Watch Out for that …. Queue! Oh Wait, I Feel Buffer.

Ran into Vidya Babu (Director SW Engineerng, Cisco) at a girls Internet event sponsored by the ATW and Cisco called Great Minds Program Series: The Human Internet Game. What was it about? According to the invite the “…participants play the roles of routers, switches and packets in a network. Working together, these “components” (AKA the girls) have to route as many “human packets” as they can through the network in a limited amount time.” In other words, I got to watch my daughter Rebecca Jolitz and her friend Jesse run from hop to hop, while other girls stood around acting as very unsophisticated routers.

So I asked Vidya “What do you do with the girls if a packet is dropped”? I kind of left her speechless. Nope, no congestion control, retransmission, window, or other stuff. This would have made the game a lot more fun and real to the girls. I guess we’re just at link, right?

Or maybe I should save the inside humor for Byte next time.

Fun Friday – Watch the Movie, Get the DVD, Plug in for the Download – Not

Director Steven Soderbergh is a brave man. A really brave man. At least, given that movie studios and theater owners want to go after him with billy clubs, he’s pretty brave. He’s agreed to work with 2929 Entertainment to produce six movies in HDTV which also will be released on DVD and cable.

According to Reuters, “The same-day distribution challenges long-held practices for Hollywood studios that first place films in theaters, hoping for solid box office revenues, then sell them months later on DVD or videocassette and offer them to TV broadcasters. Studios and theater owners are concerned that altering the practice would cannibalize box office sales.”

Wow, it’s not often you see the sharks worry about the fish. Now, if he also did downloads, what do you think they’d say then.

Muse, Sing the Tale of the Reconstructed Scrolls

In the midst of lots of work, a lovely article by David Keys and Nicholas Pyke of the Independent about bits and pieces of papyrus found in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump, reconstructed using a variety of satellite scanning and search technologies.

“The papyrus fragments were discovered in historic dumps outside the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus (“city of the sharp-nosed fish”) in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Running to 400,000 fragments, stored in 800 boxes at Oxford’s Sackler Library, it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world.” And it took a tremendous amount of work to scan and reconstruct.

So the ancients threw away Sophocles, Euripides, and Hesiod like we throw away bodice rippers and serial killer novels. Or maybe the Hellenes would have preferred what we read now – and were stuck with “And the helmets are shaking their purple-dyed crests, and for the wearers of breast-plates the weavers are striking up the wise shuttle’s songs, that wakes up those who are asleep.”

When First Mover Doesn’t Help You

An engineer I know was infuriated to find that a software architecture proposal a friend had done several years ago and presented to Microsoft as an enhancement to work done at InterProphet appeared in another company’s patent claims – even though he’d presented a similar idea to Microsoft long before. “Well, I guess I can at least go to my grave claiming we did it first” he laments. And as I was there – I can vouch for them. They did it first. This happens occasionally, and we have to ask ourselves “Does being first really matter”?

First mover isn’t always best mover if you’re dependent on a behemoth like Microsoft. It’s when the market is ready – even IBM and Cisco face this problem. The first mover in Cisco’s area was Proteon. They had 100% of the router market. Haven’t heard of them? Not surprising.

Branding Constellations

Is it any surprise that in an age of “branding” some folks would think it’s a perfect time to rename all the Constellations? No, I didn’t think you’d be surprised. Of course, the complaints are usually something of the order of that the sky is full of “pagan” symbols, or that no one cares about some woman chained to the rocks (Andromeda) unless she’s Xena. But somehow those good old names live on.

