Thursday, December 29, 2011

Alternative Online Payments: The Dream That Refuses to Die

Over 13 years after I left First Virtual, I'm still talking about alternate payment systems. Xconomy asked me to write about "my favorite crazy idea that just might succeed" and this is what I came up with.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Email Complexity and the March of Progress

I've gotten tired of the "Is Email Dead?" debate, so I've written up what I hope are some more constructive thoughts on one of my blogs.

My tongue-in-cheek predictions for the IT industry in 2012

I've just completed publishing, in four parts, my second annual not-quite-entirely-serious predictions for the IT industry in the coming year. In large part, this is a reaction to all the supposedly serious annual predictions that no one ever goes back to check on at the end of the year. Here you'll find predictions you don't need to check on -- they are absolutely 100% guaranteed to happen.

In some alternate universe, at least.

You can Start with part one and follow the links from there.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Soul of an Industry

When I heard the news of Steve Jobs’s death last night, even though I was hardly surprised, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut—as if the industry in which I’ve spent my career had lost its soul....

click here to read the rest of my remembrance...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Underappreciated Email Pioneer: Einar Stefferud, 1930-2011

Those of us who work with email every day rarely reflect on the people who created the technologies we take for granted.  Today, we should make an exception.

Please go to my blog at for a tribute to the late Einar Stefferud, who passed away on Friday after a long illness.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Best Feeling in the World

At the end of May, I took a long weekend to attend a marvelous Writer's Workshop sponsored by The Sun, my favorite magazine.

One part of the workshop was based on the "Readers Write" section of the magazine. Every month, The Sun solicits extremely short essays from the readers, on wildly varying topics and with deadlines a few months away. Writing something meaningful in the space of a few tweets is an exhilarating exercise for any writer.  At the workshop, we did it several times, with the added challenge of having no more than ten or fifteen minutes to write.

Here's the best I came up with -- over the top but true, and heartfelt enough to share with my friends. The assigned topic was:

The Best Feeling in the World

The call came at 4 AM; my pregnant daughter, four hundred miles away, had awakened in a pool of blood. As my son-in-law rushed her to the hospital, my wife and I raced towards Chicago.

This had been a miracle pregnancy. Our son-in-law was struck down, the day after they became engaged, with four aggressive brain cancers. After over a year of surgery, chemo, radiation, and experimental treatments, he had beaten the odds enough for them to try in-vitro fertilization. Now the happy end threatened to come undone.

We arrived at the hospital shortly after noon, to find our daughter healthy, and to meet our beautiful twin granddaughters, newly named for my late mother and grandmother. I held their tiny bodies, unable to imagine anything better than this.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When Elephants Mate

Unmentioned, in this latest entry on my work blog, is that when Trina and I were in South Africa in May, we were lucky enough to actually watch two elephants mating.

I expect HP and Autonomy to be less graceful.

When Elephants Mate: An Eagle’s View of HP’s Autonomy Acquisition 

Extra pics on this blog only (all photo credits: Trina Borenstein):

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

One Cheer for DKIM

Standards work is generally conducted in what feels like slow-motion. More than a few highly-detailed conversations last for months or years. To those of us who’ve spent time in such conversations, it can be big news to learn that big news may be only a few months away. But for maximal, heart-stopping excitement, it should hint at the possibility of some day making real progress against spam.

That’s exactly what seems to be happening...[continued on the Mimecast blog]

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Hopeful Place

I recently returned from two weeks in South Africa, which were not just fun and productive, but also educational and thought-provoking. I was particularly struck by one thing that seems to be in much greater supply in South Africa than in the USA: hope.

Most of us are familiar with the basic miracle behind modern South Africa. The peaceful transfer of power was an astonishing victory for the forces of reason, peace, tolerance, and, yes, love, over racism, hatred, and violence. I expected to see a society that is struggling to correct past wrongs and bring economic progress to millions of desperately poor people, and that's exactly what I saw.

