Can we "Tawk"?
When techno-talk goes slightly wrong
Phil Bronstein today asked the unmusical question "What Tech Buzzwords Make You Go, "Huh?". He brings up terms like "interstitial" (like, look it up buddy, it's in the dictionary) and "open source" (if you don't know this one by now, you're doomed).
But what if the technical term is, to put it delicately, eff'd up?
A story from the legendary editor of the late great Dr. Dobbs Journal, Jon Erickson, told to yours truly to illustrate: One of the cover stories was on Thompson AWK language and as editor he set the enthusiastic tone (yes, some folks get really excited at the thought of AWK) with "TAWKing with C++". However, somebody wasn't minding their p's and q's (when they actually did mind p's and q's). When the magazine cover came back for final review it said something slightly different - "Twaking with C++".
I don't know if meth-heads read DDJ, but Jon wasn't too pleased. Reportedly everyone could hear it thrown across the room and wham into the door. Oops.
Later, as a joke, the staff put together a fake cover with another "twak" reference. This is why journalists are heavy drinkers and why editors have short tempers.
SpaceX and Open Source - The Costs of Achieving Escape Velocity
386BSD, psychological gravity wells and anti-innovation
The successful low-earth orbit of a Dragon capsule mock-up by the Falcon 9 rocket was a great achievement by SpaceX last week (June 4, 2010) and a harbinger of the new age of private space transport. As I watched their success, the excitement from the press and space enthusiasts, and the unexpectedly vindictive response from many inside NASA, I was reminded of the launch of 386BSD - and why those most able to understand your achievement often are the most parochial.
Space exploration is a family tradition for the Jolitz clan, starting with William L. Jolitz developing transponders and thin and thick films for many spacecraft at Ford Aerospace (some still transmitting telemetry long after his passing) to his son William's work at NASA-Ames on an oscillating secondary mirror for the Kuiper Airborne Observatory as a high school intern, to his three grandchildren working at NASA in astrobiology (Rebecca Jolitz), orbital dynamics and space fatigue simulations (Ben Jolitz) and spacecraft logistics for science projects (Sarah Jolitz).
Ben and Rebecca Jolitz also had the opportunity to meet Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, at the 2007 Mars Society Conference held at UCLA and were inspired by his vision and determination (it was at that conference that Ben decided he wanted to major in physics at UCLA). Though still in high school, they had recieved honorable mention in the Toshiba ExploraVision competition for their highly creative concept of a Mars Colonization Vehicle based on using an asteroid in a controlled bielliptic orbit as a transport vehicle to provide the "heavy lifting" of supplies and personnel between Earth and Mars. They were invited to present a more detailed talk on their project for the Independent Study track. The speakers at this conference were a great spur to their scientific enthusiasm.
So it was with great satisfaction that I watched SpaceX demonstrate that "rocket science" is no longer the province of great nations but instead will bring about a democratization of space - cargo and transport, experimentation and eventually mining and exploration.
This is no quick path, however. The struggle for open source software, beginning with Richard Stallman and his remarkable GCC compiler, Andy Tanenbaum's Minix system, Lyon's careful documentation of version 6 Unix, our Dr. Dobbs Journal's article series on 386BSD Berkeley Unix and subsequent releases and Linus Torvald's amazing synthesis of the prior Unix, 386BSD and Minix works to achieve Linux occurred during a enormous burst of creativity that actually totaled about five years (1989-1994). After this came the long process of usability design - driver support, GUI support, applications support, new scripting languages - which is still a work in progress after another decade. Big vision projects take a lot of time and are not for the timid.
It is no secret that NASA has been struggling for many years with a lack of purpose. Just like Unix in the mid-1980's and Windows in the mid-1990's, technology which is held too tightly to a single group or company or national agency tends to calcify. Innovation becomes too risky. Agendas and interest groups override design decisions which may theoretically impact their funding. It becomes easier to add to a design than subtract from it, resulting in an unwieldy project which never converges in form or function.
Eventually, more effort in put into maintaining the flaws than eliminating them. Bugs and unexpected interactions begin to dominate, resulting in more meetings, workshops and conferences. Tools to manage the side-effects and flaws of the project become the object of research, while the actual project suffocates as it becomes more and more obese.
The life cycle of an operating system, like the life cycle of a space exploration vehicle, encompasses a brief burst of risk-taking and innovation followed by a long series of "rational" decisions which add heft and gravitas, followed by bloat, loss of purpose and final collapse. But during the long period of bloat and dementia, the lack of satisfactory execution provides an opportunity for newer faster designs leveraging new technologies in other fields to pry into previously unobtainable market niches and slowly eat out the old markets. This happened with open source, and it is happening with space exploration.
