Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Bad Etiquette Droid You're Looking For

I don't know why I just thought of this recently, but why, I ask, was C-3PO, supposedly programmed for "etiquette and protocol" in millions of languages and cultures, so devoid of manners and etiquette himself? A bit of a snob, he was, but always interrupting people. "But Sir..." "Shut him up or shut him down," injected Han Solo during "The Empire Strikes Back," sick of listening to 3PO's babbling.

Not only did he interrupt often, but he kicked his "counterpart", sweet little R2-D2 and called him an "overweight glob of grease." Now, I ask you, is that a polite thing to say?

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

It's Never Too Late To Hate Microsoft

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that the Microsoft Office "updates" now take up more space than an entire hard drive did 15 years ago, and their product really hasn't improved?

I know this isn't new or news but I was installing the 57.3 MB update today that ostensibly repairs security holes and patches the kludgy mess of software that they've paid thousands of people to develop over the past several years and that they now charge upwards of $400 for (I got it free) and I recalled that my first hard drive was actually 40MB that I got in 1990. At the time, I was using a great word processor on the Amiga that had nearly all of the features that MSWord has now, and it took up slightly over 1MB of space.

I never understood how Microsoft turned all of their products into such beasts, I never understood their protection of the code or their lack of attention to security, and I still don't understand it. But I had let myself start to try and believe the company wasn't so evil because I have a good friend who works there (I've heard employees are treated well) and because of the Bill & Menlinda Gates Foundation's work around the world.

Then I heard a story the other night from a woman who knew Bill Gates and it made my stomach turn. So here I am again, with very little that's positive to say about Microsoft. Why do I use their software, you might ask? Just because it's the standard. And I suppose I'm somewhat masochistic. Or possibly because everybody needs something to complain about that's really not so important in the scheme of things and kludgy word processors fit that category.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Meeting With Elizabeth Edwards

Through the Silicon Valley Moms Blog, I had a unique opportunity to sit down on Tuesday and meet with Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John Edwards (Attorney, Senator, Presidential Candidate, VP Nominee), mom, attorney and breast cancer survivor.

Fifteen of us met with her for an hour and here were our observations: a) she really is as down-to-earth as she seems on TV and in her new book, Saving Graces, b) she is very smart and educated on public policy (no surprise, but comforting), c) she is a genuinely considerate woman and d) she has exquisite penmanship.

A few things she said stuck in my mind. "The Internet is the last real democratic institution." This was in reference to the media and how more often than not, members of the press just take whatever sound bites they can get from quick phone calls to insert into articles already written. She feels that online we can truly say what we want when we want. She said she was glad "citizen journalists" exist. And she really grokked blogging. She says she posts anonymously sometimes, and in other places as herself.

On political topics, she said that her husband is considering running again. He seems (this is my thought here) to be one of those people who is truly compelled to do something to help the world and Mrs. Edwards said that his campaign and his work now at the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is all under the same feeling that regular people need a voice. He'll probably run again, but at the same time, he is really happy where he is now.

For my part, I just enjoyed meeting another woman who seems to juggle a lot of things and come out ahead. She has weathered enormous storms only to come out stronger, and for that she deserves a great deal of respect. Whatever your politics, it's easy to admire this woman for her courage, her honesty and her openness. I hope I have the opportunity to meet her again someday.

Press from the meeting...
"Elizabeth Edwards meets with San Francisco area MomBloggers", on Blogging Baby (by Jennifer Scharpen)

Some other bloggers' perspectives...
- "from giggles and mud to loving your home the best - a recap of our meeting with Elizabeth Edwards" on SVMoms, including links to posts by other moms present (by Jill Asher)
- "Mommybloggers in conversation with Elizabeth Edwards" on MomWrites (by Mary Tsao)
- "Silicon Valley Mommybloggers Spend an Inspirational Hour with Elizabeth Edwards" on SVMoms (by Beth Blecherman)

Photos from the meeting can be found here. (The one where she and I have big smiles and are looking at my phone is of me showing her a great video of my daughter, Julia.)

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

NASA Launches VC for Mars Mission Prep

Here's something interesting I found on VentureBeat: Red Planet Capital, a $75Million venture capital fund fased at NASA Ames here in Mountain View, will be funding businesses that develop technology for space exploration.

In his post, "NASA Ames Research Center has vital role in future space exploration", Pete Worden (NASA Ames Director) writes about all of the new work that is happening local to the Bay Area including partnerships with Google, testing new heat shields for the shuttle replacement, Orion, and developing IT for health monitoring tools. He also notes that robotics and small satellite missions are something for the near future.

