Monday Apr 20, 2009

Day 6: Bengaluru and Tiger Tech

Back into something resembling a chronological sequence: blogging from the front row of the ITC Window hotel meeting room, where we'll host the Bengaluru Sun employee Town Hall later this morning. I arrived in Bengaluru after a semi-redeye that left Johannesburg and deposited me into Mumbai airport a few minutes after midnight. After a transfer and an early (3:30 am early) flight, I found myself in the new Bangalore airport. This is my first visit to India in nearly two years, and Bengaluru seems quieter, even perhaps more organized. The freeway from the airport to the city was easily navigated (although it was 5:30 in the morning).

There is a movement under way to officially change the designation of the city from Bangalore to Bengaluru, recognizing and celebrating its correct local pronunciation rather than a Westernization simplification. Of course, I was tempted to try to align the Western "Bengal" prefix into some root of Bengaluru, but I've been corrected that the two words have no common etymology. It didn't stop me from thinking "Bengal tiger" however, and noticing the airport posters promoting conversation and protection of the black and orange cats.

Part three in a continuing series of random thoughts about technology and local issues: a great story about using telemetry to track tigers and therefore improve the efficacy of tiger conversation efforts. Taking digital pictures of tigers as they cross fixed points is as strong as single-factor identification (unless there are tigers prowling with pirated stripes). Easier than collaring, less intrusive than tracking, and another example of using technology in support of future-looking, local culture.

Day Four: Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

It's so rare for me to have an "off day" while traveling on business that I'm remarkably lazy about preparing an itinerary. My usual plan includes: find some entertainment in a local casino and/or Hard Rock Cafe, if they exist (I'm a creature of habit); look for local Jewish historical culture (I've been to the synagogue in Shanghai); explore a museum with unique local significance.

I wasn't mentally prepared for my trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg; it's a moving and intense experience that could have easily taken four hours to absorb fully. I was drained after two hours, and I described the intensity of the exhibits and story-telling as similar what I felt in Yad VaShem, the Jerusalem museum and memorial to the Holocaust.

I had a two-part reaction to the timeliness of the museum -- first, it's remarkable that a museum has been developed and gained popularity in less than a full generation since the deconstruction of apartheid, and yet the museum chronicles the roots of issues going back two or more centuries. Second, some of the intensity derives from many of the events chronicled occurring in my adult life; from mid-1980s on-campus protests for universities to divest of holdings in South Africa to the freedom of Nelson Mandela and the victory of his African National Congress. Others, like the death of Stephen Bantu Biko, I had heard about in song (Peter Gabriel's "Biko" was ringing in my ears) but for them I had little context until I walked through the story personally. It was at that moment that I drew the parallel to the Yad VaShem memorial, which exhorts us to continue to "bear witness" so that we develop a collective history and resistance to broad-scale human rights and dignity issues. Those of us who witnessed the joy of Mandela's release from prison have a responsibility to re-tell the context of the basic human rights issues that made it the literal turning point in a museum gallery. The Stephen Biko Foundation puts a simpler point on it: "a foundation of ideas; a memory bank for the nation." Discussion and respect.

However, my first hint that I was in over my jet-lagged head came when I bought my ticket and was handed a card that said "Whites" on it. Approaching the entrance to the museum, guests are separated into two turnstiles clearly labeled "Whites" and "Non-Whites". The first exhibit as you proceed through the turnstile explains the racial classification system that was the basis for enforcing apartheid.

Classification is something we take for granted in the social networking space; we use hash tags on Twitter and Technorati tags to better provide context for our content. Just as my encounter with the Mozambique hawker made me think of technical opportunity in a positive way, seeing the effort put into classification of people for the purpose of deciding their rights made me shudder. Not to dismiss Richard Stallman, it's not just about software being free; it's about software enabling freedom.

