Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Lets Talk About A.I.

A.I. has been the hot topic lately. Yes … I’m speaking about Allen Iverson and yes I’m speaking about Artificial Intelligence. Lets begin with the former. Allen Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets yesterday (Dec. 19) and another tumultuous, passionate and intriguing era is over for Philadelphia sports. People in Philly LOVED A.I. and people in Philly HATED A.I. … he was a lightning rod of polarized passions in a town known for polarizing passionate phanatics.

I personally loved how A.I. played the game and I always felt the ball-hog label was bullshit; especially since nobody was complaining when the “ball-hog” had an MVP season during a special year with a special coach. And when his assists shot up after the 2003 season and the rest of his game elevated once again during a time most experts predicted that his skills will suffer a significant decline due to his aging body and supposedly degrading speed … A.I. proved everybody wrong and has had MVP type years during his last two campaigns. For whatever reasons, the Sixers were never able to successfully build a high-caliber team around A.I. and even the most diehard of A.I. fans must wonder if A.I. was more of a problem then “the Answer”.

At the end of the day I judge an athlete by their game efforts and their talent level – and in those departments – A.I. has no peer. All the AI haters always spewing venom about his “practice habits” and “team skills” …. even though most of his prior teammates have vocalized nothing but praise on his work ethic and have cherished him as a teammate.

I suspect that a significant percentage of the people who despised A.I.; did so because of what they thought he represented to them … an angry young black, ghetto, hip hop loving sports millionaire that had no respect for authority, practice or rules … but I saw a young, black, ghetto, hip hop loving boy who grew into a man and always spoke from the heart, made some dumb young-boy mistakes but shaped his tremendous gifts into an athlete that rose to the top of a sport built for men one foot taller and one hundred pounds heavier… and that’s what I’m always going to respect and remember about A.I.

He's quintessentially the Ultimate Philly Athlete. He has that “Rocky” thing going for him --- the underdog reaching for levels he wasn’t built to reach and wasn’t meant to reach but had the heart to reach. Allen has legions of fans in Philadelphia (and across the league) and they span across all cultures, races and social economic groups because of his heart.

Denver took a risk on multiple levels but I sincerely believe in how AI plays the game … just keep doing your thing and I hope you get the ring.... keep driving the lane … keep getting knocked down … keep getting back up .... and keep hitting the impossible shots.

Artifical Intelligence is back in vogue and people are excited again. Moore's law has kicked in for enough years on both CPU processing power, volatile and non-volatile memory densities and software maturity that we've finally passed a threshold. Now there's a resurgence of people, papers and general excitement in the realms of artificial intelligence and robotics. More in depth brain analysis and mapping tools, decades of neuroscientists peeling away the mysterious workings of our brain and the convergence of the information theory, artificial intelligence and neuroscience communities into integrated disciplines is finally bearing some serious fruit.

As any good experienced software guy will tell you after taking a strong look at the A.I. & robotics landscape -- you are immediately struck by the GRAND software challenges that exist - including lack of standards, complexity of implementations, plurality of proprietary substrates, massive amounts of data, lack of mature multithreaded, distributed, parallel software talent and algorithms and a general lack of financial resources to support such complex projects over a fixed amount of years. Students are usually the worker bees but they tend to graduate, get a job or get pregnant.

Like always DARPA is in the game, trying to build the next "killer app" in robotics, A.I. and neuroscience. Trying to build the war machines and soldiers of the future. DARPA has been sponsoring the Grand Challenges (including the Autonomous automobile challenge won by an A.I. group from Stanford University). Fresh new energy in rocketry and space travel by the software gazillionaires and probably the most significant event in American robotics has occurred when a software heavyweight announced theire entry into the robotics software development arena.

FOLKS -- the magic is in the software - no disrespect to the great hardware engineering that allows the software to run faster, stronger and greater. But true A.I. is going to be more a function of software and algorithms until the day we can manufacture a hardware version of the brain (a trillion chips wired in a trillion ways)

Big shout out to Emerging Properties, AMD, Microsoft, Ray Kurzweil, DARPA , Stanford's AI team, Carnegie Mellon's CompSci dept, MIT, Rutgers and all the other great computer science departments that were brave enough to keep the flashlight on during the A.I. dark ages (and during the internet bubble bust) .... and a a GRAND SHOUT OUT to the other A.I and the Denver Nuggets.

