling like a steel pole.

Many people saw Glenn openly complain about the possibility of outsourcing Winston's low end rods from Twin Bridges to China. Now I'm shocked to hear that the cane rod builders have quit Winston. I presume they will set up an independent shop (Tom Morgan also is building his own line of rods, though the prices are too high for the average fly fisher). If anyone has details on where Glenn and company wind up, drop me a note. I still want mine someday.

Truely the end of an era. With the old guard gone, I doubt we'll see rods of the same touch and feel and quality of the classic Winston into the future; certainly those looking for a rod built under the direction of Mr. Brackett will have to look elsewhere now. Nothing stays the same, but the passing of the Winston rod company I knew still saddens me.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Google, Amazon and Ebay: One of These is Not like the Others

When people talk about the commerce segment of the Internet, there are three names that are almost always dropped: Google, Amazon and Ebay. I'm not sure why Yahoo! doesn't make it in the mix everytime, because its perhaps the most versatile and resilient of the major players in the space. But let's stick with the first three I mentioned to make a point: Google and Amazon have found ways to co-opt the Web to drive their businesses. Specifically, they both offer a model of radical federation by which their services become desireable as ubiquitous building blocks for content providers. This was driven home for me by Adsense. Mostly because I wanted to play around with Adsense, I added it to my blog (Blogger makes this trivial). The first day I noticed I made thirty cents on click-throughs on ads. Now I'm not about to retire off of Adsense, but it serves to illustrate why people stick those Google ads in their blogs: they want a small piece of a very large revenue stream. And if their traffic really picks up, that small piece can be significant, even to a business: its damned hard to sell advertisers on a small Web site. And Google gets driven through the stratosphere by the effects of all this attention. Very nice.

There's something similar happening with Amazon: its trivial now to add a click-through link to a product from any Web site. At least I think its trivial: I'm going to try to experiment with a link to buy my last book. Again, mostly I want to experiment with the Amazon model, but, hey, I can always use a way to help fund my Starbucks habit. And of course while this might help me a little, if lots and lots of Web content providers do the same, its immensely helpful to Amazon. Neat way to grow the business.

All of this brings me to my point: EBay is different. They haven't yet figured out how to achieve radical federation of their services. The thing that bothers me is I don't understand why. It could be with auctions: there's definitely a market for niche auctions that require tighter administration than Ebay can provide. And their are lots of things that EBay won't do for liability reasons. Fine, but that shouldn't stop them from trying for a piece of the action. A couple of good examples.

Wine auctions. Wine sales are huge and Internet wine sales are growing precipitously. There are already wine auction sites. But EBay is missing out on the action. Not good.

Firearms. Whatever you think about guns, its clear that many Americans love their guns and to collectors -- and some hunters -- trading guns is practically a lifestyle. More to the point: its not cheap. Case in point, a single British shotgun can run into the 6 figures. Don't believe me? Check into the costs of a fully engraved Purdy or Holland and Holland. All that trading means an indirect revenue opportunity for an Ebay. As every software ISV knows, indirect revenue is one key to a high margin business.

And its not just auctions. Ebay could drive the next wave of growth on PayPal as the currency of the Web. Or Skype, which remains for now the technical leader in the Internet telephony race. Either could be massively federated as a service that gets sucked into a critical mass of Web sites. The key may not be to drive those technologies into the Ebay auction user base, perhaps its to drive the auction user base into one of those technologies as the next driver.

Don't get me wrong: I love Ebay. I think its a fantastic company with a great service. I use it to find all kinds of things from fishing rods to clothing. But I'm frustrated as hell that they haven't picked up on the fact that radical federation is the key to driving the next wave of growth in the Internet commerce segment. That's what it means to make a "platform play" in the software-as-a-service space: Amazon and Google are moving there aggressively and its a powerful thing indeed.

William Henry blog discovered (and a good idea to boot)

I just discovered (via Eric's blog) that William Henry is blogging. From the looks of things, he's been doing it for a bit -- I'm just slow. William is a great guy, smart and extremely pragmatic. He managed the relationship between HP and IONA when HP was OEMing ORBIX for the application server and was always a pleasure to work with.

The thread on using RSS to provide information about Web services is a good one -- something I've also been interested in for some time. I'd add that its an interesting alternative to WSIL for a lightweight exchange of service metadata.

