Wednesday Mar 31, 2010

Blog is Moving.....

After moving most of the non-work related content over to my personal blog, I've decided to consolidate three different persona into one place: Snowman On Fire, the alter alter-ego of the Morning Snowman.

I've found that with blog entries being posted as Facebook notes, tweets announcing new blog posts, and multiple blogs, I have not been writing nearly enough, have fractured the viewing/reading audience, and generally created too many distractions. Everything is now in one place, from squid in a bag to thoughts on student internships.

Friday Feb 12, 2010

There Is No Second

During the first ever America's Cup race, then a race around the Isle of Wight, the entry from the "colonies" (named, appropriately, "America") won by a rather large margin. Sailor's yarns being what they are, the story goes that the lookout at the finish line announced that the boats were within sight. "Who is first?" asked the Queen, with "America" as the answer. "Who is second?" was a reasonable followup question.

"There is no second." As the Israelis say, "oopah." Or as my gamer son says, "pwned," although there's probably not a good translation into Swiss German for that one.

Despite starting 87 seconds behind at the gun, BMW-Oracle Racing won today's first race of the 33rd America's Cup by about five minutes, or roughly 2 miles. It is, as they say in Boston, a wicked fast boat.

I'm smiling ear to ear. I'm giggling. I'm remarkably proud of a boat to which I have no earthly connection other than the fact that it's American, I'm a huge America's Cup fan and cheer for the "home team," and it has my current and future employer's logos on the wing-as-mainsail.

Most of all, it's a remarkable feat of engineering. When you get all of the pieces finely tuned and working as a system (especially a system as complex as racing sailboat constraints), well, there is no second.

Sunday Feb 07, 2010

Student Intersection

Every year about this time, I host some undergraduate engineering students for a two-day whirlwind tour with customers, partners and employees in New York City. It gives the students a chance to see where an engineering degree can take them, and to discover what's different between short-term college projects and complex real-world product engineering. It gives me an early glimpse of the current engineering social context and lets me what technologies are mainstream enough to be used as teaching tools.

One of our running conversations was how to tackle a problem that hadn't been seen before. What choices do you make, or constraints do you put in place, if you have to think about scale, speed, or complexity that isn't in the literature? This came up in our meeting with Hot Potato, who worry about real time and real life events, and in talking with a major sports league that provides video on demand but isn't sure how to quantify the "excitement" quotient of that video from day to day.

Borrowing a page from college days, I wrapped up our internship session with a reading list:

George Polya's "How to Solve It". The classic, rooted in mathematics and algorithms, to build up an arsenal of hard problem cracking approaches.

Simon Singh's "Fermat's Enigma". Aside from a lot of the mental action taking place at Princeton, the background on how Wiles derived his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem is great. I use this to highlight how a seemingly minor topic covered in one area becomes a major factor in another -- I had finished a podcast on elliptic curve cryptography when I read the book, and the overlap in mathematical bases was eye-opening.

The July 1997 Wired issue on scenarios, describing how a pandemic might be solved by a graphics designer and gene hacker working together. Since that issue first showed up on newstands, we've faced SARS, avian flu and H1N1 flu outbreaks. Our response mechanisms haven't gotten much better. On the other hand, both of the students had been working in an "integrated science" curriculum, where mathematics was more directly incorporated into the appropriate scientific fields. We just need to add computer science in there as well. I made the remark that one of my good friends got into computer science because she was a psychology PhD student who needed to analyze data; today the data analysis experts at social networking sites are creating work for the psychologists.

Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker" followed by Lawrence McDonald's "Colossal Failure of Common Sense." Two views of Wall Street, from the mid-80s birth of the fixed income derivatives business to the second, third and fourth order effects of its growth that led to the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. What happens when mathematics isn't integrated fully into the financial engineering sciences.

Bruce Tognazzini's "Tog on Design". I've always found Tog's approach to design and user interface refreshing, and I think ideas like selective disclosure would improve much of today's popular (but badly used) software.

