Shoulders of Giants

Our ability to be innovative, to produce something new and incredible to both benefit humanity as a whole and, of course, ourselves depends on role models. In a February 1676 letter, Sir Isaac Newton commented in a letter to his colleague Robert Hooke (to paraphrase): “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.” It was with this quote in mind I’ve been thinking about what makes BC a great place to live and work.

In the midst of this line of thought, something disturbing struck me: we really don’t celebrate or recognize the people from Vancouver (or BC as a whole) that have made a Big Impact (or are at least known) the world over. Sure, there are articles that celebrate the Canadians who made it big (such as the Financial Times’ “Top 40 under 40”), but usually these heroes no longer live here! Brian Adams may have scored big with his emotional song for the Olympic bid presentation, but it’s not like I’ve seen him strolling down Robson lately.

That got me thinking: who are those people (not just in business, but in other areas as well) that made it big and stayed? I can name a few, off the top of my head: Douglas Coupland, Geoffrey Ballard, David Suzuki, William Gibson.

But who else? Where are our giants?

So here’s what I’d like from the Vancouver crowd out there: name the “big” people in BC, the ones that their name would probably be recognized anywhere, and they’d be recognized as leaders in their fields. The rules of inclusion are simple: they have to be alive and they have to still be living in BC. Submit details on people you can think of using the comment system – who are they, what have they done, why are they important?

Unleash the Students!

While perusing various government web sites, searching for sources of funding available to entrepreneurial ventures, a thought came to me: I discovered a nearly bottomless source of free, or almost-free, labour that remains largely untapped by entrepreneurs and small businesses in general. I’m thinking about the legions of students.

Sure, businesses tap high school students as part of the CAPP Program, a program that requires a minimum level of work experience for BC students in grade 11 and 12. And yes, university students get drafted into work experience through various university co-op programs. But what about the rest of the time? You know, when they’re in class? Think of all the person-hours going to waste on projects that have no impact outside the classroom!

For example: in the MBA this year, we had to prepare two business plans. One group managed to find a husband and wife company that needed a business plan prepared for their Latin music and dance club. If you think the quality of a student-prepared business plan isn’t going to satisfy the needs of a small business, think again: the husband insisted on thanking the group in front of the class and even came close to tears while describing the impact the students’ efforts would have on his ability to start his business.

Most students have access to tools, expertise, and information not available to the general public. What’s required to unleash these capabilities for the benefit of business is a system that advertises upcoming class projects to the public and matches companies with projects to students. There would be some administration required to pre-qualify companies’ projects to satisfy educational objectives and manage the companies’ expectations, but imagine the potential benefits! First: students get meaningful projects, exposure to real-world experience, materials required to complete the project. Second: businesses get access to resources and labour at a low cost. Third: schools generate revenue from charging a fee to companies for the work performed by their students. It’s win-win-win.

There has been some movement in this direction, with BCIT‘s program for computer students. Companies get access to a group of computer students to complete a computer-based project, all for the low price of $300 (plus materials). Do you think someone could charge five to ten times that amount to facilitate such a service for university student projects and split the revenue with the universities?

P2P Search Engine

There seems to be increasing interest in the idea of using peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to rejuvenate search technology in light of Google‘s growing inability to link people with knowledge. There have been a couple of early attempts in this area, including Widesource (a P2P system that indexes people’s browser bookmarks), and Grub (similar to SETI@Home, it leverage user’s spare cycles and bandwidth to index the web). A new project in this area is a side project of Ian Clarke, of Freenet fame, called WebQuest. WebQuest allows the user to refine their searches. Most of these ideas parallel my own on how we might improve search engines’ capabilities to extract context from web pages. But it has a few drawbacks that I’d like to throw out there to people to consider and attempt to solve.

Systems such as Google use keyword extracting, and link analysis to attempt to extract context. The system is based on the assumption that users link to other sites based on context, and therefore it should be possible to figure out the context and rank a page’s content. Other sites, such as DMOZ use a system of human moderators who can understand a page’s context better and categorize it – incurring much manual labour in the process.

