As the Tech Turns

I joined the Office of the CTO at Microsoft just over two years ago. I was a ‘founding member’ as Kevin Scott was a new CTO for Microsoft. I have now moved on to another job, in a different CTO Office (Mark Russinovich in Azure).

I noticed one thing while I was in OCTO, I essentially stopped blogging. Why was that? Well, probably the main reason is the fact that when your in that particular office, you’re privy to all sorts of stuff, most of it very private, either to Microsoft, or other partners in the industry. Not really the kind of stuff you want to write about in a loud way. My colleague Mat Velosso managed to maintain a public voice while in the office, but I didn’t find I could do it. Now as it turns out, my new job is all about having a voice, and helping to make Engineering at Microsoft that much better.

But, before I get into all that, I want to reflect on tech.

I’m in my home office, and I’m looking around at all this clutter. I’ve got SD Cards that are 8Gb sitting around with who knows what on them. I’ve got motherboards sitting openly on my bench. I’ve got more single board computers than you can shake a stick it. Various bits and bobs, outdated tech books, mice and keyboards galore, laptops that have been long since abandoned, and 5 23″ LCD displays sitting on the floor.

That’s just in my office. My other cave has similar amounts of computers, displays, tvs, and other tech leavings from the past 10 years of hobbying around, trying to stay current. What to do?

Well, donate all that can to good places. Don’t give working displays to PC recycle, they’ll just tear them apart. Find a school, non-profit, deserving person. Then, all those Raspberry Pi versions you never took out of their boxes, send them to the PC recycler, or give them to a school. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about single board computers, if you don’t actually have an immediate use for them, they’re not worth buying.

Books, to the library, or if you have a local “Half Price Books” maybe you can get some money back. More than likely, if they’re older than 5 years, they’re headed to the compost pile.

I have saved one set of PS/2 style keyboard/mouse, because, they’re actually useful.

I want to reconfigure my office. Now that 4K UHD monitor/tvs are $250, it makes sense to purchase them as decorations for a room. A couple of those 55″ versions up on the walls gives me connectivity for any computers, as well as an ability to do things like use them as a false window. I need more workspace. My current configuration is sets of drawers, which hide who knows what, and counter top which is too narrow, and book shelves, which can’t hold very much weight. So, out it goes, and in come the wire rack shelving units, 24″ deep.

Copy off all the stuff from those random SD cards, and throw away the ones that are less than 32Gb, because you know you’ll lose them before you ever use them again, and you’ll always be wondering what’s on them. Digitize those photo albums, use one of your many SBCs to setup a NAS, and copy everything there, and backup to a cloud service

For me, new job, new tech, new office space. time to blab and share again.


Commemorating MLK’s Passing

Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated April 4th, 1968. That was 51 years ago today. In order to commemorate his passing, I penned the following and shared it with my coworkers at Microsoft.

On this very important day in history, I am contemplative.  As we consider the importance of naming our ERG, I am reflective upon how we got here.

I was only 4 years old on that fateful day when “they killed Martin!”, so I don’t remember much, other than adults crying, smoking, drinking, talking adult talk, nervous wringing of hands, and us kids playing outside.

In my tech career of roughly 35 years, I’ve often been “the only…”.  It’s been an interesting walk.  In most recent years, as I become more Yoda and less Samuel Jackson, I have contemplated these things:

Would I have died fighting rather than be put on the ship

Would I have jumped into the ocean rather than be taken

Would I have fought back upon first being whipped, choosing pride and honor over subjugation

Would I have had the bravery to run away

Would I have had the bravery to help those who ran away

Would I have had the courage to learn to read

Would I have had the strength to send my children to school

Would I have had the strength to drink from the water fountain not meant for me

Would I have had the courage to simply sit

Would I have had the tenacity to face the smoke bombs, water cannons and dogs

Would I have had the conviction to carry on a struggle, long after my inspirational leader was lost…

And here I sit today, and I contemplate.  Will I recognize my calling?  Will I recognize my civil rights moment?  Will I be able to throw off my golden handcuffs and do what’s right?

If we collectively think “Black” means anything, we collectively can’t ignore the passing of this particular day.  I encourage us all to reflect on who we are, where we come from, and where we intend to go in the future.


My First LEAP Video

Here it is, the first video that I’ve done related to LEAP:


Have Computicles Arrived?

