28 January 2006

When all you have is a cube...

Multi-dimensional analysis tools, or cubes can be very useful tools for data analysis and the marketing behind them would suggest that they are the silver bullet of business intelligence tools. While I agree that cubes are great for a small segment of information consumers a lot of the time and are possibly good for a larger group of consumers some of the time but they are way too complicated for most users, most of the time.

One of the oldest tricks in the book is to make products that in order for a person to make use of the product, they have to invest in it. WordPerfect used that years ago as did Lotus and others. Who remembers how to do the contortion required to do a table of contents entry in WordPerfect? How about changing fonts. Do you remember how many levels deep into the Lotus 123 menu you had to go to change a chart series?

I don\'t, but I do remember it was painful and the only way to get good at it was to train your nervous system to memorize the motions (which was a considerable effort and investment in time) before you could even begin to be productive.

Once you had made that investment, how eager were you to switch to Word? Many people who held out for a long time because they had made such an investment into WP that they couldn't consider switching. Add the investment in macros and printer configurations and it was very compelling to just stick with the tried and true.

Cubes are set up in a similar way. They are sufficiently difficult to learn and become proficient at (similar to user learning the keystrokes) and they require enormous investment in ETL and building to automate the production (similar to macros and configs) that once you have made the investment it is difficult, and very expensive, to get out.

Cube software makers, and the consultants that promote the software, would have you believe that all of your business intelligence and information products are best served up in cube format, with their proprietary web front end of course. They are promoted as a single solution to a host of problems. All you need is cubes. If you were to follow that advice you would look at everything as a cube problem when in fact a simple report or chart would not only suffice but is simpler, faster and requires far less sophisticated technology to make it happen. Cubes are a useful tool in the BI arsenal at best and an expensive source of automated confusion at worst.

Cubes and Multi-dimensional analysis tools are a great addition to a larger strategy of information tools including data warehouses, data marts, reports, charts, portals, forums, etc.. Promoting them as the silver bullet for business intelligence does a disservice both to organizations and the cube products. Positioning them as power tools for power users which make a wide variety of analysis data available and useable is much smarter.

17 January 2006

Fair Use

Lawrence Lessig makes a brilliant argument about Google's Book Search service and whether or not it should be considered "fair use" of the works. Naturally some book publishers are threatened and are suing Google over this service. He talks about the mp3.com case in this talk also. It appears that if the book service is deemed to be not "fair use" then Google's entire search engine could be threatened (along with Yahoo, MSN and every other search engine). If it is found to be "fair use" however, I think this will be a huge win for innovation and freedom not to mention cultural history.

15 January 2006

News Clouds

Tag clouds are a becoming a popular way to show popularity (or frequency of occurance) of a word or phrase on the web. Here's a cool site I stumbled accross that creates tag clouds by aggregating stats from a variety of other web sites (Google, digg, etc.) to give a visual representation of the popularity of certain words and phrase in real time in the form of words that are printed in larger font according to how popular the word is. Click on the word and see what stories contributed to the word being big. Cool.

I probably wouldn't use it on a regular basis but it is interesting. As I write this Apple, Microsoft and Google are the biggies but it's in real time so when I was checking it out a couple days ago Apple was the only really big tag.

Okay, now I'm curious so I am going to go see what's up with these guys. See? It works!

13 January 2006

Linux Distribution Chooser

Switching to Linux? Want to try it out but don't know which distro to use. Try this Linux Distribution Chooser.

10 January 2006

Python in the Browser

Just an idea, but wouldn't it be awesome if FireFox embraced Python as a client side scripting language? Just supporting Python would be cool. And since it is pre-installed on Linux boxes and Mac boxes I suppose Windows is the only OS that is lacking the necessary interpreter. But, since it is all open source it could be built right into the FireFox browser. It would be a bit chubby but we Windows users are used to chubby software. (ouch!).

Why do we need Python as well as Javascript? Lots of reasons which I won't go into here but one main reason I think is that Javascript has a monopoly on client side scripting and that's totally unnecessary. Developers should be able to choose the language they want to write their client side scripts in. Javascript isn't the best choice for everything. It's just that when all you have is a hammer... etc. etc..

Anyway, as I was writing this rant, I found this post, much to my delight. :-)

08 January 2006

The whole world can talk for free.

Just on the off chance that someone reading this isn't already using Skype, check it out. It's pretty much singlehandedly redefining the the telecommunication industry.

07 January 2006

Time for a New Browser?

The HTML browser was never designed to do the things that we expect it to do on a daily basis.

I think it's time someone developed a new application browser (not an HTML browser) similar to the old Hot Java browser that Sun developed many moons ago. The idea is that HTML, CSS and Javascript are being cobbled together to make AJAX but really, rather than make the HTML browser jump through hoops to make a really interactive interface, I think it makes more sense to have a browser that is specifically designed for the job.

It's so interesting to me that Alan Cooper was writing the first edition of his amazing book About Face the web was taking off, destroying all aspirations of good user interface design in its path. Now we are back in the equivalent of the mainframe terminal era, albeit with graphics, and the amazing thing is... we're OK with that!

