Friday Jun 19, 2009

xkcd and Home Run Hitters

I adore Randall Munroe's xkcd comic, mostly for the math jokes. I define "geek" as someone who uses epsilon in a sentence, so anything that references irrational number or NP-completeness is good for several laughs.

And here I thought I was the only one who made Erdos number jokes. Unfortunately, Erdos number theorists would dispute validity of newly acquired Erdos deuces (my newly minted term, flame my way) using Hank Aaron as a counter-example of how not to hit a theoretical home run through signature power alone.

Tip of the hockey bubble to Eszter Hargittai - an early morning tweet pointed to the fact that Google searches trying to grok the punchline were trending up this morning.

In case my nerdiness was in doubt, net summary of first hour of consciousness on this Friday: Saw a Facebook status update via Twitter that referenced an online comic that made a math joke about Erdos number 2 and made me think of Hank Aaron.

So I blogged about it. That's where my kids say "Dad, you're a nerd". That's a geek round-tripper.

Thursday Apr 16, 2009

Days One and Two: Headlines and Hockey

I had a great time meeting the sales team in Mexico City. We had close to 200 people at our town hall, and I was struck by the pre-meeting activity. Nearly everyone was congregated in the back of the room, talking to each other, rather than filling seats or checking email and messages. Despite traffic that added nearly an hour to some quasi-local travel, everyone was more interested in real-world social networking, the kind that requires coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

My peer Denis Heraud, Senior Vice President of Sun's Emerging Markets Region, made a fabulous point during the question and answer session: someone had asked about compensation for complex deals, and Denis pointed out that everybody - commissioned sales people and engineers, those on bonus plans, even engineers - derives the majority of their pay as salary. Salary is not deal specific. It's a function of teamwork and execution. As the company gets smaller, flatter and leaner, our ability to use teamwork -- internally and externally with our partner community -- is going to make our combined output greater than the sum of individual efforts.

I saw the seedlings of that kind of teamwork in the back of the room, persisting after the huevos ran out, and it came through in meetings with our systems engineers.

Logistics for the 2nd leg of this trip required that I leave Mexico City about half a day after arriving, although that was enough time for me to exhaust my (primarily food oriented) Spanish vocabulary. I believe I ordered fish tacos and hot peppers for lunch; sadly I can't phrase the gradations of caliente or picante that properly represent what my mouth felt like for the next half an hour.

Next stop: Johannesburg for a similar set of meetings. Long non-stop flights are an opportunity to completely disconnect from the non-stop stream of email, phone calls and sports score updates. It was nice to get a flurry of text messages with Devils score updates from their first-round NHL playoff game when I changed planes in Paris, but at 2:00 AM New Jersey time I had no chance to connect with my family or friends to celebrate their victory in a more personal way.

I wrote most of this from 39,000 feet, literally passing Kilamanjaro on the way, while also finishing the first book in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and knocking off a backlog of ESPN Magazine issues whose predictions and commentary seem dated only a month after being printed. There's a stark contrast between the two that goes far beyond heft and format. Stephenson uses four centuries of historical context and deep creativity to create a tale that spans 900 pages (per book); with less than 10% of the page count and perhaps 5% of the content volume, one of my favorite sports publications had trouble holding my interest given that real-time updates (scores, standings, and public fan outcry) reduced its time value rapidly.

Sidebar and specific data point: ESPN, The Hockey News and the last issue of Beckett's Hockey Card Guide, all plane reading material, all mentioned the NJ Devils' Travis Zajac as a player to watch during the NHL playoffs. Interesting in that all three keyed on the same fact at roughly the same time; less interesting in that those of us who follow the team with a mascot that looks like the cross-breeding of Steven Van Zandt and Hellboy were aware of Zajac's prowess before "bailout" became a breakfast word.

What's the point? What's the aggregation and mash-up of the time value of data, journalism, interpretation and face to face meetings? Simple: In every employee meeting I've had in the past few weeks, from one-to-ones to one-to-Mexico City, people have asked about press headlines involving Sun. I don't have comments on the headlines, but I do find myself commenting on the press:

Copy & Paste isn't journalism. Look carefully at the "hundreds" of stories on any topic, and you'll find that most of them are syndicated stories from AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, or other news sources with varied headlines. A hundred local writers banging out headlines isn't news; it's redistribution. I don't have details but I'm betting that the number of hockey writers learning to spell "Zajac" started with either of the Devils' beat writers - Rich Chere or Tom Gulitti.

The internet isn't killing newspapers, newspapers are killing newspapers. The internet has dramatically changed the time value of news, especially for real-time data (financial, sports, weather). On the other hand, the internet doesn't create commentary, insight, and interpretation (flame wars in comment threads not included); that's why we have reports and news organizations. I still get ESPN Magazine and the Hockey News because I like their commentary and analysis; neither of them publish standings or statistics unless it's in support of a critical analysis. I subscribe to my weekly town newspaper; but I don't read the Newark Star Ledger or Bergen Record - I get better Devils coverage out of Devils blogs where physical constraints of column inches and financial burdens of ad support don't limit the content.

I'd prefer we write our own headlines. One of my favorite youth hockey coaches (known affectionately as a Real Screamer) used to tell his players never to read their own headlines. He wouldn't let me, as manager, keep statistics, he refused to see milestones such as qualifying for the state playoffs as meaningful because he believed that they caused players to look at the headline, and not the whole story that needed to be developed. Focus, teamwork and execution write the headlines.

