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.

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.

Saturday Jun 06, 2009

Cory Doctorow's "Makers"

Cory Doctorow was kind enough to give me an advanced reader's copy of his upcoming book Makers, which I read in about three sittings. Granted, I'm a Cory fanboy, and I devour his writings like Pop-Tarts (often simultaneously), but this one is, in my slightly biased opinion, his best yet.

It's a love story set with mild sci-fi context, as opposed to a sci-fi story with romantic themes embedded. However, "love" isn't just about interpersonal relationships; Makers is about people who thrive on labors of love - literally thrive, in a post-collapse economy. What's frightening is that Cory wrote the book as the global economy was unwinding at the end of 2008's North American summer season; by the time I got the book in March we were mumbling about new depressions of all kinds. As I read it, I was repeatedly reminded of Shoshanna Zuboff's theme in her book In The Age Of The Smart Machine (now 20 years in print), as she relayed it to Sun's systems engineers in 1995: When we think about a divison of labor in a corporation, we're also creating a division of love, because we should love what we do on a daily basis. Zuboff challenged us to think about individual empowerment, and what it means to really build things rather than create information In intervening two decades between Smart Machine and Makers, a number of business leaders have cried that business schools teach graduates how to make synthetic things - derivative securities, economic models, hedging strategies - but not tangible, real-world goods. If anyone doubts the verity of those long-standing concerns, please visit Detroit for the basis of a case study.

What if we really enter an age of massive free agency, of corporations orbited by tinkerers, coders, freelancers, constructors, and destructors? This idea has been sitting in a pile of (electronic) notes for three months, and only gestated into a blog when James Gosling took the stage at JavaOne wearing a T-shirt promoting the Java Store as a way to create value from labors of love. Makers on a fine grain scale.

So what's the book about? It's about love. It's about how (and why) others love us, or don't. It's about economics and corporations, and at the same time economics and corporations don't behave the way you'd expect at all times. It's about rights - not just copyrights and rights to use, but rights of expression and relation as well. Every time you think the book is taking a financial detour, it snaps you back to a personal future that is (in William Gibson's words) just not evenly distributed.

The only bad part: You can't buy the book until November (but you can pre-order it now, hint hint). Guess what everyone I know is getting for the holidays.

Monday Apr 27, 2009

Rubber Balls and The Job Market

A break from the emerging markets travelogue.

A few weeks ago I vowed to spend at least a little time each day helping people I know who have been affected by the current economy find new job opportunities. The local economy is nasty; I realized that half (literally) of my close friends are technically unemployed. Through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and email, I've been trying to connect people, and along the way I discovered Dave and Deb Levy's blog about married life under the pressures of job friction. I have known Dave for a while (he's a fellow Devils fan and hockey head); his admonition not to treat your friends who are between jobs as if they have the plague is sage advice.

And now for a travelogue in the middle of an emerging trend: I adore Kevin Carroll. I heard him speak five years ago at an NHL event, and was hooked. His point, then as now, is that we excel at play -- and we should treat work as something that we love, something that motivates us to play with others, something that gives us joy in the smallest facets. If you can't "play" at work, then you're in the wrong job, or positioning yourself the wrong way. Today's job market is an opportunity to re-think work, and the pleasure we get from our jobs. I'm reminded of a talk by Shoshana Zuboff, in which she said "It's not about division of labor, it's about division of love, if you are separated from the things you love to do." She was referring to management as a disintermediating function (this was pre-Internet boom, circa 1995), but the theme is organization chart invariant.

So onto a trend in middle of a travel-blog: Dave's wife Deb quotes a friend of hers describing the chaotic interplay of adult life themes - job, health, home, family. We juggle them all, and they are all glass balls, not to be dropped or mishandled. Except for work - a job is a rubber ball. Drop it, bat it, or have it swatted away, and it bounces in a new direction.

Thursday Mar 12, 2009

ACM Queue Blog Aggregation

ACM Queue gets it -- they went from a primarily print edition to online, and now that they're online they're looking for ways to drive readership and interest. One of the (many) reasons I like print media is that you get an edited, assembled product that tells a story to some extent. You'll find content you want (which is why you purchased, subscribed, or liberated the dead trees from the next cubicle over), some content you don't want, but most important, some content that you didn't know you wanted but is informative, challenging or otherwise useful. This is the downside, for example, to googling the answer to an HTML/CSS question: you learn the syntax needed but nothing of the design, best practices or larger questions you could have been asking, many of which would have been prompted if you bought the magazine or book and took it to your nearest favorite reading spot. If you want to expand your readership, you have to expand the potential content that attracts those readers to your online property.

