Sunday Feb 03, 2008

Financial News and Opinions

This week has been a wild one for creative and sometimes content-free financial news reporting. On Tuesday, a full 50 hours before Google announced earnings, ran a news-free piece that opened with the line "The Google gravy train is pulling into the station Thursday." Tuesday's piece recapped previous Wall Street estimates and added zero net news or analysis. Two days later, after Google announced that it snuck in under the expectations wire, the headlines tell a different story. Maybe the gravy train was arriving at Wrongville Station. Isn't there some sort of Pauli exclusion principle for financial reporting that prevents different financial quanta from occupying the same online news site? It's supposed to be news, which means it gets analyzed, interpreted and made more valuable than the raw data.

But here's an even better one: After Yahoo! announced earnings earlier this week, a number of financial analysts reduced their opinions of the stock's potential -- that is, once the bad news was out, they said "Sell!" If you followed their advice, you'd be shaking your head on Friday with Yahoo! Up! 50%! On! Microsoft! Bid! Analysts are supposed to do analysis - build models, make predictions, form opinions and derive a reasonable expectation for those variables controlling the stocks and industries they follow. Some of them do the work, in Mark Cuban's words, but some only replay the information underlying the news. Just because we can (and do) get news more quickly online doesn't mean it should suffer from quality or integrity.

I'm off to the Sun Analyst Summit in the morning, our annual conclave for industry and financial analysts -- folks who in fact do build models and ask hard questions. I usually give our Gartner folks a gentle ribbing since they only give breakfast a 0.9 probability, but that's the spirit of the event: good, open discussion of the market, products and strategies with a high probability of food being involved.

Tuesday Jan 22, 2008

Memetics in Action

Two months ago a cousins forwarded an email asking me to sign an e-petition requesting Google to edit search results. The heart of the matter was that googling for the single word "jew" returned, as the first sorted result, a link to a site full of outright anti-Semitism. Conspiracy theory, moral outrage and commentary followed, and I was struck by the number of people calling for censorship. Having Google edit results to remove things that you find offensive (and I'm delineating offensive and illegal content) is tantamount to asking for third-party censorship. And that precisely infringes on the First Amendment rights that protect a variety of free speech, whether or not you like the subject of that speech. I'm not a big fan of having others tell me what's allowable, provided it's not illegal.

There are two issues at stake: the network mathematics that drive search results and the network behaviors that modulate the content being searched. The first is outside of a network user's control; Google ranks pages based on longevity, number of links to them, quality and ranking of those linking pages, and a number of other factors, none of which are content dependent. The same algorithm that ranks an anti-Jewish site high on the list of "jew" results also puts my own blog in the same search sentence as Sports Illustrated, Czech supermodels and former NHL stars. A tip of the yarmulke to Google for providing a cogent explanation of how search results get sorted. This shows up as a sponsored link (something not covered in their explanation) indicating that Google is picking up on the Jewish single and doing, without censorship, what the Snopes-illuminated petition asked. Bottom line: You can't petition statistics or clickstream analysis, but if you're upset enough you can add your own voice to the mix.

How? It comes down to memetics, again.

Ignore that which bothers you. Very much a "sticks and stones" approach, but it's the alternative to asking a third party to filter information for you. Who's to say that the filtering won't remove content that you want in the future, or that the filtering parties have the same religious, political, social, musical, and sports-oriented views that you do? If you really want to see spirited diatribe, check out your local newspaper's youth sports forum.

Be specific when you query. My wife discovered that the brand name of a barbecue sauce that we like also happens to be name of a porn site. They don't teach such things on Madison Avenue. Googling for the brand name alone is not safe for work (or home); adding "marinade" or "sauce" to the query takes you to the appropriate import store. Non-specific queries increase the probability that you prove Rule 34 exists outside of comics. Add enough description to drive meaningful and useful results; searching for single words out of context derails your train of thought. You can't seriously be overly dramatic about clicking through to the dramatic chipmunk.