So, I’ve written quite a lot about computicles over the past few years.  In most of those articles, I’m talking about the software implementation of tiny units of computation.  The idea for computicles stems from a conversation I had with my daughter circa 2007 in which I was laying out a grand vision of the world where units of computation would be really small, fit in your hand sized, and be able to connect and do stuff fairly easily.  That was my envisioning of ubiquitous computing.  And so, yesterday, I received the latest creation from HardKernel, the Odroid HC1 (HC – Home Cloud).

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Hardkernel is a funny company.  I’ve been buying at least one of everything they’ve made in the past 5 years or so.  They essentially make single board computers in the “credit card” form factor.  What you see in the picture is the HC1, with an attached SSD of 120Gb.  The SSD is 2.5″ standard, so that gives you a sense of the size of the thing.  The black is aluminum, and it’s the heat sink for the unit.

The computer bit of it is essentially a reworked Odroid XU4, which all by itself is quite a strong computer in this category.  Think Raspberry Pi, but 4 or 5 times stronger.  The HC1 has a single Sata connector to slot in whatever hard storage you choose.  No extra ribbon cables or anything like that.  The XU4 itself can run variants of Linux, as well as Android.  The uSD card sticking out the right side provides the OS.  In this particular case I’m using OMV (Open Media Vault), because I wanted to try the unit out as a NAS in my home office.

One of the nice things about the HC1 is that it’s stackable.  So, I can see piling up 3 or 4 of these to run my local server needs.  Of course, when you compare to the giant beefy 64-bit super server that I’m currently typing at, these toy droids give it very little competition in the way of absolute compute power.  They even did an analysis of bitcoin mining and determined a number of years it would take to get a return on their investment.  But, computing, and computicles aren’t about absolute concentrated power.  Rather, they are about distributed processing.

Right now I have a Synology, probably the equivalent of today’s DS1517.  That thing has RAID up the wazoo, redundant power, multiple nics, and it’s just a reliable workhorse that just won’t quit, so far.  The base price starts at $799, before you actually start adding storage media.  The HC1 starts at $49.  Of course there’s no real comparison in terms of reliability, redundancy, and the like, or is there?

Each HC1 can hold a single disk.  You can throw on whatever size and variety you like.  This first one has a Samsung SSD that’s a couple years old, at 120Gb.  These days you can get 250Gb for $90.  You can go up to 4TB with an SSD, but that’s more like a $1600 proposition.  So, I’d be sticking with the low end.  That makes a reasonable storage computicle roughly $150.

You could of course skip the SSD or HDD and just stick a largish USB thumb drive, or 128Gb uSD for $65, but the speed on that interface isn’t going to be nearly as fast as the Sata III interface the HC1 is sporting.  So, great for a small time use, but for relatively constant streaming and download, the SSD solutions, and even HDD solutions will be more robust.

So, what’s the use case?  Well, besides the pure geekery of the thing, I’m trying to imagine more appliance like usage.  I’m imagining what it looks like to have several of these placed throughout the house.  Maybe one is configured as a YouTube downloader, and that’s all it does all the time, shunting to the larger Synology every once in a while.

How about video streaming?  Right now that’s served up by the Synology running a Plex server, which is great for most clients, but sometimes, it’s just plain slow, particularly when it comes to converting video clips from ancient cameras and cell phones.  Having one HC1 dedicated to the task of converting clips to various formats that are known to be used in our house would be good.  Also, maybe serving up the video itself?  The OMV comes with a minidlna server, which works well with almost all the viewing kit we have.  But, do we really have any hiccups when it comes to video streaming from the Synology?  Not enough to worry about, but still.

Maybe it’s about multiple redundant distributed RAID.  With 5 – 10 of these spread throughout the house, each one could fail in time, be replaced, and nothing would be the wiser.  I could load each with a couple of terabytes, and configure some form of pleasant redudancy across them and be very happy.  But, then there’s the cloud.  I actually do feel somewhat reassured having the ability to backup somewhere else.  As recent flooding in Texas shows, as well as wildfires, no matter how much redundancy you have locally, it’s local.

Then there’s compute.  Like I said, a single beefy x64 machine with a decent GPU is going to smoke any single one of these.  Likewise if you have a small cluster of these.  But, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful.  Odroid boards are ARM based, which makes them inherently low power consumption compared to their intel counterparts.  If I’ve have some relatively light loads that are trivially parallelizable, then having a cluster of a few of these might make some sense.  Again with the ubiquitous computing, if I want to have the Star Trek style “computer, where’s my son”, or “turn on the lights in the garage”, without having to send my voice to the cloud constantly, then performing operations such as speech recognition on a little cluster might be interesting.