But why use such an indirect route? Users know what they’re looking for and, like the US Supreme Court on pornography, they’ll know it when they see it. Why not provide a mechanism for users to “close the loop” and provide direct feedback to the search engine, thus allowing other users to benefit from this extra input into the system?

This has been bugging me for a while, so I decided to throw together the following straw man for a P2P Search Engine that would allow users to leverage how other people “ranked” pages based on their response to search engine results.

This is an updated version of the original post, which pointed to PDF and Word versions of the proposal. As part of a recent web reorganization, I figured it would just be easier to include the proposal text in the post itself.

The Problem

Current popular search engine technology suffers from a number of shortcomings:

  • Timeliness of information: Search engines index information using a “spider” to traverse the Internet and index its content. Due to the size of the Internet and the finite resources of the search engine, pages are indexed only periodically. Hence, many search engines are slightly out of date, reflecting the contents of a web page the last time the page was indexed.
  • Comprehensiveness of information: Due to both the current size and rate of information expansion on the Internet, it is highly unlikely that current search engines are capable of indexing all publicly available sites. In addition, current search engines rely on links between web pages to help them discover additional resources; however, it is likely that “islands” of information unreferenced by other sites are not being indexed.
  • Capital intensive: Significant computing power, bandwidth, and other capital assets are required to provide satisfactory search response times. Google, for example, employs one of the largest Linux clusters (10,000 machines).
  • Lack of access to “deep web”: Search engines can’t interface with information stored in corporate web sites’ databases, meaning that the search engine can’t “see” some information.
  • Lack of context/natural language comprehension: Search engines tend to be dumb, attempting to extract context in crude, indirect fashions. Search technologies, such as Google’s PageRank™, attempt to extract context from web pages only indirectly, through analysis of keywords in the pages and hyperlinks interconnections between pages.

The only available option to solve these problems is to develop a search technology that comprehends natural language, can extract context, and employs a massively scalable architecture. Given the exponential rate of information growth, developing such a technology is critical to enabling individuals, governments, and corporations to find and process information in order to generate knowledge.

The Proposed Solution

Fortunately, there already exists a powerful natural language and context extraction technology: the search users themselves. Coincidentally, they also are in possession of the resources required to create a massively scalable distributed architecture for coordinating search activities: a vast amount of untapped computational power and bandwidth, albeit spread across millions of individual machines.

What is required is a tool that allows users to:

  1. Index pages and generate meta-data as they surf the web.
  2. Share that meta-data with other search users.
  3. Search other users’ meta-data.
  4. Combine other users’ meta-data for a set of search terms with the user’s own opinion on how well the result matches the context of the set of search terms. This new meta-data is cached locally and shared with the network of users, thus completing the feedback loop.

Leveraging Surfing Habits and Search Habits to Extract Search Context

Implementation Hurdles

Insertion of Forged Meta-Data

Though users’ behaviour would “vote out” inappropriate material that got added to the peers’ cache of meta-data, the system would still be prone to attacks designed to boost certain sites’ rankings. A major design challenge would be to enable the system to withstand an attempt at forgery by a rogue peer or a coordinated network of rogue peers.

Search Responsiveness

As peers on the network will be spread across the Internet, accessing the network at a variety of connection speeds, the responsiveness of the network will be variable. Special consideration must be given to how to design the structure of the P2P network to incorporate supernodes to offset this characteristic.

Determining Surfer Behaviour

A major question that needs to be answered: how can we determine, through the users’ interaction with search results, their impression of a given search result? If a user goes to a site and leaves immediately, does this necessarily indicate the result was unsuitable and its score should be decremented? Or something else? If a user stays at a web page for a while, does it mean they like it, or that they went for coffee?

Generating a Site’s Initial Score

As a user surfs, an initial score must be generated for the sites they surf. How will this score be generated? Traditional search engines utilize reference checking in order to come up with a score for a web site; however, that technique is not practical when it’s only a single peer surfing a site. That leaves only more primitive techniques, such as keyword extraction, or other means to generate an initial score. However, we may be able to extract additional information based on how the user arrived at the web page. For example, if a user surfs from one site to another via a link, it might be possible to use the average score of the originating site as a base for generating the initial score.

