Virtuous cycle

Bartlomiej Owczarek weblog

Preparing for the journey

First stop – probably Prague. No further plans, but I am determined to focus on Western Europe this time. Maybe Vienna and the Zurich and then Italy.

Love my new watch. Shines in darkness. No way in hell a bystander can tell a time from it.

Got my first netbook, too. Acer aspire one. Relatively large screen (11”) and keyboard. Relatively good looking. Unfortunately, with Windows on it. Half an hour of updates and tens of warnings and reminders before the thing is ready to work.

So now I am an Apple fanboy, but if I looked closer, I leave more money with Ecco.

I’m not consuming, I’m investing. There is a bigger scheme.

Only couple of things left for tomorrow and off I go.




In Moscow now. New phenomenon: insecurity

I arrived in Moscow on Monday to do some consulting for the coming months. Two months to be precise, unless there is an extension of the contract.

I’m sitting now in the huge space of Crowne Plaza lobby, a facility with an interesting history – or so I was told – but I cannot find it written anywhere (i.e. not on wikipedia). Colleague told me the complex was built in the 70s and became a rare enclave of capitalism within soviet Moscow, where people in western clothes could be seen, prostitutes abound etc. (full fledged capitalist environment in any case).

What else. The weather is shitty and I can hardly mobilize myself to do any work on Ogito side.

There seems to be a new element which came to light after I was last here, as an effect of the crisis.

People I work with, and they would be typical new middle class representatives, talk about feeling insecure in the country, anxiety can clearly be felt, to the point that makes them worry about state of things in Russia.

In the time of prosperity any troubling signs were filtered out before they could reach their consciousness. Things like political killings or corruption were known to exist, but not something successful specialists aiming for new cars and apartments would worry about.

Plus they bought into nationalistic theme, where every unpleasant fact was dismissed as exaggeration driven by hostile external propaganda.

Not anymore. Moscow streets were always a curiosity, where luxurious cars of the elite are mixing seamlessly with working class in ancient Russian ladas. Now, low income workers start to display open hostility towards suits passing by on the street.

Police would be expected to separate the extreme layers of the society, but unfortunately anyone in the uniform is considered rather a potential threat than protection. Men in uniforms look to benefit from their status for extortion and not serve anyone.

Prosperity is over for now and status quo where everyone is paid into submission through oil money may become unsustainable. Things may get ugly then.

Politics in Poland continuing to get better (and younger, prettier too)

Agnieszka Pomaska, 29, will become a new member of the Polish parliament. She barely missed being elected in Gdansk last time, now she will take place of a new EU representative.

She is a hell of a sportswoman, studied politology and apparently did a good job in Gdansk’s government (can’t tell since I’m not from Gdansk).

With liberal party getting 45% of votes in the middle of the recession, Polish politics doesn’t leave a lot to complain about, but surely it wouldn’t hurt to have more young politicians.

Even better if they understood new technologies and helped the country compete – topics like user-friendly copyright law and support for high-tech startups could use some spokesmen.




3D map visualizations of data from presidential inauguration

Some impressive map overlays (phone calls data during Obama inauguration):

http://senseable.mit.edu/obama/index.html

I find visualizing data to be such a cool topic – which can easily be seen from the number of posts related to statistics on Ogito blog, like this one.

But there is often a gap between aesthetics and usefulness of advanced visuals.

To be useful we typically require easy access to lots of context, to be able to draw any conclusions from the data, for example:

  • ability to drill down – investigate what contributes to the variable value
  • ability to compare variable level through time
  • ability to compare variable level in case of different objects (e.g. competitors, regions, etc.)

(Ogito statistics for cities — registration required to see the charts — use simple Google Charts and tables with links to underlying sets of objects, and this is already enough to get the basic understanding outlined above)

Sometimes complex visualizations add difficulty to perform these basic operations rather than reduce it.

Giving ground to the kids

It used to be like this: kids were first to learn new technologies, and then explained them to their less savvy parents.

In my family it was always the case, with stuff like VCR and computers.

I was always curious if that situation will remain with my generation, or if perhaps we are different – world is so much about learning something new all the time, that we simply cannot afford to fall back on getting used to new things quickly.

I got my first feeling that I was behind a kid (10 years old daughter of a friend) a couple of days ago, when we were skyping and she used XD emoticon (written form), and I didn’t know what she meant.

First sparrow?

Google Waves goodbye to email (and Microsoft)

Google revealed its stealth Wave project, with the announcement timed, by the way, within minutes after Microsoft Bing’s coming out.

