End User fun stuff net neutrality Regs travel

Connected Like a Peasant

On a recent trip to France, I spent a day and a half in Chartres. I toured the cathedral there. I think there are strong similarities between the way we relate to technology today and the way people once related to technology in medieval Europe. This applies to emerging technologies, such as augmented reality and issues of net neutrality.

While in Chartres I learned that the latin word cathdra means seat. Thus, in medieval times the religious centers were the seat of power, which is how those domed buildings that housed the centers of power came to be known as cathedrals. We retain the same sense of the word when we refer to a seat of government, or a county seat – other places where domed buildings house the centers of power. These seats are the places where decisions are made on the behalf of other — is that enough foreshadowing on the net neutrality issue?

I picked up this etymology lesson from an old codger…er, scholar named Malcolm Miller. Or, rather, Sir Malcolm, as the gentleman has been knighted. Twice. Sir Malcolm is a British tour guide — a living legend, really — who has been working at the Chartres cathedral for 57 years. I didn’t know he was a living legend before I arrived in Chartres, however after spending 90 minutes listening to him talk I can see why he is so revered.

The nature of Sir Malcolm’s tour is to tell stories and he did just that, telling us about the meaning of the pictures in the stained glass. He explained that we can approach the elaborate stained glass like we would approach a modern day library. (Remember that the guy is 80 years old. He still thinks libraries serve a vital function. We let it slide. Library…Internet…same thing.)

Sir Malcolm began the tour by asking, “Would you go into a library and say, ‘Let’s meet for an hour and read all the books?’ No, of course not,” he continued, “and so to read all the history just in this church would likewise take a lifetime.”

He was explaining that the church was both a seat of power and a center of learning. That is, in a time when most people did not read or write, in a time when paper did not exist, the sculptures and stained glass of the church were the historical record of society. And who interprets the historical record? Of course, those who hold the money to sponsor the building of that historical record.

Chartres Map

By the end of 2014, according to Cisco research, the number of connected devices will exceed the world’s population — more than seven billion. Imagine that, a world in which digital devices on The Network outnumber humans. And how about this tidbit…by end of this year, 864 million phones and 103 million cars will support augmented reality (AR).

We are becoming more connected to information through our devices. Well, duh.

But is this new? I mean, sure, the mechanics of the digital devices are new, but I mean is it new to have society so interconnected through a mainstream channel of information?

Consider this: Today I can slip Google Glass on my head, hold up a can of creamed corn to read its bar code, and…voila! Google Glass will tell me the story of that can of corn (well, some unnamed database will tell the story). Calories, ingredients, nutritional value, etc., all that metadata tells me a modern story regarding that little piece of the external world. It’s metadata on the real world; the same as a stained glass window was, once upon a time.

I know it is one serious leap, comparing a web site or an Internet-enabled app to a stained glass window in a cathedral, but isn’t it the same relationship? Do we not look at all this metadata and information as stories of the “real” world? Isn’t that what modern technology is trying to provide us now – a way to better understand the world? That, and a means of connecting and communicating with people? That’s the modern version of stained glass in a cathedral.


On the tour, I also learned something about how that stained glass got into those cathedrals. Sir Malcolm pointed out a couple of important features, such as the marks in the stone below each 30-foot high piece of colored glass — marks similar to logos — that identified who paid for that particular piece. Furthermore, our trusty guide said that the story told in each glass was the story that the sponsor wanted to have told. For example, the cobblers of the region paid to put in a stained glass that told the story of the Good Samaritan as well as the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden. The cobblers, for some reason, were trying to make a link between those two stories. Sir Malcolm explained that the story in the glass was a commentary on the Bible stories, providing material with which the clergy could instruct society. The commentaries were a way of informing society of two important things: (1) What was in the Bible, and (2) How people should behave, based on what was in the Bible.

So we see that it was not solely the church that interpreted reality. The merchants who worked with and built the church also had a say in the stories being told. These sponsors included guilds of cobblers, water bearers (think municipal water system), bakers, wine makers (think of all that wine purchased for the sacrament), cheese makers (blessed are the cheese makers), etc.

The church of medieval Europe was big business. He who told the story in those seats of power, called cathedrals, controlled the social structure.

Augmented reality? Net neutrality? Some big issues are on the horizon, matters that will change the basic structure of human society. Perhaps we can learn something from the history of the medieval church. Maybe, just maybe, we can take the time to recall the importance of the Golden Rule. You remember the Golden Rule, right? Go look it up — at the library.

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End User fun stuff voip

When You Look Behind You There’s No Open Door

Someone asked me, “What is the future of VoIP?”

