Wednesday Mar 26, 2008

Stars & Stripes Forever

I've loved sailing and sailboats since the early 1970s, when my family would spend Sunday afternoons tooling around the Shrewsbury river in our day sailer. My father and I crewed for one of his friends on a 30-foot boat, competing in a summer race series that taught me (at the age of 12) what it was like to perform under pressure. Minus a professional league or local team to root for, we developed an interest in the America's Cup, particularly challenges held in 1974 and 1977. As I reached young adulthood, any thoughts I had of actually joining an America's Cup crew were dashed by three factors strongly against me: weight, strength and Australian affiliation. I had too much of the first, not enough of the second, and no idea on the third.

And so the thought went dormant for 30 years, until this week when we participated in the 12-meter challenge off the coast of St. Maarten. Having acquired both of the American entries in the 1987 Challenge, as well as the entire fleet of Canadian boats, the 12-meter challenge lets you get two sheets to the wind on a racing sailboat that has remained unchanged for 20 years: no bathroom and no shade. However, there was an immensely helpful policy update: no weight limit.

I fulfilled something of a teenage fantasy as I got to be a "main grinder" (half of the winch operating team for the boat's main sail), along with my son, while my wife was a primary (foresail) grinder and my daughter fed the line connected to our winch. Along with a dozen others passengers doubling as crew members, we raced on Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes, the boat that brought the America's Cup back to the States after a brief stay Down Under, although we didn't duplicate his feats in our race for tourism dollars. Partly that weight and strength thing again, proving that some other things don't change.

Thursday Mar 06, 2008

Funky Winkerbean Moment in Korea

As a high school student, the original Funky Winkerbean comic strip captured my life pretty well, especially Harry Dinkle, the world's greatest band director. Mr. Dinkle was fond of proclaiming that "Football fields are for band practice," while Mr. Santoro, my own marching band director, insisted that "Band prepares you for life." For a while, it looked like Funky was winning the art imitates reality race. Funky Winkerbean is in its third incarnation, having touched on serious life issues as well as some of the root causes of band nerd harassment in the last three decades. All of the characters have aged, although being well-drawn means you age more gracefully.

At our staff meeting in Korea this week, we had dinner that featured traditional Korean songs and dance. That's Jim Baty, Susan McMynn, Anand Atre, Bob Sokol and yours truly posing with the band. And no, I didn't holler out "Freebird" before their last song. I was actually humming along with the tune, much to the surprise of Korean GSE manager MJ Sim. I recognized the song as the "Korean Folk Song", a piece that had been arranged for wind ensemble in the mid-1970s and was the centerpiece of Mr. Santoro's branching out from the traditional holiday fare for our winter concert. In one of those weird wrinkle in time moments, I recalled the song, from memory, after not having played it or heard it for 30 years. Partly I think it's because so many other parts of high school were wrapped around band (fuzzy band helmets off to you, Mr. Santoro, wherever you are, because you were right) and partly because truly learning and performing a piece of music is no different than learning an algorithm: forgetting the Korean folk song would be as difficult as forgetting the nuances of e to the i pi which I learned around the same time. Or perhaps, like Funky Winkerbean, I'm just drawn into new situations with my entire history indelibly inked.

Monday Mar 03, 2008

Mixing My Metaphors

So much to blog about on this trip to Asia, including incredible food, great customers, superb partner meetings, more good food, interesting tastes, cultural fascinations and an abandoned munitions factory turned into an art gallery. Seriously. On Saturday, China GSE manager Eddie Ho took us to the Great Wall of China, where we climbed a section of the mountain pass. I carefully thought about which T-shirt to wear, and picked my extra-comfy Diesel Sweeties Clango metallic icon. What better way to experience the cultural history of China than by wearing my own big of recent culture? Sent a picture of this to DS king R. Stevens, and got props in the DS blog.

Friday Feb 22, 2008

Asia Tour 2008

I'm in the final throes of getting ready for a 10-day trip Beijing and Seoul, including press meetings, two CTO breakfasts, all hands with the Sun engineering and field teams in Beijing, my staff meeting and perhaps some sight-seeing along the way. I tend to do at least one really long (by my intra-week standards) trip a year, which is about as close as I get to modelling a professional sports team talking about going "on the road" for a "critical swing along the coast."

