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Entrepreneur, executive, and investor; octo-dad; former Googler, now VP Product at Segment.com

Posts from the Life Category

The Nexus Q

When it was announced at this year’s Google I/O, the Nexus Q team took pride in the fact that people upon first observation generally had no idea what to make of the device. After playing with it myself for a couple of days, I’m not sure what to make of it either.

It all started well-enough, as I attested to in my recent tweet:

Really impressed by seamless Nexus Q setup and integration with Jelly Bean. Not happy. Life was simpler when iOS was clearly better. 😉

Big bonus points to Q for simplifying the typically tedious wireless network setup process (it uses Bluetooth to send your wireless network config and just requires you to re-enter your password via your Android mobile device). A clear win over Apple TV–and any other consumer device with a remote control I’ve used up to now.

But all that’s mitigated by the physical setup process. Now I have this weird ball–with cables that prominently protrude from its back-side–on top of my entertainment cabinet. The Q team gleefully bragged about their breakaway from boring boxy shapes, but where am I going to put the thing? Sorry, not in the middle of my living room. Whether intended or not, thanks to those cables, it’s going in my entertainment center, like all other devices of its class. Except, unlike the others, it doesn’t fit well, thanks to the awkward aforementioned shape. Hmm.

It turns out avoiding streaming from the phone is a great strategy for streaming from the cloud. So nice to tap the Nexus Q playback button strewn throughout Jelly Bean and have the device quickly start streaming music, YouTube movies, and so forth. Makes iOS seem positively backwards for streaming from the Internet to the iOS device and then from the device to the Apple TV for the same use cases; surely Apple will put in a fix in a subsequent version that identifies when a command to the Apple TV should be sent instead of a media stream.

But the Q’s strategy falls flat on its face since it’s the only strategy employed. I went to stream music from the Pandora Android app to the Q, but of course, that’s not going to work. Oof. And Q doesn’t have any support for my media: my photos, my videos on the phone, etc.? Ugh.

Q plays a standard, circa 2000 WinAmp-esque visualizer when music is playing. My kids find this so incredibly cool. I was a little shocked. I’d sort of forgotten about visualizers. Now, seeing how gleefully they dance and stare at the TV, I wish I had them in the Apple TV.

But streaming video doesn’t seem to work all that well on the Q. I streamed a 45 minute TV show on my Apple TV, using my Samsung receiver’s Vudu app, and using the Nexus Q. Only the Q had any trouble doing it at full HD. And what trouble it had! Eight “loading” pauses–one of which was really long–during the first five minutes of the show. I switched from the Q to just streaming it on the Nexus 7 tablet; after one such pause, it played back without further interruption. It was just the Q that struggled. What a bummer.

The hardware mute switch (i.e., pushing the ball) works great! Love having that. So much better than fishing for a remote to pause the music on the Apple TV.

And then there was my wife’s reaction when I explained to her we couldn’t play back any of our iTunes music on the Q: “What? Oh, that sucks.” It really does suck to have digital media so stove-piped into all of these different proprietary networks. Google is so late to the game here; how many of us are going to start mixing our media across Apple and Google? I don’t think I will–despite Google bribing me with $25 to give them my credit card. I wonder if that’s for bragging rights as much as a bet that I’ll spend >$25 buying media.

So what to make of the Q? Like so many others, I’m left scratching my head. High-production values have gone into this thing (with the exception of the UI in the Q’s Android-based setup app), but it’s not competitive with the Apple TV and it’s triple the price. The software can be upgraded, of course, so it’s hard to get too worked up over the software-specific issues–but then there’s the question of the hardware.

Am I really going to buy a few of these at $300 a pop and distribute them throughout my house? No, I’m going to just have one hooked up to my TV. And if I do that, why include an amp? I’m just going to run it through my receiver. The built-in amp just seems so weird to me. Is it an attempt to justify the big price? Or does Google really think they’re tapping into a big market opportunity?

And then there’s the question of Google TV vs. the Nexus Q. Are they expecting us to buy two TV-connected devices? Or use Google TV for your TV and the Q is just for music throughout the house? At $300 without speakers? Back in iOS-land, I balk at the thought of spending $300 for nice AirPlay speakers. At least with AirPort Express units throughout your house for streaming music everywhere, you get crazy-good Wifi coverage as a bonus and plenty of places to tether USB devices, too. Good luck with this strategy, Google.

