Tag Archives: Princeton

Season’s End

For the first time since Labor Day weekend, my car does not have a bag of pucks, coach’s whiteboard, hockey stick and some collection of gloves, jackets, helmets and skate repair kits clanging around the rear hatch. Today ended another season of Mites hockey, my third as a team coach and fifth as a development squad coach, and perhaps for the first time I understand what university professors must feel as a stellar class of students leaves for the real world.

I started coaching travel hockey three years ago, when about half of this team were U6 Mites. They were wobbly, funny, and sometimes more concerned about whose birthday party was after the game, or if they had an itch under their helmet. Today I saw them passing, shooting, supporting each other and showing every aspect of a game that’s ready for full ice, full sized nets, and full score keeping. It was a pleasure to see these kids grow up with hockey as part of their lives.

I got to coach my first tournament – and took a silver medal. I’ve been there as a manager, and as a parent, but never with the responsibility for ensuring the team had a wonderful tournament experience. Despite losing the medal game, it was the type of bonding and mildly exhausting trip that will be etched into hockey memories.

I got to be Coach Santa and Coach Leprechaun. My repertoire is expanding, and the kids seem to love taking pictures and hamming it up with whatever alter ego is calendar-appropriate.

I had the pleasure of sharing the bench with two men who played at a high level, versus the beer league and education-through-sports casting training I’ve had. They brought an amazing mix of humility, humor and knowledge to each game.

At the end of today’s game, concluding our in-house tournament, amidst handing out medals and cupcakes, I took 30 seconds to talk about each player. It was the easiest public speaking I’ve ever had to do, and it happened without notes, because I just had to say what each player made me think.

It was a mixed year outside of Devils Youth hockey – a full season (so far) without Saint Patrik Elias, the patron saint of dangle pie in our house; a horrendous season for the NHL Devils yet one in which I still follow every game; a year in which I got to see playoff hockey in Prague and see my Princeton Tigers return to the ECAC playoffs (and win a series for the first time in nearly a decade); the first year in which I didn’t play in a single adult beer league game due to work, travel and injury schedules. But when you see 11 small players throw their gloves in the air, pile on their goalie and celebrate like they’d just won the Stanley Cup, it’s a good year of hockey.

Suny B Psycho Squad, Assemble

I nearly missed my ride to Newark Airport screaming at my Princeton Tigers in the semifinal of the first Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament (seems like it needs a name, and a championship trophy name). The game went into overtime, with Princeton’s ability to tie it in the waning seconds presenting a kick-save opportunity for a game in which they never led. Along the way, I channeled every single strange event memory I could dredge up, from Carril era nicknames for players who made poor shot selections to performing my own, best-viewed-privately version of the Suny B Psycho Squad cheer while wearing this shirt.

No manner of weirdness, no talisman, no historical reference, no alliterative profanity is too far when you are on the doorstep of the big dance, wishing for a ticket to get in, to relive your salad days and remember great friends for two weeks. If the Olympics are an international house guest that makes you feign interest in strange sports in the name of national pride, then March Madness is a mini college reunion of friends with whom you cheered until your throat and head hurt equally.

Here’s what I remember from various Princeton basketball games between 1982 and 1984:

My friend Ed had a rubber chicken that we brought to most games our senior year. The Columbia game that winter was 11-10 at halftime (no shot clock, and verrrryyy long possessions) and ended with Princeton losing 33-31. I said some mean things that night and we did a few visual puns with the chicken that would be unacceptable on the Monmouth bench (or anywhere else with respectable adults present).

Princeton clinched an Ivy Title, and an automatic tourney bid, in the last game of the year versus Penn, which I listened to on my Walkman (!!) in the EQuad terminal room (think about it: you could take cassettes with you, but you still had to go to where the computers were). My friend Lemon knew I was working on my thesis, and brought me a stromboli from Victor’s about an hour after the game. There were no cell phones, no email, no texting, she just knew where I would be and what would make that evening perfect. It was one of the finest acts of friendship during my four years as a Tiger.