Cory Doctorow's short stories "Anda's Game" and "When SysAdmins Ruled The Earth." Networked business models, networked organization and networked government. Both written before the Facebook boom, and therefore more important in light of it.

Finally, each of the people we met with had some advice or guidance on life in the real world: (1) Think big and unconstrained, beccause that's what's happening to compute and storage environemnts. (2) Cross-scientific disciplines matter. No single science is isolated. (3) Watch out for "end arounds" caused by cost or time disruption (4) Stuff happens. When it does, it affects brands, reliability, user experience and customer attraction. Be ready for it. (5) It's always harder than it looks to pull the pieces together: Moore's Law hasn't applied to integration costs.

Spending time with university students is always refreshing, both to find out what they think is interesting and to see what hasn't yet registered in their curriculum. And it shows them a literal world of eating options beyond the undergraduate cafeteria and campus pizza place.

Friday Jan 29, 2010

Thoughts On Transitions

Life is a series of transitions; I think that if we're expecting things to be neat and clean we're focusing too much on the nodes in our graphs and not enough on the edges that connect them. Life imitates a Markov chain, with all of the uncertainty and chaos implied.

To quote the late, great hockey writer Jack Falla:

What happened is done.

The next shot you face is the most important.

Play the game if you want to improve.

Wednesday Jan 27, 2010

Non-Work Blog Content Is Moving

I'm in the process of moving all non-work related blog content off of and into the snowman's own front lawn. Music, movies, books, sports, travelogues and comments about social networks will go there and join other semi-technical, semi-literate commentary.

Thursday Jan 14, 2010

Channeling Relief to Haiti

Local tragedies have a way of uniting us globally. I was first made aware of this when Roberto Clemente, much beloved Pittsburgh Pirate, was killed in a post-earthquake aid and goodwill ambassador role in his native Nicaragua. All of baseball mourned #21, who was just responding through the goodness of his heart.

This week's disaster in Haiti calls for the same global response. Thanks to fellow Tiger Melinda Millberg for the following list of advocacy groups who will get practical, functional aid to Haiti. I'm a huge supporter of Cameron Sinclair's Architecture For Humanity (disclosure: Sun helped build his website and architecture sharing content management service as part of Cameron's TED prize), and clean drinking water will likely become a rate-limiting factor for survivors.

American Jewish World Service Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund

Partners in Health, already on the ground in Haiti and mobilizing their relief efforts.

CARE's Emergency Relief Fund

Doctors Without Borders

Action Against Hunger. Text "HAITI" to "90999" from the US to donate $10 to the Red Cross. The US State Department very quickly put together this number to channel relief contributions directly to first responders.

Wyclef Jean's Yele foundation to permanently improve the lives of the most impoverished in his home country of Haiti. Text "Yele" to 501501 to donate $5 to Yele Haiti.

United Jewish Appeal (Federation)

Architecture For Humanity Cameron Sinclair and his non-profit Architecture for Humanity can be found at virtually every developing world disaster site on the planet. These guys are a collection of design and housing geniuses who work tirelessly to provide shelter for the most deserving.

Charity Water works to bring clean water to the 1 billion people on the planet who don't have it. Recently, the organization's founder, Scott Harrison, traveled to Haiti to commence operations in that country and already thousands of Haitians have clean water to drink.

Monday Jan 04, 2010

Flash Forward and Flash Back: New Innovating@Sun Podcast

Just before the holiday break, I sat down with Lisa Noordegraf, a performance engineer in Sun's Performance Applications Engineering team, to talk about flash memory and how it's moving from the consumer space into the enterprise. Lisa and I cover where you should - and shouldn't - think of using flash memory, how you drive the reliability of a consumer technology up to enterprise quality levels, and the gamut of performance benefits that she and her team have derived from putting flash memory at various points in the memory to disk storage hierarchy.