Achieving Critical Mass

In early stages of development, the usefulness of the network for finding information will be directly proportional to the number of peers on the network. It’s a classis chicken and egg problem: without any users, no useful meta-data will be generated, and without the meta-data, no users will have an incentive to use the network. A possible solution to the problem would be to build a gateway to Google into each peer, to be used as a mechanism for seeding the network in its early development.

Privacy Issues

By tracking user’s surfing patterns, we are essentially watching the user and sharing that information with other users. Will users accept this? How can we act to protect the privacy of the user, while still extracting information that can be shared with other users?

Business Applications

The real question that needs to be answered, long before consideration can be given to the potential technical challenges, is: how can this technology be used to make money? A few proposals:

  • Consumer Search Engine: The technology could be launched as an alternative to traditional search engines, using the technology to deliver well-targeted consumers to advertisers, and thus generate revenue.
  • Internal Corporate Information Retrieval Tool: large corporations, such as IBM, could use a modified version of the technology to enable them to find and leverage existing internal assets.
  • Others?


Yes, there are numerous holes in the idea (which I’ve highlighted in the document), but I don’t think any of them are insurmountable. The most important one, in my mind, is: how could you tweak this technology to build a real business? Though it would be possible to try to go the Google route (selling narrowly targeted advertising), I’m not sure that would be very smart considering not only the size of the existing competitor (Google) but also the number of other companies trying to bring down Google. It might be a good idea, in which case I’ve just shot myself in the foot by not patenting it, or a bad idea, in which case I’ll save myself the trouble of pursuing it. What are people’s thoughts on the merit of the idea (or lack thereof)?

Wandfight at the HP Corral

Vancouver – It was supposed to be a joyous occasion, but the combination of poor crowd control and a small book inventory led to disaster at Chapters on Robson last night just as the latest installment of the popular Harry Potter series went on sale. Though the evening started amiably enough, with little witches and warlocks from the local Hogwart’s International School of Witchcraft anxiously awaiting 12:01am, by the end of the evening the event had escalated into a full scale wizard riot that led to numerous injuries, destruction of property, and holes in the space-time continuum.

The book that started it all...the riot, that is.Even before the event itself, officials at the Ministry of Magic had expressed concern at the growing intermingling of wizards and muggles. At the event, this concern was confirmed by the presence of a large crowd of Christian fundamentalists clad in Holy Power t-shirts and preparing stakes around a large bonfire in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery steps opposite the book store. Though no action was taken by this group, their presence, coupled with their outspoken desire to “burn witches like it’s 1599” and repetitive “Bringing in the Sheep” sing-alongs, only served to increase tensions at the event.

The final straw came at 12:01am, when Chapters staff revealed that, due to high demand, they had only been able to secure a single palette of the new book for sale to the public. In an effort to calm the crowd, Gilderoy Lockhart, the former Hogwart’s professor and special guest for the evening, attempted to use his powers to create a duplicate palette of books. But faster than you could say “lacarnum inflamarae”, Lockhart had engulfed the palette in flames, leaving only a few display copies of the book unscathed.

One of the crazed dark witches makes off with her prize...And then things got ugly.

A group of dark wizards, who had maintained all evening that they were interested in buying the latest Harry Potter book “just to find the flaws”, decided to take action and obtain the surviving copies of the book. In an attempt to create a diversion, the group enchanted the Science Fiction & Fantasy section, thus releasing a swarm of Orcs, several small hobbits, a confused grey-haired gentlemen wearing a wizarding robe that hasn’t been fashionable for several centuries, and a humanoid from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.

Meanwhile, this reporter, who had previously believed the worst part of the evening had passed with his consumption of a vomit-flavoured “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean”, had located sanctuary behind a pile of unsold Danielle Steel novels.