Wave is an attempt to redefine and merge communication media, possibly replacing email, IM and others.

The demo looked really cool. Sadly Wave is not available yet – but I am really eager to check it out when it opens.

Demo lasted more than an hour, the video is available at project’s homepage.

Briefly, Wave aims to replace exchanging messages back and forth, which is the current practice, with single threads, called waves.

Different stuff can be added to waves – messages, but also photos and instant messaging.

In fact they implemented IM in a way that allows to follow each keystroke of the counterpart – like in good old days of Talk sessions on unix systems.

Meanwhile, Microsoft rebranded its search engine to “Bing” and tries to promote it as a “decision engine”, tailoring search results layout depending on the recognized query context (e.g. travel related search) and presenting structured information on its own page, rather than rely on user to go to any of the results.

I like the direction Microsoft is taking, but at this point I would be more excited about Wave’s ability to change my daily routing rather than Bing.

Bing is at most evolutionary step in the right direction, while Wave has more revolutionary feeling to it.

Note: this doesn’t bode well for Microsoft, which is an underdog compared to Google. In this position it should be Microsoft coming up with revolutionary ideas, not Google. Microsoft fails to show real innovation for all the dollars it sinks into search (for years already).

Another note: Wave makes me think of tremendous advantage Google has thanks to it capabilities in mass scale, real time processing. Building a system like this would be a challenge for a small startup.

Browser to gain lots of power, soon

Just reading stuff from Google I/O.

The event was used to showcase some of the things we can expect from the browsers in the (near?) future. Screenshot from one of the demos:

All this purely browser computing (javascript and html). Soon things like video and location will be available in the browser without any plugins.

Check out the rest of the demos.

Notes from the event at Techcrunch.

The browser is going to be really powerful, and the promise of writing software that can run anywhere without need of any installation will inspire developers to push the envelope ever further.

Browser apps, which now often look quite rudimentary, might evolve rapidly.

All this erodes value of the underlying OS, so it’s not surprising that Microsoft is dragging its feet in this area.

Changing the game: fee structures

There is an interesting story of Boies Schiller at law.com.

Boies Schiller is a legal firm, so how can it be interesting?

What is interesting is that they are very successful due to their willingness to use flexible fee structures. For example, they agree with the client to cap his legal expenses, or base their remuneration mostly on success fees.

On the other hand in consulting success fees are also used sometimes (restructuring jobs, which can be quantified with relative ease), but not very often, so I’m thinking if finding some areas in which risk could be shared with the client would not reveal interesting opportunities.

Must be a better way to do business process documentation

The last project was all about process documentation. To be honest, these are not exactly my favorite kinds of projects, mostly because they can be easily associated with long hours of unthankful, tedious work.

Why tedious? Well, one reason is that process documentation tends to have large volume, while efforts required to produce it are mostly not automated.

I was wondering if there is any simple way to streamline this kind of jobs, aside from hiring more analysts or investing in a some BPM software package, which would probably be an overkill for most of the projects I did.

Making any amendments to the processes is especially pita, due to all the custom diagrams interlinked with detailed textual content.

(that is if you use diagrams + text – sometimes just slides are used, especially for high-level documents – I think text is much more flexible if you need to accommodate more information)

While in fact, amending the design based on remarks from business users is the core of process-related projects.

Process-related projects shouldn’t be such a chore – if you take away all the time wasted with Microsoft Office, these projects allow to get the best idea of how the business really works.

Looking back, projects involving deep understanding of processes provide most powerful references today.

The kind of customized process work that is done during relatively short strategy project shouldn’t be mistaken with implementing whole “process-driven” approaches in the company, for which elaborate business process management IT solutions exist.

The idea is to store process designs in central repository, where they can be easily versioned, accessed by large groups of employees (which can be assigned different access rights), monitored, and modified.

Truth is – maybe it’s because it’s Eastern Europe and we are backwards – I never saw any of these system in real world use at any of the clients. Perhaps they are more popular in production company than the financial sector. I remember one Russian client mentioning before the project started that they had one, and that deliverables (processes to a large extent) would eventually have to be integrated in it somehow, but it was the only time the topic emerged.

I think there are plenty of good reasons for such solutions to have difficulties in real life adoption.

Enabling new users (like external consultants) to access the system requires at least creating new logins, in worst case it might require to buy additional licenses. Hardly easier that just emailing process documents.

