Screams of Silica, the college essay that got me into Stanford in 1999

I was spelunking in archive.org and found my old homepage from back in the day. I stumbled across my college admissions essay to Stanford. I wrote it in the winter of 1998. My how time flies.

Screams of Silica

Grains of sand have feelings too. As environmentalists bicker over trees, who will be there for the billions upon billions of grains of sand out there? Soon, entire deserts of sand will be harvested for silicon! These poor creatures will be decimated and irrevocably altered into ungodly silicon wafers. It is time to rise up and fight for our silicon dioxide crystal brothers and sisters.

We've all heard the analogy... If cars evolved like computers, they would cruise comfortably at 10,000 mph, get a million miles to the gallon, and if it broke, you could go to the store and pick up a new one for a dime. Moore's Law of exponential growth has been a godsend to Silicon Valley. With computer technology doubling in speed and complexity every eighteen months, people spend billions annually to replace last year's models. Countless multitudes of crystals of silica are being sacrificed for a short use of but a few years. Moore's Law has resulted in the systematic murder of these unassuming, innocent, naturally occurring crystals.

At the same time, Moore's Law has kept the computer the domain of a privileged few. Prices continue to be beyond the range of affordability for many. Even today, fewer than 40% of Americans own computers. Technological advancement will eventually hit a wall. Moore's Law is not an absolute. Computers have always been getting faster and cheaper. Someday, with that quest for speed out of the picture, cheap will be the name of the game. Imagine the horrors as the other 60% rushes down to the store to buy the next 100 gigahertz Intel Octium VII Pro for $9.95 at the local Fry's Electronics. The horrors of such an age would make the systematic slaughter of silica of today look like children building sandcastles.

The prospect of computers everywhere not only threatens the fate of sand particles everywhere, but also the place of ignorance in society. With information exchange and dissemination at everyone's fingertips, where would ignorance and tyranny go? Evil dictators around the world would be displaced as computer-engendered thought and communication tears millions of minds from abject poverty and subjugation and transforms them into organized, united and educated masses. The world would be at our fingertips. The great WWII-era scientist Dr. Vannevar Bush once postulated a device called the Memex, which would augment the mind with hypertext memories. The rise of ubiquitous network computers could be just the augmentation of humanity that the doctor ordered.

Certainly, the ubiquity of the computer might change society at its core. Sure, it might result in the rise of new media, and the empowerment of the individual on a grand scale. Indeed, it might even result in world peace and harmony among all men. But humanity must not be selfish. We share this planet with the trees, and more importantly, the earth. Can we afford to continue to victimize these helpless crystals of silica? May their silent screams haunt our motherboards as we type away with reckless carpal tunnel abandon.

Now computers are faster and cheaper than ever. Far more than 40% of Americans own computers today. Indeed, 50% of Americans own smartphones, which are a more omnipresent, portable, and totally networked version of the personal computer from 1998. By all means an upgrade.

So far, no 100 ghz Intel Octiums. Empowerment of the individual on a grand scale though? Check.

Steve Jobs and Farhad Manjoo are wrong: Dropbox can do what Apple, Microsoft and Google can never do.

Farhad Manjoo writes in Pando Daily about how Dropbox is just a feature. Unfortunately the examples he talks about seem to support the exact opposite.

Someday, someone will figure out how to make this sort of thing work well, but I suspect it will most likely be one of the companies that makes a major operating system: Either Apple, Microsoft, or Google. Each of these firms has a file-storage and/or syncing solution that it’s pushing, and I expect that those efforts—iCloud, Skydrive, Google’s Chrome syncing and perhaps the mythical Gdrive—will gradually incorporate more and more of the features I’m looking for.

This assertion is about as wrong as could be. Earlier in the piece Farhad talks about how things just plain worked as Dropbox synced things from his Windows desktop to his Macbook Air. What are the odds of Apple getting their sync client right for PC's? Just about zero, considering what they've done in the past with MobileMe sync.