Days 3-5: No Natural Barriers

Despite my luggage trailing me by twelve hours, the Johannesburg leg of the trip got off to a good start. My hotel was adjacent to a casino, and where there's a casino there's usually a men's clothing store amidst other shopping adventures. Sure enough, I arrived at the door of a popular South African menswear store two minutes after closing time. But the store staff let me in, I bought the only thing that fit me (a cotton sweater), and was set for Day Three of the trip.

Friday morning was spent with customers, Friday afternoon with Sun employees in a Town Hall format. It was another great set of discussions with employees about team work and customer focus. While it's impossible to understand the culture, politics, and people of any country in just a few days, I left with a few strong impressions.

Johannesburg has no natural barriers. Many cities are built nestled against a mountain range, on the banks of a river, or around a natural ocean harbor, springing up with defense or low-cost transportation in mind. Johannesburg arose up on top of the gold mines, and driving around the city you'll see small mountains of mine excavations and the constructs of mine heads.

Sports are an international language; rivalry is an international boundary-drawing technique. Cricket, rugby, field hockey, and soccer are a big deal. Hotel staff wore jerseys from their favorite soccer teams on Friday, extending the notion of what constitutes a "uniform" and providing grounds for a lot of discussion and good-natured kidding. Preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup are well underway (that's the pixelated style stadium under construction), and the road construction has a pronounced impact on weekday traffic in and around the "business area" of Johannesburg. The Indian Premier Cricket League began play on Saturday in Johannesburg, mixing a bit of American-style cheerleading and in-stadium "production" (read: theme music) with international cricket. Saw a field hockey team in the airport and felt a bit sheepish wearing an ice hockey t-shirt. In the airport, I picked up a VodaCom Cheetahs rugby hat, and was asked "Do you support them?" I only answered that I liked the hat, out of concern for stepping into the local equivalent of Red Sox-Yankees politics.

With the national election coming up next week, political posters abound in a truly multi-party system. It was equally interesting (to me) to see the surfeit of attention given to Barack Obama, from Shep Fairey-style portraits of ANC candidates mimicking the "Hope" poster to t-shirts of Obama for sale in a local mall. In the airport, Obama's books line the top shelf of the news stand side by side with those of South African writers and political figures.

Saturday afternoon had me in an open-air market, haggling over the price of a beaded zebra figure. The "hawker" showed me his "cash register" - a combination of his Mozambique passport, his South African visa and neatly folded bills. He brings his handcrafts over the border at regular intervals, sleeping in or near the market for weeks at a time, repeating the process in a commute that includes an international boundary described in at least half a dozen languages. I was immediately reminded of Kiva, the micro loan, crowd-sourced company that helps micro-scale businesses grow by infusing them with capital in reasonable sizes and terms. When the zebra joins the menagerie of other figures I've purchased on various long-haul trips, it will remind me of boundaries, and how we have a technology opportunity (and imperative) to help cross them.

Thursday Apr 16, 2009

(Customer) Service Oriented Architecture: Air France Fail

Day two of my emerging markets trip had me leaving Mexico City, changing planes in Paris, and continuing on to Johannesburg, South Africa. The departure side of the trip was a pleasure, including an extra spicy fish taco lunch and a smooth exit/entrance/rescan going through the gauntlet at Charles De Gaul airport. Despite the fact that airport security confiscated a bottle of whiskey I was toting for a friend in SA (they claimed it had to be bagged, even though it was sealed, in the original gift box and I had the duty-free receipt, someone in Paris is enjoying a bit of Jacques du Tennessee), it was almost too easy.

When I went to board the plane, though, Air France didn't find my ticket. This should have sent off loud klaxons for me, and should have initiated something of a "tie off the loose ends" set of transactions -- if I wasn't auto-checked in, then my bag was likely not going anywhere either. The gate agent re-assigned me into a seat, but the transaction died on the network vine. Somewhere around the equator, a flight attendant handed me a message saying I should contact baggage service in Johannesburg. Good news: they found my bag. Bad news: it was enjoying a vacation in France without me. As soon as AF realized that my ticket wasn't checked in, a series of transactions to find my bag, route it to the plane, and verify if it could be loaded within the departure window should have commenced without any whining or outside influence. Wasn't this the whole point of SOA?