Now the big question .... should I get a girlfriend in '07 ???

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Time Now for the Future

I've been on a mini-sabbatical for the past several months and I've done alot of emotional purging on this blog about the past and the present, some positive and some negative. But lately, I feel my sabbatical coming to an end and find myself thinking alot more about the future. So lets talk about the future.

Lets start with today's futurists. You can't really begin a conversation about modern futurists unless you start with Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, who argues that we're experiencing accelerated growth across a range of technological disciplines spanning across medicine, industry, art, media and information technology. He seems to argue that this exponential growth is an intrinsic (and probably unstoppable) property of technological innovation that started with life's humble beginnings on this planet to our tool using cave dwelling ancestors to the information technology frenzy that we have today. Kurweil suggests that we're currently on the upward swing of this "acceleration" and that we should prepare ourselves for what he considers a technological singularity. A singularity is generally known as the point within a black hole where the math and physics breaks down, a point that cannot be computed and where the curvature warps so intensely that it probably results in a "hole" in the fabric of space-time.
The Singularity is described by Kurzweil as "technological change so rapid and profound it could create a rupture in the very fabric of human history". The main crux of this singularity revolves around the relentless march of progress and the merging of technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic manipulation/engineering and nanotechnology known collectively as GNR or the GRIN technologies.

Futurism has always had a reputation for harboring new age crackpots and is still dismissed as pseudo science by vocal groups of research scientists. But Kurzweil has added a sense of legitimacy to futurism since he is such a highly regarded and respected engineer and inventor. He's currently a very popular speaker at large conferences spanning across all of the GNR technologies.

Two major groups of technologies exist. Kurzweil and others feel that progress in genetics and nanotechnology will result in a proliferation of health advancements possibly reducing today's most feared diseases and health ailments to a quick trip to your local nano-doctor for the latest download of nanobots. Much speculation also exists suggesting that these health-related advancements may possibly delaying aging or age-related processes. The other major group of technologies revolve around artificial intelligence and robotics. Some feel that within the next 20-30 years with the current pace of I.T. growth, neuroscience research and brain imaging; we will be able to construct machine intelligences that rival or even surpass our own intelligence (via either improvements in AI algorithms due to neocortex modeling or blunt-force reverse engineering and modeling of an entire brain). Pick the blue pill Neo !!!

There's a common theme to most futurist thought regarding singularities (and disaster scenarios) and that's Self-Replication. If (or when) machine intelligence is realized, then it may be able to grow unimaginably fast since an advanced machine intelligence may be able to create another smarter machine intelligence which may create and even smarter machine intelligence .... well you get the point. Similar ideas revolve around nanotechnology. One of the central themes and constructs of nanotechnology is the concept of the molecular assembler. This assembler in theory should be able to construct complex molecules from single atomic units. And if 1 molecular assembler can make another molecular assembler just like it -- then you have the beginnings of a self-replication system much like bacteria that can create copies of itself and go from the single digits to millions or even billions of copies of themselves in relatively small amount of time. Even though some of the core concepts of the molecular assembler are still vehemently debated it still seems that one must reference the bacteria example. If bacteria can do it, then at the very least we know that it can be done on this planet ... then its just a matter of time, research and intelligence -- uh oh -- artificial intelligence..... I'm scared .... hold me.

I found Kurzweil's Singularity book compelling and it has elevated my general interest across all the futurist subject matter but a couple other books have had a significant impact on my thoughts regarding these technologies and specifically artificial intelligence.

Joel Garreau is author of a book named Radical Evolution. A reporter and editor for the Washington Post, Joel takes an in-depth look at the different groups of characters and organizations that surround these technologies including DARPA - the bleeding edge research arm of the D.O.D. He partitions the book (and the individuals involved) into 3 major groups named Heaven, Hell & Prevail. Each group describes the camp that key individuals involved in research, philosophy and speculation belong. With the obvious labels aligning with optimisitic, pessimistic or neutral feeling s towards the future and the impact technology will have on it. He provides compelling interviews and an excellent overview of the futurist landscape regarding GRIN technologies.

