25 December 2011

Atheists will have to do better than this

Christmas Day musings...

A nice little e-flurry has built around several bloggers' trading of a provocative comment from a book by Penn Jillette:

"There is no god and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again."

Sigh.  Where to begin.

Well, for starters, an exactly parallel construct would be: If every trace of chalk written on a blackboard were to be erased, it could never be written-on that way again.  Which presupposes that whoever wrote on the blackboard wouldn't come and do it over.  Since Jillette's faith holds that there is not and never was a Creator, that makes sense to him.  The chalk, per his faith, was written by men.  And my use of the term "faith" is grounded by Jillette's reliance on such words as "never" and "simple truth."  On inspection, his logic is manifestly circular and self-referential.  (Or is it self-reverential?  [Chuckle] see what I did there).

Meanwhile, science--Jillette's unerring anti-theist lodestone--is hardly canonical across time or place.  For example, dial the calendar back a few years, and a conjecture that gastric ulcers might be caused by microbes would be met by hoots and derision.  How silly!  Bacteria that could survive the acid environment of the upper gut!  There was a day, not long ago, when a researcher proposing such foolish heresy would be laughed out of town, and out of his career.  That's close to what happened to Barry Marshall, who shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine with J. Robin Warren for that specific apostasy.  There are others: Prusiner and his infectious proteins is another good example.  In the physical sciences, the creative moment documented by the 3K microwave background radiation, so evocative of Genesis, was hugely uncomfortable for scientists to accept.  Years before, Einstein himself had striven to adjust his cosmology specifically to avoid such an event, believing (there's that pesky faith again) that the universe must be unchanging forever (and there's that word, an expression of accepting belief if there ever was one).  As another example, may I mention cold fusion?  The avalanche of mockery that met Pons & Fleischmann's premature publicity crushed what just might have been a spectacular technology in its infancy.  Though the phrase "cold fusion" remains a punchline, much about it remains unexplained, and sober minds are daring to propose a second look.

Here in the nanotech field, the miraculous is observed every day.  As the field advances, each layer of the onion peels away to reveal more onion: more unknowns about nature, and perhaps more unknowables.  Jillette's declaration against the divine is regrettable, as it relegates science to monotonic crank-turning.  On this special day, may we reflect on the scientific value of wonder and awe, and continue proposing foolish heresies.

03 December 2011

No, thank you MAM... did open-source kill Sun?

A few years ago I was given a Sun Ultra 2 3D Creator Sparcstation, vintage 1999, with a then-whopping 1.5GB of RAM, two hard disks and two Sparc processors.

Whoo!  Serious iron.  Weighs a metric ton.  Real hairy-chested UNIX.  Hisses and spits when it runs.

But, it lacked a monitor, and playing with it over RS-232 wasn't too much fun, and I lacked a user account so there wasn't much to do with it.  It sat on a shelf as part of my collection.

Recently I was offered a huge Sun CRT monitor, and it turned out to be compatible.  (And easily 125 pounds.)

So I set it up.

It still left the issue of lacking a user account.  Without system disks, it was impenetrable.  But what I saw was purty...

So I decided to burn a bunch of Solaris 10 update 7 CDs one evening, and start from scratch.  I think the thing had been running Solaris 7 or 8.

Well.  Turns out, with Solaris 10, Sun was deprecating its previous GUI, the Common Desktop Environment (CDE), in favor of Gnome, with which I'm familiar from my Linux usage.  Not a fan of Gnome... so I tried CDE.

And CDE is awful.  It's not what the machine was running before, which seemed airier and more responsive and a whole lot less clunky.

Meanwhile, Gnome is... Gnome.  It's hard to imagine someone spending what this machine originally cost and feeling satisfied with that environment.  It's just nasty.

And despite its great honking 10,000 rpm SCSI disks, two 300MHz 64-bit Sparc processors, and a clock-doubled S-Bus architecture, the thing's a damn slug.

Just abysmal.  I could not be less impressed.

I call it my Mac Appreciation Machine.  Howdy, MAM.

