If you are living in the souther hemisphere, these days will be a good time to spot the closest star to our sun, Alpha Centauri. Being the fourth brightest star in the night sky, and in it’s constellation Centaurus, Alpha Centauri can be easily spotted with naked eyes, even in mildly lit surroundings like in cities. Go outside just after sunset, and look towards southern sky. If you do not know where south is, just place the setting sun (or where you think it might be) to your right. Usually, in early dusk you can see it accompanied by Hadar, the second brightest star in Centaurus, and if you pull a straight line from Alpha Centauri and Hadar, you will arrive at the infamous souther constellation of Crux (souther cross). Chances are Acrux and Mimosa is also visible. These four stars are probably the easiest to spot in the southern sky.

Constellation Centaurus

Alpha centauri is also known by the name Rigil Kent, from arabic Rijl al Kentauruus, the foot of kentaurus. The location of Alpha centauri does marks the fore legs of the constellation Centaurus. Centaurus is a Greek mythical creature with human head and torso and horse body. Centaurus were notorious drinker. And when they got drunk they were violent and unruly. Legend has it that one centaur rose as their king and prophet. His name is Chiron, descendant of Cronos the god of creation. Having deity lineage, Chiron was gifted by wisdom and immortality. He learn from Appolo the art of healing. The heroes Heracles, Achilles, and Jason were his disciples. Legend has it that when Zeus was punishing Prometheus for stealing from the gods, the wisdom of fire for mankind, Chiron made a final sacrifice by offering his immortality in exchange for Prometheus freedom. Zeus, firm as he was, was moved by this sacrifice and honored Chiron by placing his image in the sky.

Now back to the facts. Alpha Centauri is actually not a single star, it is a system of three stars. One of which, the brightest, is very similar to our sun. With the ‘mere’ distance 4.37 lightyears away, Alpha Centauri has been the source of ideas of many SciFi writers. Scientists have indicate the possibilities of earth-like exoplanet orbiting the star system. And if they do exists, they might be able to harbor life as we know it. To me this fact is quite tantalizing.

In the universe this big, anything can happen.


PRESENTATION As if they were listening

Have you ever seen that motivational posters with serene pictures and witty phrases telling employees to be docile at work and strive better at their job? Whether these posters really works is open for vigorous debate. But one thing is certain, somebody is making good money making them.

Motivating people is, apparently, a lush business. Big companies are paying big bucks to other companies whose able to promise slight boost on employee morale, or at least not disgruntled if employees are worked for extra hour.

This one company, Despair Inc,  also promise to do just that, motivating people. Check out their web site on Despair.com. The unique thing about Despair is, unlike others, they took an unorthodox way in inflating morale. They deflate it.

Despair has been well know for their sarcastic -bordering to abusive- approach in motivating people. This involves demoting their morale to reach the lowest ebb, perhaps on the basis that reaching rock bottom, morale can’t go anywhere but up. Their creative line of products includes (de)motivational posters, t-shirts and office mugs with witty cynical phrases juxtaposed with the pictures. And if you have that quality for indulging sarcasm, you can’t help but smile, or at least smirk, at the truism.

For readers who wishes to test their cynical quality, Despair provide  this D.I.Y Parody Motivation Generator. You can try and build your own (de)motivating poster using the tool. Just prepare a subtly-sarcastic jpeg and some of your own cynical cents of thought. I’ve created mine, but  I think my cynicism is still no match for those guys at despair. You tell me.

Wikipedia has an entry on a list of fictional supercomputers that, when posed with abstract, mind-numbing questions (such as “the Answer to life, the universe, and everything” or “is there a god?“), are capable of providing intriguing answers. Blither may be, but still human-comprehensible answers. Then I was wondering, we may not be capable of building such computers (at least not in the near future) that are capable of answering abstract questions and providing yet another abstract answers. But we can do this; build a computer that has access to all of our laws and legislation, have it capable of answering legal questions. Such computer is, to my opinion, conceivable. We’ve got the technology to encode logic. We’ve got algorithms to infers new rules from existing ones. The technology to handle the vast storage, retrieval, and processing is there already. Indeed, information retrieval (IR) systems have been employed in many courts.