I’m just so confused on so many counts.

But one thing is very clear: after initial concerns about where to put the thing, I’ve decided that it’s fun to have an exotic, alien-esque orb glowing under my TV.

Post updated on 7/1 with a note about Pandora streaming and other minor changes intended to clarify various points.

I admire Steve Jobs. I’ve been aware of him for most of my life, having grown up near “The Valley” and played with computers from my youngest years. However, I wasn’t particularly interested in Jobs until about when most of society became interested in him. In recent years, I harbored a secret desire to work for him at some point in my career. Obviously, that will remain an unfulfilled wish.

So I came to this book with quite a bit of existing knowledge of Jobs. As many have observed, if you’ve already read a few books on Apple or Jobs, you will heard much of the material in the book. That, coupled with the fact that Isaacson seems to have designed the chapters to stand alone and thus repeated himself a large number of times, led to the general feeling that the book was less about learning about Jobs and more about celebrating his life by reviewing what I and any Jobs fan has heard time and time again.

Still, the new insights (and to be fair, there were many) are worth the price of admission. I also enjoyed the strong editorial voice of Mr. Isaacson, casting Objective-Voice-of-God judgment throughout the book. Maybe it’s because I studied history in college, but I’m comfortable with biographers taking a point of view, especially when they’ve cut their teeth so thoroughly as this one has.

The book ends with an essay by Jobs himself, recounting the lessons of his life. This was a sweet, intimate way to close out the narrative–and I think stands as a testament to the respect Isaacson developed for Jobs.

Ultimately, I think we’re left at the end of the book with ambiguity. Yes, Steve built an amazing company, and certainly if a life is judged by the things one creates and nothing else, Steve’s legacy is tough to beat. But his callous regard for others–including his own family–is heart-breaking. If this is the cost of building attractive widgets, I would hope most would not pay the price. And so it is left to all of us to work out whether we can achieve career greatness at a level of Jobs whilst also investing in and achieving greatness in the areas of life that matter most.

I think that’s how nearly all of us view Steve Jobs: as a stereotype–a template–of career success that is so comically exaggerated that it is not for any of us to attempt to emulate, but rather, for all of us to study and from which to extrapolate small lessons for our own lives, adapted to the contexts of our own situations. His life seems like a fairy tale of the modern age in classic three-act play format, with achievements of such heights as to defy man to best them with imaginary ones, these accompanied by extreme character traits at home alongside the strongest characterizations of great fiction. It’s as if life decide to write the Great American Novel–and succeeded.

For all that, I have enormous affection for Steve as a person. Rest in peace, thanks for the memories, and thanks for the Macs.

(I bought both the audiobook and the hardcover edition of this book. I mostly listened to the book, but I did read some portions. The fact I listened to this may have contributed to my view of the book. I appreciated the introduction from Isaacson, but the narrator–an actor whose name escapes me–would not have been my choice. I also wish they had been able to use Steve’s own recorded voice for the last chapter, but perhaps that was not possible.)

About one month ago, Walmart’s Global Electronic Commerce division (i.e., Walmart.com) acquired our entire Set Direction team–the start-up that Dion and I created in late 2010. We’re now anxiously engaged in a multi-year effort to energize Walmart’s efforts in mobile e-commerce.

If you had told me six months ago this would be Set Direction’s outcome, I wouldn’t have believed you. Dion goes into some of the details surrounding the deal, including how we came to know the folks over at Walmart and the steps that led us here.

Joining Walmart.com was a no-brainer once we grasped the size and scope of the opportunity. In my role as Vice-President of Mobile Engineering and Dion’s as Chief Mobile Architect, we’ll tackle together the challenge of creating the world’s best mobile retail applications for some of the biggest and most exciting markets in the world, such as the US, China, Brazil, and many others.

How are we going to create top-quality products for a variety of mobile platforms across all these markets? How will we be able to evolve the apps fast enough to out-maneuver our formidable competitors when we have a gaggle of platforms and markets to support? Will Node.js scale to our needs? 🙂 These are some of the interesting problems we’ll be solving. Sound fun? We think so too.

While Walmart is the world’s largest company and has an army of people already hard at work on managing its extensive software systems, we’ve been given the opportunity to build our own mobile team with a start-up culture within the Global E-commerce group. Think small teams of incredibly talented people being supported by the resources of the world’s largest company.