The other book that has piqued my interest recently is Jeff Hawkins onIntelligence book. Jeff is a founder of Palm Computing and Numenta. He has authored a book on his thoughts regarding AI and neocortex function. He provides an algorithmic framework for a new breed of AI that melds variants of Bayesian Inference, neocortex modeling and working memory to produce what he terms as HTM or Hierarchal Temporal Memory. This is an interesting read for anybody interested in AI and/or brain function. I will detail this more in a future post.

Robert Freitas is a key figure in nanomedicine where he prototypes future nanotechnology-based robot designs and strategies that will potentially help humans overcome inherent biological limitations that we currently experience. I have not read his books but its on my list. Here's a couple of websites with relevant info:
Foresight.org - NanoMedicine
Robert Freitas Homepage

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Stressed? Sabbatical may be the answer

I tell you .. I was very, very, very close to just retiring, going bankrupt and just giving it all up.

After working very hard for the last 10 years and taking way too few vacations --- I was growing stressed and tired of the same ol' bullshit - day in and day out - regarding the software consulting biz.

Tired of the late vendor payments, tired of the floating requirements, tired of Uncle Sam Federal (and his cousin Uncle Sam State) continously raping me (and all small business owners), tired of the unaffordable health insurance, tired of the unbearable work schedules, tired of the technical short-sightnedness of managers, tired of the hidden agendas, tired of the interviews, tired of bullshit QA, tired of new .NET libraries to learn, new XSL functions to learn, new XQUERY functions to learn, new AJAX, new design patterns, new tiers, new data access methods, new releases of databases & IDEs & QA tools & 3rd party components & software versioning systems, new languages, new application blocks, new software processes, agile this, extreme that, SCRUM here and Waterfall there .... UML the entire thing ... AHHHH !!!! .... JUST SHUT
UP !!!

So I took a break ... after bombing several interviews (which has NEVER happened to me before) I wrapped up my lease, wrapped up my current contract, packed up my Pilot and I've been on a semi-sabbatical (still working a part-time telecommute) for the past 2 months on the west coast. Went hiking in the Flagstaff mountains, took a slow drive through Sedona and onwards to Scottsdale, AZ. Then went due west to LA, outrunning thunderstorms on the highway and then took a VERY slow drive up the Pacific Coast Highway towards San Fran... stopping at beaches, redwood forests, wine makers, mountain trails, restaurants .... some food ... some wine... lots of pictures (see the camoflauged animal ?).





Relaxed in Monterrey for a week then subletted an apartment in San Francisco for 3 weeks and did nothing but jogging, site seeing, tons of walking, eating, reading, watching movies and some blogging ----- ahhhhhhhhhhh.

Visited Stanford, Berkeley, Palo Alto, Fremont, Petaluma,
Wine country, Muir Beach .... attended Renaissance Fairs, festivals, exhibits ----- and then finally just locked down a temporary hotel for the last month in a suburb of San Fran to reflect on my life, my career and my immediate and not so immediate future. I had to answer some serious questions ... look in the mirror type shit. And during the last month ... the answers just started bubbling up.

Did I still love coding and software? YES
Did I still have my childhood loves of science & technology? YES
Did I still love learning? YES
Do I still hae unresolved anger/conflicts due to childhood ghetto shit? YES
Do I regret the major decisions in my life during the last several years? NO
Does this president suck or am I just in a crappy mood? BOTH
Do I still give a flying shit about other people ... do I still care about my fellow wo/man? YES

And last but not least ...

Do I still have my best personality trait ... Am I still an optimist?

This was an important question. Optimism has been an important coping mechanism for me and a gift I've always had in my life. My natural optimism got me through some VERY DARK YEARS during my childhood and my early 30s.

I wasn't sure at first but this answer is slowly becoming clearer to me and I like the result. YES.

After reflecting on those issues I decided to wake up every morning and just do what I felt like for that day ... so If I wanted to work my telecommute or wanted to read a science book or wanted to watch YouTube videos all day or listen to Yoga podcasts or go out jogging or just code for myself ... or take some free lectures online from MIT or Berkeley ... then thats what I would do for that particular day.

WOW -- that worked like a charm.