Editors at Queue are now aggregating author blogs, with a lineup on the Queue landing page and a full aggregation page one level down. And, shameless plug, they've added my blog with Sun peers Tim Bray and Bryan Cantrill and some marquee names like Cory Doctorow, Werner Vogels and Bruce Schneier. They're taking a risk as they have no editorial control over what I say in this white space, but if it helps their readers explore further than a search result, it's a win for both of us.

Tuesday Jan 20, 2009

Makers Of Things

Obama hit a home run with his inaugural address:
[I]t has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
The emphasis is mine, the words are his. Engineering has always been at the root of recovery. If you don't feel empowered after that speech, read it again.

Saturday Jan 17, 2009

Neal Stephenson's "Anathem"

Finished Neal Stephenson's latest multi-pound work Anathem over the holiday break, and I'm still mulling over bits and pieces. It was that good. My enjoyment of all 900+ pages of the book was enhanced by having read Danny Hillis' Clock of the Long Now and Cory Doctorow's The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away. I think they're both pre-requisite (Hillis gets a mention in the credits, as the clock imagery in Anathem is not only strong and central but is the most reasonable - if sci-fi conducts "reason" - interpretation of Hillis' idea in print).

The questions I find myself coming back to: At what point do science and religion separate themselves, or are forced to be separated? When is sustainability about science and not culture, and if it veers into culture, does it, too, border on religion? Why didn't I pay better attention in astrophysics class when we were discussing potential multi-verses? It was a hard book on which to get started, but after the first 100 pages, I didn't put it down. I've thought (for years) it would be hard to top Cryptonomicon (the "Baroque Cycle" didn't capture me, although I'm about to restart it), but Stephenson raised the bar with his latest. It even has a solid and comforting conclusion, rather than a fade out in words.

Sunday Jan 04, 2009

New Year's Optimism

In any market environment, you have to be careful not to take current events and extrapolate ad infinitum, assuming that nothing else will change. I distinctly remember being in a meeting of a university student organization with its board, hearing one of the senior board members say "We can safely assume we'll make no less than 8% on this money in the future." To be fair, interest rates at the time were north of 12%, and a drop of that magnitude seemed outrageous. That was 25 years ago, but the lesson stuck with me: don't extrapolate, and don't assume conditions are fixed.

So Paul Farrell's running inanity on CBS's MarketWatch site deserves a closer look. How can anyone predict 100 years into the future, when nobody could have predicted the Internet, wireless communications, touch screen personal devices, or the convulsions in the financial markets only a quarter century ago? At the time I was hearing interest rate assurance, Sony's Akio Morita was writing The Japan That Can Say No, largely based on the premise that the world would be dependent on Japanese DRAM supplies. Morita missed the rise of Korea. Ten years before that, those of us in the Tri-State area watched with trepidation as New York City flirted with bankruptcy, only bailed out (then) through Big Macs of a different notional type and amount that you see advertised today.

Here are three potential disruptions that violate the extrapolation premises that seem to crowd out rational thought in the financial press:

1. Transportation efficiency. Electric, hybrid, fuel cell, alternative fuel cars, improved public transportation, more efficient transportation modes, and simply utilizing less transportation all add up. Example of a more efficient mode: Google's commuter van, complete with WiFi. I'm betting that true breakthroughs in automobile transportation come from outside the US -- most likely from countries with no natural oil resources of their own. But the drive for efficiency -- not just alternatives -- also means that the transportation consumer will have choices and be able to participate in a market of available providers. Felix Rohatyn, orchestrator of the Big Apple's recovery in the 70s, sees an alternative energy economy in a New Deal vein.

2. Micro finance on a macro scale. Organizations like Kiva match micro loans to micro-scale businesses that use the cash to bootstrap themselves. There's no reason this has to be restricted to business loans - why not create a market for making small scale investments in mortgages? Not everybody can be a real estate magnate, but if you get visibility, aggregation of demand, and broad participation, you can create some powerful investment vehicles. I'll go so far as to argue that giving US citizens a tax credit for funding shares of mortgages is a significantly more efficient mechanism than taxing them, using the tax revenue to bail out banks who are then restructing mortgages, all the while borrowing ever-increasing sums to float the mortgage market. Direct, local involvement is always more efficient. If there are micro exchanges for professional athletes, why not one for regional pools of mortgages? It represents an immense deleveraging of the big money players by leveraging immense numbers of small money players.