Want to join us? Drop me a line.

Do you remember how much the Web used to suck?

Not so long ago, we Web developers would have to constantly educate product managers and other business stakeholders about the limitations of HTML; we would often contrast it with so-called “rich client” technologies.

Over the past few years, we’ve all watched with wonder as these boundaries have disappeared and the Ajax revolution brought us a never-ending supply of rich web applications.

And while Ajax started out as web developers leveraging little-used so-called “latent” browser technologies, browser makers haven’t been sitting idle. Modern browsers are acquiring new abilities at a pace not seen since the early years of the Web–most of which are largely unused by today’s web applications.

Dion and I started Ajaxian.com a few years back when we like many others felt that a revolution was about to take place, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to chronicle a bit of it as it happened. We feel like the Web is similarly positioned today, ready for another expansion as developers discover and leverage the next generation of browsers.

Bespin Logo

We’ve been fortunate to do a bit of that expansion ourselves at Mozilla with the Bespin project. What Dion and I started as an experiment to see if we could create a code editor on the Web as responsive as the desktop has turned into a full-fledged project team aiming to revolutionize the way the world writes code.

At the same time the Web has been expanding, we’ve all been blown away as desktop computers have somehow shrunk down to pocket size. Clearly a revolution in hardware is taking place and it doesn’t take a prophet to work out that the future of computing lies along this new trajectory.

However, my enthusiasm for this amazing new world is tempered by some unfortunate decisions made by some of the players in this space. It seems that some view this revolution as a chance to seize power in downright Orwellian ways by constraining what we as developers can say, dictating what kinds of apps we can create, controlling how we distribute our apps, and placing all kinds of limits on what can do to our computing devices.

palm

And so as my good friend and long-time collaborator Dion so eloquently explains over at his blog, he and I have taken an opportunity to work at Palm–at the very intersection of these two exciting technology arcs–and we have the opportunity to run Palm’s developer program and to do things quite a bit differently than some others in the industry have done.

Dion and I believe in the Web platform–an open platform that no single vendor controls–and we believe in empowering and enabling developers. We have been honored to work with so many who feel the same way at Mozilla, we will continue to advocate those values as members of the Mozilla community, and we can’t wait to put these ideals into practice in our work at Palm.

Beyond Dark Castle

I’ve a lot of fond memories from my youth that revolve around the Mac: getting invited over to a girl’s house in the second grade… to play Dark Castle on an early-model Mac; retrofitting my 3rd grade teacher’s Lisa to be Mac-compatible; getting pulled out of classes later on in elementary school to help the school principal with their Mac; learning how to do desktop publishing on the Macs at the neighborhood “Laser Layouts” shop; playing with one at the local software store, etc.

I could never afford one growing up, so it was always this magical machine I could only play with on borrowed time. And I guess the small piece of me that yearned for a Mac during my elementary school years still lives on in some form–I own a few vintage Macs, purchased a few years back.

Dark Castle and its sequel were among my favorite games on those old Macs, so it’s been great fun for me to relive a bit of the past and spend a few minutes playing the recently released remake: Return to Dark Castle. Beats firing up an emulator or obsolete hardware. Well, it’s easier, at least.

Jackie

When my first child starting talking, the way she said “baby” was comical: it was basically two grunts, a high-pitch followed by a low-pitch, which when concatenated sounded roughly like the word itself.

As time went on, she learned how to speak with greater precision, but the funny bit was that for a while, whenever she would say “baby” she would revert back to her earliest versions of the word. So you’d hear fair renditions of words and then the two grunts.

Eventually, she worked it out.

Tonight as I spent time with my fourth child, I noticed the same behavior with a different word. And then it occurred to me. We don’t reproduce the sounds that we hear. Instead, we learn how to produce sounds and, independently, map the sounds we hear to the sounds we’ve learned how to produce. Hence, most of us have really bad accents when we learn new languages–we are mapping a new set of different sounds to the set of existing sounds that we already know how to make. Mismatches are inevitable.

I doubt this will be a revelation to anyone but me, but it did get me wondering: are there some people who can reproduce the sounds they hear with anything near fidelity? Such people would be amazing at learning new languages, among other things.

Is this a skill I can learn? It seems so much more efficient than having to map what I hear to what I know how to say.

