Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Getting wikis filled in

“The Wiki field of dreams bothers me just because you build it doesn’t mean that people will do your boring content entry”
-Bryce Johnson (on Twitter)

I think you can build a wiki and get it populated, as long as you satisfy the following conditions:

  1. Your wiki fills a need, one that’s not already filled. According to people who are in the wiki’s intended audience — not according to you or “management”.

  2. The people who would use it include a high percentage of what I call analytical-retentive people, like computer geeks, librarians (hi, Connie), or policy wonks (hi, Mark).

  3. You seed the wiki the way I’m about to talk about.

If you’re like most people, if you’re given a blank slate and are asked to put something on it, you’ll have a much harder time than if someone gives you a starting point that you can modify. Even an example of the kind of thing that’s desired constitutes such a starting point, e.g. if you’re asking someone for a description of a table and you want to know its height, materials, etc. you can give as an example a description of a bookcase that includes similar attributes. (Highly creative people do thrive on blank slates, but most people aren’t that creative, and furthermore the people you want populating your wiki are the ones who are more interested in knowing boring old facts than in being creative.)

If you just create a blank wiki, or have just minimal content in it, chances are high that nobody else will contribute anything. So you need to get the wiki started by creating a bunch of pages and putting something on each page.

That’s advice you’ll get from other people too, but I would add this: make those pages annoying. Annoying to people who are interested in the subject and are bothered by seeing it treated poorly, enough so that they’ll fix the problem. Analytical-retentive people are more bothered by flaws than other people, and furthermore are usually good at fixing them.

You can’t just create garbage as your starting point: you need to create something that’s going in the right direction, but is flawed. The better you know key people in your audience, the better a job you can do on this: ask yourself what kind of flaws would get those key people riled up and anxious to fix them. For example, if a wiki page is about how to use a Macintosh computer, you could seed it with some “information” that is obviously about Windows and is completely wrong for a Mac. This is where creativity can really come in handy: for seeding the wiki, not for populating it.

Misinformation is not the only way to seed with flawed content, but it can be an effective one. If you use misinformation, I recommend that your wiki be in a clearly stated beta mode until all the misinformation has been removed by users. (There is always the possibility that someone just removes misinformation without replacing it with something accurate, but it’s less likely to happen if you do your job well. There is an art to this.)

I’ve never seeded a new wiki by putting in provocative content, but I’ve successfully used the technique to seed individual pages in an existing wiki, and I find it powerful.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Net Neutrality

Most of the people advocating “Net Neutrality” seem to view high-speed Internet access as some kind of fundamental human right. I think such an ideological view is blinding them to the fact that Net Neutrality is not that simple an issue. I note also that most of them are pretty clueless about how the Internet actually operates, but like most politicians they feel perfectly capable of setting policy about something they know nothing about. There are different kinds of Net Neutrality, and my own position is that one kind is good while another is bad. I don’t propose to do a complete analysis here, but only to show a particular distinction that I think is very important.

The side of Net Neutrality I like is the one about not discriminating among destinations. If I place a VoIP call, my ISP should not be able to prevent my using Vonage (or to permit it only if I pay more) just because it has its own VoIP product. Such discrimination allows a carrier to take advantage of its near-monopoly situation in order to boost its other non-monopoly business, and should be prohibited. A non-Internet example: I subscribe to cable TV, and when the cable company, which also has media interests, bought a sports channel from another media company it decided to make it a “basic cable” offering that every cable customer would have to pay for, including people like me who never watch it. The cable company had never forced on its subscribers a longer established and much more popular sports channel that it did not own; this action was taken only when it benefitted the cable company’s media division. This is the kind of discrimination I would like to see prevented. If a carrier offers value-added services like VoIP, that’s fine with me, but it should not be permitted to discriminate between its own services and those of others.

The side of Net Neutrality that I’m not so keen on is the one relating to “traffic shaping”. Here the ISP gives lower priority to certain types of packets in order to keep the rest of the packets moving smartly. In particular, it gives lower priority to BitTorrent packets. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer system for distributing large files, and is very good at that: GNU/Linux distributions have been spread this way, for instance. Unfortunately, the vast majority of BitTorrent traffic consists of audio and video distributed illegally, such as movies recorded by a video camera smuggled into a movie theatre. Movie files are huge, and BitTorrent traffic now constitutes a large percentage of all Internet traffic. Net Neutrality advocates say that this traffic should get equal priority. I don’t agree. If my ISP uses traffic shaping to slow down BitTorrent, that’s just fine with me. Yes, that unfortunately slows down “legitimate” torrents as well, but I’d rather pay that price than have the entire Internet slow to a crawl.