Now, why laws to precise. Laws and legislation are well documented. It reflect public consensus from where it is being passed. It is hierarchical, lower laws (e.g. act) must not contradict higher law (e.g. constitution). It is (or should be) logical, regulations is (should) not contradict one another. Or they do, they must abolish one first, using a specific, also regulated procedures. Of course, there are problems. Most legislations leave holes for open interpretation. This means that human still needed in the final decision making loop.

It may not be the hallmark of artificial intelligence. No, that’s not the objective. It will just be an application of AI that benefit the masses. Imagine the computer is capable of answering legal questions such as “can we do this or that” or “how old should I be to be allowed to drive in the state of Nevada”. Such computer can enforce civic society by increasing awareness to law-abiding activity or control on judiciary bodies (a judge may have to consult the computer first before making legal decision). Who knows, someday lawyers may not be needed anymore (no offense lawyers out there).

I really do think this idea is conceivable.

Just ran into this on digg. A compiled list of 100 most influential people in IT from eWeek. The names were nominated by “A committee of veteran writers and editors from Baseline, CIO Insight and eWEEK“. Here’s some capricious highlight:

  • Of all the names, some are (supposedly actively) affiliated to the big names like Microsoft (six names, excluding former CEO, Bill Gates), Google (five names, Page and Schmidt counted as one), and IBM (three names). Seems that these giants really are a whirlpool of talents.
  • Six names are either politician (of the US House of Representative. Nancy Pelosi is among the names for her advocacy on Net Neutrality law), US Federal Govt Employee, and one is a President (Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, make it to the list for “Opening Brazil to Open Source”). After all, this list is not a ‘list of techies’.
  • There are at least three authors famous for their books (Tom Friedman, The World is Flat’s author made it to the list, the book isn’t even all about IT, more about Globalization) and two editors (one of them is the editor of New York Times who wrote The Google Story).
  • At least six names are stated as affiliated with Educational or Research Institutes. Some are Professors and academician.
  • Four names are language creator, designer, or lead designer: Perl (Larry Wall), Python (Guido van Rossum), C# (Anders Hejlsberg), Java (James Gosling)
  • The creator of Firefox (Blake Ross) made it to the list (among the top)
  • Linus Torvalds made it to the list as well as other hand-full of names who are either developer, lawyer, or politician, who is credited for their involvement in Linux or Open Source Initiative
  • There are at least one more non-American on the list. B. Ramalinga Raju from Satyam, an Outsourcing Consultant presumably in India. I remember seeing Satyam name on one of the companies name doing headhunting here on campuss.
  • Tim Berners-Lee is (of course) on the list.

These names are supposedly have “tangible track record of IT success, influence beyond his/her organization, the ability to induce changes, and involvement in development of emerging technologies”.

Why do I put these names here? Hmmm…dunno. First, as the page does not links to the profiles, I tried to fill the gap here and link it to wikipedia. Then, I think I just wanna celebrate some of the names there for the jolly-impressive software/service I use in my everyday live.

…and of course learn from them, yes that too…but who can learn from the wisest if the wisest of men follows their own directions?

RIP ClippyMasih ingat Clippy? Di era office 2000 dulu, jika kita gunakan fasilitas help office 2000, akan muncul karakter kartun yg ‘mencoba’ dgn ramah membantu kita. Salah satunya (by default) ya si Clippy ini. Mereka adalah Office Assistant (OA), lebih dikenal sbg fitur MS Word mereka sebenarnya adalah fitur MS Office secara keseluruhan. Ternyata Microsoft menganggap OA tidak diperlukan lagi dan dipensiunkan dgn keluarnya Office XP. Baru baru ini Clippit dinobatkan sebagai salah satu “Lamest Technology Mascots Ever“oleh majalah teknologi Wired (www.wired.com). Bersama dgn dia, ada juga Tux-nya Linux dan Duke-nya Java. Verdict yg dibeirkan oleh wired adalah “Probably tested well in research”.