People are used to work with Word or Powerpoint documents, but might need time to master unfamiliar interface of the process application.

Even though usually it should be possible to export process information in format like PDF, it might not be possible to export in format that is editable, so ad-hoc participants can contribute remarks.

The reason are many and truly converting organization to be managed around a consistent BPM system must be a daunting task. And partial implementations often leave orphaned systems that are not used.

For now, I was rather thinking if there was any way to improve the way stand-alone process documentation is created, rather than an end-to-end system.
(read more…)

Just finished my first commercial project

Ogito is fun to work on and all, but it’s not going to be a huge money maker in a foreseeable future, so sooner or later there’s going to be liquidity problem.

I saw two obvious solutions: find an investor or do freelance consulting.

Finding investors is something I don’t have much experience in, and moreover the timing is not too good, crisis and what not. I was lucky to have some friends declare to invest if necessary (which was not necessary yet), but as far as investment funds are concerned, I talked to just two of them and that was it.

Consulting, on the other hand, is a proven and quite manageable (I hope) revenue engine. Having commercial activity in form of consulting, in which I have experience, would allow to finance all the other activities, in which I don’t have so much experience just yet.

A week ago on Monday I woke up to see an email which could go as an rfp, and voila, till the evening my first freelance project was sold (why bother to execute your strategy if you can just let it happen).

The client: an investment fund. Ironic.

Actually it’s not really my first freelance consulting, but I’m taking into account just post-corporate period.

We managed to cover quite a lot of ground in less than a week, and both sides are happy. Three sides even, since I don’t really like to work alone.

Maybe more will come. Will see. Need some business card eventually, if more are supposed to come.

RESTful Ogito: I need to clean up some mess

I decided to rebuild something I specifically hoped would not need to be touched, namely Ogito’s internal routes structure in Rails.

Ogito uses links looking like this:

http://www.ogito.eu/en/place/polska/warszawa/luna-marszalkowska
http://www.ogito.eu/en/directory/contentitem/movies/2003/bialy-krol-czerwony-kauczuk-czarna-smierc

The idea in itself is ok – links include context information like city and country, so that they are more meaningful.

Much better, in my opinion, than links like /places/4652. Not even from the point of view of SEO, but rather of users who are given additional hint if the link is relevant to their search or not.

However, the purpose doesn’t really justify the way I implemented them (read more…)

Witcher for consoles on hold, Widescreen Games and CDP blame each other

I was very sad to hear that CD Project RED put their Witcher console version on hold.

Original PC Witcher game was a resounding success and the console port had a chance to steer the project into a much wider market.

CDP release cites quality as a reason behind the decision, meaning specifically that a French contractor they hired for the job, Widescreen Games, didn’t deliver neither on time nor appopriate quality.

WSG in press release defends their “propriety technology” and blames CDP for missing payments.

There is an interview with CDP founder at Polygamia (Polish), in which he explains in detail quality issues with WSG and asserts payment delay were only linked to WSG missing the milestones, with last payment not to be made since the milestone was not completed and the contract canceled:

We put an enormous effort to make sure the production goes the right way, and still the plans were becoming invalid, and there were new delays? After a few such incidents, we sent a large team over to Lyon. The group consisted not only of people involved in the project, but also of technology managers from RED and Metropolis. They spent one whole week to examine thoroughly the whole project and its technology.

As a result, we found out that WSG’s promises had no grounds in reality and that the game’s premiere date and quality cannot be guaranteed. So, after a long discussion, we decided to suspend the cooperation with WSG, because we understood there is too much risk in it. And actually we haven’t paid for the last milestone, but only because it wasn’t complete and we have already started the termination of the contract.

Michal claims that redundancies and savings at CDP, though they are unpopular and generate lots of gossip, will allow the company to continue its key projects.

In any case, the situation is pretty sad. The only good news is that CDP claims that their current flagship project, kept in secret but assumed to be Witcher 2, is on track.

Meeting Warsaw anticapitalists

Yesterday I decided to spice up my weekend with some extreme flavors. So I visited a meeting organized by Pracownicza Demokracja (“Labor Democracy”), the local leftist movement.

And I quite succeeded with my initial goal, even though I only managed to sustain two hours of the event.

On May 1st PD organized anti-capitalist happening, which I obviously skipped, and on the next day, that is yesterday, a series of lectures and discussions.

What attracted me – other than the morning hour, helping me to mobilize to wake up early – was the first lecture by anthropology professor about organization of prehistoric cultures (which was supposedly close to communist one).