I'm going to try out some new content and ideas along the way. Sin-Yaw Wang has promised to take me to the "Dogs Don't" dumpling place. I desperately want a t-shirt from the place, to join my "White House Subs" and "Primanti Brothers" gastro-clothing collection, so having Sin-Yaw with me to translate is critical. I also stupidly told SeChang Oh that he can bring it with the hot kimchi (my fault for suggesting that I can tolerate spicy food) but once the food intake is set, the engineering output can follow (very Dilbert-ish, I know).

I'm a huge believer in fate and coincidence, call it cosmic unconsciousness or karma or destiny, but my original plan was to fly out tonight. Unfortunately for anyone coming home from a week of vacation, there are half-day long delays at the local airports due to our first real snowfall.

Thursday Jan 24, 2008

Dress Up Day

Two concalls into the day and it's time to dash off to a much-anticipated meeting at Princeton University. I'm sorely tempted to put on my Colonial Club tie for the event, although doing so would require evading the Family Fashion Sensor Network. It's going to be a fun discussion, and in the words of Apollo Creed, I need the tie of the tiger.

Now you know why my careers as comic artist, comedian, and actor all failed to launch.

Monday Oct 22, 2007

Seeing the world in black & white (cookies)

Long before Jerry Seinfeld made the black & white cookie central to a plot, I've been a mass consumer of these uniquely New York desserts. The perfect black and white cookie is about the diameter of your open hand, has a sponge cake like base that is soft (never crunchy, unless the cookie has been in the damaged goods bin for a month), and has a layer of vanilla fondant icing that covers the entire cookie, with the chocolate half iced on top of the vanilla icing base. There's probably some haute cuisine reason for this, other than the chocolate icing having more opacity than the vanilla, but the experience of two icings at the same time defines the B&W cookie thrill.

Searching for wireless access and a caffeine boost before a customer event tonight, I popped into a Starbucks in TriBeCa, treating myself to iced coffee and the literal check-out lane candy: Starbucks branded black & white cookies. They're undersized (if they were summer flounder, the state of NJ would require them to be thrown back until they reached maturity), but sold in packages of two I can get the daily engineering recommended intake of sugar in one serving. But here's the horrifying part: the chocolate and vanilla icing do not overlap. They are carefully, precisely, almost mechanically lined up, a perfect demarcation line down the center of the cookie. While it's nice to see black & whites gaining traction on the west coast (of the Hudson river and parts further west, like Ohio) thanks to Starbucks, I feel like the entire experience is somehow lessened. If I want machine-layered icing, I'll eat a Ring Ding (or two). Black and white cookies are home-made, they reside in big glass display cases, peering out like neatly stacked waxing (or waning) moons. Some things are not meant to be mass produced, even if they are mass consumed.

Wednesday Oct 17, 2007

Flying Tomato Flying Out

Here's the closest I'll ever come to snowboarding: I saw Shaun White in the airport last night. He was deep in conversation with someone sitting nearby, high-fiving kids as they went by, signing autographs (for people, me included, who recognized him) and generally being the kind of person you'd envision holding up as an Olympic hero. And he's a lot skinnier without the cold weather gear on; guys shaped like me look like snowmen and guys shaped like Shaun have in-air flight paths that look like snowmen (and more complex geometries).

Friday Oct 12, 2007

Giant Pumpkin Existence Proof

Remember how weirded out you were the first time you heard your own recorded voice played back? Now increase one order of magnitude and you get the feeling of seeing yourself on video. Go exponential one more time and that's what it's like seeing a picture of a video in which you're projectd onto a 12-foot tall screen. Proof that the giant pumpkin exists -- thanks, Lou Springer!

Tuesday Sep 11, 2007

Celebrating With Willie Stargell

In his book 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal remarks that he finally felt like an adult the day that his boyhood hero Micky Mantle died. Six years ago, I had a similar experience: as the Pittsburgh Pirates prepared to open the new PNC Park for their home opener, Hall of Famer and personal boyhood hero Willie Stargell died, far too young and far too full of potential for good. The event prompted me to go for a physical, and I found that I was inhabiting a body that checked out ten years older than I was. It was the event that spurred me to take the hockey gear out of the basement, throw away the stuff that was too small, moldy, or fabricated from hazardous materials, and lace up to play ice hockey again. It re-ignited my love affair with the number 8, Willie Stargell's number, the twin circles that made snowmen on the back of every jersey for which I had been able to pick the number.