The long and short of it is that having a compute/storage module in the $150 range makes for some interesting thinking.  It’s surely not the only storage option in this range, but the combination of darned good hardware, tons of software support, low price and easy assembly, gives me pause to consider the possibilities.  Perhaps the hardware has finally caught up to the software, and I can start realizing computicles in physical as well as soft form.


Technical Advisor in the office of the CTO

So, I received an email a few weeks back which essentially said “would you consider a role working for the CTO as a Technical Advisor”.  Well, at first, I wasn’t sure what to think, but then I actually talked to who was asking me the question, and I thought, “wait a minute, this could be a really cool thing”.

It’s like this.  At Microsoft, we don’t always have a person in the role of CTO.  Bill Gates was “Chief Scientist” at one point, and Craig Mundie I think had the CTO role, as did Ray Ozzie.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a distraction.

The current CTO is Kevin Scott, and before I actually met him, the #1 comment everyone said about him was “he’s a really cool guy”.  Well, after meeting him, I have the same sentiment.  Kevin’s not an industry luminary from the birth days of the personal computing industry like Ray Ozzie was, he’s an engineer’s engineer with a pedigree that extends through Google, a startup adMob, and LinkedIn, where he continues to be responsible for their backend stuff.

I’ve been at Microsoft for 18 years, which means I’ve done a fair number of things, and I know a fair number of people.  The first aspect of being a TA is getting around, meeting with people, and spreading the word that there’s actually a CTO.

What does the CTO do?  Well, the best description I can give is the CTO acts as the dev manager/architect for the company.  The scope and responsibility of the CTO can be very broad.  Part of it is about efficiency of our joint engineering objectives.  Part of it is making sure we’re marching to the beat of a similar drummer.  Can you imagine, Microsoft has a few multi-billion dollar businesses, led by business managers who are fairly autonomous, and have quite strong independent personalities, or they would not be in the positions they are in.  And along comes the CTO to help unify them.

Really, the job is being fairly impartial where necessary, and just reminding people of their shared goals and objectives, and helping them to reinforce achieving them.

Being a TA to the CTO?  Mostly it’s about going deep in areas.  Kevin Scott is a fast learner, fully capable of digesting tons of info, and fabricating a well informed opinion on his own.  The challenge is one of time.  Microsoft is vast, and if you want to go beyond the surface level in many areas, you’d spend all your time in meetings, and not actually be able to synthesize anything.  So, the TA role.  We have those infinite number of meetings, going deep on multiple topics, synthesizing to a certain level, and surfacing interesting bits to Kevin where decisions and direction might be required.

The the surface description of the role and responsibility.  The truth is, it’s not at all a well defined role.  Eric Rudder was Bill Gate’s TA, for five years, and he was quite a force, doing more than just feeding Bill Gates opinions on what he heard in the company.  We’ll see what our current office of the CTO is capable of, and what kinds of value we are going to impart on the company.

I am excited for this latest opportunity.  I think it’s a fitting role for where I’m at in my career, and what value I can contribute to the company.  So, here we go!


Note to self – subtlety is not an option with Donald Trump

Just yesterday, I wrote Donald Trump is not a dumb guy.  In that missive I was telling myself not to be fooled into the mass hypnosis that Donald Trump is currently performing on the world.  But, alas, someone I actually respect posted a comment questioning my beliefs, and suggesting that I was ok with mass murder.

Well, I am by no means a trump supporter, nor a war monger.  I’m a great many things, but probably none of the things that this person now believes about me.  It’s worth being more direct, so here it is.

Thoughts on Donald Trump.  First of all, it’s probably worth me describing myself in terms of nationality, ethnicity, political and religious leanings.  I am a 52 year old black man born and raised in the United States of America.  I grew up in the very conservative Orange County in California.  Home of John Wayne, and the John Birch society, if you know what that is.  I grew up in a time when my father, who repaired typewriters in schools, had to suffer the indignity of being called a nigger by children in the schools where he worked.  In my home, we were born Christian and while my father was alive, we went to church regularly.