I wonder how the move to Gnome factored into the demise of Sun.  Premium machines, hard-core.  Costly.  Not for home use.  Not for Aunt Min.  Heck, its noises alone would give her the flapping vapors.  No, it's a top-drawer tool for serious professionals.  Yet there it is, glaring at me with the same unpolished face as some crappy netbook running Ubuntu.  Complete with Star Office, seemingly identical to the open-source OpenOffice.

Both Sun and Apple, with OS X's NeXTSTEP-based innards, leveraged the open-source BSD UNIX as their foundations.  In Apple's case, the generic/open-source-y inner UNIX giblets are cloaked with a sublime and solid proprietary user interface with lots of unique and thoughtful goodies built in.  Nothing of the sort with the Sun, at least with Solaris 10u7.  Interface- and usability-wise, I see nothing here I couldn't get from Mandriva or Mint for free, today and maybe even back in 2001 when Sun first started edging towards Gnome, and certainly by 2007-2008 from whence this version of Solaris sprang.

Though it remained (and remains) well regarded in the server space, Sun summarily disappeared from desktop usage, and I wonder if Gnome was a symptom or a cause.

My thought: as in every business endeavor, differentiation is everything.  Whatever other problems Sun was battling in the market, it also lined up a chunk of its differentiation carefully in the cross-hairs and blew it away by adopting an open-source persona for its machines.

It seems my thoughts both parallel and oppose those of Scott McNealy from exactly a year ago.  On the one hand, the interviewer refers to the "open core" of Sun's products, which could have excluded the user interface.  And McNealy notes, "We probably got a little too aggressive near the end and probably open sourced too much and tried too hard to appease the community and tried too hard to share... You gotta strike a proper balance between sharing and building the community and then monetizing the work that you do... I think we got the donate part right, I don't think we got the monetize part right."

But he doesn't mention differentiation.  And if McNealy & Co. were prescient in stating that The Network Is The Computer, maybe they missed appreciating that The Interface Is The User Experience.  And on MAM, with Gnome, that's nothing special.

10 October 2011

What he left behind

This blog is supposed to be about nanotechnology, capitalism and innovation.  Almost all of my posts have related to the first or the last topics-- precious few have related to the one in the middle: capitalism.  And that's a shame, as capitalism bridges the two and has given us so much.

The past few days saw the passing of the most successful capitalist in generations.  His was a classic story: Steve Jobs started with nothing: a castoff child, a dropout.  His career took some wrong turns, but evidently he learned from them, and he built (and re-built) what is currently the most valuable company on Earth.

Somehow his passing seems to have affected people more than most executive deaths.  It's quite the phenomenon.  After all, Apple recently nudged Exxon into the #2 position, and who remembers the founders of Exxon?

I think it has to do with a sense of generational loss: In Jobs we saw the leader we wish our leaders were more like.  We saw the visionary who made dreams happen, who defined the fresh and graceful.  We saw the guiding big brother who showed us how it's done.

That's what's gone now, and folks are feeling it, though maybe without the words.  But it's there.  It's there in the shrines of flowers, the candles, the yellow-stickied goodbyes, and the apples-with-a-bite-missing arrayed in front of Apple's retail stores.  It's there in the paeans of pundits around the world, the front-page photos, the presidential condolences and the online appreciations.  It's there.


Jobs had a lot to say about death in his Stanford commencement speech, which I urge you to watch.  He was one of the few captains of industry fearless enough to philosophize and talented enough not to make a laughingstock of himself doing it.  

There's something that lives on, then, and it's much more valuable than all the AAPL shares in the world: like a good big brother, sadly departed, he left behind inspiration.  And inspiration is where advancement starts under our system.  It underlies the willingness to risk, the drive to succeed, to make something of nothing.  It underlies entrepreneurship.  Defines it.  Defines ambition, animates hope.

We need more of that.  Its loss is what makes us weep.

