Saturday, June 30, 2007

Nerds on Vacation

Galena and I counted up the books we're taking with us on vacation this week. It's at least 10. There's something wrong with that. Especially when you consider that we're going to be spending a significant chunk of our time out in the woods, backpacking, where every ounce matters.

See y'all in a week!

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Nearly Infamous Zango

I'm out on vacation for the next week, so (hopefully) you won't be seeing any blog postings before July 9. But as a final farewell, I thought I'd post a link to a wonderfully strange little comic strip with an (apparently) purely verbal similarity to the name of my company. Gotta love it.

Realtime BI

Sometimes it's easy to forget just how different things are in the Internet world – but I was reminded yesterday. I was attending a gathering of technology executives, and the presentation was on business intelligence. The gentleman doing the presentation was the CIO at a local insurance company, which had spent a good chunk of the last six years building out their data warehouse. From what I could tell, most of it looked pretty well done (i.e., neither too much Inmon nor too much Kimball).

The interesting bit for me was when he happened to mention the frequency of their data warehouse loads, which took place once a month. Somebody else in the audience piped up with a question: "Has anybody here experimented with more realtime sorts of BI? I've heard some companies load their data warehouses as often as once a week." One other guy made a comment that led me to believe they had experimented with loading their warehouse as often as once a day, but nobody else seemed to think that was necessary, or even reasonable.

So I had to chuckle to myself. Zango – like most Internet companies – is addicted to realtime data. And by "realtime," we don't mean "once a week" or "once a day." Our data warehouse loads and processes every hour. Sometimes it gets behind, and that's a pain: at the moment, we're nearly two hours behind in our loads, and it sucks. It feels like we're flying blind – or like I'm going through withdrawal. For example, we made a change to one of our websites two hours ago, and I haven't been able to analyze what sort of an impact, if any, that change has had. I can't imagine the friction that would be injected into our world if we had to wait a week, or even a full day, to see whether we had just screwed something up, or fixed a particular problem.

Of course, sometimes you can get too much realtime. It can be tempting to sit in front of ProClarity and hit "Refresh" all day long, waiting for the latest revenue or install numbers to come trundling in. Because we can tune campaigns manually, we can neglect better, automated campaign optimization solutions. And worse, it really is a pain to get those realtime loads working. You can't sling two or three terabytes of data around without hitting something. We've spent a lot of time and money tuning our systems to get those loads working right, and part of me wonders if that was the best use of those resources. If we'd thrown those same people at the task of automating our campaign targeting, rather than reporting on it hourly, we might be further along than we are now.

But then I pull ProClarity back up, click refresh and take another hit.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

At least since I was a little kid, and I think for a long time before that, my grandmother has sent regular missives to the diaspora of her family. They started as hand-written letters, copied at the local post office, and sent out manually. About 15 years ago, we bought her an electric typewriter; her letters were perhaps longer after that, and of course typewritten, but otherwise unchanged.

It was probably 10 years ago that Keith and I pitched in and bought her first computer. She was horrified at the thought, and even called our uncle in a panic: "They've bought me a computer, and they're bringing it over, and I need you to make them stop!" Nevertheless, we set it up for her, and walked her through turning it on. We showed her how to point and click with a mouse, showed her how to use a word processor, and how to access the Internet with a browser. She remained unimpressed.

Then we showed her email.

Keith and I had no idea we were about to create a monster. We should have known by the way her breath quickened when she saw us adding email addresses to the "To:" line. She watched us change fonts, and then email backgrounds, her eyes narrowing. She sat down. We showed her how easy it was to reply to her emails, and how easily she could reply to ours. The look on her face grew sharp, and hungry. She wanted this.

The monster was born.

Ten years, three computers, two printers, and many thousands of emails later, we've learned that the monster must be fed. If Grandma doesn't get twenty or thirty emails a day, she feels neglected. She forwards emails like a fiend. She keeps track of who has sent her emails recently and who hasn't. Woe betide the grandson who has neglected to email his grandmother, for his neglect shall be broadcast to the entire family, and then some.

But it's been ten years, and technology has moved on; and the monster must be fed. In keeping with the spirit of the times, we've set her up with her own blog: She hasn't figured out posting yet, though that'll come; until it does, I'm handling it for her. But every word is hers.

As to the blog itself: it's just the daily life of a woman who's seen 90 summers in her lifetime, and 90 winters; who's watched three generations grow up in her house; who's cooked more meals than I know how to count and fed more hungry descendants than I care to; who's watched the husband she's loved dearly for 75 years grow old alongside her. It's just life; but it's life.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Universal Dabbler

Alan Page, on his Microsoft blog, asked whether it was possible for one person to be two things. Given who I am and what I do, that's a question I ask myself a lot. I've got a BA and an MA in theology, but I've worked full-time in technology since 1992, without ever (quite) losing my taste for theological and biblical studies.

The good news for people like me is that there are folks who've managed to succeed in more than one field. Abraham Kuyper was an important theologian, a university president, and prime minster of the Netherlands. Albert Schweitzer was a noted theologian, musician, and physician – oh, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. G. K. Chesterton was as acclaimed for his novels, literary criticism and political writings as for his Christian apologetics. And Blaise Pascal is as likely to be referenced by mathematicians as by theologians. In other words, the stifling and arbitrary divisions which academic study has inserted into all fields of knowledge are a largely modern invention, and may still (perhaps) be overcome by the occasional genius.

But I have to imagine that it's hard to master more than one field, even for geniuses, and I can't really believe it's possible for the rest of us. I would be a better CTO if my nightly reading had more Knuth and less Calvin, more McConnell and less Lewis. But I don't even have enough time to do all the reading in just one field. There's too much to know about any subject worth studying to be a universal expert. Even the smartest tech guys I know are not, say, database experts in general. At most, they're experts in one or two database systems, and dabble in the rest.

Similarly, I'm well aware that I'm not a real theologian. I can read Koine Greek, and dabble in Biblical Hebrew, but I've forgotten the very little Latin I ever knew. I've only skimmed the Fathers, my reading of 20th century theologians is pathetic, and I get intimidated when I'm around someone who's actually knowledgeable about any of these subjects.

But if I only focused on one thing, I think I'd be living a less interesting life. Lewis once wrote somewhere (can't find it at the moment) that it was astonishing how young he was when he found himself saying with a sigh, "I'll never have a chance to study that." And if you want to be as good at the subject in question as Lewis was in his (which was literature and not theology, as I suppose everyone knows), he's right. But if you're content to explore where your reading takes you, and one day find yourself reading about Israel's modern history, and the next reading about her ancient religion, and the next abandoning it all for a fascinating book on statistics: how could your life not be interesting?