Same goes for Microsoft writing sync software for the Apple platform. Arguably Google is in the best shape to provide a seamless multiplatform experience... well, except for iOS! The odds of a viable multi-platform option emerging from one of these big three seem slim to me.

The truth is none of these behemoths will execute perfectly on this scenario in the way Dropbox (with no ulterior platform motive) can.

Dropbox is probably working to build many of these features as well. But as third-party app, it’s just not in a very good technical position to do so. In order to sync programs and window states, Dropbox would need access to some of the deeper parts of my various gadgets’ OSes. This is easy for some operating systems and impossible with others—including iOS and probably Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Apple could easily build a way to sync the current browser tabs between my Mac and my iPhone, so that I can switch from reading Pando on my couch to reading it on the train. Dropbox will need to go through incredible hacks to achieve the same functionality, and it probably won’t manage to do so even then.

Sadly Farhad is just wrong on this too. Getting native bare-metal access is easy to get on every platform that matters except iOS. On iOS, Dropbox *already* has a huge lead on all of the other file syncing platforms by virtue of wide support by the developer community. Apple will undoubtedly get some share of iOS developer love, but it is yet to be seen whether Apple will actually unseat Dropbox.

Truthfully, it is foolish to count large platform players out. But my money is on Dropbox. Until Apple wins every last device over (not even a goal of theirs), Microsoft steals the show for mobile and regains share on desktop (highly unlikely), or Google wrests mobile supremacy from the hands of iOS (not going to happen) -- the ongoing platform cold war will assure it's Dropbox that's going to be how we keep our data.

When a few hundred lines of javascript could equal $100 MM

If you click around the radio buttons above, the form resets. Orbitz does an AJAX call to reset the form with new HTML. I can select two cities, select my dates... and I just decide to click "Flight + Hotel", Orbitz blows away my form submissions (data loss!)  and replaces it with a blank form! Not only is this rude to the user, it's bad for business. 

This simple UX gaffe could be worth double digit percentage decrease in revenue for Orbitz over the course of a year. For a company that made over $700 MM, that's could easily be over 9 figures. 

This could be solved with an incredibly simple and tiny amount of javascript to remember selected airports and leave/return dates. It could be fixed in less than an hour by a halfways decent hacker.

It's things like this that make me thankful for Hipmunk.

Compliance: A reminder that we must rage against the machine, lest we be chewed up in it

Just caught the last Sundance Film Festival showing of a very powerful, very disturbing film called Compliance. Directed by Craig Zobel, it documents the strip search prank scam that hit over 70 fast food restaurants over 10 years and 30 states. This is why it's so damn disturbing. It was real. 

The Hollywood Reporter summarizes:

At a local franchise of the ChickWich chain located in a snowy Ohio town, middle-aged store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) briefs her mostly young and disinterested staff on the key points of her stressful day: an employee oversight has spoiled the bacon so supplies are low and a secret shopper from headquarters could be dropping by at any time. Late as usual, cute, 19-year-old blonde Becky (Dreama Walker) gives Sandra some unwelcome attitude and proceeds to slack off when she’s not serving customers at the counter.

Sandra gets a phone call mid-shift from a male caller claiming to be police officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who explains that the cops have received a complaint that Becky stole some money from a customer’s purse earlier in the day. He insists that Sandra will need to question Becky about the theft, since he says he’s occupied with a search of Becky’s home as part of a larger investigation.

Hesitant at first, Sandra agrees to assist the officer and brings Becky into the back office, where the girl denies any involvement with the theft. With Daniels still on the phone directing the investigation, Sandra becomes his proxy, relaying his questions to Becky or handing the phone to her so he can question Becky directly. Daniels’ voice is calm, insistent and commanding, with an attitude that brooks no resistance.

Tensions escalate after Sandra’s search of Becky’s purse and pockets doesn’t turn up the missing money and Daniels directs her to strip-search her employee, saying the only alternative is for the cops to jail Becky while the investigation continues. After eliciting Becky’s compliance, Sandra agrees, calling in her assistant manager to be present while Becky strips and they search her clothes, with no result. In a chilling scene of dread and humiliation, Daniels demands that Becky strip completely naked to be certain there’s nothing hidden in her underclothes.