One thing that was unique about Jobs was the breadth of his accomplishments.  Most historic entrepreneurs are content to build one business or one industry.  To have built and revolutionized so much across so many fields takes a special kind of gift, and not just as an inventor: as a team-builder, a network-spanner, a persuader and communicator and negotiator and all those other things.  Consider:
  • The personal computer (Apple II)
  • The personal computer, again (Macintosh)
  • The laptop (PowerBook)
  • The personal computer, a third time (NeXT)
  • Animated feature films (Pixar)
  • Personal media players (iPod)
  • Music distribution (iTunes is now the world's largest media store)
  • Software distribution (the App Store)
  • Computer retailing (Apple Stores)
  • Personal computers, iteration 3.5 (Mac OS X, the commercial second coming of NeXT)
  • Cell phones (iPhone)
  • Personal computers, round 4 (iPad)...
...And that's just off the top of my head and excludes the monumental turn-around of Apple, Inc as it twitched and gasped in extremis after his twelve years wandering in the desert, its worth less than its cash in the bank.  

In none of these was Jobs the first-mover, but he brought a unique business approach to bear.  For example, Apple did not invent the mouse-- that original implement for driving a computer's graphical user interface.  He licensed what he needed from Xerox, paying with Apple stock.  Xerox's mouse cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  Apple's retailed for $29.  

It's too pat to sniff, "Well, he didn't invent it, he just commercialized it."  Exactly!  That's the very essence of meaningful innovation.  Edison didn't invent the first light bulb, either, as Joseph Swan demonstrated in court.  But until Edison came along, the light bulb didn't happen.  Edison made it happen by nailing the details and building the teams and establishing the networks that made it affordable, made it reliable, made it marketable, made it supportable by the necessary infrastructure and ecosystem, made it comprehensible and accessible to the common man... 

See the difference?  It's the difference between the inventor and the entrepreneur.  

Then look at the great entrepreneurs, the Fords and the Perots and the Hewletts and Packards and Varian brothers and the Larry Ellisons and Michael Dells and Bill Gates and... well, the list goes on and on, and they all did basically one or perhaps two startups, or shepherded one or perhaps two revolutions, or built or flipped maybe one or two technologies, bless 'em all.  The likes of Steve Jobs, on the other hand, come once a generation.  Besides Edison, only Howard Hughes comes to mind as a serial entrepreneur of such diverse accomplishments in the past century.  They're exceedingly rare.

Of course, there are detractors.  Haters, even.  Jobs was a tyrant, some will tell you, a prick, brutal and dehumanizing to his targets.  Sure.  That's almost a given among historic entrepreneurs.  Edison was a prickly, mercurial, arrogant, claim-jumping son of a bitch.  Henry Ford wasn't Mr. Nice Guy either, and a raging anti-Semite on top of it.  Hughes was a psychological basket case who trusted no one.  Historic-class entrepreneurs are odd, even damaged, and pretty much uniformly not-nice, at least in their business arena.  There, niceness is not what it's about.  Gladiators tend not to be nice in the ring.

But that's not their entirety.  In Jobs' case, I never met him but have some mutual friends, and they're pretty ripped up.  He was, after all, rather young, with kids still at home and a lovely, kind wife he adored.  By all accounts (and see this charming Quora thread for some of them) he had a sort of quiet, out-of-the-spotlight charity and was a devoted family man.  Personally, I'll miss him for his his exemplification of so much that is uniquely American, for his unabashed philosophizing, and of course for his cool products.  But there are his family members and many friends who really mourn him, because Business Steve and Personal Steve were different people.  My heart goes out to them in their loss.

Personally, I believe our Creator gave each of us unique gifts.  And just as we are disappointed when things we give to others sit on a shelf unappreciated, I believe we disappoint God when we fail to use our gifts to their utmost.  Jobs and I are of different faiths, but I think we'd agree on that.  Certainly we disappoint ourselves, down deep, when we play it safe, notch it down, avoid risk and otherwise keep those gifts in their wrappers.  But rarely, we encounter a person who uses his gifts to the hilt, each and every day.  Such a person leaves this world with fewer regrets than most of us, I suspect.  And though their passing pains us most, it should grieve us least, because their example--their inspiration--will feed the next generation of their kind.

Like a guiding big brother, Steve Jobs showed us how it's done.  And the world--and the future--is a better place for it.