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…

Strange Friday – Anna Nicole, Jim Gray, Nowak

The last few weeks have had such a bizarre series of news items that I must admit have distracted me. Some of these items involve people I actually know or things I really care about. Others are simply too strange to ignore, especially when they make the front page of the NY Times and every other news organization I read.

Jim Gray, lost at sea! Jim and I have spoken and corresponded about the work I’ve done at InterProphet with SiliconTCP and no drop routing over the years. He’s an old Tandem alum and colleague of William’s (see The Google Test). It’s so startling that I almost believe if I sent an email to him right now telling him I disagree with one of his observations, I’d get an email right back clearly and succintly debating me point-by-point.

Fun Friday – Apple Phone Home, Supremes on Science

Apple, the Benetton of compsys, is poised to announce their own blackberry ripoff for the stylish crowd, as Michael Kanellos notes. Now, I know a lot of people who live by their blackberries, but I guess they’re not the glitterati – just the people who, like, invented networking, or designed the chips used in these devices – so I guess they don’t count. Anyway, after settling that unsettling patent conflict, RIM I suspect isn’t worried…

Kanellos is correct in his evaluation of Apple’s competitors in this market – all established, ruthless, and adaptable – and that experience in building this product matters. Actually, experience building any product matters, but Apple has often gotten away with slipshod manufacturing glitches that corporate and international customers would never tolerate. Service also matters in the cellphone biz – reliability, coverage – you don’t want to be lost in the woods without a signal as some CNET editors have recently discovered. Finally, making a fancy video phone work well is a lot more than just hardware – just walk into any cellphone store and make a salesman take and send a video clip from one of their fancy video cellphones – you’re likely to find they don’t know how. All in all, Apple had better deliver well here – but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it.

Cornelia Dean in the NYTimes wrote an interesting piece on the conflict between scientific method and legal reasoning that is worthwhile reading for technologists. In a revealing moment during the current case before the Supreme Court on regulation of carbon dioxide to control greenhouse gases inducing global warming, Justice Scalia was quoted as saying “Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I’m not a scientist”.

Lest people think this is a recent problem, a patent attorney who argued before the Supreme Court many years ago told me that during one case involving computer methods and software one of the “lesser lights”, in a recap over the algorithms used, moaned to another justice “We’re not going to hear about logarithms again, are we?”

Fun Friday – CNET says “The only good girl geek is a dead girl geek”?

As the last slice of pumpkin pie vanishes and the pot of turkey soup slowly simmers on the stove (and yes, I do make turkey soup – it’s good for you), a few items for post-holiday tech cheers and jeers…

A guest columnist on Matt Marshall’s VentureBeat, in an attempt to appear Internet-saavy, made a slight mistake – he called Vinton G. Cerf, Google exec, Turing winner (among other honors), ICANN chairman, and co-inventor of TCP/IP, a man who has also served on the Board of one of my companies, InterProphet, “Vince”. So naturally I pointed out this slight error. And you’d think that would be the end of that since anybody can google Vint – he’s all over the Internet for goodness sakes!

But alas, assuming someone will use the power of the Internet to avoid looking the fool is just silly I suppose…

Fun Friday: DSL Debacles, Celebrity Linux, and Ubuntu

Tom Foremski of has picked up my little meditation on how telcom companies keep competitors from serving DSL even if they don’t want the business (see DSL Debacles and Competitor Cheats) with the headline “Lynne Jolitz tries to get DSL on a DSL line”. We’ve got a few comments on this one relating to dark fibre which some folks might find interesting.