And the best thing about being a universal dabbler is the ability to have interesting conversations with almost anyone I meet, even if I'm asking more questions than I'm answering.

As Chesterton famously said, "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." Or in the same book, "The world must keep one great amateur, lest we all become artists and perish."

Marc Andreessen and

Marc Andreessen, of Netscape/Loudcloud/Ning fame, has had a very interesting blog going lately. His recent reference to, a documentary from 2001, brought me back. I think our entire company – all five of us – went to see that in the theater when it first came out. I don't have a sales bone in my body, so my involvement in our startup was almost strictly on the technical side. As a result, I don't have the vivid memories of VC pitches that our other founders do. Nor did Zango (nee ePIPO, then changed to 180solutions, before we made Keith stop picking corporate names) have the same dramatic rise and fall characteristic of so many other startups from the era. But the emotional thrill ride, the tensions, the camaraderie, were beyond belief, and the movie captured them perfectly.

My favorite story from back in the day: it was Dan Todd's birthday, and we had made tentative plans to celebrate it after work with a dinner and go-carts. We were only seven or eight employees at the time, and around 7:00 pm, one of us looked up from his desk and said, "Hey, aren't we going to go out?" So we got up from our desks, gathered in the center of the office, waited for everyone to arrive – and then, on cue, without saying a word, we all walked back to our desks and started working again. (We eventually did leave – but too late to make it to the go-cart facility.)

I hope it doesn't cheapen Shakespeare too much quote him here:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember'd;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Certainly nobody who went through that era – in any startup that had any measure of success – could disagree with the sentiment.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Real Problem with the iPhone: No Haptics

Last night, my wife had a bunch of friends over to our house to scrapbook, craft, gossip and chat -- basically a slumber party for grown ups. Neither my wife nor any of her friends has the slightest interest in computers or cell phones or gadgets. But they managed to spend at least half an hour dissecting the (as yet unreleased) capabilities of the iPhone. I tell you, Apple is onto something.

That said, I'm holding off on the iPhone. Sure, it's spendy, but – not having seen the real thing yet – I suspect the real problem will be the keyboard. On my Cingular 8525, about the only thing I use the touch screen for is dialing numbers not already in my contact list. And I hate it. I usually get the numbers right, but I can't tell I got the number right. My brain is wired to expect some sort of tactile feedback. And that's with only 12 large buttons, not 30-40. Unless Jobs has something amazing up his sleeve, I'm expecting the touch-screen keyboard will be the real limitation on the iPhone's success.

The only solution I can see is "Haptic" technologies, like that rumored to be on the Samsung SCH-W559 handset, available only in China. (The Economist has a fascinating article on it here; there are pictures of it here.) But the really cool next generation of phones will use microscopic skin stretching devices (otherwise known as "lateral-force-based haptic shape illusions"), rather than vibrating motors, to simulate the feel of a keyboard. (Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre describes the basic idea in a paper available here.) Now that will get me to buy an iPhone.

Google's Architecture

ZDNet has yet another post on Google's impressive and impressively scalable architecture. Like Robin Harris, I agree that Google's infrastructure is one of its key strategic advantages. I was awed some years ago when I first read about Google developers' dynamic ability to build clusters of thousands of machines, upon which they could test their latest tweak to some search algorithm or other. Like I said, impressive. I'm not sure I agree with Harris that Google's infrastructure is inflexible. Indeed, from what I've read about Google's distributed file system, I would venture to say that they've got a very flexible architecture upon which to build a variety of applications. (And unless they've had to modify it drastically for Google Checkout, I'm guessing that they're not having too much trouble layering ACID transactions on top of it, either.) The real problem with Google's architecture is how hard it appears to be to copy it, especially if you don't have the economies of scale that Google does. (Obviously, this isn't a problem from Google's perspective.) Small- to mid-size companies just don't have the resources to program their own BIOS, build their own hardware, or to create their own distributed file system. Now, if anybody does have examples of small companies that have replicated Google's architecture in interesting ways, I'd be very interested in hearing about them.

Ding of the Month

Four years ago, we were in the process of moving our primary database server – a large, enterprise class box – from one rack at our data center to another. Given our architecture back then, we didn't have any way to accomplish this without at least an hour of downtime, so we planned the move carefully, with checklists galore. The time came for the move, we shut everything down, rolled the server down the hall and into the new cage, racked it – and then tried to plug it in. That's when we discovered that our hosting company had provisioned the cage with the wrong 220 plug.

A week later, after our second attempt at the move had proven successful, we took the original plug, mounted it on a small wood pedestal, and turned it into a trophy, awarded monthly. The recipient of this trophy is the person who makes the most boneheaded mistake over the course of the previous month. Like you would expect at any fast-moving, dynamic company, there's no shortage of nominees. J

The point of the award, of course, is not to kick people while they're down – it's intended to be an (admittedly perverse) way to communicate trust. It's a way to let people know that it's OK to make mistakes – indeed, encouraged – and it's fully in the spirit of the award that I've been one of the recipients (for deleting an active employee's AD account and Exchange mailbox in one fell swoop – while the employee was looking over my shoulder, no less). We would never give the award to somebody who was on a performance plan or whose performance we were otherwise seriously questioning – we'd handle that privately.

The interesting thing is that it's usually the very best employees who are the most frequent recipients. It's smart folks who are working their asses off, putting in the hours, trying to get their next project out the door on time, who are most likely to make a mistake. Nobody likes these mistakes, of course, but we want to encourage the conditions (hard work, moving fast) that make them possible, even inevitable; if we're not moving fast enough to make mistakes, we've ignored the reality of our space and the advantage of being relatively small and nimble. So giving people the chance to nominate each other over the course of the month, publicly reciting the nominees at our monthly All Tech meeting, and waiting for the applause and cat calls to die down between each name and description, is a way to "draw the poison from the wound" and balance both sides.

One note: we also have a "Save of the Month," awarded to the person whose spectacular efforts or intelligence have helped the company out the most. And trust me: those efforts are appreciated. But awarding a Save isn't nearly as much fun as a Ding.

A second note: managers aren't eligible for "Saves," but they most definitely are eligible for "Dings."