The shuttle itself is over 35 years old and encompasses aging technology which can no longer be retrofit - and has been long scheduled for decommission. This schedule has been put off again and again for two reasons: 1) the US has refused to properly fund and schedule a replacement because the costs and commitment are very great and 2) the maintenance and rocket groups are based in key states dependent on continual funding. Politics as usual has been to fund existing projects when we are long overdue to redefine NASA's mission and goals. And, as is often the case, in refusing to examine other options, we have been left with only one option - end the shuttle program and depend on other nations and consortiums for transport - Russia and the European Space Agency primarily.
The Bush-era Constellation program was in theory supposed to provide an alternative, but the results of this program were laughable - it became a symbol of a bloated self-referential insatiable rocket bureaucracy that couldn't build a real rocket to get pizza, much less get to the moon. And there was the tragic side to this - so many Americans love to complain about their government by saying "If we could get a man to the moon, why can't we do" whatever, when in reality America lost that ability over 25 years ago with the decommission of the Saturn 5 rockets. Since then, like many other government makework projects, "rocket science" has devolved to fantasy powerpoint presentations and one-off prototypes that might have been flown, except for the risk of failure.
So while the science side of NASA, with their unmanned probes and experiments and space telescopes, has continually advanced despite the occasional loss, the rocket side has cowered, fearful of failure yet addicted to the status quo of "no risk = no failures". And this stance, while appearing to play it safe, has created more opportunities for the SpaceX's of the world as space transport, satellite maintenance and other niche markets look for more effective and less expensive approaches.
Competition, we are always told, is good for America. After all, it was competition with the old Soviet Union that launched the space program - and the need to hire rocket scientists to get us up there. So in principle NASA's rocket guys should be pleased with SpaceX - they can leverage SpaceX's experience while encouraging their own demoralized workforce to become more innovative. Like open source, the knowledge that "it can be done" should provide both a relief to fear and a spur to greatness. It's a win-win, right?
So why the malice and anger? Why did so many within the agency that could most benefit from this knowledge wish SpaceX ill? Why are they running down their achievement? Why aren't they rising to the challenge? Aren't they eager to break out of their repressive paradigms?
While envy and fear of change play a great role here, the loss of status is most pernicious. During the rise of open source, a new set of designers and developers began to set the pace for innovation. Many programmers frustrated in their work in industry found an outlet in open source. An avalanche of ideas - good, bad and indifferent - could no longer be repressed by groups controlling proprietary operating systems source. These groups - corporations, standards committees, technology "gurus" - derived much benefit from the old system. They were the leaders at conferences, the movers and shakers of agendas. More than even money, they had the power to elevate or destroy ideas and people on a whim. And believe me, I saw what happened when people didn't "get with the program". It wasn't pretty.
When 386BSD was born, I was told by many in the hard-core Unix side that it would be "strangled in the cradle" - either by lawsuits (which of course, never happened) or by ridicule (which did occur, constantly). I didn't believe it. I just couldn't believe that the experts I knew in the biz would wish it ill when they had an opportunity to finally work with BSD without all the proprietary license rigamarole. For years I had heard people complain about all the agreements and licenses and restrictions and "If only it were unencumbered". Now that they had their wish, wasn't it great?
Boy, was I misled. What I saw as an opportunity, many other good talented people saw as a threat to their comfortable professional existence. I understand comfort, and I never wanted to make anyone unhappy. But in giving them what they had wished for, I did make them unhappy, because I also gave it to everybody else - and that was inconvenient. Well, I plead youthful enthusiasm here to misunderstanding their desires. But if given the chance, I'd do it again, because it was the right thing to do - even if I did it the "inconvenient way".
So what were the claims? I was told nobody would use open source because it didn't have a big company behind it - and we see today that was wrong. I was told that nobody would make money off of open source - and today we see many companies developing profitable businesses off of support and new design. I was told that nobody would use open source to innovate, and yet I use entirely new applications and languages that were not even thought of at the time Dr. Dobbs Journal launched the "Porting Unix to the 386" series in January of 1991. I was told that the only way to distribute software was by selling it on a disk, and that we were crazy to put it out on the Internet, and yet now this is the way even proprietary software is distributed. When I talked about Internet-based OS's, I was literally laughed at by experts I respected - and it hurt - but now we see the beginnings of the "webOS".
The ridicule did have real and lasting effects. The constant intimations by Unix groups of pending lawsuits that never arrived but always "loomed", the personal strain caused by creating entire OS releases on a shoe-string budget funded mostly by writing articles and refinancing our house while raising three young children, the ever-escalating expectations of a consumer audience demanding a commercial OS with all the bells and whistles dissatisfied by traditional Berkeley Unix research releases (with the traditional demands of self-administration - in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" moment I actually insisted the Dr. Dobbs OS release installation and administration be automated by default, with the traditional installation process selectable if desired, and was then ridiculed for not making them do it the hard way - sigh) and finally, the relentless badmouthing of any new approaches in the kernel - the raison d'etre of Berkeley Unix but not, admittedly, of a commercial corporate proprietary system. The last of these was the hardest to bear, frankly - and I understood why many other designers, seeing this, fled to Linux. After all, the ridicule, badmouthing and blacklisting was a piece of what they had experienced in their companies, so why endure it in a supposedly "open source" project?
