Can we “Tawk”?

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.

The Number You Have Dialed, “S U N” is No Longer in Service

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.

Smarter is as Smarter Does

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.

Fun Friday – Jim Gray Tribute Scheduled

Jim Gray was lost at sea a year ago, but he is not forgotten. His family has joined with UC Berkeley, the ACM and the IEEE Computer Society to hold a day of technical sessions in his memory on Saturday, May 31, 2008 in Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley.

Jim was a Turing emeritus and computer science legend. There will be speakers discussing his contributions to fault tolerance and database transaction processing from notable companies like IBM, Tandem and DEC, as well as his later interests at Microsoft Research in handling massive processing and storage for astronomical and high energy physics datasets. This promises to be a fitting farewell to a man of dedication and intellect.

VC Loses Weight, Music Loses a Legend

SV is buzzing about former Mobius VC Heidi Roizen’s new vanity music CD Skinny Songs. Since leaving the investment game, Heidi decided to dedicate herself to losing weight (don’t you wish you had the time and money to do that?), but was dissatisfied with her exercise music. So she turned “songwriter”, crafting lyrics like “For years we were together, every Saturday night,/we’d go out dancin’, you’d hold me in tight,/but you were unforgiving and you wouldn’t let me grow/Now I can’t put you on – but I can’t let you go” (Skinny Jeans) and “I use wills of steel, at every meal, to control my every bite/And with my xray vision I can see without a doubt/There’s a skinny girl inside me, I’ve just got to let her out” (The Incredible Shrinking Woman – isn’t that the name of an old scifi movie too?). She didn’t write the music, sing, play, or produce of course, since she doesn’t know how, but she does know how to fund a project…

Meanwhile, Dan Fogelberg, a true artist, died of cancer yesterday, and the world got a little bit dimmer somehow. Dan was one of my first strong musical influences along with Christopher Parkening (I learned to play guitar from Parkening’s classical guitar book and no, I don’t use a pick because classical guitarist use their fingers!). I played and sang Stars and Be on Your Way while other kids were listening to disco.

I haven’t played his songs in close to twenty years I’m ashamed to say. When I have time, I spend it on my own compositions (and yes, I write the music, lyrics and sing and play, but my husband does all the digital production, and no, it’s not a business, it’s just for fun). But even after all these years, I still remember them.

So I pulled out the guitar last evening. The fire was warm and so was the music. I sang Longer while my husband listened and my daughter drew. Our cat Tiger came over from where he was sleeping, jumped up next to me and leaned his head against the guitar body.

Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean
Higher than any bird ever flew
Longer than there’ve been stars up in the heavens
I’ve been in love with you

Stronger than any mountain cathedral
Truer than any tree ever grew
Deeper than any forest primeval
I am in love with you

I’ll bring fire in the winters
You’ll send showers in the springs
We’ll fly through the falls and summers
With love on our wings

Through the years as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow
I’ll be in love with you
I’ll be in love with you

Thank you Dan for your wonderful music. You inspired a young girl to pick up a pen and a guitar and sing for the pure joy of it. I know your heavenly debut will be wonderful. But we will miss you here.

Silicon Valley’s Middle Class Dilemma

Almost everyone I know likes to claim that they are “middle class”. Yes, I know I live in Los Gatos, a nice little town that in many ways resembles Santa Monica or La Jolla. We’ve got a great library, a Christmas parade (I once marched in it with my kids as “California pioneers”), a nice neat downtown, several great parks, and what is generally considered a very good school system (although my daughter decided to short-circuit a slow educational malaise for Ohlone College after 7th grade). Yet we’re all “middle class”. Not wealthy. If pressed, someone might say that local resident Steve Wozniak is probably wealthy, even though he eats at Bakers Square during pitches.

But wealthy? No, most everyone I know (even several VCs) don’t feel wealthy. Oh, they hope to be someday. But with $5,000/mo mortgages, insurance and taxes going into Silicon Valley tract houses that went for $30,000 new in 1967, they definitely feel middle class. And scared they’ll lose it all if something – anything – goes wrong.

The problem with definitions of “middle class” is that they don’t take into account debt load and age. Many people who appear affluent in expensive areas of the country have very high debt load, dominated by mortgages. The only reason they survive is that good old mortgage deduction on their taxes.

People buy houses based on their current income and debt (unless, of course, they fell into the subprime disaster – note that many people who qualified for better ended up with these mortgages because brokers made more off of them). What if they lose their job, or their medical insurance tops out and they have to go out-of-pocket on medical bills? In this case, the fixed asset value of their house doesn’t help much, unless they can unload it at a profit fast, because once the debt load rises or you can’t validate the old mortgage with a paystub, you can’t refi and pull money out of that asset. But you still have to pay mortgage, taxes, maintenance and all that stuff. And in costly areas like Silicon Valley, that adds up real fast.