Princeton had an alt-cheering force known as the Suny B Psycho Squad, of which friend Ed and a number of other arm’s length friends were members. Their cheers featured animal onomatopoeia, hand-lettered poster board signs to goad us into joining them, and in later incarnations, the rubber chicken providing aerial support. It was fun and goofy and nearly impossible to explain, but the people who “got it” can still trigger a tight network effort on Facebook with a mere “E I E I E I O”, the clarion call, shofar-like, of the assembly of the Suny B team.

Ed’s rubber chicken disintegrated somewhere along the travels of married life with kids. I bought him a new one a few weeks ago, in the middle of Princeton’s run to a 14-0 Ivy season. It seemed the right thing to do.

Slowly march, forward, thirty-three years and Princeton finds itself in the Ivy Tournament finals, an invitation to dance forty minutes away. Penn has been defeated, at the Palestra, again, and in the course of yammering online I heard from Ed, Lemon, and a host of other friends who recognized the animal sounds and requirement to cheer in non-obvious ways.

For one shining moment, we were all on the bleachers again, rubber chicken in hand, despite a few thousand miles of geography and three decades of life.

“Legends Club” – V, K and the Dean

John Feinstein delivers in his sweet spot – college basketball – with “The Legends Club”. It is a story of fathers and sons of genetic and organizational and institutional relation; it is a love story of men and a game and rivals and life-long learning; it is at times almost unintentionally hilarious and equally sad because of the real-world characters involved. I have told bits of pieces of the following to people who ask why I left a technology company to join a healthcare company: reading stories of how Dean Smith’s mental gifts were stolen by his struggle with Alzheimer’s made me realize how elements of my management style were a reflection of his public persona, and that nobody deserved to die without the dignity of being their true mental selves through their entire lives.

If that’s a bit melancholy, it sets the tone for the book. Dean Smith and Jim Valvano don’t survive to the end of the story, but how Feinstein relates the incredibly textured, complex and rival-driven relationships of their lives is what makes this a compelling read.

My introduction to college basketball happened mostly accidentally – my freshman roommate decided to run a pool for the 1981 NCAA tournament, featuring our own Princeton Tigers squaring off against a BYU team lead by some kid named Danny Ainge (how prophetic that would be for my sports fandom years after moving to Boston). At the time, I knew very little about college basketball, and after being immersed in freshman physics, linear algebra and intro to CS, few of us knew very little about the outside world at all. So my Final Four picks included Indiana (because a high school friend went there) and North Carolina (since my closest roommate, Matt, was from Chapel Hill and his dad taught there). It was nothing more complicated than that.

I spent the week between the Elite 8 and the Final Four in Chapel Hill. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time south of Virginia, and my first exposure to life at a school with a storied coach. Marking time in NCAA brackets, nearly everything about that trip of 35 springs ago remains crystal clear, from the fact that I had a scruffy beard that was painted Carolina blue by someone during an impromptu parade after the Tar Heels won their semi-final game, to cleaning that same paint off of Matt’s car, to my intense fear that I was failing freshman E&M and had decided to re-learn the entire half semester one day, to sitting with Matt’s dad listening to “Classical Gas” which I stupidly thought was originally recorded by Larry Fast and Synergy. Seeing me studying, Matt’s mom brought me a slice of home made pie that was the single greatest incentive and study aid ever invented. Freshman physics took me deep into overtime but lost (I eventually wrapped college with an astrophysics class that made me revisit those days with a bit of educational joy). Names like Al Wood and James Worthy became part of my sports vocabulary (that Michael Jordan kid arrived the next year). Carolina fanaticism was born, slowly, emerging over the course of watching the Tar Heels tournament run reflected in the college town, because of the spirit, the people, the warmth, the fierce competitiveness that never spilled over into ugly vernacular or name-calling, and because of a slice of pie. UNC lost to Indiana in the championship game, and as a result I won the roommate pool for my first ever sports betting win. For the next 25 years I learned to idolize Dean Smith, the UNC hoops coach, my first steps in becoming a lifelong college basketball fan.

