mercredi 23 décembre 2015

Digital detox

I belong to generation Y and I know what it means to be addicted to smartphones, to Facebook, to Whatsapp... But as Socrates said: "I know that I don't know", i.e. I am conscious about it and trying to improve how I consume digital media in order to keep my psychological health in shape. There is a lot of articles on the subject, my goal is to share some tips and tricks from my personal experience. I will not discuss the dangers of social media (use of data, manipulation...) nor how digital is disconnecting us from reality (little birds singing on trees).

So why psychological health? because it's as important as physical health but we always tend to ignore it.
The first syndrome of digital addiction is decreasing concentration. Indeed, we are continually interrupted by notifications and can rarely focus on an idea for longtime, leading us to less mental efficiency and serenity.
The second syndrome is emotional dependency on "virtual". We humain beings need to be loved, to be noticed, to be surrounded. Evolutionary psychologists believe it is the result of years of evolution where humain beings, living in tribes, could not survive alone. Being ignored in a tribe means the risk of death and not passing his genes, thus we developed a warning mechanism associated with pain. Researchers have proved that the same areas of our brain are activated when we experience rejection or physical pain. Before digital era, people counted solely on family, on partner, on friendships to satisfy this need of belongingness. Nowadays we rely a lot on virtual "likes" of almost unknown people, which can be devastating when it disappears, because its just virtual!

So how am I trying to have a better control on all of this? here are four advices I am experimenting:
  • Use the right media for the right communication. For simplicity, let's consider that there are two types of communication: type A, important and need to reply or take actions rapidly, and type B the less important one. We should use an adapted channel for each type, for example type A requires a channel with instant notification, like SMS, and type B requires non instant channel like Facebook messaging. It means you should deactivate notification from Facebook, and never use it or let your contacts use it for important matters. That lets you avoid the need to check Facebook regularly for type A messages.
  • Separate being informed from being entertained. It should be clear in your mind, when you are consuming digital, whether you just want to lose time or obtain information. Personally, I have created two Facebook accounts: a first one where I have fun looking to friends posts and interacting with them, and a second one with no friends, but with only subscription to theater pages, news, articles, music... 
  • Put some constraints. I am testing for example the following constraints: keep the phone in your pocket hidden from your eyes, do not check your phone when in presence of others (good for respect too :)), log out each time you go to Facebook, power off phone at night, limit digital consuming time per day...
  • Be conscious of your usage. The first idea is to know how much you spend on your phone during a day. I tested an app on Android called Quality Time that shows you how much you use each app. I was shocked when I discovered that I can unlock my phone screen up to 200 times a day! The second idea, a very important one, is to ask yourself each time you want to use your smartphone why I am doing this? what motivated me? what am I looking for?

To be honest, I am still far from my goals, but I am happy to be conscious about it, and that's the most important step !

lundi 21 décembre 2015

Increase QoE of video streaming by optimizing the encoding of the video library

A week ago, Netflix engineers have revealed a project on which they were working for some time now to optimize the QoE of videos they are streaming to their subscribers. Their approach is based on video encoding settings in the back-end rather than focusing only on the front-end (peering, codec, streaming format, CDN..). The expected gain is 20% on overall traffic which is huge for a player who is accounting for more than third of the global internet traffic. Additionally, Netflix will be delivering better quality at the same connection bandwidth, which is critical for addressing emerging markets.

Content providers encode several representations of the same video asset, where each representation is formed by a bitrate and a resolution. below is an example of representations of a 4:3 main profile video according to Apple recommendations:

The goal of having several representations is serving the best one to the user according to his screen (TV  vs  mobile) and connection (4G, ADSL, FTTH..). With adaptive streaming, the same user can change the representation during video play in order to adapt to the connection bandwidth variation. 

So far content providers encoded all their video assets with the same set of representations. Netflix noticed that it doesn't make sense because for the same quality/resolution a cartoon movie requires less bitrate that an action film. Each video asset has its own "entropy" that should be taken into consideration when generating the representation set. This what Netflix is doing with their per-title encoding approach. 

In order to know what is the best representation set for a title, Netflix will encode at different resolutions (480p, 720p, 1080p...), then for each resolution they will draw the "exponential" curve of quality (PSNR) vs encoding bitrate (black, green and blue curves). Notice that a 720p @ 400Kbps representation will have a worse quality than a 480p representation encoded at the same bitrate and upscaled to 720p. The optimal representation set will be the set of dots close to the red curve.