A third note: pictured below is our most recent "Ding" recipient, Jeff Malek, our VP of Product Development, who won for a bug in our decompression code that he managed to hide for three years.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Doctors with Borders

I was rather disappointed with this article on, about doctors whose attempts to be faithful to their moral and theological traditions require them to decline to offer certain treatment options. I should make it clear, of course, that I don't always agree with those doctors about what is right and what is wrong. (I'm enough a child of my culture that I can't quite figure out why Catholics are against birth control – even Chesterton's explanation hasn't quite sunk in.) But it's my starting assumption – clearly not shared by the author of the article – that faithfulness to your beliefs is very nearly the highest ideal to which a human can subscribe. It's certainly more important than someone else's feelings, as important as those are.

Indeed, the "hierarchy of needs" implied in the article is perhaps the greatest lie perpetrated by our culture. Nearly everything we read, see, or hear in our popular media is predicated on the idea that religious faith is a private matter, to be subordinated at every turn to, well, everything else: medical advice, entertainment, political expediency, or for that matter, business requirements. Like Lewis' "mountain apple", this poisonous unquestioned assumption pervades nearly every aspect of our public discourse, and any attempt to question it sounds odd and discordant, even to my ears.

On NPR last night, they were talking about the website WorldWithoutOil, an interesting attempt to imagine how our world would change in the weeks following a severe energy shock. It would be fascinating to engage in a similar exercise, imagining a world where we took faith seriously, in all its dimensions. Lots of people think it would end up looking like The Handmaid's Tale, and because I remain a firm believer in original sin, I don't really disagree with them. But resulting dystopia would still be the result of not taking our faith seriously enough, not of taking it too seriously.

Friday, June 22, 2007

How to be a CTO

Yesterday I noticed that the search assistant component of our client was consistently chewing up 25% of my CPU – not a good thing. It wasn't having any noticeable impact on my machine, but still, some thread or other had apparently spiraled out of control. This sort of bug doesn't show up very often, and they're terribly difficult to reproduce, so I suspected we were going to have to debug it in place.

So this is where it gets embarrassing for me. As Zango's CTO, you'd think I could do this in my sleep. Isn't that what CTO's do, debug code? But it's been so long since I've written any production code, that I had to ask our lead client developer to come over to my desk, and have him walk me through grabbing the right label from TFS, finding the right symbols file, and navigating through the call stack on a couple hundred suspicious looking threads.

(For those of you who care: turns out that the binary tree we use to search for keywords quickly had gotten corrupt somehow, and a particular child node was pointing back to one or another of its parent nodes: as our lead dev put it, "It's no longer a tree; it's a graph." He's still back at his desk trying to figure out what happened. It's presumably a rare timing issue that didn't show up in our QA, and we'll get it fixed for the next release.)

But my poverty of C++ debugging skills got me thinking: what does it take to be a CTO? Apparently it's not coding skills, as I've never done production C++, and I haven't written a line of production C# or even SQL for years now. I'm a lousy project manager: I'm not organized enough, and I'm too easily distracted. I'm a reasonable systems architect, but I'm very glad we've got people who are a lot smarter than me doing that now. E. F. Codd would roll over in his relational grave if he saw the database schemas I used to churn out. I haven't done calculus since high school, I've never taken a class on statistics, and I've never implemented even the barest Quicksort algorithm.

But even with all of this, Zango's Tech department is doing pretty well. We've been turning out solid products on time for years now. Last year we pushed out some sixty different projects, most of them on time and under budget. (OK, 10.0 was neither, but trust me, it stood out.) Our uptime is right at three nine's ("99.9%", for those of you not in the industry). We've got a world-class BI infrastructure, hourly loads into our multi-terabyte data warehouse, and better analytics than companies ten times our size. Despite the fact that Zango's tech department has 90 people spread across five offices, three countries, two continents, and ten time zones, we're less political than any organization I've ever worked for. We get along with each other, we get good work done, and we have fun doing it.

So why does it all work?

It comes down to the people here. When Keith roped me into helping him start Zango back in 1999, we wanted to create a company that was fun to work for, that didn't get hung up on politics. We wanted to work with people who had big brains and small egos. And it's almost a cliché these days, but we set out to hire people who were better than we were. (I wish that were harder to do.)

I often brag that I don't do anything anymore – which leaves my wife wondering why I leave for the office at 6:00 am and often don't get home until 8:00 in the evening. But at some level, it's true. We've got phenomenal people here, who work hard, care enormously about what they do, and who deserve all the credit for what Zango has become.

In other words, if you want to be a good CTO, hire good people.

Partly Wrong About eBay

The AP is reporting that eBay is back running advertising through Google. Turns out my hypothesis must have been at least partly wrong. My latest explanation, for whatever it's worth, is that the pricing is still better on the Tier 2 networks, but that they don't have enough traffic at this point to satisfy eBay's voracious appetite.

Google's too big to ignore, apparently. (Perhaps that point was obvious to everyone except me – and eBay.) eBay's spokesman was quoted as saying that they were still pulling back a "significant" part of their spend from AdWords, but that smells like so much PR spin. Absent any real definition of "significant", chalk up a win for Google.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Puget Sound Civil Religion

Two or three years ago, my wife recommended Life of Pi, an engaging novel about a boy from the Indian subcontinent who finds himself trapped on a life raft with a man-eating tiger. In an entertaining if largely irrelevant opening chapter, the author tells how Pi came to consider himself simultaneously a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian, falling in love with all three religions independently. The poor Pi felt no sense of divided loyalties, and was unable to understand why his fellow practitioners couldn't sympathize with his sense of universal devotion.

I've always enjoyed this sort of splendid absurdity, so it was with great delight that I recently read a Seattle Times article about an Episcopalian priest who considers herself both a Christian and a Muslim. I've long been wondering whether the Episcopalians were headed into the theological loony-bin, and anything that confirms my prejudices in such a remarkable way could only give me joy. I was even more delighted when I read that her bishop was "excited about the interfaith possibilities" represented by her conversion to Islam. (Remember everything I said about the dangers of feeling self-righteous and superior? I take it all back, at least until this Sunday, when I'll need to repent. There's no way I can pass up an opportunity like this.)

A year or so back, I gave a talk at my church about the "Puget Sound Civil Religion" (PSCR). The PSCR is the religion that is accepted by most folks around Seattle, and is the only religion that's really socially acceptable for us to profess. Its defining characteristic is a "narrow toleration", in that it tolerates nearly any religious point of view which does not commit the faux pas of asserting that other points of view are wrong. Like other religions, it has mythological explanations for the existence of evil ("intolerance"), theological touchstones ("faith"), and institutional expressions (the "New Dimensions" NPR radio show, to take one example). Adherents of the PSCR love the mythology that's grown up around the Gnostic Gospels, though not so much the gospels themselves, as they generally haven't read them. The PSCR takes two possible positions relative to orthodox Christianity: sometimes it acknowledges that Christianity is fundamentally exclusive (and has the guts to criticize it accordingly), but most of the time it insists that Christianity is just another way of describing God, and is as right and valid as, say, Islam or Buddhism.