Sunday Jan 03, 2010

The 2009 List

It's that time of year again. And what a long, strange trip of a year it's been. Some thoughts from 2009:

Work moment.Trip to India in April, at the tail end of a tour that took me to Mexico City, Johannesburg, Mumbai and Bangalore. While meeting with the technical managers in the Bangalore office, someone mentioned that "innovation is a bad word now." The ensuing discussion - of how innovation is not a substitute for direction, leadership and strategy, nor is innovation in the form of disruption necessarily a strategy in itself - was frank and bi-directional. The "new isn't better unless it informs strategy" maxim shaped much of my thinking around cloud computing as the year progressed.

Family moment. There were more than a few this year: watching the Devils implode in the strangest playoff game I've ever seen, with my son there for mutual comfort; getting to see Renaissance in concert for the first time ever, and seeing Yes for the umpteenth time; spending a long weekend in Atlantic City with my wife, daughter and sister, and laughing until we were exhausted every day; watching my son play football for the first time, and seeing him earn a varsity letter in hockey, the first in our family since my sister lettered in x-country letter 25 years ago; going to a Yankees playoff game with my daughter, sitting closer to the airplanes departing LaGuardia than the field, but loving every second of it. Tops, though, was an afternoon and evening spent slicing, dicing and eating and our way through the Chef Allen's reality cooking experience, as my wife and I celebrated our anniversary by working for our dinner.

Nerd toy. Tie between the old school and new school. Old school: drum set, purchased from a work friend and representing one of the biggest challenges to my marriage in more than two decades. Not a good thing to have down the hall from your home office when you're doing a podcast. New school: USB 8-track Alessi mixing console, prompting the completion of the basement "Studio Zero".

T-shirt. Jeph Jacques "Bear Monster" shirt, followed closely by his "Robot Family Tree" shirt. Bear Monster has become my preferred travel t-shirt. Also found out that I'm not the only one who thinks it's important to travel comfy: Cory Doctorow told me he can't understand why anyone who would thousands of dollars for a business class airline ticket, fly in a suit, only to arrive looking rumpled and uncomfortable.

Reading. Finished Neal Stephenson's Anathem to start the year, and it was one of the best books I've read in ages. Worked my way through his Baroque Cycle, all 2,700 or so pages of it, and it was enjoyable but egregiously long. When the stock market was close to its bottom, and New York City was easy to nagivate due to reduced commuter traffic, Cory Doctorow slipped me an advanced reader copy of Makers and it reset a lot of my expectations around work, value, and doing what you love.

Email. None of mine, and not really an email (again). Our daughter got a message that opened with "Congratulations" and was from her first-choice university.

Thoughts for 2010: Striving for "balance" between all parts of my life and those of my family members. Laughing as hard as I did over the July 4th weekend. Spending time on micro-sized projects, whether it's helping the band with their website or getting a friend's consulting business represented in a blog, or investing in economic bootstrapping through Finishing up Professional WordPress and trying hard to write a little bit, each day, along with exercise, eating fruits, spicy sauce, and vegetables daily, and cheering for the home team. A decade ago, we felt that bubble-induced sense of everything being directionally wonderful, and yet almost everything went pear-shaped from our sense of security to the economy to our trust in government institutions. Ten years after, when at times it feels like many things are going wrong, it's time for Randy Pausch's head fake, realizing that we have the means to drive the course correction we want.

Thursday Dec 24, 2009

A Holiday Thought On Social Networks, Science, Faith and A Young Man

I posted this to my sports blog earlier in the week, but wanted to give it wider recognition as it kind of sums up my holiday season feelings.

The holiday season is now in full tilt, with last minute shopping and shipping, final touches to decorations, parties, and either dread or hopeful expectations of time with our families. My own interpretation of this feeling is that captured in the shehecheyanu, the Hebrew prayer said the first time you do something each year, simply giving thanks for bringing us to another season of joy. No matter what you celebrate, there's a miracle wrapped up in there somewhere, giving birth to traditions and patterns that we follow. Being a computer scientist, and a nerd at heart, it's easy to dismiss miracles as articles of faith, when we live by articles of science that are constantly put in juxtaposition and sometimes conflict with faith. We can't use miracles or faith as a mechanism to explain away science, but we can use them to explain our beliefs and actions. Science is what I do; faith is why I do it (more on this later). Put more eloquently in the words of Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, science and faith are different manifestations of the human experience.

