Where Everyone (Wants to) Know Your Name

A few months ago, I wrote about single sign-in and why AOL and Microsoft are both trying to be the Internet’s major providers of it. Yesterday, Sun announced they were jumping on the bandwagon with digital identity services. It’s surprising that it took Sun as long as it did to come to the party, given their ambitions as an Internet platform company. Why did they wait so long? What’s so important about single sign-on?

When I was a programmer, I used to hate one thing about debugging my application: Every time I wanted to run it to test my code fixes, I had to type in my user name and password. We couldn’t do anything nifty at that point like tying it to some automated central login — the military still didn’t fully trust NT security, and half our user base was running on Windows 95 or 98, which weren’t designed to be bulletproof when it came to authenticating users.

So I did what any self respecting developer would do when he got a loud complaint from his user (me): I hacked my local code base so that it automatically supplied my username and password when I ran. Single sign-in, for sure–I was the only one who could sign-in.

There’s definitely a user benefit to only having to log on once to access information, even when you’re talking about logging into your computer and only one other system. But what about the web? Every merchant, chat room, vendor site, newspaper, whatever site in existence wants you to sign in somewhere. I calculated the other day that it takes visits to four web sites to pay our monthly bills on line. One of those sites, our bank, consolidates information from at least ten other billing agents behind its “single sign-in.” By doing that consolidation, our bank has reduced the number of user name and passwords that I have to remember from fourteen to four. Do they have my business for a long time? You bet.

Microsoft has announced part of its business strategy behind the .NET initiative. While it will be working with service providers across the Internet to deliver tons of value to the end customer, it will be the customer, as value recipient, who will pay for the service. This is probably good, since it avoids all the known bad business models (advertising supported services, VC funded free software, etc.) that have caused so many dot-coms to implode. But how does Microsoft convince customers that paying for these services is worth it? I think single sign-in is one of the benefits they’re betting that customers will pay for. And I think Sun just woke up and realized that a business shift is occurring, and they are about to miss it.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Listening to the new Wilco album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in streaming audio from their website. It’s a very different album from the predecessors, but I like what I’m hearing. I don’t think their old label, Reprise, did, though–they’ve been dropped and are currently shopping for a new home. I’ll be looking forward to hearing them next week at the Avalon. I haven’t been hearing as much music as I did in Seattle (after all, I have to go to classes!) but I’m still getting out when I can.

Any guesses on the meaning of the album name? I still get a giggle from an interview with Jeff Tweedy where he revealed that the name of their previous album, “Summerteeth,” came from the fact that a lot of the members of the band had severe dental problems while recording the album. “You know the joke: I have summerteeth. Some are teeth and some aren’t.”

Still playing with the website. I think I’m going to turn the front page of the site into a proper news bits format, like Dave uses on scripting.com. Maybe then I’ll update more frequently. The nice thing about that format is it works much better for syndication than essays.

If you haven’t looked at what’s been keeping me busy lately, check out “e-MIT” and the “E-52s”. I’m looking forward to Thursday’s general e-MIT meeting and finding some people who want to continue the work I’ve been doing on the operational strategy and execution for the website. And we should be announcing a new E-52s lineup tonight.

What is Evil?

Is evil doing what hurts other people? Is evil doing what is a violation of all human rules? If so, no wrong can be done during war. But there are atrocities of war, right?

So what’s evil? Walt Whitman says that he is just as much evil as good, and that it is “just as important to you, to the land or to me, as any thing else.” What the hell does that mean? Except the insight that we can all be capable of evil.

Two sentences ago I said, “what the hell.” Let’s not get into hell. Except that about 6000 people saw what it looked like (or a close approximation of it, as close as you can get on Earth) on September 11.

According to Milton, the Serpent said that we shouldn’t be forbidden from the knowledge of good and evil: “Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil / Be real, why not known, since easier shunnd?” Why shouldn’t we know what evil is, if it will help us avoid it? But what if it doesn’t?

Ask John Ashcroft (as reported on Slashdot), he’s seen evil and it’s computer crimes. Or that’s what the new Anti-Terrorism Act says: no statute of limitations on computer crimes, retroactive DNA database of hackers, and life in prison for computer intrusion. Harboring or providing advice would be terrorism as well.