Generate your own content. This doesn't mean "flame," because flailing at and eviscerating content that bothers you either further escalates the page ranking of the content in question, or it devolves into an existence proof of Godwin's Law. According to the statistics provided by Google, single-word searches for "jew" (before the "petition Google meme") accounted for about one in ten million searches; that puts the dramatic chipmunk (over five million YouTube views) seven orders of magnitude ahead in terms of audience reach. Memetics doesn't always make sense, it only makes repeatable, micro-scale audiences. Conversely, new memes are generated by micro-scale creators with the tools of internet-scale distribution.

In the two months since I first started thinking about the issue, the "google jew" issue seems to have resolved itself: the offending link has sunk to about fourth on the list, and there's enough commentary and context around it that allow readers to form their own opinions of this type of free speech. Paraphrasing John Gilmore speaking 15 years ago, the internet has always routed around censorship. The better solution, with proof by example, is amplification of new content to create balancing memes and a balanced resulting sort (interpret as you like).

Sunday Dec 09, 2007

Chasing Perfection

Spoiler alert for Cory Doctorow's "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow"

Someone asked for my favorite output of Cory Doctorow's. Easy choice for me, as it's the short story "Craphound," the lead-off entry in the "Place So Foreign" short story collection and the piece that lends its name to Cory's website. I love Craphound because of the contrasts it paints, in very short form, reminding us of what it means to be human. Doctorow is a sci-fi author who eschews aliens, at least on space opera stages, and yet an alien figures prominently in this story - not to imagine perfection or advanced evolution, but to serve as a both a sidekick and foil for the human hero.

The story also reminds me of why I collect pucks and hockey cards and Hard Rock Cafe pins and hockey jerseys and biblical era coins and neatly organized and classified other piles of things, because they remind me of my childhood, or a place, or a time. Collecting is about searching, whether for the perfect piece to complete a theme or for the last of an item that you need to have for the sake of having. Sometimes there is perfection in uniqueness. Uniquely and decidedly human, yet touching on perfection. That's why I continue to re-read and listen to the podcast of "Craphound," because Doctorow reminds us of the joys of being human, and of remembering the joys of our childhoods, as expressed through things that trigger that joy in that memory.

Contrast that endpoint with the story line segment drawn by Thomas Klise in "The Last Western," a book referenced by Doug Horning in his baseball tome "The Boys of October." In Klise's book, a poor boy emerges as the ultimate professional baseball pitcher, commander of an unhittable fastball. As the perfect games mount, Willie, the protagonist, goes from hero to villain, reviled by fans for ruining their pastime with his perfection. Most people refer to "The Last Western" as a religious book, part fictional biography and equal elements hagiography, putting perfection into the light thrown by our respective belief systems. When encountered, whether through a perfect fit for that hole in your collection, a perfect baseball game, or a perfect number, perfection reminds us that most of the time, we live in a world of chance and choices, not all of them ideal or best, but all adding to the unpredictability of being human. Perfection in small doses is massively fun; experiencing it creates a short story to be retold of witnessing a perfect game, a perfect goal, or closing the last-minute eBay bid on the perfect bit of historical context. If we believe that sports performance is based on equal mixes of science and intent, it is a small leap of faith to understand how people mix sports and religious metaphors with zero intent of blasphemy. Lake Placid's Miracle on Ice anyone? The Immaculate Reception in Steel Town? Barry Bonds looking up to his father, still, after hitting a home run? Princeton University president and noted researcher Shirley Tilghman said "we must avoid the suggestion that science and faith are mutually exclusive — they are different manifestations of the human experience."

Perfection, faith, science and memories of our youth: there you have the ingredients for Doctorow's "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." The 3-part story is set in 20-year increments, paralleling the timing of the rotating stage of Disney's Carousel of Progress, a Tomorrowland attraction whose theme songs lend their titles to this story. Jimmy, the protagonist of the story, is given immortality by his father through a set of genetic experiments. It's the stuff of science, not religion. Through the first two parts of the story Jimmy works hard to undo his brush with perfection, at least from a chronological point of view, while simultaneously decoupling his being from the Carousel of Progress itself, which his father had rescued, cared for, and effectively turned into the moss-covered family credenza of Jimmy's lost family. The Carousel isn't just a family heirloom; it's the future perfect, the plus parfait view of what might happen.