And finally, if you’re over 40, there’s a good chance you’ll not get as good a job, pay-wise, than you had when you were younger. We see it all the time here in Silicon Valley. It has nothing to do with education – I see very educated people here past 40 saying they’re “retired” rather than admit they have no job prospects. It has nothing to do with connections or talent – many of these people have established track records of products and successes and everybody knows it. It has everything to do with age. Nobody wants an employee over 40 because 1) the medical costs go up – I paid $70/mo for a 20-something in my engineering group in one of my startups and he had a major car accident that cost Kaiser plenty, while several 40-something engineers had monthly medical costs 10-times that and never got sick – and 2) old guys and gals aren’t “cool”, and investors and the few old survivor executives only want to be surrounded by youth to feel young.

Maybe that’s where the real Silicon Valley “wealth gap” lies. The super-rich winners believe they are immortal and beautiful (even if they are old toads) because they are rich, and only wish to deal with others like them (the current minimum in venture circles these days is about $100M) and they use the young to flatter their egos and not necessarily to line their pockets. The people who made them their successes – the generation of hard-working scientists, engineers and businesspeople that created the wealth – are disposable because their very presence is a reminder that the “wealthy” got there because of them.

So what happens to the guy who made that open source project succeed, or that gal who got those semiconductor patents together? They’re “retired”. Put out to pasture. There are no second chances in Silicon Valley.

The only bright light in this little meditation is that we should be happy they still use “retired” in the conventional sense, and not the Blade Runner sense.

Fun Friday – Nobel Peace Prize for Gore Validates Global Climate Change Concerns

Well, the Nobel Peace Prize committee decided that global climate change is important enough to award the Nobel to Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some are already protesting that concerns over rapid changes in the environment have nothing to do with peace, but it’s pretty hard to promote peace when people start warring over rapidly-dwindling resources as drought, flooding, and loss of habitat threaten their very existence.

Of course, there are many people still in denial that their lifestyle can and does impact the earth – we’re actually all in this together. There are also many political and commercial interests who fear that recognition of this problem worldwide will impact their private deals before they mine out the money, and like the tobacco companies of an earlier generation feel compelled to promote and package rhetorical nonsense to muddy the waters. There is no absolution in denial, but there is vindication in an international award.

Silicon Valley, the heart of technological innovation and a lot of “green” investment, has embraced the concept of global climate change and there is a great deal of investment in this area. This is a complex problem demanding real long-term commitment and funding, and since it took us a while to get to this point, it won’t turn around overnight. But we’re well-educated, innovative, and opportunistic, and there’s a lot of gold in new clean technologies, so expect the unexpected! Until we get there, I hope you enjoy this short video “tone poem” entitled Global Warming – A Threat to our Life. It reminds us there is still hope for our world. I think the Nobel committee would agree.

Fun Friday – College Textbook Sticker Shock

I took my daughter Rebecca shopping for her textbooks a few weeks ago at the college bookstore. I walked out stunned with a $300 bill for a soft-cover math book (used) and a soft-cover set of chemistry books (new). And I didn’t even buy any English books yet!

So Michael Granof’s op-ed piece Course Requirement: Extortion in the NY Times hit a nerve with me, and probably every other parent writing those college checks. Granof, a professor at the University of Texas, proposes a “site licence” approach to textbooks based on the projected number of students enrolled, just as a corporation purchases software. Books would be available electronically, or could be purchased in hard-copy form for an additional fee. Instead of being in the paper-pushing business, publishers would become more like software companies focussed on managing contracts for their materials, managing revenue streams, and finding new material and providing updates and revisions. Colleges and professors would be willing to experiment more with classes and new authors, because they wouldn’t be locked-in to the used book market. Textbook authors would find more small markets for their books – it’s all electronic – and could focus on new work and timely revisions for a global economy with deterministic royalties. Libraries and bookstores could invest in “instant book publishing” machines and materials (one machine sampled built an entire book in 15 minutes) and would no longer be risking significant investments in academic inventory (both new and used). And finally, students would find their out-of-pocket expenses for books get more in line with other segments of the book industry.

Hey, as a technologist I’d rather deal with electronic forms of content than hunt for a book on Amazon. As a textbook author, I’d love to spend my time writing new works in operating systems and networking and getting it to students and professors right away rather than worry about whether my older books are being resold and resold until they’re obsolete. And as a parent, I think we’d all like colleges to be in the business of educating our kids, and not in the business of book inventory management.

The Game of Life – Windfalls Matter, Education Doesn’t

Nicholas Kristof painted a portrait of China as the emerging leader of this century through their serious and aggressive education goals in an article in the NY Times a few days ago. He compares his own daughter’s “excellent schools in the New York area” to a peasant school in Guangdong Province and finds it lagging two grades behind — an appalling discrepancy. When well-traveled, well-educated affluent Americans pale in comparison educationally with China, you’d think Americans would begin to understand the “competitiveness” concerns Silicon Valley has been screaming about for years. After all, if the top classes of American society cannot compete with the children of peasants, what does that say about American competitiveness in a global economy? Yet America does nothing more than wring hands and complain while China pulls ahead. Why?