The riot was eventually quelled when Ministry of Magic officials and Vancouver Police Department riot personnel arrived on the scene and dispersed the crowd. The Ministry of Social Services has since taken custody of the group of fantasy creatures for their own protection, placing the hobbits in foster homes, the older wizard in elderly care, the group of Orcs in anger management, and the humanoid from Betelgeuse in Alcoholics Anonymous. Gilderoy Lockhart has not been seen since the event, and is assumed dead. Good riddance.

CSI and Disabilities

It’s funny how you see something once, see it again, and then when you see it a third time notice something entirely new. It happened to me last week, while watching the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, when I noticed how the show subtly includes people with disabilities as characters.

Those of you who are familiar with the show undoubtedly know the subplot that’s been developing throughout the season: Gil Grissom, the show’s main character, has been slowly growing deaf and struggling to conceal this development from his colleagues. Ok, so that’s not so subtle. But that was only the first sign. The second sign was the coroner in the show, Dr. Robbins, whom I hadn’t noticed had crutches until last week. The final sign was a passing scene in last week’s show, where one of the characters interacted with a fellow officer in a wheelchair. It continued this week, with a prosecutor who was also a paraplegic, due to a crime that wove itself into the episode.

I’d be interested to know how intentional the show’s producers and writers are acting to include positive role models for people with disabilities in the show. Is it part of a master plan, possibly a technique being used to reinforce the main “Grissom is going deaf” subplot? Or is it something else, perhaps evidence of a personal history of dealing with disabilities on the part of one of the production team?

As it turns out, the acting playing the coroner actually is disabled. He lost both his legs after being hit by a drunk driver and sustaining burns over 65% of his body. So the inclusion of disabilities, beyond the main Grissom subplot, could just be coincidence. Any hardcore CSI fans out there know for sure?

Gay is the New Black

Nearly fifty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, unanimously declaring that racial segregation violated the 14th amendment of the US Constitution. Fifty years later, we’re only finally getting around to applying the same kind of logic to homosexuals and same-sex marriage.

Though it was Trudeau who stated in 1967 that “the state has no place has in the bedrooms of the nation”, it appears that most people took him literally, limiting the equality of homosexuals to the bedroom – at least until last week. Last week, an Ontario court ruled that the definition of marriage should be changed. A parliamentary committee recommended, in a nail-bitingly close 9-8 vote, that Ottawa not challenge the ruling. Yet this ruling, and the government’s decision not to appeal, has caused much hand-wringing.

Looking back on the Brown v. Board of Education, fifty years of time has given us the perspective to realize the wisdom of the ruling, and perhaps laugh a little at ourselves. What the heck were we thinking, segregating schools? We always seem to find something to build into a monster, something new to demonize. If it’s not minorities, it’s Commies. If not the Commies, then it’s the terrorists. Humanity has an amazing ability to turn nothing into something to worry about.

Let’s re-examine the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom for a sec, shall we? Picking, at random, section 15, subsection 1:

“Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

It’s pretty simple: what part of “every individual is equal before and under the law” don’t people understand? Does the Charter need to speak slower and e-nun-ci-ate?

Seriously, what’s the problem with gay marriages? Oh my god, two people want to commit to each other in a loving relationship that falls within the legal framework of the land! Those magnificent bastards! Next thing you know, they’ll be buying houses together! Renovating! Wanting to adopt children so that they can raise them in a loving, tolerant home! We’ve got to stop this before it’s too late!

Yes, gay is the new black. Just as with segregation, we’ll undoubtedly be looking back fifty years hence, shaking our heads and wondering again what the heck we were thinking. However, I hope it’ll happen sooner than that.

Meanwhile, some people are still holding out, fighting to ban children’s books, books that promote tolerance of same-sex relationships, from schools in Surrey. You know Surrey, right? The largest expatriate Sikh population outside India. Excuse me if I find it ironic that a community composed largely of visible minorities, one which is struggling even today to battle derogatory stereotypes and racism, is acting against another minority group. Wouldn’t want to promote tolerance, now would we? After all, that’s not what Canada is all about at all!


Who’s In Charge?