While some analysts proclaim the death of SOA, the idea isn't bad, as long as the focus is on delivering some sort of result. What Air France needs is a mix of real-time request routing, SOA, and a focus on customer service.

Thirteen hours after landing, and 2 hours after my bag supposedly was supposed to arrive behind me, I still haven't heard from Air France. No idea where my bag is, or if or when I'll see it. They're doing their best to ensure I don't fly with them again, as it appears my luggage experience is far from unique.

If SOA is dead and social networking is alive, here's an idea: What if Air France's customer service people follow negative threads on Twitter or blogs? The "service" that matters here is customer service, whether automated or not, and human intervention in human problems frequently goes further than automated admissions of cluelessness.

Personally, I think it's the evil karma of wearing a suit that has come back to re-route the suits themselves away from me, but I don't have the tweets to prove it.

Tuesday Apr 14, 2009

Day Zero: Emerging Markets and Bath Tubs

I'm about to leave for a 4-city trip to our emerging markets region, visiting Mexico City (April 15), Johannesburg (April 17), Bangalore (April 21) and Mumbai (April 23). I'm hugely looking forward to talking to employees, customers, partners, and the media along the way. I'm going to remain Jersey-connected, at least virtually, as the NJ Devils start the NHL playoffs on Wednesday, and I'm also scheduled to keynote the virtual Cloud Clamp 09 on April 23rd.

Time zones can work to your advantage: my April 23 keynote is at 10:00 AM Eastern but 7:30 PM Mumbai local time, so I'll be webcasting from my hotel room. Most of the Devils games are at either midnight or 5:30 AM in local time. Caffeine and bandwidth will bend space-time, or at least it may seem that way. I've made a mental note not to add my own Sterling tones when Matt Loughlin announces a Devils goal. However, the increasingly superstitious part of me knows that the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2000 purely because I rebroadcast the exploits of Patrik Elias and Sergei Brylin using the reverberation of my Boston hotel bath tub for dramatic effect.

Speaking of bath tubs (and here you thought it was a non-sequitur)...

My Cloud Slam talk will tie together levels of abstraction and Bath Tub Curves with an emphasis on how they shape the reliability mechanisms used for cloud computing. Seriously.

Monday Aug 11, 2008

Not So Evil Twin

I always wanted a brother (and got one in the deal when I got married, which has been yet another huge win). But now I have a not-so-evil twin brother in (nerd) arms, too.

Me on the left, Art Licht on the right. We are frequently confused for each other, for obvious reasons:

  • "Licht" in German means "light"; "Stern" in German means "star". You cannot dismiss surname-employer word association.
  • Art and I frequently cross paths between New Jersey and Florida.
  • We both enjoy talking about storage disruptions.

    This picture was taken immediately after someone at the Americas Sales Meeting registration desk said "Art, you already registered."

  • Olympic Proportions

    I'm regularly blown away by the comparative "regular guy" nature of hockey players, from kids to adult beer leaguers to professionals who will stop to talk, meet fans, and sign anything (or anyone) at just about anytime.

    Today's coolness: I'm on my way to San Francisco, in Newark airport for a flight delay that is now just about as long as the flight itself (hey, mid-day thunderstorms will do that, no harm, no foul on this one). At this point I'm unclear as to whether I renewed my airport lounge membership, or what affinity card works where. So I tried, was given a polite "no", and then the guy in line next to me says "He can be my guest, he's a fellow hockey guy." All because I'm wearing my favorite "Miracle on Ice" t-shirt, attempting to channel a bit of the spirit of Lake Placid to our athletes in Beijing (wrong season, wrong sports, right idea).

    Turns out my line-mate of the random rotation plays (more seriously than I do) in Chicago, is equally delayed here in Newark, and was just being nice. You want the antidote to air (or road) rage? Play more hockey.

