Monthly Archives: November 2007

The quest for software perfection.

When I started my career as a software engineer at SGI in 1996, I had the privilege of working with a great engineer.

This engineer and I had very different perspectives on software. I viewed software as a means to an end. As a vehicle to deliver the features that the were asked of me. That the perfection of the software was immaterial, what was material was how fast you could deliver those features. In fact, sloppy, disorganized, poorly structured code was okay as long as it worked. What was material was the function not the form.

He, on the other hand, felt that software was like poetry. That it had its own intrinsic beauty and that its beauty was an end in and of itself.

That’s not to say that he did not care about the outcome and the product. He was always passionate about delivering value to customers. He just felt that the elegant, solution was always better than the quick solution.

Being young, and he being great, I was convinced that elegance was worth the price in time and effort.

I’m not sure I still agree with him.

My career is littered with software systems that are no longer in production. SGI’s kernel was EOL’ed last year. NetCache was sold off to Bluecoat. Most of the code I wrote for DFM has been re-written as more and different requirements came into existence.

And he would say that is natural and normal and a reflection of the natural process of things.

And I wonder.

Was it really worthwhile to strive to create the perfect solution given the market pressures? Would I have been better off to just get the job done in the most expedient way possible?

Ultimately, I think the answer boils down to an engineering tradeoff. The perfect solution makes sense if you understand the requirements and the requirements are stable. But if the requirements change, then your attempt to create perfection has to be balanced against expediency and need.

Although I can appreciate a beautiful piece of code, I somehow am more inspired by a system that is easily adapted. A systems whose core abstractions although imprecise are in the right general area and allow for substantial independent directions of innovation.

Let me try this differently.

I think it’s far more valuable to know what the core set of abstractions should be and their general properties than to specify them completely. Instead of trying to perfect them in isolation, one should expose them to the real world and then learn. And if the abstractions were correct, over time they will get precisely defined and perhaps at some point become perfect, as they no longer evolve.

But I suspect that I will have long since moved onto the next set of imperfect abstractions.

And in retrospect, that engineer always remarked that it’s much easier to replace an elegant easily understood solution than a complex, baroque, over or under-engineered hack that was expedient.

I’m moving to Texas

Last night, after the sessions at LISA ended, I decided to go out and eat some meat. After all I am in Texas.

It turns out the place I went to is within walking distance of my hotel, The Hyatt Regency, on 702 Ross street off of Market and is called Y. O.  Ranch.

And yes the meat was fantastic.

But the reason I wanted to move to Texas is because there were 5 or 6 steak houses right next to each other! Literally one right next to another. Not fancy fluffy California fusion with mixed greens and arugula, but honest to God steakhouses! Places where the beef was beef and the meat was meat and the men were men.

This is a place, where buffalo meat is considered exotic!

When I told the waiter that I live in California, he smirked at me and asked if they actually serve meat in the state. I told him yes, but the steaks you buy are about 1/18th the size, and most of the time the waiter is explaining how the cow was a happy cow that lived a full and productive life when he’s not looking at you like a baby killer. I then told him about my challenges in trying to find a spit-rod for my roasted Lamb, and he had this perplexed expression on his face: why is finding a spit-rod so difficult to find? How do you roast pig?

So I am moving to Texas.

My wife pointed out that if I do move to Texas, i have to support Bush. But I pointed out that Texas was also the home of such fine upstanding politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Ann Richards. And after all I live in a state with a Governator!

Cheese Review: Kirkham’s Lancashire



Kirkham’s Lancashire perfectly epitomizes the “butter crumble” texture so characteristic of British cheeses. Mrs. Kirkham – the legendary Lancashire cheesemaker – rubs her beautiful, cloth-wrapped wheels of cow’s milk with her farmhouse butter, enriching the taste and protecting them from unwanted molds. Aged for 5 – 8 months, Lancashire has a delicate, lemony flavor and a long-lasting mellow tang.

The cheese snob says: Eh, nothing special. I paid 30 bucks for this? C.

The casual cheese eater:  I liked last months better. C

Cheese Review: Camembert Hudson Valley



The Old Chatham Shepherding Company’s Hudson Valley Camembert is a creamy, soft-ripened square made from the milk of Old Chatham’s herd of 100 East Fresian sheep combined with hormone-free cow’s milk from a neighbor’s farm.

The cheese snob says: Camembert is a delightful cheese in general, although somewhat generic these days thanks to mass production. Nonetheless, when I tried this cheese I was reminded that there is a difference between something that is well done, and something that is mass produced. B+

The casual cheese eater says: Not a big fan of camembert in general, but this was pretty good B.

Save Raw Milk — Oppose AB1735

The California state government, bowing to the pressures of the large agribusinesses that do most of the farming, have chosen to ban the sale of raw unpasteurized milk. Of course, an outright ban would have been too obvious, so instead they made the requirements to ship so onerous, that the small farmers that sold the milk will no longer be able to sell it.