On the celebrity front, I’ve been waiting for the ultimate celebrity distro, and finally it’s here – Paris Hilton Releases Tinkerbell Linux. Now, I know that ever since 386BSD everyone and his dog does Unix releases, but I’m gratified to see the dog finally get her due. And unlike my rather dry technical discussions of OS open source, Paris has added the touch of glamour to Linux that I’ve always wanted to see in BSD: “First,” she writes, “I think The Open Source Movement is, like, really hot. I’ve been dabbling with coding for ages, but it’s taken me some time to find the courage to release it. As you know, I’m a shy and modest person, and wasn’t sure if it was good enough for the strict standards of the coding community.” What’s next? – Brittney Linux, the kind you can dance to? 🙂

Finally, it probably comes as no surprise that there is a lot of source contributor turnover in open source kernel projects, what with the low user esteem, nonexistent pay, endless “such terrible food and such small portions” complaints, burnout and rampent piracy. But usually it’s the “control freak” kernel developer that’s blamed for everything. So it’s refreshing to see why major Linux contributor Matthew Garrett left Debian for Ubuntu: “”In his own blog, Garrett relates his gradual discovery that Debian’s free-for-all discussions were making him intensely irritable and unhappy with other members of the community.”

Why he likes Ubuntu? The “technical code of conduct” (which means talk distro and code, not politics) helps, but the key is to see an end to discussion and make a decision. “At the end of the day, having one person who can make arbitrary decisions and whose word is effectively law probably helps in many cases.”

I wish them well. 386BSD also enforced a code of conduct similar to Ubuntu’s today. But unless there is genuine respect for their developers, the poison of ridicule can erode even the best of intentions. I’ve watched Ubuntu take some of the best ideas we pioneered a decade ago with 386BSD Release 1.0. I hope they learn from history and don’t just imitate it.

Fun Friday – Men Expect Success, Women Work for Success

On the talk show circuit, if there isn’t a “us versus them” crisis, they’ll invent one. After all, ratings matter, and the best ratings are gotten from the “battle of the sexes”, never mind the reality.

The latest fad, seized upon by fervent talk show hosts, academics of questionable credentials, and ideological rantists is that of the “academic gender gap” where girls are supposedly pulling ahead of boys. Crisis indeed! It must be the girl’s fault, or the school’s fault. It must be favoritism. It must be bias. Or is it?

New York Times and the Politics of Academic Prejudice

Dr. Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times today takes on the problem of poor academic peer review and fraud in scientific journals, and how their failure to carefully vet papers has resulted in public mistrust. However, the lack of oversight, audits, and failed analysis of scientific papers cited — a good first step — to anyone involved actually describes the symptoms of a more insidious disease. The greatest problem faced by researchers today is the ease by which anonymous reviewers of unstated credentials can blackball competitive ideas and promote others they prefer with impunity. Thus, instead of a battle of ideas openly discussed, papers are promoted merely for reinforcing entrenched ideas already espoused by the reviewer or for spinning trendy ideas in which the reviewer may have a stake.

I have heard academics and researchers candidly discuss paper rejections based not on good science but on bad blood and old rivalries. Professor John Doyle of Caltech, a respected researcher who has won prizes for his papers, often quotes the ludicrous academic paper rejections he has received, primarily because he has (self-admittedly) not spent enough time stroking the reviewers at conferences prior to actually sending in a paper so as to “prepare” them and get “buy in to the idea”. And after poorly reasoned (if not completely untrue) rejections, the coup de grace is always that the paper is “poorly written”, no matter how well-published and credentialed. It is a scandal. Is it no surprise then that many researchers are now spending more time writing for trade press while the quality of papers in journals diminishes?

Recently at Stanford I was gratified to hear Dr. Shri Kulkarni of Caltech brazenly discuss his dislike for “paying” journals to publish his work when magazines like Nature gladly accept his articles and pay him for them. Perhaps as a Berkeley alumna who has written both academic papers and published extensively in the trade press, I am inclined towards the intellectual honesty of both Dr. Kulkarni and Dr. Doyle for putting the stranglehold of personal and professional bias in scientific review on the table — after all, both of them received their Ph.D’s from Berkeley, and both of them refuse to remain silent on this outmoded, repressive and ultimately anti-innovative process.

Fun Friday: VCs Get Googled, Tempel 1 to Get Deep Impact

Well, we’ve finally got the lowdown on the post-IPO Google payoff, courtesy of Bill Burnham, and it’s quite a tidy haul. How much? Theoretically “…all the way back in 1999 Kleiner and Sequoia each invested $12.5M in Google for a 10% stake. Fast forward to the Summer of 2004 and these stakes were worth $2.03BN at Google’s IPO price of $85/share”.