Genetic manipulation and immortality conspire against Jimmy, as he ends up in truly virtual form. A scientific and computational view of perfection, perhaps, until Jimmy discovers that there are bugs in his perception of his avatar that make perception clash with his long-lived human experience. Is he perfect, and yet still affected by the work of humans? Is he human, reflected in the tag line and title of the story, always looking to the great big beautiful shining through the night, or at least through some variable transparency in his rendering platform?

I'll admit that at the end of the podcast, I felt elated, that Jimmy had merged immortality and humanity in some way; I felt relieved, that Jimmy's extended family was united in a construct that felt destructive until that point; and I felt confused, in that the resolution felt less human, and therefore less real. I extruded equal elements of Robin Williams in "What Dreams May Come," Chris Moriarity's "Spin State" and the very end of Frank Herbert's "Dune" series, all of which blur the line between perceived experience and physical being. If, as Doctorow suggests, we can rest assured that "now is the best time of our lives," then there's really no difference, and Jimmy should enjoy an endless ride around the carousel, each circuit shared with the ever-changing experience of his family.

Wednesday Dec 05, 2007

Foreground Process, Reading Input

I basically did a control-Z on blogging about a month ago. It was completely unintentional, a combination of too much travel, holidays, a short family vacation, a lot of work, and quite honestly, the NJ Devils going on an 8-game winning streak that had me devote significant time to coaching from in front of the television or streaming broadcast of their games. After spending a few solid, uninterrupted days with my family, the best thing I did was plow through a few books.

Doug Hornig's "Boys of October" explores the 1975 Red Sox. I remember their World Series against the Cincy Reds vividly, not because I was a Sox fan but because the Red Machine had eliminated my beloved Pirates for a few years running, and I was happy to cheer against them. It was also the first series in which everyone was an armchair manager; I vividly recall hearing my elementary school friends discussing whether Bill Lee or Luis Tiant would pitch Game 6. It was a fun perspective, penned before the Sox lost the Series in 1986 and eventually won in 2004.

On the sci-fi front, Richard Morgan's "Thirteen" was outstanding, possibly his best yet, and Charles Stross' "Halting State" was even better. Most of Stross' work could be described as the right-oriented cross-product of Hello, Cthulhu t-shirts and Benny Hill-flavored looks at Her Majesty's bureaucracy. "Halting State" is "Numb3rs" meets Wikinomics with a Java jolt, literally, and it's a very fast-moving story. I finished it the same night that "Numb3rs" featured a storyline involving an alternative reality game, which was both ironic and fitting.

I also listened to all seven parts of Cory Doctorow's novella "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is The Best Time of Our Lives", a superb riff on the Disney ride of the same name, and polished off Douglas Coupland's "The Gum Thief." I'll admit to thoroughly hating Coupland's "JPod," mostly because I felt like he ran into character development issues and solved for j by writing himself into the equation. But "Gum Thief" made up for his prior detour with sharp writing and characters that blur in and out of story lines. In a week when I spent copious amounts of time thinking about blogging, writing (actually cranking out a paragraph of the now-dormant hockey book), FaceBook, and my hockey team's web site, it seemed an apt metaphor for my own various states of matter(ing).

Finally, John Grisham's "Playing for Pizza." It's not a great book, it pales in comparison to some of the other sports literature I've read, but it was fun. And that was the whole point of bringing reading into the foreground.

Monday Oct 15, 2007

University Recruiting, Tiger Style

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Princeton University Industrial Affiliates Day and presenting college student opportunities at Sun to a small auditorium full of seniors and graduate students. This is part of our on-going effort to build college and university relationships, make students aware of what Sun is doing and what job opportunities exist, and continue the major campaigns of attracting developers to our platform and entry-level engineers to our company.

I had seven minutes to convey why someone would want to work at Sun, what our culture and career paths are like, and why this might be a good first step in a technology career. And not to set the bar too high, but the master of ceremonies for the day was none other than Brian Kernighan who manages to get laughs without resorting to language syntax references.

The pitch (hey, I'm in sales, there has to be a pitch): Email me, find me on FaceBook, read my blog, or go to Sun's Student Zone for information on campus events and job openings. 15 seconds to summarize the different ways to engage with Sun.