Red Planet Capital is a nonprofit organization originally based out of San Mateo. They have eight business areas of focus: "eight business sectors: information technology, communications, biomedical support, environmental systems, smart manufacturing, man-machine systems, energy, and advanced materials." They invest $3-$5 Million in most of their portfolio companies over the course of multiple rounds of funding, starting with sums of $250k. See also: NASA's press release from last month and of course

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Latest Posts on Silicon Valley & Parenting

In splitting my blogging time between topics and blogs, here are a few of my latest posts on the Silicon Valley Moms Blog. As you can probably guess from the blog title, most of my posts on that site are related to Silicon Valley and/or parenting.

"Sometimes It's Hard Not to Laugh"
"New vs. Old Toys"
"What Happened to House Calls?"
"Pre-emptive Eating"
"In A Rich Man's World"

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Evil Dead - The Musical?

It's Friday the 13th, and just when you think you've seen it all, someone takes the 80's cult classic campy horror films, "Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead II", and turns them into a musical in New York City. Yes, that's right. A musical. Not quite a Broadway musical (on 50th street, between 8th & 9th Avenues) but one of the co-directors is a Tony winner.

Evil Dead, The Musical, does right in not taking itself seriously. The quotes on the web site reading things like "disarmingly funny" and "live-ish performances". Ahh, brings back fond memories of high school. Song names are pretty good too - "All the men in my life keep getting killed by Candarian demons" and "What the f*#k was that" were my two favorites listed.

The ticketing site, listing performances through December 9th, has the following disclaimer: "The first two rows of the orchestra are the 'Splatter Zone.' Patrons in the 'Splatter Zone' should be prepared to have a bloody good timeā€¦and dress accordingly." Sounds like fun.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Woody Allen Never Ceases to Amuse

The New Yorker is one of my favorite magazines and most definitely it's one of a kind. Each time I open it, I'm surprised by something new and the October 2nd edition was no exception. We had just renewed our lapsed subscription so I had forgotten how much I enjoy the short fiction presented and that week's held a priceless piece by Woody Allen, entitled "Pinchuck's Law".

Not knowing exactly what to expect, I dove into the piece like a hungry wolf as it had been years since I'd actually read anything by Allen, although I'd certainly viewed his films. In a story that begins like a classic murder mystery, he took me down twists and turns of comedic surprise and creative excellence. It was just what I needed after an unusually difficult week to have some unpredictable laughs and soak in a true master's way with words. I highly recommend taking the time to read it.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Dolby Surrounds Geek Ball

Saturday night, Thomas Dolby headlined Palo Alto's biannual Black and White Ball. This was my first time attending and it was a good event, held at the Lucie Stern theater & community center near downtown Palo Alto, funds going to support city arts programs.

I expected that with 1500 people in attendance, it would feel packed and parking would be a pain but it was easy and not so busy as I'd expected, with 3 different rooms of musical artists and food vendors throughout. Basically somebody walked down University Avenue and got every restaurant in town to come provide food, which was great, as some of them are really good. Straits Cafe and Zibbibo won the food awards of the night in my opinion.

The ball was a bit on the casual side, to be expected in the heart of Silicon Valley. Most people wore short dresses and probably the majority of men were in tuxes, but there were several other types of attire present as well. People weren't stuffy though - everyone just had a good time - from Stanford EECS professors to Elvira. We bid and won a silent auction trip to Nice, France. Can't beat shopping that goes to a good cause.

We did run into a surprising number of friends and acquaintances who I didn't know would be attending. The Silicon Valley Moms were out - we couldn't have planned to have more of us present (see Jill's post) - as were some of my favorite Junior Leaguers.

Dolby himself was a bit of a surprise - it was more like Ray Cooper meets Trent Reznor. (He looks identical to the photo on the front of his web site.) The music was fun, and everybody seemed to be enjoying it. Definitely a good choice for the crowd. "She Blinded Me With Science" was actually not as fun as I though it would be, because it didn't have any of the emotional emphasis that the video holds - probably since he's sung it a zillion times. But all in all, it was a fun night.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Vacuum Packed Books From Blogs, Isaac Asimov & NaNoWriMo

Vacuum, an e-mail list I'm on, has all sorts of interesting discussions and today's topic initiated by Ed Vielmetti, was on turning blogs into books and whether it's possible. Several people commented on the concept noting that the two are very different animals, but it got me thinking so I decided not only to respond to the thread but also to post what I wrote here:

I'm curently in the process of writing a nonfiction book (well, a few chapters - just beginning the agent & publisher search) and posting to a couple of blogs. I'm also a new mom so I find myself with smaller chunks of time to work with than I previously had. I was one of those people who could stay up all night and write a chapter or two, or a few scenes of a play, at a time. But now I don't have that kind of time.

I have discovered that I can actually write for my book the same way I write for my blog in terms of organizing a thought, knowing how much space I need to fill, writing that copy, rewriting and posting. Therefore, I think turning a blog into a book would be theoretically possible, but it would require a great deal more effort and planning before beginning.