Ada istilah akademik untuk merujuk kepada makhluk-makhluk semacam Clippy, “Anthropomorphic Agent”. Pencarian dengan google scholar menggunakan kata kunci “anthropomorphic agent” memberikan saya 7000 lebih dokumen akademik. Kurang lebih 1000 diantaranya dipublikasikan antara tahun 1997-2000, tahun dimana fitur Office Assistant diintegrasikan ke produk MS Office. Chris Pratley, salah seorang perancang Office Assitant sendiri mengakui, di waktu itu, ketertarikan lingkungan akademik untuk membuat komputer lebih bersifat ’emosional’ agar mebuat pengguna tertarik untuk berinteraksi, kemudian belajar menggunakan, sedang tinggi-tingginya. Pratley juga mengakui, implementasi teori selalu harus berkompromi dengan faktor faktor lain, seperti waktu pengembangan dan release size (seingat saya, kita bisa menghemat 5-10 MB dengan memilih untuk tidak menginstall OA, 10 MB ditahun 1999 itu rasanya banyak sekali).

Sebagai sebuah bisnis, Microsoft tidak mungkin sembarangan dalam menambahkan fitur ke dalam produk mereka. Dalam hitungan bisnis software, Fitur sama dengan Biaya. Mengintegrasikan OA bukan keputusan sembarangan. Keputusan itu adalah hasil dari penelitian panjang, dan yang pasti makan biaya, dibidang User Experience (UX) dari ‘lab’nya Microsoft, Microsoft Research. Tapi tetap kenyataan bicara lain. Pengguna berpendapat OA tidak se-membantu yang pembuatnya harapkan, bahkan bisa dikatakan OA agak ‘distracting’. Dipensiunkanlah OA.

Buat saya pribadi, ‘kegagalan’ OA adalah manefestasi sebuah fenomena yang Geoffry A Moore sebut ‘chasm’, atau jurang pemisah. Suatu ide brilian yang tumbuh dari lingkungan akademik selalu harus menghadapi masalah penerimaan publik. Bukan penentangan publik yang jadi masalah, tapi meyakinkanbahwa teknologi baru tersebut memang benar-benar memiliki nilai guna.

Dititik inilah akademis, peneliti, atau inventor yang mau merubah ide mereka menjadi profit perlu berganti topi menjadi marketer atau tech. evangelist. Mereka harus meyakinkan publik calon pengguna, pemodal, pembuat kebijakan bahwa invensi mereka benar-benar berguna. Dibidang saya, software, sekarang ini rilis beta menjadi semacam mantra pemasaran. Sebenarnya ini adalah cara pelibatan publik calon pengguna terhadap suatu proses penciptaan. Diharapkan proses ini memperkecil ‘chasm’ itu sendiri kelak saat produk jadi di rilis.

Sebuah fitur (software) bisa saja sangat trivial dalam artian, tidak perlu usaha khusus untuk menjelaskan kepada publik pengguna bahwa “Fitur X memenuhi fungsi Y dalam hidup Anda” dalam iklan pemasarannya. Fitur itu sangat mendasar, sangat diperlukan, semua orang tahu akan hal itu. Jika kita mengembangkan software dgn fitur semacam ini, dan sukses, hukum ekonomi mengatakan, boleh dijamin, sehari sesudahnya, startup lain akan bermunculan menawarkan fitur yg sama. Oleh karena itu perlu riset dan penelitian untuk menelurkan produk yg benar-benar inovatif. Akan tetapi, riset cenderung menelurkan hasil yang terlalu akademik, memecahkan masalah yang terlalu spesifik. Di lingkungan saya, tak jarang seorang mahasiswa riset ditanya “Lantas apa kegunaan peneitian Anda?”. Dilema inilah yg harus dihadapi oleh setiap inventor.

Perusahaan seperti Microsoft tidak akan pernah mengalami kesulitan dalam urusan memperkecil chasm. Microsoft tidak hanya mapan, ia mampu menyetir pasar. ‘Kegagalan’ OA memang tidak bisa dijadikan contoh kegagalan Microsoft dalam urusan memperkecil chasm. Toh OA bukanlah produk utuh, melainkan satu fitur dari produk multifitur. Lain halnya jika kita bicara soal perusahaan baru (startup). Startup tidak akan punya banyak modal dan waktu untuk mengembangkan produk dgn fitur lengkap. Kadang (seperti Google misalnya) startup hanya dipersenjatai dengan hasil penelitian si pendirinya. Belajar dari OA, riset dan embuktian akademik saja tidak cukup terutama untuk orang-orang yg ingin mengubah inovasinya menjadi profit. Keahlian marketing, advokasi teknologi, dan kadang obsesi sangat diperlukan bagi orang-orang dalam kelompok ini agar produk mereka kelak tidak terjebak dalam ‘chasm’.