Five months later, my 9-11 birthday went from a date I shared with Julius Caesar to one I shared in observance with most of America.

33 years ago, my parents took me to the other ballpark in Pennsylvania (Veterans Stadium) to watch the Pirates play, so that I could get a glimpse of Willie Stargell. The Pirates were in between World Series runs, and while we had a great time, it wasn't until I was in my senior year of high school that I saw the healing power of sports. Willie Stargell led his racially and emotionally diverse Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series title in 1979, with the old Three Rivers Stadium bouncing to Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," a song that came to represent the team unity that started with captain Stargell.

This year, I got to celebrate my birthday with some of Sun's global government and education systems engineers as well as a few customers at the new PNC Park. We walked in by the statue of Willie Stargell, as large as he must have seemed in real life, and then found our seats just past the food court that features "Chicken on the Hill" (a reference to the restuarant Stargell ran in the off-season) and "Fam-i-lee BBQ", a less oblique nod to the 1979 World Champions. My dinner won't help this year's annual physical report, but I savored, literally, every moment to celebrate in the shadow of a hero.

With my birthday nestled on the calendar between the unofficial end of the Jersey summer on Labor Day, and the official start of spiritual accounting marked by the Jewish New Year, I prefer to see 9-11 as a day on which to take stock of opportunity. What can I do more of, do better, or do differently? What's the scope of "We are Family" in 2007?

Something to think about delayed for four hours in the Pittsburgh airport.

Sunday Jun 24, 2007

Ambassadors and Communities

I need to rewind a bit to my west coast with a hop in Ohio trip. It was one of those trips that had a little bit of everything: delayed flights, tight connections, extra-long meetings, really great customer interactions, and a chance to peek around the corner at what's coming next for Sun. The common thread (except for really egregious tuna salad wrap I ate in Newark airport) was wrapped around communities.

We've been talking about communities for about two years, mostly as an adjunct to our open source efforts: taking Sun software products and completing the legal, licensing and structural work needed to make them fly as open source projects. One of the comments that is repeated regularly - because it's true but not entirely understood - is that communities take work. You have to work hard to build them, but at the same time you don't want to turn the community into another channel for your marketing or sales efforts. The community has to stand on its own, with gentle help, guidance and contribution by a variety of members. That's true for your town's planning board, the board of education, youth sports organizations, or open source projects. You have to attract the co-developers, and make the community an attractive place for deployers to come, learn and share their experiences.

The folks in the picture on the left are what makes the Sun customer engineering community a strong force. Despite arriving at midnight, our Ohio Valley SE superstar Brian Howard [note: corrected name and title] was there to meet and greet. It wasn't just sucking up to another vertex in the org chart; he really does believe in making sure his people are settled. It was evident when I found members of all of our technical sales practices, not just "our" Global Systems Engineers, in his rapid-fire customer engineering meeting. Internal communities give you leverage and scale.

Two days later, I had a similar org chart sub graph mapping problem imposed on me, when I hosted some of our Campus Ambassadors (shown on the right) at a meeting of Sun's Executive Leadership Team (aka Jonathan's staff meeting). The campus ambassadors work for Sun but are responsible for building communities at their colleges and universities, typically by starting and encouraging OpenSolaris user groups, stimulating developer interest in NetBeans, and leading by example. They provide a link to the next external community members: the (co-)developers, deployers, and architects of whatever (and wherever) from which the next big thing evolves.

Wednesday May 23, 2007

Visit to Bangalore

The conclusion of my around-the-world trip landed me in Bangalore, India, where I met with the India Engineering Center, Sun's Global Sales and Services team (pictured above, but their smiles are neither a forward-looking statement nor an indicator of past performance; they're just fantastically fun and great hosts). We had some great customer and partner meetings as well as internal meetings where I was able to share a look back on my first year running systems engineering and what I hope to accomplish with the global team next year.

