Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Michael Church's model of the corporate worker - a short critique

Michael Church makes me look like a corporate fan. In a recent post he focused on startup culture ...

Gervais / MacLeod 4: a world without Losers? | Michael O.Church

…. This is a continuation of last week’s analysis of various work cultures and the patterns of degeneracy. I’ve analyzed hierarchies that form in organizational cultures and the relationship between ascendancy and bad behavior (in particular, psychopathy).

… In these small, agile companies, does the MacLeod classification apply? Or has this dysfunctional and unfair arrangement been rendered obsolete? If so, then how? If not, then who are the Sociopaths, Clueless, and Losers? I’ll answer that. Today, I’m going to focus on the sociology of VC-istan, perhaps the first truly postmodern corporate body...

Short version -- he likes VC-istan even less than he likes conventional corporations. (Warning - he writes long form. Feel free to skip to the end.)

Church, and Gervais and MacLeod as well, model a corporation as made up of 3 groups of people (my preferred label is at the end)

  • Sociopaths [4]: Power-seeking amoral individuals who care nothing for the fate of others. They rule. (Rulers)
  • Losers: Balance-seeking moral individuals who know the rules of the game and work within them. (Workers)
  • Clueless: Low to middle status individuals who believe they owe the corporation their loyalty and that it will protect them. (Faithful)

Church sometimes adds a fourth, the technocrat. This is a more or less good version of the sociopath, seeking power but also benefits for the masses and society.

The theory has a certain appeal. Even if it's not a perfect match for the corporations I've lived in for 19 years, it's a good match for the Cults I used to visit in the 80s. [1]. They invariably featured Clueless believers at the base, and Sociopaths at the top. That matches Church's description of VC-istan.

Corporations feel more complex though. I'm not sure I've ever met the "Sociopath" Church describes [3], and I've known some wealthy executives and entrepreneurs. The ruling class I've known is usually a mixture of Church's "technocrat" and "sociopath"; with more of the former than the latter. It is true that belief in the 'goodness' of the corporation is pretty rare in the executive class, but even there I've seen (naive) exceptions.

My biggest split from Church however is that he treats Corporations as the sum of their people.  I think the complex modern publicly traded corporation is an emergent entity in its own right - more than the sum of its people (see below). It's a mindless entity to be sure, but it wants to live and grow as intensely as the average ant colony. It resists Church's 'Doom of the Clueless' [5], even if It isn't aware that it's resisting.

That said, Church's model has the advantage of parsimony, and it does explain a lot about middle manager life.

 - fn -

[1] It was a hobby of my early years. Cults loved me for some reason, I must have looked like a great candidate then.

[2] Even if it's only contributing to the "health" of some abstract Good represented by a "functioning" market.

[3] Ok, maybe the people who make a living downsizing divisions or managing major purges. They are hard people.

[4] I think Church is wrong about the etymology of psychopath/sociopath btw. It all got horribly mangled when Americans and Brits used the same two words in precisely opposite ways.

[5] Which is a bit like this Technology Review article.

See also:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mac World needs an app that will toggle Java availability

Java on the Mac is malware by design. It bypasses the entire security infrastructure of OS X. It's worse than Flash, and Flash is plenty bad.

There aren't many apps that really need it, and most of those have solid Mac alternatives. (Sorry Minecraft fans.)

The problem is corporations. They use VPN products that require Java. (Way to go corporate America -- mandate use of a security product that dramatically reduces network security. Alas, this is so typical.)

So many of us can't go entirely Java free until that problem is fixed.

So we need an app.

An app that disables or enables Java just when we need it. (Ok, Minecraft fans, just for gaming purposes.). An app that only Admin users can run because it needs Root privileges.

Maybe it changes privileges on the Java executable. Maybe it renames it. Whatever, it makes it NOT work, OR work, in a way that Admin users control for an entire machine.

Ideally Apple will provide this, but they might not. Apple, correctly, wants Java on Mac dead.

This would make a great utility. $20 bucks? No problem. I don't see any reason why it couldn't meet Apple's App Store requirements.

Money maker.

Do it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pay to Play: Facebook and the attention economy.