It's like an old college friend that I saw several months back describing how he felt when he attended one of those Silent Buddhist Retreats where you give up all your phones, email, clothes and food and do nothing but meditate and stay absolutely silent (and half-naked) for 10 days. He told me he started feeling crazy on the 2nd day and by the 3rd day he was ready to just kill somebody -- but then he mentioned that something strange begins to happen after that 3rd day ... he described it as a fog that begins to lift from your mind -- he told me " ... there's nothing left after that ... but the truth... your truth just begins to bubble up and you get this amazing clarity of thought .... " -- that left an impression on me prior to my trip and I have experienced that to a certain degree during this mini-sabattical.

Once my fog began to lift I realized that what I truly still love and like to do ..... and its the same shit that I loved when I was 17 in high school.

Computers, Gaming, Girls, Sports, Medicine, Software & Science.

Nothing has changed. It was still all there but it just gets all dusted up and obscured when Life Happens. This is the same stuff that still makes my pink parts blush and this is what I'm going to continue to do during my life -- Until the next mini-midlife crisis :)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Deep Links: God, Strings & how BIG is your h-index?

www.skinbase.org/rate.php?skins=
I concluded my last post (regarding the internet) with a reference to the Deep linking sessions you can have when you get yourself going on a good link hopping session. It amazes (& amuses) me what dark alleys of the net you'll find yourself in ... spending hours reading some crazy shit totally tangential to why you hit the net in the first place. This happens to me all the time, go online to pay some bills and end up reading some True Hollywood story on the cast from Different Strokes. I decided to track occasional linking sessions and publish it under a Deep Link series of blog postings (remember where u heard it first). I'm going to write this in a stream of consciousness style -- summarizing what I read and providing my thoughts (or reasons) for jumping links and some thoughts that cross my mind as I read the passages.

God, Strings and my h-index is bigger than yours ....

I've been on this physics mania lately, consuming as much as I can read regarding topics such as relativity and quantum mechanics. Don't get too impressed ... I usually realize that I probably don't get beyond a layman's understanding of the more granular concepts of the theories, especially since my math is so weak these days ... but I do comfort myself with the little lie that I have a "strong grasp" of the higher level abstractions of the shit I read .... (sigh).

It started with my daily visit to ScienceDaily. Linking to the article about NASA announcement of Direct Proof of Dark Matter. Immediately I thought to myself that these Dark Matter knuckleheads are just running around like chickens with their heads cut off .... their theories are wrong and they keep blaming the shit on some mystical Dark Matter. Once I completed reading the article I wondered what was the issue tripping up all the scientists on this dark matter? maybe its time to read up on it and those strings that my astronomy professor from Rutgers used to get all excited about - Dr. Blood. Damn I love that name. Time for Wikipedia.

Looked up string theory and starting reading and quickly hopped to a link named the Holographic Principle. Which If I understood correctly; stated that the only information needed to know about the events of a given volume of space is the boundary of that region of space. In other words ... if you want to model the events in a given room, then all the information is available on the walls of that room. OK, that was good brain candy and it went on about information density and entropy.

In a given volume, there is an upper limit to the density of information about the whereabouts of all the particles which compose matter in that volume, suggesting that matter itself cannot be subdivided infinitely many times; rather there must be an ultimate level of fundamental particles, i.e. were a particle composed of sub-particles, then the degrees of freedom of the particle would be the product of all the degrees of freedom of its sub-particles; were these sub-particles themselves also divided into sub-sub-particles, and so on indefinitely, then the degrees of freedom of the original particle must be infinite, violating the maximal limit of entropy density. The holographic principle thus implies that the subdivisions must stop at some level, and that the fundamental particle is a bit (1 or 0) of information

more good brain candy, gotta spend some more time researching this holographic principle and entropy stuff but I'm heading back to string theory for now so I linked back to the string theory but I didn't get past the History section of the page when I saw a picture I recognized of Dr. Ed Witten. I havent really heard about him for awhile but I did remember that he was some math genius ... so I clicked on his link. Started reading about his life; born in 1951 in Baltimore, primarily works in Princeton at the Institute of Advanced Study, his brother works in hollywood. The passage went on to describe how mathematically "endowed" he is and how respected he is by his peers. It mentioned all the progress he's made in mathematics & physics including his proof of the postive energy theorem in general relativity -- ooooh -- dont know what the hell it is but it must be impressive. Then it mentioned M-Theory, this theory just sounds cool ... so it was time to hop links and learn about M-Theory.