This is going to come back to sports and teams with a minor detour through physics. I promise.

Given that backstory and sidebar, this morning I found a Facebook link imploring me to support a Team In Training Paris Marathon run in support of one young man battling leukemia. Like you, I probably receive a half-dozen emails or links like this a week, asking me to support some deserving and important charity effort, but this one struck a chord with several notes: Danny, pictured on the team's page, is the son of one of my childhood friends, and his dad was one of the four of us who played baseball nearly every day in my backyard. He'll get a mention in Eight Days, Eight Nights, my very own Hanukah-tinged hockey book, if and when I ever finish it. His mom was a marching band mate of mine through high school, and on some level this brings back all sorts of good memories of holiday-time band fund raising drives, with the full-force spirit of Harry L. Dinkle in the air. And in my sophomore year of high school, we lost a fellow student to leukemia, a morning I haven't forgotten for 32 years. Team In Training, the group handling the fundraising and sponsorship, is a professional organization, and I've supported them before when one of my co-workers decided to train for a distance running event as a fundraiser of her own.

What struck me the most, however, is that the woman exercising, literally, her networking skills to run in the Paris Marathon is cousins with Danny's mom. My cousins are and were my first social network; they brought together differences in views and experiences and maturity that resulted in my interest in computers, attending my first Devils game, and discovering the real value of Bob Cousy basketball card buried in a pile handed to us by our common grandfather.

So here's the ask: support Lisa Conti's Paris Marathon Team In Training fundariser, in honor of Danny LaPatin. Think of it as another stocking stuffer, or extra large latte, for someone you haven't met, which truly defines the spirit of the holiday season. It's a chance to help science through faith, and explore the nuclear physics that bind our social networks together - that trust, blood, friendship, or other chemistry has us swapping electronica with each other on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or in MeetUps. Donate and pass on the message. Let's see if we can get Lisa over her goal by December 25th.

Donate now.

Happy Holidays everyone, and let's thoroughly rock the new decade.

Wednesday Dec 23, 2009

Avatar: Putting the Rich In Rich Presentation

Went to see Avatar last night, on the flat silver screen instead of the 3-D version. In a word, it was spectacular. In other words, it was an homage, but not in the Dances With Wolves simile that seems to be popular.

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.

Visually, Avatar was quite simply the best movie I've seen. Ever. For once, the movie wasn't about the special effects or how many things or people exploded with life-like splatter. The effects were great, but it was the photography and world-building that created context for the photography that made this movie. Personally, I felt that many of the Pandoran geographic elements were taken right out of the Roger Dean album cover book, including "Arches Mist" (the Pandoran holy site) and the "Floating Islands" riff that appears in Avatar as the floating mountains. Whether or not James Cameron borrowed from, or was inspired by, Roger Dean, the movie had me experiencing a fully animated interpretation of some of my favorite artwork of all time. It's one of the few cases where seeing something like this left me invigorated and excited, eager to see it again, rather than disappointed at the lack of attention to detail.

The most dismissive treatment of Avatar is that it's Dances with Wolves set in space. Making that comparison, however, ignores the body of prior science fiction art and misses the some of the underlying themes. The closest comparison I can draw (and again, whether homage, sampling or borrowing, I can't say) is to Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, the second book in the original Ender series. In Speaker, we're introduced to life forms that are vaguely anthropromorphic in some ways but have intensely alien connections to their environment that drive the conflict through the book.

Bottom line: this is one I'm going to see again before it leaves theaters, and the last movie that got a double dip from me was the first Toy Story in 1995, because it set the bar for computer animation. Avatar resets the bar for rich presentation of a rich storyline.

Tuesday Dec 15, 2009

Families Are In Season

Had an interesting Facebook repartee with a purely online friend -- never met her in person, but I know her through her family. Her late uncle was a big influence in my life. She was lamenting her family fighting it out in public, and I offered the following, as it seems families and family fights are in season:

The best we can do this time of year is sit down with a huge plate of food, and recognize that we're not perfect, that families aren't perfect, but families are the strongest thing we have. They survive time, conflict and distance better than religion, armies and governments. If everyone promises to stop doing one thing to annoy the other family members and start doing one thing to be a better member of the family, those are all the New Year's resolutions we need.