So like 386BSD, the NASA badmouths and their corporate masters could potentially destroy SpaceX. Yes, SpaceX is better funded than a two-person project like 386BSD - our original "Falcon 9" rocket was a 300-400 kbyte kernel plus some apps (386BSD Release 0.0) and 17 5,000-10,000 word articles plus code on how to do it yourself - but getting out of a gravity well of Earth, not to mention the psychological gravity well of believing you can do it (which seems to be more like Jupiter in terms of magnitude) is a heck of a lot harder. Ridicule, the inevitable technical setbacks SpaceX potentially faces, liability laments (ah, there's that "lawsuits pending" stuff again), a steep learning curve, American impatience (doing new releases with some new innovative work in the kernel took us about 8-12 months - doing the next stage in rocket / capsule design will take longer) and media disillusion when the audience fades (no audience = no money) add to the burden.
But even if, somehow, SpaceX is marginalized, their accomplishment are *real* and will spur others to try. Linux was able to grow and thrive during this time precisely because it was *not* an American project - based in Finland, the canards thrown at 386BSD were deemed irrelevant to Linux. Linux was a safe haven to many serious programmers disillusioned with the threats, lies and distortions promolgated around Berkeley Unix precisely because it was an outsider, uninfluenced by other interests.
People of ill will can kill an innovative project for a while. But they can't kill the idea on which that project is based. It may be delayed for a while. But somewhere, somehow, it will spur others on to try. SpaceX, like 386BSD, is only the beginning.
It's Raining Cupcakes - And Losses
The downsides of Internet coupons for businesses
Internet coupons have been stuck in the dark ages of print. Instead of using modern techniques like social networking and clever psychology (yes, a few companies have done coupon apps for mobile and SN sites like FaceBook, but they're not very inspiring), most just create "print 'em yourself" coupons to be used at a store. And that's a hassle. So to compensate for the annoyance factor, coupons delivered in this manner generally offer steep discounts.
Groupon has taken this a step further - offering really steep discounts on premium items *if* they get a set minimum participation (like 100 customers). But what if *too* many people agree - like three thousand? This happened to a tiny boutique cupcake vendor in SF recently, and it was three weeks of agony and spot buying of supplies to satisfy people. Was it worth it? Probably not, since the vendor had to pay more to satisfy customers paying less.
It's ironic that a decade after the Internet bubble and burst, a simple thing like vending a coupon is an enigma to companies and customers. I've done work in this area, and believe me - the level of cleverness and innovation here is very very low. This is partially because of the demographics to which the old media group is wedded - older frugal housewives - and not the sexy 18-34 spendthrift guys dearly beloved by, well, most everybody selling high-priced junk and low-priced junkfood.
But for the poor cupcake vendor who got too much business for too little profit, I only have pity. No small business can scale to cope with flash sales nor offer the kind of personalized attention that creates recurring customer sales. And the customers don't see the boutique aspect of an artisan - only a cheap discount on cupcakes they might have bought at Safeway instead.
The Internet is a very powerful sales mechanism. Too bad people don't give it the serious consideration it deserves with respect to the simple coupon. I think there's a lot of money on the table and nobody wants to pick it up.
Delusional mom or out-of-control government agency?
TSA and security monitoring
A toddler is snatched by TSA officials from a weeping helpless mom in the middle of a busy airport and wisked away. Nobody helps. Nobody cares. A horror for any parent. But is this story true? Is our civilization so depraved and cowed that government can violate every aspect of decency and not be challenged or even noticed? I suspect many good citizens might agree with this - after all, isn't government bad?
But of course "who watches the watchers"? There's nothing like evidence to mess up a good story, and evidence we have. TSA released nine different camera shots of this distraught mom demonstrating *nothing* happened to her or her child. Nothing at all. Sorry folks - nothing to see here. Please remember to pick up your shoes and water bottles on the way out.
The fact that TSA had to release this video footage (long, detailed and from multiple camera angles to mitigate claims of "doctoring") demonstrates how paranoia dominates, and also why the appearance of airport security for the masses is consequently just as ridiculous as the culture.
When I reviewed one of Schneier's books on security and culture, I was struck by his observation that security is handled in an "overt" fashion... public searches, obvious cameras, announcements, shoe and lotion inspections, and so forth, to provide the appearance of serious involvement. But many of these "glamurity" measures, while juicing up the public, are not the ones that are likely to uncover the real bad guys - remember that a group of determined terrorists took over planes with box cutters - those little blades to cut open boxes - not AK47's or switchblades or cologne. It was organization, intimidation and the element of surprise that allowed them succeed.