What did I write the other day? I don’t want other people to blame. I don’t want “terrorism” to become such an overloaded word that those with the power can do anything they want….

The Rhetoric of Failure

This morning a verse to “Spirits in the Material World” by the Police kept running through my head:

Our so-called leaders speak
With words they try to jail ya
They subjugate the meek
But it’s the rhetoric of failure

I think it’s a response to last night’s speech from W. (Notice how he’s stopped being W. and started being President Bush to everyone?) Lisa expressed concern that we’re escalating to a state conflict with Afghanistan and the Taliban too quickly–that Bush left them no room to save face. The thing I worry about is this: Is giving an ultimatum to the Taliban ‘the rhetoric of failure’? There’s no way to hit the people who were directly responsible. Bringing “justice” to the Taliban is at best a distraction–bringing the real parties responsible to justice will be a much longer and less dramatic process.

A good page at the Urban Legends Reference, dedicated to helping you sort through truth and fiction in the aftermath of the disasters. One example–the thing about lighting candles outside so that “a satellite photo can be taken” is a hoax. But George W. Bush really did say, “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the ass.”

And Jerry Falwell really did say

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”

I need something to celebrate. I don’t need anyone else to blame.

For those who need a laugh

In these times of crisis, it’s useful to remember that though America’s heights have not always been dangerous, an unfortunate few of our population have suffered a disproportionate number of height-related accidents. I’m talking, of course, about our cows. It was only a few years ago that the University of Virginia’s Great Cow Prank was revealed to be the work of the president of the NASDAQ.

Anyone who was an investor in tech stocks over the last few years will be unsurprised to find that the head of the NASDAQ, America’s principal high-tech stock exchange, has a warped sense of humor. However, few tech stocks tanked as dramatically as the poor cow, who according to the article at A&S Online “died from a combination of complications including shock, dehydration and an overdose of tranquilizers administered to calm it during the rescue.” Much like some venture capitalists I’ve met.

And speaking of people needing a sense of humor: the much-discussed Clear Channel list of “songs not to play” on their hundreds of radio stations nationwide has done two things for me. First, it’s given me a head start on finding songs to arrange for the Sloan “E-52s”. Second, it’s given me another opportunity to plug KEXP, the Seattle noncommercial station whose playlists are second to none. If they’ll play Gastr Del Sol for me, they’ll play anything…

On a more serious note

Keep my sister in your thoughts today. On a good note, it’s her birthday (yay!). On a bad note, her dog had to be put to sleep yesterday.

Euripides in Boston

It was Lisa’s birthday yesterday. Night before last I was reading Greek tragedy–the “translation” of Alcestis made by Ted Hughes shortly before his death–and thinking about Lisa. No, not in the context of a Greek tragedy! I’ve got a couple of bad analogies here, so if that sort of thing causes you pain you might want to skip this and go read Bruno (not only is Chris a much better writer than I, but his work is illustrated).

No, I was thinking that I know a lot of people like Alcestis. Queen of Thessaly, she gave her life so that her husband, Admetos, could live (he was “doomed to die young.” Her husband in his grief showed hospitality to Heracles, and in response Heracles went, wrestled Hades, and brought Alcestis back to life. Typical deus ex machina ending, I suppose.

Except. Many of my classmates’ spouses, including Lisa, gave up comfortable lives elsewhere to make enormous sacrifices so that their significant others’ lives could improve. In Lisa’s case, she gave up friends, familiar surroundings, and two incomes in Washington, DC to come to an uncertain income in a city with a much higher cost of living. Whatever Heracles watches over those between employment saw to it that she got a lucrative job, one that has already sent her to Italy once. But that doesn’t lessen the enormity of her sacrifice.

It occurred to me that I’ve not said “thank you” to her publicly. So thank you, dear. I’m no Admetos, but you out-Alcestis Alcestis for me.

Continuing in the face of Death

Another Alcestis resonance for me this week was more obvious. How did Admetos have the strength, knowing that his wife gave her life to save his, to throw open the doors to welcome Heracles?

I think that all of us, as we struggle to continue with life “back to normal, but not business as usual,” have to figure out for ourselves how Admetos did it.

Coming or going?

Lisa (happy birthday, love!) and I have been doing a lot of walking around Boston the last couple of days. We both wanted to get out of the house and away from the TV after the last few days.