Facebook has made some interesting attention economy moves over the past few months.

Last November they created a new feed [1] called "Pages Feed". It seems to be a chronological list of Pages I'm "connected to" [2]. It's somewhat hidden; I'm sure most users will never see it.

Since then [7] Facebook has changed the algorithm for what appears in my "News Feed" [3]. If I sort chronologically ("Most Recent") [4], I see it includes all the "Page Feed" posts, but if I use the default "Top Stories" ranking many Page Feed posts disappear down the screen. Some are still near the top, but some are so far down I'll never see them.

These two changes are related. Unless Page owners pay up [8], their subscribers may not see Page Posts ...

Promoted Posts | Facebook Help Center

... Promoted posts appear higher in news feed, so there's a better chance your audience will see them...

It's not clear if user interactions with a Page post (like, comment, share) still change the ranking of future posts from the same source ...

Posting works the same way it did before. When you share a post it gets delivered to the audience you specify.

If someone you shared with didn't notice your post it's likely because they:

... Didn't scroll down to where your post appeared in their news feed...

My internal lawyer looks at this and thinks "It all depends what you mean by the word works". The Post does get "delivered", it just won't be "seen".

My hunch is that, for the moment, Page engagement still matters. That is, if you interact with a Page post (Like, Comment, Share) you will see similar posts  in the future. If you don't interact however, you'll only see them if the Page Owner pays or if you are the .1% who will notice the Pages Feed.

From my perspective, this is a dual bummer. As a Page subscriber If I didn't want to see Page posts, I'd unsubscribe. Facebook's ranking algorithm is simply an annoyance -- not to mention I prefer the deprecated "Most Recent" sort order. As a Page owner this means my sports teams, clubs and groups are missing news they care about -- like a change in practice schedule.

From a business perspective, assuming interactions still affect sort order, Facebook can win two ways. If Page owners pay then Facebook gets money for placement, if consumers interact more then Facebook learns more about customer interests.

On the other hand this change makes Facebook less useful for its customers. It opens up opportunities for Google if they could, you know, stop shooting their tentacles off. [6]

 - fn -

[1] Facebook, for me, is the commercialization of RSS pub/sub post/feed technology. There are three active feeds - Pages (new), News (Page Owner and Profile activity), and Unnamed Right Side -- Profile detailed Page/Profile activity sorted chronologically.  Incidentally, Pages still have RSS feeds, and Profiles used to have them but that was removed 1-2 years ago.

[2] Subscribed to Via the "Like" action.

[3] Page and Profile feeds I subscribed too via "Like".

[4] This is increasingly hard to do. Facebook will periodically revert sort order to their algorithm-generated "Top Stories". I'm not sure "Most Recent" even exists in the mobile app any more. I expect Facebook to remove it altogether.

[6] Google Reader is (again) rumored to be facing imminent execution. If Google had embraced standards-based pub/sub for G+ instead of killing off RSS (and Reader Shares) the world would be a different today.

[7] In theory the Promoted Page option dates back to Oct 2012. In practice it's been quite subtle until recently, and I think the algorithm changes are newer.  Facebook has figured out how to make big changes in an incremental fashion.

[8] Not all my Pages show the same rates. For my sons' hockey team a promotion $5, for our inline skating club it's $15.

Inherit the Cloud: Who gets your Google Docs when you die?

In the old days digital inheritance was simple.

Say I died in 1999. (BTW, I don't expect to this for decades). Back then my computer was owned by me and it would have passed to my estate [2]. Where the computer goes, so goes its drive and data [1] including tax returns, photos videos,, Financial records, password stores and so on. [3]

Those were the good old days. In 2013 we know that DRM'd media, like software, dies with its owner ...

... this piece of prose from Apple’s legal department says this about apps:

You may not rent, lease, lend, sell, transfer, redistribute, or sublicense the Licensed Application and, if you sell your Mac Computer or iOS Device to a third party, you must remove the Licensed Application from the Mac Computer or iOS Device before doing so.

