A good week

I’m in the middle of packing up before I check out of the hotel and head up 101 to the airport. I thought I’d blog for a moment before putting away my PowerBook. It was a good, productive week here in California. Picking out the highlights, I got my annual performance review out of the way, spent some time with Greg Papadopoulos on my plans for the rest of FY06, visited SeeBeyond in LA, and had the chance to present a status update on my work with StorageTek to Jonathan Schwartz and his staff. One consequence of these meetings is that I’m now putting together plans to visit the UK and India at the end of October.

But now I must unplug my laptop and prepare for another trip on a Song bird….


Visiting SeeBeyond

I’m visiting SeeBeyond in Monrovia, CA* today. SeeBeyond builds enterprise application integration solutions for a wide range of customers using some really cool middleware technology they’ve developed – check out their website for details. They were acquired by Sun last month, and ever since the deal closed I’ve wanted to talk to them. This morning I flew down from San Jose to Burbank** on SouthWest*** and drove down the Foothills Freeway to Monrovia. After introductions, and plugging in to the local network (which is mostly hooked up to SWAN – still some 10.* addresses to worry about), I talked with a group of managers and directors about Sun’s technical grade structures, including the DEs, Fellows, and Technology Directors. Then this afternoon I met with a smaller group of directors to share some of what we’ve been doing at StorageTek and discuss whether any of it could apply to SeeBeyond. I found the exchanges very useful: I think we’re off to a good start.

As with StorageTek, it’s important to avoid the “I’m from the Government; I’m here to help” attitude. The last thing a bunch of engineering managers who are under schedule pressure want to hear is a lecture on the value of horizontal communications or an admonition to send off all their top people for ARC duty. The goal is to learn from each other while keeping the customer satisfiednot a mindless Borg-like assimilation.

* Yes, I was confused by the name too – Monrovia sounds like it belongs in Transylvania, not West Africa. However this Monrovia is a suburb of Los Angeles.
** Of course I’m of that generation that automatically prepends Beautiful downtown whenever I hear Burbank. The curse of pop culture….
*** First time on SouthWest for at least ten years. Of course I’d planned to fly jetBlue, but our functionally challenged travel agents couldn’t figure out how to book it….


Jaron Lanier on the structural gotcha for American business

Scanning the HuffPo RSS feeds, I spotted this insightful piece by Jaron Lanier: “I am writing this on a United Airlines flight over the Atlantic. The flight is tense. We had a mechanical delay and United has been having trouble re-routing customers who will miss connections, apparently because it is now understaffed. The major airlines of the richest country in history tend to be bankrupt, and somehow or other that is considered normal.”

That much is familiar. But the analysis is slightly different from what you’d find in the WSJ:

American corporations are increasingly functioning like fashion models. Youth matters most…. The main problem for old companies is that if you’ve had a workforce for a long time, the health care and pension bills pile up…. From them… I always hear complaints about a walloping big “Tax-like expense” they have to pay for health care and pensions, a tax that foreign competitors are excused from…. [C]ompanies facing the Tax that dare not speak its name have a harder time thinking in the long term. Toyota would probably not have been able to fund the development of the Prius if it faced the Tax at home in Japan.

Is this what an America in decline will look like? When Google has been around long enough to have a middle aged staff instead of a gorgeous crowd of healthy young people, will investors dump it for a new Googalike that can hire kids again to get out from under health care and pension costs?

The thing that I’ve always found amazing is that universal health care in the U.S.A. is solidly opposed by the right-wing corporate establishment, even though these are the people who could benefit most from it in the long term through the business efficiencies and flexibility that it would create. But I guess ideology is more powerful than rational self-interest.


Three new travel experiences

I flew out from Boston to San Francisco yesterday evening for a week of meetings. Travel has become pretty routine of late, so I’m glad to have three new experiences to relate.

First, I flew out of the new Terminal A at Boston Logan. This replaced the old Eastern Airlines terminal, which was used by Continental after Eastern’s demise. The new terminal is for the exclusive use of Delta. They only just finished this, and I was curious to see what it was like. Bright, cheery, nicely laid out… and relatively empty. Oops. And the newness extended to some of the facilities: for example, the Fuddrucker’s hamburger place was advertising beer and margaritas, but they haven’t got their liquor license yet. Overall it reminded me of some European terminals, and the density of upscale shopping outlets was reminiscent of Heathrow.

Second, I got puffed. That is to say, at the security checkpoint I was selected to go through one of the new devices that subjects you and your clothing to an intense puff of air, directed upwards to dislodge any particles in your garments or hair; the system then “sniffs” the air for any suspicious chemicals. The process takes about 10 seconds. High “geek interest” factor.

