Thursday, August 28, 2008


I had never been a SciFi person in the past - but over the past two-three years a person who is very close to me have me discover it, and I have since been reading some of the best work there with my eldest son.

I just finished Solaris and Fiasco by S. Lem ( These are not as much SciFi as they are philosophical essays. Impressive work, and very good reading, highly recommended.
I am not surprised at all Lem did not see eye to eye with his peers (

Of course, it is ironic that the person who initiated me to this hates Solaris... and possibly would hate Fiasco. But that goes to prove that you can embrace and extend ;)!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Context, context...

As I was writing the previous post, it struck me that I was wondering about precisely what Borges covers in "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote".

One message Borges delivers: the meaning of the literary text is more a function of the context (historical, cultural, etc) than it is of the text itself. Which means each reader creates the meaning of what he/she reads starting from what the author wrote - each one of us, in a personal way.
Another message he delivers: the meaning of the literary text is more a function of the process involved in creating it than in the result.
What I find more attractive than the messages (I do not want to want into discussions that involve the Barthes and the Baudrillards of the world... too far from what I can grasp) is the way Borges uses his immense wit to convey them in a tiny fraction of what these so-called scientists do, while provoking in the reader the pleasure that comes with stumbling on unexpected beautiful gems.

Enjoy (text in spanish):

Es una revelación cotejar el Don Quijote de Menard con el de Cervantes. Éste, por ejemplo, escribió (Don Quijote, primera parte, noveno capítulo):
  • ... la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir.
Redactada en el siglo diecisiete, redactada por el “ingenio lego” Cervantes, esa enumeración es un mero elogio retórico de la historia. Menard, en cambio, escribe:
  • ... la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir.
La historia, madre de la verdad; la idea es asombrosa. Menard, contemporáneo de William James, no define la historia como una indagación de la realidad sino como su origen. La verdad histórica, para él, no es lo que sucedió; es lo que juzgamos que sucedió. Las cláusulas finales —ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir— son descaradamente pragmáticas.
También es vívido el contraste de los estilos. El estilo arcaizante de Menard —extranjero al fin— adolece de alguna afectación. No así el del precursor, que maneja con desenfado el español corriente de su época.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A now something totally different...

I don't know what to make of this: [].

I have genuine respect and admiration for Orwell. Through his life, involvement and writings, Orwell represents a amalgam of many of those people on the left of the political spectrum who are genuinely touched by injustice, unfairness, have a realistic understanding of the world and are not swayed by rhetoric, and hold their friends to the same standards as their "enemies".
I am part of a diaspora of sorts caused by political turmoil. I know how simple things are on one hand (how can you not fight against regimes that kill and torture?) and how complicated they can be on the other hand (do I have the right to bring my whole family into exile because of my ideals? Is it right for me to risk the welfare of my kids because of my belief system?). But while it's true that the real choices are significantly less obvious than idealists would like, there are some clear universal principles that are worth standing up for.
What I read from Orwell, what I read about him (read Hitchens []and []), increases my admiration for the writer.
His lucidity and his ability to convey reality clearly dazzles me, and I am not easily impressed. Read his essay on how the language is perverted for political purposes in everyday discourse: [].

But my respect and admiration are not blind - what about Orwell's delivery of a list of crypto-communists to the Foreign Office towards the end of his life? Well, as I wrote earlier, things are never as simple as they seem. This whole story has been hotly debated, and I am in no way qualified to argue but am ready to believe he did draft such a letter. That list reflects essentially his fierce anti-communism, his realistic choice of one evil versus another (I am not necessarily agreeing, I am stating a fact), and his public statements. While the list did name names, its purposes was to identify cultural agents that could not be trusted with anti-communism propaganda. Still a vile list, and it does not make me like Orwell-the-man better. But participating to those activities is the kind of decisions many brilliant and otherwise admirable people end up taking - something that I would really like to read more about. Borges is another such case.

Back to the blog that will open. According to what I understand, it's an interesting exercise: an attempt to blog through a few years using material from Orwell's journal in chronological order, starting 8/9/1939. This means the blog will go on from now to 2012.

I am glad we will get to know more about the writings - the raw writings. I understand some of what will be published is not-yet-published material.
And I wonder whether the new format, the blog, will somehow alter the message - make it resonate more, or less. I am certain the observations Orwell makes remain relevant - but will the blog medium used to deliver them change how they are received?

In any case, a very interesting project. Check it out!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Sometimes you stumble on an article which for some reason just speaks to you. Just when you thought you had the perfect articulation of what you want to express in your head, you read how somebody has done it so much better...

As mentioned earlier, my work is at an enterprise software vendor. Hit pretty hard by the current conditions. We are going, like many of our public peers, through the phase in which we need to adapt to new temporary market conditions, and keep our key indicators (EPS, ...) in check. And, as many of our public peers, we react by contracting after having expanded in better times. Tightening our belt when the conditions are poor. Both blaming a black swan (the mortgage crisis) and taking credit for having seen it early (because it does not reflect well not seeing what we should have seen, or - although not this time - because our brains do not let us treat pure randomness as such, we must see order - read Taleb's books [see]).
The well understood risk is reduced ability to deliver, reduced ability to support our customers, reduced ability to deliver growth, etc. The EPS will look ok, but the risk is big that our compromised abilities will render us obsolete when the environment changes.