What I didn't expect to see was so much optimism -- more than I've seen in America since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. There's a dark cloud of pessimism that hovers over many parts of American society; when we speak of the optimism of the 60's, we do so in part because we haven't seen it since. For a host of reasons, broad sections of our population no longer expect economic or social progress, and their pessimism may be self-fulfilling.

On the surface, there's little reason to expect South Africans to be more optimistic than Americans. Think unemployment's bad here? Try the 43% they're struggling with. Think we've got problems with health care or public education? Try bringing the dirt-poor South African majority up to the living standards of the elite. Throw in a per-capita GDP that's just over 1/5 of America's, and it sounds like a good recipe for civil strife -- which may yet happen. But it hasn't.

Instead, all the South Africans I talked to, while recognizing the enormity of the problems, seemed to believe that things are getting better, and will continue to do so if everyone pulls together. There's an impressive spirit of cooperation, looking forward, and not re-fighting old battles.

When I asked my South African friends how this miracle had come about, they all responded instantly with the same answer: Nelson Mandela. I had been an admirer of Mandela's for years, but I didn't know the half of it. The white South Africans, in particular, would sing his praises at the slightest opportunity. To them, he represented little short of a miracle.

You probably know the basics of the story: imprisoned for three decades, under appalling conditions most of that time, Mandela walked out of jail preaching a message of hope and forgiveness, of unity and peaceful cooperation. That was remarkable enough, but even more remarkable was the fact that the country, in all its diversity, chose to follow him down that path.

Thus, for example, our tour guide at Robben Island (where Mandela spent much of his time in prison), himself a former prisoner and leader of the Pan African Congress, had an inexhaustible supply of stories about how people all over the world helped end apartheid. He asked each of our nationalities, and instantly had a story about the role Canada, or Ireland, or Japan played in the struggle.

I cringed a bit when he found the first American; our record in the fight against apartheid was not much to be proud of. But he mentioned none of the negative, focusing instead on the many Americans who had helped. Still, I cringed even more when he asked "is there anyone of the Jewish faith here today?"

Israel, unfortunately, was one of the last, best supporters of the apartheid regime; it didn't support apartheid itself, but it maintained commercial ties after the rest of the world had broken them. So I might not even have raised my hand if Trina hadn't already done so. The tour guide seemed like a wonderful, literate, funny, and gentle man. But his name was Yassin Mohammed, and I've experienced enough anti-semitism in the US to simply expect it in circumstances like these. Instead, he launched into stories of how the Jewish community in South Africa had been in the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and told us of several Jewish heroes in the struggle. (Afterwards, he sought us out to talk privately about peace in Israel/Palestine, among other things.)

Here was another man who had spent years in these terrible prisons, refusing to look backwards, not seeking retribution, focused instead on building a better future for all of South Africa. Twenty years after Mandela's release from prison, this kind of optimism remains common in South Africa.  But in my experience, it has become a rarity in America.

At one point in my visit, I was discussing politics with some of my colleagues at work. People everywhere tend to know more about American politics than Americans known about anyone else's, and this crowd was no exception. Predictably, the conversation turned to the latest Republican atrocity, and I hastened to distance myself from them. One of my hosts, perhaps taking pity on me, said, "Well, you know, there are people like that everywhere."

His words were true, but there are far more of them some places than others. In reply, I simply asked, "Which South African political party believes that helping the poor is not a responsibility of government?"

Dead silence. South Africa has many more parties than the US, but there's no equivalent of the Republicans. When your society faces such a stark and visible gap between rich and poor, and when social stability so obviously depends on mitigating the worst poverty, Ayn Rand looks a lot less appealing. Indeed, it's only the fact that programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and others have reduced (and hidden) the problems of poverty that allows some Americans to believe that no such programs -- or no more such programs -- are necessary.

So, I came back from South Africa a bit jealous, not only of their spectacular wildlife and scenery, but of the sense that their country is on a journey that may not be easy, and may not even succeed, but that they are all taking together. Here in America, we're each on our own journey, with no sense that the homeless man on the street is in any way bound to our own fate. We're wrong. He is. But who can tell us, and who can lead us? Where is our Mandela?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Outsource your paranoia

...A modicum of well-placed trust can actually make a business more secure. Wherever threats have become commoditised, businesses can outsource their paranoia, replacing it with individual prudence and trust for the outsourcer...