The culture: At Sun, we enjoy disrupting the accepted notions of computing systems. As one of the few true systems companies in the technology space, we have challenged convention from including TCP/IP and Ethernet in the Sun-1 to SMP to open source economics to investing in CMT to drive the next wave of scalability. Sun's engineers make design decisions; we expect our senior engineers to thoroughly "own" their products and technologies. We have a highly open culture, from open doors and inboxes to a focus on transparency through blogging, open source software and hardware (SPARC RTL), and communities that exist outside of Sun. FaceBook group references played here.

The career path: You can be an individual contributor from an entry level person through director and vice president. You don't have to go into management to advance, and outstanding technical contributions are recognized. We have engineers working on everything from magnetic fields and robotics (in the tape world) to cooling, thermal engineering and packaging to processor and ASIC design to operating systems, languages, middleware and security software implementation. We're also building competencies in the "emergent disciplines" -- policy, privacy, energy management, long-term sustainability, recycling and re-use, and embedded systems reliability.

Why I'm here after 18 years: Imagine every device on the edge of the network, and all of the ways you'd use those devices to build a tighter mesh with people around the world. We power that network, from Java environments in the devices through to the storage systems that preserve state in the network.

On the way out, I ran into the Assistant Dean of Development (ie, fundraising) for the Engineering School, who reminded me of my upcoming major-major reunion. I did what any self-respecting engineer would in that situation: I bought an Engineering School t-shirt. I'm still the student when it comes to big campaigns.

Tuesday Jul 10, 2007

Cup of MOCCA

Two weeks ago I stopped by the Museum of Comic and Creative Arts (MOCCA) show in SoHo, primarily on a tip from R.Stevens' blog that discusses the robot romance, creative Internet uses and T-shirt monetization of his Diesel Sweeties comic strip. MOCCA is a great show because it provides an instantaneous view of several hundred comic micro-brands, some in their infancy, some entirely self-published. Nearly all of them are available in some kind of online form, but at MOCCA you could pick up comic books, posters, t-shirts and talk to the artists. And yes, R.Stevens is as goofy in person as you'd expect, taking time away from a bowl of hot truck fries (french fries that you get from a street vendor) to shake hands and autograph some of the first Diesel Sweeties comic books. Stevens is making money from his comics through merchandising, creating brand leverage through whatever six-panel enclosed memes strike a chord with his readers. More on that shortly.

At the other end of the spectrum was Miriam and Jobnik, a chronicle of her tours of duty in the Israeli army. Her comics are a melange of blogging and political art. I ended up adding a lot of bookmarks once I got home, and thought there must be more efficient ways of making forward network references than SMSing a URL to your home email address or picking up physical bookmarks imprinted with online comic bookmarks.

Leaving the show, I was reminded of a line from Jo Walton's dystopian novel Farthing, in which the protagonist operates a micro-lending bank for minorities: All economies are built from the bottom up, not the top down. MOCCA isn't about Adam Smith's invisible hand and the Wealth of Nations; it was about hands making visible the future of the starving artists economy.

This has everything to do with Starbucks and pirates, trust me.

Fast-forward to this past week, when a trip to the eastern shore of Maryland included a tour of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. Being both a persistent wise guy and officially on vacation, I had to wear my R.Stevens pirate flag shirt on the tour, completing my hat trick of t-shirt statements (pixelated Canadian flag to Toronto, electric sheep shirt to educational conference). Our tour guide was only slightly less bemused than when I asked if the crypt under the USNA chapel contains the remains of John Paul Jones the Revolutionary War naval officer or the late Led Zeppelin bass player (the dolphin motif answered that one).

In an effort to escape short-lived rainstorms, we ducked into a Starbucks carefully hidden in the basement of building more than 200 years older than the brand it housed. There was only minor signage on the building, and the store didn't fit the mold of the typical Starbucks in terms of lighting, ceiling height, furniture and staff creativity. These custom-color cups were displayed around the cash register and behind the barista's station; color commentary on an otherwise uniform brand image. I was fascinated by them, and according to the staff on duty, I'm not the first (I never am). But they've been asked, in direct terms, by the Starbucks management chain to stop doing these mashups. Forget selling them, they were seen as brand detractors. All this conveyed while I was wearing evidence to the contrary, proving the value of microbrands that can be interpreted any number of local ways.