Of course this approach will cost more computing resources in the video preparation workflow, but the gains are worth it.

On the same subject, I read this interesting scientific article, where they propose not only looking to the type of the title (cartoon vs action film...) but also to its popularity, to the limits of contracted CDN capacity, of users screen resolution, of users connection, video storage... They make interesting findings on the optimal representation set:
  • Titles with high "entropy" like action film requires more representations than low "entropy" titles like cartoons.
  • The number of representations per resolution is dependent on the distribution of devices: HDTV vs mobile phones.
  • For a given resolution, lower bitrates are closer one to the other than higher bitrates.
Of course these are the conclusions of the test conditions. It can be different for exemple if we consider a content provider targeting only mobile devices in emerging markets.

As the environment of the content provider is smoothly changing (proliferation of mobile devices, conquer strategies for emerging markets with low bandwidth connections, title popularity changing, versatile peering agreements...) I guess it would be interesting to dynamically re-encode in a continuous way the representations of the video library in order to guarantee the best global user QoE with respect to constraints imposed by this moving environment.

samedi 17 octobre 2015

On education

What do you think about the fact that our children are taught with the same system as our grand-grand-parents? Our world changed drastically but our education system is fundamentally the same since more than 100 years, even if we now use tablets rather than chalk boards. Through this article, I am contributing to the abundant literature on this subject, but from my point of view.

The main problem of our education is focusing on succeeding and not learning itself. I remember my self that my goal during school and even during university was succeeding exams. What about knowledge itself? it becomes a side effect of getting A grades, rather than being the ultimate goal. It's just now that I go back to my old school books and seek knowledge, now that I don't have to prove anything by exams.

Another important issue with our education is preparing young people for being misinformed, followers, and almost misanthropic (oh yes!!):
  • How many school teachers gave its students the keys to find information and create their own opinion, instead of just stuffing kids with already mashed information & believes? I like the image given by Marshall Rosenberg in one of his conferences to illustrate this process of teaching: The teacher is a bottle of milk and the children are empty glasses. At the beginning, the bottled pours milk in the small glasses. During the exams, the glasses pours the milk back in the bottle. What we have left with in the end? a bottle with less milk surrounded by dirty and empty glasses.
    Look at scholar history books, most of them give the national understanding of the history, instead of letting the students debate and form their own opinion. It is a fuel for the continuous conflicts we are witnessing in the world.
  • In the same idea, we kill the creativity of kids by teaching them only convergent thinking. How many geniuses failed schools because of their creativity/divergent thinking? I have written about it more in detail in this previous article.
  • What about teaching kids to collaborate instead of competing? I really like what Albert Jacquard says about this aberration which is competition. Teach kids to realize themselves through others and not against them.
  • Through my professional experience, I have seen a lot of inefficient conflict situations because of misunderstandings. Colleagues were not able to put themselves in the skin of others, as simple as it seems. We urgently need to teach our children empathy and non violent communication.
The third major point I want to mention about current education, is its tendency to form very specialized people with kind of horse tacks on their eyes. I mean by that their blindness toward subjects different than their own field of specialties, what Nicolas Nassim Taleb calls tunneling. Take for example an economist who conceives the world through only financial equations without taking into consideration ethical matters. Oups, this economist existed indeed! David Ricardo, thanks to whom capitalism started to become financial, leading to modern disasters like the 2008 subprime crisis. It's very dangerous to have such specialists in our butterfly-effect-world. We need specialists, but with enough general culture and knowledge. For example I have heard about some initiatives in a Scandinavian country, where per-matter exams are replaced by multidisciplinary school projects.

One final thing i want to mention about this subject is the lack of spiritualism in schools. I remember that school was a race of succeeding exams, to finish and start real life of working and producing like machines. I don't remember just sitting, thinking about my existence, enjoying and appreciating the beauty of the world, the nature and the human being. I would have loved someone to send me philosophical letters like Sophie the fictional character of Jostein Gaarder. I no wonder that so many of us face existential crisis at some point of life.

Education is the door to the evolution of our civilization, I doubt profoundly any evolution based on a 100 years old system.

dimanche 19 juillet 2015

Third industrial revolution?