The only title-named coach that makes it to the end of the book is Coach K; the book was released before he took the US Men’s Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Rio; but the final chapter is as moving as any novel where the plotlines can be constructed for heartstring tension. It’s not a happy book in the way that any resolution of long-standing, often petty and ugly personal conflict isn’t happy and jocular, but it is hopeful and illustrative of the power of mentoring, coaching and public relationships, and for those reasons I will put it in the short list of “sports books with business implications”.

Here’s what I learned from Feinstein’s deeply personal narrative of how UNC, NC State and Duke, with a strong supporting role played by Indiana and Bobby Knight: Dean Smith was far from a saint, but he acted in a way to always put the focus on his team and its players. He acted out of love for the game, and as a manager, his redirection of the spotlight is a tenet I hold dear. Mike Krzyzewski is not the (Blue) Devil, a bad person, an angry man or a bad coach. He is remarkably adaptable, dealt with physical setbacks (back surgery) that would have forced others into retirement, and worked in the dual large body shadows of Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. And Jimmy V was always the mood lifter, the soul shifter, and sadly, the too gentle soul whose career was injured through actions several long arms’ lengths away from him. My dislike for Coach K has been tempered and damped with facts and backstory; while I respect Dean Smith to this day, it’s evident how much his gravitas and context created space for him to excel. And I will always, always laugh at the ESPN/CBS clip of Jim Valvano running onto the court after winning the National Championship, arms open in a half-hug, because while joyous and hilarious it also represents in relief the best part of enjoying sports – doing so with family, friends, and those you want to hug after the win.

2014: See Ya

On the whole, 2014 was a good year. Rather than making a semi-structured list, I found myself thinking about two extremes — things that were absolutely delightful, and things that gave me pause for 2015.

A Year of Live Music: Four Phish shows in three states, with four newbies in tow. Animals as Leaders twice in small venues. Tony Levin with both King Crimson and Stickmen, at opposite ends of the venue spectrum. Joe Bonamassa at his best; Dream Theater at their most average but still quite good; Flux Forteana at a downtown Boston pub. Also subscribed to Concert Vault, featuring the best of “Bill Graham Presents”, which has reinforced my love of (recorded) live music.

A Year of Travel: Four visits to Prague, three to Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, a return to Seattle after 30 years, only one trip to the Bay Area, a first visit to Curacao. Discovering local food in each city (especially Seattle!) was as much fun as returning to favorite haunts. Celebrated my 52nd birthday in the oldest city in recorded history, with good friends. Prague is a new favorite place to visit and work.

A Year of Waning Fandom: For some reason professional sports just didn’t capture my interest this year. The Yankees were lukewarm from April til September; the Devils are wallowing in middle age and directionless; I have ignored professional basketball since the Nets moved out of the Meadowlands. Even my beloved Tigers failed to show on the ice or finish on the hardwood. On the other hand, youth hockey is alive and well, and I have a great group of 6 year olds who get up for 7:00 am games at outdoor rinks. A visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame taught me things about our family’s sports allegiances that I had never known.

A Year of Small Miracles: I survived a fairly bad car accident, mostly through the benefit of seat belts, air bags, and a fraction of a second. One of my fellow hockey coaches beat his leukemia into remission. The Devils signed one of my favorite players whom I’ve wished to see in the tail and horns for years (Mike Cammalleri) and then proceeded to play non-miraculous hockey. I caught a 40-pound rooster fish at the end of two days of completely quiet sport fishing.

For all of the good and positive, there were some decidedly strange moments. We stayed at the Revel in Atlantic City during the last week it was open, and then watched a third of the city’s casinos financially implode. I found myself worrying about our “adopted” Israeli daughter, when she called quite late at night during her Army service. While giving a ride to some fellow Phans for the Mann Center shows, I got the sense that if you’re in your mid-20s, it’s a hard time to be financially independent. And with the number of security events (both large scale and more personal, like fraudulent credit card charges) I think we’re looking at a year calling for more diligence and caution in all electronic interactions.