Companies that don't allow aspects of their brands to be mashed up, used as buttons, or otherwise spread through people networks miss the kind of bottom-up community building that's driving what Yochai Benkler captures in The Wealth of Networks.

Matrix Management Explained

I'll get a hall pass for blogging from the back row of Dan Berg's all-EMEA global systems engineering leadership meeting because I'm quoting his straight line boss.

Crawford Beveridge, our new VP of EMEA Sales, has a rich history in corporate organization and the richness of the cross-products of people, places and processes. He offered an explanation of matrix management in one sentence that captures both the tension and the practicality of it: I grew up with two parents, and never asked if I was dotted line to Mom and straight line to Dad or the other way around. Perfect. His follow-up: when either parent asked him to do something, he did it.

Clarity in leadership is a good thing.

Wednesday May 23, 2007

Audio of Queue interview online

At the risk of looking like a Cory Doctorow fanboy site, here's one more link to the ACM Queue interview in a different media format. John Stanik, editor and generous content provider, has posted the unexpurgated audio of the interview. The print and online versions enjoyed a bit of editing, clarity and condensation; the audio cast is as close to being in the room as you can get.

Thursday May 17, 2007

ACM Queue Interview with Cory Doctorow online

The ACM Queue interview with Cory Doctorow in which we covered privacy, security, trust, telemetry and the seedier side of content filtering is now available online.

There are also a nice lead-in and some good words from Cory Doctorow on on, his personal (and frequently funny) website.

Monday May 14, 2007

The Road, The Street and The Darkness

Having seen a variety of forward references to Cormac McCarthy's The Road I decided to broaden my reading horizon between the here-and-now of Jodi Picoult and the when-is-that of Neal Stephenson. I wouldn't call it science fiction, in the sense that everything in the book is completely plausible and accessible today; it's a book without faster than light travel, direct computing implants, or intelligent exoskeletons. The only exotic chemicals involved are fear and love. It also won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Road is remarkably dark. It's depressing, but only until you reach the end and literally look back on the road traveled. My first thought upon finishing it was that it was a bad choice to bring on a 6-day business trip, because I wanted nothing more than to hug my own family at the end. My next thought was a reflection on a review written immediately after the release of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town. The critic's words appeared in the Asbury Park Press, not only the largest newspaper of central New Jersey but also the hometown voice of the true Boss of the Garden State. The reviewer, upset that Darkness lived up to its name, ended his review imploring "Bruce, turn on the lights." It's one of the few pieces of music critique I've remembered, now going on thirty years. At the end of the book, I wanted someone to turn the lights on, tell me it was a bad dream, and push away the darkness. But to do so would be to miss the point.

The Road is a dark love story. It's a darkness for which there's no savior light; it's just a dark world that is all too easily imagined. Everything about the book makes you uncomfortable, throws you off your cadence, from the inconsistent punctuation of contractions to the fact that only one character is given a name, something of permanence and memory. The persistent theme, through the pages and through time, is love, between a father and son, and of times and things possibly forgotten.

So I followed the conclusion of The Road with a listen to Darkness, all the way through, the way it was conceived and put on vinyl. After Racing in the Street I took an historical pause because that's where I would have flipped over the record. On the other end of that road is The Promised Land. The lights are on there, as they may be beyond McCarthy's road in the book.

Saturday May 05, 2007

ACM Queue interview with Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow and I got to sit down back in February for a long chat about privacy, security, device telemetry, emulation, stimulation and who inflicts (or tries to) policy, control and editorial stance on what you see online. It was a fun romp through the strange intersection of science, science fiction and digital rights. The article is in the current print edition of the magazine and available online to ACM subscribers. (Don't ask me what Cory said that had me doubled over in laughter in one of the pictures; I was smiling most of the time anyway).

Cory makes a reference to Natalie Jeremijenko, who gets a cover shot and a one-pager in the May/June issue of Good magazine. Add green thinking about security, privacy and security to that mix.

