Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Identity on the Federated Social Web

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Since my previous post on how we can move past Facebook, I’ve been thinking about how we as users can take control of what we publish.

DNS or something else?

About a year and a half ago, Dave Winer posted instructions on How to boot a federated social network now. That hasn’t happened. My opinion is that DNS names for individuals is such a horrible solution that no one has really contemplated it. Just ask John Smith, John Smith and John Smith who should get the domain.

The solution isn’t going to be found in a global list of names. That keeps the question of which John Smith very much alive.

Instead it’s going to be in a personal list of names. Which John Smith that I know do I mean? The one at work, or the one that’s dating my cousin?

If you stop for a second and think about how you talk about people – it’s all about the relationships. Where you met them, who else they know, how you have interacted.

In my preliminary research, I’ve found two papers talking about personal namespaces. One is talking about devices (so that you can find your desktop computer by the name desktop all over the world) and the other is talking about people.

Facebook already provides part of the personal namespace features. Use the search box to find a name and you will get a list of people sorted by how many mutual friends you have with their avatar image. That’s fine for me because all my Facebook friends are in my monkeysphere. It’s probably not as useful a feature when you have 5000 friends.

Name, name: or /name?

All those facebook friends have a url, something like (which is mine). Question is, how many people actually use their URL? Our survey says “something” because it has been started at the same time as this post was published. My prediction (and that of Mark Allman in the paper on people’s names above) is that the overwhelming majority of people use their real name rather than the technically correct URL.

What does this mean? It means that a persons technical identifier can be a URN made of numbers and digits like pid:d0d2e988fe0a1967b5109ae628833215 (this is just an MD5 hash of my name and the time I made the hash). To a user, it’s as useful as a facebook address, especially as it never gets seen.

Network Solutions had a similar idea and requested the “pin” namespace in RFC3043 over 10 years ago. Nothing much seems to have come of that though, possibly because it was bound to NS’s resolvers rather than being an open protocol.

Mark’s paper goes into greater detail on how a system which allowed people to define their own name for other people using cryptographic tokens and propagate those names might work. Look at section 3 for that information.

Where Next?

Identity is something that can and must transcend services. Whatever system is put in place to allow people within the Federated Social Web to identify each other and their relationships cannot be controlled by any one company if there is to be any freedom in that social web.

Nobody gets to take the ball and go home, because we all get our own.

Facebook Have Made A Major Public Mistake (And How You Can Protect Yourself From The Fallout)

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Facebook have made their biggest mistake yet over the last few months. No, it wasn’t forcing everybody to use Timeline. What comes next may be even more obnoxious to their users. There is something you can do about it though.



Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

eBays Feedback system has served well for a number of years now. Unfortunately, in the arms race against the scammers, it is starting to look like the French Military circa 1939. Outgunned, outmatched and bunkered down in a massive fortress that never saw battle.

A friend of mine fell afoul of this scam recently.

  1. Buy lots of codes quickly (like iTunes giftcards, BitCoins, WoW TCG Loot codes).
  2. Get some good feedback.
  3. Sell the codes on another account.
  4. Unregister the account.
  5. Reverse all the credit charges for the original codes.
  6. Repeat with a new account.

This is ridiculously easy to get away with. Each new account looks like a great trading partner. Start with the small items, like 25 USD iTunes cards. Move on to multiple 500+ USD purchases like Spectral Tiger Mounts in WoW. Fund terrorists*, I mean, your cocaine habit.

There is also an alternative version – pay for everything with stolen credit cards. It shortens your time frame, but what do you care? You get to trade valuable numbers for hard cash and other people have to deal with the fall-out.

As an armchair engineer, I can see some possible fixes to get eBay back in the arms race:

  • Restrict feedback so that it cannot be left until you receive what you expect from the transaction. Use disputes to fulfill the purpose of negative feedback.
  • Publish the number of disputes an account opens – and their resolutions.
  • If a buyer confirms receipt and then the credit card company does a chargeback – pass the paypal account details on to a criminal fraud investigation team.

If you are on Twitter, get this trending. Tweet #ebayisbroken with a link to this article. Otherwise, pass it on however you know how.

*This is a joke. If I see “eBay scammers fund terrorism” on tomorrow’s Daily Show, I’ll actually be pretty happy. That would mean eBay was listening to this.

Cold calling – the caller’s perspective

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Today marks the first day I have ever made cold phone calls to sell anything. Word of mouth isn’t spreading as fast as I would like it to, so I have to prime the pump.

It was horrible to start with. My first phone call went really badly. Not only did I flub the intro by speaking at 60 words a minute, he really wasn’t interested. So uninterested, I didn’t even have time to apologize after finding out before the phone went click.

Disheartening start. Luckily, it got better. The last three people to answer the phone were all lovely bubbly women. All of them giggled at the line “I’m making a sales call, so I’ll understand if you want to hang up.”

No meetings yet, but the important thing was starting. Now the important thing is continuing. Making the sales can come later.

Permalinks are permanent.

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Some of you might be a little confused by a change in tone between older posts and newer ones. There’s a very simple reason for that, the purpose of the site they are on changed. First a little history.


I used to be a software developer. That was all I cared about. People had problems and I could write code to solve them. Pattern Web Solutions was intended as a showcase of my skills and my experiences where I could connect with other problem solvers.

That didn’t work out very well. There are a vast number of problems that can’t be fixed with code. One of them is when you and your environment don’t get along. The first casualty of that friction was the blogging I was doing.