Locomotive: George Parros Retires

George Parros has been something of an on-going meme here in Snowman land: Princeton, NJ high school and Devils youth player, stache, good works, answer to a trivia question, and a talent deserving wider recognition. Today, he announced his retirement, nine seasons, five NHL teams and one Stanley Cup after leaving Tiger Town. He holds the distinction of being the first Princetonian with his name on the Stanley Cup (trivia question) and is solid proof that sometimes you adapt your skills to the situation. He did more for local charities and the literal face of hockey than many, and whatever scoring touch he lacked on the ice he more than compensated for with his active and thoughtful representation on the NHL player’s association, including a critical role in resolving the last labor mess.

Locomotives all around for Parros.

25th Sun Microsystems Hiring Anniversary

Today would have been the 25th anniversary of my hire date at Sun Microsystems: 6-7-89, easy to remember, and like an old friend’s birthday it is etched in my mind. The Friday before that, June 4th, was an amalgamation of weird: I drove my signed offer letter over to Peter Young at Sun, quickly picked up my wife and began driving south for my 5th Princeton Reunion. Listening to news radio in the car, the market close report informed me that “Sun Marcosystems CEO Scott MacNally pre-announced a quarterly loss for the computer manufacturer”. The radio announcer got the company and Scott’s name wrong, because Sun simply didn’t register. It was not the first, nor the last, “WTF??” look I got from my wonderful and supportive wife, and I received more than the usual ribbing at Reunions for joining a company that had so clearly nosed over. An internet, a Unix revolution, IBM turning into a services company, HP admitting they are a printer company, and Compaq, Apollo and DEC losing their identities in a Keith Richards-outlives-Michael Jackson way, it’s fair to say that I made a good choice.

More accurately: I made a life-changing choice, given a life-changing opportunity with life-changing co-workers.

Over the next 21 years, I truly did impossible things before breakfast: Building an off-NASDAQ clearing network (now part of Archipelago). Scripting and organizing the first Java Day (in NYC, where we expected 300 people and had over 2,000 with the NYC fire department clearing out the lobby) – thank you Rich and Maria for being crazy with me. Winning DEC’s first OEM based on strength of relationship, after delivering a patch tool via hard floppy disk, as an emergency favor to the then-CIO. Helping to build out mlb.com, which has reshaped my childhood passion for baseball. Designing parts of a pharmaceutical company’s regulatory system on a white board after being out at Foxwoods casino until 5:00am that morning. Rightsizing the Wall Street mid-office based on what we learned about telecommunications networks. Having the audacity to challenge Microsoft’s Passport with the Liberty Alliance, which deeply influenced SAML, one of today’s web authentication foundations. [Note: Ballmer called Liberty “ZPOM” (Zero Probability of Mattering), which I guess we can forgive historically after seeing him spend $2 billion on a basketball team.]

To put the last 25 years in perspective, I need to take a detour through some executive history.

Two weeks after my decision to sign that offer letter, I ran into Scott McNealy (from here on out: Scott, who like Madonna or Sting, only needs one name) at a company event in Billerica. We spoke briefly in the cafeteria line, because, well, Scott ate in the cafeteria with the engineers. He criticized an idea of mine, and he was right. But I was a 26 year old dork and he was the CEO of a billion dollar company. Think about it. A few years later, I misjudged the political climate at a customer, and a white paper (with my name on it) that challenged a trading floor design made its way to the C-suite of that customer, and the C-level executive called Scott looking for blood. Scott called our sales VP, calmed the customer down, and the sales VP and I went on a sales call that involved some berating, some observation, and a lot of humility on my part. It was the closest thing to a near-death experience I’ve had at work, and more than 20 years later, it resonates as the ultimate example of who Scott is and was as a leader, and what Sun’s culture was. We had each other’s backs, and we believed in the technical merits of what we did, even when they (inevitably) made people uncomfortable.

A few years after that, Scott and I were visiting a wickedly smart customer at a major Wall Street bank, and midway through a highly nerdy discussion of trading algorithms, availability, latency and bandwidth, we took a bathroom break. Scott looked at me in the men’s room and deadpanned “Glad I’m here to help out with the technical details.” That, too, is Scott, as was my final official Sun interaction with him: I was in SFO, arriving for probably my last visit to Menlo Park as a Sun employee, and ran into Scott in the concourse. He was wearing jeans, smiling, and asked me (unprompted) how my son’s hockey team was doing.

