For the Week of May 17, 2004
As the father of two teens I can write about young attitudes with some experience and minimal insight.
While it's true that many teens, especially those who grow up in poverty, are 16-going-on-60, most of the kids I know are, if anything, younger than themselves. This should surprise no one. Most have grown up in physical safety,
but surrounded by fear. Fear of AIDS, fear of drugs, fear of terrorism, fear of the future. It all spells retreat.
My daughter is among those who have had a happy childhood, and she grieves over its impending loss. For most of her life she has consumed Japanese culture - Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Pokemon, Sailor Moon - absorbing a deference and work ethic that should make her successful in whatever she chooses to do.
But her teen culture has mostly come from Disney, in the form of Horatio Alger stories for the new century, kids who face down bullies because their hearts are pure. It's a black-and-white, good-and-evil sort of world, usually ending in a competition and a celebration.
Her favorite escape has been a site called Fanfiction.Net. Harry Potter broke through her dyslexia and gave her a love for stories. The site is filled with tales by other teens about her beloved characters having happier endings. Harry's parents didn't die. Harry marries Hermione. Everyone lives happily ever after. Problems are solved "for good."
For good is a phrase that comes up often in her culture. For good means we don't worry about it any more, we don't have to, it's solved, happy endings all around. It's a nicer phrase than Salman Rushdie's "Khattam Shud" from Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but it really means the same thing. It means the end.
Adults know there is no such thing as "for good" (although there is a "Khattam Shud" facing all of us down the road). Life and history continue. We're always dealing with the consequences of our past. There is also no such absolutes as "good" and "evil," as in today's favorite teen movie, "Mean Girls" (which she is dying to see). The heroine is never that perfect, the bullies are never that evil, and revenge in the end is just an excuse for violence.
Adults do know that evil exists, of course, but we also know that most evil comes from pure motives. In particular, there is a lot of evil on Fanfiction.Net, that site my daughter likes so much. Every week I have to clear a ton of new malware from her system, all gathered from the same source. Why do people insist on victimizing kids like this? Malware started as a money source for sites which, like Fanfiction, had no business model, but it has morphed into the Web's version of spam, showing up unbidden anywhere, forcing rigorous, regular cleanings.
And those cleanings increasingly upset my daughter. They are a reminder that her life of fantasy is not real, and that it's temporary. This angers her. Like Peter Pan she doesn't want to grow up.
Who can blame her? Especially since Americans seem to be living in their own version of Fantasyland right now. Leaders speak of good and evil like Disney characters, and think they can end the latter "for good." Like the heroine on "Mean Girls," they can't conceive that their revenge might be seen as just another form of violence by those on the other side, let alone those with no stake on either side.
The great message of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which has morphed in my lifetime from being an exciting right-of-passage book into a boring test-on-Friday tome, is that you need to walk in the other person's shoes to understand them. The lesson is taught by Boo Radley (Robert Duvall's first movie role, by the way), who saves the lead character, a young girl, from a vicious assault at the hands of Klansmen upset over her father's (unsuccessful) defense of a black man in Jim Crow Mississippi.
You won't see "Mockingbird" on the Disney Channel, and I fear most teens would switch to Nickelodeon if it were presented. Maybe my generation was too anxious to face the fire of Civil Rights, of Vietnam, of poverty and injustice. We were burned by it, and grew up protective of our kids, sheltering, nurturing, hiding in suburbs and letting them hide in their rooms. But you can go too far the other direction, too, leaving a society easily manipulated by images, and tales of absolute good, absolute evil.
One of my favorite professors at Rice was Max Apple. He wrote fiction, great fiction. One of my favorites from him was "The Propheteers," a fictionalized story about the birth of Walt Disney World in the Orlando swamps. The climax comes as a mansion owner, unwilling to sell her patrimony for the theme park, switches on an electric fence before an army of Disney-led children. They each walk up to the fence, get shocked, then meekly go back to the end of the line so they can do it again.
The point today is that we're all reaching a crisis. We can no longer tolerate the growth of malware and spam. The Internet has to face this crisis squarely and solve it before it's consumed by it. We can no longer continue treating the world as black-and-white, good-and-evil - the blowback is getting too fierce and it's turning us evil in the process. And we all have to grow up sometime, facing the world as it is, and hoping to make at least a portion of it what we want it to be.