Friday Mar 16, 2007

Writing versus Producing

As expressed here before, I'm an avid Jodi Picoult . Part of it has to do with her Princeton background (we were undergrads at the same time), part of it is a mutual author friend, part of it is that she turns a phrase like a master sculptor putting a gnarled piece of wood on the lathe. The results stretch your sense of beauty.

I finished her latest, 19 Minutes, earlier this week. Sadly, I felt somewhat disappointed at the end, much as I did with The Tenth Circle which preceded the current bestseller. The story is classic Picoult -- a high school nerd goes on a shooting rampage, killing 10 students but sparing the life of his childhood best friend. But for each facet of the characters uncovered, another one is left unexplored. There are more good ideas touched upon than finished, and after the last page, after the asssured gasp-inducing plot twist that is a staple of her writing, I was left simply not liking the main character.

Precisely the way I felt at the end of Tenth Circle, making me wonder if Picoult is now producing books rather than writing them. Some of the characters recycled from previous novels are more settled; maybe the balance of anguish and reconciliation has to be maintained to avoid having moral fiction turn into a morass of gray areas. But the simple act of re-introducing us to threads of previous books detracts from Picoult's ability to walk a character through every emotion, simply because we have context from previous novels about their likely actions and reactions.

I'm still a big fan, and Picoult still gets a loud locomotive cheer for another great book. And at her current completion rate, I can look forward to another book, and another mental adventure, in just a few months.

Monday Jan 15, 2007

Growing Up With Harry Potter

I was talking to a high school student this weekend who said, rather matter of factly, "I grew up with Harry Potter." Color commentary is that the Sorcerer's Stone hit the bookshelves when student and story protagonist were the same age, and now the final installment in the world's most-read wizard's tale will coincide (roughly) with high school graduation. The thought was a sidebar to a longer conversation about good and bad television, the quality of media, and my own surprise at seeing former Princeton classmate Cecil Hoffman walk onto my living room's TV via the fifth season of LA Law.

But the notion of growing up with characters that we adore stuck with me, because I had trouble identifying any characters from the big or small screen that paralleled my own life (please, no Revenge of The Nerds jokes just yet). The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family didn't age, and at the time I guess it wasn't too weird that Greg Brady lived with his parents until he was in 19th grade. Fonzie on Happy Days lived in the suspended animation of Friday night television until he was forced to visit Milwaukee in the Laverne and Shirley spin-off. Stories were told, but we watched, ate ice cream, and forget about the characters until next week. There was no way to find any facet of life reflected in the glare of the prime time television. Not until I ran into Michael and Elliot's Company in thirtysomething did we find characters who looked, aged, and dealt with made-for-TV crises the same way I did, or at least the way I would had our positions behind and in front of the screen been transposed.

I have emphasized to our global systems engineering team, and to the larger customer engineering community at Sun, that storytelling is a critical part of an outstanding customer experience. If we can relate what our customers need to what our products do, and convert the language of technology to the language of business, then there's a good story waiting to be told. Should customers, employees, or partners find themselves reflected in the narrative, we grow our community. It's less the magic of Harry Potter and more watching him grow up that fascinates those of us who are, at any age, spellbound by good storytelling.

Tuesday Oct 17, 2006

The Word is Live

With all due respect and apologies to Jon Anderson, the word is live: Innovating@Sun is now available.

Monday Oct 16, 2006

Innovation Podcasts

Tuesday, October 17, marks the first of our Innovating@Sun podcasts, a kind of funky, edgy, view of what's going on at Sun and why it's relevant -- to employees, customers, passers-by and anyone else who can spare 10 minutes of airtime. My simple goal was a rough stylistic mash-up of Stephen Colbert, James Governor, and Mark Cuban, without straying from technical accuracy or overloading the volume compander on our recording console.

The last time I had this much fun with a microphone was when I was the voice of Sunday Morning Jazz on WPRB 103.3 FM, in the mid-80s, and I had a limited but loyal crew of listeners (including my parents who were sometimes able to pick up the signal with appropriate hand-holding of the FM antenna). Some of the faithful were incarcerated in the Trenton state correctional facility, and it seems their choice of Sunday morning listening was made for them by someone who liked my show and had popular (or declarative) control over the dial at that time.

Here's hoping you like the thoughts, whether or not you're forced to listen to them.


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


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