Startups and Other Problems

I cringe a little bit when I hear the word “startup”. This word has several different meanings in modern newspeak. In Silicon Alley (this is what New York’s startup scene was called in 2000) it appears in several typical phrases such as: “well, we can’t afford that – we are a startup” and “we are a startup, but we are very well funded”. This word is basically used either as an excuse for wanting below-market labour or an excuse to flaunt investor-supplied riches. In the first phrase it means that the company has been burning dumb money for at least a few years, in the second – it’s just starting. One “startup” that I worked for (and have fond memories of) began in 1997 and gave up ghost in 2012. UGO was truly the Dick Clark of companies (except not as successful).

Recently I was researching an engineer who designed the Wright 2600 keypunch. An article about him on Tripod (another blast from the past) has a very interesting quote: “After retiring from US Gov., he volunteered for SCORE, the retired executives helping businesses with start up and other problems.” Startup is not a type of a business! It’s a problem that businesses have!

The term “serial entrepreneur” has also acquired a thick patina of sleaze. The thing is, entrepreneurs are not really like flying aces (I think I read somewhere that most military pilots are either aces who shoot down 5 or more planes or the ones who are shot down). No. You only need to take a look at Jerry Kaplan, who wrote “Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure” and probably set some kind of a record in running companies that don’t make it. A large percentage of startup money is made through sales to larger, lumbering companies. Was broadcast.com a great deal? Nobody remembers it when watching its founder wearing relaxed fit shoes. There certainly a lot of money out there chasing some not very viable ideas. Unfortunately the startups of yesterday and today are either huge failures or huge successes. Or both (but not for everybody).

Luckily these days startup costs are at all time lows. To create a huge failure of a company you need a lot of money. On the other hand, to barely succeed all you need is some pocket change. Forget about Y Combinator. The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud will “barely invest” and try to help you to “barely succeed” – in other words to encourage you to build a business that realistically aims to be profitable. Forget “go big or go home”. Just try to honestly to build a business. Screw freemium. Forget about “incubators”. All you need is $37. And The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud will maybe give it to you. If you’ll get a rejection – dig deep.

And twitter it

I have a very wise friend who lives in in a mcmansion located a stone’s throw from from Henry David Thoreau’s little cabin. Despite this ironic fact, my friend is closer in spirit to the famous engineer, pencil magnate, and philosopher, as he often scoffed at my blogging and social network participation.

As an explanation on why I don’t blog much, here’s what Henry David Thoreau thought about twitter and the rest:

“My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.”

Ada Lovelace Day: Temple Grandin and the True Nature of Nerds

People walking by my cubicle often pause and look at a picture hanging on my wall. It’s of an old lady in what looks like a meter maid’s uniform. Who is she? Why is this picture so important to you? – they ask.

The picture, of course is of one of the two patron saints of software developers, Rear Admiral Murray Grace Hopper. Admiral Hopper is an old school hacker, mother of Cobol, popularizer of the term “bug”. There is a missile destroyer named after her, her personal motto is very close to my heart, and she looks a little bit like my grandmother (who happened to be a mechanical engineer).

The second prominent woman in software is Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, and a celebration of her life is the reason I am writing this post. Countess Lovelace is famous for grokking what computer programming was all about back in Victorian era, and therefore is often reffered to as the first programmer. If I’ll ever make it out of a cube into an office, I’ll comission an oil portrait of Ada Lovelace and hang it there.

There aren’t many accomplished women in technology as these two, so someone came up with an idea of celebrating Ada Lovelace’s birthday by getting people to write blog posts that will draw attention to women excelling in technology. I chose to write about Temple Grandin. I would have written about my grandmother, but unfortunately I don’t know much about her life’s work.

I learned about Temple Grandin from an article in Wired magazine called “The Geek Syndrome“. It was an article about an explosion of cases of autism and Asperger’s syndrome in hotbeds of technology such as Silicone Valley. This article and Temple Grandin’s books, “Thinking in Pictures” and Emergence: Labeled Autistic made me see myself and other techies in a completely different light. I am convinced that some level of autism is what makes people get involved in technology. Being a geek is a bit like having homosexual sex: anybody can do it, very few try it, and only a minority enjoy it and are good at it.