I work as a business analyst with The Edison Group, a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.
My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .
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Takes on the News
Web Kills Another Industry
The Web is Vishnu, both creator and destroyer. It always has been.
Many industries have been killed by Internet commerce, and the latest to fall victim is my business, the magazine industry. Despite a rising tide of advertising overall, the number of ad pages in consumer magazines continues to decline. Readers are running to TV and the Web.
Smart publishers, like E.W. Scripps, have responded by moving heavily into cable programming , where the business models are similar to magazines and profit potential exists. Overall, however, the destruction of this industry returns us again to the need for Web sites to have a business model, one that brings in more money than it spends.
It is the failure of publishers to exploit Web commerce that is hurting journalism, nothing else.
Where's Zigbee Now?
Last week's feature on Zigbee was based on an examination of trends and the future. This week, I decided to do some research on where Zigbee stands today.
As I said, Zigbee may be the most important global standards effort of our time. That's because it sits at the "sweet spot" of Always-On, where radios and cheap chips can create revolutions. Zigbee is designed as a low power, low bandwidth, low range radio standard. It enables single-chip radio computers that transmit data when necessary, and run for years. The single-chip could be a medical monitor, or it could be an enviromental monitor. Combine this with the price-performance breakthroughs we're seeing in biochips and we have the Always-On revolution.
However, it takes more than good ideas to make a revolution. The current Zigbee standard, dubbed 802.15.4 by the IEEE, has only been turned into a few products, mainly for industrial control . As a result, the standards process is going back to the drawing board. Work has begun on a new version of the standard, dubbed 802.15.4a , and the relative failure of the previous work in the market means the new version won't have to be backward-compatible. Engineers will feel free to consider other technologies, like UWB .
The main problems involve cost and battery life. While a 100-1000 day battery life sounds good, the low end means you're replacing sensors every three months or so. It's no better than a fluorescent light. If systems, including software, are then priced in the thousands of dollars they're not going to hit the sweet spot of the consumer market, which requires solutions priced in the hundreds of dollars. Finally, anything involving medicine has to go through a long vetting process, through the FDA , which can delay deliveries for years. You don't start that process unless the potential up-side is massive. The market processes of consumer electronics and medicine are too different to be easily reconciled.
This does not mean that we should give up on Zigbee. Instead, there is a huge opportunity facing us to build a platform for Zigbee based on something simple, namely computer security.
So let me offer you a "black box." Call it a firewall, or a gateway, or make up a name for it. It's based on PDA technology, its batteries recharged from the wall through some AAs (and software to maximize the life of those AAs by recharging only when necessary). It never turns off.
Its firmware will automatically protect both your Internet connections and your internal LAN. This means if you have a wireless LAN, it will mandate proper security precautions -- separate sign-ins for each user and device, encryption of all traffic. On the Internet side it will provide firewall services, anti-spam and anti-malware protection, and an anonymizer -- the best firewalls are always external to your PC and use hardware anyway.
While right now you're buying yet-another box, you're actually replacing a whole lot of things with something better. You don't have to worry about updating your anti-virals, your anti-spam blacklists, or implementing proper wireless LAN security. The hardware comes with a one-year subscription to an update service, which works in the background, starting from when you register the thing. (And with tools like Google's Autofill, that should be pretty easy too.)
Of course, you could add a modem and have a gateway. You could add an antenna and have a wireless LAN router. Obviously you're going to want several models, and you're going to want to license everything at reasonable prices. This is distributed through retail channels, so a broad product line is actually an advantage.
Best of all, this box must be expandable. It should have PCMCIA slots, into which you can plug firmware modules providing support for wireless LAN applications. Things like medical applications, or home automation applications, all running on Zigbee-based sensors that can be on your person, on your pet, embedded in your lawn, on your house -- wherever.
The box runs on an embedded version of Windows, or Linux, or the Macintosh operating system. (If it's a Mac we call it iHome.) It provides real value for money as a security device. It's cheap to make, easy to update remotely. And since it's expandable there's value for the future, a platform for Always-On applications and application development.
