FireBug Makes The World Flatter

by Matthew Russell

If you haven't picked up a copy of Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat, I highly recommend you take a look at it. I personally consider it to be in the top 10-15 books I've ever read, and it has really changed the way I think and my perceptions about the world around me.

The World Is Flat is essentially a look at how various "flatteners" such as supply chain management, electronic commerce, open source software, the internet, and various other technological advances in the past 20 or so years have really flattened the global economic playing field and drastically altered the dynamics of how business and life get done these days. Even more exciting are the insights about the "untouchable" jobs in the future, commentary on topics that are still in the pipeline, and the opportunities that lie ahead. If you have concerns about a book laden with more politics than you want to read (perhaps like The Lexus and the Olive Tree), I think you'll find this one to be much more enjoyable and easy to digest.


2006-10-14 11:28:32

Anyone with the desire and minimal JavaScript know-how could have tracked it down rather quickly -- and that is that part that excites me.

In the context of your bank, I'd be somewhat worried that their Quality Control failed to spot it!

Giorgio Maone
2006-10-14 12:32:29
The best part is that you could use FireBug itself, or Venkman, or even the bare JS console to correct the bug on the fly and use the site before the patch. Or use GreaseMonkey to "patch" it permanently by yourself: that is what I actually had to do with my bank website ( after 3 unfruitful support calls ;)
Wil Doane
2006-10-14 13:36:29
But... did they actually push out the fix, or are they the typical company: no channel for valuable feedback to reach the people who can fix it?
2006-10-14 17:07:08
For a vicious but hilarious different take on the Friedman book, see this New York Press review.
Thomas L. Funkytown
2006-10-14 17:15:00
Friedman's book is carefully designed to appeal to people who have no particular interest in politics and no clue how economics actually works. I've got two links for you that should hopefully open your eyes: 

On an ideological level, Friedman's new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore.) That's the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that's all there is.

I've documented repeatedly how New York Times columnist Tom Friedman parrots the propaganda of Big Money, using his column to legitimize some of the worst, most working-class-persecuting policies this country has seen in the last century - all while bragging on television that he doesn't even bother read the details of the policies he advocates for. I have always believed Friedman's perspective comes from the bubble he lives in - that is, I have always believed he feels totally at ease shilling for Big Money and attacking workers because from the comfortable confines of the Washington suburbs he lives in and the elite cocktail parties he attends, what Friedman says seems mainstream to him. But I never had any idea how dead on I was about the specific circumstances of Friedman's bubble - and how it potentially explains a lot more than I ever thought.
Thomas L. Funktown
2006-10-14 17:26:06
Hey, there's more where that came from.

Friedman's understanding of culture is simplistic and sloppy. He relies upon analogies rather than analysis, stereotypes rather than social science, and hearsay rather than history. For example, he muses upon what the world's regions would look like if they were neighborhoods:

Ultimately, Friedman's work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life -- a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination.

Oh, and don't trust the progressive rags? Well, how about The Economist (the world's leading international free-trade magazine, if you're not aware):

This kind of imprecision--less kind readers might even use the word "sloppiness"--permeates Mr Friedman's book. It begins with an account of Christopher Columbus, who sets out to find India only to run into the Americas. Mr Friedman claims that this proved Columbus's thesis that the world is round. It did nothing of the kind. Proof that the world is round came only in 1522, when the sole surviving ship from Ferdinand Magellan's little fleet returned to Spain. 

A number of truly enlightening books have been published recently which not only support globalisation, but answer its critics and explain its complexities to the general reader--most notably Jagdish Bhagwati's "In Defence of Globalisation" and Martin Wolf's "Why Globalisation Works". Because of Mr Friedman's fame as a columnist, his book will probably far outsell both of these. That is a shame. Anyone tempted to buy "The World is Flat" should hold back, and purchase instead Mr Bhagwati's book or Mr Wolf's.  

2006-10-14 18:37:37
@Gary: Excellent point! Fortunately, this particular flaw couldn't have had any security impact...but I do get your point that if QC is sub-par, then there *could* be serious flaws in other places. But alas, I do trust my bank and believe that this issue was by far exception. Whew!

@Giorgio: Wow. You really carried my original thought through another logical step. Nice insight there. Looks like I stopped a bit short in the original post. Thank God for the interactive web.

@Wil: I'll find out tonight. If it's not fixed, I think I'll call in and speak to someone and speak along the lines of what Gary mentioned above.