I can’t even predict my future living situation, let alone the fate of the Internet.

I went to dinner last night with an out-of-town friend. We met some other friends down in a part of south Austin that not long ago was a dinky mostly-Hispanic neighborhood, complete with dinky houses and dinky Mexican restaurants. On this occasion, though – and I understand this is pretty much the norm now – we waited over an hour for a table at a restaurant called El Chile. On a Monday night.

Once again: ATX WTF?

What’s going on? Is there some festival in town nobody told me about? All of us are baffled. And more than merely baffled we all lament our missed opportunities, having not bought more real estate in Austin in the 90s.

Back in 1992 I lived in a little cabin off of West Mary Street in south Austin, close enough to the railroad tracks to high-five train engineers as they passed by my window. And when I say “little”, I mean that place was small, with a ceiling low enough that any person of average height could extend their arms overhead and press against it. I was reading a lot of existential literature back then. The guys who lived in the other half of the cabin dropped a lot of acid, and I had a standing invitation.

I realized one day that I had to make a life change, when while reading one of Henry Miller’s diatribes on the value of excrement I found myself saying, “This guy makes a lot of sense.” That was too much. I couldn’t go down that path. I laid down the Miller, and the Sartre, and the Nietzsche. I cleaned up. I sobered up. I resurrected my forsaken programming skills, and I went to work, launching a career in software development.

Computer science was not a profession on the radar when I was a kid. Instead, it was called Data Processing. A bunch of guys huddled in the basements of tall buildings who wore pocket protectors, button-down white shirts, and who carried slide rules. And I am not talking caricature. I met these guys, being friends with various adults who worked near the data processing department, and that is how it truly was. The image from the 70s of the stereotypical weakling engineer getting corporate sand kicked in his face? Based on fact. Those programmers were not among society’s movers and shakers.

Things change.

Nowadays, it’s like those old E.F. Hutton commercials. (I know, you’re too young. Google it.) These days in a post-9/11 world, where the dot-com bust has faded in memory, the guy who launches the latest greatest IPO has the ear of the tech world. When programmer geek-nerd talks, people listen.

And who is that? Who has everyone’s ear these days? Is there anyone who can really track where technology is going to be in 5 years? In 2 years? Next year?

I’m sitting at dinner with my friends – instead of waiting an hour behind a line of hipsters we walk across the street to another restaurant called Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse that offers a Slacker Buffet: rice and beans. Perfect – and we start talking about missed opportunities. I tell my out-of-town friend that the little cabin I occupied in 1992 is probably selling for $500k these days, and he — correctly — winces in disbelief.

Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse

Another friend at the table worked at Microsoft for a time, and he tells us of one project manager who got in early and cashed out with $20 million. This person then created a startup with that money and sold a grand total of 13 units of her product, 5 of which she bought herself. $19.8 million burned through. Riches to rags.

Some people who end up in the right place at the right time come to the (wrong) conclusion that they are geniuses. Others realize the nature of luck and don’t ascribe their success to their personal abilities. And still others have to fail and succeed several times before their true abilities shine through. Time reveals the truth.

People who work hard and who are smart tend to do well in a meritocracy, which often leads to the incorrect assumption that someone who is in a position of power or success must have greater abilities than someone who is not. This is one of the pitfalls of living in a meritocracy.

Who came out on the winning side of last year’s technology?  Is that going to be the winning horse in the next race?

I worked with a woman who left PCs Limited in 1988, just before that company changed its name to Dell Computer Corporation. She kicks herself to this day. How could she have known? I kick myself sometimes for not re-investing in Apple in 2008. I kick myself sometimes for not investing in Netflix. I try not to dwell in regrets or on those blind spots of the past, though, opting instead to derive what lessons there are to learn from it all.

The fact is that there may yet be some value in the words of Henry Miller, who wrote:

“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.”

Over this past week I spent time trying to grasp the future of data and voice over the Internet. It’s just an area of focus. There is no end point. There will never be a point where it’s all understood.

I am reminded of something the wise old Tallulah Bankhead said:

“If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”

So I guess this is it. It is the time. Get on with it.

End User events fun stuff gadgets google H/W internet mobile connectivity UC wearable

Band Camp Coincidences

Google Glass. Telephony. Synchronicity

At my age, you would think that I would be long past adolescent self-consciousness; that I wouldn’t feel awkward with the geeky way of thinking. A girl that I had a crush on back in the 2nd Grade said to me, “You talk funny. You talk like a scientist.”, referring to my vocabulary. At that age this wasn’t a compliment, nor was it really a criticism. It did not, though, bode well for any potential romantic entanglements.