Saturday started with a walk from our home in the North End to Tealuxe on Newbury Street. We walked through Quincy Market, past Faneuil Hall, into and through Boston Common and the Public Garden, and past some very expensive shops on Newbury (including what Lisa says is an outpost of the best coffee store in Milan). All this before breakfast–maybe a little much, but it felt good to get out and do some walking.

Our normal breakfast at the Tealuxe in Harvard Square was a personal pot of tea and a scone for each of us. The Newbury St. Tealuxe actually serves food (albeit just sandwiches), so I varied it with an egg, cheese and bacon sandwich that had been pressed in a grill. We shared a pot of Golden Tippy Assam tea. I ended the meal with a cinnamon scone. Afterwards we walked to the Boston Public Library, just around the corner in Copley Square. It all seemed a bit over the top, maybe, but at the same time it was incredibly important–we were celebrating being together and being alive.

Saturday we also started seeing monarch butterflies. One dogged our steps returning to our apartment along Richmond Street. Sunday, we walked to school so I could pick up some readings for my classes, and we saw another one as we crossed the Longfellow Bridge. It fluttered along beside the bridge, careered across the traffic, and over the other side of the bridge. When we saw it, it was winging lazily across the Charles.

There were more of them. Practically every five minutes–on Massachusetts Ave, in the shadow of Calder’s Great Sail… I couldn’t decide, and it seemed very important at the time: had they been there all along and were just leaving? Or had they just arrived from another place, just when we most needed to see them?

The work goes on

If ever I needed a reminder that life does not stop with a tragedy, it was this week. I got the reminder in the form of my project for my Entrepreneurship Lab course. Our project plan is due today at 5. I’ll be offline most of the day as a result.

My work still feels trivial, though, in comparison to the work happening in New York and the Pentagon.

What Not to Do

Update: My sister, always more articulate than me, has written in ten lines what I avoided saying in everything below.

The article this morning in the New York Times reported that Arab Americans have been subjected to harassment and threats. Last night’s version for me was a little more graphic. As I left my apartment building to make a run for some needed groceries, I saw a young muscular man in his mid-twenties wearing a t-shirt, obviously homemade. The t-shirt said on the front, “Die Raghead Scum.”

In the corner store, I heard a soft spoken talk show host explaining that this wasn’t really America against terrorism but the civilized world against terrorism, because you didn’t know who would be next. I agreed with this assessment, but then he went on to say, “There’s a surprisingly small number of countries in the world that are civilized. Outside of the US and Canada, Europe and Japan, most of the rest of the world are barbarians.”

I expect to see xenophobia and racism in the next few weeks that will excel the worst excesses of the Gulf War. But against whom? In the absence of hard evidence, we strike out at those we fear because of differences.

And they’re not making it any easier for us. The reports of Palestinians in the West Bank firing their guns in the air after hearing what had happened is only one reminder that we are already deeper in ancient conflicts than most of us realize.

But if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that an eye for an eye does not end anything. How can it? How can one loss of life ever repay another?

What To Do

Give blood. If, like me, you can’t because you pass out (shameful truth), give money to relief organizations.

At “MIT”, the Red Cross isn’t taking any more donors because their infrastructure can’t handle it. Don’t give up if you’re turned away–come back later in the week. The survivors are going to need a lot of help for a long time.


UPDATE: Just for the record, Lisa is OK. She was originally supposed to travel by train to NJ today but last night decided to postpone it until tomorrow.

UPDATE: Forget about everything else. Here’s the story on washingtonpost.com.

Dave Winer has a good weblog of news stories as they come in. Use your common sense to sort through news and rumors. Don’t trust anything that isn’t linked.

If you haven’t yet done so, check out my sister’s article from yesterday. This is a big difference between us, I think. While I might be very comfortable discussing J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition), she’s much happier discussing J2A (Journey to Adulthood)–something that has the potential to make a much more profound impact on people’s lives.

Wireless in Kendall

Nevertheless, I’m not going to let that stop me from continuing to geek out here. Today I’m writing this from the local chain bakery, where, thanks to the relocation of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, I now have wireless access to the campus network.