With the benefit of five years (almost) of hindsight, and two decades at Sun, I can proudly say that there were four grand truths that defined Sun’s culture and laid the railroad tracks (as we were driving the train along them) for our success:

1. Sun’s executives were accessible as peers. Not just visible to the employees and public, but right there with you, in arguments, discussions, design decisions, and meetings. There wasn’t a hierarchy; it was a flat network before that term was in vogue. I remember being in meetings with Ken Okin (at the time, VP of server engineering) and arguing over availability approaches, many of which are still in use today. The closest experience I can relate is that of sitting in a college professor’s office, reviewing a paper, and having her praise your work but also treat you like an academic peer. For a few minutes, you are a rock star in your domain. Get that every day for 20 years, and it’s the best feeling you will ever have. Dave Pensak, inventor of the internet firewall, likes to say that solving problems creates an endorphin rush; we all floated along on it despite the day to day injuries and pains. I believe this is one of the reasons Facebook is successful, and what makes me wonder about Apple today.

2. Sun’s employees were empowered and expected to bring the “A” game every day. Empowerment doesn’t mean freedom to whine; it means you’re free to solve problems. Scott used to say “I pay you to think, my job is to execute the solutions where you need my help.” In a nutshell, that was how we innovated – nothing was sacred, nothing was left unchallenged. Sometimes that empowerment was crap-your-pants scary. Peter Young challenged me to figure out “rightsizing” by presenting a technical strategy to a major bank. I had no idea what to do. He told me to figure it out, and we’d keep iterating on the strategy, while he insisted that I parachute into lower Manhattan once a week for six months. It was the best learning experience ever. You had to figure things out quickly, creatively, and aggressively, and when we won (and we won many times, against much larger and better-armed competitors) we celebrated in mildly insane ways.

3. Sun’s employees were the first social network. Around early 1995, I was looking for Chuck McManis to talk about NIS+ (needing to update the “Managing NFS & NIS” O’Reilly book) and while he was out, I ran into James Gosling. He invited me into his office to show me something called Oak, which was later renamed Java. It blew my mind – not just the technology and design, but the fact that Gosling was inviting me into his domain. Six months later we held the first Java Day in New York to plumb the developer market, and it exploded. If you have a high school student taking the Computer Science AP test (in Java) you’ve seen the results of that relationship and technical empowerment.

4. Sun had a healthy respect for left of center ideas. Maybe this was a reflection of Scott being called “the brash, young CEO” until he was pushing 40, or maybe it was Andy Bechtolsheim and Bill Joy channeling their “use what’s there and build on it” engineering approach, but Sun had an uncanny ability to create and celebrate our own rock stars. We didn’t always hire or recruit them; they happened, they flourished, they had a series of technology hit singles, and we changed culture in the large. Again, Dr. Dre as an Apple employee gives me pause.

My memories – along with my friends’ and co-workers’ – have become an oral narrative of how technology went social. In 1989, technology was a bunch of companies with Xy- or Advanced as prefixes; today technology modulates everything about the way in which we interact with others. Technology, and networking in particular, forms the mesh of our social fabric, all grown up from the strange hem on an artsy garment. “The Network Is The Computer” has never been more true, despite being very far left of center when first uttered by John Gage.

Sun Microsystems formed five consecutive college experiences for me, bracketed by my 5th and 25th college reunions. There is no other way to describe it. I was challenged, empowered, educated, thrilled, saddened (when we lost a competitive deal), mildly freaked out, all the while making friends, building connections and creating memories that will last the rest of my life, as strong and vivid and vibrant as any Princeton moment. My Sun co-workers were, and are, not just my professional associates or friends, they are now and forever my classmates. We share championships, glory, near-misses and fondly – and proudly – recollect times when the “common wisdom” crowd shook its head at us. We were the Cameron Crazies and the Coach K teams of the internet. It pains me to make a Duke reference, but the vernacular is appropriate.