Best interaction of the trip: we were talking to a partner that makes retail branch infrastructure and has an online variant of their delivery framework. I asked "Why aren't you partnering with your customers and a wireless carrier to give away a cell phone that runs your front end?" Quite simply, there are orders of magnitude more cell phones in India than PC (or Mac) desktops. The conversation quickly turned to JavaFX, which had been announced hours earlier at JavaOne (time zones can work in your favor!), and how it would allow this partner to develop a rich end user experience for the mobile client. After having one of my earlier meetings interrupted by a short power brown out, I was even more convinced that anything relying on a static location, network and public utility grid was going to be out-paced by the unwired variant.

Then I got a real lesson in pace:

Our trip back to the Sun office was uneventful (I'm told) but full of photo and video opportunities. Driving the Hosur road that connects the central part of Bangalore to the budding "Electric City", we passed cows, open air fruit markets, steel-and-glass office buildings juxtaposed with shantytowns, mopeds, electric rickshaws, public buses, heavy construction equipment and cars, all packed into and along the same major road. The non-stop cacophony of honking reminds me of driving in Boston, as in both locales the horn means (a) I'm moving into that lane (b) Don't move into that lane (c) You're too close (d) You're too slow (e) You can move into that lane, because you're too slow for my lane and/or (f) the Red Sox won.

Back in the hotel (where the TV had over 80 channels of varied content), one of the English language movies was Fever Pitch. All the drivers were right: the Red Sox won.

Tuesday May 08, 2007

Japan and Australia Visit

I'm halfway through a seven-day, around the world (on one and a half axes) trip that has me visiting half of our sales headquarters in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. Left NYC on Saturday, landed in rainy Tokyo on Sunday afternoon and basically shifted the body clock twelve hours. Monday took me to the Tokyo Institute of Technology (TiTech), home of the TSUBAME supercomputer, currently number 9 in the world and the leader of the Asia pac(k). It's both humbling and exciting to tour a room full of your own company's equipment, humming and thrumming along, in what was perhaps the neatest machine room I've ever toured. The challenge faced by the TSUBAME team is making the grid more interesting and accessible to more of their research population, which means finding new expressions of high performance computing. They've already expanded beyond the usual matrix manipulations and fluid flow problems into social sciences and environmental studies.

Day two of the tour took me straight down (that half-axis thing) to Australia, where I spent some time with our customer engineering teams and some government customers, enjoying the best of Australia modulo Vegemite and brekkie pies. Got to see recently highlighted SunStar Paul Hatfield in his native element (working on Telstra's technical strategy, not sailing).

Funniest travel vignette so far: in transit between Japan and Sydney, I was wearing my one of my favorite bright orange Princeton t-shirts. My seat mate on the flight was a fellow Princeton alum and familiar with Sun from his work with KKR. Nothing like having two edges of the social graph overlap; technically we should have sounded the locomotive cheer but we both slept through the opportunity.

Next stop: Bangalore.

Friday Mar 23, 2007

Life Resembles Art (Devlin)

I had one of those "plate o shrimp" weeks. It started fairly simply as I was typing up directions for our youth hockey team's annual pilgrimage to Lake Placid, New York. The landmark I give for our arrival in Lake Placid is Art Devlin's Olympic Motor Inn, situated at the intersection of NY State 73 and Main Street. You know you've arrived in the Miracle on Ice village when you look over Art Devlin's welcoming wooden sign and see the Olympic ice rinks, perched on the hill, beckoning to skaters of all ages to look for miracles in a simple game. We've stayed at Art Devlin's exactly once, and the front desk area is a veritable cornucopia of ski jump trophies, medals and plaques. Art Devlin was one of the great (and first) ski jump athletes, practicing his art at the Olympic facilities in Lake Placid. As I've been closing each of my weekly emails to our team with a quote about Lake Placid, I've run into Art Devlin in the literature on a weekly basis.

