Monthly Archives: June 2013

Nokia has chosen to die or The end of the Nokia affair.

Today is truly a sad day. After an almost 15+ year love affair with Nokia phones, I am moving on.

I feel lost and adrift, but it is time…

Nokia’s value prop was that the damned things never died and the audio quality is the best in the business. So in spite of their crappy UX, I loved the fact that my phone always worked, and provided perfect sound. In the early days of the iPhone (and to this day), I would get frustrated at the audio quality of their phones. Much like iPhone snobs hated my pictures, I hated hearing their muffled, distorted crappy voices.

But my Nokia 900 (edit: originally said 820 which is easy to replace) died a few weeks ago. And that is not okay. And it died because the internal and irreplaceable battery died. And I lost some pictures because I can’t get the pictures without tearing the damn thing apart … thankfully iFixit has ways of doing that.

I was thinking about buying another Nokia, but…

I found myself, before the phone broke, getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of apps, the poor quality of the photos, my inability to do things that my android device made easy.

And then I looked at the call log on my phone, and I realized that I barely used the phone as a phone. I have 14812 minutes on my cell phone. Seriously who need 14812 minutes on their phone (need to fix that bill at the next opportunity)…. That’s 10 days of continuous talking.

Heck I barely used it for SMS.

I mostly used it as a web-browsing device and an email device.

At work I have an Android device, and realized I was using this massive collection of apps that neatly integrated with each other (something the Apple iPhone experience works so HARD to make a frigging nightmare)… and found myself increasingly reaching for my work phone instead of my personal phone…

So good-bye dearest Nokia, Like many things in life, time has passed you by… Even this fan-boy bids you a not so fond farewell…

I never would have guessed that you would have pissed away such an amazing, and awesome strategic opportunity through colossal and spectacular business mismanagement.

As for you dearest Microsoft, love your desktop PC, love your mobile OS, won’t bet against you but you’re increasingly looking like OS/2 …



The creepy undead

One of the downsides of social media is that when you die the social media doesn’t know you’re dead.

A very nice gentleman I knew died several years ago. he was a kind caring person. And it was nice having pleasant memories without the searing pain of his sudden death … And as time passed, his memory and his kindness also faded ..

But thanks to Social Media, I got to relive the entire experience again…



Unfortunately that person is dead.

So I remember the unpleasant bits, and I remember the pleasant bits. But for a moment he is alive again in my head…

He is… well… undead….

Which makes me think the decent thing is to buy into insurance that deletes your online presence, the selfish thing is to not do that and let Social Media periodically remind the world of your existence…

I have this very selfish idea that 1000 years from now, some social network will look at my ID, and say: You should connect to this person because he might be your ancestor… And my life as it’s recorded on the digital universe will come back again…






About f’ing time – Google admits GPA and Brain teasers aren’t useful

In life, it’s easy to say learn from mistakes, but it’s more powerful to learn from success. And successful people tend to learn from success because it’s so much harder to find.

Unfortunately for people like me, Google’s success has promulgated this mythology of the brain teaser question. Unfortunately for me, in spite of my professional success I find brain teasers difficult to answer under the pressure circumstances of an interview. I need time and space to think. And my approach to thinking is methodical and deliberate. This doesn’t mean I can’t handle  high pressure circumstances… Working at Zynga is one pressure packed cooker after another, it just means I don’t do brain teasers.

So it was delightful to read this…

What I really loved was this paragraph:

Forget brain-teasers. Focus on behavioral questions in interviews, rather than hypotheticals. Bock said it’s better to use questions like, “Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.” He added: “The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable ‘meta’ information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult.”

What I learned in 1998 was that the best predictor of future success is past success. So if you want to understand whether someone is good at solving hard problems, ask them about hard problems they solved in the past and drill into that.

In a earlier blog post, and on quora I have given my dismissive opinion of the brain teaser.

I hope that the valley will now switch from asking questions that are brain teasers to questions that are meaningful and powerful.

It will take time for this approach to talent evaluation to change, but I know it will.


PRISM – and the dominoes fall

First journalists revealthat Mr. Snowden revealed nothing new. After all, we all knew that the NSA was monitoring everything.

Business Insider basically described Mr. Snowden as a dim-witted high-school dropout that caused himself a lot of pain over nada

And then we have this article that provides more insight into what PRISM does.

Essentially what PRISM does is give a narrow view into a small set of users that the NSA has legally obtained wiretaps that allows them to look at their online activity in real-time.