In fact, co-opting the stars into new constellations for an agenda is an old trick (from Hinckley, “Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning (1899,1963) pp16-17):
“It has been the fashion with astronomers to decry this multiplicity of sky figures, and with good reason; for, as Miss Clerke writes in her monograph on ‘The Hershels and Modern Astronomy’: Celestial maps had become “a system of derangement and confusion,” of confusion “worse confounded.” New asterisms, carved out of old, existed precariously, recognized by some, ignored by others; waste places in the sky had been annexed by encrouching astronomers as standing-ground for their glorified telescopes, quadrants, sextants, clocks; a chemical apparatus had been set up by the shore of the river Eridanus, itself a meandering and uncomfortable figure; while serpents and dragons trailed their perplexing convolutions through hour after hour of right ascension; with more to the same effect. This condition of things led the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1841, to depute to Sir John Herschel and Mr. Francis Baily the task of attempting a reform. But although improvement was made by the discarding of several figures and the subdivision of others, their changes were too sweeping and were not successful, so that as the constellations stood then, in the main do they stand today, and so will they probably remain, at least with the people. “

So don’t be surprised if someone tries to rename Andromeda “Xena” to sell a video game. But if the Royal Astronomers couldn’t get away with it, I wouldn’t lie awake at night worrying about Nintendo. Now, I suppose we should discuss Pluto and planetary designations, right?

Checksums and Rethinking Old Optimization Habits

More war stories on checksum failures over the years. Craig Partridge recalls “some part of BBN” experienced an NFS checksum issue and that it “took a while for the corruption of the filesystem to become visible…errors are infrequent enough that NIC (or switch, or whatever, …) testing doesn’t typically catch them. So bit rot is slow and subtle — and when you find it, much has been trashed (especially if one ignores early warning signs, such as large compilations occasionally failing with unrepeatable loading / compilation errors)”. Craig is absolutely right – this was exactly the case with the Sunbox project I described as well as the datacenter mirror example (see Checksums – Don’t Leave the Server Without Them). Too much damage too late. As implicit dependence on reliability increases, the value of checksums becomes very clear.

In the early deep space probes they learned the hard way the importance of always providing enough redundancy and error correction, because a single bit error might be the one that leads to the destruction of the communications ability of the spacecraft. One spacecraft had a corruption error like this that destroyed it for precisely this reason. They optimized out reliability to get a slightly greater data rate, and lost the spacecraft (this has happened more than once).

We’re reaching a point where we have to seriously think about whether an “optimization” is really valuable, since as Craig notes, you may not notice a problem until too late. In this age of ubiquitous computing, with plentiful processor, memory, and network bandwidth, we should be focussed on increased reliability and integrity, but old habits of a more parsimonious age die hard.

Another very recent example of ignoring the value of checksums is reflected in the recent ‘fasttrack’ problems of incorrect billing of tolls. But that’s another story…

When Kids Do Video Better than the Pros

Last Saturday, while my husband William Jolitz was attending a really dull all-day seminar on Law and Technology at Stanford, I had a much more enjoyable privilege – escorting my movie-making daughter to her first film debut at the Windy Hill Kids Film Festival at the Menlo School in Atherton.

The screening auditorium was filled with kids (and some proud parents). Rebecca’s film Mystery Festival (see “Rebecca Jolitz Debuts Movie in Kids Film Fest”) was screened in the 5th grade drama catagory, although it’s more a kids mystery than drama. What fun it was!

Lots of really great work in the high school range – some very pro and creative. The MTV-U speaker was fun too. Kids, movies, and the future. Shelby, the young organizer of this fest, is a really positive and outgoing teen (she’s 13). Ben and Rebecca shot interviews with filmmakers, audience, and organizers, MTV style during the fest, and are putting together a quick flick on “being there” for fun (it’s spring break – they need to do something)…

I hope this happens every year. Because I saw a lot of really great work. Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly on talent anymore.

Fun Friday – Datacenter Checksum Stories

In an e2e discussion on the loss of data integrity on Oracle TNS gateways that still exists today, one wag said “When Network General was adding more SQL decodes to the Sniffer(r), in the ’90s, we had a presentation on the Oracle transport (TNS) underlying SQL Net traffic. TNS rode on Netware SPP, or TCP, etc. The fellow went into packet fields in detail and explained how Oracle also made gateway software available for Sun boxes to go from an Oracle system to an IBM SNA db system. The gateway received SQL on TNS on TCP on IP on Ethernet (for instance) and spit out SQL on TNS or whatever IBM wanted. As he expounded on TNS pkt fields, a few hands went up — “What’s the checksum field for if it’s always 0?”…”It’s unimplemented for now”. “Well if it’s unused and your gateway has bad memory, how do you know the data going into the db on the other side will be good?” Answer: “I don’t know”. (Thanks to Alex Cannara).