A few days later, my son received a letter from his maternal grandfather, on the occasion of his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, containing a bit of grandfatherly commentary. It's the kind of thing I hope he holds onto for a century, so he can explain to his grandchildren what the people in all of our family pictures were like. I tried to draw a parallel through one of the few glimpses I have of my own maternal grandfather; as he died in 1946 I never met him. But I know that he put away stamps and coins for my mother, now part of my own collection, and perhaps the genetic predisposition for my eBay habit. As I showed the bits and pieces of his great-grandfather's life to my son, he and I noticed that four of the stamps are near-perfect 1932 Olympic commemorative issues. Featuring a ski jumper -- whom we coincidentally nicknamed "Art Devlin." All I had to do was mention him in an email, and 75 years of philatelic history deposited Art Devlin in a family Kodak moment.

Normally, I wouldn't read too much into this, until I received this YouTube link from my co-author Evan Marcus. It's the story behind ABC TV's Wide World of Sports introductory "agony of defeat" scene, in which a ski jumper misses the ramp and careens down into the gallery. In the video, Jim McKay plays the original sports cast for the assembled crowd, and you can hear the gasp of the color commentator: one Art Devlin.

It's a life imitating Art hat trick.

Tuesday Feb 13, 2007

Brand Output Redirection

Disclaimer: I really like our Sun branding. Simple thematic elements of curves and greater-than signs (rotated carets), and a reasonable color palette make it easy to produce brand-compliant graphics that actually convey information.

Nobody in brand marketing, however, expects bad brand behavior, especially from Sun employees at the Analyst Summit. Which is why I felt compelled to take one of the carets off of the breakout room signs (apologies if anyone got lost as a result) so that I'd have a prop while we were recording a podcast. Got a few chuckles from our production team (laughing at me, not with me) and of course I was able to joke that it clearly indicated where the taping output was going: redirected to me from my guest, Michael Keller of Stanford University.

Neal Stephenson had it right: in the beginning, there was the command line. But if I continue to deface our corporate signage, it will be me that's the deprecated shell, even if I do make Solaris-themed humor with my visual aids.

Monday Jan 29, 2007

Five Things You Didn't Know About Idaho

No, Idaho wasn't tagged, but I'm still getting follow up email and commentary from last week's trip, so here's the follow up blog entry with five things you may not have known about Idaho.

1. Idaho is the Gem State. Originally, the name was offered as a moniker for the land around Pike's Peak, and claim was made that "Idaho" was a Shoshone Indian word. It's not, it wasn't, and Pike's Peak is now in Colorado. The mountain didn't move, but the boundaries of Idaho did.

2. resolves to Indigo Networks, a company I referenced as a try and buy success story. It's a "Sun inside" ingredient branding, which is appealing because it takes Sun into smaller, local businesses. Gems of a silicon nature.

3. Banner Bank's new building in Boise is off the hook in terms of eco-responsibility. Combine geothermal heating with proximity to public transportation and wrap the whole thing up in a building that's 40% recycled material, and you have a world-class example of doing more with less.

4. Before Google Maps there was Sacajawea, the Shoshone Indian guide for Lewis and Clark's expedition west. She was born in Idaho, and more recently can be seen on the circulating US dollar coin.

5. Solaris eclipses vistas in Idaho.

During the Idaho Business and Technology Expo, Microsoft parked their big rig along the curb, offering demonstrations and previews of Vista for those who ventured inside. Personally, the whole idea brought back a pair of memories -- from the Silicon Graphics "Jurassic Park" truck that we used to spot in Manhattan to the traveling freak show that occasionally arrived in the Monmouth Mall parking lot, offering the chance to see a "real frozen wooly mammoth" for only $2. Draw your own parallels from either of my flashbacks. The folks pictured above are two Sun employees and customers who put on the shirts, braved the cold and faced into the Sun, because, well, Solaris has fans and we were having fun.

That strange existential combination -- having fun, great technology, and general upset with a competitor's idea of 18-wheeler entertainment -- was our summer of 1995 impetus for the first JavaDay in New York City. The incongruity of the Microsoft Across America truck (leaving aside the "Beavis and Butthead do America" and "Tap Into America" movie references) is something I said in closing at my talk in Boise. Jon Katz's fabulous book Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho is a good read because it talks about the culture of being a geek, of belonging to a group that is defined by network routing protocols and not social protocols. Katz has the right idea but the wrong direction -- the Internet brings technology and communities into Idaho (or any other place with reasonable bandwidth), without any particular reason for you to leave. No trucks needed, departing from or getting to the Gem State.


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


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