Some thoughts on society and technology

The Little Ivy Village

I live and do business in Toronto, but my roots lead back to a little village in the heart of Bulgaria. Its name, in approximate translation, is "The Ivy Village".
The people of the village and this part of the country are famous for working hard and for making the best use of their limited resources. They are not afraid to think differently, are stubborn at times and value their own opinion above anyone else's.
So while my current carrier is made possible by the excellent mathematics, sciences and technology education in Bulgaria, the way I approach business situations is based on common sense and somewhat minimalist view shaped in childhood.
And I am glad that after years spent in Germany, US and Canada, my Ivy Village mentality is not changed and some aspects of modern life are firmly beyond my understanding:
  • Banks charging fees on the money you deposit with them
  • Driving a Hummer to go to work, moving 5 tonnes of metal to transport yourself and your newspaper
  • Borrowing to invest
  • Paying for a TV package and watching a one-and-a-half hour movie for three-and-a-half hours because of commercials
  • Calling three years "the long term" in the context of economic or investment outlook
  • Allowing students in school to surf Internet or use cell phones to text and wondering why the standard of education is going down
There are so many good things to be said about Toronto and Canada, how the country is managed, businesses supported and human potential developed. Even so, the 21st century with its fast pace of changes, desired or not, gives us ample opportunities to apply The Ivy Village yardstick.
And when I listen to politicians and business leaders making promises that are beyond their ability to deliver, I sometimes think, that the world would be better managed if these leaders learned the value of prudence, if all of them came from a Little Ivy Village.
This would be nice, would it not ?

Technology - powerful, more powerful...

Where we are trying to explain why modern technology is good, and why common sense and prudent approach to problems is also good
March 2011
Technology is everywhere around us. We are bombarded daily with information about more powerful computers, appliances and applications. The capacity to store information has increased from Megabytes in the 90s to Gigabytes, Terabytes and beyond, as predicted by Moore’s law.
This situation reminds me of one anecdote:
In a physics class the professor explained to students that the Sun will explode and destroy the Earth in approximately 5 billion years. One student, agitated, asked:
- Professor, could you repeat, how many years do we have before Earth is destroyed ?
- 5 billion – was the reply.
- Thank you – said the student, relieved  – for a moment I thought you said 5 million.

Similarly, we sometimes forget to count the zeros and do not realize how powerful technology is - to the point that some new advances are meaningless to us in everyday life. Who can distinguish 17 million colors on TV from 4 million colors ( even if people watch  TV for 13 years on average as Rogers - the northamerican telecom company - claims; I feel pain just to think that someone can waste so much time) ? How many zeros are there in the number representing one Terabyte –capacity some laptops have ? Nine, twelve, fifteen, eighteen ? After watching the Austin Powers movies - and the exquisite humour of Mike Meyers - my children call such numbers “billion, gazillion, fifillion”.

So, today technology is enormously powerful and its capacity is doubling every couple of years. What does this mean to us practitioners in the industry ?
We have all seen situations, when a problem with performance or volume increase is addressed mechanically by buying more powerful servers and components. This approach should be used as a last resort for the following reasons:
    • Any technology or system, no matter how powerful, can be rendered useless by incorrect design or code that violates basic concepts; so if you have this situation, upgrading may not have any positive impact and you will still be forced to correct your underlying problem. And – when you upgrade a system and this does not solve the problem, that is being targeted, the same experts that advised you to upgrade will likely explain to you why it did not work.
    • New technology comes with more costs and also with hidden overheads, that are not easy to notice upfront. One good example is J2EE - a broad Java design concept targeted at large scale implementations, which is also a little too academic for most real world tasks. Many of us have seen endless J2EE initiatives, where requirements managers and developers implement thousands of Java interfaces, which simply pass the same information around without doing anything meaningful with it. So while J2EE is a powerful framework, it requires some maturity of the environment before benefits can be realized. 
    • It is possible, and likely, that your current technology is more than powerful enough to address your need 

I like to apply several simple steps and ideas when facing a capacity or performance constraint or new capacity / growth requirement:

    1. Define where you are and what are you trying to achieve
    2. Define your current constraints - performance, capacity, etc
    3. Look into correcting the flaws in the existing process or application, which contribute most to these constraints. In my practice, I have found that just correcting the most obvious flaws usually makes it possible to reach your goal. I have seen serious flaws in every system that I have supported; in some instances correcting such flaws has increased performance 15 or 20 times – not percents, times !  
    4. To understand what is your potential for improvement of your current system or application - at a high level, you need someone with good understanding of the system, how much information is processed, how complex the processing is and how this compares with the available resources. Someone who knows the difference between 5 billion and 5 million from the above story.

In conclusion - I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that I am a modern Luddite and against any new technology. There are many valid cases for applying newer or more powerful technology.

I am simply against leaning too much on new technology and ending up with the higher costs only, without any real benefits.
This is, again, the Ivy Village Perspective.