Daniels insists that Becky must remain naked, although a coworker gives her an apron to put on while he directs Sandra to put Becky’s clothes in her car and leave it unlocked so the police can collect the evidence. Sandra then insists on going back to work in the busy restaurant and Daniels directs her to have a male employee watch Becky “for security purposes.” Daniels then follows with a series of increasingly invasive search techniques and questions about Becky’s body, accompanied by reluctant cooperation on the part of several men that Sandra recruits for assistance, with appalling results.

Scene-by-scene, the film details the insidious rhetorical tricks the prank caller uses to get compliance from weak and powerless fast food restaurant workers. The workers aren't evil. They might be stupid. But it's clear that they think they're doing the right thing at each moment. 

The reaction at Sundance has been heavily polarized. Many walked out of early screenings, with the first showing even sparking fiery and angry shouts from the crowd at the Q&A session afterwards. The showing I went to was no different. Some in the audience were visibly agitated.  

It's no mistake that those most susceptible to this prank were fast food workers, whose entire industry is predicated on systematically cultivating dependable, compliant, unquestioning workers who can perform menial tasks with little deviation. The most shocking and/or intriguing part of the film was how those who had the power to stop it didn't. It was like watching a frog being slowly boiled alive. You could not have a more direct portrayal of the banality of evil -- that phrase coined by Hannah Arendt used to describe the Holocaust -- that such evil happens not at the hands of fanatics or sociopaths but people merely believing they are doing normal things. 

That evil can be perpetrated through the guise of authority is not surprising in and of itself. What is revolting and unacceptable to us is how it calls into question our very social contract. We are supposed to be kept safe, that the powers that be are benevolent and have our best interests at heart. But how can we trust that when there are situations in which we do not question authority at all? The whole system might be corrupt. 

Ultimately, the film serves as a powerful reminder of how much we have to continue to rage against the machine. We must challenge and question authority and the way things are. We must evaluate that which society has us do, no matter whether it asks or tells. To shirk this duty is to abdicate our basic responsibilities to ourselves and each other. 

Why SOPA / PROTECT IP will break the Internet -- Great video explaining everything.

You probably know a lot of people who will be asking you why all their favorite sites are down. This video explains why. Send it to them.

Another way you could help educate people on why this is important is Tutorspree's Explain SOPA minisite. They'll connect you with people who don't understand it. Send them the video and answer their questions. 

Remember: all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

EDIT: Hellofax is also sending faxes to your representatives and senators for free on your behalf. Just enter your address and a message, and we'll clog their pipes so they know they can't ignore us. 

I'm the luckiest man in the world

Stephanie and I were wed in Palo Alto, California on Saturday, October 15, 2011. The weekend before, we got together with our fantastic and talented photographer Kien Lam to do a time lapse video all around San Francisco. Some of our favorite haunts, including North Beach, where Stephanie and I had our first sort-of-maybe-date at Jazz at Pearl's. 

Here's the fruit of our many hours of labor:


Understand, I’ll slip quietly
away from the noisy crowd
when I see the pale
stars rising, blooming, over the oaks.

I’ll pursue solitary pathways
through the pale twilit meadows,
with only this one dream:
You come too.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, First Poems

Many many thanks go out to our friends, families, and all of the people who helped make our special day the epic and amazing day it was. 

If you can't remember why onions are in there, take 'em out.

Reading an old article by Paul Graham about the origins of Arc -- written about 3 weeks into the development of that language:

In The Periodic Table, Primo Levi tells a story that happened when he was working in a varnish factory. He was a chemist, and he was fascinated by the fact that the varnish recipe included a raw onion. What could it be for? No one knew; it was just part of the recipe. So he investigated, and eventually discovered that they had started throwing the onion in years ago to test the temperature of the varnish: if it was hot enough, the onion would fry.