So the greatest concern regarding security in airports isn't necessarily inspecting baby bottles (although on the basis that a bomb could be slipped into an unsuspecting child's backpack or grandma's purse, *everyone* must be searched - see, there's that "organization" and "planning" stuff by determined bad guys again). Nope, the smart investment is in areas of automated photo recognition (do I know you?), examination of flight records (frequent flier? holiday to Tuva?), purchasing habits (cash or credit card? one-way or round-trip?) and ID (are you who you say you are and why are you traveling anyway?). This means realtime database analysis (a form of "business intelligence" pioneered by guys like Tandem to track your phone calls and credit cards - we *are* a consumer society after all) and lots of digital cameras. Oh, it also helps to have smart police who use their "instinct" to check out things - even though 9 times out of 10 there's nothing there, there's always that "tenth" time...
So what's the moral of this little story? That bloggers lie to get hits? Well, I think that we already knew that. That some women are crazy? Given the road rage I see daily it's not just women here, but there's a thick percentage of "crazies" everywhere. Nope, the moral is pretty simple: You are being recorded, and not just from the cameras you see or the cameras the staff knows about, but also from cameras the staff and you *don't* know about. This data is *collected* and *analyzed* and can persist and be pulled for review long after you've had that "claimed" incident with TSA or the janitor. To be fair, it's unlikely to be reviewed - after all, millions of people pass through crowded airports and this means petabytes of uncompressed data that has to be stored somewhere so the persistence time is likely short. But since claims must be made quickly in a 24/7 Internet world, anyone who blogs that "TSA stole my lunch" yesterday on my business trip may actually face video surveillance footage that either shows the staff scarfing down fajitas or shows...nothing at all.
But why, you may ask, are there so many cameras? Aren't one or two enough? Isn't that a "waste" of taxpayer's money. Not necessarily, because subverting security is something that insiders like staff are prone to, hence like banks the vast amount of data collection revolves around monitoring the workers with access - did she just go around the gate? did he just feel up the customers? did they steal from the luggage? and so forth.
But as a personal observation, I'd like to point out a common sense analysis that doesn't rely on technology nor expertise, but only relies on an understanding of human nature. I felt the most unbelievable aspect of this woman's blogged claim of TSA child abuse was that nobody in line at the airport inspection station noticed or said anything during this "incident". Now seriously, I know this is a paranoid "fear culture" where "nobody helps nobody but himself" (to paraphrase a con man), but do people really think that the woman waiting behind this distressed mother or the businessman just ahead of her waiting on a laptop inspection or the grandparents three feet away are *not* going to notice something as unusual as an agent taking a toddler away from his weeping mom? That during an unfolding drama people waiting impatiently to get to a plane will not notice the delay, press in closer and begin to demand explanations?
This is why this woman's posting was complete nonsense - it completely ignores that we are social creatures who always want to know what's happening with others. We comment. We rant. We watch. We get upset. Just as a couple of chimps arguing over a banana will cause the rest of the troop to press in closer, people will get involved - especially if there is a child. Grandma will crowd in closer to learn what is going on, the businesswoman four feet away will express concern for the toddler, a twenty-something will ask to speak to another agent. It is human nature to meddle in the affairs of others - that's what being social animals is all about.
America is full of problems we need to solve to avoid a distopian future, and misconduct by those with badges does occur and must be dealt with appropriately. But there are also lots of scammers, liars and jerks who feed off of the paranoia of our society and make it look a hell of a lot worse than it is. These bottom feeders destroy trust, blacken reputations and encourage cynicism. Instead of focusing our energy on solving real problems, we are instead distracted by idiots enamored with celebrity. We waste time. We waste energy. We lose as a society.
So while some might wish to dismiss this incident, I'd like to expand upon it as an object lesson in how going too far to aggrandize oneself can result in serious blowback. And I'd rather see a fame-obsessed woman trying to get a blog audience to raise her google adwords paycheck exposed as a liar and use this lesson to engage in a discussion of real security needs than see the converse - that in a crowded airport nobody would come to the aid or even question essentially the official kidnapping of a toddler. That so many people are still willing to believe the worst here despite evidence to the contrary says everything about trust in our democracy.
The Number You Have Dialed, "S U N" is No Longer in Service
Sun Microsystems is no more...
Sun Microsystems is gone. It is no more. It has met its maker. It is pushing up the daisies.
Given Sun's long sad decline and incredible mismanagement, many are probably happy to dismiss it as a has-been that never actually did anything - grave dancing is a peculiar Silicon Valley tradition. But Sun's demise does matter. Sun was the annoying colleague that was occasionally brilliant and creative but also had some very irreligious and disreputable habits that were unforgivable but too often forgiven. As it aged, it became a sotted gouty Henry VIII of Unix, irritable and tyrannical.