As I was facing this anniversary, with a mixture of pride and sadness during the past week, I’ve been struggling with a framework in which to express it. What exactly are the plot mechanics? The “20 years of college” only seemed to fit once I saw this piece about Bill Watterson, the creator of “Calvin & Hobbes”, shared (of course) by a former Sun peer. Comics have been a part of my life since I was in the single digits; in high school Funky Winkerbean (thanks, Nick Santoro) told me it was acceptable to be a band nerd if you were self-deprecating and didn’t take money, the weather or anything else external too seriously. At sun, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strips dotted the walls and influenced secret project names, prefacing xkcd and Dilbert. We were all, in our dreams, Spaceman Spiff. Comics have always conveyed the subculture of bad-assery, as seen through the eyes of another single digit aged kid, even when the kid is an engineering adult. That is who we were, and are, and will be.

The maudlin sense comes from my friends who lament the passing of Sun Microsystems. Yes, Oracle bought Sun, and yes, it’s not the same company. I have found at least gentle humor and context for that change in thinking about how my favorite comics have run their course. Calvin and Hobbes rode their sled off the final strip, and Watterson effectively retired. Funky Winkerbean and friends suddenly grew up, in a time shift, and frankly and publicly played the 7-4 off-suit of life that artist Tom Batiuk dealt to his own characters. That’s what I’ve learned through the narrative of comics: your favorite self-identified characters grow up, prepared for whatever jocks-vs-nerds, existential fundraising scheme, or spaceman adventure awaits just over the hill.

Thank you to all of my Sun Microsystems managers, leaders, co-workers, and friends, for going up and over that hill with me. It was the best 21 years of college ever, with more championship rings, banners, and A+-with-garlands grades than we could have ever imagined. If you were there, you know where the Java championship rings are embedded in today’s technology, and you are much richer for the experience, even if we have to act a bit more adult now.

Big W Day

Yesterday was one of those days when I feel that I should have gone to Atlantic City to play no limit hold’em, because everything to which I tuned or touched was coming up pocket aces. Princeton football fell behind 17-0 then came from behind (at Brown!) to win 39-17. Devils notch their first W of the year, in a shutout, over the Rangers, while I had an Israeli friend (first timer) in tow. Red Sox win in dramatic fashion.

And yet it was the little wins, on a more personal scale, that completed that perfect fall feeling. Hung up some autographed memorabilia that I had framed, and it fit into the grid layout I envisioned with a few inches to spare. Did some minor rewiring of our copper (sigh) phone lines inside the house so I can finally get out from under Verizon’s $70/month inability to put a third line on my FiOS account without doing a full re-install (I have asked and wave my hands in stupefecation – and have you noticed that stupefecation and fecal have a lot of letters in common?) Got closer to figuring out a side project, and helped my sister reset her wireless network over the phone (me, not her network, that is). Small wins, but combined that make for a big W.

Now if we can only proxy this on to the Giants…

End of the Broadcast Day

During three months of Sunday mornings, I was the first DJ on the air on WPRB-FM. I popped in the “sign on cart” that opened with a bit of patriotic music and then segued right into a Dixieland-style vamp that invited listeners to stay with us through the broadcast day. That was always one of my favorite parts of being on the air; the mix of charged-but-serious (who can’t be serious when you are firing up 17,000 watts of power through a lot of analog electronics?) and seriously fun struck the right balance for college radio. Bill Rosenblatt used to say that good DJs made you feel like you were sitting in the living room with them, listening to records. For me, the sign-on cart was turning on the lights to invite people in.

My Reunions jacket "patch" in memory of Jim Robinson.  I left it tacked on the wall at WPRB.

My Reunions jacket “patch” in memory of Jim Robinson. I left it tacked on the wall at WPRB.

Over the course of three years and two summers, I learned a number of valuable lessons at WPRB, ranging from how to sell to how to present to people much more senior than me to how to deal with seemingly large (but ultimately small and short-lived) crises. The very tenor of the place, the mix of fun and function, of embracing a freedom to explore musically, technically and organizationally, stemmed from Jim Robinson (Princeton ’43), co-founder of the station. He was, in the words of John Shyer, immediately comfortable with everyone he met, no matter how many decades removed from his own experiences and musical tastes. His living room was always open for advice or insight. As an engineer, in sidebar discussions with him, he impressed me as someone who believed in solving problems the right way, even if it was less celebrated or less visible, because design was important.

