China’s Big Data Play

Big Data: Transforming the Design Philosophy of the Future Internet,”
Hao Yin, Yong Jiang, Chuong Lin, Yan Luo, and Yunjie Liu, 
IEEE Network,
July/August 2014 pp 14-19

For proof of how the tendrils of Chinese policy reach into science, five Chinese engineers offer their view of the current design of China’s Internet in this paper from IEEE Network. Most of the discussion is highly technical in nature, but one issue that cropped up is the paper’s complaint how “vendor lock-in” has made the current cost structure of the Internet far too high to be sustainable – a complaint that is surprising given the pervasiveness of the Internet in China, and how hardware and networking costs have been plunging for two decades.

There is more than a bit of politics in this. The study was co-funded by the Chinese government via the Ministry of Science and Technology’s National Basic Research Foundation of China, also known as Project 973 (because of its creation in March 1997), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (directly administered by the State Council), and Intel Corporation. The complaint about “vendor lock-in” is clearly aimed as a broadside against Intel, though in consideration of its role in the study, the authors clearly felt it impolitic to name names.

There is likely much more in the way of technical nationalism to be found in this paper, but this example is sufficient to underscore how China is content to infuse (i.e., taint) scientific research with politics and posturing. That the paper was accepted for publication by the IEEE should not exonerate the authors for their posturing, however well-couched.

If China doesn’t like paying Intel prices only to see the cash flow overseas, Intel’s substantial local investments notwithstanding, that is the right of the nation’s leaders. Injecting what appears to be a political snipe into a scientific paper, however, gives comfort to those who would discount legitimate Chinese research for fear of political considerations that would turn the science into junk.

The Tao of Bill, the Te of Dave

Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built The World’s Greatest Company
by Michael S. Malone
Portfolio, 438pp

Cognizant that saying this may well sound ungracious, if not heretical, the recent well-deserved paeans to Steve Jobs tactfully omit the fact that in all he accomplished, he stood on the shoulders of giants. This is not to belittle what he accomplished. He created one industry, disrupted several others, created products that inspired the fierce loyalty of millions of consumers (myself included), and set in motion careers, companies, and trends that will define the foreseeable future. But Steve Jobs did not spontaneously self-generate. Everything he became, everything he accomplished, he was able to do because other men and women had passed that way before. The Apple II, the Macintosh, NEXT, Pixar, OS X, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and iTunes were his products.

But Jobs himself was the product of Silicon Valley: the place, the ecosystem, and the attitudes that combined to give this powerful, unique, and ultimately fragile wizard the place to create electronic magic.

As supporting evidence for my heresy I offer Michael Malone’s engaging biography of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company. It is hard for most of us to recall the days when HP was the glowing heart of Silicon Valley, especially as the latest in a long string of outsiders attempts to save the company from the consequences of misguided leadership. But in telling the story of the two proto-geeks-cum-billionaires, Malone reminds us why Hewlett and Packard deserve to stand above the Silicon Valley milieu as both icons and role models.

To be sure, the environs south of San Francisco have been engineering hotbeds since just after Governor and Mrs. Leland Stanford turned their Palo Alto farm into a college. Stanford Professor Fred Terman and entrepreneurs like Charlie Litton and Ed Varian were the early shoots of the Valley’s transmogrification into the global capital of electronic engineering. But Malone’s narrative suggests that the Valley’s destiny was no given: the region was such a backwater when Bill and Dave graduated from Stanford in the mid ’30s that there was no company in the region capable of hiring either of the talented young engineers: Packard went to work for GE in its test lab Schenectady, New York, and Hewlett, a year behind, stayed in Stanford to work with his mentor Terman. The only way for the two men to get a job that suited them was to start a company. But when they did, right on the eve of World War II, established an enterprise that brought to the region and to the industry an ethos that mixed engineering talent, opportunistic flexibility, and Depression-tempered business sense. That ethos, suggests Malone, was the fertilizer that allowed Silicon Valley as we know it to take root.