Without putting on the rusty propeller hat, I can clearly recall the trade press writing about Apple in 1995. If you believed those headlines, put your iPods and iPhones down. Apple figured out what it was (consumer products company), how to get there (leadership and cost), and did so. The spectacular output of my trip through multiple hemispheres is seeing first-hand how Sun has the people, product and energy to write its own headlines.

Tuesday Jun 10, 2008

MoCCA 2008 (and a Haiku)

Went to the MoCCA show again this past weekend, for the second year in a row. Once again, it was an incredibly hot day in SoHo; but it was equal parts fun, laughing and meeting people. Got many compliments on my metallic Clango shirt, and R.Stevens himself noted it was the same shirt that had been on the Great Wall of China with me a mere three months ago. He was in awe that I saw that much on business; I was in awe that he can draw that much for business; we called it even.

[Warning: links may contain content that is strong-R, not work appropriate and definitely frowned upon by someone's parents. I know you'll click from home]. Finally got to meet Meredith Gran of Octopus Pie creative talent, as well as Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content. I was truly bummed I missed Randall Munroe of xkcd because he may be the only other person in the world who makes jokes about NP-completeness, and yet he does it professionally.

A few things struck me this year: It was much more crowded than last year, which I take to be a good sign for the self-publishing Internet comic crowd. Richard Stevens was doing a brisk business in themed socks; I ended up coming home with stickers, buttons, a Jacques sketch, an Octopus Pie book, and a hardbound copy of Rutu Modan's graphic novel Exit Wounds. It was something of a Woody Allen movie setting, with my father (an artist) and sister (a fairly stereotypical New Yorker) accompanying me as we kept running into Jewish themed work and I dreaded that we should feel guilt over having so much fun with the material: Rutu Modan's work, Hereville (a comic about a young Orthodox Jewish girl), talking to Miriam Libicki (and buying a copy of Toward a Hot Jew, her comic treatise on the Israeli soldier, all puns intended) and leafing through a copy of Joan Sfar's Klezmer comics (later purchased via after I regretted not purchasing it at the show). My take-away was that comics provide another medium for telling short, powerful stories; the graphic novels popularized by train-bound Japanese salarymen convey more than just a simple train of thought. One of the exhibitors, Marek Bennett teaches the value of comics as educational vehicles.

Comics aren't serious business, of course, because they're comics, and even Michael Chabon's story about the comic book lives of comic book creators can't make them mainstream. I think that's why they appeal to closet system administrators like me. But I was left the with distinct impression that as an art form ideally suited for online syndication and serialization, one that benefits tremendously from relaxed copyright enforcement (Diesel Sweeties, Octopus Pie and xkcd are all available under Creative Commons licenses) to drive recommendation and readership, and the quenching of our thirst for graphical content with creative use of space and color to convey context as well as information, self-published web comics are in their infancy - the start of another golden age of things parents still don't approve of.


FM dial temps

Gran, Jacques, and R. Stevens pix

Missed Randall Munroe.

Tuesday Dec 18, 2007

Cory Doctorow Comics

Combining my love for off-beat comics with an overtly fan-boy consumption of Cory Doctorow led me to my own Brighton Beach Memoirs moment of perfect mash-ups: I'm now in possession of the first three Cory Doctorow comic books based on his short stories.

The artwork is fantastic, the realizations of the characters contain enough subtle hints and jokes to make each panel worthy of a Hidden Mickey-like scan, and they're, well, cool comics. If you didn't know that Doctorow and other current fave Charles Stross collaborated on a few stories (and that Stross' work draws heavily on H.P. Lovecraft), you'd find the sysadm sporting a "Hello, Cthulhu" t-shirt only mildly amusing instead of an entreaty to open "When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth."

To quote Jerry from Craphound, each one is a poem in colors and a story in layout.

Wednesday Oct 17, 2007

Comic King of Jersey

I've blogged at various times about Diesel Sweeties, including characters and panels from the egregiously funny mind of R. Stevens to illustrate a point. Now I'm forced to admit the truth: I love comics. While I'm a huge fan of animation in all forms (from Pixar films to Disney classics to the stop-motion Gumby shows to Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds), comics hold a special spot in my entertainment spectrum. I don't collect comic books, but I am a fan of compendiums, collections, and anthologies that piece together some of my favorite serialized strips: Calvin and Hobbes, Diesel Sweeties, Funky Winkerbean, Dilbert, and at some point in the future, xkcd (linked to a software- and work-appropriate strip).

There's something resembling engineering in setting up a joke or cultural reference in just a few frames, building on everything from internet memes to cross-references with the author's personal likes and dislikes. Charles Schultz, a hockey fan, made sure Snoopy had a miniature Zamboni for Woodstock's frozen birdbath-turned-hockey rink, popularizing the Zamboni more than TC coverage of the NHL. Bill Watterson had recrurring, and hilarious, snowmen riffs appearing in Calvin and Hobbes.

Despite following most strips online, I still love to pick up the occasional book. This week's acquisition was the first set of Diesel Sweeties syndicated strips, which I ordered with the souvenir Clango t-shirt so that it arrived personalized by R. Stevens. If he thinks I'm the "King of Jersey", who am I to argue? In the comic world, you can suspend all belief, three panels at a time.


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


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