What is Data?

“90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years” was the primary theme of a Science Daily article from March of 2013.  Those of us in the Big Data trade happily used this sound bite, oftentimes coupled with the “80 percent of data is unstructured” sound bite to drive home the point that the world of data processing is in for some (capital B) Big changes in the years ahead. And we’re all happy to be part of this coming wave.
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Farewell Dennis Ritchie

With the passing of Dennis Ritchie, the technology industry loses another great mind and another great innovator. While not a household name like Steve Jobs, his impact is no less widespread. In fact, at some level his contributions are even more far reaching than those of Jobs and perhaps even by quite a bit. Consider his life’s work:

He was the principal designer of the C programming language and along with Brian Kernighan, co-authored the first authoritative text on the subject simply titled “The C Programming Language” more commonly known by its nickname “the K&R.” His work didn’t stop there as he was also the co-inventor, along with Ken Thompson, of the Unix operating system. If we stop and think for a moment about the impact of C and Unix on IT, or for that matter, the world in which we live, Ritchie’s influence looks nothing short of astounding. If you take a close enough look, you’ll find that these two technologies are simply everywhere.

The software which powers the Internet; you know the stuff like TCP/IP, web servers, e-mail, etc. Nearly all of it started out written in C or one of its variants (e.g. C++), running on some version of Unix or its variants (yes Linux, I’m looking at you). That desktop operating system that you love to hate? You know, the one created by those people in Redmond. Yes, that’s written in C and C++. That desktop operating system that you love to love – Mac OS? Yeah that’s Unix under the covers, written in C and C++. The iPhone? Android phones? Little Unixes (Unices?) all of them. Perhaps no other two technologies on the planet can claim such ubiquity. Not bad as far as contributions to the world go.

And speaking of the world, let’s not forget “Hello World.”

For anyone who has ever written their first “test program” in some new programming language, the phrase is a well known meme. To this accidental success, we can also give Dennis Ritchie some credit, at least in part.

So on this day, it’s perhaps only fitting for the world to respond in kind with both a heartfelt “Thank You” and a fond Farewell.

I’ll do my part here:

main( )
{
printf(“thank you, dennis and farewell. your work lives on”);
}

Steve Jobs – The Human Touch

Nothing like an earth-moving tech event to inspire one to be expressive again. Seems like all writers, bloggers, tweeters – great and small – are moved to words today. So in honor of the passing of a tech giant, here’s a long overdue foray back into tech blogging.

In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing I can’t help but go back to a conversion from just yesterday with a colleague of mine. It was about the pros and cons of the new iPhone 4S. While he and I are very much kindred spirits with respect to our passion for all things technical, our mobile lives reside on squarely opposite sides of the fence. I am an iPhone owner and he an owner of an Android device (it should also be noted that in a small bit of irony, he is an Apple stock shareholder and I am not). Amongst our topics of conversation were the specifications of the iPhone device. This invariably led my colleague to point out how many of the Android devices are either already exceeding, or will soon exceed the newest iPhone on raw hardware specs alone. As as result, my friend wondered allowed if the market was now Google’s (or Samsung’s) for the taking. His musings were based on only the iPhone launch, as our conversation occurred several hours before the sad announcement from Apple of Steve Jobs’ passing. And while he may end up being right about where the mobile market may go (though prognostication in that brutal space is dicey), I didn’t exactly buy the “specs argument” and offered some very strong opinions about specs as a technology barometer.

Though I never knew or met Steve Jobs, I feel confident enough to say that he didn’t fret too much over how gaudy a product’s specifications list was. It just didn’t seem his style to tout laundry lists of processor speed, memory, megapixels and the like. Sure, features were extremely important to him and sometimes these very features were directly attributable to specific hardware implementations. But at the same time, I firmly believe that hardware specs were not things which got him going. That is unless a hardware spec somehow translated into a game-changing human-to-computer interaction, in a direct and profound way. Along these lines, I am confident that very few would doubt that it was the human side of the technology equation that most motivated Steve Jobs. And it is this hyper-obsessive focus on the human-to-computer interaction that may well be Jobs’ greatest legacy.

Around the time that the iPad was released, I recall reading (in a post that I can sadly not remember enough to reference) that somewhere around 60 to 70% of the hardware (or hardware costs perhaps?) was dedicated to the HID (human interface device) features of the iPad. For me that number was an eye-opener. Fast-forward now to the recent iPhone launch hosted by now-CEO Tim Cook and think about the things which were put front and center. Sure, they discussed things like the revamped camera and the 8 megapixels but what they were most impressed about (and wanted you and I to be impressed about) were perhaps two key points about the camera feature:

  1. That the iPhone is the most used camera device for Flickr uploads
  2. That the new iPhone camera will allow you to take and re-take pictures faster than on any competing phone’s camera, by a large margin.

In a nutshell it is not only extremely important to Apple that a certain feature is being widely used by many people, but it is also extremely important to make sure that the continued experience of using the feature far out-pace that of its rivals, megapixels bedamned. So, if it happens to mean that a revamped sensor is part of the equation (and that it happens to be 8 megapixels), then so be it. But that megapixels stuff, to Jobs, was only the means to an end.

And then there’s Siri.