The Rev. Anne Holmes Redding is a shining example of the PSCR.

The fundamental problem with Seattle's dominant religion, of course, is that in its sincere attempts to be inoffensive, it offends nearly everyone. I'm not offended by a Muslim who insists that Jesus was not divine, nor by a Buddhist who insists that Nothing is Everything (or whatever it is that a Buddhist would really insist on). And I don't even know if I'm precisely offended when the PSCR tries to tell me that I don't really believe what I do in fact believe. But I do feel annoyed.

I want to do Muslims the honor of trusting what they say, and taking them seriously when they say it: by understanding them, affirming what we agree on (which is substantial), and then settling down into a long, pleasant argument over our very real remaining differences. About the only time I feel annoyed is when anyone tries to tell me that those differences aren't real, or are unimportant. I don't think you can be all things. There are some roads which only lead one way.

Lewis could have been describing the PSCR when he wrote, "The attempt [to marry Heaven and Hell] is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable 'either-or': that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain."

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Presbyterians and the Trinity

Given that I attend a Presbyterian church, I don't know why it took me almost a year to hear about the Presbyterian position paper on the Trinity. It's not bad, all things considered, and it's actually not as bad as much of the fuss would indicate. Even so, it included the following odd little paragraph:

In praising the triune God we use biblical language, both classic –

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,

and surprising –

Mother, Child, and Womb.

We may use words that speaks of the inner relations of the Godhead –

Lover, Beloved, Love,

and those that speak of the loving activity of the Three among us –

Creator, Savior, Sanctifier,

Rock, Redeemer, Friend,

King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love.

Although the paper was formally "received and commended", my pastor tells me that's just a bureaucratic way of burying the thing quietly. Still, I thought I'd add my own (rather belated) voice to the chorus of complaints.

I fully agree with the idea that human language is inadequate to describe the Trinity, or indeed, any aspect of God. It's a profoundly orthodox concept to acknowledge that "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" is a metaphorical and not a literal description of the Godhead. And in playful contexts, like poetry, or even some theological settings, I wouldn't be entirely averse to "trying out" other kinds of metaphorical language, for the shock value, if nothing else. (Paul Jewett did this in interesting ways in his chapter on the divine attributes, in the first volume of his systematic theology.)

But there are real problems with advocating language like "Mother, Child and Womb" or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend" as Trinitarian formulas for use in settings of public worship. These problems include:

  • When people in the church hear substitutions like this, i.e., when the language we use for God becomes interchangeable and insubstantial, it implies that God Himself is interchangeable and insubstantial. Now of course, I'm not suggesting that we should have an approved list of metaphors and a disapproved list. People understand the difference (even if they can't express it) between descriptions/adjectives/attributes on the one hand, and names/titles/identities on the other. It's more permissible (and indeed, much more common) to play with the first; and it's more dangerous to mess with the second. In our search for words to describe and celebrate what God has done, Christians have delighted to call God "the rock of my salvation" or "the stone the builder rejected", and we take comfort that God watches over us "like a hen watches over her chicks": these are descriptions of what God does. But it's another thing entirely to replace "Father" with "Rock" or "Mother" in a cherished, ancient and tested formula: the creeds try to tell us who God is. The very stability of these creedal formulas over the centuries points to a living God who is real and personal and there; and who is not merely an abstract concept. The Gospel does not need to change to speak to our modern world; indeed, it speaks to our ever-changing world precisely because it does not change.

  • I fully get that God is not gendered in any physical sense, but I still think it's a mistake to use feminine language for God in settings of public worship. Your average Christian isn't going to understand the difference between calling God "Mother", and Goddess worship of the flavor that Wiccans advocate. Even though there are occasional overlaps between Christian and Wiccan or pagan conceptions of God (and I think those points of contact are worth exploiting for evangelistic purposes), the Christian understanding of God remains dramatically different from Wiccan conceptions: and in our pluralistic, syncretistic society, any language we use for God needs to highlight, rather than gloss over, those distinctions. Obviously, both "making" and "begetting" are metaphors: but you can't change "God created the heavens and the earth" into "the Goddess gave birth to the world" without changing Christianity out for a different religion altogether.

  • It is true that all God language is metaphorical; but some metaphors are better or more central than other metaphors. The Bible regularly addresses us as God's children; occasionally as His bride; rarely as His friend. Similarly, God appears regularly to us as Father; occasionally as a rock; periodically as a lion; rarely as a chicken. The reason is because the "Father/Child" metaphor is a much better, much more central, much deeper and richer metaphor to mine for meaning, than the others. We ignore it at our peril.

  • One of the key tenets of Christianity is that we are addressed by a God who speaks: who seeks us out, who reveals Himself to us, who is, indeed, the Hound of Heaven. If we are free to exchange the language of God's self-revelation for anything else that happens to suit us better, that implies a very different sort of religion. (The language of "Mother" and "womb" can only be described as this sort of substitution.) Indeed, it is very nearly Pelagian in its implication that we are searching for God, rather than that God is searching for us. When we are seen searching for words, it implies that we are searching for God: but when we humbly receive the words we have been offered, it implies not just that we have found God, but much more importantly, that He has found us.

Just some initial thoughts.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Here's the flip side to my argument that theological language is complicated because any human endeavor has to be complicated.

A particular friend of mine is a very smart guy, the sort of person whose conversations and questions and explanations always leave my head hurting. Yesterday, he sent me the following email:

Hey I had a question come into my mind this morning. Does Jesus have a free will separate from God the Father? I don't even know what free will is other than that it must exist to remove the causal link between God and our sin, but my guess is Jesus does not have a free will...

Without knowing it, of course, he had hit on one of the classic theological arguments, the Monothelite Controversy that followed hard on the heels of Chalcedon. And traditionally, my friend's position has been seen as heretical, since it implies that Jesus was not fully human.

As it turns out, my friend's definition of will, revealed in a later exchange, largely obviated the (entirely humorous) charge of heresy I immediately leveled at him:

My definition of will is such that by definition an entity can have only one will. I define "will" as the ultimate/final component of one's self that determines one's decisions/actions. And for an entity to have two separate wills is to say that neither of these wills are the "ultimate/final component". There must be something beyond those two wills to determine the entities actions when there is a conflict between one will and the other. Or if there is never a conflict between the two wills then I would say that the "two" wills are actual the same will given a different name..."