I’ve scoured Apple’s iTunes Store Terms and Conditions documentation and I haven’t found verbiage specific to movies, music, audiobooks, and e-books, but I’m assuming these same restrictions apply to those media flavors. Given that, Apple seems to be well within its rights to say that when you expire, so too does your purchased media....

So what about the Cloud? What happens when all of the family records and documents and passwords and photos are stored in Dropbox or Google Drive or iCloud? Can Facebook records be downloaded by the estate? Do access rights go through probate?

Wikipedia has a short article ... (emphases mine) ...

... Gmail[1] and Hotmail[2] allow the email accounts of the deceased to be accessed, provided certain requirements are met. Yahoo! Mail will not provide access, citing the No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability clause in the Yahoo! terms of service...

... Facebook's policy on death is to turn the deceased user's profile into a memorial...  no one is able to log into the account in the future...

 American states are starting to make laws with a focus on Facebook ...

 Who Has The Right To Our Facebook Accounts Once We Die? : All Tech Considered : NPR

Now, lawmakers in at least two states — Nebraska and Oregon — are considering legislation that would require social networks like Facebook to grant loved ones access to the accounts of family members who have died.

Oklahoma passed a similar law in 2010.

"We have automatically vested in the administrator of an estate the power to act on the behalf of a deceased individual and access these accounts," Ryan Kiesel, a former Democratic legislator who wrote Oklahoma's law, tells Morning Edition host David Greene. "That's not something they have to go to court for. They have that power, just as they have the power to pay debts, to distribute property according to a statute or according to a will. One of their powers in Oklahoma now is to be able to access these online accounts."

Yes, Oklahoma is a technology leader. Surprised me. [4]

Dropbox is clear that content is owned by the account owner, but I couldn't find any references to estate access. Google had nothing on Google Drive, but they do provide access to Gmail. On iCloud I found nothing at all.

This is going to get sorted out, but for the next few years it would be unwise to store important records or your 1Password credential repository solely in the Cloud.

[1] The software is licensed to an individual though, and, technically, is not inherited. That's precedent for the bigger problem.
[2] In fact it's family property, but I'm simplifying. 
[3] Back then we didn't encrypt hard drives or backups btw. 
[4] I'm going to ask my MN state representative to have a look at this post.

Update 4/19/2014: Google has added “Inactive Account Manager” settings to It’s under the Data Tools menu currently. You can choose up to 10 trusted people who will be notified when primary account is inactive for at least 3 months - you can set range to 18 months. You have to specify a phone number that will be used to notify the recipient, so there’s a risk that number will not work when needed.

I set this up on my primary account. When i first configured it I was able to specify what went with my account, but afterwords I couldn’t see those choices. I think that’s a bug or a missing feature.

See also:

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Preparing for the inevitable - Google Docs for the "Not available" letter

Yes, it happens. We die. Short of death, we can be lost in the wilderness, imprisoned by whackos, captured by space aliens, comatose, or gone.

This has always been inconvenient for those left behind, but in the digital age it's a particularly inconvenient. We don't use biometric authentication yet, but user names, passwords and the locations of things are bad enough. (Imagine when we do biometrics...). 

So how does one communicate this key information 'from the other side'? What method is most likely to work? Where should the information be stored and how should it be shared?

After playing around with a few options I've settled on a basic Google Doc that is shared with my wife [2], my brother, our executor, and several relatives and friends. We all use Google, and I assume access to a shared document will survive my demise. As a document of course it's simple to print a paper or PDF version that can go with our will. The paper version will include the URL of the shared Google Doc and directions on how to access it -- the paper version is a backup. This isn't a legally binding document but it's advisory so it's good to know the "source of truth" and it's handy to be able to see all prior versions and edits over time.

As a shared document it's somewhat private, but potentially public. It won't hold any truly confidential information.

Since it's a Google Doc there will be a synchronized copy on my Google Drive; a copy whose name, at least, is Spotlight indexed. The information is fairly robust -- anything that would take out all copies of the documents for all users would probably make my estate irrelevant.

Lastly, but not leastly [1], it's easy for me to edit. So I can put together an outline and gradually fill in the bits as I think of them. Odds are I'll get thirty years to work on it.

But you never know.

Here's the current outline, I'm sure it will expand.