Apple made a huge investment to acquire this company and its software. To Apple, Siri is a game-changer. They may very well be right. No doubt, the need to not only acquire and focus on Siri as the centerpiece of the launch is classic Jobs. I can imagine a fictitious (or not) strategy session where discussions of what to include and what to cut took place. If ever there was a “should we revamp the case and screen or include Siri to deliver on time…?” discussion, the answer would be a no-brainer for Jobs. Incrementally keeping up with the competitive Joneses was not his thing. He was the Joneses and then some. To him, technology was a people-first business and nobody – NOBODY – had their finger on the pulse of the human-to-computer interaction better than Steve Jobs. He paved the way for everyone else, time and again, and we may never see another like him.

About Databases

Seems like a lot of developers spend a lot of time keeping other developers away from databases these days.  In a perfect world, these non-DB developers would never leave the comfortable domain of business objects, web documents and other non-normal-formed artifacts, letting O/R mappers, data grids/clouds, distributed maps and other magic things do the work for them.  There are exceptions to this general rule of course (e.g. data warehousing), but in your typical modern OLTP systems, right or wrong this dynamic likely exists.

In the last decade both the web and open source movements have brought down many a sacred cow, but have done little to displace the Relational Database.  That said, I, like many others these days am wondering if cloud computing is the last piece that allows turn-key object persistence to go mainstream.  No disrespect to those technologies that claim/promise to do this today but nearly every application that I look at these days still has the tried-and-true RDBMS chugging away in the background.  And as long as that’s the case, there’s a relational data model somewhere as well as a DBA or two providing the care and feeding.

So what would define object databases “going mainstream” in my sense of the phrase?  This is something that may take more than one blog post to articulate, but here is a start:

  • Elimination of O/R mappers as we know them today.  In fact O and R should actually coexist as opposed to being two separate dialects.  After all, classes of objects oftentimes relate in a way that is very relational except that the objects aren’t necessarily tabular in look and feel.
  • A persistence lifecycle that is more object (almost document) oriented in flavor.  The chekout-edit-put lifecycle that is found in source-code control is a good start,
  • A query language for objects that everyone can agree on.  In fact, a good place to start would be SQL but obviously with extensions to handle the richness of objects. Perhaps something like: Select
    Class1.fieldX.subFieldY,
    Class2.fieldA.subFieldB[1]
    From Class1, Class2 Where Class1.id = Class2.foreignKeyId

Granted this isn’t entirely new and yes there are OODB’s but the key point here is to get enough people to agree on such language such that all of the predecessors mostly fade away (remember Codasyl?).

NB: This fading away may also apply to XQuery.  Object graphs and hierarchical document structures are not too much different such that a unified query language can’t serve both.

Okay, so that’s a start but not the last word from me.  This is quite a loaded set of concepts with a lot to consider.  So in the not-too-distant future, I will be picking up this thread again in this space as I think of other things and/or evolve my opinion.

Getting customer service

Last weekend I found myself shopping for a birthday gift for a hard-to-shop-for relative. The party invite was somewhat last-minute so I turned to the tried-and-true method of heading to a bookstore. Sure the idea of a gift-card crossed my mind but I was bent on actually trying to buy something that fit the recipient. Knowing that the birthday gal owned a coffee table or two, I spied a National Geographic coffee table book of nature photographs at the local Borders that seemed to fit the occasion. Since I was heading straight to the party from the store, I waited on line with the intent of having the book gift-wrapped. I smiled confidently at how smoothly things were going so much so that I thought to myself “I might even get to the party on time.” Of course, that hope was eventually dashed as the time spent waiting on line began to drag on. As it turns out, there was but one cashier behind the counter. As the line began to snake around the rope-maze, the people behind me grew increasingly impatient. Not surprisingly, I began to wonder whether or not I should even ask about the gift-wrapping, lest the angry mob run me out of the store.

My turn finally arrived and to my dismay there was still no additional cashier on the scene. Being desperate, I (very) quietly asked if it was at all possible to have the booked gift-wrapped, all the while apologizing and saying things like “..but I totally understand if you can’t since this line’s so long…” then finally asking the cashier if she knew of a nearby card store where I could by a gift bag. At that moment a young woman who was behind me on the line spoke up and said to the cashier “I can do it for him if you can just call a manager to do the employee purchase.” As it turns out, the young woman behind me was an off-duty employee waiting to purchase something and simply decided to pitch in.

“Hello sir, this is Paula, who will wrap your gift for you,” said the now-arriving and much-needed second cashier. And by now you can figure out how the story ends. An off-duty employee (who also happened to be waiting patiently on line), simply decided to pitch in and go just a little bit above and beyond. To her it seemed kind of trivial but I can’t help but wonder if she realizes how rare such seemingly fundamental instincts are in the service industry. Being a small-business owner whose very survival depends on good customer service, I know first-hand how important such instincts are. Having seen things from both the customer and service-provider standpoint, I can attest to seeing more than my share of apathetic “on-duty” service personnel. Paula, it seems is different than these. Sure, in this economy, one might be inclined to shrug off such behavior as employee “survival instincts” during tough times, but I truly think this was just something that came natural (especially considering that she appeared to me to either be a student or at the very least young enough to not be worrying about her Borders retirement package). So here’s to Paula and others like her. May your efforts not go unnoticed.