Does anyone know?

golden gate bridge, alcatraz & farallon islands at night

Recently, I moved my family from Utah to the Bay Area for my new job at Mozilla. It’s a homecoming for me; I grew up in the East Bay. To keep my commute times down, we decided to rent a place on the west side of the San Francisco Bay, called simply “the Peninsula”.

As with most major metro areas, the best way to find a rental these days is on Craigslist. In my searching for housing, I thought it would be interesting to analyze the listings on Craigslist to get a feel for the differing rental prices of each of the various Peninsula cities. Because I’ve got quite a few kids, I didn’t bother looking at listings with less than three bedrooms.

As I did my analysis, I worked out the average price of rentals with at least 3 bedrooms in all of the major areas of the Peninsula that Craigslist covers; here’s the data as of November 2008 in graph form:

rental3

One problem with this approach is that it combines rental units with different numbers of bedrooms; here’s a graph with the price of the rental divided by the number of bedrooms:

rental4

For a little context, it might also be helpful to share the total number of rentals by area:

rental5

Declining Rental Prices?

Out of curiosity, I decided to re-run the analysis on the rental market as of last week. No surprise, there was a general mild decline across the entire peninsula. In terms of rent, the combined average went from $3,562 to $3,500 (~1.75%); by room, that’s $1,046 down to $1,019 (~2.5%).

You can see that the characteristics of each area is quite different:

rental6

Note that I had to leave out a few areas where there simply wasn’t enough data to compare; I probably should have thrown out Atherton, Portola Valley, and Woodside as the number of listings was few and their prices varied greatly, as you can see from the graphs.

Obviously, to draw any real conclusions from this data, I’d need to do more work to extract duplicate listings (folks often re-list the same property before a listing expires to keep it at the top), include 1 and 2 bedroom properties, and look at the data for a longer period of time.

Still, it is relatively safe to say that there is a very small price decline, but it is probably just as likely to be explained by the slower winter market than the macro-economic conditions.

I’m going to keep capturing data periodically and analyzing it, and if I see any interesting trends, will post again.

Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

For as long as I can remember, my family has spent time each year in Cedaredge, a small little town in western Colorado. During our most recent visit, I was caught unprepared in a rain shower and, seeking cover wherever it could be found, I stumbled upon a library book sale. The combination of ridiculous prices, an eclectic selection, and nothing else to do with the rain about me conspired to fill many bags with good old books. Among them was an old edition of William Shirer’s classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

At over 1200 pages, it’s not a quick read–but it’s not a difficult one, either. The author is a journalist rather than a historian, and to the great credit of the book, he was a first-hand witness of many of the events chronicled in the book. The result is a rather interesting account of a pivotal period of the past century.

But then, there is a natural drama and grandeur to these events that transcends the pages. We see Hitler’s rise from a penniless wretch on the streets of Vienna to the most powerful man in Europe; we witness the shame of Nevill Chamberlain’s “leadership” contrasted with the breathtaking courage and splendor of Winston Churchill; we marvel as Fate herself seems to conspire to keep Hitler alive against all odds as he survives many would-be assassins only to topple from power due to countless bungled decisions for which only he can take blame.

As I plowed through the book as fast as I could manage, I was fascinated by how much of the history was readily applicable to our own time and place. Let me share some of the points that most resonated with me.

Religion and Wars

Some make the argument that religion is the primordial source of conflict in the world and were we but unshackled from our silly delusions of God’s existence, peace and harmony would break out across the land. (In an era of terrorists blowing up thousands of innocents under the banner of religion, it’s easy to be sympathetic to that position.)

The horrors of the war waged by the Nazis should give pause to that assertion. While not as hostile towards religion as the Communists, the Nazi Party’s leadership openly disdained organized religion and crushed any religious leaders unwilling to support the Party. To replace religion as the moral core of society, the Nazis established a new set of values anchored in the faux-science of their philosophers–and managed to get a significant portion of the populace to embrace them.

The sheer evil of the Nazis is breath-taking. The holocaust, of course. Their half-executed plan to simply starve the Russians and Ukranians–to ship their food to Germany and let them all die. Their reign of terror over all of their occupied territories.

And then, there was Stalin who had guns mounted behind his own front lines to shoot any of his men who retreated; who interned his own country’s POWs when they were liberated because he expected them to fight to the death; who killed thousands of his own people as they fled Moscow when it seemed clear that the Nazis would occupy the city (he wanted them to stay as a show of support).