According to wikipedia “the word geek is a slang term, noting individuals as “a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc.”[1] Formerly, the term referred to a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken, bat, snake or bugs.” Indeed, geeks are strange people. They obsess about things, they have unusual interests, they are incredibly detail-oriented. All of these traits are considered by psychologists to be symptomes of Autistic Spectrum Personality disorder or ASD. “Impaired social interaction and communication” – another geeky/autistic trait.

“The prevalence of ASD is about 6 per 1,000 people, with about four times as many boys as girls” – also, according to Wikipedia. Eerily, this seems to be more or less in line with overall percentage of people involved in technology and the male/female ratio.

A human mind is a self-aware and self-adjusting multi-level software/hardware combination, and that makes it very hard to talk about the nature of brain disorders. Autism is particularly tricky: it is a spectrum. People with autism range from those severely afflicted and non-verbal through hundreds of different gradations to a geek with strange hobbies and social interaction problems. Yet it is the same basic thing: some kind of overdevelopment of some areas of the brain and underdevelopment in others, as well as a difference in processing sensory input.

Temple Grandin started out a severely afflicted autistic child, pretty close to the upper end of the scale. She recoiled from being hugged, started speaking very late, had all kinds of behavioral problems. Even with her high IQ nobody expected her to become a very succesful professional. She was lucky in having parents who sent her to a specialized school, and some teachers who channeled her obsessions into productive direction. She describes herself as a “recovering autistic.”

Her professional success is tremendous. She became a foremost expert in livestock handling equipment. Before her the livestock industry did not pay a lot of attention to the way animals were handled and transported. Existing structures used to shuffle livestock from a place to a place had design flaws that would cause animals to balk and refuse to move. This caused unnecessery use of force, stressing the animals and their handlers, costing farmers and processors a lot of time and money. Temple Grandin’s attention to detail allowed her to figure out very subtle causes of animal’s discomfort (autistic people are frequently bothered by minute changes in their environment) and figure out better ways to handle them. It’s very likely that all of us at some point drank milk or ate a steak from a cow that went through a facility designed by Dr. Grandin.

Autism seems to be a hardware-based disorder, something to do with neuron distribution and signal sensitivity. The curious part about problems like that is that they sometimes can be fixed with a software patch and changing some external factors. For instance, if you have a defective computer processor that starts generating errors from overheating, you can fix it by writing error-checking software and cooling it down with a fan.

After seeing a squeeze chute used to calm down cattle, Temple Grandin ivented a so-called hug machine, a device that applies a deep body pressure and through it makes autistic people feel better.

In his book Jpod, Douglas Coupland describes how one cubicle dwelling game developers builds a hug machine. After some ridicule and a few tryouts the machine attracts a long line of software developers wanting to use it. I wonder if any of the Google offices have one. I, personally, find that taking a long bath or wrapping very tigtly in a blanket always calms me down. Even better is diving: I get an unusual sense of calm from it.

Dr. Grandin’s books opened my eyes to the traits of “engineer’s affliction” and allowed me to better understand myself and my fellow geeks. Here’s a short list of the autistic traits that you might find in most software developers:

* Liking to create lists
* Lack of eye contact
* Stimming: repetitive behaviors like rocking in a chair
* Strange patterns of speech
* Ranting, long speeches about obscure topics
* Excruciating attention to detail
* Love of routine, dislike of change
* Love of symbols
* Obsessions with obscure things
* Superior pattern recognition
* Visual thinking
* Liking things more than people
* Bouts of anxiety, especially in social situations

Wired has a test designed by Simon Baron-Cohen (Borat’s brother) – you can see how many typical autistic traits you have. My score is 31.

The good part is that autistic obsessions can be “cashed in” for professional success in technological fields. Think about the level of obsession or concentration necessary to design a computer processor like this one? On the other hand, Dr. Grandin’s books showed me that it is possible to work on problematic traits, like eye contact and social awkwardness. Human minds are strange loops, capable of understanding, rewriting and fixing themselves.

Here’s a list of books that I recommend for better understanding of techies, male and female:

* Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism and Emergence: Labeled Autistic by Temple Grandin

* Jpod and Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

* A Spot of Bother and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It

The mastermind behind Apple sheds his low profile and steps forward to tell his story for the first time.