But there are also the memories of a young strong idealistic Sun, freshly spun out of Berkeley and eager to take on King Log IBM and DEC the Usurper. We shared the same roots - Berkeley, BSD, courses, research. We all bumped shoulders in the early days of Berkeley Unix and earnestly argued over technical proposals and RFCs now long forgotten. We left Berkeley to go out and build entire operating systems and computers, invent languages and protocols and processors, and create new businesses - and we fought for each and every dollar and technical advantage along the way. It was a blood sport, and we enjoyed it.
Several years ago I was talking to a student at the Vintage Computer Faire about the Symmetric 375 and Berkeley Unix. I had put together a board illustrating the birth of a venture-backed computer systems startup for those too young to know - photos of the empty offices, prototype wirewrap boards, checks to AT&T for Unix licenses and a tape of System V which we never used because we used Berkeley Unix, biz plans, reviews, articles, investment prospectus and materials, technical drawings, product materials. As I went through the life cycle of the investment, the systems built and the market created, he was fascinated in a "Gee, this is King Tut's tomb" way. When I finished, he started to go into the usual GenX I-don't-care mode, saying "Well, it wasn't a Golden Age, but...". Then he stopped, thought a moment, and corrected himself - "Actually, it *was* a Golden Age, wasn't it?". In a "new age" of marketing gimmicks and established players where innovation is considered bad form, I could understand his confusion. He'd missed out on all the fun.
So raise a glass to the Golden Age of Systems and the Demise of Sun. But do not mourn overly much - there will be other Golden Ages - but this one has most assuredly passed.
Myths and the Need for Innovation
The difficulties to remain calm when everything seems to fail
It all started when one person asked a very simple question: Why can't we reduce packet drops throughout the network during congestion events (thus reducing the impact of RTT) with a more intelligent network that is able to refer back to caches of such information from a prior hop and resend, so that transparently the drop in the fabric is repaired? This all seems pretty simple, and yes, I've proposed such a mechanism myself. It is doable. Why not try it out? The usual "old" answer is that we don't need to do anything. After all, everything we need to know about the Internet is already known, and this isn't a problem. But is this true? Nobody knows for sure, but it's a good way to stifle questions, isn't it?
This is not a trivial issue. I see these technology debates springing up all over the research and development landscape, from operating systems to networking to applications. And I see the same answer tendered: shut up, we've already solved the problem, and if we stomp out the questioners, the problem won't exist. This isn't really a debate between the "old" versus "new" (some "old" designers are among the most innovative and creative people I've ever met), but more fundamentally, centers around the ability to question fundamental assumptions in an intellectually open and honest manner. In other words, the battle centers on the purveyors of myth versus the questioners of myth. And reputations are made or broken on the results.
In Matt Miller's The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity, Miller posits that Americans have become so unthinkingly accepting of their myths that they do not question things even when it defies their own experience. Miller views technology as one of the drivers out of this malaise. Unfortunately, the tendency to cleave to myth is not just the province of bankers, politicians and voters. And the consequences for abandoning reasonable discourse and proactive work can result in unanticipated disasters.
Scientists too are prone to this all-to-human tendency to discount uncomfortable data in favor of desired results, even if those results are based on faulty or incomplete data. And woe to those scientists who cater to the desperation of others in an attempt to aggrandize themselves. Witness the recent Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (aka "the virus court") ruling that MMR and thimerosal do not induce autism - the initial data presented by Wakefield stating autism and MMR shots were linked has been definitively demonstrated to have been fabricated for financial gain, yet there were some other published studies by other scientists that claimed the same results. Only after very large serious studies did this claim get disproved, but in the meantime children who did not receive the vaccines because of scientific validation early on have suffered or died from these very preventable diseases because of a bogeyman of autism (which to say the least doesn't kill the patient). People were desperate for a cause, and instead of saying "We don't know", some scientists told them exactly what they wished.
Homeostasis in ideas cripples independent action. People hold off and put down ideas which could be carefully tested and developed in a considered manner because they are threatened by their potential "success" and fear the dimming of reputations and connections. Only when things completely break do people reach for other ideas, and by then (as witness the current financial crisis) it is really very very difficult to repair matters with a reasonable assurance of success. The events are driven by fear and need. During these times of crisis, people are prone to extreme or under-justified ideas - so long as they are simplistic and appear to "solve the problem". Got a problem with autism. Don't get vaccinated. Who needs vaccines anyway? Got a problem with banks? Bail them out. Nationalize them. Eliminate them. Go right. Go left. Shoot the messenger. The nuances of medical studies or derivatives and financial instruments are not interesting to people who are fearful and angry. If you think you've been living in dangerous times, Miller points out you haven't even begun to experience how crazy it can get when people lose their mythic lifelines.
