The Killer Angels

A few months ago I read the Civil War novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. A non-fiction work, this is a historical account of the battle of Gettysburg that is written in the style of a novel where characters develop and intimacy, flaws, and achievement are revealed as the novel progresses. After having read it I can understand why historians call this book one of the greatest novels about the Civil War.

The Civil War is not a part of history I understand well but I have written about the Gettysburg Address on this blog before, and remain fascinated by President Lincoln’s address dedicating the cemetery where fallen soldiers were interred. Rarely in history has so much been said in so few words, which served to define a war of a different kind that had cost so high a price in terms of death and destruction.

In 3 days of battle over 50,000 men died on the field of battle in a war that was a first in modern history. The Civil War was not a war for land or wealth but for liberty and it is also worth highlighting that each side fought for a cause dear to them. As the generals and notable participants are revealed in this account it is clear the divide remained as stark at Gettysburg as it was in the years preceding this pivotal battle.

The North fought for the cause of liberty, individual liberties all men are endowed with. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which in those days was another way of saying prosperity as a result of self-determination and freedom, rather than what we mean by “happiness” today). The South fought for principles they associated with the founding of the country not 70 years prior, that of a federal republic where states have a strong hand in their governance relative to a less empowered Federal government. It is ironic how the same debate inspires similarly impassioned debate today.

However, what struck me most profoundly about Shaara’s account is how war between friends is so unsettling. The generals in this war, with the exception of General Lee, were relatively young men in their late 30’s and 40’s, as opposed to the elder soldier statesmen we associate with military leadership today. When promoted to Major General in 1862 Armstrong Custer was just 23 years of age, a West Point graduate with little command experience. General Lee had been in the Army for 35 years when Virginia voted to secede, a move he did not support but his allegiance to his home state compelled him to turn down Lincoln’s offer to command the northern army. Today, Arlington Cemetery occupies land that once belonged to General Lee.

Other generals did have substantial command experience and traditional military education, and what is most remarkable is how these men went their separate ways leading up to the war and ended up fighting each other yet never gave up on their friendships. Perhaps most touching is the story of Generals Armistead and Hancock of the South and North respectively. Sensing the enormity of the battle ahead of him, Armistead asked General Longstreet, Gen Lee’s second in command, for permission to visit Hancock in the event either of them should fall in battle.

This war separated friends, family, and neighbors as much as a country. To find oneself on a battlefield facing men who are of the same origins must have been surreal.

The other aspect of this battle that I found unsettling is how far north the South had advanced and if Gettysburg had a different outcome we might be living in a different history. A few days march from Philadelphia, had General Lee succeeded the North would have been ill prepared to defend the seat of government and Philadelphia would have been over-run. The South was organized and lethal as a military force, owing as much to the charisma and leadership qualities of General Lee as to the ability to equip and project a force offensively.

Lee’s strengths ultimately proved to be his downfall and it is said that Gettysburg is the price the south paid for having Lee as the commanding general. Poor communication, loyalties to inferior officers and an unwillingness to adapt to a modern military doctrine, which remains the template for warfare today and was, ironically, put forward by one of his own generals, Longstreet, resulted in defeat and a 2 year retreat that ended in surrender.

This was a horrible war and the battle itself resulted in carnage that sent shockwaves around the world. The carnage of modern weaponry was left bare on the battlefield and the scale of it was unprecedented. 50,000 men over 3 days. That is almost as much as the entire losses suffered in the Vietnam War with a population much larger than in the 1860’s.

Perhaps this is why we remember Gettysburg as much as D-Day and other seminal battles, the cost was so high in the pursuit of victory, and this is why moments like the Gettysburg Address resonate so profoundly in us.

End of an Era: Intel Exits the Motherboard Business

There are two seminal moments in m personal history that explain why I ended up in the technology industry.

The first was when I first encountered a BASIC compiler in the 8th grade and discovered that I could write a program, store it on a cassette tape (that I later upgraded to an 8″ floppy drive) and make the computer do things, however trivial it was.

The second event was prying open my computer, not the TRS-80 that I learned BASIC on, and swapped out components. An entirely new world opened up to me when I learned about all the cool things you could do with the BIOS. The driven curiosity I had about the hardware, software, and the points of intersection led me to accumulate boxes of parts, many computers, and a continued fascination with how they all come together.