But the exchange got me thinking (yet again) about theological language. The discussion of the Monothelite Controversy in the Catholic Encyclopedia is wonderfully nuanced and astonishingly detailed: recommended for anyone who takes their theological debates obscure and ancient. But it also illustrates one of the problems with theological language: how quickly its terminology loses contact with the social structures which support and indeed create all language.

In order for the word "will" to be used in any meaningful way in this debate, you have to define what you mean by it very, very carefully, which indeed the article above tries to do. But before you go very far in your definitions, you're forced to confront a reality which we can hardly expect to capture in human words. In what way could our word "will" – or "person" or "nature", for that matter – possibly describe the inner workings of the Triune God? As Aquinas realized long ago, any human language can be related to God only in an analogical fashion. When we say, "God is love," we are applying to God a realm of human experience which can't be transferred literally. We mean that God is "something like" the reality we experience with our friends and family -- or better yet, that our experience of family and friends is something like God – and yet we are also forced to acknowledge that the two things are not alike.

So when we start pushing the boundaries of theological language, we end up with sentences like this one: "Operation or energy, activity (energeia, operatio), is parallel to will, in that there is but one activity of God, ad extra, common to all the three Persons; whereas there are two operations of Christ, on account of His two natures." The sentence is reasonably straightforward, but it presumes to discuss an almost literal relationship between such analogical constructs as divine "will", "energy", "person", and "nature", all of which are, by definition, beyond our experience. Now, part of the power of analogies lies precisely in our uncertainty as to where the points of similarity end, and where the points of dissimilarity begin. But this also means that the relationship between those different words must be, to some substantial degree, opaque to us. In other words, I don't think that sentence is meaningless: but I'm not sure that I could define precisely what it does mean (outside of its own very particular system of reference).

And that's the real trouble with theological language today: its ability to carry meaning outside of a very tight-knit community is exceedingly limited. Or as another friend of mine likes to say, "The whole world depends on your definitions."

Google vs. eBay

Lots of folks have commented recently on eBay's highly publicized decision to pull their ad spend from Google, after Google equally publically kicked eBay in the nuts over the PayPal/GoogleCheckout fight.

Here's the interesting bit, for me at least. I have a theory that because of Google's huge mindshare, and because their tools are so easy to use, that it's just easier for an advertiser to use Google than to use any of the dozens of alternatives (whether first, second or third tier). In other words, Google's dominance is a classic example of a market inefficiency; and as anyone with a smattering of economic theory knows, market inefficiencies equal money. I suspect that there's a lot of profit to be picked up on the second tier PPC providers, for anyone who's willing to overlook the herd mentality Google has found it so profitable to cultivate.

So eBay's decision to pull their spend from Google (and presumably push those dollars to other networks) will be an interesting test case. If my theory is correct, and pricing pressure is excessively high on Google's network, eBay will be able to get the same clicks for a lot cheaper on these other networks. And of course: eBay is a big enough customer that this switch will help these networks pay more out to their publishers – resulting in more volume running through these networks: a classic virtuous circle.

That's my hypothesis, at any rate. The alternative is that eBay will discover that these other providers aren't as sophisticated as Google, and that a click in their networks isn't worth nearly as much as a click in Google's. (Some of that will happen in any scenario: Google is pretty darned sophisticated.) The next couple of weeks will be interesting. If eBay switches any substantial portion of their spend back to Google, that will be a Very Bad Sign for tier two providers who are struggling to compete against a reasonably ruthless 800 pound gorilla.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Family Reunion

I normally try to make each visit to Israel last for at least two or three weeks, but I had to be back early this time for a family reunion up at Keith's cabin. My cousin Bethany, along with her husband Dan and their four kids are missionaries in Tanzania, where they're in the long process of building an orphanage. They've got four great kids, raised in Tanzania and as fluent in Swahili as English, who have spent the last year adjusting to US public schools. The six of them are returning to Tanzania on Monday, and this was our last chance to spend time with them. So Keith invited that whole branch of the family up to his cabin: some 20 people from around the northwest, plus the half dozen or so friends and acquaintances who showed up for varying lengths of time. So when my flight landed at 11:00 am, Galena was there to pick me up, and we drove straight up to Keith's cabin.

The weekend could, I think, be summarized with a quote from G. K. Chesterton's Heretics:
The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution, have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy. It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

(The whole chapter is very worth reading, by the way: it's formed as much of my thinking about personal relationships as any book I've read.)

From my choice of quote, I suppose you could gather correctly that our family has a wide range of interesting members. We've got academics, retirees, businessmen (and women), missionaries, preachers, blue collar workers of every stripe, computer geeks, homemakers, writers, and several folks whose occupation remains unclear. We tell stories: loud, funny, sad, pointless ones, incessantly. We argue. We preach and lecture. We demand attention. This weekend, we rode motorcycles, went on hikes, froze our asses off trying to jetski on the lake. We yelled at kids running through the house, and shrugged at the waterfight happening (again) out by the hot tub. For about 15 minutes we turned on the TV, but we decided that we were more entertaining, and it never came on again. Every time I tried to read a book, or check email, or work on this blog posting, someone was at my elbow, interrupting, asking questions, telling another story.

For someone like myself, who is fundamentally anti-social and enjoys solitude like some people enjoy chocolate, it was sometimes a sore trial. But family is good because it is family: it needs no other justification.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Complexity of Theology

In a recent post, I tried to describe one reason why theology can be hard to understand: because any specialized human endeavor requires a linguistic shorthand. But there are other reasons as well. One of them is that reality itself, in both its physical and metaphysical dimensions, is complicated. The mathematics behind ordinary Newtonian physics is complex enough, to say nothing of quantum mechanics, superstrings, and non-Euclidean geometry. A typical computer model to describe the folding of a single protein – something that takes place trillions of times each second within our bodies – may require a network of thousands of computers to run. Whatever the relationship of the Ultimate Reality to the diminishingly small portion of reality that we are aware of, it would be astonishing if it were not complex, nuanced and all-but incomprehensible. (Indeed, probably the best way that we could expect to wrap our primate brains around any of it would be through symbols and stories: or as Tolkien and Lewis would put it, through myths that actually happened.)