Well yes, a big shift in economy is happening in our digital era. Economy is moving from a centralized production system to a more distributed one with the help of internet and information technology. It means that people exchange directly goods and services without the direct need of traditional intermediate corporations. I will illustrate this shift through examples from different sectors:
  • Transportation: Uber is destabilizing the taxi industry by its model where non professional drivers serve directly passengers with a sexy and real time mobile application. Before Uber, car pooling was growing for inter cities transportation and thus competing lightly with trains & buses.
  • Hospitality: With the same spirit, AirBnb is threatening the established business of hotel chains, especially on the low-end tourism market. Couchsurfing also took a part of this market somehow.
  • Energy: Consumers are called to be micro producers through solar energy for example. Energy production would be managed intelligently with smart grids and moreover with connected objects.
  • Consumer Goods:  We are witnessing the emergence of websites praising the reuse of consumer goods such as: toys, tools, high tech products... and more generally products that are not used frequently so people rather prefer to rent it. Some even say that this pushing the notion of private property to disappear!
  • IT: Instead of centralized datacenters, a new buzz word is here: fog computing. A more distributed architecture than cloud computing, where end devices stores and process information. I was especially impressed by the French Startup Qarnot Computing who proposes computing capacity through its distributed servers in households. Their brilliant idea is heating households using installed servers!
  • Finance: Who of us didn't participate through crowdfunding to help the project of an association? the launch of music album? the new idea of a startup? Banks/business angels/love money will not stay the exclusive ways of funding ventures.
Some, like Jeremy Rifkin, call this shift a revolution, the revolution of "commons", a "croudsourced" economy that seems more just and equal. Well, I do not share this point of view. I think that distributed model disrupt the structure of the players in our market based economy, but it does not change the capitalist nature of this economy: private property, seek for profit, class differences... indeed, the established corporations (see above for examples) will loose power to new players who control information. If we take the example of hospitality industry, well yes some big hotel chains will hardly survive in front of Airbnb, but this online platform would behave just as its old competitors: hire employees, look for profitability, compete to have a monopole...

Nevertheless, this shift might provide a good basis for a real conscious revolution on how we manage economy today.  When individuals are more involved in the production system, not as work-providers but as contributors, they will want to contribute also to decision making. What is really missing is a distributed decision making, a real democracy! Digital revolution is a wonderful opportunity for achieving this. I like very much the example of an Argentinian political party (Partido de la red) who's representatives only vote in parliament what people has decided online (Democracy OS).

vendredi 3 juillet 2015

Revealing networks

After a couple of years dealing with networks of mid-sized and large companies, I noticed that networks reveal many aspects of companies culture, organization and history. In the following, I will just give some seen examples from my own experience.

  • Often when you find a network with isolated subnetworks, using for example multiple VRF mechanism in MPLS, it reveals a history of successive acquisitions of external companies, who managed to keep their IT independence. That can be also the case of a multinationals who's regional IT gained enough independence.
  • Networks also give an idea about the kind of skills available in the IT department, and sometimes its size: Big IT departments with network gurus are more likely to prefer do-it-your-own solutions such IPSEC based networking with focus on non-standard technical needs. Smaller IT departments, or those who are more business aligned, go for managed services with focus on SLAs and end user features.
  • Speaking of SLAs, I noticed that some IT buyers prefer to focus only on SLAs without taking into consideration the underlying technical design. That is typically the profile of buyers who is actually not looking for reducing the risk, but only to transfer it to the provider. It can reflect a culture of protectionism.
  • More generally many cultural aspects are reflected by the network design. For example the design of external connections to the private network gives an idea of  how much a company trusts its employees, accepts new generations paradigms (BYOD, ATAWAD..), is obsessed with security... We can also know more about how much the IT decision makers are conservatives. That can be detected for example by how they embrace new technologies and solutions: cloud, hybrid networks... Finally, I noted some correlation between how much the company is politicized and what differentiated services are provided to VIPs by the IT department!

vendredi 12 juin 2015

Agile, but quality delivering organization?

I had the chance to work within a mammoth organization who is undertaking ambitious transformations in order to be more agile. I would like to talk about this subject with a focus on processes.

So why we need processes?  In a mammoth organization, processes guarantee quality. Indeed, when we have so many people doing different activities on many products in different locations... things get really complicated! thus we need to organize the interactions among people to minimize operational and financial risks, and provide fine KPIs for management. Moreover, processes reflect the learning curve of an industrialized organization and give an important guidance framework for employees to work conveniently.