  • Metadata: Title, author, last revised.
  • About: Describes use, includes URL on Google.[3]
  • Passwords and Combinations: Where my 1Password archive is and how to get to it -- including the location of a backup copy of the global password (paper). Where I keep the simple household combinations.
  • Backups: Where my backups are (office and home) in case of need.
  • Money: Where the money is. This is most important if both Emily and I are taken out by an errant meteoroid.
  • Domains: I own about a dozen domain names. Some are worth money, some provide access to digital content the kids might want.
  • Photo archive: How to get the family pictures.
  • Media archive: Probably not a top priority, but no reason the tunes should go.
  • Kateva: Dogs don't get into wills, but executors look for advice on canine provisions. I suppose I'll say something about the gerbil too.
  • What goes to which kid: This is the dangerous part. Who gets the Family domain? Who gets the wedding ring? (Ok, the last one is easy, we have only 1 daughter.) It is something I need to do though.
  • Dispensing of "John Gordon" (not my TrueName) - including the blogs.

[1] That really should be a word.

[2] Once it's setup I'll make her 'owner' and I'll keep edit privileges. Helps with survivorship. She can do the same for me of course.

[3] Almost impossible to type. Since the data isn't super-secure I used Google's URL shortening service to create something one could read off a paper version and type in a browser.

See also:


As I worked on this my outline grew. I also realized, with mild horror, that if the server were lost or destroyed my estate would need the passwords to my encrypted offsite backups. "Best" security practices are hell on an Estate. For example -- Google two factor. What if my phone is gone too?!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hints that your heart needs checking - in memory of Jim Levin

Nobody's perfect. The Jim Levin I knew was pretty good though. Smart, kind, wise, generous, honest. A family man. He had a lot of talent, and he used it to make the world better.

Jim was 54 when he died suddenly, apparently of a heart attack.

Heart attacks in relatively young people are notoriously lethal. Sometimes the first symptom is death. A soft plaque sheers off, and a major vessel is suddenly obstructed. Smaller vessels may be fine, so there's been no slow development of backup "collateral" circulation. A healthy conduction system propagates bad signals. The heart fibrillates. 

There's a good chance Jim had no warning symptoms, or at least nothing meaningful. If he'd had symptoms though, he'd have been worked up. Chances are the problem would have been fixed.

So, because it's the only meaningful thing I've thought of to mark this loss, this post is an informal review of the warning symptoms of heart disease.

I'll start with the set of symptoms that the American Heart Association describes as the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack [1]...

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends calling 911 -- "Don't wait more than five minutes"

I think you can see the problem here. I was very short of breath at the end of my swim sprint yesterday. I've been lightheaded or nauseous several times in my life (flu, etc) -- and I'm don't think any of them were heart disease. Taken out of context these symptoms aren't terribly specific. [4]

The AHA doesn't want to get more specific because they'd rather err on the side of over-diagnosis than under-diagnosis - and because they're writing for a wide audience.  I think they can do a bit better for this blog's audience though [3]. So here's a bit of context:

  • If these things occur together it's more likely to be heart disease. So shortness of breath AND "cold sweat" [2] AND jaw discomfort all together means more than one of them by itself.
  • It's one thing to feel short of breath when you're a healthy person running a 5 mile race, another if you are short of breath doing stuff that is normally easy (like watching TV).
  • If symptoms like "arm discomfort" and " nausea" come on with exercise and get better with rest -- that's ominous. (Exercise means the heart needs more oxygen, so it can expose an underlying problem.)
  • If your parents died of heart disease in their 40s and your LDL cholesterol is 250 and you smoke and you're male ... Ok. You get the point. Most of us have some heart disease by age 50, but some people have a lot. Weird pains at rest may not mean too much in a low risk 30 yo woman but in a "high risk" person they might be bad news.

In some cases, such as a man in his 50s with chest pains on exercise that get better with rest, the likelihood of serious heart disease is so high there's not much point in doing studies like an exercise stress test - nobody would be convinced by a negative result. [3]

Now you know some things to watch for. In memory of Jim.