King Estate Oregon Pinot Gris 2004

Everything I like in an Oregon Pinot Gris and very little of what I despise in your run of the mill Pinot Grigio. This tricky grape is normally my least favorite varietal, typified by sugar water blandness and often yeasty overtones. Many of these Oregon wineries just keep producing outstanding Pinot Gris. The King Estate wine is crisp with citrus overtones that would complement almost any dish, but not overpower subtle foods like shellfish. In fact, I believe I had this wine before with Eric Newcomer, Mark Little and Kevin Connor (what, the always opinionated Kevin has no blog?) at Yabbies Coastal Kitchen at one last years WS-CAF F2F meetings. Eric and I split a shell fish basket and the wine was a great pairing. Recommended, from a confirmed Pinot Grigio hater. And another reason I like Oregon so much.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

SOA and the JCP

Some brief thoughts on SOA standards, which do not necessarily reflect Oracle's corporate position. I just read an interview arguing that SOA standards should be developed through the JCP. I just don't get that at all. I don't necessarily have an issue with the JCP being the organization of a private company, rather than a standards body per se. That's not the problem. It's specifically that the JCP doesn't work for SOA by design.

SOA is about integration. That means heterogenous technologies by definition. I don't know how many people have read the JSPA, but its provides the governing rules that make it virtually impossible to do anything that is not part of a Java compatible implementation. And that's exactly what you want in a SOA.

So how to develop SOA standards? There doesn't seem to be a perfect approach, but some combination of open source collaboration and inter-company specification collaboration seems to be a good start. Once there's some open implementation experience, it makes sense to bring the specification of the heterogeneous part to an open standards body both to ratify, clear up any open IP questions, and provide a basis for commercial implementations. Are there better approaches? Does the JCP have a role in one of those contexts? The truth is I don't know. On the first question, the answer may well be yes, and I'd like to hear more ideas. The one thing seems clear, right now the JCP won't be a place where SOA standards are developed from the get-go.

Cross posted from my other blog.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

There's No Such Thing As Free Speech

I found that Blogger has a mechanism by which objectionable content can be flagged. This is a huge issue for any open content infrastructure as its just damned hard to keep things from getting out of hand - particularly in a context where children have ready and often unrestricted access to the Internet. Even for adults, its hard to rationalize a strict definition of the patently offensive: and hard to set hard limits on offensive categories. When does satire or humor become offensive? When do political or social viewpoints tilt toward the offensive? These are impossibly difficult questions. The mechanism they've chose is pretty interesting and I guess a nod to the idea that the Web is broadly democratic. It is a bit strange to see Blogger relying on the Wisdom of Crowds (I guess no one ever made them read Gustave Le Bon in college), but as an experiment, it might be interested to see a special list of "delisted" blogs -- if only to gauge the social psychology of the user base.

Back East Your Type Don't Crawl

The Land Rover off-road DVD "Back East" features footage of the Discovery in the New Jersey pinelands. There's a free preview at You'll have to navigate to the video section since the URL is always the same; under detail, there is a highlight download. Real Media Required.

The video gives a feel for the kind of nasty traps found in the pine barrens. I don't advise going out without a winch.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Land Rover Discovery II Brake Change

My wife and I are big fans of the Discovery, the 04 being the last of the old school Land Rovers available in the US. I suspect that is partly due to an unrealistic view of ourselves as being as likely to be off-road as on: this is definitely not the case since I got it stuck in Wharton State Forest with a full car of family members on her last birthday. In any case, at the last service, the dealership recommended brake pads on all four wheels at a price of 600 bucks, stating that the pads were worn to 30 percent, worse in the back than the front. I checked with Atlantic British (the dealer uses them for parts they can't get themselves) and OEM pads would cost around 100 bucks for the whole car. Realizing that its about an hours worth of work, the dealership price is clearly extortionate. As I found when I removed the wheels, its also predatory: the pads were barely worn 1/8 inch and the pads in back were in fact clearly less worn than the front!

In any case, here's a great link for how to change pads on the Discovery yourself. I recommend you do it and remember: the rotors can not be turned on the Discovery. If they are gouged or mic thin: replace them.

Red Knot Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Colored a dark burgundy, this wine has very strong overtones of blueberry juice. It is slightly toothy, but not at all jammy like many of the Australian Shiraz wines we've sampled. The nose is more of a mixed berry and the finish is slightly sour. There is a very subtle hint of pepper. Tanins are non-existent. In fact, I would not guess that this was a cab if I had blind tasted it.

