"Content is something you can run an ad alongside of"

Nice piece by Nora Ephron (And By the Way, the World Is Not Flat) on The History Of Stupid Thinking About The Internet. Bottom line:

Which brings me to this conference on the Internet I attended last week, where it will not surprise you to hear that it was suddenly clear that there were billions of dollars to be made in the Internet from advertising. This is the new conventional wisdom: there’s a lot of advertising money out there, and all you have to do is provide content so that the ads have something to run alongside of. It crossed my mind that the actual definition of “content” for an Internet company was “something you can run an ad alongside of.” I found this a depressing insight, even though my conviction that all conventional wisdom about the Internet turns out to be untrue rescued me somewhat from a slough of despond on the subject.

Great Hackers

Check out this essay by Paul Graham. Sample:

It’s pretty easy to say what kinds of problems are not interesting: those where instead of solving a few big, clear, problems, you have to solve a lot of nasty little ones. One of the worst kinds of projects is writing an interface to a piece of software that’s full of bugs. Another is when you have to customize something for an individual client’s complex and ill-defined needs. To hackers these kinds of projects are the death of a thousand cuts.
The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don’t learn anything from them. Writing a compiler is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is. But writing an interface to a buggy piece of software doesn’t teach you anything, because the bugs are random. So it’s not just fastidiousness that makes good hackers avoid nasty little problems. It’s more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers.

Another argument for open source

This is strangely reminiscent of the arguments about Microsoft’s EULA, isn’t it?

Britain threatened the United States yesterday that it will cancel its £12 billion order for the new Joint Strike Fighter unless America agrees to give the Armed Forces full access to the warplane’s critical computer codes.
Without full access to computer software, the next-generation aircraft would effectively remain under the control of the Americans and could be “switched off” without warning.

Hybrid media

What do you get when you cross a newspaper with a bunch of blogs? The answer from the Grauniad* is Comment is free. Promising.

* The name bestowed upon the Guardian by Private Eye, in recognition of a long tradition of spectacular misprints.

Cleared out

I spent today at Sun, tidying up loose ends. I returned my library book 😉 , packed up my books, and shifted large quantities of paper to the Secure recycling box. (I’d kept a paper copy of ever performance review I’d received or written for the last 10+ years, along with tons of specs, proposals, project plans, etc.) I removed my pictures from the wall (nicely framed reproductions, hung in defiance of corporate standards), and sorted out which bits of stuff were mine and which were Sun’s. (The Apple keyboard was Sun’s, but the Mighty Mouse is mine.)
When I was done, I joined the rest of the SunLabs gang for lunch. Then I toured the building, saying goodbye. None of the conversations were short, and along with hugs (and a few tears) I received tons of useful ideas and advice. One thing really struck me. Although it’s been many years since I last left a job, I can remember how we would all express our intentions to stay in touch, and how 99% of such professions turned out to be worthless. But today, in the era of blogs and email, I think it may be easier. I’ve bookmarked RSS feeds from the blogs of many friends, and whenever I see a posting from them it reminds me that a quick email is only a click away. I hope all my friends at Sun will take the hint; I will certainly continue to watch what goes by on b.s.c and PlanetSun.
And then I rolled the cart with my boxes out to my car, loaded it, and left. (Thanks, Steve.)

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I’ve received so many emails and blog comments about my departure from Sun that I decided to put together a little FAQ on the subject. Obviously these are my opinions; I don’t speak for Sun 🙂

  • Q. Why the RIF?
    That’s easy: Sun wasn’t achieving the profitability that was expected. The Q2FY06 numbers were significantly below what we’d all hoped for, and it was clear that something had to be done in order to establish an upward trend through the rest of the fiscal year.
    As to why the numbers weren’t what was needed, that’s a different matter. I can think of various contributing factors, but I don’t have an overall answer.
  • Q. OK, but why you?
    I’m not sure. There are several possible explanations. It could be that Greg Papadopoulos (Sun’s CTO) is simply getting out of the business of cross-company processs work. Perhaps everyone not associated with a strategic revenue-related product, program or customer is at risk. Or perhaps I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I happened to be reporting in to a department whose project was being scrapped, even though I wasn’t actually involved with it. It’s hard to tell, especially because I don’t know….
  • Q. Who else is getting laid off?
    I don’t have the big picture yet; neither the size nor the shape. Some of it, I suspect, is due to duplication of function or project between Sun and the companies we recently bought. Speaking as a shareholder, I hope that the management will be taking advantage of the situation to re-balance certain aspects of Sun’s operations that had drifted out of sync. (Yes, that’s maddeningly vague, but I’d prefer to see if I’m right before I explain further!) We’ll see.
  • Q. Did this come as a surprise, or did you know what was going to happen?
    Obviously I knew that a sizeable RIF was likely after the Q2 numbers were released, and a couple of weeks ago I got some indications of the projects that were at risk. But because my recent work was sui generis, I didn’t know whether or not my job was on the line. And since I couldn’t do anything about it, I chose not to worry about it.
  • Q. How are you feeling? This must be awful, after so many years.
    Thanks for the thought, but I’m actually doing just fine. In this business, in this economy, working for one company for so long feels… well, anomalous. And I must say that occasionally I wondered if I’d become “institutionalized”: did I have a sufficiently broad perspective, was I too focussed on Sun’s internal issues? Well, now I get to find out. I’m approaching this as a fascinating new adventure, and I’m pretty excited.
  • Q. So what are you going to do next?
    Not rush into anything! I’ve got a decent severance package (one benefit of 20+ years at Sun), and I want to take the time to explore the possibilities. I could get a conventional job, or do some consulting, or kick off a start-up. I want to talk to a lot of people, learn about life outside Sun, and then choose and act, deliberately. However I don’t plan to take much of a break. I don’t play golf, and I’m not going to emulate some people I know who regard this kind of situation as an opportunity to lower their handicap. When an adventure beckons, why dawdle?
  • Q. How about returning to Sun?
    Quite a few people do this, and I’ve talked to some of them. Sun certainly encourages returnees. But it’s just one option, and I’m not counting on it. (No backward glances, but no bridges burnt….)
  • Q. So how about doing lunch some time?
    Sure! Let me check my calendar.
  • Q. Blogging is very much a Sun thing. Are you going to keep on blogging?
    Absolutely! I was blogging before Sun got the bug (though not as long as people like Tim or Alec), and I plan to continue unabated. And that reminds me: if you normally read this blog through one of the Sun aggregators, please grab a direct feed before PlanetSun or b.s.c drops it. Thanks.
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On the virtues of atheism

Excellent op-ed piece in today’s NYT by Slavoj Zizek entitled Defenders of the Faith. His thesis is that for Muslims living in the west, the freedom to practice their beliefs comes from liberal, secular values. Money quote:

More than a century ago, in “The Brothers Karamazov” and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher Andre Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky’s critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, “Dostoyevsky in Manhattan,” suggests.
This argument couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted – at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations.

Exactly. This runs straight into what’s called The Divine Command Theory of morality. But as Zizek argues, Hume got it right:

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God’s will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God’s favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God’s existence.

And as he concludes,

The paradox is that Muslims’ only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.