Intel’s X86 Decades-Old Referential Integrity Processor Flaw Fix will be “like kicking a dead whale down the beach”

Image: Jolitz

Brian, Brian, Brian. Really, do you have to lie to cover your ass? Variations on this “exploit” have been known since Intel derived the X86 architecture from Honeywell and didn’t bother to do the elaborate MMU fix that Multics used to elide it.

We are talking decades, sir. Decades. And it was covered by Intel patents as a feature. We all knew about it. Intel was proud of it.

Image: Jolitz, Porting Unix to the 386, Dr. Dobbs Journal January 1991

Heck, we even saw this flaw manifest in 386BSD testing, so we wrote our own virtual-to-physical memory mapping mechanism in software and wrote about it in Dr. Dobbs Journal in 1991.

You could have dealt with this a long time ago. But it was a hard problem, and you probably thought “Why bother? Nobody’s gonna care about referential integrity“. And it didn’t matter – until now.

Continue reading Intel’s X86 Decades-Old Referential Integrity Processor Flaw Fix will be “like kicking a dead whale down the beach”

Is Google Just Another Uber Bro? Unraveling the Tangled Silicon Valley Tech Geek Myth

InterProphet: My first funded startup as technology co-founder on our first anniversary. Image: Jolitz, 1998.

The most recent attack on women and minorities in Silicon Valley has arisen unexpectedly from Google. Mounted by an anonymous Google engineer as a “manifesto”, it presents no facts, regurgitates disproven theories on the “biology” of men and women and, most tellingly, blames diversity for upper management’s cancellation of underperforming products at Google.

Symmetric Computer System wirewrap prototype, 1983 and 375 BSD Unix system, 1989. Vintage Computer Faire. Image: Jolitz

There are a lot of women who have worked on technology projects in SV over the years (me included), but you wouldn’t know it because no one writes about it, so no one believes that it happened even though this is a young industry and most of us are still alive. That missing piece of the story leads to the notion that women have not had any involvement in any technology and it’s a man’s world. It’s an absurd notion.

386BSD conference button, Dr. Dobbs Journal. Image: Jolitz

Whenever one sees these attitudes one also sees history has been deconstructed to focus only on one person at the expense of others – unless earlier in the history of the field there were key women who could not be deconstructed, like physics has Curie and Meitner. Those who control the information – tech journalists, writers and amateur enthusiasts – have had an almost laser-focus on men. Why?  Continue reading Is Google Just Another Uber Bro? Unraveling the Tangled Silicon Valley Tech Geek Myth

Hello world!

InterProphet party, 1998. Image: Jolitz

After a non-brief hiatus where health matters intersected with work matters, I’m back to writing about technology, policy, people and innovation in Silicon Valley.

I’ve always lived in Silicon Valley. I was born in Fremont, got my physics degree at UC Berkeley, and have worked at and co-founded several tech companies here. I road my bike through orchards and fields now filled with homes and shops. I drove 2 lane roads now turned into always busy expressways. I went to school with people who have gone on to successful careers, even reshaping industries… and some who are no longer alive.

I’ve lived in Los Gatos for the last two decades. It’s a nice town (really and literally, the Town of Los Gatos), with a splendid library, just out-of-the-way enough to participate in Silicon Valley without enduring too much of the transitory madness of chimerical tech trends.

It’s an easy drive to all those places that matter, although those places have changed too. What was hot is soon not. Money changes hands, or vanishes into pockets. And the must-hear pitch is as quickly forgotten as yesterday’s weather.

Lynne and William Jolitz, Homebrew Computer Club reunion, 2013. William attended the first meetings of the club in 1975.

There are patterns and anti-patterns to Silicon Valley, this Valley of Heart’s Delight. But now the heart is made of silicon and transistors and zeros and ones. It beats in picoseconds through cores of processors and devices. Thoughts and dreams and desires, both subtle and base, are accessible with a touch.

A. C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Perhaps this is why the gap between science and public policy, education and superstition has grown in the United States. This is a threat to Silicon Valley innovation and national security. 

Continue reading Hello world!

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.