They had to back off on selling all that at the IPO, however, which meant they did even better. According to Kleiner’s distribution statements (SEC Form 4) “… to date they have distributed shares worth $3.549BN. They still have another 2.6M shares worth $752M as of yesterday’s close, so the total value of their stake is $4.3BN which represents a 344X return on their investment of $12.5M … not too shabby”.

What about Sequoia? “making an educated guess they have returned about $3.8BN to date and have stock worth another $940M left to distribute for a total return of close to $4.7BN which is about $200M higher than Kleiner’s $4.5BN (with the mystery shares). Based on their $200M more in proceeds for the same stake and their careful doling out of shares to protect the market, Sequoia wins the award for best distrubution process”.

For those of you not sponging off one of the Class A VCs, look toward the heavens (or NASA TV). Tempel 1 is scheduled to be hit by Deep Impact to determine if it really is a dirty snowball or a dirty dustball. Unless you have a rather large (11-inch or better) aperture telescope, watch it on the Internet – it will be Magnitude 11 and pretty hard to spot unless you’re very experienced.

So for all those unhappy people who didn’t make out like bandits on the Google IPO, repeat after me: “The best things in life are free”. At least, until Google figures out a way to put banner ads on Tempel 1.

Squandered Victory a Fascinating Talk

Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, spoke yesterday at a special PARC forum on “Our Squandered Victory and the Prospects for Democracy in Iraq”. I must admit, I was skeptical that I would find him an agreeable (or even informed) speaker – I’m not a great fan of the Hoover Institution. But he knew his stuff, was right on the money about the money (the billions spent on this war), had lots of those “where did they get those guys” stories of screwups in Iraq (our guys – not their guys), and presented a thorough convincing argument for how badly the administration has bungled the job from an insider’s perspective.

Why is he an “insider”? Apparently Larry Diamond was asked by Condoleezza Rice to go to Baghdad as an adviser to the American occupation authorities. Diamond wasn’t an Iraq war supporter, but he said he thought creating a “viable democracy” was important. He was there last year.

One of the best speakers I’ve seen this year. He answered every question, and met critics head-on. I wish more Americans could talk to him as someone who’s really “been there”. It’s one way to cut through the spin and make your own “fair and balanced” decision.

Fun Friday: Jezebel is Gone, Bugs are Edible, and Disposable Camcorders

Well, Jezebel is gone. Jezebel, for those who don’t know, was the jaguar at Happy Hollow in San Jose. All my kids loved to visit her when they were little (the oldest is now 20). I always thought she was smiling. We will really miss her.

For all those programmers out there – if you are really sick of those tedious debug cycles, there is hope. You can actually eat those bugs – in Mexico. “It’s just like eating a regular hot dog, but with five or six times the nutritional value.” (Juan Garcia Oviedo, Biologist).

Lastly, you know something is on the edge of complete obsolescence when it’s still expensive to make but they have to sell it as a “disposable”. That what Benny Evangelista tried in his review of the Pure Digital Technologies disposable (kind of) camcorder. The reason they say you want one – it does 640×480 30fps, and you can trade video files. Funny thing is, I can do that with a digital camera. And I own it. And it’s small. And I can use the latest memory cards. Oh, and did I mention I own it.

For example, the Canon SD200 is a 640×480 30fps camera. Costs about $200. Uses standard SD cards you can buy anywhere. Plenty of room for switching cards or using a gig card. Has a very good editing feature for clips. You’re not limited to most recent clip or anything like that. Also has great image capability. My son Ben Jolitz used this camera for a short comedy feature film festival entry (high school level) this year called “Bots” (see “Fun Friday: How Many Robots Can You Name?”). It’s very very small and light – fits in a pocket. And he did a pro level production with it.

It has optical zoom, unlike the camcorder. If you want to spend more money, plenty of cameras have auto-stabilization (look at some of those Sonys, will ya, and they’re 60fps!!!). You’re not limited to 20 minutes – just switch memory cards, and they’re getting bigger for cheaper all the time.

I suppose if you want a DVD fast, this might work. But there are so many DVD burners on the market. While I always love labor saving processes, I just can’t endorse this one. Now, maybe if they decided to offer digital cameras instead…