The other day, Farshad and I were talking about the ways of the world, how things seemed to be getting worse. Farshad offered his belief that the problems of the world were due to the lack of will on the part of a “higher power” (read: government). It was to blame for society’s inability to solve the Big Problems in the world. But I wasn’t so sure.

As Thomas Homer-Dixon pointed out near the end of his wildly popular book, The Ingenuity Gap:

“Such explanations are specious… [they] blame all our troubles on an amorphous, undifferentiated group of leaders who could fix things if they weren’t so venal or cowardly, and they conveniently let the rest of us off the hook.”

The problem with assigning blame is that in a world of nonlinear, intertwingled problems, pinpointing the responsible party is like trying to pick up soap in a prison shower without making an unwelcome new friend – entirely impossible. As Dixon points out, the truth is there isn’t a responsible party. Instead, there are multiple responsible parties – namely: us.

Anyone who’s had dreams of being their own boss by starting a company has soon recognized the illusion of control. At first, it’s just yourself – until you actually have to get something done. You hire some other employees, form a board of directors, get some investors, and then, wham! You’re answering to other people! You’re no longer really the one in control! It’s just as true for governments as it is for corporations.

The significance of this point was driven home while I was visiting the Government of BC website as part of my research with the Premier’s Technology Council. I found this fantastic document on the BC Investment Climate that showed, in concise, quantitative terms, why BC kicks supreme ass as a location for companies. I had neither previously heard of this document, nor any of a variety of the points it raised. How is this possible? I read the news! I’m “plugged in”! Delving deeper, I discovered that the Premier has a weekly radio address! Weekly! Address! Am I totally clueless about what’s going on in government?

This disturbs me. Why? Let’s recap: Governments and corporations are responsible for getting things done to change our world; however, that’s actually a red-herring, because I’m actually responsible, albeit indirectly, for spurring them to get things done. But if I’m actually in charge of them being in charge, and I don’t even know what the heck is going on, how is anyone supposed to get anything done?

Then again, perhaps that’s exactly the explanation for the situation we find ourselves in: everyone’s in charge. Like an unhelpful crowd witnessing a mugging, the responsibility for action is dispersed – despite being in a position to make the small, incremental effort required to affect change, we are instead paralyzed by our own self-interests from actually expending that effort.

Wrong Way, Humanity!

There have been a few “innovations” I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks that have made me scratch my head and doubt humanity’s intelligence. Despite our success in paddling against the universe’s current of increasing entropy, every so often it seems we decide to do a U-turn and see if we can outrun the current and hasten our doom.

First up: Flexplay‘s dumbfounding EZ-D technology. The idea of EZ-D is simple: you buy an EZ-D DVD title for really cheap (like the cost of a movie rental), and once the package is opened the DVD slowly decays until it is unreadable by a DVD player. Why? So that the consumer doesn’t have to return the DVD, like they would if they had rented the DVD. Great, eh? Heaven forbid we have to get off our fat asses, hop in our SUV to return a video. Why bother using a DVD again and again, when we can use it once, and throw it away?

Second offender: the Browning Automatic Bicycle Transmission. Admittedly, it’s kind of a neat idea – except for the fact that it augments a green transportation technology with a computer and of course, a nice hunk of batteries. Come on! It’s a bicycle! It’s not like it requires a license to figure out how to operate the gears on a bike. Is this the kind of problem we developed a big meaty brain to solve?

My only consolation in the face of these abominations came from an author of children’s fiction, JK Rowling. This week it was announced that the latest installation of the Harry Potter series will be printed on 100% recycled paper. So, to summarize, the score for slowing our descent into oblivion stands as follows: advanced science – 0, authors of Wiccan children’s fiction – 1.

Beanies to Full Power!

There’s nothing like getting into a really good brainstorming session to get the mental juices flowing and the beanie propellers revving. I had a great little conversation with one of my favorite people, Andrew Jones, when I ran into him downtown today during lunch. Andrew’s one of these smart guys that always has a lot of ideas, a lot of information to draw upon, and a hoard of energy to back it all up.