    Thursday Jul 17, 2008

    Not So Wild Blue Yonder

    Five thoroughly marginal tips for flying cross-country on a regular basis:

    1. Pack an extra t-shirt in your carry-on. Several times, I've been thankful that I had a clean, dry shirt to swap out for one that was covered in coffee, soda, or something worse (only once, but it was really vile). If you don't wear it, you can roll it up and use it as a neck pillow. Current t-shirt of choice for redeyes: Underarmour relaxed fit short sleeve: soft and warm.

    2. Instant oatmeal packs and a spoon > "Something in a wrap". Sometimes you don't quite know what the meal is, and other times you can decipher the wrapper that's been heat-welded to its contents and decide you'd rather pass. A few packets of instant oatmeal and a spoon are a wonderful alternative. Have the galley attendant pour 1/2 a cup of hot water into an insulated cup, you are Sir Mix-A-Lot of Row 12.

    3. Sit on the aisle opposite your handed-ness. Lefties like me do better in the D-E-F right-hand side of the plane, particularly on the aisle. If you're trying to work on the brain annhilator strength puzzle, your writing arm and elbow can drift (somewhat safely) into the aisle rather than the midsection of the person next to you. A window seat yields the same benefit if the middle seat is empty, versus banging your elbow on the side of the plane as you frantically scribble notes for the talk you're due to give upon arrival.

    4. Check your seat for power and width. The newer Continental 737-800 equipment has in-seat power, but only about halfway back. Many of the seemingly extra legroom bulkhead row seats are actually less comfortable than those in regular rows since they have the tray tables set between seats, reducing their effective width a few inches. For those of us in the shape more commonly called "round", cross-row seat spacing matters as much as seat pitch. I'm a big fan of SeatGuru to get a projection of my bin-packing problem.

    5. Dunkin Donuts is portable. I bring the small individual serving sized vacuum packs of ground coffee and my own filters; any hotel with a coffee maker turns into a mobile Dunkies outpost. Since I'm an iced coffee fiend, I'll make a pot the night before, let it cool in the in-room fridge, and then add ice to my DD-logo cup for a bit of the home coffee field advantage on the road.

    Wednesday Jul 02, 2008

    Random Thoughts En Route to Berlin

    There's very little glamorous about business travel. Continental has managed to maintain a perfect batting average in the past three weeks: five out of five flights have been an hour or more late. I'm going to spend about 24 hours in Berlin, and while it's the second time I'm visiting the city on business, I've never seen the remnants of the Berlin wall, the Brandenberg gate, or bought a Steiff bear. Hoping to correct some of these cultural deficiencies on this trip, if there are a few spare hours between our last plenary and bulk food.

    Music: "In the Cage", Genesis Live Over Europe; "Pass the Peas", Maceo Parker Roots & Grooves (the bass line and guitar solo in this version just kill); "Ozark", Pat Metheny Group As Falls Wichita; "Your Majesty Is Like A Creme Donut", Hatfield and the North, The Rotter's Club; "Lines on My Face", Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive. There's probably some bizarre Cambridge (UK) connection between Genesis and Hatfield; I'm waiting for someone at our GSE meeting to fill me in (last year, someone handed me a sampler CD of Porcupine Tree and I was hooked).

    Words: Finishing up Rush drummer Neal Peart's Ghost Rider, the travelogue of his 55,000 mile journey during which he attempted to re-assemble his life after the deaths of his wife and daughter. I read his Road Show: Landscape with Drums and adored the travel writing interspersed with behind the scenes concert vignettes so I went one level deeper into his work. Great backdrop for having seen Rush just a few weeks ago; the books provider greater appreciation of Peart's lyrics on the last two Rush releases.

    Threads: I may be able to complete the hat trick of Diesel Sweeties venue-appropriate shirts: I'm currently sporting the metallic Clango shirt to arrive in Berlin, a tangential nod to Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk; on my way to Montreal on Friday I'll cross the border in my Canada maple leaf shirt and then for California the week after, it's Electric Sheep and obscure Blade Runner references. The electric sheep shirt gets only slightly fewer stares than my xkcd sudo shirt, but that's part of un-glamour of business travel. I tend to travel comfortably unless I'm going directly from plane to meeting; if I have time to change I'm going to represent the Sun brand in my behavior (despite any number of delays, bad meals and weak coffee servings) but dress code reverts to my peculiar brand of culture.