And however complicated reality might be to describe, the initial process of producing those descriptions is more convoluted yet. In any branch of science, hard or soft, theories are produced, elaborated and abandoned in a mind-numbing profusion. Once the scientists in any particular sub-specialty have settled on a particular theory, it's not difficult for the remaining hundreds or thousands of scientists in their particular branch of knowledge to understand it: but, until that happens, most likely only a few dozen are following the conversation closely enough to be able to judge the state of the debate at any given point, or to critique the work of their follow sub-specialists. Today, you can explain Einstein's theories of relativity to any reasonably intelligent high-school student; but when he first proposed them, only a very few physicists could understand the mathematics he was using. The journal articles that bedeviled my early theological reading, and my foray through Barth, were difficult precisely because they weren't predigested: they were the equivalent of reading Einstein's "The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies", not a beginning physics textbook.

To put it another way, one of the main reasons that theologians seem narrow is because humans are narrow. None of us can get a handle on all of reality. We all have to take the little chunks and slices that we're interested in, work with those in whatever ways we can, and pretty much ignore everything else. Call it tribal or parochial if you like, but it's human. It's how scientists work, how computer programmers work, and for that matter, how plumbers and carpet-cleaners and mountain climbers work.

Of course, probably nothing we spend our waking hours on is really as important as we think, including theology. But it's difficult to imagine any alternative: we can't stop being human. Just because you can't understand a theological discussion without acquainting yourself with the background behind it doesn't mean it isn't worth having, or that the scholars engaged in that discussion have locked themselves into ivory towers.

Of course, just because some theology can be difficult and still be valuable, doesn't mean that a given theological work is valuable because it's difficult – though I've known plenty of folks who seemed to think so.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pool and Poker

I'm generally a great fan of Israeli food, but a couple nights ago, I was complaining that I hadn't yet found a good steak in Israel. The stuff they serve in restaurants here is a thin, dry, tough affair compared to what you can find at Daniel's or Ruth's Chris or El Gaucho.

But last night I had to repent of my complaint. After work (meaning, after the flood of initial Bellevue emails finally slowed down and we finished our three hours of video conference meetings), several of us headed over to Moti's house for some pool, poker and especially some food. Moti has summer barbecues down to a science, and we were the collective beneficiaries of his culinary skills. The entrecote he prepared on his backyard grill was as good as I've had: flavorful, juicy, tender, with just the right selection of spices. Yuval summed it up: "Moti doesn't just cook meet. He loves it."

In between courses, we played some pool (at which I suck) and some poker (at which I suck only slightly less).

The poker table was spread out in Moti's back yard, and was well furnished with cigars, whiskey and willing patsies.

After having emptied me and Doug out on our last visit, Meir and Moris decided we were going to play "for honor" this time around. Moris, however, took my honor (no crude jokes, please) as easily as he had previously taken my money.

Between the cigars, whiskey, wine, and not getting to bed until 3:00 am -- I was dragging when I got up this morning. But I'm flying back to Seattle tonight on a red-eye, and with any luck, I'll catch up on my sleep then. It will be very good to get back to my wife: but still, I'll miss Israel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

One Year Anniversary

One year ago this week, 180solutions merged with Hotbar to become Zango -- the reason that I've been spending so much time over here in Tel Aviv.

Once a month, we have a worldwide company meeting, with our offices in Las Vegas, New York, Montreal, London and Tel Aviv video-conferenced into Bellevue, to listen to Keith or York or Dan try to explain once more about the content economy or whatever the latest issue in need of corporate attention might be. Yesterday, in celebration of our one-year anniversary, the Tel Aviv office presented a video they had created describing what it's like to work with Americans from an Israeli perspective. And it was pretty damn funny, at least to those of us who lived through the integration.

The scenes in the video are exaggerated, of course, but they're only funny because they're based on a sometimes pretty substantial element of truth. It really is hard for the folks in Tel Aviv to sit on the far side of video conference calls while folks in Bellevue drone on and on, seemingly ignoring them. Sometimes decisions get made in our Bellevue headquarters that are, shall we say, inadequately communicated to Tel Aviv; or worse yet, get made incorrectly because we didn't consult the folks that actually knew. And folks in Bellevue send an incessant stream of lengthy emails (in English!) -- starting right at the end of the Tel Aviv work day -- and then complain when they don't get an immediate response. Like most Americans, we think the world revolves around us. Despite my half-hearted attempts to learn Hebrew, it remains the case that we make everyone else speak our language.

And of course, the folks in Bellevue are sometimes mystified by our Tel Aviv office, starting with the vaunted Israeli love of argument. Israelis are very direct. Hebrew doesn't lend itself to circumlocutions like, "I wonder if, perhaps, you might need to rethink that idea." An Israeli will just say, "You are wrong." If he's spent a lot of time around Americans, he might say, "I think you are wrong," but that's about as far as it goes. If you say something to an American that he can agree with to any degree whatsoever, the first word out of his mouth will be "Yes", even if it's a "Yes, but...". If you say something to an Israeli that he doesn't support 100%, the first word out of his mouth will be "No". To over-generalize, but only a bit: Israelis are hard-working, smart, creative, and often a bit insecure. They desperately want recognition and, especially, professional advancement. Oren, the former owner of Hotbar, once told us, "We're a nation of over-achievers."

And when you consider that we were originally two separate companies, with different corporate cultures, a 10 hour time difference, different working days (Israelis take Friday and Saturday off), and 25 hours of travel between our main offices: and it's pretty astonishing that the merger has been successful at all. There were just too many opportunities for things to go wrong.

But despite all odds, it has gone extremely well. Most mergers take years to realize revenue synergies, if they ever do: we began seeing them within weeks. Our teams have worked very, very hard to merge our products and our teams, and folks on both sides of the Atlantic have demonstrated incredible patience and goodwill. I've made any number of good friends here in Tel Aviv. I couldn't be more proud of our efforts and our results.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Language of Theology

In my first semester of Bible college, I ended up reading a small chunk – about 150 pages or so – of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. It was a section on the divine attributes, and I think I understood maybe one sentence in ten. (Not for the last time, I found myself wishing I could follow Thomas Aquinas simple thanksgiving for having understood every page he ever read.) Mostly I remember being annoyed. I figured I understood what Barth meant by "dogmatics", but where he got off applying the adjective "church" was less clear to me. How could this be about the Church in any meaningful way if it was so far over the average person's head?

As a very amateur theologian, I still find myself wondering about the relationship of academic theology to the life of the Church, though I might frame the question somewhat differently now. Among other things, I think that one of the reasons I was annoyed at Barth was simply that I hadn't been exposed to enough "real life" yet. At the time, the only people I'd been exposed to who really talked above my head were theologians. When I'd had a bit more experience, I discovered that lots of people talk over my head, all the time, including folks that I would have considered uneducated.