It was with a tinge of sadness that I read today that Intel is pulling out of the motherboard business. As it relates to the overall hobbyist market, Intel’s exit is hardly earth shaking because they are but one supplier and, arguably, not a very good one compared to Asian motherboard (mobo) manufacturers.

However, there are two aspects of this story that I find melancholy, the first is that we are clearly moving away from a desktop personal computer experience and that move is accelerating. In the near future it is entirely rational to expect that desktop computers will no longer exist as a product category, giving way to integrated home media devices, mobile, and laptop as desktop replacements.

I am not entirely saddened by this as I have not had a desktop computer in many years, and alternative form factors are available that dramatically shrink the footprint of a desktop PC to that of a brick. The form factor does not matter that much.

The second observation is more disheartening and that is the move to highly integrated hardware that does not allow for customization and component replacement. If this trend continues, which it almost certainly will, we will end up in a hardware market where socketed components are no longer available. you will get it the way the manufacturer intended or not at all, or you will have to be satisfied with components that are of older generation and lower capabilities.

From Dreamliner to Nightmare

Complex systems fail in complex ways not anticipated by engineers. You can over-engineer the systems, test every imaginable scenario, build redundant system coverage, test again. and you can still fail.

emergencycard  Boeing’s nightmare is just beginning, their latest generation airplane, the 787 Dreamliner, has been grounded because of fire danger in the lithium ion batteries used to replace many of the hydraulic systems a plane requires. Not only is this a brand hit for Boeing but it jeopardizes the entire 787 program because light weight is a critical selling feature for this plane and if Boeing has to replace these batteries with alternative technologies the result will be a major decline is one of the most important selling features. range.

Airplane manufacturing is one of most heavily regulated endeavors any business can undertake, right up there with nuclear power plants in terms of scrutiny and certification. Every component is reviewed, tested, tested again, certified and then tested again, so the regulatory system failed as much as the engineering failed. Complex systems fail in complex ways.

The next decade will feature products that are feature more highly integrated technology that is itself more complex than previous generations. Development frameworks for software and embedded systems have advanced by leaps and bounds, but it still is not adequate and redundancy will only get you so far when technical failure leads to catastrophic physical failure, as is the case with an airplane catching on fire.

We need better platforms and tools for integrated systems, for sure, but we also need better simulation environments for engineers to use, and more biologically inspired systems that are self-healing, re-routing, and adaptive in nature.

The Intersection of Private and Business…

Like for many in the tech industry, and beyond, the case of Aaron Swartz touched a nerve with me. We live in an era where government has few boundaries and the threat of legal action carries as much consequence as successful prosecution. Tyranny is a strong word but it comes in many sanctioned forms, government regulation is perhaps the most insidious because it exists as a sanctioned form of the onerous execution of power.

The last decade has also brought with it a convergence of public, personal, and corporate identity as social networks have transformed the manner by which we can communicate with the world around us. For the most part I have no quarrel with this new reality and find the personal identity that is often now wrapped around business personality to be refreshing and useful. It is causing us to rewrite the rules in realtime as professionals adapt to living in a world where commentary that would previously have been narrowcast can accelerate into the public domain at lightening speed.

One such case of this is the tweets of Tom Dolan, a business development executive at IBM (in the social area no less) who has taken to the twittersphere to defend the prosecutor in the Swartz case, Carmen Ortiz, who also happens to be his wife.

I can find no fault with a man standing up for his wife, or vice versa, but in this case the unique circumstances of the case and the fact that it is centered on technology law make it perilous ground to air public comments in if you are an executive for a tech company. IBM has, if I recall correctly, a pretty liberal social media policy but given that Dolan is in a partner facing capacity around technology that is directly related to the tragic Swartz case, it would seem prudent to simply stay quiet.

Self-Driving Cars and Unwritten Rules

I had a funny experience on my way home from work last week. I was on i280 and spotted a Google self-driving car  ahead of me in the adjacent lane. As I drove up and then past it I noticed that it was maintaining a safe distance from the cars in front of it and falling farther and farther behind the passing cars.