In a horribly oversimplified nutshell ... there were 5 complementary theories regarding superstrings [ Type I string, Type IIA string theory, Type IIB string theory, heterotic SO(32) and the heterotic E8×E8]. Some smart guys realized that Type IIA & Type IIB were really just different aspects of the same underlying theory so they got merged. Also, the heterotic SO(32) and the E8xE8 were just different aspects of the same theory so they merged those two. And this left 3 but they also found that Type I theory and the merged SO(32) theories were related so they merged those but in 1995 Mr. Witten pretty much told everybody to sit down and let the master show them that they're ALL RELATED in a theory he dubbed M-Theory. He stated that M-Theory gives rise (at low energies) to eleven-dimensional supergravity and is related to ten-dimensional string theory by dimensional reduction.... dimensional reduction to a circle yields the Type IIA string theory, and dimensional reduction to a line segment yields the heterotic SO(32) string theory.... duh !! -- its so fucking obvious.

Goes on to describe a notion of membranes and how the big bang is just a couple of branes "doing the wild thing" -- these physicists are pervs -- after reading all this stuff on M-Theory I back-linked to Ed Witten's page and the following sentence caught my eye.

Witten has the highest h-index of any living physicist ...

So of course .. I hopped the link to h-index and found out that size really does matter ... (sigh again). Seems that h-index is a measurement used (invented in 2005) to assess how prolific a particluar expert or scientist is in his area of expertise. The definition given is

A scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np – h) papers have fewer than h citations each.

In essence this means that the bigger your h-index is ... the more respect (or most influence) you have amongst your peers in your subject area. And it seems that Mr. Witten is enormously endowed with h-index ... he slaughters everybody on the list. But to my surprise Stephen Hawking wasn't on the top 5 of this list. The top 5 guys for Physics were:

Edward Witten: h = 110 (132 as of December 2005)
Steven Weinberg: h = 88
Dimitri Nanopoulos: h = 86
Cumrun Vafa: h = 85
Nati Seiberg: h = 84

I first hopped to Dimitri Nanopoulus because his last name started with the nano- prefix and one of my best friends in college was Greek .... hey, we all hop links for different reasons, nobody said that they had to be rational reasons...

Dimitri's page spoke about his work on the Grand Unified Theory and then it presented this interesting passage :

Flipped SU(5) is the only successful unification of superstring theory with the Standard Model of particle physics. He is the first to successfully merge quantum mechanics with gravity through his theory of spacetime foam

Spacetime foam? cool beans ... that was enough to pique my interest so I went to check out the Flipped SU(5) page.

WHOA!! -- WTF was that ?!!? This page looked like somebody was on a serious LSD trip -- this cannot possibly be english -- just follow this link and read the description of a superpotential.

So as I cursed my greek buddy's name under my breath as I hopped back a couple of steps to the h-index page and looked up the #2 guy on the list --- Steven Weinberg. Now this page was interesting; first of all this guy just looks pissed off but then it was confirmed when I read this passage - a quote from the honorable Mr. Weinberg.

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

OUCH !!! -- damn ... that hurts .... but the truth usually does :).

This guy may not be a happy camper but his physics credentials are DEEP. He won the Nobel Price for Physics in 1979 for combining the Electromagnetic force with the weak force - merging the two into the electroweak force. He authored "the First Three Minutes". I remember reading that book when I was around 18 years old -- around 1990. It always left an imprint on my psyche, whenever I thought about the big bang, I would always envision the first 3 minutes being this ocean of chaos, an orgy of energy - spreading in all directions -bouncing off the edges and like gas molecules exerting a pressure - it pushed the boundaries of the universe ever larger .... but I digress.

Anyway the Weinberg Wikipedia page had an interesting link to a lecture titled "A Designer Universe" - the name of a talk that Mr. Weinberg gave in 1999. Another link hop --- I read the summary where he speaks about the Anthropic principle and intelligent design of the universe. He sounds pissed off in this lecture too -- but its pretty good.