We were talking about Andrew’s company, Zerendipity, which is working on a system for linking together entrepreneurs, experts, mentors, and venture capitalists in the BC area to help entrepreneurs find the people and resources they need to get started. It got me onto the topic of linking customers with companies and vice versa.

As I see it, companies are pretty clueless about their customers – this occurred to me while doing research for my business plan class. Try and find specific information about customers. Really specific information, beyond the broad brush strokes of age and income demographics, is hard to find, especially if you don’t yet have any customers. If you do have customers, you probably have some information about customers, but you’re not using it as well as you could be. Case in point: Safeway.

That's a whole lotta junk mail...Last year, I noticed the inordinate amount of bulk unaddressed mail I was getting to my apartment. I decided to collect the mail for a year, just to see who was sending what, how much, and how often. It was pretty shocking: by the end of the year I had 20 pounds of junk mail from businesses that I either had never shopped at, or never would shop at in the future. Lots of these companies had essentially wasted their advertising dollars, and produced no value. Beyond the usual small business mail, realtors’ “I just sold a house!” proclamations, the major bulk of the mail came in the form of newspaper flyers from a limited number of businesses. Safeway came away as the worst offender, mailing a newspaper flyer roughly once a month.

Looking at the mass of flyers, something occurred to me: my wife and I shop at Safeway religiously, and we use our Safeway Club Card on all our purchases. Hadn’t anyone at Safeway realized this, and thought, “Hey, if we look at who currently shops with us already, maybe we could avoid wasting money on customers we already have!” I guess not. If I were them, I’d cull the Safeway Club purchase transaction database, note purchasing patterns, and directly mail customized offers to existing customers or new customers. Though it would cost more on a per-mail basis, the overall campaign could be designed to cost the same by reducing the physical size of the flyer and the number of customers targeted. Not only would it be more environmentally responsible, it would also maximize the “bang for the buck” businesses receive from their advertising budget.

Similarly, companies don’t seem to be too smart about asking their customers for information on what they’d like. For example, try to suggest to Sony a feature you’d like on their next camcorder. Or give feedback on why you didn’t buy a product because of a design feature you didn’t like. Go ahead, I dare you. Even if you manage to find some way to contact the company and give feedback, I guarantee all of the value you could have added to the company’s next product has just been relegated to the electronic wastebasket.

Who will help these companies?

Natural Capitalism

I’ve been reading Natural Capitalism on the bus to and from school for the last week. Wow. What a great read. From the opening chapter, an analysis of cars and how simply reducing their weight would open a world of compounding improvements, Hawken et al. are captivating. Though the book goes to effort of supporting all of its propositions with numerous scientific references, the underlying premise is simple: avoid unnecessary use of natural capital through application of existing technology and a little careful thought.

'Natural Capitalism' CoverFor example: the book starts with analyzing how reducing a car’s weight would eliminate the need for a big engine, a transmission, and power steering and brakes, all while reducing manufacturers’ costs. In short, manufacturers could be making gobs of money if they just addressed the weight problem using existing carbon fibre technology.

Drew Barrymore 'Lite'It was with my mind in this frame of thought that I saw this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, adorned by a suspiciously thin Drew Barrymore. Closer examination revealed, of course, Drew’s thighs had been assisted by an airbrush. And then it hit me: how many people out there are working industriously to create cleavage, thin thighs, and cover creases at this very moment? In fact, how much labour is expended in general to falsify the image of what a man or woman should appear? Are we so vain?

Apparently we are. Even my own experience in the MBA confirms it. Normally, I’m a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of guy; after all, since when did university call for anything else? But every time I wear something more formal to school for an interview or other event, I get an unusual number of comments from my classmates. The comments themselves aren’t a simple “You look good today”, they’re usually something more. There’s a hint of something Pavlovian to their voice, like they’re about to pet my head, give me a biscuit and say “Who’s a good boy, huh? Who’s a good boy? You are! Yes, you are!”

Honestly. Could we get over the issue of image, listen to Hawken et al., and focus on some problems that really matter? No? Then could you at least convince my classmates to stop petting me and giving me biscuits when I wear a suit? No?

Fine then, be that way.