After a time as a freelance electrical engineering firm, the two men produced their 1st unique product: an audio oscillator, a product that seems prosaic now but at the time was a revelation: the men had figured out a way to use an overlooked principle of electronics to create a device that cost a tenth of the competition’s product, and was easier to use to boot. The result, the Hewlett-Packard 200A Audio Oscillator, not only set the company on its path, it also set the mold for the way the company would do business for the next five decades: tinker, innovate, disrupt, reap, repeat. In the process, Hewlett and Packard established a legacy that the young Turks of the PC revolution could only envy.

For those younger entrepreneurs…many had already failed at least once. And all of that combined to make their respect for Hewlett and Packard ever greater. Those two guys, they realized, had not only already negotiated every step of the career path they intended to follow, often doing so first, but they had done so with breathtaking grace…Even in the virulently competitive world of high technology, even as people measured their own careers against those of Hewlett and Packard, many privately admitted that matching Bill and Dave was beyond their reach. No amount of revenue or percentage of market share would ever match a company that had invented a dozen entirely new industries; no amount of laudatory BusinessWeek cover stories would ever match a company whose employees set historic records for loyalty and commitment’ and no number of trips to Washington would ever equal having a medal for quality named after you.

What is more, Hewlett and Packard had created a series of business innovations that altered forever the world of work. Flex-time, coffee breaks, casual Fridays, beer and pizza busts, open plan offices, profit-sharing, flattened organizational charts, managing-by-walking-around, and the open-door policy are but a few of the practices that HP’s founders created, championed, or popularized. Then they crafted all of these into a form of enlightened management that reinvented work for much of the developed world, and turned conventional labor-management relations on its ear.

Malone began his career as a public relations guy for Hewlett-Packard, which is perhaps why he treads lightly on the shortcomings of HP’s founders. He skims past allegations of Packard’s marital infidelities, soft-pedals HP’s defense work, and lamely excuses HP’s failure to start the personal computer revolution by suggesting that the company was “just too busy” when Steve Wozniak presented his Apple I computer to HP management. These and other tells leave Malone open to accusations of hagiography.

One could argue in Malone’s defense that his treatment of Hewlett and Packard is far less breathless than the fawning prose that too often passes for business journalism. In an age when men of commerce with far less impressive legacies than HP’s founders are lionized and deified by the business-as-a-spectator-sport crowd, Malone’s tribute to his idols is perhaps a measured effort to restore some perspective.

Which brings us back to Mr. Jobs.

A friend and I were lunching in these willow-shaded precincts last week, shivering slightly as the Beijing fall worked its way into our bones. The topic turned to Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple CEO, and my friend asked if I would be reading it. “No,” I replied, “but not because I’m not interested.”

For an aspiring historian, Isaacson’s study has come out a decade or more too soon. I was a teenager when Apple was born, and I grew up watching Steve Jobs, so I don’t need a rehash of his remarkable life or career. What I want to know is whether history will treat him like a Morgan, Edison, Westinghouse, Pullman, Ford, or Watson; or whether, perhaps, he was a transitional figure setting the stage for someone or something even greater.

As for me I believe the former. But as Bill & Dave illustrates, our importance to history, to the bigger picture, is not always what we think it is at the time.

Why is the Navy Shifting to Open Architecture?

I try to avoid reviewing esoteric information technology publications here. I am not an engineer, so I think reviews of such works would be better left to those who are.

There are occasional exceptions, however, and one of them is Finding Services for an Open Architecture. Originally written to help the U.S. Navy in its exploration of a service-oriented open architecture, the work provides non-military IT experts, administrators, and executives with a fascinating and incredibly thorough case study.

If you run or manage IT systems, this short work is worth a read.

Where Warships Come From

US Navy 080918-N-8273J-153 The Military Sealif...

Image via Wikipedia

For nearly as long as man has been trying to master the element of water, he has been waging war from platforms floating precariously on its surface. For much of the history of naval warfare, victory was decided by a combination of heavy firepower and the maneuvering to put broadsides of hot steel onto target.