Before cell phones that fit in the palm of your hand and slim laptops that fit snugly into briefcases, computers were like strange, alien vending machines. They had cryptic switches, punch cards and pages of encoded output. But in 1975, a young engineering wizard named Steve Wozniak had an idea: What if you combined computer circuitry with a regular typewriter keyboard and a video screen? The result was the first true personal computer, the Apple I, a widely affordable machine that anyone could understand and figure out how to use.

Wozniak’s life—before and after Apple—is a “home-brew” mix of brilliant discovery and adventure, as an engineer, a concert promoter, a fifth-grade teacher, a philanthropist, and an irrepressible prankster. From the invention of the first personal computer to the rise of Apple as an industry giant, iWoz presents a no-holds-barred, rollicking, firsthand account of the humanist inventor who ignited the computer revolution. 16 pages of illustrations.

Inside Facebook: Life, Work and Visions of Greatness

As an early engineer, I was on the inside during Facebook’s explosive growth. In Inside Facebook, I’ll give you the scoop on the company as it became the premiere online environment for U.S. college students, including how and by whom the products were made, how you can use them best, views on what makes social networks so valuable, and where the industry is headed. You, too, can achieve startup success and attain your greatest dream; I hope to inspire you toward fulfilling your potential.

“Love the book. It captures the ethos of the place and a substantial degree of the vision and drive which is a secret to success.”
-David Kopp, Sr. Director, Community at Yahoo!

“Inside Facebook is a compelling look inside at a fascinating moment. It’s a riveting read. Karel may be an Engineer, but after reading Inside Facebook you’ll see he’s a great storyteller. I couldn’t get myself to stop reading and wanting more.”
-Ariel McNichol, CEO of mEgo.

“I love the style. It’s made for college students, like Facebook. Karel takes you into the personalities and minds behind Facebook. A must read for young entrepreneurs, and anyone into online social networking.”
-Mohammad Naqvi, UCR, creator of Facebook Notifier at fbQuick.com

For the Beaver to Poop On!

An exhaustive article about the “Brass Rat” – MIT class ring featuring the school’s mascot, a rat-looking beaver:

“The Brass Rat is traditionally worn with the Beaver “sitting” or “shitting” on the wearer until graduation. This represents the hardships imposed on students at MIT. In addition, the skyline of Boston is facing the student, representing the outside world awaiting. After graduation, the ring is turned around, and the Cambridge skyline is visible to the graduate, as a reminder of times spent at MIT.”

Fans of Harry Harrison can choose to order the Brass Rat in stainless steel instead.

This must be the ugliest class and overstated ring in existence. The Canadian engineer’s iron ring, by comparison is a marvel of good taste (even though  technically it’s a pinky ring).

My favorite part of this trivia was the hack of welding the Brass Rat to the finger of the Statue of the Three Lies (as the model for the statue supposedly went to MIT).

Bread and Circuses 2: Korean BBQ and Mark Haddon

I did not get much response to my previous installation of Bread and Circuses, the series of articles where I match my favorite books with my favorite food, but since I started already, well, I can’t chicken out now. You can read the first part here.

Ok, so let’s say it’s 22 century, agents of the corpocracy captured me, and are about to send me to the Litehouse. Michael-47, they say, what kind of a last meal and book would you like?  I’d choose a David Mitchell novel and some pho, but they tell me that they are fresh out. What would my second choice be?

Korean BBQ and a novel by Mark Haddon, of course.

Korean food is spicy and strong smelling. It’s not subtle. It’s not refined. But it is the ultimate comfort food. It’s a bit like a little room in a Soviet communal apartment – dingy, smelly, but oh so homey. Also, I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, it’s very, very tasty. To me, the ultimate family meal is Korean BBQ (aka galbi).

Whenever I feel extra bad and I need a cheer-me-up meal, I drag my wife to K-Town.  A typical meal involves frying bits of high and low grade meat over a special fire pit in the table, wrapping them in lettuce leafs and eating them. My favorite part is the little side dishes called banchan containing high quality kimchi (not the stuff you can find in a jar in a supermarket), various pickles, pancakes, salads, and many steamed, crunchy, slippery, tentacly things I don’t know the name of.  In better places they replenish the little dishes as you consume them. A galbi meal rarely fails to lift my spirits.