On the way to the conference I find myself sitting next to two attractive, well dressed middle-age women, three abreast in the aisle seat. We start the long first leg of the flight with a little small talk. We are flying together from Dallas to Albuquerque, where they will leave the plane prior to its flying on to Seattle (my destination).

“What’s in Seattle?” they both ask.

I feel like I’m on my way to band camp. What do I say to them? I tell the truth.

“I’m going to speak at a conference on Content Management – a technology conference.”, I say.

“Oh. Technology stuff.”, from which they return to conversing among themselves for the remainder of the flight. It’s fine. I wanted time to think, anyway, to be quiet on the plane so that I could figure out what I am going to talk about at the conference. I booked the conference before deciding to leave my last corporate job. I opted to keep my commitment, though, and now I need to put my presentation in my own voice.

The plane is landing in Albuquerque. The small talk starts again, and it turns out that the two women also live in Austin. I hear them say something about two local radio hosts known as JB and Sandy. I ask a question regarding Sandy. They fill me in. It’s friendly, partly because we’re parting way in five minutes.

Nobody sits next to me on the Seattle leg of my flight, and I have time and space to think, to figure out a theme for my talk. I’m basically speaking on the lessons learned over the last year as a software team trying to buy the next generation of the solution instead of building the next generation of solution.

“Choosing a system is like a plane trip…”

“Choosing a system is like traveling through Mexico…”


Engineer travel

No Technology For Old Men

Lying in bed in a motel room alongside the Mexican border, I was awakened just after midnight by a deadbolt clunk from the room next door. A loud clunk, jarring even though the person behind it was probably trying to be quiet. Fifteen minutes later, that clunk again.

I peer out the window and catch a glimpse of a sturdy looking fellow, wearing a kerchief around his neck.

Truck headlights beam in through the window, and are just as soon gone.

Who makes quick visits at this hour? “Drug deal,” comes straight to my mind (which can be prone to fantasy).

I lay back down and stare at the speckled popcorn ceiling. The carpet in the room is clean and new, though both the pattern and the color are straight out of the 70s, and there’s your typical motel art on the walls. Sleeping here is a form of time travel.

Driving through this desert country, staying in this motel…it all reminds me of the movie “No Country For Old Men”, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy. And McCarthy got his descriptions of west Texas just right — romantic and rough (which I can attest to not only because I was raised in the border town of El Paso, but because McCarthy lived a block down from one of my childhood friends). My mind may very well be prone to fantasy, but a childhood friend was shot in a drug deal. Reality and movie fantasy are usually quite different things, but on the border reality can sometimes play like a movie.

The roadI’m on a road trip with my soon-to-be ex-wife, driving a cheap mini van we picked up in Austin for the purpose of transporting three of our dogs to her new home in Mexico. Road trips are one of the things that my wife and I do well together, and we have taken more than a few, but now we’re at the end of a long divorce and a road trip seems a weird thing to do as one of our last married rituals. It’s strange, creating something new while at the same time letting go.

It’s Maya, the Hindu concept of the illusion of reality. Or delusion. We think we are in control, involved and participating, however it is all impermanent…only illusion. I know that’s not the exact definition (though I am not sure there IS an exact definition), however lately that has been my experience of the illusion. I am engaged in the external world, but at the same time I am a distant observer. I am creating the reality, and at the same time I am part of the creation — subject and object at the same time.

Actually, I find my current perception similar to when we come together in software development teams. We create something together, putting a little of ourselves into code and scripts while simultaneously letting go of that creation.

Look…basically I am just a dumb DIY kind of technologist, one without much formal education with which to back up my opinions, and one who sometimes thinks he doesn’t really know what is happening in technology at all. And yet, over and over again, I end up in rooms with Ph.D geniuses, deep into philosophical discussions on the nature of reality that are at the same time all about technology.

While working at IBM in 1997 I learned object-oriented programming by watching an IBM Fellows whiteboard lecture on VHS tape. Then, over the next year while working on frameworks for CORBA, my officemate and I often discussed the nature of reality — all in terms of object-oriented lingo. This colleague’s name was Simon Peter Hemingway (a name I always loved). We would often take long walks and talk about the nature of defining objects, with Simon trying to convince me that reality was an illusion. He held a Ph.D. so he must have known what he was talking about, right?

Last night I popped onto the motel wifi. No password needed. Welcome to the Wild West.

Once online I used my phone to make a Facebook post on a television show…is this what the technology has come down to? I won’t use Twitter because I just don’t see the point, but I use FB to communicate with friends. I’m paranoid about security of the server at work, but I trust my phone’s network access to the unprotected motel wifi. I see news reports that say FB is for old fogies. Maybe I’m too old now for the technology game…maybe I’m blind now to what technology is all about. Or maybe technology is just emerging so quickly into every moment that it all cannot be grasped by our meager minds (prone to fantasy or not).