Unfortunately, depending on their design and philosophy, processes can increase dramatically the inertia of the mammoth, thus its efficiency, and create a huge frustration among employees and customers. I noticed that when you design a process as taylored-style black boxes with inputs and outputs, well, the people inside these black boxes just get blinded!!! Indeed, the result is dilution syndrome:
  • Dilution of information: precious information get lost through the process.
  • Dilution of responsibility: In crisis, it becomes difficult to identify a clear responsible for resolving the problems, instead each actor hides behind its process! That doesn't help people develop sense of autonomy.
  • Dilution of purpose: employees forget about the final purpose for which the process was made, and the process becomes the purpose itself!
Well, we are not in the Ice Age anymore, and Mammoths should evolve in order to survive. The winning DNA is agility in our age, the age of quick changes, real time information, incertitude and globalization.
So how can we get agile, but quality delivering organization? In my point view, a couple of aspects must be well considered:
  • Is a process always the solution for a workflow? I don't think so. Project management can be better adapted in certain cases. The choice can be made according to the complexity and the stakes of the workflow. Hybrid paradigms can be thought of also, for example designing only high level processes and giving more flexibility to actors.
  • Actors of the process must understand the process globally and especially it's final purpose. The management must develop a collaborative culture with transversal skills, and autonomy.
  • Set up 2.0 participative mechanisms for improving processes rapidly by managers and users.
  • Provide digital tools respecting the philosophy of the previous aspects: knowledge management, collaborative and communication tools, intelligent workflow tools...
 Mammoths, be aware of natural selection!!!

mardi 24 mars 2015

Choose to be positive!

We all can have difficult moments at work: conflicts, misunderstandings, stress... and quite often we tend to fall in a negative attitude where we play the victims and behave in an aggressive way. Well, we simply shouldn't! I believe that in most cases, we can easily avoid and master negative feelings. Indeed, we first need to acknowledge the existence of these negative feelings, then to consider objectively their causing environment, and finally to find the positive elements in this situation.

I would like to focus on two kinds of situations: doing a required but painful activity and being in conflict with other people at work. I will discuss them through examples from my personal experience.

In the first kind of situations, we are asked to do something that we perceive as painful:
  • As presales engineer, I had to reply to an energy consuming RFP which I knew in advance our zero chance to win. That was really stressing and frustrating but I got conscious about my negative feelings. My first action was to challenge my management in order to define reasonable objectives of our answer to the RFP, thus increasing my chances to reach them. This way, I have acted directly on the causing environment. Then I tried to figure out what benefits I could make of my investment on the bid even if I loose it: new skills in bid management, working with new people...Well, I lost the bid unfortunately, but I do not regret this experience, on the contrary, I learned a lot from it. Moreover I am better prepared psychologically for similar situations in the future.
  • In a general way, when we are asked to get out of our comfort zone, we get overwhelmed by negative feelings of stress and apprehension: change job, work on new technology, take a new challenge... Personally, I consider now going out of my comfort zone as a sport but for my intellect. Indeed, sport can be painful when practicing, but on the long term it improves health and it even becomes an addiction.

In the second kind of situations, we are in conflict with people at work: a colleague not helping you in a project, a client almost insulting you...I think that the key is to think in a materialistic way instead of considering people as mean or unskilled. In a materialistic thinking, you ask your self what are objectively the factors that hold my colleague from working on my project? We must try to put our self in their skin and understand their conditions and constraints: Your colleague might be overloaded with other more important projects. Open and regular communication with others is essential to better master our negative feelings toward them.

In all situations, you have a lethal weapon for positive attitude: your smile :) Smiling is not opposite to being serious! I do believe that just by smiling sincerely and freely to others we drive everybody into a positive karma, including ourselves :)

I'll finish by saying that it is up to you to decide to be in the positive virtuous cycle or the negative vicious cycle.

vendredi 27 février 2015

The Black Swan

I finally got the opportunity to read the best-selling book The Black Swan by the Lebanese-American professor Nicholas Nassim Taleb. I am not a big fan of best-sellers, but this book is unique in its kind. Indeed, the author develops his thoughts across several disciplines (risk analysis, finance & economy, statistics, epistemology, history, philosophy...) in a funny and entertaining writing style.

Although I found the book a bit long and redundant, the exposed idea is very interesting. Black Swan symbolizes rare events that have big impact, such as tsunami, financial crisis, music hit or world war. I will talk about the main idea that interested me in the book: our blindness to Black Swans.

We believe that we made reliable predictions using verified models, until we get surprised by a sudden collapse of Wall Street... Taleb explains that our blindness to Black Swans is due to cognitive biases. These biases are strongly rooted in our biology because the evolution of humans have taken place during thousands of years in a linear environment with no significant deviations. Today, things have changed with free markets, globalization and technology. Our world is not linear anymore! Indeed, one can become rapidly millionaire by investing in a lucky startup or can cause a financial crisis by a trading transaction...