Read the rest of this opinion piece on TechCentral. (Spelling is Anglicized in South Africa, don't blame me!)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why is Email So Complicated? Reason # 114: Dumb Robots, Complex Vacations

...Worst of all, in the history of stupid email robots, is the dreaded vacation loop. Two people go on vacation, and one of them sends out one last message to the other before leaving. Soon vacation messages are volleying back and forth as fast as the infrastructure will allow. One of them will return to a mailbox full of perhaps thousands of identical messages:

“I’ve run away to join a different circus.”

while the other’s mailbox will be full of a different message, repeated an equally absurd number of times:

“I will be out of the office for the next two weeks for medical reasons. When I return, please refer to me as Margaret instead of Steve.”

However, long before either of them returns to work, a system administrator will have gotten involved to put a stop to the mail loop, most likely because it had filled up some system disks and brought a large bit of infrastructure to its knees...

You can read the rest of the post here.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Why is Email So Complicated? Part 409: Murky Ethics

...Take spam: everyone, save a few sociopaths, loathes it. But I’ll go way out on a limb here and reveal that I don’t consider spam immoral...

Read more here

Friday, March 25, 2011

Part # 146: We’re Slaves to Our Attachments

The second of the Four Noble Truths, the most fundamental tenets of Buddhism, tells us that the cause of all suffering is attachments. As one of the authors of the standard that defined email attachments (MIME), I bristle at this gross exaggeration. Surely attachments are responsible for no more than 25% of human suffering. (Most of the rest, I think, is caused by cancer, reality television, and okra.)

Read more here...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

HBGary lives by the sword and, well ….

I’ve got a sufficiently twisted sense of humor that I believe that, under the right circumstances, identity theft can be funny. I suspect you do, too.

Read why I can laugh at [some] security breaches here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Encryption Follies, Infinitely Repeated

Some Hindu philosophers estimate that the universe repeats itself every 311 trillion years or so. Modern scientists such as Sir Roger Penrose have lent credence to this basic idea, though with less precision. Everything that happens, it seems, is likely to happen again and again and again. I find this vaguely comforting.

What I find less soothing is the many things that are endlessly repeating within the brief interval of my career in computing. You can read about the latest of them here, on my Mimecast blog.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why Is Email So Complicated? Part 362: Too Many Lazy Idiots

...It’s unlikely that the world will ever run out of lazy idiots. But it’s relatively rare for one of them to decide to start naively spewing poor imitations of TCP/IP packets. Unfortunately, sending email is such a user-visible function, and the format looks sufficiently simple, that email generation seems to be the project of choice for the protocol-challenged...

You can read the entire post here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Assessing the Appalling Austin Enterprise Email Events

Technology rarely, if ever, succeeds in improving human ethics. But if the politicians were — like 85% of the youngest workers in our study — avoiding their enterprise email for the relatively laudable goal of doing their jobs better, then technology can help.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Postel's Law: What the Internet Teaches Us About Life

Ask an Internet geek why the highly decentralized protocols work as well as they do, and the the answer will probably be some version of what's known as Postel's Law. Although Jon Postel himself was less concise, it's most often stated simply as:

"Be conservative in what you send; be liberal in what you accept."

In protocol design, this a recipe for robustness. Each implementor is exhorted to follow the standards as precisely as possible in what his code sends out over the net, but to be more forgiving and tolerant in trying to interpret what his code receives. As long as most implementors follow this philosophy, the open Internet protocols work, despite countless small mistakes in various sending systems.

The Internet's success is nothing short of astonishing. Few human constructions have even a fraction of its complexity, scale, and reliability. It's not unreasonable, therefore, to ask whether Postel's Law might be useful beyond its intended domain of network protocol design. In fact, for some time, it has been one of the basic principles by which I've tried to live my life.

The essence of the law is a mandate of individual responsibility. Each implementor is to hold himself to the highest standard (of compliance with the protocol specification), while being as forgiving as possible of the failures of others to do the same. Each is encouraged to strive for perfection in his own actions, while expecting far less from others.