My Princeton experience was centered on WPRB, and for that I owe a huge debt to Jim Robinson, not only for having the courage and initiative to get it on the air, but for continuing to imbue it with love, a sense of community and continuity for the next four decades. obituaryJim passed away last week, just prior to his 70th Princeton Reunion. An impressive group of alumnni from six different decades congregated in the station to pay tribute to him, as we were all influenced directly or indirectly by his gentle nature.

In Memorium: Arthur Lo

This morning I found out that my senior thesis advisor, Arthur Lo, passed away nearly two months ago. This came on the heels of a Facebook chat with a good friend who similarly found out her favorite professor and advisor died recently. Perhaps it’s a sign that we’re in that sandwich phase of adulthood, tending to our own children and hoping to pass on some of the wisdom and insight handed to us by those we now miss.

Professor Lo was old school before it was fashionable. He was practical, direct, challenging and most of all, approachable. He knew how things worked in the real world. At a time when the personal computer was just entering the market and the Macintosh hadn’t yet been released, he carried a tremendous passion for the boundary of the analog and digital domains, probably sensing that digital design would reshape our daily lives. He worked on very early transistor applications at RCA across Route 1 from Princeton, and eventually was a leader in early digital design as well. Professor Lo somehow knew that the world of ones and zeros would always be captive to underlying LaPlace transforms, parasitic capacitance, and path-length race conditions. Every time my iPhone vomits between cells or finding a wireless network, I’m reminded of Professor Lo’s insistence that we pay attention to the analog world. We are inherently analog beings with analog senses, and the physics that holds the universe together is equally and entirely non-digital. Apologies to Vernor Vinge and others anticipating a singularity, but Professor Lo knew his stuff.

His accented English made him pronounce things like “register full” as “register foo”, which was only funny because “foo” and “bar” were entering our vernacular at the same time as generics for “I need a variable name” or “Whatever we’re going to call that file.” We were never laughing at him, only with him as he managed to make an introductory circuit course mildly amusing. My lab partner in that course is part owner of a sports team and I work for a software company, so we weren’t the ideal EE students either.

But as his student, I listened intently and filed things away, because what he taught me was the foundation for nearly everything I later explored in the areas of device drivers, networking and performance. Neal Nuckolls, who was responsible for much of the early fast networking code in Sun’s operating system, once said that “you have to understand how something works before you can improve it.” To this day, that’s one of my basic rules of work, and it regularly reminds me of Professor Lo.

My favorite interaction with him happened one weekend just before Thanksgiving, when I was deep into thesis research. Theoretically, I was deep into thesis research in building a high-speed ECL circuit, requiring me to learn more about signal propagation than I knew was possible. What I was really doing involved job interviews, parties, and some incidents I talk about only rarely. During our required advisor-student meeting, Professor Lo asked me to explain what I’d learned so far about how high-speed digital signals move in long circuit board traces. The underlying electrical engineering is the science of transmission lines – the same physics that describes electricity coming into your house through the power grid, getting a clean cable signal or how copper phone lines manage to remain echo free even though they run for miles between your home and the central switching office.

Back to my explanation of transmission lines. It wasn’t very good, and that’s heavily discounting for the fact that I was explaining it to a guy who really had done this for a living. What I remember and what Professor Lo probably said diverge; he was polite, proper and respectful beyond all reproach. But as I stumbled through a drawing of an echo signal bouncing off a non-terminated signal trace, I thought I heard Professor Lo say “Stern, you don’t know jack shit about transmission lines. Read these.” At which point I was handed a few sturdy EE texts about transmission line theory and echo suppression. They were accepted with a smile, and genuine gratitude for his incredible patience and tolerance for what was really a waste of his time that he turned into a teaching opportunity. I’m pretty sure he never used vulgar language, at all, even when students like me deserved it, and although I never figured out what he really said, his tone of voice and seriousness made me attack my thesis work with vigor. Another case of real world physics snapping me right back to reality. I’ve told the story to many family members, and when I get in trouble in the kitchen, it’s usually followed with “Stern, you don’t know jack shit” as a gentle reminder of who is really in charge. I never expected it to be a long-lasting tribute to a great teacher.

