Way Ahead and Far Behind

Today’s Washington Post has a story on its front page: “Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages.”

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.”

“What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.”  -Washington Post

Some say that whoever has been responsible for information technology in the White House itself should be fired — but then perhaps the change of Administration just took care of that  :-) 

Overall, this situation is familiar to anyone who has worked in what I call “Big-G  IT” or the information technology of a federal government agency. I’ve argued about its challenges and sub-optimality before: see my previous pieces on “Roadmap for Innovation: From the Center to the Edge,” and more specifically “Puncturing Circles of Bureaucracy.”  In that latter piece back in March of 2008, I wrote about the “the defensive perimeters of overwhelming bureaucratic torpor,” and the frustrating reality within much of Big Government: “Federal employees have an entire complex of bizarrely-incented practices and career motivations, which make progress on technology innovation very difficult, not to mention general business-practice transformation as a whole.”

Here’s the truly frustrating, mind-bending part: it isn’t always true!  Other elements of the White House have cutting-edge, world-class technologies operating day in, day out.

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Wordy, by Wordle

Lazy Saturday, so a quick & easy retrospective post at a glance.  Here’s a “Wordle” look at my blog content going back over the past week. Click to enlarge.

You can use http://wordle.net to create a word-cloud of any content – a website (by URL) or a bucket of words you paste in. I realize word-clouds are nothing new… but I think they’re way underutilized in HCI.  Fun for political speech analysis; I can just imagine a newspaper front page that consisted of nothing but word-clouds from yesterday’s speeches by President Bush, Senators McCain and Obama, Biden or Palin, cabinet members, foreign officials, Osama’s latest video, and losing sports-team coaches.   “What’d they say?” Well, take a look.

A New Prototype: Research Desktop

Fact: The international conference on Advances in Social Network Analysis and Mining (ASONAM 2009, next July in Athens, Greece) today issued its call for papers on “experimental and theoretical works on social network analysis and mining,” particularly relating to online social Web sites, email logs, phone logs and instant messaging systems “which are widely analyzed using graph theory and machine learning techniques.”  Interested authors are encouraged to submit abstracts of up to 300 words by December 10, 2008; the full papers aren’t due until January 31, 2009.  More info at www.asonam.org.

Analysis: Several Microsoft Research people are preparing papers based on their current research, and I’m considering attending myself (I’ve written before about MSR’s work in analyzing large social networks). There are three Microsoft scientists on the Committee (Dou Shen, Haizheng Zhang, and Rina Panigrahy – check out Rina’s publications on hashing and sketching algorithms).  It should be a top-notch conference, co-hosted by ACM and IEEE.

But that’s way off in the future – what if you want to look at some research stuff right now? Well, I’ve been going through the related “Socio-Digital Systems” work of MSR Cambridge (UK), and they’ve just added more information to their section here of the main MSR site.  That’s some neat stuff, more on the side of the actual social uses of digital data and the effects on our (still-human?) everyday lives.

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Follow NASA Innovation on Twitter

Yesterday my group hosted a meeting at Microsoft Reston with the ILO Institute on “Innovation in Large Organizations.”  The ILO Institute always brings together great clients (FedEx, Time Warner, SAIC, IBM, US Postal Service) and yesterday was no exception, with an eclectic group from NIH, DoJ, NASA, RTI, GTSI and others. The discussion about that seeming oxymoron – innovation in large organizations – was fascinating, with lively threads about distinctions between Microsoft and Apple for example, and whether the latter is actually a technology company or a fashion company.  [My opinion: its success comes from its fashion/marketing leadership, not technical advances.]

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CIA 2.0: The Agency’s CIO and Change

Fact: CIO magazine is running a big story on the CIA’s Chief Information Officer Al Tarasiuk and his IT operation, and their online site is breaking it up into a four-part series running this week.  Below I analyze the series.

Analysis: By the halfway mark in the series, the magazine’s reporter Thomas Wailgum had only accomplished a fairly rote recounting of what CIA is, what its CIO does, and how both those factors have changed since the good ol’ spy days amid the challenges of a post-9/11 world.

Part Onedescribed “a business-IT alignment project like few others,” although it mainly served to introduce CIO magazine’s broad readership to the unfamiliar world of a walled-off intelligence agency, waxing on about the hyper-security at Langley.  Part Two similarly was background on the bureaucratic culture of the agency and its relegation of IT to backwater status – until 9/11 came along.

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Microsoft Research Reclaims Value of Pi

pi-techFACT: Educators in the state of Alabama are chafing as the state celebrates a dubious anniversary: today marks ten years since the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159… to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.  Ramifications were felt across the state. 
Now, a team of Microsoft Research computer scientists have announced success in a groundbreaking effort to refactor the Biblical value, using modern high-performance computing hardware and machine-translation technologies on the original Old Testament texts.
  
ANALYSIS:  Looking back, an April 1998 issue of Science and Reason newsletter written by physicist Mark Boslough recounts the political and cultural battles which went behind the Alabama legislative change. The legislature of the “Yellowhammer State” justified the change by citing biblical injunction. As one supporter put it: “the Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the altar font of Solomon’s Temple was ten cubits across and thirty cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass.”

The use of “3.0” as the value of pi led to problems in schools, businesses, and local scientific pursuits, including a group of frustrated engineers at the NASA research facility in Huntsville.  According to NASA/Huntsville’s director of special projects “Dr.” Jim Simon (doctorate pending), “We had strayed from using our Microsoft software and instead had been trying to figure out how to use an advanced Google search platform, which was sold to us as a powerful Cloud Computing system.”

Unfortunately, that effort proved frustrating for the “rocket scientists” any time they used calculations involving pi, based on the Alabama-standard value of 3.0, mostly because they were under the mistaken impression that they were contractually barred from using Cloud Computing on any sunny days. Given the hospitable local weather that left them unable to use their computers for an average of 290 days each year.

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From Microsoft’s Cloud – PopFly

I mentioned PopFly in my last post – many Web users are now beginning to appreciate how it enables the fun and ease of innovation for non-technical people. Go to www.popfly.com/ and set up your own account (free of course), and you’ll be able to create usable, powerful “tools” out of the Cloud, or with your own data. 

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