Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why I enjoyed reading I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59. Part II

This is Part II of my blog on this book. For Part I, click here

Alright, most of us are clueless about esoteric computer language and the workings of a search engine behemoth such as Google. Yet, it is highly probable you will enjoy this book, nonetheless.

Let me give you an example.

If you were to randomly open the book to Chapter 11 (entitled Liftoff), you are in for a delightful surprise. Here we learn that in the Spring of 2000, Google has just completed an unpublicized deal to be the search engine for Yahoo. The employees were kept in the dark.

This situation was akin to David negotiating a deal with Goliath despite huge differences in size.

 True, Google was servicing eight million searches a day which would leap to nine million two weeks later.

However, Yahoo the search portal (featuring links to dozens of topics ranging from sports, politics, international news to fashion) had about 50 million unique visitors per month.

Google, on the other hand, had only about 3 million unique visitors.

Many, many problems were faced by Google and all can be boiled down to speed, capacity and results. All had to be met simultaneously to meet a deadline of July 4th, some three months away.

Speed problems would be caused by a dramatic increase in the online traffic due to queries from Yahoo. Here, Google would have to decrease the latency, or the average delay in returning results over any given hour.

Storage capacity was going to be strained. The founders set an arbitrary goal of indexing/storing 1 billion URL's--a herculean task. This would require increasing storage capacity by many times.

 But, with so much new information being indexed daily, how could you assure the searcher that he or she is getting current information as opposed to data that is weeks old?

So results had to be not only fast, but also contain the latest information. The software for pulling together information on a specific topic is called a crawler.  Google's engineers had to design crawlers that could process huge amounts of data quickly. In addition, the crawlers would have to do their work, not just monthly, but several times a week. So, that if you were looking for the latest references to 'global warming,' you could rely on the results.

Many other problems arose such as linking data from three different server farms (discussed in Part I)  located all over the county.

How successful was Google in dealing with these problems?

I leave it to the reader to determine whether Google was able to meet the contract promises made to Yahoo when indeed July 4th rolled around.

You won't be disappointed!

Friday, July 27, 2012

An enjoyable read: I'm feeling Lucky. The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59

This is a must read book!

This book started off slow for me, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the geek terminology. However, as I continued reading, my interest was heightened.

The book begins with the author Doug Edwards joining a start up company called Google as its 59th employee and ends with his departure just after the company has gone public.

Edwards had been in charge of online product development at the San Jose Mercury News; he "saw newspapers as the first draft of history" and "grew tired of the struggles that went with dragging an old business into a new age." It was a stable job, with guaranteed income from a 150-year old media group; yet, he felt the pull of nearby Silicon Valley. 

He was offered a job at Yahoo and turned it down because of a poor salary.

He then does some research on Google and discovered that two of the largest west coast  venture capital firms invested $25 Million. So, after an interview that included quirky questions by one of the founders, he is hired by Google as online brand manager--meaning he's the guy in charge of the companies web page(s).  He has turned 41 and took a $25,000 cut in salary-despite the fact he has a mortgage to pay and another baby on the way. 

Once there he discovers the 'self invented' culture he is joining. Desks consisted of wooden doors lain across metal workhorses. There is unlimited food available in the on site cafe, doctors are on staff, many are the wild drinking parties and for his workspace "cables draped from the ceiling above an uncarpeted concrete floor in a wide-open space interrupted only by cement  pillars..."

Work titles mean nothing. Everybody is expected to help where ever and whenever needed. One of his early tasks involves spending a Saturday joining other clueless marketing, office staff and finance people at the Google data center aka a server farm. He describes the premises as an "extremely well-kept zoo, with chain-link walls draped from floor to ceiling creating rows of large fenced cages vanishing somewhere in the far, dark reaches of the Matrix." 

He joins an ops team made up of engineers to aid in maintaining the 1500 servers Google paid for hosting. He knows nothing, but just follows the commands of his team leaders. 

Edwards quickly learns that the founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page have a strong bias against spending money on traditional advertising.  Brin says he'd rather spend marketing money to innoculate 
Chechin refugees against cholera. 

End of Part I (to be continued).

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ferguson Library shows movie about Vladimir Vysotsky noted Russian singer, songwwriter and actor

He was perhaps the most famous Russian singer and songwriter of the 1960's and 1970's. (He has been referred to as the Bob Dylan of the Soviet era.)

And the biopic "Thank You for Being Alive" just released in December 2011 has quickly become the highest grossing Russian film of the year, grossing $21.3 million in just 10 days.

The film- based on real events- details Vysotsky's journey to perform a concert in Uzbekistan. The singer is depicted as constantly on drugs and he is being pursued by the KGB eager to apprehend him because of his political stance.

A Frame of Vysotsky from "Thank You
for Being Alive" 

The film was shown in Russian with no subtitles.

Sincere thanks to the Russian gentleman from New York who sat behind me at Ferguson and quietly translated the dialog with a short commentary.

Stamford Downtown is Rich in New Deal Paintings by James Daugherty

New Deal Art Mural (1934) by James Daugherty
at the Jeremy Richard Library at UConn Stamford 

"School Activities" shown above  and "New England Tradition"  shown below are two of seven murals painted by James Daugherty (1887-1974) for the octagonal  music room at Stamford High School. The mural was commissioned under the New Deal's Public Work of Art program and was completed in four months in 1934. 