Red Knot is produced in the Mclaren Valley is Southern Australia. Like many of the Australian wines, between the price and the ready-to-drink status, its a good value. At about 12 bucks a bottle, I recommend it. If you can find it closer to 10 bucks, I'd recommend a half-case. Drink now.

iPod Video Review

My wife was kind enough to give me a 5th generation iPod as a Christmas gift; black, 30 gig model to be precise. I've had a chance to play with it a bit and thought I'd post a mini-review and a few additional thoughts on where things are headed in the digital media space. I've been acutely interested in these developments since co-founding a media integration company in 2002. (I found a mockup of our web site still floating on the Web recently.) We pulled out when it became clear that funding was going to be problematic: a good thing, I think in retrospect. None of the pure-play media middleware companies appear to be in business as far as I can tell: Agari seems to have disappeared and Oracle recently picked up the assets to ContextMedia. But back to the iPod...

Impressions: the video iPod is sleek, light and for all intents and purposes as convenient as the Nano: it's unclear to me that the Nano is any more durable -- it looks to me like it would be easy to bend or break, despite no moving internals. The sound production seems sharp, though I do not have the disciplined ear of an audiophile. The color screen and album shots for music are attractive and the video imaging is sharp. iTunes is a moderately convenient management application for music, though it seems strained using it for video content. Having said that, it is trivial to add video content to the iPod once it has been encoded properly (more on that later). I would say its feasible to watch 20 minutes of content at a clip before some eye fatigue sets in -- Steve Jobs is correct to downplay the video capabilities. I have not tested playback on a full screen TV (which is trivial with either s-video off a universal adapter or using the iPod AV cable, but I'm told quality degradation for DVD content is typically comparable to VHS: not to shabby, but hardly good enough for a large HD TV set.

Within a week, I've added about 4 gig of content, including several full length movies, a jiu jitsu training video, a number of anime videos, about 12 albums, and 1400 digital photos. Its clear that the iPod video cannot be a content library for video at this stage due to quality and space considerations, so most of the video content is intended to fill up some airplane downtime. For that, I'd say that iPod is almost perfect.

There are two negatives for the iPod video. First and foremost, battery life absolutely stinks when doing video playback. I have not yet taken a long trip and put it through its paces, but I would be shocked if it lasted for more than 2 hours of playback before needing a recharge. I started to suspect that my iPod might be defective, but for music playback, there is very little battery drawdown: I assume that I will get in excess of 12 hours of music between recharges. This is a major problem, since, as I say, the primary utility of this gadget's video feature will be for travel: in particular, where power is not likely to be available for long stretches of time.

The other minor complaint I have is that the wheel is too sensitive to the spin function: it's very easy to over shoot a selection.

As for scratches: I have not removed the plastic protective cover from the face. One I pick up a skin, I will remove it and skin the iPod: I have no intentions of testing out Apple's claims to have eliminated the scratching problems that have driven Nano buyers berzerk.

Be warned that the universal adapter doesn't come with a power source. Apple charges an enormous sum for power adapters ($40 bucks for a usb adapter). I recommend going third party for this type of accessory.

Would I recommend one? Yes. But be aware that the limitations for video are severe enough that it will be a matter of time until the iPod video is entirely outmoded. Apple or someone else will make DVD quality playback on a slightly larger screen in the next year or two. While I strongly urge you not to use pirated content: I have no compunction calling it theft, but for content you have actually paid for, it's simple to rip DVDs. The downside is that it takes a long time. However, it does not take a long time to load the content to the iPod: a full length movie will transfer in 20 seconds or so. This leads me to conclude that we are a few short moments away from the video content arm of the E&M space experiencing at least as disruptive a challenge as the music industry has faced with digital content. Rather than recoiling in fear, the industry would be well-served to rapidly get ahead of this trend. Partnering with Apple on iTunes is one possible approach: if they don't do something quick, there will be a sea of ripped mp4s trading around with no DRM at all.

Update: I wanted to specifically recommend the Klipsch speakers that are being sold for desktop use. You won't quite feel the bass like you might like, but they are very, very good -- in the judgement of many superior to the equivalent Bose. Second, for an alternative power charge for the iPod standalone or with the base station, Griffin makes a power adapter that is significantly less than Apple's and more functional. Lastly, if you intend to run video on your iPod, here are the supporting encodings:

File formats: .m4v, .mp4, and .mov
Video: Up to 768 kbits/sec, 320 x 240, 30 frames per second (fps), Baseline Profile up to Level 1.3.
Audio: AAC-LC up to 160 kbits/sec, 48 Khz, and stereo audio.
File formats: .m4v, .mp4, and .mov
Video: Up to 2.5 Mbits/sec, 480 x 480, 30 fps, Simple Profile.
Audio: AAC-LC up to 160 kbits/sec, 48 Khz, stereo audio.