Basically you would be writing one page at a time - maybe two - instead of a chapter at a time (15-25 pages). It wouldn't be as well-done as a book because it wouldn't have the same editorial process including the opportunity to go back and rearrange things that might be ordered differently. For example, the chapter I'm working on currently I had organized one way and I decided it would logically flow better with a different layout of sections. If I were writing it in a blog, it would have already been too late because I would've published the first section before I realized it should be reordered.

What I think is interesting that I discovered while editing a few books is that sometimes chapters are presented to the editors out of order and never revisited by the author before printing, so nonfiction books can be pieced together rather haphazardly not unlike blogs. That actually bothered me because I like to look at each work I produce as a whole. Writing this kind of book requires a detailed outline from the beginning, but that doesn't necessarily mean the author will stay true to it 100%. If you built a book from a blog, there would be no room for deviation.

The other concern is style. Most bloggers are more casual in their writing style on a blog; whereas most books are a bit more formal. I think that's both a result of the different audiences targeted and the forum. However, if I wrote what I'm writing for my book in my blog, I think it would have less interest as a sum of its parts than it would as a whole. But that wouldn't necessarily be the case in a diary-type book.

I think the metaphor of serial vs. parallel processing also applies. The traditional book development process is more like parallel whereas the blog style (also as in serialized articles, just with smaller parts) is more linear. However, I recall reading once that Isaac Asimov typed every single book he wrote on a typewriter, never correcting, as he wrote. Maybe he developed that style as a result of his medium. I suppose with fiction it could be easier also to just let the characters take you wherever they want to go, but I can't imagine remembering all of the little details about them without some additional character guide not unlike an outline. In any case, it's still an impressive feat.

One last note - a friend of mine from high school, Chris Baty, started the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) phenomenon a few years back and it's done annually - coming up again in November. If you want to try your hand at writing a novel, the goal is volume/quantity over quality. They figure you can always polish the final product after it's done. The goal is total number of words (over 50,000 constitutes a "novel"), presented at the author's leisure so some people do it a chapter at a time and others wait until the end.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Fixing E-Voting

Thursday, two esteemed colleagues from the USACM Public Policy Committee, Barbara Simons and Ed Felten, two experts on computers and voting machines, testified in a Congressional hearing on electronic voting. More specifically, they stressed that we need a voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) or a or voter verified paper ballot (VVPB) for these machines. This isn't anything new; unfortunately, it just takes this long for Congress to start listening to this type of concern when it's already been a serious problem for a few years.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Felten and his staff at Princeton, released a report based on a study they conducted on the Diebold AccuVote-TS, a Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) device, that proved that this particular machine could be hacked in under a minute with "little if any risk of detection."

So yes, when the Diebold people (a company run by active, known Republicans) told Bush they would "deliver Ohio", they could have meant they would make sure he won there. Felten noted that "injecting a virus into a single computerized voting machine can affect an entire election." In other words, the people who were out there on the fringe saying Bush stole two elections could be right. (I'm not saying they are; I'm only saying it's now been scientifically and technically proven that it was a possibility.)

Here's a simple scenario on how it would work (so easy a dog could be trained to do it):

1) E-Voting machine is delivered to polling place and/or poll worker the week of the election.
2) Machines are initially tested to make sure they work. Someone is given one physical key. Then they leave.
3) Any time over the next few days, that person or another person (most likely a poll worker - they are unsupervised but would have easiest access) with the same key (there are only a few versions for over ten thousand machines, like hotel minibars) comes in, unlocks the back of one machine.
4) That person inserts a memory card and the card automatically uploads a virus. The person (or dog) then removes the card, locks the machine and leaves. Boom - done. Election won. The whole process takes under one minute.
5) The machine is given its pre-election test the day before or day of the election with no detection of the virus.
6) As the votes are processed, the virus changes them.
7) The virus then deletes itself in order to remove the evidence that it was there. The program is simple enough to write that even I could do it (and that's saying something).

So in order to prevent this sort of thing from happening (again?), here is what needs to be done in order to create machines and process that are truly secure and can provide a system that we can be reasonably sure produces accurate results:

- Collaboration of technical and election communities
- Increased use of independent technical security experts
- Further research to improve the voting systems
- More accessibility to companies designing these products
- More secure physical and crypto keys
- More robust hardware and software design
- Rigorous testing by third party experts
- Removed/reduced and/or encrypted access for random memory cards
- Stricter certification process
- Deployed with safeguards against failure
- Heightened security training and processes for poll workers
- Routine random manual audits
- Policies and procedures that guarantee the integrity of the paper and the quality of the printers used for printed paper trails
- Mandatory manual recounts
- Increased accountability

This may still seem like a complex problem and it is, but the best way to circumvent continued issues is with a verifiable paper trail, regardless of the system used. That's all we can hope for with one month until election day.

See also: RFK Jr's article in Rolling Stone.

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