See also:

[1] Technically this is the crummy way our body tells us that the heart is malfunctioning - most often due to lack of oxygen delivery with or without muscle damage (muscle damage = "heart attack").  It doesn't have proper pain receptors because there wasn't any point to it during the past billion years of cardiac evolution. There was no bypass surgery in the paleolithic.

The symptoms may also go completely away by themselves -- which doesn't mean the problem is gone.

[2] Autonomic nervous system freaking out.

[3] There are big debates about how doctors should investigate for ischemic heart disease, but that's way beyond the scope of this post.

[4] Really what we all want is a low cost highly predictive test we can do on everyone aged 50 that will tell us how bad their heart disease is. Or a set of cheap screening tests that we can put together with a risk factor profile to decide how should be imaged even if they have no symptoms at all.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Apple: What it would take for me to like you again.

I'm an Apple customer. If Apple makes a hardware product, I buy it from them. I use most of their Mac and iOS software.

That doesn't mean I like Apple. I just dislike them less than the alternatives.

Which makes me reflect on what Apple needs to do to make me like them again. This has nothing to do with APPL's share price btw, it's completely personal. As my friend Andy used to say, I'm not Apple's customer. (Though I do have influence on people who ARE Apple's customers. I still advise buying Apple if asked, but I no longer volunteer that opinion.)

  • iBook for MacOS. Not all books are novels; I want to be able to read textbooks and non-fiction on my Macs.
  • iCloud is a 1970s Jaguar. Shiny, expensive, and unreliable. Talk to me about this. Admit that there are problems and explain how the fixes are coming. Back off on driving everything and everyone to iCloud when it doesn't work (Mountain Lion default save to iCloud?).
  • Apple, stop basing all of your marketing on things that aren't ready. Just stop.
  • Fix your Apple ID problems. We all have multiple Apple IDs, and most of us don't know what they are. Our DRMd transactions and our product and support information is distributed among Apple IDs. Admit there's a problem. Work it.
  • iWork was never finished. I run across features that are half-completed or that cause big performance issues. I don't trust it to scale to serious projects. It doesn't need a big UI change or a lot of new features, but it needs serious investment.
  • Aperture crashes. It should never crash. It's too buggy. Apple is taking the right path to making Aperture 'iPhoto Pro' but they are only 80% done. They need to invest and fix it.
  • Calendar and Contact apps are a bit better in Mountain Lion than Lion, but they are not serious products. They don't scale to my life. It's crazy that Contact to Group relations is MacOS only.
  • I know how to use Google Calendar to share calendars across my family. I can even use Google Apps to share Contacts. I can publish calendars and others can subscribe to them. None of this works properly in the iCloud/MacOS world.
  • Detox on the luxury addiction. Remember how incredibly important the iBook was. The Mac Mini should have been priced under $300 -- even though that would have resulted in serious shortages. It's insane that the new iMac is so hard to manufacture -- nobody needed that super-thin edge. Personally, I still wanted the built in DVD. (I said I wasn't going to talk about share prices, but I think the Mini's price point had repercussions.)
  • If you're going to break the iOS connector ecosystem, then don't sell your A/D converter device with a fat margin. That's stupid greed.
  • Look at what worked with RSS (pub/sub) and what didn't. Come up with an open Apple solution.
  • Remember the AT&T and Verizon are not our friends. If you can find a way to shaft them, do it.
  • Think hard about the problem of bandwidth costs and net access. Look at what Google is doing with Google Fiber. Think big and think small - from partnering on fiber to enhancing iOS to manage bandwidth use.
  • Think about people who aren't wealthy. I can afford Apple products, but not all of my family can. Remember the iBook.
  • Support your damned developers. Damnit.

I'm sure I could come up with more examples, 

These are fixable problems. They come down to "Talk to me", and "invest in the hard things that don't return glory" and "remember we're not all rich". I've seen a lot of improvement in iOS, and it's encouraging that Apple has opened iOS to Google products.

Fixing the problems though may require a change to Apple's famously brutal internal culture. That may take some significant executive turnover. Cook's huge bonuses to the inner circle, and his secrecy obsession, are not reassuring.

So I'm only guardedly optimistic.