Challenging Convention, One Sunday At A Time

Scott McNealy likes to pick on "conventional wisdom" as lacking wisdom. It's one of the reasons why so many coaching books, and books written by coaches or athletes, ring hollow: they're full of conventional wisdom or hackneyed phrases that you could glean from an hour or two of ESPN Classic.

In my on-going recovery reading room, I recently finished Kathryn Bertine's funny and revealing memoir of her life as a professional figure skater, "All The Sundays Yet To Come". Shocking to some, I put Bertine's book in my personal list of top five sports books in terms of the non-obvious lesson within. Before googling, here are the other four that made the cut (subject to change and based on most memory, portions of which are clouded by painkillers):

  • 1. Pete Carril, "The Smart Take From The Strong," ostensibly about Princeton University basketball but really a dialog on doing what you do well, and passing the ball to someone else when required. It's the only sports book Jonathan Schwartz has read. Seriously.
  • 2. Pat Riley, "The Winner Within". Don't complain about someone else's playing time unless you're man (or woman) enough to tell that person, face to face, that you're better and more deserving of the minutes. I've used that line more than once.
  • 3. Roy MacGregor, "The Last Season," which has such a powerful ending that I remained upset by it for nearly a week. No engineering lessons, it's out of print, but it's an eye-opening tale of a washed-up player's attempt to deal with his perceived demons.
  • 4. Michael Lewis, "Moneyball," the baseball equivalent of Carril's book, and a wonderful treatment of the science of statistics.

    So what does a hockey playing middle aged engineer find in a figure skating book, except perhaps the logical converse of Robby Benson in "Ice Castles" (groan later, there's a message here....). While pursuing her dream of becoming a professional figure skater, Kathryn Bertine bound herself to increasingly lower-caliber productions, ending up in a trailer-portable show in South America. While on tour, she found that the emphasis in her chosen career had shifted from athelticism and skating ability to her appearance - and most particularly, her weight. Bertine developed a full-blown eating disorder, the roots of which she explores in some fantastically funny and moving flashbacks to her beginnings on blades. The title of the book is derived from the ritualistic Sunday weigh-in that served as Bertine's eating and purging metronome.

    What's the lesson? We cannot be happy with how others see us, only with the way we need to see ourselves. Others' perceptions of right and wrong should never starve us of that which we need to grow, mentally or physically.

    What I've always found fun about technology is the ability to take these other perceptions of how to solve a problem and turn them upside down. Two decades ago minor debates raged about theoretical speed limits in CMOS chips, because distributing clean clock signals with various tree structures was becoming a problem. The challenge to conventional wisdom came from those who talked to their analog design brethren and started using phase-locked loops (PLL) circuits to distribute clock signals, and we've seen CPU clock rates jump from single-digit megahertz to gigahertz rates with the recent velocity of oil prices over those same two decades. About the same time, conventional thinking held that specialized memory systems were required for various kinds of language support, especially involving garbage collection. You earn one gold star if you remember Symbolics hardware support for LISP.

    Continued investment in R&D is the food of engineering. Certainly, svelte, lean balance sheets devoid of R&D expenses may look appealing to some, but that model leads to engineering disorders. R&D investment is what creates opportunities, markets, and communities where clever ideas can flourish. Many have criticized Sun for continuing its pace of R&D spending during leaner times, but here we are talking about Solaris 10 and a host of its slick features, chip multi-threading, and the results of our own Princeton offense - team members Fujitsu and AMD to whom to pass the ball. R&D ensures that there are a lot of Sun-days yet to come.

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