My neighborhood was just a bunch of working class Mexicans and some blacks.  The barrio by any other name.  A place rough enough for the police to only show up in twos if they knew what was good for them.  Migrant workers (“wet backs”), just working people trying to raise their families.

My dad died when I was 7.  At age 10, my mom decided we’d had enough of the Mexican upbringing, and we cast our eyes on a new housing development a couple miles down Orangethorpe.  A new 2 story 4 bedroom house, surrounded by respectable white folks!  Gee, we were moving on up.  So, I went through middle and high school like that, still as Christian as ever, although we didn’t go to church after dad died.  Mom was probably mad and disillusioned with god.  At any rate, I made it through high school, went to Berkeley to study electrical engineering, and eventually started my first company, Adamation.

I did software that was off the beaten path.  Yah, there was this Microsoft thing out there, but these were the days of Mac, NeXT, Taligent, BeOS, and that fledgling Linux thing.

I married a woman I met in college (she was from Goa India), we had a child, we eventually got divorced.  I did not become a hindu during this time, but I was certainly immersed in a lot of hindu ritual and culture.  I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita, and various other Hindu texts.  They seemed quite alright, and offered up a more ancient view of how the world works from a religious perspective.

Roll forward some more years, and I made the move to Microsoft (1998).  The heady days of the birth of XML (which I helped drive for 5 years), and the birth of the CLR and .net frameworks.  And then, 9/11.  I went to work to see panic in the halls.  Colleagues with vague middle-eastern or southeast Asian ancestry or looks, scurrying into my office with reports of their friends being beat up in other parts of the country.  My own fiduciary responsibility driving me to tell close friends that I would have to fire them if they continue to distribute incendiary emails imploring people to route out the terrorists and get rid of them.

Very challenging times.

Roll forward a few more years, 2005, I find myself moving to India to create the Engineering Excellence group in Hyderabad, a relatively new development center for Microsoft.  Somehow, drawn to India again.  This time around, I fall in love with a woman who is muslim.  So, I read for the first time the Quran.  What an eye opener for a Christian such as myself.  Turns out, we (jews, Christians, muslims) are all praying to the same god.  Go figure.  Men have created the dogma around killing each other in the name of this god.  And so, I wanted to marry this woman.  And to do so, I needed to be a muslim man.  Lucky for me, I was already circumcised…

And so, I’m now married to a muslim woman, I consider myself to be a muslim, and we have two beautiful children who are also muslim.

My journey back to the US was less than positive.  My wife had a 10 year visa, but on one of our returns (2009), the border agents at the airport pulled us aside, and into the dreaded interrogation room.  We’re not going to let you into the country until you have a green card, even though you have a valid visitors visa…  Yep, we flew back to India the next morning.  But why?  This is my wife?  “Sorry sir, we don’t know who this alien is, and once she enters the country, she may not leave”.  So, even though we were married, in process of obtaining a green card, and all that, we could not enter the country.

Roll forward to 2016.  Donald Trump, that figure from my past who had always been there, as an entertainer, but never any real significance in my life, is tearing up the Republican party.  They are nothing but deer in the headlights of his red neck hick mobile fueled by bigotry, misogyny, racism, and all the other things that tear apart civil society.  He is tearing back the curtain of political correctness, and essentially relieving the pressure that a set of Americans feel has kept them bottled up far too long.  They made, and they’re somewhat active.  His opponent, an ineffective democrat who did not have the pulse of the people in the way that President Obama did before her.  All excuses aside, I’m not sure having Hillary in office would have been that effective with a house and senate controlled by republicans.  But, I digress.

Donald trump using a series of tactics that are so obvious from an outside observers perspective that I’m always surprised (becoming less so) that they work.  Like Penn and Teller (magicians), he tells you exactly how he’s deceiving you, how he’s using misdirection, how he’s manipulating your emotions, appearing to join your perspective, and then he pulls the wool over your eyes and you still can’t believe how he’s pulled that off.  It’s just sickening.

His first few months in office have been typical for someone full of bluster, but little political experience.  First he shocks the world by essentially saying “all bets are off.  You can throw out all your past assumptions, there’s a new sheriff in town”.  That’s a tactic.  Now everyone is on pause.  Is he as racist, isolationist, bigoted, misogynistic as his bluster portrays, or is he simply the best Democrat that could be elected at this time to deal with the Republic controlled house and senate.