Of course, if the Oracle tech guy had gone to the Microsoft Research school of obsfucation, he would have said “The probability of this event occuring such that the reliability of the underlying link layer is impaired by an improbably low memory bit error at ten to the minus 12 excluding thermal radiative factors and charge displacement is so low as to be impossible, hence the question is irrelevent”. Now, that’s the way to talk the talk. I guess that’s why Oracle is always Number 2 to Microsoft. 🙂

First Outsource the Tech, than the Surgeons, than the Patients

Saritha Rai of the NY Times chats about how India, Singapore, and so forth are becoming low-cost surgery centers for global patients – including Americans. It’s just too costly here for most folks. And it’s the same doctors you’d see here, because most of them trained here in America. It’s just the surgery center is a, ahh, bit remote.

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but this trend impacts the development and deployment of new techologies in health care significantly. Up until recently, the telemedicine craze has dealt with providing medical resources to poor areas more effectively, like an Indian reservation (common example). But the problem is there is no relationship with the doctors doing remote diagnostics, there is no high bandwidth connectivity, and there is no technical maintanance at the remote end. In other words, there are far too many other factors to make this work in practice at this time. William Jolitz spoke to this vexing dilemma in TeleMedicine Journal in the mid-90’s.

But if patients are “outsourcing themselves” as Rai describes, telemedicine becomes very practical. The high speed lines exist, the monies to maintain the technologies at either end exist, and they could use telemedicine as a diagnostic / relationship building tool before the patient flies to India (or Singapore or whereever) for actual treatment.

I think this will be a real trend here. And it completely changes the orientation of the healthcare technology industry from records to communications!

No, it’s not “High Power”, it’s now “Low Power”

You may have heard that servers at Google have been packed so tight they catch fire in the datacenter. Turns out power dissipation is the key – even laptops get hot, and servers stacked are fire hazards. It’s the power, everybody – the limiting factor to communications is power (according to Broadcom). What a difference a few years make. When I was invited to a meeting about InterProphet and SiliconTCP over at a major infrastructure company back then, the gal assigned to evaluate my work laughed at me when I seriously brought up the issue of low power and TCP. Of course, she also wanted to boast about some thesis she’d done on TCP about twenty years after everyone else. One (male) engineer, in hearing the description of the meeting said it was the first all-woman “pissing competition” on record. I told him just because I’m assigned a woman for due diligence because I’m a woman too doesn’t mean I get a free ride – frequently it’s the opposite. Alas, there’s no secret sisterhood in business, but envy is universal.

So, how do you swap hot hotswap servers? The key is low power TCP – you can’t burn out the stack anymore adding more and more processors (not to mention the management overhead) even in the datacenter (sorry Intel). You need to get the lowest power TCP stack possible. And that means a no-processor design.

The nontech “what does a low-power TCP hardware implementation do for me” (what a mouthful) is you get real full video on cellphones without burning out the battery as quickly. Since I’m doing automated full video production these days, that’s kind of my interest too. Paul Baran wrote the basic patents on cellular communications for audio/video. But he couldn’t achieve it fully because of this limit. He was so far ahead of his time it’s amazing. I wonder what he’d think now?

So Silicon Valley isn’t really dead technologically, despite what some people like to say. There are a lot of technology problems still to be solved, discussed in black and white in some legendary patents and papers from people like Baran that created entire industries. It’s all right here. When I read patents, it’s pretty clear to me that “everything *hasn’t* been invented yet”.

Unix was invented when I was in high school. The Internet – gee, it was old hat at Berkeley when I got there. Packet-switching? Baran. Cellular. Baran et. al. But no one man or woman could anticipate *everything* because a lot of the pieces just weren’t in place. So the inventors carefully outlined why things couldn’t work, or came up with nonviable solutions because of these missing pieces. It’s all there – if anyone wants to take the time to read it.