So what's this have to do with the Internet. The Internet is increasingly the *only* source of information for millions of people. Where people once read print magazines and newspapers, went to the library for books, joined clubs and organizations and kept up with letters over the course of years, now many read / view / communicate only via a browser abstraction. A collapse in the Internet due to years of denial and neglect about the nuances of its structure would be a catastrophe to hundreds of millions of people.
As such, it is important to ask how we can improve the Internet *now* without resorting to old myths and relationships that make us feel comfortable. Because the day will soon come when our old assumptions blind us to new issues, and we will allow this grand experiment to fail. And if that day comes, it will not be the reputable or reasoned scientists who's voices will be heard. It will be the ones who tell people what they want to hear. Is defending a myth worth this price?
The Archetype Physicist Entrepreneur Speaks on Exploration and Success
Berkeley Nobelist and physics emeritus Townes at SETI
Berkeley Professor Emeritus and Nobelist Charles H. Townes spoke at a small lunchtime gathering today at the SETI Institute, and as a Berkeley physics alumna I just had to see him again. Some might have expected less given his advanced years, but I must say he is amazing - his mind keen, his wit gentle and his wisdom deep. Listening to the good professor once again is a real honor and privilege.
Dr. Townes is also what I would characterize as the archetype of the Berkeley "Physicist Entrepreneur" - not because Dr. Townes has led start-ups or became another Bill Gates, since this would be a far too limited and reductionist use of the term entrepreneur. Dr. Townes is rather an entrepreneurial thinker, someone who is not afraid to look outside the bounds of convention. As he illustrates himself, much of Dr. Townes success was a result of desiring to explore an unknown question and persuading others to just let him try. "Exploration pays off big" said Dr. Townes, but you can't guarantee what the pay-off will be, so a businessman or government representative fixated on short-term gain may be uninterested. The narrower the focus, the smaller the gain.
Dr. Townes provides a few simple maxims for the successful physicist entrepreneur:
1. Just because you know the answer doesn't mean you're right.
Dr. Townes recalled how Dr. Welch, head of the astronomy department at Berkeley attempted to dissuade him from working on detection of ammonia in nebula, because Dr. Welch believed this compound would be unstable. Dr. Townes proceeded with his plans, and to everyone's surprise they found ammonia, the first of many molecular compounds found in the cosmos.
2. Don't let everyone else tell you what is impossible when they don't know why.
When Dr. Townes presented his application for a patent for Bell Labs legal to process, he was told that no one would ever communicate using light and that it was a waste of time. He did eventually persuade them to process it. Can anyone say "optical communications"?
3. Even the smartest of experts shoot from the lip sometimes...
Dr. von Neumann at a function with Dr. Townes at Princeton dismissed the notion of the maser. Dr. Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with N. G. Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov for contributions to fundamental work in quantum electronics leading to the development of the maser and laser.
4. ...But really good people recognize when they're wrong and admit it.
After thinking about it for 15 minutes, Dr. von Neumann changed his mind and said that it could be done. He didn't let ego blind him to the truth. People who tell you they "never change their mind" should be avoided, since they value their ego over character. If someone persists, just tell him "You're just like von Neumann at 14 minutes and counting but aren't at 15 yet" and let them puzzle out the rest.
5. We get set in our ways, culturally as well as personally, and find it too easy to say no.
Dr. Townes found his experiences on the Board of General Motors to have been fraught with difficulty. He found they just didn't want to re-examine any of their assumptions, because things were fine. That is, until they weren't fine. They were too comfortable with living off of past success, and found it easy to stick with what worked. Until it didn't.
6. We must try very hard to make good things happen.
Dr. Townes is a cautious optimist. In his long life, he has seen us develop weapons which could wipe out most of our world, and he has seen us walk on the moon. "We have big difficulties we have to struggle with, but the potentialities are enormous".
Dr. Townes still sees scientific worlds waiting to be explored. The two fields he specifically cited as exciting are biophysics and astrophysics. When he was entering into physics, Dr. Townes found biology limited to the "descriptive". Now he believes it is exploring "fundamentals". "If I were starting out now, I would probably go into biophysics", he said. Given my son is attending UCLA in biophysics and my daughter is preparing to enter Berkeley in a year in astrophysics, Dr. Townes' thoughts on this matter are personally gratifying, because like every parent I worry about the choices my children are making, and science right now is not held in esteem. But Dr. Townes words reassured me. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time to hear what you need to hear.
Dr. Townes final piece of advice for aspiring physicist entrepreneurs. "Do challenging things", he exhorted! "Don't get into a rut and just specialize in one thing". "Be willing to take chances". And most importantly, "failure in a project is not failure in life". Bold words to live by from a great physicist entrepreneur and a great man.
[For another view on C. H. Townes, read Valuing New Ideas with an Open Mind
Estrin on Innovation - A Change of Heart?