Anyone who drives in moderately to heavy traffic commute traffic knows that there is a distance you can maintain behind the cars in front of you that is not by-the-book safe but prevents the phenomena where the gap is large enough to allow car after car to slip in front of you… it’s kind of like a traffic bullwhip effect. You drive just far enough behind that you can panic stop based on what is going on in front of the car you are following but not far enough back that you keep getting passed.

This particular Google self-driving car was, apparently, not coded with that rule and the result was rather comical. As a new car slipped in front of the self-driving car it dutifully dropped back to create a safe space which then became a new space for a different driver to slip in to, and so on and so on, the result being that the Google car dropped back at a predictable rate while car after car whisked by.

This is the challenge for all next generation technology to overcome, which is the requirement to adapt to situations that develop based on activities and patterns that are emerging in realtime. It’s not just a matter of more sensors and faster reaction times but a fundamentally different way of looking at software frameworks, and truth be told I have no insight to what the Google car is built on but one thing is clear, being able to parallel park or get from point A to B without incident is the least of their challenges.

Lastly, I am really excited about the prospect of self-driving vehicles. As much as I enjoy driving there is no doubt I would equally appreciate flipping into self-driving mode so I can take a call or read something or simply check out on my way home. On the commercial side, self-driving vehicle technology can remake logistics networks and shift commercial traffic patterns to have less impact on commute periods or reroute dynamically based on events that are happening. It’s exciting stuff, I think Google deserves credit for launching this experiment but the major auto manufacturers should also be recognized because they have been working on this longer than Google, despite getting far less attention.

Content Management in the Social Age

I read this interesting piece on the redesign of the Reuters website, one paragraph jumped out at me as a consequential observation affecting a wide array of companies today:

Known internally as “Reuters Next,” the new reuters.com will be a “state of the art” offering with a redesigned front-end and a proprietary content management system built from scratch, said our sources, who described the site as being remodeled into editor-curated, stream-based channels such as world news, politics, business and tech.

Content management systems are undergoing a social technology upgrade cycle that is not talked about very much but has two significant consequences that individually are disruptive and together are utterly transformative.

The first of these disruptions is how social content, which is just another way of saying user generated content, becomes an input into a website’s CMS in the same way that company sponsored content is enabled. In the advertising world there is a well understood concept of earned, owned, and sponsored media; the earned media being the most valuable because it is inspired rather than paid for and as such has broad utility in a company’s marketing efforts. In the social technology world getting people to create content about you, in the form of original source content (e.g. blogs) and interaction content (comments, shares, likes) but mainstream content systems that power websites have few capabilities for doing more than appending this to “owned” content.

The second major theme I want to highlight is the notion of company vs. community curated content. Having an editorial agenda in a website that is enabled by your employees is a no-brainer, but it ultimately proves to be a challenging scale problem because, in many cases, the most interesting content about your company and products isn’t created by you. As a result of this the curation capability relies on smart people who are good at discovering and organizing content, but increasingly mainstream is the notion of crowdsourced content and externally curated content sourced from your fans and followers… but none of this is integrate with the typical CMS that a company will rely on for a web experience.

The challenge that is facing companies, large and small alike, is how do they capture externally sourced and curated content, organize it in the structure of their website, and then providing a social experience in the presentation that takes into account the activities of your brand advocates. Yeah, it’s a big challenge and in the absence of a next generation of CMS capabilities it is unlikely that we will get there.

Windows 8 for a Mac User

I recently purchased an Asus Zenbook Touch laptop to replace my trusty Macbook Air. I was impressed by the hardware design being exhibited by the top tier ultrabook manufacturers, they embody sleek design elements and a fantastic build quality but more importantly Windows 8 has created a once in a generation opportunity to redefine what a PC is and much to my delight manufacturers like Samsung, Asus, Acer, Dell and HP are running with it.

Keep in mind that I switched from Windows to a Mac around the 2003 time period so for me this was not a decision to make lightly. I am accustomed to a Mac and did not object to paying a premium for the experience, however in recent years I was left feeling neglected as everything exciting that Apple did was around iOS while OS X was subject to incremental updates that often brought discomfort (e.g. performance on Lion) and the improved features were clearly aimed at people using iOS (e.g. Mountain Lion).