And so, he bombs Syria.  Now, it strikes me as a lifelong pacifist that bombing people is nothing to be proud of.  Every time a building of “collateral damage” is destroyed, every time a truck plows into a crowd of people, every time a government chooses to gas its own, every time we shoot a petty dictactor in a hidey hole, my heart sinks.  We should never be proud of our ability to hunt down and destroy human beings.  It’s sad that we have people we believe horrible enough to have this done to them, and it’s sad that we’re horrible enough people to do this.

For ever cop that kills a black man, I’m scared for my safety.  For every muslim identified terrorist that pulls off an atrocity, I’m scared for the safety of myself, and my family.  For every executive order issued by my own government, I afraid I will be rounded up and placed in an internment camp or worse.

I live in a world now where I have a contingency plan for rapidly departing my own country as soon as the “muslim registry” rears its ugly head.  Fleeing the country may be no solice, nor refuge though.  Our next best stop is India, and they have a tolerance, but not love for muslims.  Anywhere else is a dice role with an American passport, and a family with mixed heritage.

And so, to rephrase my previous post on the subject.  Donald Trump is not dumb.  He just blew up a Syrian air base in response to the Syrian government using chemical weapons on its own people.  Using chemical weapons is an international crime easily deplored by all countries.  The Syrian government should be held accountable for this action.

Donald Trump has gained enough political saavy to exploit this situation to his own gains.  I doubt he cares much about the loss of life in Syria, but he does care about getting China to deal with North Korea.  He will  use his bombing of the Syrian air base to show that he’s got big guns and is not afraid to use them.  He will say this in plain word’s to China’s president, as he has him sitting in his own private resort, sitting on his own patio, drinking from his own wine glasses.  This is big dog diplomacy 101.

So, in short, to my colleagues who might question where I stand on subjects of Donald Trump, muslims, war, and the like.  I would rather go to jail than go to war (never registered for the draft, got three threating letters from the government on the same).  And for those who think I’m a hypocrite for such a stance, I guess I’m the worst kind of conservative.  I will defend my family til the death, but for a country that would just as easily shoot me at a traffic stop, or stick me in an internment camp, or call me nigger and equate me to the lowest of animals, I say “fuck you”, I’m surviving as best I can, and I’m going to do right by mine, to survive and thrive, and raise my kids to build a better society that doesn’t suffer from all this nonsense.

 


Note to self – President Trump is not a dumb guy

I have to make a note to myself as a way to mark various events that are occurring, while I can still remember.  A little time capsule if you will.

I did not vote for Mr Trump in the 2016 election, but I am certainly an observer of human behavior. I recently read an interview with Scott Adams in which he explained his views and observations of trump as essentially a mass hypnotist.  I tend to agree with this view.  That and the fact that Mr Trump is decently good at quite a few things, but probably not a master of anything.  His combined skills on those several things have kept him in an elevated position his entire life.

But, what do I observe today, Friday April 7 2017?  A couple weeks back, North Korea doing saber rattling as usual.  US and Japan doing military exercises near them.  Syrian government allegedly using chemical weapons on their own people, and the Chinese president Xi Jinping doing a world tour, stopping by the US colony to check on things.

So, what happens?  The US drops a bunch of munitions (roughly 50 tomahawk cruise missiles) on a Syrian airbase that was supposedly a part of the use of the chemical weapons.  And, the next day, president Xi comes to visit…

Now, while the various pundits are wondering what this little show of aggression leads to in terms of the US involvement in Syria, I tend to think it has nothing to do with Syria at all.  It’s a calculated way for Mr Trump to show his lack of fear, and ability to act unilaterally.  He probably could not care less about Syria.  What he does care about is showing China that he’s not afraid to go after North Korea.  He’s trying to show the rest of the world that although his rhetoric is America first protectionist, it is in fact “American interests first”, which is subtly different, and means everything in the world.  Mr Trump is telling the world, he will use American military to advance and protect American interests around the world.

This gives teeth to the “China better do something about North Korea, or I will”.  Mr trump is going after the Vladimir Putin “strong man” leadership style.  He doesn’t care about his popularity, as he knows there’s nothing like a little world skirmishing in the name of American interests to boost that.  He’s playing the world, and the world is probably a step or two behind.  This will be interesting to see the interaction with China, because although Mr Trump might be playing the world, China plans 50 – 100 years ahead.

Grab your popcorn.