I read those insanely dense tomes over Thanksgiving break, and did my best to make up for lost time. My required interest in transmission lines turned into a fascination with 10baseT (thinnet) ethernet, which of course was (when done correctly) a transmission line with stubs. That led into NFS network design, which became the basis for Managing NFS & NIS. Anyone who read to the end of the first edition and was wondering why there was a short chapter on transmission lines and termination techniques should tip the propeller hat, with much respect, to Professor Lo’s memory. I do so regularly, and am thankful for his ability to admonish us to understand the way things work, at the most basic level, because that’s where the real, analog world happens.

It’s sad that he’s no longer here with us.

[Update, February 11, 2012: The director of David Sarnoff Labs left a thoughtful comment about Arthur Lo here]

Student Intersection

Every year about this time, I host some undergraduate engineering students for a two-day whirlwind tour with customers, partners and employees in New York City. It gives the students a chance to see where an engineering degree can take them, and to discover what’s different between short-term college projects and complex real-world product engineering. It gives me an early glimpse of the current engineering social context and lets me what technologies are mainstream enough to be used as teaching tools.

One of our running conversations was how to tackle a problem that hadn’t been seen before. What choices do you make, or constraints do you put in place, if you have to think about scale, speed, or complexity that isn’t in the literature? This came up in our meeting with Hot Potato, who worry about real time and real life events, and in talking with a major sports league that provides video on demand but isn’t sure how to quantify the “excitement” quotient of that video from day to day.

Borrowing a page from college days, I wrapped up our internship session with a reading list:

George Polya’s “How to Solve It”. The classic, rooted in mathematics and algorithms, to build up an arsenal of hard problem cracking approaches.

Simon Singh’s “Fermat’s Enigma”. Aside from a lot of the mental action taking place at Princeton, the background on how Wiles derived his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is great. I use this to highlight how a seemingly minor topic covered in one area becomes a major factor in another — I had finished a podcast on elliptic curve cryptography when I read the book, and the overlap in mathematical bases was eye-opening.

The July 1997 Wired issue on scenarios, describing how a pandemic might be solved by a graphics designer and gene hacker working together. Since that issue first showed up on newstands, we’ve faced SARS, avian flu and H1N1 flu outbreaks. Our response mechanisms haven’t gotten much better. On the other hand, both of the students had been working in an “integrated science” curriculum, where mathematics was more directly incorporated into the appropriate scientific fields. We just need to add computer science in there as well. I made the remark that one of my good friends got into computer science because she was a psychology PhD student who needed to analyze data; today the data analysis experts at social networking sites are creating work for the psychologists.

Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker” followed by Lawrence McDonald’s “Colossal Failure of Common Sense.” Two views of Wall Street, from the mid-80s birth of the fixed income derivatives business to the second, third and fourth order effects of its growth that led to the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. What happens when mathematics isn’t integrated fully into the financial engineering sciences.

Bruce Tognazzini’s “Tog on Design”. I’ve always found Tog’s approach to design and user interface refreshing, and I think ideas like selective disclosure would improve much of today’s popular (but badly used) software.

Cory Doctorow’s short stories “Anda’s Game” and “When SysAdmins Ruled The Earth.” Networked business models, networked organization and networked government. Both written before the Facebook boom, and therefore more important in light of it.

Finally, each of the people we met with had some advice or guidance on life in the real world: (1) Think big and unconstrained, beccause that’s what’s happening to compute and storage environments. (2) Cross-scientific disciplines matter. No single science is isolated. (3) Watch out for “end arounds” caused by cost or time disruption (4) Stuff happens. When it does, it affects brands, reliability, user experience and customer attraction. Be ready for it. (5) It’s always harder than it looks to pull the pieces together: Moore’s Law hasn’t applied to integration costs.

Spending time with university students is always refreshing, both to find out what they think is interesting and to see what hasn’t yet registered in their curriculum. And it shows them a literal world of eating options beyond the undergraduate cafeteria and campus pizza place.

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