The fragility of software

I wrote this two years ago and for some reason never published it:

Software is taking over our lives – the way we communicate, learn, play, work, and shop. I’m both thrilled and worried about that. Thrilled because now that we’ve made the mind-boggling investment of putting computers onto every desk and into every pocket and connected them all via the internet, we can build and release infinite amounts of software much more cheaply and quickly than we can build pretty much anything else. And to my delight, the original hippie dream of the technologists who envisioned all of this back in the 1960s and 1970s has largely survived the attempts of businesses and governments to take control: Our various technology platforms, in particular the internet, are largely free, open, and universally accessible to anyone who wants to build a piece of software and send it out to the world. So why am I worried? For all its benefits, software is amazingly fragile. From a creator’s point of view, it requires almost constant maintenance for it to continue to work. The pieces of software I personally run right now – a web browser, email client, a blog, etc – are between a few days and a few months old. Most of the software I ran last year or the year before no longer works, and more crucially, some of the things I created using those older pieces of software stopped working along with it. I have notebooks from grade school sitting in a closet next to me. I can pick them up and they work just fine, the same as they did 30 years ago. Yet keeping my digital documents working requires constant maintenance, backing up, and transferring to new formats, or they simply become defunct.

There’s a concept of technical debt inside software companies. It means that poor software design choices upfront lead to major maintenance hassles down the road. As software takes over our lives, we should think about how to minimize technical debt not just in companies but at a societal level, to help avoid some major risks and headaches in the coming decades.

My VR memory

Ben Delaney asked me recently if I could write down a memory from the early days of Virtual Reality. Here it goes:

I was in college in the early 90s when Virtual Reality first rose to prominence. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and immediately started plotting schemes for getting my head into a head mounted display. I badgered the good folks at VPL Research, the inventors of the DataGlove, until they gave me an internship (and my first, unforgettable VR ride). A summer internship at Autodesk followed, working on their Cyberspace Developer Kit. At that point I was completely hooked on VR. In my last semester at college, I met a grad student by the name of Bill Chapin. We hit it off, and when I visited his office I noticed a bunch of VR gear. Turns out he was doing consulting for various VR firms, including Scott Foster’s Crystal River Engineering (CRE), the pioneering firm that invented 3D audio – a way to render real-time sounds in three dimensions, the exact way we hear them in the real world where we can close our eyes and pin point the location of a plane above our heads or a voice behind us by using just our ears. CRE was building 3D audio systems for all the major VR installations and they needed a software developer. Bill introduced me to Scott, and that’s how I got my first job. I was now an official, card-carrying member of the small, tightly knit VR community. I got to work on amazing projects with companies like Fakespace Labs and Interval Research and with great people like Brenda Laurel and Scott Fisher whom I had idolized from afar. I got to show off our VR systems at conferences like SIGGRAPH. Along the way I met Ben Delaney who was chronicling the ins and outs of our community in Cyberedge Journal. It was pretty much the most amazing three years of work I could have wished for. We tried many VR related ideas, at NASA, in university research labs, with architectural firms, the MoMA, Disney World, you name it. The one area that took off the most was gaming. Doom had just come out and first person 3D gaming was born. Our audio technology was a great fit for it, and CRE ended up working with a bunch of game developers and eventually our technology was acquired and flowed into audio chips, sound cards and PC motherboards. As the VR sector went into hibernation, my career went from sound cards to a digital music startup, to an email start up that was acquired by Yahoo, and then to blogging for the last eight years as CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. All along, I was hoping that VR would make a comeback. I’ve got a couple of Oculus Rifts on my desk right now, still getting a thrill every time I stick my head into a new VR world.

A grandstanding idiot

I’ve had this blog for over ten years, and I’ve never called anyone an idiot on it. Until now. Darrell Issa is an idiot.

Have you ever been in a crisis, maybe with your family or at work, and someone responds with calmness and clarity to that crisis? That person is prepared, knows what to do and jumps into action while everyone else is flustered? It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by people like that, people who are competent in a tense moment. I’d like to believe that it’s in everyone’s nature to act like that when it’s their moment, including politicians. When there’s a crisis, the politicians who happen to know something about it should spring into action and do a competent job. For some reason this never seems to happen anymore. To make matters worse, we have buffoons like Darrell Issa who jump into action with utter incompetence in areas that they don’t know anything about, making everything harder and more dispiriting for the people around them. Case in point: As chairman of the government oversight committee, Issa holds hearings about Ebola. He grandstands about all kinds of opinions and “solutions”, except he is so ill prepared that he pronounces the disease as “Eboli” and claims that it originated in Guyana (which is in South America). To me this rises above the usual head shaking moment about politicians, to a level that’s just plain depressing.

Lots of Renovo pictures

I had a chance to crawl around the Renovo Coupe and take lots of pictures today – it’s such a gorgeous car:

And a quick video of turning on the ignition:

30 day blogging challenge: Week 3

WordCamp over the years

Tomorrow marks the start of another WordCamp San Francisco. It’s the 9th one, if I counted correctly. The look of the WordCamp site has changed a bit over time:

WordCamp 2006:

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WordCamp 2014:

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But amazingly, most other things have stayed the same. The first WordCamp was somewhat spur of the moment. It was in early July 2006 when we announced the idea for a WordPress user conference to be held 4 weeks later on August 5th at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco (we actually just announced the date, the venue hadn’t been fully figured out yet – kind of amazing to think about now that we have to reserve venues a year in advance). Given the short notice and the newness of the idea, we didn’t know how many people to expect. So we were thrilled when over 500 people signed up, and then quickly got worried as we started scrambling to pull everything together. Our nascent “event skills” were put to the test, and despite a couple of hiccups – our badges were kind of a disaster and we had enough bottled water for a few thousand people – we ended up with an amazing first event with great speakers and energy. Our initial goals were to bring together the WordPress community, have the conference be very affordable (unlike most tech conferences), have speakers from within the WordPress community (instead of famous tech pundits), and serve a real BBQ lunch (from Memphis Minnies). WordCamp SF is now three or four times bigger and the venue is nicer, but the basic ideas and values are still in place and have helped inspire WordCamps all over the world.

A great cause, especially now

I listened to an interview today with a German doctor who is part of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). He talked about Ebola and was impressively clear and convincing about the topic. I learned more in 20 minutes than in all the previous weeks of Ebola coverage in the news here. For example that MSF has been at the forefront of fighting this outbreak since Spring and that they’ve been sounding the alarm bells about its scale and seriousness for half a year, with the international community dragging their feet for an embarrassingly long time. His description of the conditions in affected countries, what MSF are doing to help, and why it’s pointless to panic about Ebola in Europe and the US made a lot of sense. The doctor in the interview is the head of a hospital in Switzerland, and he is headed back to Sierra Leone next week to help. It was a good reminder of what a great organization MSF is and that I had not donated to them in a while.