By the time Primo figured this out, modern thermometers rendered onions inessential. PG says that Arc will be the Lisp dialect that tries to avoid the onions. The inessential things that creep into our lives. How did they get there? We can't even remember.

This strikes me as a useful story for life. What are the onions in my varnish? Lets get rid of that stuff.

The empathy center of the brain

Rebecca Saxe delivered this fascinating speech at TED in 2009. She has discovered the one part of the brain that gets engaged when we are evaluating the intentions of other people. 

Of note:

  • Children don't develop a sense for morality and evaluation of other people's consciousnesses and intention until after age 5.
  • Using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, Saxe and her researchers were able to disrupt this part of the brain and that it has a significant impact on the ability of people to make judgments about other people's intentions.

This seems to have wide-reaching impact for product designers. Designers must spend time inhabiting the consciousness of others -- to feel their pain and empathize with what they would feel at any given moment in an interaction. 

I would suspect the overdevelopment of this part of the brain is one of the key differentiators between designers who make things pretty and designers who make things well.

The Machine That Changed the World: The Paperback Computer

The Machine That Changed The World was a 90's era PBS documentary that I taped to VHS tape when I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I watched this 5 hour documentary on loop, over and over again. Move aside Disney, it's was all about the computer revolution.

Episode 3 (linked above) was my favorite. In it: interviews with both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak about the dawn of the paperback computer.

RIP Steve 1955 - 2011

When telepresence will finally be viable

Skype is pretty good for talking with people. Due to schedules these days, it's almost the only way I can meet most of the people who want to meet with me. It works relatively well. It saves everyone travel time. But it doesn't work perfectly for the simple reason that the Internet doesn't work fast enough. For a while I thought Facetime would be the thing that brings us to the telepresence age. Now I'm not entirely sure, though I wait with bated breath hoping that Apple releases better presence indications and multi-party calls for Facetime. Well, any update would do, really. 

Telepresence is a tremendous holy grail for computing. What's better than email? What's better than screen sharing? Actually being able to look into someone's eyes and trusting them, and making a deal. 

In order for it to really work, it has to be:

  • Ubiquitous - like Skype, or better than Skype. This means it has to be a desktop and/or mobile software play. Hardware telepresence works really well today, but only for the well heeled. 
  • High Quality - I mean, the point of telepresence is to have a personal experience of meeting someone without actually moving the atoms there. So 720p HD seems like a reasonable goal. Uncompressed 720p is about 100 megabytes per second, and compressed Bluray is about 15 megabytes per second. The real effective optimized HD telepresence codec of the future I suspect will be someplace in that range of 15 to 100 megabytes per second. 
  • No skips - not even a little bit. This means the bandwidth needs to be overprovisioned... possibly by a lot. You need bandwidth headroom to absorb spikes. 

My guess is Skype or Facetime will be the software/mobile platform for it. Unless some intrepid soul comes along and shocks us all, which I very much hope will happen. Apple may yet amaze us. Skype is useful and probably good enough, but not great.

So then the question basically falls to point-to-point bandwidth. To avoid skips, you need a lot of bandwidth. Especially if you want high quality. Uplink speed on the last mile will be the constraint, since that's typically the slowest link. Modern online speedtests (e.g. speedtest.net) indicate average broadband speeds are coming out to 2 megabytes per second (~15 mbps). Eesh. My Comcast cable modem in California seems to rate limit me to a dismal 500 kilobytes per second.

Randall Stross recently wrote that you can buy 1000 megabits per second broadband for $26/month in Hong Kong. That is awesome! Perhaps telepresence within cities will be viable on a much shorter time frame, a matter of years. The same article mentions Google will be experimenting with gigabit within cities too.

If you wanted to know when real telepresence would really disrupt business travel and be a viable replacement for face-to-face communication, you'd need to do a forecast on broadband speeds. My uneducated guess: anything above 5 megabytes per second bi-directional cross country (e.g. SF to NY) for regular consumer broadband would be the point where you'll start to see technology massively shifting society.

At current rate of broadband speed improvements, it might be a while.