    Tuesday Jul 01, 2008

    Non-Random Thoughts On The Way to Berlin

    If I'm going to make a serious effort to improve my writing, and maintain something of a regular cadence, then I should attempt to blog every work day. I don't want to make yet another resolution on some calendar boundary condition that only returns "true" for a few days. I'm going to make a concerted effort to write with the clockwork regularity of gulping my daily Dunkin Donuts allowance: that means something every work day. One of the deciding factors is a need to be more transparent about what I'm trying to drive in Global Systems Engineering, and how that relates to our customers, our markets and the industries in which Sun has a presence. There's no better way to get that transparency than to essentially open up the daily diary.

    Today's plan: I'm writing this 39,000 feet over France (listening to Genesis Live Over Europe, which just struck me as coincidental) on my way to Berlin to meet with the systems engineering management of our entire European region. We're about to get into the thick of kick-off season, where each country or group of countries hosts a meeting that's one part strategy setting and one part celebration. I try to convey my messages to as broad a cross-section of our management team as I can, allowing them to translate into local language, local emphasis and local culture. My themes this year: how we are going to grow into the space created by the "big trends" in computing infrastructure, how we are going to fuel that growth through cross-field organization teamwork, and how we equip those teams with stronger technical skills and communities in which to share, grow and highlight the applications of those skills. Customers, Competencies, Communities. That's FY09 in a GSE nutshell, to borrow a phrase from Tim O'Reilly.

    Monday Jun 02, 2008

    Haiku of the Week

    Springtime Bar Mitzvah

    Not WKRP

    in Cincinatti.

    Seasons, hope, tinge of sadness (I'm dying for an unedited box set of WKRP) and travel delays: all of the thematic elements of a Haiku, or at least what passes for one in these parts.

    Bit Errors

    I encountered trio of bit errors this weekend on a family trip to Cincinnati. Each had me thinking about scale and context in different ways, and I only noticed the similarity while cropping photos of those things I found anomalous to roughly equal degrees.

    First up was this advertisement for Dunkin' Donuts souvenir Mets cups, commemorating the last season to be played at Shea Stadium. Aside from the fact that Mets fans have endured, rather than celebrated, Shea for nearly four decades, it's not as bad as the banner ad might lead you to believe. Here's where a catchy slogan for the campaign would be helpful, otherwise, anyone buying a special cup might think the Mets are departing for a new stadium in some other city. Given the way their relief pitching has performed up to this point, this statement is likely true for some values of "Met", but the whole team is only moving the distance of a GPS local motion game.

    Lesson learned: Precision counts. Sometimes those less significant details dramatically change the context of the discussion.

    Continuing the play-on-words theme, my second notice of omission was from the parking lot of a suburban Cincinnati Dunkin' Donuts. The left-hand sign makes you look across the parking lot as you step off the curb toward your car's driver's door. Early on a weekend morning, there wasn't much traffic to watch, but I scanned left quickly to look for oncoming cars in case my car was encroaching on what appeared to be a through lane in the parking lot. Imagine my surprise when I looked right and found myself in the exit lane of the drive-through. A misstep here gives an entirely different meaning to "exit wounds." A similarly terse but more helpful sign is "Cars on right" or even "Cars Exiting" with an indicator arrow.

    Lesson learned: Accuracy counts. It's wonderful to be precise but if you're aiming in the wrong direction you end up with careful observation of less useful events.

    Finally, I couldn't resist this picture of bad pixels in the Jumbotron at Cincinatti's Great American Ballpark. Our seats were about a dozen rows in front of the display, so we could clearly see bit errors in the screen. Had there been a tall format scoreboard on which to see line ups and player information, we would have neither continuously craned our necks around to look up at the big screen, nor have been so distracted by something that's clearly not there. Hundreds of feet away, you can't distinguish a bad pixel from a funky misplaced serif from a poor aliasing choice on a display font without binoculars.