Non-strategic "renovation, not innovation" mantra dead
Judy Estrin and I have both been around in Silicon Valley. I was at Symmetric Computer Systems soldering the first five motherboards for the 375 while she was at Zilog with Bill Carrico (who was the product manager for the Z80). Paul Baran, a great influence on my work in layer-4 switching using dataflow techniques (InterProphet patents) was a student of her father's at UCLA (where my son is off to in a couple weeks, but in physics, not computing). 386BSD Release 1.0 was launched about the same time Precept was launched (based on multicast, not TCP, using video streaming as a demo platform for the technology). Like Judy, I didn't get to the Ph.D. stage, because I was impatient to get into the big start-up boom of the 1980's. Judy worked with Vint Cerf at Stanford (where she got her master's) on TCP, while Vint vetted my work on SiliconTCP and was on the Board of Directors of InterProphet. We're both moms who juggled diapers and meetings, and suffered a lot of "can you do this" incredulity. Judy and I both received the coveted and unusual Geek of the Week award, but they spelled her name correctly on the nameplate (it's Lynne with an "e").
Judy and I have had our differences. Packet Design, now Judy-Lab (JLAB) was launched as a rival to InterProphet in 2000 (we'd already done our first patent, prototype and product by that time), and while it was far more successful in fundraising than InterProphet ever was, it didn't get nearly as far. Perhaps there is something to be said about running lean. Egos cost big.
But all that said, I salute her for daring to write a book that indicts Silicon Valley's disregard for investing in innovative or risky technology. This cult of "renovation, not innovation" as espoused by Ray Lane has, as Judy puts it "created a kind of root rot in the valley and the nation as a whole." Judy herself I am sure has suffered from this bottom-feeder mentality. It is impossible to run a small research lab like Judy does when the ideas developed are ignored. Think it was tough in 1998 when InterProphet was launched? At least we got a million on a handshake then to develop the concept. In 2008 it is literally impossible to finance any semiconductor company for any reason unless you have an inside deal with Intel - something innovators just don't tend to cultivate in the rush to actually build something.
So bravo, Judy, for writing how this "non-strategic time" (remember when you warned everyone about this in response to one of my questions way back in 2001?) is merely catabolizing Silicon Valley and not giving back. I've been discussing this for years, and put my life on the line for this cause (in open source), just as you do now. Who would of thought that the two of us would be fighting side-by-side?
Smarter is as Smarter Does
Bill Gates versus the Zuck
The desperation for eyeballs on news websites has led to a lot of "People" styled columns, especially in the NY Times. But I just couldn't resist commenting on the "Who's Smarter: Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg?" column, if only because I know something of the players and their backers.
I know journalists like to fancy that there's something special about succeeding in this field - after all, they're the ones who write the story *after* the success, but rarely bother to return calls about our "nifty new product" when we're nothings. And since they come in late, they are rewarded with spoonfed twaddle by the PR guru, whether it's "Pez trading made me rich" (EBay) or "We baked wafers in our oven and that's that" (HP). Journalist eat up this stuff, because 1) you've done their work for them by writing a story any idiot can comprehend and 2) maybe any idiot - even someone like him - can steal an idea and become rich. But life is a bit more complicated and interesting than that.
So what's it really about? It's all about connections, and BillG used his most effectively. It was a lot harder in the late 1970's / early 1980's to get investment than today, and the amounts were a lot smaller. Bill made his initial win with BASIC - in fact, he got really mad when the HomeBrew Computer Club was giving out tapes of it for free and wrote a "cease and desist" letter demanding royalties. HomeBrew was the group where Woz showed off his nicely polished cherrywood box Apple prototype BTW. I believe it's now residing in the Computer History Museum.
A lot of folks ask "Why is Bill Gates so cheap?" Since there wasn't a ton of cash available like today, Bill ran the company pretty frugally, and revenues on sales were important from the beginning. It did help that his dad was an investor and had the connections in his home town. In Silicon Valley, getting a million was amazing for a computer company, much less software. In 1982, we got less than a quarter of a million in venture for a company that did an entire pre-Intel computer company (the processor alone cost $400) from motherboard to operating system and we did it and sold it (for those interested in ancient history, computer wise, this was Symmetric Computer Systems, and the processor was the National Semiconductor 32000). The point was you had to build fast and sell fast. There wasn't a lot of cash in the kitty then, and you had to show you could *make* money.
FaceBook, in contrast, while a great concept, doesn't have the same constraints. It isn't capital-intensive like the computer hardware and software companies of the 1970's-1980's. They don't have to demonstrate quick revenue (I doubt they know what a pro forma is, but you had to do up a good one and stick with it in the 1980's). And they have access to huge amounts of cash unthinkable 20 years ago.
20 years ago, a typical venture fund was pretty small by standards today and investments under $100k were commonplace. Now $500M+ funds abound, but the number of companies they invest in are about the same. It's ironic that it's never been cheaper to do an Internet company but the amounts invested in them are hundreds of times that of companies like Microsoft. This also implies that home runs instead of base hits become the driving focus, with even more cash plowed in to win.