And third, and the reason I was using terminal A, was that I was flying on Song for the first time. This is Delta’s “airline within an airline”, a bit like United’s Ted. One type of aircraft (757-200), one class, and relentless fun. (Yes, they will mix martinis for you in flight – $7 each.) The competition is clearly jetBlue, but the style borrows from Virgin Atlantic. The seats are OK – leather (not necessarily a plus), limited lumbar support, decent pitch. The seat-back video is good, and includes the kind of flight map that you usually find on international flights.

As for the flight: the cabin crew issued dire warnings over the PA about it being a full flight, but there were only 155 seats filled (according to the display outside the gate), and I had the 27 D-E-F row all to myself. We pushed back 30 minutes late because of a minor maintenance issue. The flight was very bumpy: the pilot kept changing altitude between FL320 and FL360 trying to find smooth air. Nonetheless I was able to get plenty of sleep. The verdict: recommended; a good (and frugal) way to deal with the “bus ride” between BOS and SFO.


CD of the… oh, never mind: Tales from Turnpike House by Saint Etienne

turnpikehouse.jpgBack in the early 1990s I was a huge fan of Saint Etienne. Their first two albums Foxbase Alpha and So Tough showed up regularly in my car cassette player; songs like “You’re in a bad way” and “Kiss and make up” had an infectious appeal. (And of course there was their wonderful version of Neil Young’s “Only love can break your heart”.) There were four main influences – Style Council’s jazzy cool pop, Brian Wilson’s songwriting, 1960’s Brit-girl pop such as that of Sandy Shaw and Cilla Black, and South London – woven together by Wiggs’ effortless electronica and Sarah Cracknell’s girl-next-door voice. (Their work remixed really well – check out Casino Classics, with remixes by all the big names of the late 90s.)

I bought almost all of their work (I was a completist – remember?), including the highs (He’s on the phone) and the lows (Good Humor), until a few years ago when I thought that they’d lost their way. Now comes Tales from Turnpike House, a lovely concept album about suburban London that makes me want to jump on a plane to Heathrow Gatwick. Gorgeous songs, from the very first tracks “Sun in my morning” and “Milk bottle symphony”. And then track 11, the outstanding “Teenage winter”, which is possibly the best thing they’ve ever done. (See this Stylus review for more thoughts on this.)

(N.b. For some reason, this hasn’t been released in the US; my copy is an imported “Special Edition” from the UK that I found at Tower Records. I’ve been enjoying the album itself so much that I haven’t even had a chance to listen to the bonus disc, Up the Wooden Hill.)


As cool as one can be… in the circumstances

I always like to think that when I meet someone famous, I can bottle up my enthusiasm, and act cool, calm, collected, and adult. But looking back on each occasion, I have to confess that I’ve failed. Check out this piece by Maralily about her magical airport encounter with Teller (complete with photo). The refreshing honesty is, well, refreshing.

(Via Susan.)


Web to text to speech to CD to my mother

My mother is blind. This is a source of great frustration to her, because despite her age and her disability, her mind is as sharp and energetic as ever. She listens to the radio, and books on tape/CD, and subscribes to various audio journals; however, in many cases the only feasible approach is to ask someone to read to her. This is time-consuming and frequently inconvenient, and because she feels it to be an imposition my mother often decides not to ask.

Today we were talking on the phone, and she mentioned that she’d been listening to a piece from the New York Review of Books by Thomas Powers in which he reviewed four books about J. Robert Oppenheimer. Someone (my brother, I think) was reading it to her, but it’s a long piece, so he was doing it in several sessions.

After I got off the phone, I decided that there had to be a better way. First I bought a copy of iSpeak It and installed it on my PowerBook. I gave it the URL to the Thomas Powers article, waited while it downloaded the piece, edited the text a bit to clean up extraneous navigation links and so forth, and instructed iSpeak It to transfer it to iTunes. A few minutes later I had a 55 minute AAC track in my iTunes library containing the article in OS X’s Bruce voice. The quality is not wonderful, but it’s quite recognizable. I burned a CD-R, and tomorrow I’ll mail it to her in England.

It’s no great chore to do this for my mother once or twice a month, but I wish there were a more straightforward solution. Of course I could set her up with a DSL connection, buy her a Mac mini, and set up a few Automator scripts for her, but I’ve tried similar approaches in the past without success. What I want is a big USB-connected control unit with a dozen big keys with glyphs that can easily be recognized by feel, and yellow on black for maximum contrast….


No names, no pack-drill

[Company policy, and contractual obligations, mean that I have to conceal a few details. Never mind – the message will be clear.]