I've been reading some Patrick O'Brian novels recently, and I'm quite impressed with the command he has over the exceedingly technical language of square-rigged sailing ships. I described O'Brian's novels to a friend as being the equivalent of listening to a pair of expert DBA's argue about the right way to design a database – if you'd never heard of a database. A few years ago, when I was trying to sell my house, the carpet cleaner embarked for several hours in an extensive and learned discourse on the chemical properties of carpet fiber. The contractor who sided the same house spoke a technical language which only tangentially resembled English: among the many words I didn't recognize were phrases like "T-111", "the LP knot," "lap siding," and "baseband." I wasn't nearly as interested in what these folks were saying as they were, but just because I couldn't understand them doesn't mean that they weren't making relevant statements about an important reality. In the same way, we can't conclude from a theologian's use of dense and intimidating terms like "perichoresis" or "hypostatic union" that the reality to which they refer is nonexistent or unimportant.

In other words, any communal endeavor necessarily develops a linguistic shorthand for the concepts and objects with which it has frequent dealings, and the resulting language is quite opaque to everyone else. I'm not eager to talk some of those languages myself, but I'm generally glad someone does. And in fact, as a homeowner, it would be helpful for me to know more of them than I do, just as I suspect that most Christians would find it useful to know more of the language of theology.

Monday, June 11, 2007


We've released!

Or at least, we've started to. When you've got millions of people installing your software each month (I'm not exaggerating), you take it slow. We've got good QA, and we've had an extended beta on this thing, but you still run into problems in the wild that you just can't encounter anywhere else. So we start off slow. We'll start by releasing it to a small subset of our Zango installs, let it run for a couple days, analyze the numbers, listen to customer feedback, and make sure that everything looks good. If there aren't any red flags, we'll release it to the rest of our new Zango installs; wait a while; analyze; and then start upgrading our existing audience, again starting small. And once we're finished with that: then we start over with our next brand (Hotbar), and rinse and repeat until they're all done. The process will probably take two months.

And of course, by that time, we hope to be well into coding 10.1. Now if I can just keep the feature set down to a 90-day dev cycle . . .

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Later this afternoon (Tel Aviv time), we're having our official go/no-go meeting for our 10.0 client, the first step in our unified branding strategy, and our first with Vista support. We thought we were going to release last week, but a couple show-stopper bugs reared their heads at the last minute. It only took a day to fix them, but then we had to run all our regression tests again; and then we hit the weekend. Uggh. With any luck, our QA folks won't have found any more P1 bugs over the weekend, and we'll be able to start releasing it. Probably nobody else is as excited about this as I am, but after seven months, I'm very excited (or at least relieved) to see it shipping at last. More when I know more.

72nd Anniversary

Today is my grandparent's 72nd anniversary. In honor of their anniversary, I thought I'd post this letter that my grandfather wrote to his little sister, Addie, back in 1933, very shortly after he had met my grandmother. He was 20 years old, working in Kalispell, Montana, in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and he had recently met a cute little 16-year old at the church he'd started attending.
My long neglected Sis, I have no alibi or excuses for myself, but from the bottom of my heart dear Sis I apologize. If I never get an answer, I’ll know I didn’t have any coming. I’m sorry I couldn’t send you a Xmas present, but it keeps us guessing to make $18 a week go around such a crowd. I’m working under the NRA program, five hours, six days at 60 cents an hour. Let me say there’s not a lot of comfort riding 8 miles in the back of a gravel truck with the thermometer around zero. Never the less the weatherman has been very considerate so far this winter up here; we had a perfectly green Christmas and only a thin skim of snow. I am in lots of places and have had an abundance of experience since I last saw you, and in the 8 months I spent on the Salmon River in Idaho, I feel as though I have aged 10 years. The way we had to live down there was enough to kill some people and make men out of others. I went down there seeking adventure and was glad to get out and back among Godly people. A year ago last July I left Kalispell, then 360 days later I returned. Until the last month I have been at Lakeside (Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park) most of the time, and since I have been home, this is the only convenient time I have had for writing letters. Even now it is hard to find time; supper is always a hubbub with such a bunch of youngsters, (Dad’s family) but you know, I like being back with them. A place without children is certainly dead. Then it’s a race to get to church on time. We’ve been having a lot of prayer services lately. After church I always have to take her (Ruby) home then can never get back to 233 until 2 or 2:30. It’s never “good night” with “us”. It’s always good morning. It has been as bad as five but I always enjoy those last couple of hours before going to work. Can you imagine my efficiency? But, Sis, if you know her, I’m sure you would not blame me. You would love her too. We have been going to the same church but up until six weeks ago I was going with another girl that wasn’t so nice. (Emphasis on the wasn’t) in fact there was no comparison. About a week after I found that I did not care much about her she was removed from the church roll for indecent behavior with a variety of boys. I am glad for appearance sake, I shed her when I did. But I have the nicest girl in Kalispell now, and if that’s hard to believe ask my mother, she knows a good thing when she sees it. I get a kick out of showing her off on the street because every one says nice things about her. You can see a ruby sparkle a long way off. (By the way her name is Ruby Rasmussen.) I could tell you a lot of nice things about Ruby, but that would take a long time. She certainly is my ideal. As you can see I cannot write about anything except Ruby so I’ll quit. Will write again sometime. I’ve written long letters to you before then torn them up instead of mailing them. I’ll try to get this one mailed. Your Big Bud
They eloped two years later, and have been inseparable for more than seven decades since.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Buy, Lease, Rent

Over the last several years at Zango, one of the constant questions I'm faced with is when to build a particular technology ourselves, when to rent it, and when to buy it. Like many tech guys, my instinct is that we should build it ourselves. The problem isn't that this instinct is wrong: it's that it's right just often enough that it can make it hard to see when it's misplaced.

Here's a great example of how it gets complicated. When we first founded Zango, back in 1999, we were so busy trying to establish a technology baseline that we outsourced everything that we possibly could, including our ad serving. Over the first two years, we went through three or four different ad serving companies, trying to find one that would meet our needs, and swapping them out on a regular basis. Finally – I remember the day – Keith dropped into my office and said, "We need our own ad server. None of these others can handle the kind of keyword targeting we need. I need you to drop everything and build it."

So I did. It was horribly simplistic, badly designed, constructed with virtually no input from our advertisers, and built – of all things – in classic ASP, with MS Access as the administration tool. (Hey, when the only tool you've got is a hammer...) But it worked. Our sales people and account managers loved it, because it let them do keyword targeting of their ads in a fraction of the time that it had previously required. The keyword targeting was at least an order of magnitude better than anything we'd been able to get with our other ad servers: not because I was a better programmer or because we had better algorithms, but because it was designed around our specific needs.