I long ago switched to Android for a smartphone and have no attachment to Apple’s software applications, instead relying on Google Apps. What I wanted from Apple was groundbreaking hardware that provided well integrated and reliable software experiences and Apple has been coming up short on both counts. Their hardware is consistently well designed and pleasing to look at, externally of course but the new Retina displays are amazing. but nothing they are doing with laptops is disruptive, it’s a turn here and a tweak there.

My Macbook Air was getting a little long in the tooth and in need of replacement. I was intrigued by Windows 8 and on a whim I walked over to the Best Buy a block away from my office and tried a few out. I was really impressed by the array of premium hardware and by how positive my initial hands on experience was with Windows 8. Even more surprising to me was how naturally I was reaching for the screen to interact with the system as a touchscreen.

Before I took the plunge I spent a couple of weeks reading up on Windows 8 and the shortlist of hardware that I liked. The Asus Zenbook, Acer S7, Samsung Series 9, and Sony models were on my list, all featuring an Air like hardware profile, fantastic displays, SSD storage, and comfortable keyboards. I selected the Asus Zenbook Touch because it met all of the above and offered strong battery performance, something the sexiest ultrabook in the category, the Acer S7, did not. I really wanted to convince myself to buy the Acer but the battery issue is a showstopper for me.

I actually found the experience of buying a Windows laptop to be really frustrating on several levels. What these manufacturers need to understand is that Apple flattened out the hardware curve by reducing the options and making it easier to buy. PC manufacturers still dwell on specifications and numbers, and the result is that even when you think you know what you are buying you may end up with something completely different. Asus has a family of Zenbook Prime computers, spread across several major groupings, the UX21A and UX31A groups. In the UX31A group there are 3 distinct models with many option sets. I ended up buying the UX31A-BHI5T11. Really.

It turns out that Asus doesn’t even provide the specific model numbers on their site, I found it on a retailer site in the fine print and then used that to search for other sources. It was a horrible experience and if they don’t come up with a better way to sell these things they will turn away more people than they serve.

The initial experience with the packaging and power up was impressive, Asus has clearly learned from Apple on this front. I was also massively happy to see that the computer was not crapified with manufacturer supplied software, there were a few apps bolted on to the UX but no AOL and Intuit tiles! Power up was instant, per the promise that Microsoft designed to, and the initial setup was really easy. I was on my network and doing stuff within 10 minutes of unboxing the laptop.

The Windows 8 tile experience is really exciting because the desktop does a lot more than just present icons, you can consume content through the tiles and the way the layout is presented begs to be interacted with. I love the touch experience and this is the most surprising aspect of my initial journey. you actually want to use the touch gestures in addition to the keypad and touchpad.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Windows found my network printer and set it up without prompting me, as well as provides a “devices” experience for bringing my smartphone and other bluetooth enabled devices into the mix.

Switching from the tile experience to the traditional Windows desktop is not as disruptive as I initially imagined although I am looking forward to more applications that are built to Win8 for a dedicated focus. This is subtle but really does depart from the multiple open windows focus that prior versions of Windows delivered to. I do one thing at a time but I want to rapidly and seamlessly task shift when I am working so that I can do other things in a dedicated fashion. Like I said, it’s subtle but important to me.

Here’s what I don’t like about this so far. The touchpad on the Asus is a challenge, prone to random clicks and gestures. Speaking of gestures, Windows 8 is proving to be a learning curve as it relates to where all the features are, they really need to put in place a better first power up getting started routine to highlight where stuff is. The Asus power supply is really compact but why can’t these manufacturers deliver a magnetic coupling connector? The SSD is pretty small but I decided to take a chance on this because I increasingly use cloud storage for photos and videos (which consume a ridiculous amount of my Macbook’s SSD).

I have been using this laptop for a couple of days now and have not once felt the need to reach for my Macbook except to move files, which thanks to everything being in the cloud now is a breeze. As I get more time under my belt with Windows 8 I will post additional observations and experiences.

UPDATE: It occurred to me that the problems I am having with the Asus touchpad are twofold… it is way too sensitive and does not have adequate “palm rejection” but it is also setup for a right handed user, I am left handed and it was never an issue on the Mac touchpad because there is not an explicit left vs. right in their hardware.