I’ve always thought that, next to banking, the most mature kind of applications software was in airline ticketing. Like many of you, I’ve visited airline websites and seen the fare for a particular flight change from minute to minute , often quite dramatically. I’ve read about the principles of “yield management”, and the anecdotes of how one passenger winds up paying a thousand dollars more than another in the same class on the same flight. And I’ve seen the commercials for the various companies that promise to find you the cheapest flights, hotels, cars, and so forth. Clearly there’s some powerful software at work here: indeed were it not for the fact that “Artificial Intelligence” has come to mean “that which we don’t know how to do yet”, this would seem to qualify.

And yet…

Hard on the heels of my recent trip to Colorado, I now have to visit California for a week. I prepared a budgetary estimate, filled out a travel request, received an authorization number, and sat down to book the travel. (Those of you still living in the 1980’s might imagine that my admin or secretary would do this. You can go back to sleep now.) Like most large companies, Sun has contracted with a Large Travel Service Company That Cannot Be Named so that employees can book their own travel through an exquisitely-customized on-line portal.

I logged in, and selected the page for travel planning. (Jakob Nielsen would love this page; it violates almost all of his design guidelines.) I entered the dates of my outbound and return travel, as well as the origin and destination airports. The system offers two ways of planning air travel: choosing each flight individually, or configuring complete round-trip itineraries. I knew that whatever I did the system would follow up by attempting to find a cheaper alternative, so I asked for complete itineraries, sorted by price.

After thinking about it for nearly a minute, the system offered me several choices. Oddly, the cheapest of these wasn’t a particularly good fit with my chosen travel times, and it was several hundred dollars more than what I’ve paid for my last few trips from BOS to SFO. (This also meant that it was well above the budgetary estimate that I’d provided. Oops.) I backtracked to the flight search page, and tried searching for individual flights. I found a pair of flights that looked like the cheapest (though you can’t tell for sure until you’ve chosen), and was $50 less than I’d budgeted. Bingo! But wait! “Your choice violates policy: a cheaper alternative was not chosen.” But the [expletive deleted] system refused to tell me what the cheaper alternative might be!!. After trying several times to guess what might make it happy (without once finding a cheaper combination), I chose an override option and completed my itinerary. I’m not going to go into the “Fatal resource error” during my hotel search; let’s just say that the whole procedure took me nearly an hour, including substantial duplicate data entry.

So to my divisional controller: if I spent a couple of dollars more than I should on the flight, I’m sorry. I’d love to know how I could have done better, though if you factor in the cost of my time…. And to the Large Travel Service Company That Cannot Be Named: evolve or die. Outsourcing complexity to patients and providers may be an odious but winning strategy for managed care companies, but a travel agent can be replaced in a mouse-click. As for whether this violates any blogging policy, I can’t imagine that it does. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this kind of thing affects every large company. As Jonathan has discussed in his blog, the best measure of quality is the customer recommendation index. It’s worth remembering that this applies to our suppliers as well.

And as for the trip itself, I’m going to be travelling on an airline that I’ve never used before! But that’s the subject of another blog entry. Now, has anyone got any cheap A.I. software that they want to unload?


A profound sense of loss

Herewith the nostalgic observations of my colleague Robin Wilton on listening to Bill Clinton on the BBC: “This morning I heard a snippet of an interview with Bill Clinton; he was lucid, intelligent and persuasive. Some of his sentences had several linked clauses. He used words like ‘profound’, ‘disproportionately’ and ‘dislocation’, and used them correctly. He coherently related the grim after-effects of Hurricane Katrina to the global geo-political issues of the day.”

(I also listened to Clinton: it was an excellent interview. I strongly recommend that you check out the streaming audio/video version.)

During the last presidential election campaign, there was at least one documentary that presented film clips of Bush campaigning for his father and giving coherent speeches which demonstrated a modicum of rhetorical skill. It was suggested that the folksy, semi-dyslexic style that he adopted as Governor of Texas and subsequently was therefore likely to be a mere facade, an act to appeal to voters distrustful of “smart-aleck politicians”. The implication was that Bush was smarter than he sounded.

But Bush isn’t running for anything now, and even members of his own party are turning on him. If he were capable of giving a speech of the calibre of Clinton, now would be a good time to do it. Maybe it’s alcohol, maybe psychoactive medication, or even too many diet sodas. Whatever the reason, the conclusion is inescapable that today Bush is, quite simply, what he appears: a venal, cunning, opportunistic, but ultimately rather stupid man, incapable of reasoning from B to C, let alone describing A, B and C in well-turned sentences.

And I really miss Clinton. He had his faults, but they didn’t include stupidity and incompetence. Competence would be nice right now.


Status update

Sitting in a crowded 757 on the taxiway at DEN, with a screaming baby behind me, and a 90 minute ground stop before we can take off for Boston. And to cap it all, the captain refuses to turn on Channel 9. At least I can use my Treo to rearrange things by phone and email… and blog. Sigh.