I have been through these cycles many times. And I have seen what separates those who risk their survival at every crisis from those who turn the threat into opportunity: the latter are counter-cyclists. I did not know how to express it simply and clearly, but that is what they are.
This article from Wharton [see] describes that very nicely.

Counter-cyclists keep control over the expenses and growth through up turns. They do not suffocate innovation and growth - they apply the same caution in up turns as in down turns, being selective, being focused. That may seem like a defensive strategy, but is not.
Because counter-cyclists leverage their control over these expenses and growth to avoid over-reacting in down turns. They can afford to increase their expenses and enable growth generating activities during the down turn, precisely when the competition is weaker, and putting them in a premium position to take advantage of the following recovery.
They can cherry pick the best employees - those that the others "have" to let go to protect EPS. They can cherry pick their investments - those that the others "have" to let go to protect the numbers, to focus on core values, etc...
they can choose the moment they divest, where they divest, etc.

This is really not rocket-science - and is obviously taught in MBA and various management classes, illustrated by a number of examples. We can even find Latin phrases that express the core of this.

Enterprise software and usability

The long debate...

A lot has been said about this.

Of course - usability is important. It reduces learning curves, it increases effectiveness, it increases sexiness. It increases appeal and reduces cost of ownership.

But reality is more complicated than that, of course.

  • Those who buy are not those who use, and the enterprise market builds for those who buy, guided by those who say what should be looked at - analysts and big vendors offering the convenience of the 'no fault' purchase ("nobody has been fired for buying ", " is in the top-right quadrant").
    The set of criteria that ends up being applied at the end of the day is functionality-based - even though users frequently do not need more functionality.Is this a good thing? Not from the perspective of the end user, but can the software vendor be blamed for increasing value for its shareholders and employees by submitting to the tyranny of the existing approach? Maybe in the long run - but debatable.
    You could as well point out that those who buy have a responsibility to their users, the value they create and ultimately their shareholders. As long as the connection between the benefits to the actual users and the value of these benefits to the shareholders do not trump the other real or perceived priorities of the buyer, I see little chance of this situation changing fundamentally.
  • Building software is hard. Building enterprise class software is hard, and must take into account constraints and/or requirement classes that are difficult to reconcile nicely. The product managers and developers of enterprise software have to contend with difficult scalability issues, security issues, compliance issues, legacy support issues (both technical and human), long and complex release cycles, lack of acceptance by large customers of bleeding edge solutions, etc...
    None of these precludes building usable software - it just makes it harder, and when you combine this point with the previous one, it's clear that usability will frequently be partially sacrificed.
  • Usability is relative to users, essentially cultural entities. Highly dependant on context. I have the utmost respect for well designed usability - but I represent one cultural perspective, and I know that many things that make me efficient are not efficient for my colleagues.
    This is of course why we end up with the seemingly impossible to exhaust list of configuration options in so many systems that have to cater to more than one function and more than one user type.
    Is this unavoidable? Tough to say, again. Certainly more effort could go into avoiding resorting to the "let's give them options" syndrome, but we do not live in a theoretical world - moving the responsibility to end-users themselves (or their proxies in the IT organizations) may very well represent the rational compromise between cost and benefit from the perspective of both seller and buyers.
    Fighting this is hard. But some do... You'll notice, however, that most of the "oh how usable this is" comments tend to be around software users *want* to use rather than those, even painstakingly well designed - at least from some aspects, that users *must* use.

A lot more can be said about all these subjects and much more articulate people than me have weighed in. But the fundamental reasons are above.

Is usability a lost cause in enterprise software? I don't think so. I think we are on the verge of major changes.

  • The enterprise 2.0 revolution (sorry - buzzword, let's assume there is one and it fits what the pundits claim it is) will move the center of gravity to the users by reducing the role of intermediaries.That will change the distribution of power described above, and make the actual users both more relevant and more responsible in the purchasing and renewal decisions.
  • As interoperability increases, out-of-the-box integration will cease being a major issue and stickiness will become one.Reducing the switching cost will empower the end user with the same effect.
    Of course, I am not naive enough to think that will happen fast and software vendors will make it easy on their own. It will happen under the pressure of the disruptors.
  • As software-as-a-service turns to reality in more parts of the enterprise, the reduction in perceived, felt cost by buyers and users will result in more emphasis in the other areas neglected so far.
  • As marketing goes "2.0" and customer acquisition becomes more viral, etc...

So I do think it will happen. But it will be tied to the empowering of the software user that will result from the "2.0" disruptive technologies and approaches. Don't expect it from those that are not threatened.

Ok, enough buzzwords for one night.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

First post

Well, this is it. First steps in the blogosphere, which probably makes me a late-comer these days. Not the last thing I will be a late-comer to...

This blog is intended to cover topics which attract my attention, for better or for worse, and which I think will be interesting to others. It will revolve mostly around technology and product issues - but it will sometimes bleed into more personal, and potentially slippery subjects.

As you have probably guessed, I work in the software business. The enterprise software business. Not a pretty space right now - an odd mix of high complexity, low prices, market turmoil, and slim business and professional growth.
A lot of what I will debate here will revolve around the issues that we wrestle with every day. Not just the technical issues, but also the human issues.

Let's start...

P.S. My blog-editing software complains about "blogosphere" not been spelled properly... The irony - language always gives you away, as G Carlin used to say.