Religious extremists have no monopoly on evil.

Media Propaganda

The Nazi’s exploited a basic human flaw with great success: we are heavily influenced by repetition. In a particularly memorable passage, the author describes how he personally witnessed countless people from educated backgrounds adopting the silly and baseless ideas of the Nazi party only because they were repeated so constantly through every medium. Even otherwise respectable, credentialed scientists and academics fell victim to the echo chamber.

Are there shared beliefs in our zeitgeist based on shabby science oft-repeated that we no longer question, that even our men-and-women-of-letters champion or fail to challenge? How much original research is in place before the media machine takes over, repeating it a thousand times until many or all believe?

We must question everything and have an anchor in something more than the fashion of the moment.

Deception in Foreign Relations

It is tempting to believe President Ahmadinejad of Iran when he asserts publicly that his government is seeking for nuclear technology only to provide power for his people. Especially when he is courteous and photogenic.

The Nazis bluntly lied shamelessly to any member of the press or foreign statesmen they could find. The sheer audacity of their deception is impressive. They lied about invading every country they eventually crushed. If rhetoric was not enough, they created fake events upon which to base their rhetoric. Yet their actions betrayed their true intentions; it was only the world’s willingness to accept seemingly innocent explanations for their war preparations and their troop movements and their alliances, etc. that led to disaster.

Effective foreign policy must simply ignore rhetoric and focus relentlessly on action.

Records of History

Rise and Fall would have been impossible to write had it not been for the voluminous records kept by the Nazis–the same records that contributed so well to their executions and imprisonments at the trials at Nuremberg. Some of the most interesting revelations were made possible by the odd memo here or the random piece of correspondence there. These threads would have been impossible for history’s actors to have seen as they were woven in time; historians had to discern the pattern. All thanks to meticulously filed and archived documents, preserved for us.

There is something about the Truth that is larger than any of us, or all of us. We owe it to our successors to clearly present their legacy. As tempting as it may be to manipulate facts and control the narrative–to emulate the totalitarian regimes in their absolute control of the facts–we cannot indulge in this desire.

We need to work out how to effectively archive digital information and how to balance the need for Truth with the right to avoid self-incrimination. I hope we get that figured out before many of us succumb to the temptation to shred a part of our society’s story.

Justice

The man at the head of the machine which caused the deaths of countless millions and further hardships upon most of the entire world never had to face justice. Hitler died on his own terms, so completely that his remains were never recovered. He left behind his belief that the Third Reich fell because the German people did not deserve him.

Some others in positions of authority were executed after the war following the various Nuremberg trials, but so many of these oversaw or directly committed mass murders. To kill one who has killed another is itself hardly justice–for the second killing cannot begin to undo the first–but it has a certain symmetry that feels to some like justice. But you cannot kill such criminals more than once. How do you extract justice from such monsters? Of course, you cannot.

And yet, shortly after sentencing many such to jail terms and executions, the sentences were commuted and the criminals were set free. Men who killed defenseless prisoners of war. Men who burned little children. Terrible people.

Still, the Nazi regime had a gangster element to it–via the SS and its derivatives–that successfully prevented dissent. Had these men refused to fulfill their dreadful orders, they would have reason to fear brutal torture of themselves and their families. Of course, the right thing to do is take a moral stand regardless of the outcome, but then, thanks to the propaganda built on “science” mentioned above, on what moral ground do you stand? Moral relativists at this point must eat their cake as we realize that, without immutable moral anchors, there can for some be no stand to take.

There is no justice in this world, though we try our best.

I can’t keep up with the spam bombarding this blog; the Akismit plug-in is no longer working effectively. Until I have time to resolve this issue, comments by non-registered users have been disabled. I am allowing self-registration for now, but since WordPress is a big target, I’m expecting spambots to be able to self-register, and should that be the case, I’ll disable self-registration, too. Once I get a few minutes, I’ll put in some other form of anti-spam and open up comments once more.

Also, due to a few folks asking for it, I’ve released the source code to my GroupWise Exporter thingy.

UPDATE: I’ve tentatively re-enabled comments, adding the latest Spam-Karma plug-in to Akismit, and perhaps together they’ll take care of the spam issue.