This isn’t wireless hijacking, like you used to be able to do sitting in Carberry’s from their neighbor’s network. The E-center director and staff are fully aware of where their signal goes, and have joked about charging the neighboring restaurant businesses a referral fee. It’s true–normally I’d stay at school while I drank coffee and caught up on email. This is much more civilized.

It’s experiences like this that make it easy to appreciate what Justin Hall meant when he wrote on Dave’s website that wireless would be the next big thing. In this case, it’s helping Sloan expand the boundaries of its campus to less sterile, institutional spaces where we can work in a little more peace. And that’s a good thing.

Stripping away the finish

My parents had only one item that was damaged during the move–their piano. Or more specifically, the finish on their piano. This is nothing short of miraculous considering the thing was stored in an unheated (closed) garage from September 2000 to August 2001.

The finish on the piano had always been kind of eccentric–“crazed” in the technical sense. A black grand piano, its back was covered with fine cracks in the lacquer that I had always thought were intentional. When it came out of storage, though, you could tell that it wasn’t intentional–the area that had been covered by the folded back lid was less cracked and a different color than the rest of the lid, and the cracking of the finish had accelerated badly. A number of the ivories had come off the keys, as well.

They had a piano refinisher come to look at it, and that’s when they got their first surprise. Based on the serial number, he believed it dated from the 1920s. Based on the color of the wood, which you could now see through the finish, he believed the case of the piano to be mahogany.

My parents sent it away to be refinished in its natural color. I spoke to them last night and they were thrilled. The piano case is a beautiful burled mahogany that was hidden for years under a bad ebony finish.

Sometimes, particularly as we try to pay the bills and live on one salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world, I wonder whether I did the right thing coming to “MIT Sloan”. But I think that I’m going to like the way my finish looks when I’m all done.

I Feel My Luck Could Change

Today’s title music: “Lucky” by Radiohead. Brilliant brooding and despairing track from OK Computer with lyrics that tilt from the hopeful to the despairing. Just don’t ask me who Sarah is, that part’s not so appropriate for today:

I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll
This time, I feel my luck could change
Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love
It’s gonna be a glorious day

Appropriate music for me to face 15.402, Corporate Finance, again (I dropped it after a few weeks last semester because of the workload).

I hope that my luck changes with respect to my waitlist position for 15.828 New Product Development — # 26 to get into a 55 person class. Naturally it’s a class I need to finish my management track, and naturally it won’t be offered after this semester. I guess it’s time to apply some of the patience I talked about yesterday.

I did have a good first meeting of my Entrepreneurship Lab class (15.399, for those who are following the MIT course numbers). This is a wild class. You get teamed up with people from a pool of other Sloan students, MIT engineering students, and Harvard Business School folks, and go work on a mission critical project for a startup for eight hours a week. I found a like-minded HBS guy who wants to work on software projects too. It’s going to be a glorious day.

Seeing Elephants

Reading “beer hunter” Michael Jackson’s story about the Belgian beer Delerium Tremens today, it occurred to me that he’s got a great job. He tastes killer beers from all around the world and writes about them in a weblog. How do I get some of that?

And What a Time It Was, It Was…

First day of classes today. Going into the second year at “MIT Sloan”, this is starting to feel more like a vocation and less like a vacation. Maybe this is because last year I had classes that started at all hours of the day, some days without classes in the middle of the week, and lived four blocks from school. Result: a very irregular sleep schedule. This year I have what is (for me) a more rational schedule: classes from 1 to 4 four days a week, and two evening classes from 6 to 8 or 8:30. And no Friday classes, at least until I start TAing. Also, I’m finally getting into classes that really cover my passions. More on that as I get there.

Preserve your memories

The title of the essay today is from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends Theme” from the album of the same name. I always seem to think about S&G when September starts, probably because of the last verse of “April Come She Will”:

August, die she must:
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold.
September, I remember:
A love once new has now grown old.

At one time I thought it was a depressing thought, as no doubt Paul intended it. Now, though, I think it’s pretty cool. I want my love to grow old! Really old! As old as I am!

What got me on this train of thought was Eric Norlin’s latest brilliant and cranky Titanic Deck Chair Rearrangement Corporation missive. He’s usually pretty allusive to the other things he’s working on (and thus, at least until I finally read some Gonzo Marketing, pretty elusive for me); I’ve wanted to recommend his work before but couldn’t find the right way to do it. But yesterday he wrote about a bit of an epiphany he had:

How silly is it … our nonsense about quarters and fiscals and 52
week highs?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Wall Street.