3. Patient-centric health care. I'll skip the saga of my health care claim that's been open for 5 months, while Sun's provider argues over the doctor's address, then a missing code, then the wrong modifier for the code, all the while happily paying one of the two doctors involved but not the other. Bottom line is that to an increasing extent, the drug business is a mash up of biology, chemistry and telemetry data, putting the health care consumer right in the middle of situation, rather than as an often-ignored edge participant.

Cory Doctorow put things very well in his 2008 calendar closing thought:

But I just keep on remembering that we live in the best time in the history of the world to have a worst time: the time when collective action is cheaper and easier than ever, the time when more information and better access to tools, ideas and communities are at our fingertips than they’ve ever been.

Recent events have given us less trust in "big" anything - government, business, power, money. Recent financial market events have demonstrated, clearly, that "financial engineering" is neither financial nor engineering. Engineering implies an understanding of failure modes and how to recover from them; Financial implies a well understood market with risk, futures, and market agents in specific roles. Right now, I'm less inclined to trust opaque institutions claiming to be watching out for my safety.

My confidence lies with the people who, in the words of Mark Cuban, "do the work" -- engineers -- the people who brought you iPods, Google, Java,, the internet, wireless networks, and really cool digital cameras. And those people -- people who build things, things you can use and touch and not just enter into a spreadsheet -- benefit from the widespread diffusion of intellectual property. That was going to be my "fourth disruption," but I don't think it's a prediction -- it's already happening. When that community driven view of intellectual property spills over from the software (and hardware) world into pharmaceuticals, financial products, and transportation engineering, we'll see true disruption in those arenas as well.

The common thread in all three areas above is that the user is at the center of the effort, not marginalized. And "user" means a direct consumer of or beneficiary of a product or service. User also doesn't mean a person in isolation, an island cut off from all other data in the torrents; a "user" is someone who makes choices, set priorities and allocates resources as part of a myriad, intersecting set of social networks - friends, co-workers, co-risk sharers, communities (real, virtual, local, global) and strangers with influence.

Why am I optimistic - cautious, but optimistic - enough to smile going into 2009? First, because all of the above requires significant network infrastructure, more in a highly virtualized, "cloud like" data center -- and that's a nutshell summary of Sun's business. Second, technology has helped engineer recovery in tough economic times, whether it was New Deal era investments in public infrastructure or the dot com boom fueling growth in the mid-90s (and what I hope the Obama administration will stimulate). Finally, increased networking (social or otherwise), finer grain economic participation and diffusion of intellectual property all drive increased transparency - you simply get to see how the pieces fit together. That drives trust, and trust recreates confidence in institutions - new or old - that we count on for shepharding global economies through this mess.

Sunday Dec 21, 2008

Wil Wheaton on Life Without DRM

Wil Weaton, known to some as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, has gained more publicity in the last decade as a writer giving voice to geek culture. His latest work is available as an audiobook available only directly from Wheaton's website, not Amazon's Audible service.

Read Wheaton's comments about Audible and DRM, and how he's willing to trade off lack of control over bit copying for more control over pricing and profit. Seems that most of the arguments about DRM have focused on preserving the profit slice of a shrinking pie, rather than finding ways to make the pie bigger.

Punchline: I discovered this via Wheaton's Twitter feed, where I'm one of about 27,000 people who are making that pie bigger.

Tuesday Nov 04, 2008

Vote No on Proposition 8

In four years of blogging, I have rarely ventured into the political arena. I see this space as a place to discuss technology, life at Sun, the socialization of technology, and to provide commentary on music, books and comics. I am way under that long tail of content, and happy to be there.

But - four years ago, I appealed for people to vote, and on Election Day 2008 here in the US, I feel compelled to do the same. And this time it's another friend that prompts me to get politically active with the keyboard.

Tom is one of those friends who makes it feel like you've known him your whole life. I can go two years without talking to him on the phone, but the next call has the social context of a weekly update. We keep up with each other through blogs, email, pictures, holiday cards, and lifecycle events. I got him to play ice hockey (no small feat for a Los Angeleno who believes cold is a place you go skiing, not a weather pattern); I assisted on his first goal; I consider him my linemate for life. Been like that for 26 years. He's the kind of guy you want to have every happiness life can afford. And I'd like to see that happiness legally extended to Tom's husband George.