Guest Entry: Why America Is Failing
I saw this on Slashdot and, while it may be apocryphal, it summarizes my view on so much that I had to reprint it. It claims to be from an Indian studying in America.
I did my highschool and undergrad in India. Back there, the people who were
respected were not the jocks or the cool guys, but the smart ones and the
People looked up to the guy who went to science fairs and won prizes, and
the guy who could solve differential equations by graphs.
Coolness was not a factor - how geniune a person you were and how smart a
person you were was what mattered. Social life was not a function of how
well you pretended or how well you could throw a ball - it was a function
of who you were as a person.
Geek and nerd were used as complementary terms - the smart ones were called
"genes" or "genies", a friendly term respecting their intelligence and skills.
I come here and notice that being smart or good is being made fun of -
this, despite the fact that I'm in one of the US's top engineering schools.
The ones with the social life are the ones who show off or the ones who
throw ball. Even here, being really smart or nerdy is looked down. People
do not respect the need for some of us to be introverted and reclusive, and
people are branded as obnoxious or stereotyped as nerds or geeks, most
often in a derogatory manner.
Am I bitter? Absolutely.
I come from an environment where both my parents went to grad school, half
the people in my family are PhDs and my uncle is a quantum physicist at
CERN. When I was in middle and high school, I wanted to be a physicist or a
mathematician. Social life was not an issue, it was always a given.
I thought that the US would be a haven for scientists and engineers, but I
come here and see that except for some people in the academia, people do
not really respect science. People like to use the work that scientists do,
but do not like them - the populace is either scared or jealous of really
The haven that is equal for all that America once was is gone - today, all
that I see is people who are scared of most foreigners, and people who
discrimate against the very smart ones in your own country.
People like Jack Valenti are willing to sacrifice the rights of the
smartest of America for the profits of a few. People want to justify that
not going to school and getting experience is somehow better than people
who work their asses through grad school. Money is your new God and
Television is all that America seeks.
The guy who used to sit next to me in class and had won International Math
and Physics Olympiad championships got a fellowship at CMU, but dropped out
because his research needed defence approval. He is now in Tel Aviv working
on the same stuff, with no hassles whatsoever.
As I write this, I see an ad on TV advertising for ITT Technical Institute
saying how they will change your life, and saying how a career in IT will
get you the hot babes and the cool cars. Is that why you want to do
science? I wanted to do science because I loved science. I wanted to do
science because since childhood, I enjoyed doing it. I did not do it
because I wanted the cool cars or the hot babes (although, I did know that
I will have a better salary than most and that did help a little).
If you want to set your system straight, look at the problems. Make sure
the next generation knows that science and engineering saves lives and
improves our quality of living. Throwing a ball does not matter, its not
going to pay your bills when you are 40 and has no more entertainment value
than a clown. Actors and entertainment artists are given importance. I do
not see people going to Orchestras, I see people flocking to Britney Spears.
I grew up in an environment where USSR was India's friend, and had Russian
comics. Misha was a popular one, and all the kids in my generation wanted
to be like Yuri Gargarin. We all wanted to be as smart as Einstein. Kids
wrote essays about winning the Nobel Prize. We grew up in an environment
where our parents and teachers helped us make Tesla coils in our middle
school, so that they can demonstrate the effects of electricity.
My school library was full of books written by Asimov and Clarke, and we
grew up aspiring to be pioneers in science and technology.
I thought the US would be like this, but after coming here, its been a
disappointment. I'm just very sad, because given your resources and your
intelligentsia, you could be so much more.
You have some of the world's brightest, and smartest. You have resources
which the rest of the world would die for. You have the means, but you are
simply not using them.
Do not let your leaders bring down the innovators in your country, please.
The fact that I feel so much for this nation is why I'm typing such a long
rant, depite everything you have the power to move people. But if you do
not act in time, it will be your downfall.
Clued-in is Al Gore buying a cable network and seeking "James Cox' revenge." Cox lost the 1920 election, then used his newspapers to make his heirs billionaires, and the best way to start that process today is through cable.
Clueless is Reuters trying to restrict access to its wires as a way of making money . The only real solution in that direction is going after more obscure news, which has economic value, or increasing circulation by doing video, as AP is doing.
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