That is both easy and simple to do and does not need mythical amounts of infrastructure to do…

My original assessment still holds:the technological illiteracy of the average reporter, the rabid anti-government bias of too many folks in SillyValley allowed a low-level functionary to convince them that alien technology had suddenly materialized in the bowels of the US government.

PRISM – Where are the servers, revisions

In my analysis I claimed that the NSA had to buy lots and lots of servers.  Something like 1 million.

What friends of mine, correctly, pointed out is that most servers render data and do not storie data.

Which, of course, reveals my bias. At Zynga we don’t render the data for the user, we just process the data. . At other web companies most servers render the thing the user sees.

Mea Culpa. 

The reality is that of the 1 million servers, for many web properties, only a fraction stores data. So let’s say 10% which is probably fair. That reduces the problem to 100k servers.

Except …

FB, Yahoo and Google are probably just one of the interesting places people store data.

They also store data on Box, DropBox, S3, EBS, tumblr, etc, etc, etc. Any application that stores data for sharing is a target for the NSA.

They also store data in Hotmail (now known as Outlook… Really … )…

The point is that you can easily shrink the problem down, and then I can easily grow it.

And then the interesting problem that the folks at the NSA have to solve isn’t just storing the data but finding connections across the data. Just the size of the data motion and data indexing boggles the mind.

The point is that this is a huge infrastructure.

And that the problems of management, scaling, operations remain real even before we get to the really interesting question of data analysis.

Now it’s entirely possible that there are researchers in the NSA that have solved all of big-data’s problems that the rest of us are working on. It’s possible.

And unicorns might exist.

Look if this is real, it means that my understanding of where the state of the art is, is about 10 years behind the curve. And if the US government has sat on this kind of advanced software, then the entire decade we spent figuring this shit out was … wasted.

And if they are that good, that means that entire areas of human endeavor could be accelerated if they gave that software away. Just think about what we could do with the kind of real-time analysis. What would we do if we could sift through all the data about all of humanity in real-time …

At the end of the day, I am having a hard time believing that the rest of the planet is 12 years behind some mysterious dark organization.

Is it possible? Absolutely. Likely, no.

PRISM – Person of Interest meets Reality Show

Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. The NSA dude, Edward Snowden, got more than his fair share.

What I found fascinating was his description of how the system will create connections from things you have done and create an artificial and suspicious narrative.

As I listened to him talk, I remembered where I had seen this theory before — it’s in a TV show called Person of Interest.

The central conceit of the show is that there is a computer that has access to every data source on the planet and is making connections and finding bad guys before anyone else can .

Which made me laugh. Occam’s razor says that the simplest solution is the likeliest. So what’s more likely some low-level person invented some impossible to disprove conspiracy theory based on a hit TV show OR the NSA is monitoring computers systems without the smartest minds of my generation figuring it out.

When this is all said and done, we will discover that these are the false claims made by a media hungry person. And we will also, rediscover that press’ technology literacy is abysmal.

PRISM – Where are the frigging servers, part deux…

In my last post, I asked the question “where are the servers”. And, of course, folks sent me links to the Utah data center.

Good response, but I was trying to go somewhere else… Teach me to bury my lead.

Finding a physical place for a 1,000,000 servers is easy if you are the US government. We have a lot of space that the government owns that it can use.

The problem is more about how in God’s name is the government buying, managing and using 1,000,000 servers.

The scale of the equipment required, and challenge managing that scale is mind-boggling given that it would dwarf the hardest systems commercially built.


Look, the US government for it’s really big super-computers relies on outside contractors. They don’t have the in-house skill to build one of these things.

And the scale of the equipment would make the US government an insanely huge part of the tech market and that is mind-boggling. Basically for every server CPU that is purchased on the open market, the NSA purchases the other. Which means the total commercial market is smaller than we think. Which means if you are making business plans based on IDC numbers for the market size you are, well, wrong.

And this takes into account just the servers. Never mind networking etc..

Counter 1: But they don’t have to buy them all at once

That’s strictly true, but misses several key insights.

One Google/FB/et al are increasing their capacity very quickly. And there are other online services that store data and have collaboration (Box, DropBox etc). The number of services and amount of data is increasing not shrinking over time.

To keep up they have to buy as much total capacity as everyone is creating. And since everyone is buying, they are buying as well.

The other thing this doesn’t account for is that Google and FB are replacing older servers as they age out and die. And this probably happens at 4-5 year time scale.