Consider this: if we applied full Net Neutrality to email, everyone relaying email would be required to give spam as good treatment as other email. Now there’s a cause worth supporting!

Those of you who have been around for a while may remember Usenet newsgroups. They were very useful, until the flood of “newbies” in the late 90s swamped almost every newsgroup with entries from people who had little or no idea what they were doing. The result was that newsgroups were abandoned; I haven’t looked at them in years and my ISP doesn’t even carry them any more (though it’s arranged for free access via a third party for those few customers who still have any interest). A situation like this is called “the tragedy of the commons”, and if the Net Neutrality advocates get everything they’re asking for, that’s what we risk happening to the entire Internet. Any “commons” needs to be policed to prevent abuse, and right now only the ISPs can do that. If we were to take away that ability, the Net Neutrality advocates might achieve a Pyrrhic victory.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How dependent are you on Internet access?

A recent post by David Heinemeier Hansson in the 37signals blog complained that “the idea of offline web applications is getting an undue amount of attention”. (You can see the post here, but be warned that the title uses language that is “not used in polite society”.) That there are 203 comments, most disagreeing with DHH, shows that being able to use computers without having good Internet access is something many people consider important. 37signals makes products for people who have reliable and fast Internet connections and don’t necessarily need access when travelling, and many of the commenters accused the company of being out of touch with those who aren’t that lucky.

I think the situation is that the lucky ones constitute enough of a market that 37signals can be a viable company without having to worry about building applications that will run offline, something that would dramatically increase application complexity and cost. 37signals also knows that the connectivity situation will continue to improve. If it were a public company the shareholders might well have demanded that it make more money by building products for the markets it’s not currently addressing, but it’s not a public company. It can stick to what it does well, knowing that the future is on its side. For other software companies, building offline Web applications may well make sense.

If you’re one of those lucky ones, and if you’re reading this blog you probably are, I recommend that you stay that way: before you become dependent on any online-only applications, have some form of backup Internet access in place. In my case, for instance, if my DSL connection at home ever failed for any length of time I could use dialup instead (my Sympatico High Speed subscription includes dialup, with the first 10 hours/month free and additional hours cheap), and if the entire phone line ever failed I could go to a local Internet café. For businesses whose staff need to stay in one place, one option now available in many Canadian cities is wireless Internet service that uses pre-WiMax technology. For only $25/month, plus $100 to buy the modem, you can have a backup 128 kb/s Internet connection (or faster if you pay more monthly, up to 3 Mb/s for $60/month) that will still work even if neither phone line nor cable works. For most businesses that’s affordable insurance. Preferably, get your backup connection from a different carrier than your usual connection.

Friday, April 13, 2007


So many companies are trying to be innovative, but they don’t seem to understand that reading a book about innovation and then copying the practices of the companies written about is not innovation. Copying is the opposite of innovation.

Marvin Minsky, pioneer in artificial intelligence, has said that AI is whatever hasn’t been invented yet. Maybe innovation is whatever hasn’t been written about yet.

How do you name yourself online?

On Wednesday I participated in a panels-in-the-round discussion entitled “New Social Formations in the Age of the NextWeb”, part of an event called CODE: Building the New Agora organized by Project Open Source | Open Access at the University of Toronto (unfortunately I hadn’t been able to make it to the other part, a lecture by Prof. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun of Brown University). The discussion was very good; this post springs from one particular comment that was made.

That comment was that one characteristic of Web 1.0 was anonymity (“on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog”), while in Web 2.0 people tend to publicize all kinds of information about themselves. (I can’t remember who made this comment — it was in the corner of the room containing David Crow and Tom Purves among others — and I’d appreciate hearing from anyone else who was there so I can give proper credit. UPDATE: Michael Dila remembered that it was Tom Purves, and Tom has confirmed it in a comment below.)

So an increasingly important issue is this: how do you name yourself? There is “Identity 2.0”, but that’s for identifying yourself to a computer, which is not what I’m talking about. What name do you use so that people will know that the person being referred to is you?

If the context is clear, e.g. within a small group I’m part of, it’s usually sufficient for me to use the name “Rohan”, or in a larger group “Rohan Jayasekera” should be enough. And even across the entire Web I’ve made my mark sufficiently that I dominate search results. But there are two other people named Rohan Jayasekera who are far better known than I am globally, and even on the Web they have entries in Wikipedia and I don’t. I could call myself Rohan S. Jayasekera which would distinguish myself from them (because their middle initials don’t match mine), but even if that works now it may not in future — and I find it silly to call myself Rohan S. Jayasekera given that to pretty much everyone I deal with “Rohan Jayasekera” is perfectly adequate.

