Daily grind


  1. Send a customer a description of the scope of your project, the methods to be employed and why they were chosen, the prerequisites for applying those methods, and an estimate of the time and effort required.
  2. Customer tells you your document is too “technical”, their management needs an “executive summary”
  3. Hint at some interesting aspects of your project in “bullet points” on three powerpoint slides
  4. Customer calls the slides “too granular” and is “concerned” about some obvious features which aren’t in the bullet points (but are, needless to say, in the 92-page scope document)
  5. Smile and ask the engineers to turn their attention to more slides, which they enjoy much more than engineering anyway
  6. (this is much less common, thank Zeus) Have the same calibre of discussion internally between different teams of developers while partitioning the work

It would save endless time and money if everyone just turned off their phones for three or four hours, sat down on a comfy sofa with a coffee and took the time to read and understand even a few of the details of whatever it was they were supposed to make a decision on.

Echo cancellation in Linux

Jitsi is a fantastic open-source VoIP sound and video application, with desktop sharing and XMPP instant messaging thrown in too. It’s free and secure.

Under Linux I had some echo problems. It turns out there are several ways to handle echos, and several points along the chain of communications where it can be done. If you’re using a server-in-the-middle messenger, it’s quite possible that echo cancellation is provided as a service on the server, which by the way precludes end-to-end encryption.

Otherwise you can handle echo cancellation at one or more end devices. Linux’s PulseAudio sound system offers echo cancellation at the system level, but you have to turn it on.

To do so, run the following command before starting your VoIP application:

export PULSE_PROP=”filter.want=echo-cancel media.role=phone”

Be aware that using different echo cancellation techniques at different points in the audio chain simultaneously will worsen the sound considerably, and it should be avoided.

Colleen Graffy: How to Lose Friends, Citizens and Influence


A very interesting read, even though it’s in the Wall Street Journal. She’s only told about half the story, too: I’ve heard they’re passing some sort of retroactive law aimed at people like Tina Turner who have already renounced their citizenship.
Just the notion is outrageous. It’s not that they will be retroactively disputing Mrs Turner’s change of citizenship. They will simply be extorting money from a foreign national. Just imagine if China did that to the many Chinese nationals who have settled down in the US and taken on US nationality, giving up their Chinese passports in the process.

A pig through the python

I just remembered a famous decision by Scott McNealy, the former head of Sun Microsystems, to ban PowerPoint from the Sun campus. I looked for an article to verify, and found one.

Apparently he trumpeted the productivity-enhancing effects of his Powerpoint ban. Sadly, whatever effect it had on their productivity or their creativity didn’t last, because as we all know they went down the tubes and had to be saved by Oracle of all things.

Kathleen Belleville, who worked at Powerpoint, argued: “now we’ve got highly paid people spending hours formatting slides because it’s more fun to do that than concentrate on what you’re going to say.” I find that convincing. The glitz and glamour of a presentation still has a disproportionate impact on the audience, and people know that, so they end up spending a lot of time messing with the formatting.

But I think the effect Powerpoint has had on its target audience is much worse: members of senior management are now so accustomed to bite-sized chunks of pre-digested “insight” that they have become addicted, and unable to digest facts on their own. I think that is dangerous.

A related and quite famous argument was made by Edward Tufte, who discovered that a NASA briefing which used PowerPoint as its presentation medium had led to a bad decision which doomed a space shuttle and its crew. However he criticizes the people creating the presentations and blames the bullet-point style of communication for leading to something like cognitive “rounding errors”.

Amazingly, I’ve heard colleagues interpret this same case as an example of the adverse effect of “overcomplicated” presentations with “busy” slides. Personally, I interpret it as a failure of management to fully parse the presented facts. I think a verbose report would have forced the readers to put some effort into comprehending the available data and understanding the situation.

A feeling for data volume

Conference room at Stasi headquarters in Berlin
Conference room at Stasi headquarters in Berlin

Today’s “Süddeutsche Zeitungpublished an interactive infographic produced by OpenDataCity. It was created in response to a statement by the German president, Joachim Gauck, who rejected comparisons between the Stasi and the NSA, asserting that the NSA is certainly not compiling thick binders in which it files away our conversations, like the Stasi did.

Comparing the digitized Stasi archives with the estimated capacity of the NSA (e.g. in its new yottabyte-capacity, 65-MW-burning data center in Bluffdale, Utah), OpenDataCity came up with the following comparison: if you stored the NSA’s data in the same density as the Stasi had available (in paper files), it would not fit into Berlin. Or Europe, for that matter.

Image #1: area of the Stasi archives. It’s the square on the left, superimposed over a map of central Berlin (though they didn’t put it over the actual “Stasi Zentrale”)

The size of the Stasi archives, based on paper files
Left square: the size of the Stasi archives, based on storage of paper files

Image #2: the Stasi archives, expanded to house the NSA’s estimated data volume in paper form – superimposed over Europe and parts of Northern Africa

Area required to store the NSA's data volume, if stored in paper files like the Stasi
Right square: the area required to store the NSA’s data, if stored as paper files like the Stasi

The vast amount of data that can be processed and stored nowadays is not clear to most people, especially those who haven’t grown up with computers. MB, GB, TB are abstract concepts, so I think it helps to visualize the data volume in this way.