This is an outrageous, unacceptable, overreach by a state legislature to kill a segment of the farming community to serve it’s political paymasters in the large agribusiness under the tattered fig leaf of concern for the health of Californians.

If you care about the right of individuals to buy products that are safe then please go to this website:

And follow the instructions to protest this recent law.

As if we don’t have more important matters to worry about.

Sharks win, finally!

In 1984, a goaltender named Steve Penny, created my life long lover affair with the game of hockey. His, surreal, goaltending lead a mediocre team to the Conference championships where they lost to a much better Islanders team. In 1986, he would be gone from Montreal driven out by an even greater hockey legend Patrick Roy. However, the damage, as they say, was done.

Even though I left Montreal for good in 1987, I remain a Montreal Canadiens fan. I will never forget Patrick Roy’s performance in 1993, when thanks to his goaltending, the Habs won 11 straight over-time games.

After moving to San Jose in 1996, I couldn’t embrace the Sharks because it felt like a betrayal.

11 years later, I can freely admit, that I am a Sharks fan (although if the Habs and the Sharks are playing for the Stanley Cup, I think I am still going to wear my Habs jersey, and party with the folks in San Jose if they win). And after watching them lose the first three games I saw at the HP Pavilion, it was nice to see them win …


Go Sharks Go!

gPhone: Google’s capitulation?

The recent announcement by Google around the gPhone has been portrayed by the press as a game breaking move. That somehow a new free OS that is customized for cell-phones somehow, once again, changes everything. And that more, to the point, that was Google’s plan.

I disagree. In fact, I believe Google had grander ambitions, those ambitions proved too costly, and that the recent announcement was an admission that those plans were shelved. And that Google was signaling to the cell phone carriers that they were going to play by their rules.

Hence, the blog title: Google capitulation?

Here’s what I think:

Google’s management team correctly observed that the future of search was search on the cell phone. And that location based search on a cell phone was going to be a tremendous revenue opportunity.

The challenge was that the current cell phone carriers act as tax men. You can’t sell a service without putting the service on a cell phone that the carrier sells. And the cell phone carriers themselves had ambitions on how exactly those advertising services were going to be delivered.

But why would the carriers be any different than MS and Yahoo in their ability to compete with search?

Unlike Microsoft and Yahoo, the cell phone carriers thanks to their connectivity to customers through Yellowbook, and the fact that they sell phone numbers, have the sales force, and the business process to create a real alternative local search advertising market.

So if you’re Google, and you have more money than God, you think outside of the box. If the problem is that the cell phone carriers control access, you need to create a new network that does not have the cell phone carriers acting as the gatekeepers.

To do that Google needed three pieces:

  1. A network that could carry phone calls that was not owned by the cell phone carriers.
  2. A set of devices that would connect to that network
  3. A set of compelling services that would cause people to select that network.

So what was the plan?

Let’s look at them in reverse order. For (3) Google was building it’s own applications, and then buying startups that offered innovative cell phone services. For (2) Google was working on an OS and reference platform. And for (1) Google had a three pronged strategy. The first was to build Metro WiFi like they did in Mountain View and San Francisco. The second was to bid on the wireless spectrum and either build or lure someone to build the network. Third was to create a regulatory environment that would allow other virtual carriers to build their own networks.

I believe that the cost of (1) became prohibitive along two dimensions. The first was the sheer dollar cost to build. The second was that while Google was building out it’s competitive network, the existing cell phone carriers would treat Google and their software as enemy number one. In many ways, the Google move might force the carriers to embrace Microsoft and Yahoo. The potential loss of revenue while the network was being built out and the cost of the network just made the strategy impractical.

Confronted with this reality, Google scaled back it’s ambitions, and like a researcher who has failed to prove something significant, they looked for pieces of that strategy that were still valuable and tried to get some value from them.

And that’s what the gPhone announcement is about. Unlike every Google announcement in the past, Google was announcing vapor. Nothing real, no product, just a statement that the grand cell phone strategy was about releasing a free OS to cell phone carriers.

With that announcement Google was signaling to the cell phone carriers that their plan was to play by their rules. Like Microsoft, Blackberry, Nokia, Palm and Apple they were going to release an OS, that the handset providers could port to their devices, that the cell phone carriers could certify and that Google would continue to be a software provider into those walled gardens.

Google was no longer planning to build an open, unwalled garden.

Google capitulated to the existing market reality. Perhaps we are seeing the limits to even their ambitions?

Live Writer

It worked.

I was able to go from download-to-post faster than  any other tool I have used. It’s actually surreal how easy it was to get the tool working and running.

One place where other tools fell apart was pictures…

Let’s add a picture


They win.

MS Live Writer is now the current champ of web blogging tools!