OK, we're not totally OK with it, which is why javascript is in the browser in the first place, but by looking at the use interfaces we have been willing to settle for in the 10 years since About Face was written, we haven't made any real progress.

I think we will soon though.

The web is really starting to stanardize on page layout, menu positioning, etc... people now expect certain things from web sites and as these standards evolve I think we will see more tools specifically designed to take advantage of that standardization and then we will be in a position to make some real progress in UI design again.

02 January 2006

Review: GTD

OK, I have decided to start this year off with a book review. A book about getting things done, which is often what people make new years resolutions about, so it seemed appropriate. I know these reviews are going to be a bit long for a blog but I haven't figured out a better place to post them quite yet so here is where it's going!

Getting Things Done - (aka GTD)
''The Art of Stress Free Productivity''

This book presents a new angle on, well, getting the most done with your time. At first I thought, oh, another time management technique... and I guess it would fit into the same category as time management, however, I would say it is more accurately called activity management.

Traditional time management encourages you to get in tune with your life vision, you 5 year vision, your goals, etc... and then gets you to cut your calendar into chunks and then split those into itsy bits and assign those bits of specific time to specific tasks. The theory goes that if you do all the activities at the time you say you will, you'll reach your goals. This is what Allen calls a top down approach. In the software world we call this BDUF (Big Design Up Front).

Allan says the traditional approach was backwards, and took up way too much brain space or (RAM as he calls it). His suggestion is that we follow some really simple rules and put some simple structures in place so we don't have to juggle so many things in our heads thus reducing stress and freeing our minds for more creative pursuits.

The basic steps in the process are:

  1. Collect all your stuff.
    Gather all of the to-dos, mail, project info, reference materials and other stuff that you have around your office, briefcase, notebooks, whatever, that needs some sort of action into a collection area to get ready for processing. Get all this stuff out of your head and into some other reliable form (like an inbox) where you know it will be dealt with, so you can forget about it for now. If you're like me, you'll have several collection areas (physical inbox, an e-mail inbox, a PDA with voice memos and a notepad).

  2. Process your collections
    Periodically and on a regular schedule, process your collections. Processing means scanning your collection bins and one by one take each item from the top and do the thinking that goes with it.

    If it is actionable decide if it gets done now or later or not at all. If it takes less than two minutes to do, do it now.

    If it is reference material, store it in a filing system if you want it, if not, get rid of it.

    Allen gives a ton of helpful tricks and tips to make this process a breeze and even fun. I personally found the immediate feeling that I was getting a lot of small stuff done that I had been putting off, was pretty gratifying.

  3. Deal with Actionable Items
    Allan suggests that deciding exactly where to put things during processing is a very important but often under-rated task.

    Traditional time management would have us creating a to-do list and sorting them in priority order, then crossing things off as they are done and transferring undone things to a new list each day. I don't know about you but I find it frustrating to transfer all the items that I wanted to do but didn't do each day.

    Allan says, forget prioritization and forget copying lists. Priorities are constantly changing in our fast paced world. Rather than set priorities, classify actionable items by context - where you are going to do it - so that next time you are there, you have a list of relevant items for that context.

    This is where traditional time management falls apart. We don't make the best use of our time because we don't have a ready list of things we should be doing, or worse, we have scheduled an hour to work on our project, only to find that we can't start because some piece of information is missing.

    Allan says, you only put things on your calendar if they really need to be done at a specific time, otherwise, they are just things to be done ASAP. Putting them on a list that is specific to a context that you will find yourself in allows you to make phone calls while you are waiting at the coffee shop for someone to join you, brainstorm about your projects while you sit in a ferry lineup, buy that gift when you are already out running errands. You get the idea.

  4. File Reference Items
    Allen's suggestion for your filing system is key. You need something that is fast and reliable and most of all simple to use. If you have to think about where to file it, you probably won't.

    What he suggests is to just use an alphabetical system A - Z and just file stuff under that letter, wherever that may be. The theory goes, that if you are filing a proposal for Space Widgets for your client, Jones Publishing, you could file it under "Proposals", "Space Widgets" or "Jones", but that about exhausts your options. So, pick one, it doesn't matter which, and file it. You can try to be consistent but even that is not critical.

    When you go to look for it later (if you ever do) you are likely to look in those places in your filing system and thus you are likely to find the item. Way more likely than in one of the random piles of paper in your office or briefcase.

  5. Review
    The review process is critical in Allan's method because it's the periodic review that gives you the confidence that you are not letting anything slip through the cracks (at least nothing that you don't intend to let slip). Periodically reviewing your action lists keeps you on top of what's on your plate and focused on what you want to be doing.

People who use the ideas in this book report being much more productive and organized and as a result the book seems to have created quite a buzz (have personally seen it referred to many times online and several friends have mentioned it to me). All I know is I have been following just some of the ideas for the last couple of months and I definitely feel like I am much more on top of what's on my project list (I had over 100 projects when I started and am down to about 40 now). I'll keep you posted as to how it works for me in the longer run as I get more experience with it.

By using your brain for what it is good at, choosing the best thing to do in the given context, you will get way more done, more efficiently, with less stress than before. For the $22 this book costs and the time it takes to read, I recommend anyone who has a lot of projects and activities I have one thing to say:

Read this book.