Well - after I finished the Weinberg lecture I asked myself what the hell was I doing initially before I went on this Deep Link rampage -- and thats when I laughed and realized that I did it again. Went online for a particular reason and ended up reading about a dozen different physics theories and some pissed off scientist (with a HUGE h-index). Till the next Deep Links Session.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

8th Wonder of the World - the Internet

Feeling a little appreciative (must be the 35th birthday) and wanted to blog about it. I've been blessed to be part of the generation that has actively participated in the early childhood and growth of what's easily the 8th wonder of the world - Today's Internet. I was an undergraduate during the years of the Internet's text-based obscurity (I miss u Lynx, Gopher, Usenet & NAILS MUD) andI remember when our network wiz and the IT dept. first put Mosaic on the Unix boxes. - the first popular web browser. For a satellite campus of a major univeristy, we had one of the top networks around... BIG shout out to Stan Kolasa and the computing crew from Rutgers - Camden.

The beauty (and terror) of the internet is that its so humanly chaotic. An infinite landscape of hate, spirituality, love, war, sex, knowledge, ideas, news, crap, text, video, audio, sex, images, crap, pervs, dating, photos, angels, scientists, devils, zealots and yes .... more sex.

The current downside is that the internet is still largely skewed English and western but that should be changing with the growing worldwide Asian clout in India, China and the most wired country in the world - South Korea.

There's going to be a huge influx of fresh material during the next decade.... especially once more disconnected segments of society start ramping up their presence online too including Africa and South America. (Good luck to MIT Media Lab's Negroponte $100 laptop effort and AMD's 50x15 efforts).


The internet has changed so many aspects of my life ... I work exclusively over the internet now (via telecommute), A majority of my communication is via email and instant messenger and I get ALL my news online now (rarely ever watch TV news) ... but suprisingly, my book consumption (and budget) has not decreased even though it would've seemed natural that the internet should've displaced that too .....

So many sites ... so little time ....

Wikipedia - this online encyclopedia can get you on some serious deep linking sessions.
MIT OpenCourseWare - get smart.
YouTube - the old guy rocks but Shakira rules
mySpace - teenagers, old men disguised as teenagers and more teenagers.
SmugMug - SteveM pix - shameless plug but great photos
NYtimes.com - best US online newspaper .
Berkeley Webcasts - get smart (again)
eBay - sell anything... and I mean anything.
Amazon.com & Shopzilla- charrrrrrrrrrrge it!!
idSoftware - I gleefully watched my cousin clutch his throat and give a death cry as I fragged him for years during multiplayer DOOM & QUAKE gaming !!!
slashdot & wired news - geeks, nerds and more geeks.
Limewire - Peer2Peer clients - poor P2P guys always getting sued, they go bankrupt, try to come back and then fade (RIP Napster, Kazaa) ... hopefully Limewire survives.
Yahoo Answers - Even Stephen Hawking was asking questions
healthCubes.com - shameless plug
ScienceDaily.com - just straight up science
Google & Maps - Maps started the Ajax hype
MSN Games - closet bejeweled lover
HubbleSite - Most beautiful pictures in the universe
BoxingTalk.com - boxing rocks
CNN.com, BBC & Al-Jazeera - hey .. one man's truth is another man's bullshit
Facebook.com - the new Frat
Flickr - more photos
PokerStars - so much poker hype these days
CDC.gov - not all government sucks - some of the gov websites are surpisingly resourceful
WHO.org - get the latest on the pandemics that'll doom us all one day
Space.com, SpaceRef.com, JPL - the final frontier ... until we're all cyborgs one day.
ESPN - their real-time GameCast Flash apps are simply amazing
Technorati, Blogger, PodCastBunker, blog.com - Blogs, podcasts and more blogs.
Yahoo Personals & sex.com- Don't act like you never looked - get your love on.
Craigslist - I've used craigslist to find sublet apartments in NYC & San Francisco.
Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu - get your prayer on
CartoonNetwork - kept my niece busy for hours playing their games
Fantasy Art, NYPL Art, Art Museums, Digital Art, CG Art, SciFi Art, Graffiti Art

... but the more obscure sites on the internet is what continuosly boggles my mind ... it's amazing the shit you can find during deep linking sessions on the net but thats for another post ... i'm sleepy.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Geek: Software Architects - More than UML