Which is why I think Californians have to vote "no" on Proposition 8 today. Tom and George are a happily married couple who should be afforded every Constitutional right to their own pursuit of happiness. More important, they should have every legal right to take care of each other "until death do us part." The bulk of the effort in making a marriage work is dealing with life's curve balls. Why would you want to regulate that?

Taking away that right - and that's what laws do, they tend to regulate what you can't do - scrapes too close to the Bill of Rights and I personally find that notion very wrong. At Sun, I'm the executive sponsor of our Asian Diversity Network, an employee resource group that makes sure we recognize, celebrate and benefit from diversity in our workforce. I am not technically identified as Asian, but a large number of engineers who work for me do affiliate with the ADN, and I take their representation at Sun quite seriously. Change the wording in Proposition 8 to affect any other employee resource group and you have a scary set of laws -- but as Terry McKenzie points out, laws that were on the books in California during our lifetime. Why reset such legal precendent?

You can read more of Tom's thoughts on California newspapers urging "no" votes, on the reasons he and George got married, on the myths and distortions hiding in a variety of rhethoric, and most important, get a sense of why legal recognition of same-sex marriage is critical.

It's important to Tom and George, so it's important to me - another of those long-tail recommendation effects.

Friday Sep 19, 2008

National Talk Like a Pirate Day

September 19th is semi-officially National Talk Like A Pirate Day. I'm seriously considering answering all of my email in pirate slang, but nothing will top my daughter's friend who came to school in a fully dress-code compliant pirate outfit (we'd be checking if swords are compliant or not, but we're still laughing two years later).

At a time when there is a lot of serious craziness going on in the Tri-State area, perhaps we all need a day to go back to our sea faring roots, real, imagined or otherwise. Pirate lingo-infused dialog definitely makes conference calls end before the sun sets over the yard arm, for the love of Blackbeard.

Tuesday Sep 16, 2008

Last Shift for Jack Falla

The night after the Devils played the last game of their 2007-2008 season, I ordered the pile of sports books that had collected on my nightstand and began devoting former hockey-watching hours to reading. I had picked up Jack Falla's Home Ice based on a blurb for it in some other hockey-related reading, and Saved came as an recommendation. Read them in that order, saw a bit of an autobiographical cameo in the fictional Saved (I don't think you can write a purely fictional hockey novel), and blogged about how much I enjoyed them. Falla's writing made me forget the bad parts of last year's Devils campaign and had me wishing for cold weather and clean sheets of ice on which to experience the good parts all over again, one year later.

An amazingly happy thing happened after I wrote that blog entry in April: Jack Falla commented on it. Whether he discovered it through vanity Googling or because his agent found and forwarded the link, it was the same electric jolt to me. In the comment, Falla tipped a book that would be published in the early fall (now), and an idea for another novel.

I'm looking my pristine copy of Open Ice, the sequel to Home Ice, with the amazingly sad realization that this will be Falla's last book. Falla died Sunday morning at the age of 62. The hockey world has lost a voice of the people, not someone interested in ratings or controvery but a simple explanation of why we find a simple game fascinating. In Open Ice, Falla conveys how a chance mention of Montreal great Jean Beliveau in his first encounter with his (future) wife immediately cemented the relationship; having met Beliveau once, for 3 minutes, I could immediately relate to the backstory. That's sports writing ascended to a hockey cathedral in its own right, to borrow another phrase of his.

I'm hitting control-Z on the other two books in progress now, and picking up Open Ice tonight, sure that Falla's last shift as a writer was as spirited, fun, and memorable as his others. That's the way the game should be played.

[cross-posted to my hockey blog]

Thursday Sep 11, 2008

Repeat Pre-Order Offender

OK, so now I can incontrovertible proof that either I'm suffering from information overload, my brain is showing signs of aging, or needs to warp time and include pre-orders in customer history. Or all of the above.

I pre-ordered a copy of Neal Stephenson's Anathem in May, when I found it during a search for a purchase pointer to another of his books. Completely forgetting that event, I pre-ordered another copy in late June, when it got another plug and I decided that I'd likely forget to order in early September with the start of school and hockey conspiring to make me even less clueful. You'd think that Amazon would have recognized I already had one pre-order in the queue, and warned me about buying another? Oh yeah, I also told someone I wanted it for my birthday, so the hat trick should be completed with today's mail.

iTunes knows enough to warn you if you're re-purchasing something; I'm surprised Amazon can't do a match of current cart contents versus history, or at least sending an order update (asking if you want to cancel) for those of us who indulge in excessive meta-reading -- reading about what I'll be reading next.


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


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