Mark Haddon rose to prominence  for his book  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel written from the point of view of an autistic boy.  As most programmers I am slightly touched by the engineer’s affliction, so I can understand it very well. Haddon knows a lot about working class British engineers, dysfunctional families and  psychological trouble. His second novel, A Spot of Bother  is about a retired engineer who is losing his mind, yet keeps a stiff upper lip about it.  Haddon’s plots are very interesting, characters likable, and sense of humor outstanding.  These two novels really put of my mind from waiting for David Mitchell’s next novel.

Once I finished Haddon’s bestsellers I learned that he actually started his career as a children’s writer.  He wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books,  culminating in the so-called Agent Z series. Oh, Agent Z. How I wish there were a few more of these left for me to read. Unfortunately the last one was written in 2001 and it does not look like Haddon is planning to write any more.

The Agent Z series is somewhat similar to the popular American tv show Malcolm in the Middle. In fact, I suspect that “Malcom” was inspired by “Agent Z”.

Agent Z is the pseudonym assumed by three British school kids who specialize in elaborate pranks. They are: Ben Simpson, the ‘handsome’ one of the crew, too smart and creative for his own good daydreamer from a lower middle class family; Barney Hall, a fat practical kid from an upper middle class family, who understands the adult psychology and is usually the brains of the outfit; and Jenks Jenkinson, a super skinny, wound up and ratty kid from a working class family who nevertheless has great fighting spirit.

  They take their revenge on bullies, boring teachers, nasty neighbors and relatives. Being kids, they don’t always stay anonymous under the cover of Agent Z organization, but usually get away with enough dignity to triumph over their tormentors.

These books are infused with British culture, and I learned many interesting things.  For instance, it turns out that the Brits call ballpoint pens “biros” – honoring its Hungarian inventor (I guess that theory about Hungarian Martians is not that far from the truth).

I also learned about chip butty (one of Ben’s favorite foods). Believe it or not, a chip butty is a sandwitch made out of two white (!) buttered (!!) pieces of bread, french fries (!!!) and ketchup (!!!!).

Why am I so hung up on the Agent Z? Well, in my youth I had two friends, a good looking one and a crazy one, and together we formed the XYZ secret society. We did pull off a few pranks. MIT is home to a very powerful and very secret society that specializes in pranks, I followed their fine work for years. Hacks and pranks are ingrained  in the souls of all engineers.

One of my favorite parts of the books is the illustrations that the author drew himself. Haddon is a very talented illustrator.

Agent Z Goes Wild is hard to find for some reason. I got my copy at abebooks.com.

Technology To Die For

I learned from a very interesting book called “Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton” that during the development of Apple Newton one engineer committed suicide. Being ahead of its time, Newton did not become popular, although it was engineered so well, that to this day many enthusiasts still use it, write software, and even make new hardware for it. I am actually thinking of buying one on eBay still.

I don’t know if anyone got hurt during the development of iPod, but it was involved in several fatalities for sure.

First, a woman beat her boyfriend to death with the device. This is reminiscent of Russian Emperor Paul I being killed with a snuff box. I was recently watching Leonid Parfenov’s awesome “Russian Empire” series, where he showed the infamous snuff box. I always thought that it was rather large, but it turns out to be about the size on an iPod.
[update] Apparently this was a hoax.

Also, a kid in Brooklyn died from a knife wound when he was being robbed of his iPod. NYPD and MTA reacted by this wonderfully cryptic ad. Without actually mentioning Apple or iPod they are urging hipsters to swap out the distinctive white iPod headphones for ugly Radioshack ones. Maybe they should also suggest buying Creative’s (or Microsoft’s when they come out) players – nobody will probably want to kill for one.


Ad:

Behold the Power of eBay!

There are amazing man-made materials out there. Super plastics, super ceramics, super metals. We mostly read about them in science magazines. One of the reasons these awesome materials do not get used as much as they should is because they are expensive or hard to get. But a more important reason is the simple fact that an engineer building a prototype probably missed the news article about the material, or could not get her hands on a sample in time.

iDEO, a design company that I worship has a very cool tradition: keeping a special box with all kinds of crazy material samples in every office. Engineers and designers can borrow pieces just to play with them or to use them in projects.