But remembrance begs the question: When do we give the gentle drift of
time its proper due?

I think it’s an excellent reminder for me as I enter the new semester to make time for what’s important.

Little changes, big changes

My classes for the second and final year of my graduate program at “MIT Sloan” start tomorrow. This didn’t really hit home to me until I came to school this morning to register and pick up my course packets.

As always, a disconnect between the professor’s syllabus and the availability of the course materials. Today’s breakdown? I need to read and be ready to discuss a case for tomorrow’s class in Finance Theory II, but the course packet containing the case won’t be ready until later this week. More on that in a minute.

Other changes? Well, other than everyone being a second year, and things going well on the “e-MIT” website rebuild (a significant change compared to recent days), I noticed a wrenching upheaval in the food trucks that line up for lunch along the construction site behind Building 68. Moishe’s Chicken, the falafel vendor who fed me gyros at least once a week last year, is gone. In place of his truck is a poor imitation, the Jerusalem Falafel truck, which offers dry, cold lamb shawarma in place of hot, fried, juicy lamb gyro. I suspect that I’ll have better luck with the kebabs; still, to develop a routine like that and then have it change out from under me is a bit jarring.

The Change that Never Comes

Speaking of jarring changes, I was thinking this morning how inefficient the whole course packet/photoduplication of materials thing really is. We have e-books now (even if they have a tendency to land computer scientists in jail); failing that, we have the Web, Acrobat, and other e-textual systems. Why am I still spending a mint (in excess of $250 today, with two packets still not ready to be picked up and paid for) on photocopied course readers?

Well, one obvious answer is that copyright law mandates that I pay that much. Since the fair use rights of professors were amended to require written permission for use of copyrighted materials in classrooms, occasionally with steep fees attached, we’ve all been paying through the nose for the privilege of course materials that are more up to date than textbooks and less up to date than the Web. Don’t get me wrong; I respect the right of copyright holders to be reimbursed for their work. I just wonder whether there might not be better ways to redistribute it.

That brings me to the second part of the answer, which is that right now it’s damn hard to deliver all the materials a professor may want to incorporate in teaching a class online without resorting to paper. The packet for one of my courses includes forty-three readings from twenty-one different sources, and that’s Part I. I can’t imagine negotiating online distribution rights for all of that content.

The amazing thing is that the readings are that diverse. Given the cost of negotiating to get the readings reproduced, I would have expected the readings to be drawn from a narrower pool of suppliers. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see how that’s already happened to an extent: look at the dominance of Harvard Business School cases in the curriculum of MBAs, regardless of their distance from Soldier Field.

With all of this as background, it’s easier to start to imagine the wrenching amount of change that’s going to be necessary for “MIT” to implement the OpenCourseWare initiative. But that’s material for another day.

Authorial voices

It’s been fun working with “Esta” on this site–both helping her get started and thinking about how my writing style is changing in response.

When I started writing regularly on this weblog earlier in the summer, I didn’t know whether I could sustain a regular schedule. I found, much to my surprise, that it was hard to avoid writing. I guess once you start thinking there’s an audience out there, it becomes important to keep talking to them.

In college, this sort of prose was rarely my specialty. I used to like poetry, primarily because it was an art form that allowed me to turn my short attention span to the advantage of my writing. (See my last poem for an example.) Now I find that I have more attention that I can pay to these sorts of things.

I’m about to face the severest challenge to keeping this page on a steady footing–school is about to start again. I’m already working on three website revisions, a bunch of new arrangements for the “E-52s”, and trying to ensure that my schedule is straight for the semester–and it hasn’t even really started yet. Days like yesterday, where I let Esta’s words fill in for me, may be more common.

This is by no means a bad thing. Esta’s by far the better writer in the family and is more likely than I am on any given day to say something frightfully interesting. Also, her good writing is apt to kick me in the butt and make me write something meaningful.

I just realized that I’ve spent an entire essay breaking the fourth wall and talking about my own writing, something that I hate it when other writers do (see Piro’s rants at Megatokyo as an example). Maybe I’ll replace this later today with something better.

Anyway…finished arranging Pyramid Song yesterday. One down, fourteen to go… 🙂