    Lesson learned: perspective really does make things aesthetically pleasing. Perspective in a social networking world isn't about how physically close you are to an event; it's about using Twitter, blogs and Facebook updates to fill in missing bits of context.

    Thursday May 29, 2008

    Haiku For This Week

    Again, just to keep the rust off of the keyboard and writing side of the brain, and because a long-time snowman follower asked, here's my haiku accurately reflecting my week:
    Surest sign it is springtime
    Short travel delays.

    Tuesday Apr 22, 2008

    Getting a (Second) Life

    I'm going to be part of the Sun Microsystems employee event in Second Life next week, and to get emotionally and electronically ready, our comms team has been busy crafting an avatar for me. In some ways, virtual reality has the right amount of malleability: I asked to be six feet tall, and for the first time in my life I've broken that barrier. I have a somewhat accurate portrayal of weight, shape and dress code, down to my favorite orange sneakers. What's kind of cool is going through your 2L inventory to see the components assembled, layered, filtered and otherwise projected on your form. And here's where reality intrudes again, mixing metaphor and meat-for: Several years ago, I asked one of my Chinese-literate friends how you refer to curly hair in Mandarin. Her response was that there's really no phrase for hair like that on people, and the closest thing she could come up with was "curly dog fur." So for a while, she referred to me as "black dog fur" and it kind of stuck as a diminutive.

    Guess what provides the texture map for my hair in Second Life? I've been shopping in the dog fur store, folks. Folks who are strong proponents of immersive worlds are quick to point out that the worlds aren't completely artificial; they're representations of real people doing real things. And in my case, with the same real world limitations on my shaggy look.

    Friday Apr 11, 2008

    @ The Generation Gap

    We're hosting two Israeli teenagers this week as part of the Diller Teen Fellow program between our North Jersey federation and our sister program in Rish L'Zion, Israel. They are articulate, funny, techno-savvy and they don't laugh at my pidgin Hebrew. My command of food-oriented Hebrew and the morning operatives (coffee, ice, good morning, where are you?) was sufficient until I offered to email some pictures to their parents.

    One of the girls spelled out her parents' email login then directed me to type a shtruedel. I gave her the look normally reserved for my attempts at this modernized ancient langauge (reality check here: last time I was in Israel I had to ask for toilet paper, and could neither remember the word nor describe it, until I forced a Yiddish-Hebrew couplet and asked, essentially, for "butt serviettes". It worked, but you should have seen the look). Shtruedel is what my Yiddish-speaking grandparents ate on Sunday afternoons after the obligatory trip to the bakery. It's not on my keyboard.

    Until the air-drawing, repetition and thinking in metaphors clicked: shtruedel is the @ sign. Looks like a strudel in cross-section. I had to double-check Wikipedia on this, just to be sure I wasn't injected food-related context where none was warranted. Sure enough, the proper Hebrew word for "commerical at" is krukit, which translates to...


    I believe this is another one of those Internet generation gap social vignettes, but not one born from students who have never seen a hand-written receipt with a quantity, a "commercial at" sign followed by a price. Nor is it a derivative of pronouncing email addresses in a post-bang addressing Internet. I really think that the current crop of teenagers don't get the notion that you are "at" your email. Your address is an identifier and a place name; it's not necessary for you to be at that named place. When first reading email on the Princeton University VAXen in the mid-80s, you had to be physically in the same building, usually on the other end of a nicely soldered RS-232 cable. The @ was less commercial and more existential: You were at that machine, not at a service, not at the other end of a scalable load-balancing and DDoS defeating L7 switch, but really at a compute node. Today, whether it's shtrudel, snail, round a, fancy a, or monkey, it's merely a token that helps us break a network location into pronouncable parts. Why not put a cooloquial pronunciation on it? Especially if it's food-related, as it improves the probability that I know the word.


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


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