The past century has been something of an anomaly. With the end of the transition from wind to steam as the locomotive force for naval vessels, technology began to grow in importance as a decisive factor in naval success. World War II in particular saw technology play a decisive role in the ultimate outcome. Radar, sonar, and forward-launched depth-charges helped win the Battle of the Atlantic. American inferiority in torpedos led to some serious losses and untold missed opportunities at the beginning of the war against Japan, solved only when fuses and guidance systems were improved: the U.S. Navy overcame a similar deficit in aircraft performance versus its Japanese counterparts. And superior ship design helped win the Battle of Midway and every amphibious landing after 1942.

Little wonder, then, that the Navy puts its smartest thinkers into the business of thinking about technology and, specifically, ship design. We now live in the age of stealth, missiles, terrorist attacks, and what has become to be called green-water or littoral warfare, not to mention the growing need for energy efficiency, lower staffing levels, and environmental friendliness in construction, operation, and decommissioning. The complex demands placed on today’s ships have driven up the costs faster than they have raised operational effectiveness. This means that the science of naval ship design is more exact than ever.

In Naval Engineering in the 21st Century: The Science and Technology Foundation for Future Naval Fleets, the National Science Foundation looks into whether the US actually has the capabilities to design such ships, and describes what will be necessary in order for the US to just be able to forge the navy it will need in the coming decades.

Whether the nation is ready, willing, or able to do so is another matter, but this is an area the report probes tangentially. Great design need not be expensive, but it requires superior work in advance to ensure the nation buys an excellent navy on the cheap. Given the sea service’s consistent failure in this regard over the past two decades, this book is certain to be a seminal work in determining the future of American sea power.

Sustaining Key Skills in the UK Military Aircraft Industry

The Ministry of Defense of the United Kingdom commissioned the RAND Corporation in California to help Her Majesty’s Government figure out how, in the face of the growing dominance of US and European aerospace manufacturers, Britain can retain the human infrastructure for a healthy military aircraft industry. This short but pointed book outlines a solution.

This concern is not limited to the UK. British designers have played an important role in the creation of generations of highly successful military fixed-wing aircraft, and the loss of this capability would be a grievous loss to the industry as a whole.

Indeed, what fascinated me most about this book is that worries about “skills retention” in the face of long-cycle industry downsizing extends to a series of industries in the US, Japan, and elsewhere. As this AP article notes:

Centerline Machining & Grinding in Hobart, Wis., which makes custom parts for manufacturers in the paper industry, plans to add to its staff of 26. But it’s struggling to find the skilled tradesmen it needs for jobs paying $18 to $25 an hour.

CEO Sara Dietzen laments that local vocational schools cut back training courses in recent years, having concluded that the future for manufacturing was dim. Not from her view it isn’t. For her company, output is all about speed.

Applying that background, this is a fascinating read, and far more relevant than its limited title suggests.

Fire in the Valley

IBM Portable Personal Computer :: Retrocomputi...

Image by br1dotcom via Flickr

Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, by Paul Frieberger and Michael Swaine

Picking up this classic 25 years after the fact is a worthy reminder of how the PC industry developed. More important, what keeps this work relevant is how it hints at the current ossification of the industry, suggesting that even in the days when the business was driven by the excitement of almost constant innovation, hubris was never far from the surface.

The question that plagues the reader as you plow through the book is whether innovation has died in the PC business because there is nothing left to innovate, or whether business and creeping conservatism has killed the innovation.

Love or hate Apple, it has shaken free the bonds of care and liberated itself to take billion dollar bets on disrupting industries. Yes, vision is important. But having the testicular fortitude to act on your vision is what separates the leaders from the followers.

Reading Fire in the Valley, one is thus struck by how the companies in the industry need to regrow their cojones.

Science and Technology Strategies of Six Countries: Implications for the United States

This book is the result of a request by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to the National Research Council (NRC) for a review and analysis of the science and technology industrial policies of six countries, in an effort to understand what impact those policies would have on U.S. national security and competitiveness in the coming two decades. The review covers Brazil, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, and, of course, China.

The book not only provides a fascinating overview of the science and technology strategies of the countries involved, it is also an interesting look into how the U.S. academy views U.S. science and technology strategy. Of especial interest (apart from the chapter on China, of course) are the final two chapters, covering the implications and recommendations.