So who's smarter? Maybe both, but for different reasons. BillG because he knew how to use his connections and make money quickly, and that mattered to his generation. And the Zuck, because he knows how to make a big noise with a lot of cash, and that seems to be what matters for his generation. You see, even in an age of deconstruction, context really does matter.
MetaRAM Busts RAMBUS Stranglehold?
Snake oil or salvation from former AMD CTO,
Sand Hill Road envies RAMBUS. Oh, they don't envy them their lawsuits, precarious business model or turbulent management structure. But they do envy them their ruthless monopoly of the high-speed DRAM market. RAMBUS successfully competed against the behemoths with a clever architectural enhancement, kept belief in their approach against huge odds, fought back as hard and dirty as the big boys and made licensing deals stick. They are survivors.
When RAMBUS went IPO back in 1997, I was completing work on the first preliminary patent application for InterProphet's SiliconTCP technology, while William began his hunt for investment. RAMBUS's IPO was on the minds of many VCs, but it wasn't in a good way, surprisingly. RAMBUS's 7 prior years had been fraught with changes in business model and personnel. Instead of setting up a fab, RAMBUS chose to license their technology. Finally, RAMBUS chose to make their stand on the basis of their patents. Don't let me fool you -- investors may crab about the need for "intellectual property protection" but when it comes to playing with the big boys, they believe about as much in IPR as the tooth fairy.
RAMBUS has been remarkably successful in defending and enhancing their patents (and yes, I know about their "steering committee" games -- coming from the OS side I've seen Microsoft and others play the same games, even to the point of doing software patents on work pre-existing by decades). Essentially, they've played dirty like Intel, Hynix and all the other guys the VCs said you could never win against. But it has been a very long wild and crazy ride for the payoff -- too much for the "10x in 3 years" crowd.
But despite all of RAMBUS's remarkable turbulence, it has been amazingly successful. During one incredible record-setting day in 1998, I listened to a top-tier VC say that he'd never want a single share of RAMBUS's stock no matter *how* much money they made. He just hated them. Another top-tier VC rambled on about how "you could make a lot of money with a RAMBUS business model, but they weren't interested in that". What they really hated is how there wasn't a single massive success where they could bow and take their winnings (like VMWARE in 2006 for example, but they didn't invest in that one either because it was run by a husband-wife team that believed open source was valuable -- hmm, beginning to see a pattern). As Magdelena Yesil (at the time partner at USVP) liked to intone to me "Venture Capitalists are more capitalist than venture these days". Chip risk wasn't as exciting when you could respin any company as an Internet venture and go public with no revenue. And semiconductor companies *are* risky.
Semiconductor companies are also the historical lifeblood of Silicon Valley -- hey, that's why it's called "Silicon Valley" and not "Internet Valley"! So now we come to MetaRAM, an attempt to steal RAMBUS's monopoly on architecture. According to Ryan Block of Engadget "MetaRam uses a specialized "MetaSDRAM" chipset that effectively bonds and addresses four cheap 1Gb DRAM chips as one, tricking any machine's memory controller into using it as a 4x capacity DIMM."
Is the technology innovative? Not likely -- it sounds like a combination cache and bank decoder, which is not innovative in the least. In fact, you need 4x the number of components on the DIMM, which means 4x the number of current spikes and decoupling capacitors, even if you put the chips together in the same package. Because you have a fifth chip, you complicate things even more. There is no way you can approach the triple-zero (volume, power, cost) sacred to chip designers with such a design, because one single high-speed high-capacity chip will eventually win out given the proliferation of small expensive gadgets demanding the lowest of volume and power. In a world of gadgets like IPODs, cellphones, laptops, PDAs and the like, cost is very important but *not* the most important quantity. So RAMBUS doesn't have a lot to worry about here.
Hynix has been fighting a losing battle against RAMBUS ever since getting hit with a whopping $306M patent infringement judgment in 2006 (since reduced to $133M), and RAMBUS is still going for more. These are the same guys who pleaded guilty in 2005 to a DOJ memory price-fixing scheme from 1999-2002 and paid a $185M fine. There is no love lost in the memory biz.
So where does little MetaRAM come in. When technology fails, maybe a clever business model will do. MetaRAM's big claim to fame is cost reduction -- not for gadgets or laptops, but according to Fred Weber, CEO of MetaRAM, for "personal supercomputers" and "large databases". And who is the big licensee for this so-called technology. Why, it's Hynix of course, who announced they will make this lumbering memory module. They claim it will be lower power. I think I'd like an independent evaluation on this point, but it will probably be lower cost. Is it worth it? Given reliability considerations, that also remains to be seen. But the moral of this saga is simple -- human memories are longer than memory architectures in this business, and the real puppet-master behind the throne (Kleiner-Perkins) is sure to walk away with the money. I wish I could say the same for the customers.