Just finished reading a nice little article in Dr. Dobbs Portal concerning the roles that many software architects play in today's software development teams and some of the "soft skills" needed when trying to be an effective architect and implementation lead. Serving in this capacity myself for a couple of different clients... I learned many lessons that were outside of the technology realm that were just as important to the success of the project:


Clear Business Vision: Just like any project for any type of effort ... you absolutely need a clear vision from the business side of the house. If the vision from the biz side of the house is unclear .... then you (the architect) along with the project manager need to clarify your own vision that approximates the business' goals and then run with that vision. If the business has no idea on their vision ... then you may want to shift to a more agile or short-cycle development process with frequent builds ... so that the business can get some traction after they see some functionality .... I know ... I know ... GUI is the devil ... I agree ... but sometimes business guys (especially the creative types) need to see GUI before they can articulate their vision. A persisently unclear business vision will doom any software project since mapping any type of metrics, setting goals or generating effective builds will be near impossible and then ur team will start getting frustrated and may start leaving.

Young & Old: If the project is a multi-year effort, then ensure that your team has a diversity of personnel regarding age groups and family situations ... in other words ... make sure you have BOTH young, single team-members along with older married members. At the risk of generalizing .... your young guys/gals are probably going to leave you within 2 years since ur company's salary structure probably can't keep pace with the market conditions. This is when your older, married team-mates (whom are less-likely to leave) can absolutely save a project ... since they maintain the domain expertise in-house and can be effective leaders when ramping up new team members.

Design Teams: The greatest aspect of software/system design (and sometimes it's worst) are the infinite ways a solution/design can be crafted. Software design can be a very creative and artistic process but Time To Market (TTM) should put a reasonable upper bound to any design session(s). If you design in a team (versus individually) ... then you need to keep the design team SMALL but diverse... if not the design sessions can become endless and will ususally result in the "booting" of a member or two in order to close out the design and this can breed contempt. Also, design teams tend to just include the most experienced members of the group ... but frequently include some of the talented young blood in on the design sessions ... you'll be surprised sometimes how effective and important their input can be.

Some Golden Rules:

Pizza & Pespsi: No matter how much status, money or titles a software guy/gal attains ... their "geek nature" will ALWAYS appreciate free Pizza and Pepsi ... and don't be cheap ... you wouldn't believe how much $$$ you save in the long term by just committing to a treat every week (or every other week). Honestly ... this can reinforce the bonds between teammates ... and silently encourage teammates to work harder and longer.

Jumping Ship: Any member of the development team that either doesn't communicate or reduces their communication to you (or other team leaders) will be on his/her way out the door soon ... so either plan for it ... or pre-empt it by shifting duties off the team member or by proactively trying to address the teammate in an informal setting (lunch/dinner) . This observation comes from 10 years of watching and leading teams... believe me folks ... this is not theory ... it's practically a law. If they stop talking ...they're leaving. Also, start looking for visual changes in their cubicles, if they reduce the number of books in the cubicle/office or less clutter then usual is another strong indicator of imminent departure.

Leadership: As an architect and/or implementation lead, you must have effective leadership skills. I truly believe that a software team assumes the personality of their project manager and/or tech lead. The cliche "the speed of the leader is the speed of the crew" is probably most relevant in describing the impact of leadership on software teams. Team leads should exude passion ... passion is contagious but so is a lack thereof. Seriously ... if ur leadership skills suck then you also comprimise your architecture ... because it's the development team that has to implement your designs and if they don't respect you as a leader... then the quality of implementation will reflect that.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Travel: Northern Cal & Wine Country

Travelling north of San Francisco - follow Route #101 to Route #1 exit (near Sausilito). Route #1 North provides a road that hugs the coast and occasionally dips inland, providing a beautifully scenic ride alongside the mountain, ocean and woods - reminicent of the Pacific Coast Highway portion of Rt#1 between LA and San Francisco.

You will soon hit Muir Beach off of Rt#1. Muir Beach is a small town with a small postcard-like beach surrounded by craggy cliffs and deep blue water.
The water is too cold to swim so nearly everyone was just relaxing and playing on the beach (we went in July).