Perhaps the witty essay by Lawrence Downes (“Love and Debt”) today holds the answer. In his exploration of the newly revised “Game of Life” from Milton Bradley, he found that players who chose to forgo education and have children did much better in the game than those who deferred having children, spending time and money on education. Debt just happens, with no downside consequences — no foreclosures, no homelessness. There is no connection made between career, salary and education. In fact, to make the game more interesting those who are not educated were far more likely to win lotteries or other windfalls than those who are educated. In the world of Milton-Bradley, a doctor is more likely to end up poor than a “strawberry picker”. A degree is simply a means to more debt, and not a means to social mobility.

In the real world, we laugh at such silly notions — after all, it is a game and games aren’t real. We all know that debt is real and inescapable. Credit reports make or break obtaining mortgages and using credit. Interest rates can escalate on the basis of one late payment, causing people to spiral deeper and deeper in debt for old purchases. It isn’t debt that “happens” — it’s poverty. So why should we care? Perhaps because the games we play very much reflects our biases and wishes, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

Salaries and job security are tied very much to education. Those who start off poor and ignorant are statistically likely to remain that way if they do not better themselves through education. In Silicon Valley, there is a tremendous demand for educated workers. Whether you believe there is an H1B visa crunch or not, it is inescapable that engineering and programming jobs are increasingly going overseas to get the job done. This is not just because of lower salary costs (the costs of administering an overseas contract when factoring in time, travel and oversight ends up more in the realm of two-to-one, not the 10-to-one HR drones like to quote), but because countries like China and India are turning out more and better engineers, scientists and programmers than America.

According to Computing Research Association’s 2005-2006 Taulbee survey of Ph.D.s in computer science and computer engineering (CS & CE), instead of increasing the number of CS and CE doctorates, they have been steadily decreasing since the dot-com boom, so that the “number of new CS majors in fall 2006 was half of what it was in fall 2000 (15,958 versus 7,798)”. China and India are simply picking up the slack. In addition, the CRA notes that “54 percent of CS doctorate recipients in 2004 held visas”, up 8 percent in two years. As Americans shun these majors, more and more foreign students are taking their places in American universities. And those students are the ones Google and Microsoft and the next big startup will hire.

Very few people who hang around the house watching TV and having kids ever win a lottery. Those divorced from society are much more likely to end up in prison or hospitals. People who are impoverished through lack of education, access or debt aren’t likely to get that magical windfall — that get out of debt free card that Milton-Bradley promises them. In fact, according to mathweb’s lottery calculator, if I had to pick six correct numbers in any order from 1-49, the odds of my winning are 1 in 13,983,816! But this doesn’t even scratch the surface — restrictions on ordering and numbers reduce the odds significantly. According to PBS Frontline, the odds of winning the California Super Lotto Jackpot are 1 in 18 million! Despite the enormous reality distortion field that surrounds the occasional “lucky” lottery winner (Steve Jobs RDF is nothing compared to this), the truth is it isn’t going to happen to most everybody — just a few folks. Is that a good basis for financial security? According to a 2006 survey from the Financial Planning Association and the Consumer Federation of America, “one-fifth of Americans (21 percent) [and] 38 percent of those with incomes below $25,000” believe that winning the lottery is the means to personal wealth and debt mitigation. And it should be noted that 30 percent of those with no high school degree believe in a lottery saving them, versus only 8 percent of those with a college degree.

While people who have a college education often have more relationships, opportunities and financial leverage, those who have not built this economic network rely on fantasies of wealth. Milton-Bradley built this fantasy into their world, with a twist — the lower the status and profession chosen, the more likely the player to get windfalls. The higher the status and profession chosen, the more likely the player would accumulate straight debt with no windfall potential. The message to children who play this game is pretty clear — don’t bother to go to school, stay home and have babies, play the lottery and everything will be fine. Hmm, I don’t know about you, but that’s not the way every millionaire and billionaire (yes I know a few well) in Silicon Valley got their wealth…

To be successful, a game must hold the promise of a world that we wish were real. Games reflect our values and aspirations. If Americans didn’t believe more in lotteries instead of education, why would they push games like this on their children?

Bill Gates has recently joined with Eli Broad to spend $60 million to push education to the political forefront as a nonpartisan “single-issue initiative”. According to Bill Gates, “The lack of political and public will is a significant barrier to making dramatic improvements in school and student performance”. Mr. Broad adds that “We’re trying to create a Sputnik moment, to get people to see that our very economic future is at stake.” So far, even with all their money spent on advertising, they are having little effect on the political campaign. Not surprising, really, when three of the major Republican presidential wanna-bes don’t believe in evolution (so much for healthcare and biotech investments) and Democrats spend their wad on other matters like Iraq.

This disdain for education as the key to success is why America will lose and why China will win. But Milton-Bradley will probably sell a lot of games. And isn’t that what America is all about?

The American “Can’t Do” Culture

In the aftermath of the terrible slaughter of 32 students and professors yesterday at Virginia Tech, there have been a number of calls to action on staunching the proliferation of guns, and counter-calls for more guns. My son came home from school, and the first thing he asked me was “Is it true that the first thing Bush said after the Virginia Tech killings was he supported gun rights?” The answer was – Yes, he did. The blood was still wet on the ground and ideologues were commending the killer for possessing (although not using) guns.

If it appears like madness prevails in America to us Americans, it is a certainty to those outside of America…