@Thomas L. Funkytown: I'll definitely check out some of those other books you recommended. And thanks for the info. I didn't realize there was such a hater crowd out there, and up till this point, hadn't heard a single bad thing about Friedman (but then again, I haven't been looking either.) I'm an amateur's amateur economist, so I can't profess to have any clout in the realm of how the entire mega-framework Friedman puts together holds up when under scrutiny from the experts -- but I do think that Friedman's insights about various technological advancements and the way that he consolidates them into a nice compact bunch of lumps poses an interesting read. If we were to table the actual macro-economic ideas in the book and put them over on the shelf and merely ponder the "general" big ideas the book presents, would you still be in total disagreement with Friedman? For example, would you agree that many of the untouchable jobs of the future will be along the vein of integration (like the Georgia Tech curriculum espouses) and that the people who will stay on top of the upper-middle class jobs will be those who are able to readily reinvent themselves on demand? And that the economy will continue to be increasingly services based? These are the sorts of big picture thoughts that I really enjoyed pondering as I read the book.

But again, thanks for the constructive criticism. It's nice to hear...the rest of the story (or so says Paul Harvey.)

2006-10-14 19:20:51
What country was that rather unskilled tech support person located in?

If it was one of the third world call centers which Americans have come to loathe because of their poor service, well then maybe the earth isn't so flat after-all. The fact that you, a westerner, probably were telling a 3rd world country how to do their jobs, is just more proof that Mr. Friedman's theories are wrong.

Although the world may be globalizaing and more information is available to billions, that doesn't mean people automatically have the skill and intelligence to do their jobs and solve problems.

If things were becoming as equal as Mr. Friendman believes, then you wouldn't be answering any technical questions for support people.

Mr. Friedman's book by the way was funded and sponsored by two large Indian outsourcing companies - Tata and Wipro. It's chief aim is to drive western investment to India in order to fund an economy that cannot self-sustain on production.

2006-10-14 19:29:08
@Mike: Not to be a party pooper, but the person I spoke with was actually a Westerner here in the US. (I know a good bit about how my bank's infrastructure works, so I know that part for sure.)

The JavaScript bug that I discovered did sort of tick me off because my bank is a pretty high end bank that does a large amount of business globally, and it *should* have been caught during quality control testing. But at the same time, I know from first-hand experience how complex user interface testing can be, and that makes me a little more inclined to give them a break. I think my point was that it's really cool that commodity tools are in place which allowed an average power-user type person to resolve the issue -- instead of the issue requiring a high end engineer to even understand.

Thanks for the insight about the research funding, btw. That's another interesting point (which now that I think about it, doesn't surprise me that much.)

Gordon Meyer
2006-10-15 10:05:23
It's pretty nifty that you could do this for them, but not all cool that they released the site with such an obvious bug. Testing a site only in IE isn't not reasonable, don't let them off the hook for that.
2006-10-15 12:24:24
Simply Amazing, the backlash against Friedman's book (or possibly a political bias against Friedman?). After looking at some of the criticisms leveled against it, I can see that there is some merit in them, but that they tend to miss the elephant in sniping at the details of its presentation -- the central point of Friedman's book is that globalization is removing barriers to competition, and reducing EVERYTHING to the lowest common denominator: cost.

This is, of course, not news to anyone in the IT industry, but many (most?) Americans fail to realize the size and scope of the impact to our society over the short term.

(I'm trying hard to phrase this in a neutral manner, so as not to inflame those who perceive globalization as either the Greatest Thing That's Ever Happened or The Worst Thing That's Ever Happened -- in truth, the size and scope of the change is so large as to be literally beyond comprehension.)

I thought that the theme of FireBug (as a symbol for Open Source in general) "flattening" the programming world was perfect.

Unfortunately, my own experiences in trying to get owners of big-ticket web sites to fix their errors had been met with scant success. Both the WSJ and Citibank use a brain-dead and inefficient means of browser identification that fails to recognize any Gecko-based browser other than Firefox, or any WebKit-based browser other than Safari. Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance has a sufficiently narrow means of identification that changing the browser user agent string is an insufficient means of getting around the problem, I can only access their site through Firefox. And H&R block has in their employee access pages (possibly in their customer pages as well, I didn't check) an incredibly hosed piece of javascript to detect the presence of PDF support that works only as a result of a series of compensating errors, and only for Windows machines, despite all of the code being in place to support Macs as well.

In most of the above cases I went to the trouble to contact the appropriate people with clear descriptions of the problem and its resolution, and in the case of the WSJ, even got responses from a couple of senior editors promising that it would be dealt with (it never was). It's almost impossible to get fixes into the system from the bottom up. Work is assigned from the top down.

And perhaps that illuminates the real problem here, the people they depend on to visit their web site -- most often, their customers -- are seen as occupying the bottom of the pyramid rather than the top.

2006-10-16 01:17:48
Excelent post! Really enjoyed that :-) it'as nice that they listened to you, did they ever post a patch?


2006-10-16 08:48:56
I really disliked the world is flat. Great premise and historical look back at how we got 'here', but the book just goes on too long.
2006-10-16 17:52:26
A friend once called up WordStar with a fix for a section of the code that he had disassembled. He asked them to fix it and send him a copy. He was quite surprised when a copy of the source code arrived.
2007-04-14 23:23:57
Interesting comments.. :D
John Roth
2007-04-28 09:57:13
Bravo! Your comments are right on the mark