First thing I heard upon arriving was that the lecture was canceled, which was quite disappointing, but decided to stay nevertheless for the replacement presentation delivered by one of the activists.

Not once I regretted this decision in the coming hour or so. The presenter didn’t speak a very good Polish which took away from the content, and there was not much to take away in the first place.

Leaving aside the starting point – based on the assumption that current crisis somehow spells end of the capitalism – the “to be” state of the Marxists seems awfully vaguely defined. Unless by defining the future you can accept listing what’s bad about the current and saying that the promise system will be done with all of it (somehow).

You might say that this kind of living-in-the-past could be expected. And as I listened, it seemed to be the case, it seemed there was no recognition whatsoever about how work is different nowadays, as if majority of population still worked at production lines.

But I still remember the Empire book that I read (in Cuba), by Negri and Hardt, both Marxist philosophers. No need to agree with the whole premise, but I found some ideas inspiring and new.

The idea that I remember from Empire (apologies if my memory distorts it) is that it is no longer useful to analyze “imperialistic” policy of a particular country, as it was done before. What we have now is a global system of capitalist exchange, which expands into all corners of the world and all social spheres. There is no one point of control, but there is “imperial” layer of governance (Empire).

What’s characteristic of the Empire is that crises make it stronger. Crises justify the need to ramp up global imperial powers to overcome them. Isn’t current crisis used to push towards more global coordination of all countries? There is even talk about necessity to establish a common global currency.

Anyways, there was not a trace of such stuff on Saturday morning. Perhaps the later material was better, but I didn’t dare to risk another session after the first one.

What was really fun was the discussion after presentation finished. One after another people rose and asked questions. Or made statements. More often statements than questions.

One guy rose and introduced himself as a programmer and an anthropologist and declared that collective doesn’t work at all after a certain threshold.

Senior white haired bearded man explained in a quite low voice how he was taught communism (somewhere), without any obvious conclusion.

Another guy criticized the speaker in four points, of which I remember the stupidity of idea to rotate “unpleasant” jobs between people, for example having doctor doing a physical work for a change.

One peculiar looking lady called Basia – the organizers must have known her – started to explain how crises are embedded into the very nature of the capitalism which she remembers from economy lessons and that she was actually really doing well at these lessons – before organizers hushed her.

There were also a couple of homeless people which I forgot to mention, but they mostly sat looking indifferent or slept. Only the mention that lots of buildings stay unused seemed to resonate somehow with them.

As an ominous sign for revolution prospects in Poland, number of actual marxists in room didn’t seem to exceed much the number of organizers.

All in all the discussion was the greatest value of the whole event (the part I saw).

Maybe Marxist meetings wouldn’t be the first example, but I always thought of Ogito as a way to learn about such things happening around.

Innovate products and not business models?

Umair Haque:

Business model innovation is often self-defeating and self-destructive. The real problem with business model innovation is that it dilutes the incentives to make good stuff in the first place. It lets boardrooms hide from the profound challenge of making insanely great stuff in the first place.

(…)

Business model innovation creates a kind of adverse selection. It offers a kind of insurance: if we can find more efficient ways to sell stuff, we don’t have to make better stuff. When we invest in selling stuff better – instead of making better stuff – unsurprisingly, the stuff we make often turns into lemons.

Another hint to focus on building great products instead of relying on business-side trickery.

(and yes Ogito, being a great product or at least a future great product, will charge for usage… maybe just after getting it to work under IE6 which, even though is a piece of junk, also seems to be favored by all my corporate, i.e. deep pocketed, friends)

Commenters note that there are cases where business model innovation also leads to virtuous loop that enables great products. I think Google and search ads business model could be one such example (although Google not exactly invented this business model).

On a side note, I’m amazed that this sort of writing came from Umair; I used to read his Bubblegeneration blog, where his articles seemed to consist in a large part of words he created himself. Must be “innovate ideas and not vocabulary” principle at work.

Quite impressed by web gadu-gadu

(gadu gadu is a Polish IM)

It must be like 100 years since I saw Gadu Gadu last time. Almost all of my friends use gmail embedded chat or skype. And even before, I was rather using tlen (another Polish im).

But today I needed to contact a potential contractor who only provide GG number, and I found that I can use a web interface (web gadu gadu) instead of downloading a client (not even sure if there is one for Mac):

Looks rather cool!

(except for the flashing banners maybe)

My contact in unavailable anyway, so can’t say how well it works for now.

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