Random thoughts while stuck in SFO for four more hours.

Cloud Computing and Barriers to Entry

Part two of my early December trip took to me Shefayyim, Israel, for the IGT 2009 World Cloud Computing Summit. I'll admit to being biased when visiting Israel for technology reasons, because the so much in the country convolves the best of hard-charging technologists, the "pioneer spirit" (what Americans would call entrepreneurial efforts, but applied from agriculture to housing to immigration), and some seriously spicy food.

I'll start with the food, where I managed to eat what I could say in Hebrew: ice coffee, eggs, blintz, cheese, grapefruit, and chareef (spicy pepper sauce). This trip I upgraded to Breakfast 2.0 and distinguished chareef adom (red pepper harissa) from chareef yarok (green Scotch Bonnet pepper condiments, assured to damage your taste buds). I also know the Hebrew word for "horse" but fortunately it wasn't a breakfast option.

Best part of the show around the show was spending time with MBA students from Tel Aviv University who wanted to understand the implications of cloud computing for Israeli companies. They seeded me with questions: Do Israeli companies have any advantages in the market and would cloud computing make it harder for new companies to enter the infrastructure markets?

I based my answer on my first visit to Israel in the 1980s, when finding a working pay phone to call back to the States was an adventure in locating special-purpose tokens for the phones, finding a phone that felt like working, and then hoping that the time zones aligned when I had enough coins for the call. Almost two decades later, I visited Israel again: everyone had at least one cell phone and I had my choice of cellular carriers -- at the top of Masada, on the edge of the desert. I believe the lack of a built-out landline infrastructure stimulated the mobile uptake, and as a result the Israeli consumer is much more used to the cell phone as an data access endpoint. Creating software as a service or applications delivered over wireless networks is much easier when it's ingrained in the social fabric of the developers and the more seasoned managers.

While my interviewers were looking for me to present challenges for new companies entering the market, I described why I think cloud computing may reduce barriers to entry. Abstraction (through virtualization) hides implementation details, making it easier for cloud computing providers to change, upgrade or extend implementations without disrupting the services running on top of them. Have a better idea for a router, storage switch, VPC manager, or other device that would sit in the consumer-to-disk data path? Provided that its provisioning, operation and installation are hidden through the virtualization engines exposed to the user, you're only dealing with the provider's installed base, not the installed base of the installed base of users.

Finally, I got the required question about military experience and any benefits it might provide in cloud computing. My view of defense-related applications (whether using or building them) is that they have three strong requirements: security, reliability, and correctness (auditability, consistency, and known failure modes, for starters). Those tend to be the same issues raised as concerns around cloud computing, so I see something of a natural fit between in-country expertise and in-cloud demands.

Converging to "Good" Content

I've been trying to intersect a variety of conversations lately -- a Wikipedia board member on the editing and document model for his work; our SunSpace engineers in terms of the value of community equity; and editing work with two co-authors on a book about WordPress (an interesting task given the existence of the WordPress Codex.

In each case, the key question is "How do we know we're converging or improving the quality of what we have?" This problem shows up in various ways, depending upon the editing context. SunSpace is our internal wiki for collecting technical expertise about our products, services and industry applications of them. It has all of the benefits of a wiki (ease of editing, multi-author editing, revision history) but also the downsides as well (frequent editing, no clear indication of whether the new version is better than the old, and the occasional keyboard error that displaces valuable content).

One of the biggest problems with a large wiki, with an even larger volume of rapidly changing content, is that it's hard to ascribe value to what's in it. We've tied a notion of community equity to SunSpace, giving equity kickers for creation, re-use, and participation. The last point is the creative one, because it encourages ranking, voting and manipulation of what's in the wiki. There's very little value in being a write-only memory; there's tremendous value in knowing what stimulated conversation, contention, and competition. What I like about community equity is that it captures the value of expertise, and rewards interactions, not just outputs.