One of the examples that I know of, is the special rubbery plastic that they used to isolate TIVO‘s hard drive in order to reduce vibrations and sound. My TIVO is very quiet.

Interestingly enough, these days many super materials can be purchased on eBay. Take for instance that aerogel plastic that was recently used to capture some comet dust that will surely bring an end to our civilization. Photos of it look like some crappy Photoshop special effects.

Well, you can have a sample of your own for about 30 bucks.

Or how about Fluorinert? It’s a completely non-conductive liquid made by 3M that Seymore Cray (hey, have you seen this post of mine?) used to immerse his supercomputers in. Yes, you can have your own computer in an aquarium with the help of eBay!

Unfortunately it looks like nobody is selling LN2, so you can’t do this. Or make LN2 ice cream.

Deadprogrammer’s Favorite Skyscraper

My favorite skyscraper is a little obscure (like many of my favorite things). Today it’s called the AIG building. When it was built, it was called the City Services Building or Sixty Wall Tower.

The soaring art deco tower was built for City Services Corporation, a company willed into being by one Henry L. Doherty. Doherty was a thoroughly Randian character. A self taught engineer, he started off by leaving school in 1882 at the tender age of 12 to go to work for a local gas company and went on to build one the biggest electric, oil and gas companies worth 1.3 billion in 1930. A technophile, Doherty traveled around the country in his personal train car with telephone and wireless equipment to keep in touch with his empire. Even his bed had phone connections, and electric fan, heating pads and electric motors that could move it through remote control swinging doors onto a porch of his penthouse apartment. He was a very good executive and salesman, but always took a title of Chief Engineer. He even applied for an official engineering license (as he didn’t have any academic credentials). He did have 150 patents to his name and had many articles about oil refining and economy published.

The architectural firm of Clinton & Russel, Holton & George was given the task of designing City Services Building, but Doherty and his engineers had a hand in it too. The building’s heating and air conditioning system was designed by City Services engineers, and Doherty himself suggested double-decker elevators, and terraces with aluminum railings. The building was planned as an embodiment of Doherty’s vision.

The tower starts of as a chunky block wide “wedding cake“. The reason for that is New York City zoning laws. NYC building had to have “setbacks” that would allow light to reach the ground. This was required so that the shadow of a skyscraper would not permanently block daylight on the street. But higher than a certain level you could build without setbacks though. And that’s exactly what the architects did in this case: above the “wedding cake” is a tremendous tower.

The building is recursive: there are two columns shaped like it on it’s sides.

When I was reading The Fountainhead”, this is how I imagined the Dana Building. Coruscant City towers look very much like the City Services Building.

Doherty was planning to live in a penthouse apartment on top of the building. But his health gave out, and after spending some time in sanatoriums he died. Instead of the penthouse apartment an observation gallery was built.

City Services building also became the final masterpiece of it’s architects, Clinton & Russel, Holton & George. No major work came their way after senior partners Clinton and Russel died, and then one of the junior partners, Holton died and George retired.

City Services Inc was hit hard by The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935: they were told that no company could sell or produce both oil and gas. They chose oil and became CITGO. The company moved it’s headquarters to Tulsa selling City Services Building to AIG. AIG renovated the building, but closed off the lobby and the amazing observation deck to the public. Now the observation deck serves as an executive lounge. If you have some juice at AIG and could give me a tour… Well, that would make me happy. Well, it could happen.

Much of my information for this article came from a very good, but poorly organized book called Skyscraper Rivals. I could not find any books about Henry L. Doherty except a $350 “Principles and Ideas for Doherty Men”, a compilation of his articles and letters.

Wegee was a big fan of City Services Building, a book “Weegee’s People” chronicles the life inside the tower. When I get it, I’ll write another article about the double decker elevators, the all-female redhead elevator operators and other marvels of the City Services Building.


Henry L. Doherty and the City Services Building (from “Skyscraper Rivals”)


This is how I get to see the AIG building from a train window.


Coruscant City from Star Wars (image from http://www.wizards.com)