When I left the University of Nottingham to start working for myself, I still owned a dead blog. It had a good name and just needed a few modifications to get it running as a platform for my new business.

So, a small handful of the posts were written in that time and talk about concepts you are unlikely to be familiar with. Why didn’t I just delete them? Let’s take a break and consider the moral of this story.

The Moral

Web pages should be accessible through the same address for as long as possible. When you put something useful out there, keep it there. That’s why they are called permalinks.


The web is made up of all these links between pages. If you start at one web page and keep clicking links, you can visit the whole of the web. It would take you a very long time but you could do it. Google and Bing use automated robots that do the same thing to find you and add to their search engines.

If links to pages on your domain don’t work anymore, people won’t be able to find what they were looking for. The search robots will also think less of you when they find out.

There’s the core reason. I think that old content is still potentially useful to somebody, so it stays. It stays under the same permalink it had before.

Consider your own web presence. Does it show any kind of history to your visitors? What do you think it will look like in a year? How about 2 or even 5?

Spend More, Reduce Costs

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

It should be a simple system for a large government organisation. Book a customer an appointment in one of many satellite offices at a particular time on a particular day. Why would someone create an Excel spreadsheet on a shared drive to solve this problem? What are the invisible costs of approaching IT systems in this way?

A little background first. I recently fell into the social safety net for various reasons. As a result, I’ve seen some of the effects of the new austerity measures on the provision of welfare in England.

First of all, the IT infrastructure hasn’t been refreshed in a number of years. That’s OK because these machines shouldn’t need to run lots of memory- or processor-hungry applications. The advisers shouldn’t be working on more than accessing the back end databases and writing letters. Any systems that the Jobcentres are using should take account of the fact there are a lot of advisers and a lot of old client hardware out there.

The systems in current usage don’t take that basic cost constraint into account. I was dealing with a woman who apologised repeatedly for having to open and close programs because having too many open applications at the same time caused her desktop to freeze. All you could see in her taskbar were collapsed icons for the many different applications that she had to keep open to do her job. As the interview progressed, she was constantly opening and closing programs to show me new information or to make changes.

One program in particular caught my attention. This was an old style mainframe application being shown through a terminal emulator. Every single task that was being done required the memorisation of a different alphanumeric code to get to the right screen. For a start, there is a time cost incurred. Every 10 second switch between screens, expanded to 30 seconds because every screen switch unexpectedly required a password to be entered, is time that is not spent on helping the customer. Secondly, how much time and money is spent training people to use systems like this? How much money is spent on hiring administrators to maintain such old (and untaught) technology?

What really made me laugh was finding out that one of the major cost-cutting measures was not giving out little plastic wallets to each customer. These wallets are perfectly sized for the paper documentation that they use as part of the review process and make it harder to accidentally lose one of those pieces of paper.

The example from the opening paragraph shows how crazy this whole thing is. During the initial interview, the adviser schedules you into one of the offices in the local catchment area. To do this, she opens an Excel spreadsheet from one of the many spreadsheet links on her desktop, enters your National Insurance number (Social Security number to anybody not familiar with English government), finds the right sheet, filters the data down to open slots, overtypes “BOOKED” into one field next to the slot you choose and then presses a button. Each day, somebody at each office builds a schedule for the day, prints that out, makes sure that each desk is labelled with a box number (printed from a word document, cut to A5 size and stuck to the cubicle wall with sellotape) and distributes it to each of the large number of advisers per office.

At first look, the big cost is the time spent entering the data. But there is plenty of waste elsewhere in the system too, from the over-use of paper to the time spent manually managing the schedules. This system is probably stable by now, but there still needs to be someone available in case of emergency.

What I propose is a module that is part of an over-arching system. This module would already know the national insurance number of the interviewee and their address so it can display the open slots for the appropriate office and the appropriate day for that person. Then, the adviser simply needs to select the time slot chosen by the interviewee and click next. In the offices, schedules can be checked by looking at the data on a screen at the front desk instead of books full of paper for each day.

For those that are more persuaded by the financial numbers than this summary of a systems analysis – consider these approximate statistics. In December 2010 there were 1.456 million claimants of JSA. Every one of these should have visited a job centre office twice in that time. If one person in a thousand makes a change to their appointment time and one in a hundred of those changes results in a mistake that is still 145 mistakes a fortnight across the country. Assume that a mistake costs 20 man-minutes at the minimum wage rate of £5.93 and that means that £22 thousand pounds a year are spent dealing with these avoidable situations.

Of course, that’s just mistakes. Look at the cost of printed schedules. Assume an office prints an average 10 pages each day for their schedules. If a page costs 10 pence, then across the fortnight, each office would spend £20 on printing those schedules. Across all 141,ooo individual offices that means £1.41 million in printing costs! Of course, electricity isn’t free, so you won’t save all £1.41 million by switching to an electronic monitor based system. In comparison, assuming a reasonable kWh cost of 9.7p, one extra monitor for all 141 thousand job centre offices will cost approximately 0.1 million pounds. That is a factor of ten reduction in costs, just from one change!

All this is back of the envelope math. How much do you think you would spend to figure out if it is worth it? How much would you spend if these savings turn out to be possible? How much more do you think could be saved if an end-to-end rebuild was done?

There are many ways to reduce costs but most require investment. This is possible, even in an environment that seems hostile to spending more money. All it takes is people willing to actually understand systems and change them for the better.