There are trails that lead you to the top of the cliffs providing great overlook views of the beach and surrounding coast. The trails can be a little steep - so having ur beach sandals or being barefoot may be a mistake ... my cousin Jess came with me on this trip and she tired after a 1/5 mile trek up the cliff trail and on the way down she started muscle cramping.

Muir Woods is also a popular tourist destination with one of the greatest redwood forests in the world. We stayed at a Best Western in Petaluma. Big shout out to Bert Melendez who resides here - an artist, comic book author and aspiring script writer - runs great summer camps for kids in Northern California and rocks all the Renaissance Fairs in the region. Petaluma is a nice town right off of Rt. 101 which provides an excellent launching point into the roads of wine country.

We decided to hit Sonoma and Napa valley - Jess kept mentioning how much she enjoyed Mondavi wines so we decided to visit their winery. So we travelled on 29 North toward the town of Oakville. This choice was a home run.


We paid a somewhat pricey $25 per head for the Mondavi tour but by the end of the tour we were blessing this bargain. The tour guide was a straight up pimp - with a smooth voice and flow schooled us extensively on the geography, science and business of wine and wine-making.
The tour started with a history and geography lesson inside a small room followed by a walk outside, alongside the vineyards while he explained the nuances of temperature, grape hang time, grape skin width and how they all influence the "flavor tones" of a wine.


The tour went back inside as our guide explained what happens once the grapes are picked and sent inside where they're crushed by baby midgets in a bucket... seriously !! I was shocked too !! ..... ok ..... ok ..... the grapes are de-stemmed and then squeezed by specialized machinery and placed into special barrels. Wineries use primarily wooden barrels to "age" the wine and are important since they adjust the "flavor tones" significantly and add that "nutty wood" flavor that some wines enjoy. The wines are kept in these barrels until they're ready to be bottled up and sent to alcoholics in NJ (like my cousins Jess and Val).

Last but not least, the tour ended with a great wine tasting. We were given a couple glasses of white and a couple of reds while being schooled on aerating wines and how California wines compare to French wines. We were also provided California rolls (salmon) to help reset our palate between tastings.

Wine country was great.... some more pix.








(click on pix for larger shot)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Travel: San Fran - City of Extremes

San Francisco is a gorgeous city. A series of hills help demarcate little niche neighborhoods - great views can be had from numerous locations in the city and of course the Bay.

This city is surrounded by water, mountains, bridges and great sister towns like Sausilito & Napa/Sonoma to the North and all the towns that dot the path to Silicon Valley to the South.

If you're into bars and music - neighborhoods such as Nob Hill and Russian hill serve up an assortment of establishments.
But the biggest suprise so far has been the number of homeless people that permeate the entire downtown area. In the midst of the high-end retail district, the tourist centers, the commercial sector and the 4 & 5-star hotels are legions of homeless people and drug addicts.

Now don't get me wrong - I from argubly the poorest and most crime-ridden town in America and I dont see the brazen crime and overall craziness that plagues all of America's ghettos.... but I have never known a major city to allow such a density of misery and panhandling to permeate it's commercial center. I will have to guess-timate that San Fran has double to triple the density of homeless and panhandling in it's main district - compared to Philly's Center City or Manhattan's mid-town areas.




Back to the positive - the entire Golden Gate Bridge area is excellent - wind surfers whizz around directly under the bridge like mosquitos. The beach is active with joggers, kids, pets and families. Closer to the base of the bridge, many groups were having beer and BBQ - and everybody is having a good time.

The runners and bikers around here are serious. They're in great shape and they dominate the walkways. As in the touristy areas of NYC, you can hear a slew of different languages being spoken.

On the other side of the bridge you can start up some hiking trails (Bay Area Ridge trails) that lead to other beaches such as Rodeo Beach. The sign stated that Rodeo Beach was a 6.1 mile trek.

I wasn't properly prepared so I only hiked about an hour - but be forewarned - it was mostly uphill and hot for that one hour - so you better have your sun-tan lotion, water and food.



Other places I've visited were Fisherman's Wharf which was a treat - overflowing with seafood restaurants and shops. Presidio is anchored by beautiful displays of nature and architecture.

That's all for now -- Wine Country next week -- if I can get my hands on some cash .... hmmmmm ....... will code for food?




(click on pix for larger view)