A team meeting two weeks ago with the SunSpace engineers got me thinking about a long-standing discussion I'd had on the editorial and content management model for Wikipedia. In short: how do you know that the quality of an entry is improving? It's possible to tie a ranking engine like community equity to a Wikipedia entry, and use references (people who land on the page and read it) as well as voting (like/dislike buttons) to measure the surface area quality of the entry.

But now add a time element to it, and look at the overall equity of the entry as it undergoes revision and extension. Is it trending upward, in which case the crowdsourcing of the content is a valuable effort? Or is it gyrating, perhaps with a large dynamic range, indicating that successive edits are trending toward opinion and interpretation, and less based on facts or measurable, objective evidence. If enough people like or appreciate the net changes to an entry, then it's "good enough" even if it rubs the original entry author or subsequent editors the wrong way. I had this exact experience adding my own thoughts to the Wikipedia entry on Princeton's Colonial Club, where I felt capturing a bit of the 70s and 80s would flesh out a much more recent history. Seems like the page authors didn't agree with me, and my edits soon vanished. I'd prefer if the decision was made by the readers and consumers of the page, rather than an arbitrary editorial board. Of course, for content that triggers the whipsawing of public opinion, it's time to bring in the professional encyclopedic editors.

Wikis don't obviate the need for good content publishing and production processes, as we've learned with our SunSpace work, but they do give us a platform in which to build and measure equity in a broad sense.

Wednesday Sep 23, 2009

Equity in Communities

Much is written about equity, capital and networking, particularly when prefaced with "social" to ascribe some value to sites such as Facebook, Yahoo or Twitter. Conflating these terms reduces their utility in describing the problem space.

Equity is a measure of value. Tells you how much something is worth, net net of whatever detracting, devaluing or impairing items surround it. Not just equity in the stockholder sense, but brand equity, personal equity, and

Capital is a working form of equity. Capital needs markets - networked communities - that agree on pricing, valuation, transfer, forward transactions, and membership. Capital markets may be the US Treasury auctions, or Kiva microfinance networks of affiliated microlenders.

Networking is what makes those values fungible. It's the basis for exchange of value and for disseminating values.

Assigning value to members of a community isn't a new idea: eBay has member feedback; Cory Doctorow introduced the concept of "whuffie" as a form of social contribution measurement in in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and that idea spawned Tara Hunt's Whuffie Factor. In a large technical community, what are the elements that create value, and what things detract from it? In particular, when you're dealing with technical documents and design patterns that share the half-life of the underlying technologies, last year's contributions have to be discounted versus updates and current interactions. On the other hand, this kind of value doesn't really fit into a market model - would you exchange two Hadoop experts for a graph theoretician? Measurement only makes sense if the semantic contexts are the same, and technologists are not necessarily players in an organizational fantasy league.

That's the set of problems that Peter Reiser and team set out to tackle when defining "community equity," a measurement of contribution and participation. Community equity rewards content publishers but equally recognizes those who interact with the content, as the commenters, redistributors and fine-tuners of content give the community heft. Can you imagine Twitter without retweeting or responses?

Peter and I talked about the state of equity measurement, code availability and what some more down to earth views of "semantic web technology" might be in the latest Innovating@Sun podcast; check out the audio stream and related links.

Saturday Aug 29, 2009

Renaissance On Tour (Again)

There are a few groups that I grew up listening to but never had the chance to see live; with reunion tours and better medicine, I've been able to catch Yes, Genesis, Rush, and others live. But I have always longed to hear Renaissance, with Annie Haslam, in a small venue, with high-end sound.

Today Renaissance 2009 announced a tour starting in Pennsylvania (near Haslam's Bucks County home) in October. I already have tickets; eagerly awaiting news on the lineup. Will Jon Camp will rejoin with his Squire-esque Rickenbacker sound? Rave Tesar (recently toured with Haslam) or John Tout on keyboards? Doesn't matter to me; it's a 30-year old wish granted.


Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management


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