The real world, of course, works nothing like this. People struggle for advantage over each other, cutting corners, casting blame, and generally behaving as individuals with no responsibility to any larger social organization. They hide their own misdeeds while piously decrying the failings of others. In short, they expect more from others than from themselves, holding others to a standard they are themselves failing to meet.

What would it mean to live in a world guided by Postel's Law? It would mean holding oneself to the highest standards, while striving to be as forgiving as possible of the failings of others. It would mean being more concerned about one's own actions than those of others, and more concerned with the welfare of one's society than the wealth of one's self.

Consider the hottest of hot-button issues: If you believe that abortion is murder, you of course would not get an abortion your self. You might also work to provide alternatives to anyone considering abortion, with help getting through the pregnancy and giving the baby a life. But you would strive to be as tolerant as you could of people who made what you considered the wrong choice -- of those who, for whatever reason, do not feel they can uphold the same standards as you.

In a world ruled by Postel's Law, people would still disagree. But they would focus on their own behavior, on their own struggle -- never perfect, for human beings -- to live up to their own ideals. And they would view others with the compassion of knowing no one ever lives up to every ideal. Some people would remain beyond the pale by any standards -- violent criminals, repeat offenders -- but most people who did something wrong would be treated with education and encouragement to do better.

Unfortunately, we don't live in such a world. But we can live in such a mindset. We can try to behave, in our own limited spheres of influence, as correctly as we can, while being as compassionate as we can about others' failures. That's what I'm trying to do, and I encourage you to do the same.

But I'll do my best to be accepting and understanding if you don't.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Is Email So Complicated? Part 562: People Lie About What They Want

When people say they want email to be reliable, it’s probably more believable than “the check is in the mail” or “I’ll respect you in the morning,” but that doesn’t mean it’s true. People don’t want technology to enforce more honesty than they’re used to.

Read more at the Mimecast blog...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Is Email So Complicated? Part 221: The Legacy of Punch Cards

We walk upright with a quadruped’s backbone, and email transmits video with a punch card’s line format.  But as long as it ain’t broke, we probably won’t fix it.

      Read more at my Mimecast blog

Friday, February 4, 2011

My favorite IPv6 factoids

Now that we're just about IPv4 addresses (though the situation isn't as dire as most press coverage would indicate), here are some interesting factoids about IPv6:

This week Comcast announced that any customer who wants it can get, from Comcast, a block of roughly 18 quintillion IPv6 addresses. No big deal -- there are enough IPv6 addresses for a billion Comcasts to each give that much to each of a billion customers.

The total number of IPv6 addresses is 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456. That number can be read out loud as 340 undecillion, 282 decillion, 366 nonillion, 920 octillion, 938 septillion, 463 sextillion, 463 quintillion, 374 quadrillion, 607 trillion, 431 billion, 768 million, 211 thousand, 456.

That's 100 IP addresses for every atom on the face of the earth. Even I think *that* should be enough.

For the record, in 1982, when there were just a couple hundred machines on the net, someone explained to me how this new IP thingie worked. I responded, almost instantly, "that's not enough addresses." Everyone laughed, but my reasoning was simple: IPv4 didn't even have enough addresses for one computer per person world-wide, but most people thought that that was an absurd scenario.  The world has now spent, probably, billions of dollars on a so-far unsuccessful transition.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why is Email So Complicated?

Every few years, someone makes a sincere and serious-sounding attempt to design a newer, simpler version of email. I think these efforts are well-intentioned but don't begin to come to grips with the inherent complexity of email.

That's because most people have only the vaguest clue of how complicated email systems have become. Today, I’m initiating a series of short essays devoted to the many facets of the complexity of modern email. I’m going to try to cover it all if I live long enough.

My first, introductory essay can be found here.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Lighten Up: It’s Only Email!

At the risk of seeming like someone who has completely wasted his life on frivolity, I've written up a few thoughts on the Mimecast blog about whether email is really as important as we sometimes think.