"New England Tradition" mural by Daugherty hangs 
in the stairwell at the Ferguson Library 

The murals were retrieved in 1970 from a trash container where they had been dumped as part of a renovation.  At this time they had been cut into 30 sections. Hiram Hoelzer a New York art conservator restored six of them over a 16 year period and the city of Stamford bought them back in 2003 with major funding from the the Ruth W. Brown Foundation, the City of Stamford and the State of Connecticut 

A free brochure prepared by Ferguson Library states that "Daugherty conceived the Stamford panels to show a progression of history, using people from many ethnic groups taking part in education, sports, industry, science and the arts. Daugherty used local teachers and students as models."

Daugherty's works hang in the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Yale University and Smithsonian. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Federer Performs Magic and Takes his Seventh Wimbledon Title

Roger Federer at the 2009
Wimbledon Championships

It was hailed as the 'dream final.'

First, Murray was the first English player to reach the final since 1938--that's 74 years ago--when Bunny Austin lost to Don Budge in three sets. The score was 6-0, 6-1, 6-3.

The last Britisher to land the coveted trophy was Fred Perry who in 1936 beat Gottfried von Cramm 6-0, 6-0, 6-1.

Federer had not won a Grand Slam since the 2010 Australian Open when he defeated Andy Murray in three sets.

But the Grand Slam victory eluded Murray for the 4th time in his career.

Murray opened the match taking the first set 6-4, but then proceeded to lose the next three sets at 7-5, 6-3, 6-4.

Federer played superb tennis. His serve was crisp and sharp and his ground strokes were formidable.

The momentum shifted in Federer's favor right after a sudden rain shower when the score was 1-1 in the third set with Federer up 40 love.

The roof was closed making this the first final played in the enclosed center court facility.

When play resumed Federer raised his game to a much higher level; he is undoubtedly one of the best indoor players as he has no distractions from the sun, wind or clouds.

The turning point was reached at 2-3 with Murray serving in the third set. The sixth game went to 10 deuces and six break points when Federer finally prevailed. Murray, who started off with a 40 love lead, fell on the grass three times.

Congratulations Roger on your 17th Grand Slam victory and regaining the number one world ranking.

Andy Murray, a quarter finalist at 
the 2009 French Championships

And even more important was the formidable courage, guts and fortitude displayed by Andy Murray.

It must be remembered that Andy's coach Ivan Lendel suffered four Grand Slam finals losses before winning his first Grand Slam.

Hang in there, Andy.
Image source (1) 
Image source (2)

Monday, July 2, 2012

How Creativity Works: A Review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

The main aim of this book is to understand factors that contribute to creativity. The writer cites experiments to show which parts of the brain are involved and also illustrates how organizations are realigning to enhance productivity.

In my estimation, the positives (the gems) in this enlightening book outweigh the negatives.

On the negative side, the flow of the book;is at times impeded by a seemingly endless presentation of short scientific experiments and/or  case histories, particularly related to brain function.

The positives are many. Here are a couple.

1.  Innocentive website:  Eli Lilly VP Alpheus Bingham was trying to develop the next blockbuster drug. He was stymied in managing the R&D process.  He thought you should "hire the best resume and give the problem to the guy with the most technical experience. But maybe that was a big mistake?"

He came up with a radical idea that if you couldn't hand pick and predict which scientists could solve the problem then why not open up the search to everyone? So Bingham broke every rule in the book throwing to the winds the usual secrecy of not allowing competitors to know what you're working on and set up Innocentive website.

For a few weeks, his site was unsuccessful, but then it caught on as "the answers just started pouring in...The creativity was simply astonishing."

The site was spun off from Lilly and became an independent one and fielded challenges from other large companies such as P&G and GE. It now presents challenges from hundreds of corporations and non-profits in eight different scientific categories.

2. In the chapter on The Power of Q (Q measures the 'social intimacy' of collaborators, the right balance of familiarity between collaborators) he illustrates how Pixar studios since 1995 (when the first Toy Story was released) has created 11 feature films and each one has been a commercial success with an average gross of $550M per film.

This feat was accomplished mostly by an evolving a creative culture in which there was a "constant interaction between computer scientists and cartoon animators."

At first, the studio had no idea what it was doing-the animators were always asking the technicians if such and such effect were possible e.g. could you reproduce this type of facial expression or catch this blur. At first, there was a constant negotiation.

Over time, the right level of collaboration between both groups was established by having them both in the same building and not scattered about. This way they could interact more frequently at the coffee machines, lunch room, central rest rooms, etc.

Further close collaboration is illustrated in daily morning meetings between animators and computer scientists; here they spend several hours reviewing several seconds of film from the day before (each second has 24 frames).

These are not brainstorming sessions which avoid criticism and in which participators tend to stay 'within themselves' and have no motivation to focus on other people's ideas.

These session are full debates where criticism is encouraged (and can be hurtful). 'Plusing' is encouraged; this is the idea that criticism should be tempered by improving on ideas without harsh or judgmental language. Criticism should contain a new idea that builds on apparent flaws in a productive manner.

These two summaries are just some of eye-openers in Lehrer's book.  Expect more insights in this book such as why the age of Shakespeare produced so many geniuses and how close city living is so beneficial in unlocking creativity.

Image source (1)