Before actually starting in my intention was to write about leaving my job with a semiconductor company. Before yesterday — my last day with the company — I created software with a team of people designed to help other engineers design chips. In leaving, I thought I would be able to capture some insights on the Zen concept of letting go. You know, the whole you must empty-you-cup before you can fill-your-cup thing? I have this idea that if we bring mindfulness to our creation of technology that we will somehow create beautiful innovation. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to write about today, the stuff I mean to explore during what I see as a short break from working again on some full-time project somewhere. But then my hotel neighbor clunked his deadbolt, and…

A thread of thought launched…not, not a thread, a stream…like I was dreaming all of this, and I had to get down the raw truth of it before I forgot the elements of the dream.

I suppose I am still processing what it means to leave a project, a team, and a software system. My subconscious is sorting out what it means to leave something into which I’ve poured my heart.

The last scene in “No Country For Old Men”: The Sheriff has a dream in which he sees his father walking ahead, holding an ancient fire. He feels compelled to follow, even though his business on earth is left undone.

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End User fun stuff

Not Pink, Not Strong, Not Delicious

It’s been 3 days. I haven’t fallen in love yet. I don’t think it’s going to happen. No, I am not falling in love with this new phone. I thought this would be the one.

A female college roommate once told me, “Men learn to like the women they love, whereas women learn to love the men they like.” The point being that men tend to fall in love first…and fast. They know within moments. I’m a man, so I know this to be true. I will never develop feelings for the technology in my hand.

I am in no danger of turning into the Joaquin Phoenix character in “Her”. I already know that unlike Theodore Twombly I will at no point get sexual gratification from my new device, not even if I suddenly discover a Scarlett Johansson voiceover app.

At noon the text came: “Happy Hour?”

My friend Amanda. She just started a job at a hip little engineering firm in Austin that is doing some kind of data analysis on franchise business data. She held her previous job — the one she took straight out of college — for 16 years prior, and for that she used to take a considerable amount of ribbing.

I decide to drop in at Amanda’s new office, which is in an old house downtown where 60-year-old dilapidated houses rent for $300 per square foot. It’s in a part of hip-Austin that is only slightly indistinguishable from dilapidated Austin.

The first thing I see on walking into the living room (the lobby) is a huge monitor that serves as a metrics dashboard of some sort, displaying scrum and defect statistics. The display changes to show another app, one that offers a graph of beer consumption in the office over the last month, complete with a projection of when the beer will run out. The beer of reference is housed in an antique refrigerator on the other side of the living room…. er, welcome area that has been retro-fitted with a spigot that serves to turn the entire thing into a huge keg. First thought? This is a LOT more comfortable than my “office” in the corporate cube farm.

Amanda appears, and soon we are driving the 12 blocks to Arro, a trendy little French restaurant I’ve wanted to try. We sit at the bar, and I begin the conversation, saying “Thanks, I wanted your advice – actually your reassurance about something.” I then proceed to tell Amanda about my having given notice at work, and how I’m unsure about whether to take a leave of absence or just quit. We also talk about her new job, and how refreshing she is finding it to work with smart people who don’t get hung up on egos, and who just focus on the solution.

Engineer fun stuff servers

Stop Looking At My Finger, Silly Dog

My friend manages to piss me off and it’s not yet 8:00 in the morning. A thought flashes across my brain, “Maybe he’s not the root cause.”

This morning, the first text I see: Priority 1 emergency ticket.

Damn. I hope the server isn’t down.

As usual, my alarm went off this morning at 6:00. I look at my phone and see a text message that was sent late last night, an automated message from our Linux server passing along a support ticket. A surge of anxiety rushes through me. “Oh no, I forgot to re-enable the submit button in our application!” A suspicion, though I don’t really know yet for certain. I jump out of bed.

I check the emergency ticket’s timestamp. About 10 hours ago. “Oh please,” I pray-but-do-not-say as I head for my computer, “Please let it be that someone jumped in and handled this last night.”

Last night we performed a software upgrade to the server. The entire team on the phone, dialing in from multiple geographies, talking through headsets and typing commands on the server, a virtual everyone-from-home Mission Control. All talking on the same call, as we’ve done dozens of times before. The launch pad ready, countdown begun, I was walking us through the checklist and then gave the go ahead to deploy. But wait! There’s an error, a build error that is picked up by the programming group doing the deployment. We investigate and discover that the server is offline and end users are waiting. Finally, we call it. Abort.