Some people use a nickname online, but getting one that’s unique in all contexts, yet reasonably memorable (e.g. the probably unique britneyfan8640hx538u isn’t memorable), is very difficult, since anything memorable across a population is likely to be used by other people too. I do pretty well with “felicopter” (feli- as in feline +helicopter = flying cat) and have claimed it in all popular places (, Yahoo ID, Gmail address, etc.) but I haven’t been fully successful: someone in France registered it on eBay, and it appears that someone (perhaps the same person) has it on Hotmail. A nickname can be useful if you use it consistently online and offline, especially if your name is something like John Smith.

If the human-rights activist Rohan Jayasekera, who writes a lot in print, decides to start blogging, that could be a problem for me.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

"This time it's different"

“This time it’s different” is a phrase commonly used by financial conservatives and contrarians to mock those optimists who believe that the traditional rules of financial markets no longer apply. So what if certain patterns have held for centuries; “this time it’s different” because (insert reason here). For instance, we are told that deflation is now impossible in the USA because the Federal Reserve has learned from its mistakes of the 1930s. (People who I think are more astute on this issue believe that the Fed did not make any “mistakes” in the 1930s: it just did what was expected of it, and will continue to do so. After Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was roundly criticized for daring to raise concern about “irrational exuberance” in 1996, he backed off and never uttered the phrase again.)

“This time it’s different” has a much better chance of being true when it’s said with respect to something technologically driven, because technological change is permanent, unlike changes of government, of the latest thinking in business management, etc. The Industrial Revolution led to the advent of the “permanent job”, and the Information Revolution is leading to its demise.

But that doesn’t mean that a particular technological change will necessarily cause any particular result. During the dot-com boom, in my job as a “strategist” I disagreed with the company’s Chief Strategist in that he believed in the “New Economy” while I believed only in new businesses in an existing economy. (I told you so.)

Now I’m concerned about the number of people I know who again think that the old rules don’t apply any more. I’m pretty surprised by this because it hasn’t been all that long since the dot-com bubble burst. I do think that Web 2.0 is causing quantitative changes than lead to qualitative ones, e.g. when the barriers to entry for being a columnist on a particular subject are lowered by the advent of blogging, it may no longer be possible to make a living doing it. That does not mean that we are entering a Golden Age where human potential is fulfilled because we all work together on everything; it means dislocation and the survival of the fittest. And that’s nothing “different”.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Five things that make me part of Toronto's tech community

I’ve been tagged by Sandy Kemsley for five things that make me part of Toronto’s tech community. I’m only part of the info tech community, not biotech or anything else.

1. I’ve been working in technology in Toronto since 1984 (when I moved here). At first I worked for I.P. Sharp Associates (later acquired by Reuters), an online services company which had its own global Internet-like network. (As co-op students there in 1978, Doug Keenan and I developed a code library over email, IM and chat, since he was in Toronto and I was in Montréal; we never once spoke to each other because long-distance phone wasn’t cheap then. IM and chat are not recent concepts! And in 1979 I started tagging my emails; that's not a recent concept either.) Later, in 1989-1990 I worked with the first cellular data network available in Toronto. (It was the Mobitex system developed by Ericsson and operated in Canada by Rogers Wireless; I was an employee of their joint-venture company.) Later still, in 1995 I co-founded Sympatico, probably the world’s first easy-to-use Internet service. And later I was part of the dot-com boom and crash. I’ve done various other things too, but this is getting long and I’m still on Point 1.

2. I’m part of the TorCamp community that supports local info tech ventures.

3. I write this blog which helps in a (very) small way to link the Toronto info tech community with its counterparts elsewhere.

4. I’m always pushing to make technology usable by, and useful to, the masses. One way in which I do that is to build “products” that are easy to use, work reliably and predictably, etc. (I don’t build products for geeks.)

5. “There is no number 5”, which is the kind of joke that some tech people like.

Oh yeah, now I’m supposed to tag five others: Joey deVilla, Jay Goldman, Tom Purves, Matthew Burpee and Mira Jelic.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Toying with Web 2.0

Toronto toymaker Ganz (teddy bears, etc.) has a line of plush toys called Webkinz, which are apparently extremely popular (I don’t have kids and don’t know these things). I mention this here because today’s Globe and Mail says that “Ganz’s product is revolutionary: It’s the first real-world toy that’s essentially just a key to an interactive website.” Each “pet” gets its own room online, and as the Ganz website says, “Earn more Kinzcash to add on more rooms and yards, so pets can play outdoors.” Doesn’t this sound like Second Life? In this case you can’t use real currency to buy virtual currency directly. Instead you use it to buy more physical products: parents buy their kids additional Webkinz over time. In February, had around 3 million unique visitors, which I find pretty impressive given that during the same month Facebook had around 17 million. Click here for the full story.