And finally my 1,000,000 was based on data that is 1-3 years out of date, the numbers are probably bigger.

Counter 2: CPU’s aren’t getting faster.

Server performance and capacity is increasing. Although CPU’s haven’t gotten faster, the number of cores has increased. Which means that the NSA has to buy enough capacity to match the utilization levels of Google/FB etc. Given that Google and FB and others go to great lengths to improve utilization, this suggests that server counts are representative of the NSA capacity needs.

Counter 3: It’s not that many servers

This is a reasonable argument. this data suggests that 1 million servers is really only 1/350 of the total servers sold globally.


If you consider the sheer intellectual horsepower at Google then you start to scratch your head about where are the people who built this thing?


Because the NSA, thanks to Federal law can’t hire outside of the US.

So maybe the NSA can offer green cards and citizenship super-fast … But then who is doing the hiring? It’s not happening on college campuses and the best and the brightest are not going to IBM and Raytheon.

So where is the army of technically savvy people being hired from?


Having managed many servers at Zynga, managing infrastructure at a fraction of this scale is not easy.

Having being part of the team that built, what was at one point, the world’s large private cloud, I know that the software that is available to manage the infrastructure simply does not exist.

To make it, even remotely, tractable you need a lot of sophisticated software just to bring machine’s up and to take machines down.

This kind of software is not simple. And it requires big brains to assemble. And it would have to be built from scratch as nothing on the market exists that can replicate it.


What nobody talks about is the complexity of managing the ingest of data. Let’s assume you’ve solved the infrastructure, the hiring and purchasing now we’re talking about magical software that is able to handle data coming from a myriad of different companies.

Each company has it’s own evolving set of data.

So either you have to deal with the unstructured format (which explodes the computational cost) or you’ve got teams of people working together at companies whose job it is to pre-process the data before it leaves your site.

In short

this smells of a fabrication. to what end, i don’t know.



PRISM – where are the frigging servers?

Over the last two weeks the 1% and its wannabe cohorts has been obsessively worrying about government spying. The rest of the world has tried to keep their jobs and pay their bills.

What’s weird is that the same guys who think the black helicopter conspiracy theorists are “nuts” are finding just cause with those conspiracy theorists.

What astonished me in this whole discussion was the really basic question of where are all the NSA’s servers? Most reporters focused on the technological feasibility of such a system, I want to ask the mind-numbing question of where the hell does the data live? And where is the infrastructure that computes the data.

Since most of us are software guys, including yours truly, we never ask where are the physical systems that run our software. But in this case, I want to.

Let’s speculate that to collect the data in real-time and analyze it in real-time you need an infrastructure as big as the one you are monitoring. What I am saying is that if FB requires 1 cpu cycle and 1 byte to store data as it comes, the corresponding system that is monitoring the data must need no less than 1 cpu cycle and 1 byte of data to store the same data. And the assumption is probably too simple. In reality the monitoring system has to spend more CPU cycles to analyze the data than FB, and can store less data as data. But we’ll stick with that assumption.

The server infrastructure that the NSA builds is bigger than the joint infrastructure of FB, Yahoo and Google. In plain English, the most complex advanced technology companies on the planet have built something that compared to what the NSA has built is a toy.

Just to put some numbers on this, FB had about 180000 servers in 2012, Google was using about 900000 servers in 2011, and Yahoo according to this report had 100000 but that seems to only count a small piece of Yahoo’s business.

We’re talking about over 1 million servers here (assuming 2012 numbers with no growth). You don’t just have 1 million servers with their switches and racks and disk-drives just sitting around … This infrastructure would represent a huge portion of corporate america (just think of Cisco and Intel for the frigging processors). This kind of deployment would literally show up as a significant line item in their balance sheet.

Where the f*k do you put 1 million servers? That’s a f*k load of power and networking.

If the NSA really has this kind of infrastructure that is off the grid, the logistics of purchasing, shipping and secrecy astonish me far more than the relatively insanely difficult problem of spying on FB in such a way that their top engineers don’t notice.

The fact that no one knows about this much infrastructure should convince us that this is an absurd tale.

But then again we fought a world war and built a bomb and nobody knew about it…

So when someone tells you the government is full of incompetent morons, just tell them: Absolutely not, they put together the world’s largest computing infrastructure and it took a low-level systems analyst to spill the beans and none of the press asked: where the hell are the machines?