The first bias is the confirmation error or the induction problem. We tend to generalize from empirical observations thus building fragile theories that are very vulnerable to improbable events. Europeans always thought that all swans were white, since all the swans they observed were white, until the day that they discovered a black swan in Australia. Serial killers have a clean record, until the day they murder their victims!
Moreover, generalizing from empirical observations get worse when we mis-estimate the representational value of the observed sample. Consider this conclusion: "In my startup I will adopt the X management style, because CEOs of successful startups recommend it in management magazines."  Unfortunately, this is a Black-Swan-exposed conclusion, because CEOs of bankrupted startups are not invited to write about this management style in business magazines!

The second bias is the narrative fallacy. We constantly need to put events in a reasonable story with causal correlations in order to mentally digest them thus making us blind to random events escaping this pattern. This explains why sometimes we fail to predict events in he future, but typically find logical interpretation to them after their occurrence. Everybody can explain the causes of the second world war, but can we predict the next war? how many people would have imagined the "great" war a week before its start?

The third bias is emotional, and can have different aspects. It strongly reminded me of Treblinka a novel by J.F. Steiner which is based on the true story of an extermination camp in Poland. Steiner argues that Jews of Poland heard horrible witnesses of many escaped prisoners from camps, but however unconsciously refused to believe the existence of such a cruelty and thus were lead easily to death camps without resistance. they emotionally got blinded by a fake hope. "Human nature is not programmed for Black Swans."

The last bias is "tunneling", also the expert syndrome. In fact, experts that make prediction models do not see risks outside their expertise domain, their tunnel. A financial company would hire the best mathematicians to find prediction models in order to reduce risks of market fluctuations, but forget to put in place a Recovery Plan for its Information System/Datacenter thus completely risking its existence. We live in the era of butterfly effects, where a terrorist from Afghanistan can bring down two sky scrapers in the USA, leading to important changes in cloud hosting business in Europe. We should look to what's happening outside of our tunnel.

When you read with Taleb about the flaws of predictions and the impact of randomness in history, you might fall rapidly in obsessional skepticism and non-decision attitude. Well, that is not the author's intention. He is inviting us to understand the limits of our knowledge in this non-platonic world and act upon it, to be conscious of our UnKnowledge and stop epistemological arrogance in order to avoid negative Black Swans. Furthermore, Taleb explains how to get more exposed to positive Black Swans and benefit from them!

PS: This book was dedicated to Benoit Mandelbrot, the famous mathematician who gave more importance to randomness and chaos in scientific approach with his fractal theory.

mardi 24 février 2015

Hybrid networks strategy

The uses on corporate WAN networks are continually evolving with the rise of collaborative tools (VoIP, Visio, IM...), public cloud based applications, connected objects, personal usages... Indeed, according to a recent study, companies are witnessing the following:
  • 20% is the yearly global growth of traffic 
  • 30% of traffic is critical
  • 40% of traffic's destination is Internet
These evolutions are driving companies to rethink their WAN strategies. Hybrid networks emerge as an alternative to a full provider based MPLS network. With sites connected simultaneously to both MPLS and Internet, hybrid strategy is about taking the best from the two worlds. In fact, for each application the best link is chosen according to the following criteria: 

Below is an example of a Hybrid strategy where critical private applications and real time traffic are routed on MPLS, non critical private applications are offloaded on Internet and public cloud based applications as well as surf are routed directly to Internet. Note that security scheme must be carefully adapted: on site firewalls, cloud based proxies... Note also that network availability is naturally increased with a hybrid architecture.

Routing traffic can be network level based using PBR or application level based using more intelligent technologies such as Ipanema, Stonesoft, Fortinet, Riverbed... The advantage of such technologies, depending on vendors, is the possibility to integrate security functions such as firewall, compression functions and application QoS functions with traffic monitoring tools.

Hybrid strategy can be even pushed further with multiple Internet and MPLS connections with different providers. 

Finally, in order to build a better hybrid strategy, some questions must be asked:
  • Is my security scheme adapted to my hybrid architecture? how can I have the same level of security? a homogeneous security policy?
  • Can I, or my service provider, manage the potential complexity of hybrid networks?
  • Are my managed solutions with my provider compatible with hybrid architecture? what are the technical limitations?
  • When calculating all the costs of hybrid networks, is it financially interesting for my case?