Now, five or six years later, that same ad delivery system is showing its age. It's worked very well for us so far, we've added a ton of features, migrated it to C# and ASP.NET, made it more scalable by an order of magnitude – but it's still fundamentally the same system I designed in a couple of days, back when Zango consisted of only five people. We now have more than two hundred employees, thousands of advertisers, and more to the point, competitors that haven't stood still either. Self-serve, keyword-based targeting was a reasonably snazzy idea seven years ago: but these days, we need a system that can optimize itself, without user intervention; and which can optimize based on dozens or even hundreds of different variables. (Don't get me wrong, by the way: we still deliver a better ROI for our advertisers than Google does. But we want to deliver a much better ROI.)

Which is where it gets complicated. Should we build this system ourselves? Should we try to buy a company that already has one? Or should we try to munge our system into working with any of the dozens of public ad serving systems already out there? This is an idea we've been hashing over for a while, and we've gone different directions.

While I'm open to ideas – anyone out there have any suggestions? – our current approach is that we're going to try to build it ourselves. We've got several reasons:

  1. Strategically, we think the company will be worth more long-term if we own this IP rather than just rent it from someone else.
  2. Tactically, it's a huge risk if our ad serving company turns us off (as, say, SDC did just a few months ago to all its customers, after its acquisition by Fox Interactive).
  3. Technically, it's been my experience that plugging in somebody else's technology, when it's as central and critical as this is, is almost as huge a pain as building it ourselves.

The next hard part is getting the algorithms right. That's not an area where I have any expertise, and I'm going to have to depend a lot on other folks. And that's nearly as much a pain as outsourcing.

Ein Hod

Today, several of my traveling companions and myself, along with one of our product managers from Tel Aviv, drove north to Ein Hod, an artist's village located in the Carmel region just south of Haifa. We were met by Dan Ben-Arye, an artist who resides there with his family, along with some 130 other families. He gave us a very nice guided tour through the village, visiting many though by no means all of the galleries there.

In general, I thought that most of the art was of a pretty high quality. Not all of it appealed to me, naturally, which probably says more about me than about the art. But there were some pieces there which I found quite beautiful; and the setting, of course, was the sort of Mediterranean beauty you usually only read about.

I've posted a few more pictures on Picasa, at

I should note that the Argentinian restaurant there, Dona Rosa, was quite good: recommended.

And one last note: as we were walking by a particular building, Dan pointed at it and said, “Oh, and that’s our bomb shelter.”

“Bomb shelter?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. We had to hide there last summer. Rockets were falling all around here. Big ones, 100 kilos. They really shake the ground.”

In Israel, sometimes the peace you see around you can be deceiving.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Peace, שלום, ειρηνη

I'm on my way to Tel Aviv at the moment, and I'll post this as soon as I can. I usually fly Delta, with a layover in Atlanta, and on the first leg off today's trip, I had the privilege – I think that's the right word – of sitting next to a Green Beret in training. We started up a conversation when I noticed that he appeared to be studying Arabic – not a typical way to spend your time on a flight, though one I fully approved of. (Turns out that it was actually Farsi, but close enough.) Matt was on his way back to Fort Bragg from a brief stint ("mission", he called it) at Fort Lewis. We talked for several hours: and unlike the taciturn image I had in my mind of a Special Forces soldier, he was a friendly, talkative fellow, only too eager to answer my questions.

I'm well aware (in theory) of the horrors of warfare, but as I was listening to his stories, I remembered a quote from a movie director I heard some time back: "The problem with making an anti-war movie is that war is so exciting." The Seals, of course, have their "hell week", but it turns out that the Green Beret equivalent is a full three weeks long. It features exciting tasks such as orienteering in the dark through cotton-mouth infested swamps (one of Matt's friends actually got bit); or sometimes they strap 100 pound packs on you and say, "Run." You don't know how far or for how long: you just run. The penultimate task is a 30-mile slog carrying a 65-pound backpack: though they do have mercy on you and give you four hours of sleep beforehand. The last task is surviving the two or three days of mind-games they play with the 300 remaining recruits, as they pick the 100 who will actually become Green Berets. Matt said that when he realized he had been picked, he cried like a baby. (As ridiculously painful as all that sounds, a part of me is envious that I'll never have the chance to go through it. And yes, that's rather silly of me. But still.)

Green Berets, of course, are "force multipliers": their typical mission is more about training armies in foreign countries than engaging in direction action themselves – though I gather they see plenty of the latter, too. They're the eggheads of the Special Forces: Farsi is only the first of three languages that Matt will be learning over the next several years. As a fan of languages, and of eggheads of any stripe, that's a calling I can easily appreciate.

Still, I had to conclude that it was ironic that my airplane reading (for that leg) was Jimmy Carter's recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Carter's career, both public and private, has largely been dedicated to making the existence of folks like Matt unnecessary. (Though to be fair, he was not above using – or misusing – Special Forces when he thought they were called for.)

Carter's book deserves at least an entire post to itself, but I'll say here briefly that I don't think that he's entirely fair to the Israeli point of view. I think he is reasonably fair to the Palestinian perspective: at least, I came away with a better understanding of why the Palestinians are so full of despair and hatred and determination, all at the same time. There is a certain nobility to many of their goals: though not to all, and certainly not to all their methods. But when it comes to the Israelis, Carter leaves out at least half the picture. He generally seems less incensed at the intentional slaughter of 35 Israeli civilians by the PLO, than at the razing of a Palestinian home by Israeli bulldozers. Not knowing the details of the latter, I'm still willing to grant that it's wrong, and even horribly wrong: but it's not at the same moral level. And while he legitimately rails against Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank, he nowhere acknowledges that Israel came into possession of the occupied territories only as the result of a war of aggression that was initiated by Israel's Arab neighbors, and cheered by the Palestinians. If that war had gone the other way, and if any Israelis had survived the inevitable slaughter, they would now be the refugees living in despair under a foreign occupation, with even less likelihood of a Jewish homeland than there presently is of a Palestinian. Israelis understand this in their bones: and it drives many policy decisions that would otherwise appear counter-productive or even obtuse.

Carter's book thus stands in stark contrast to the other book I just started, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, by Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's Foreign Minister under Ehud Barak. Ben Ami sums up the difference between the two books admirably with a quote from Raymond Aron: "The reason I never became a politician is that I want to understand." Although both Carter and Ben Ami were politicians at some point in their career, Ben Ami is first and foremost a historian, and his book, so far at least, strikes me as a real attempt to understand, as objectively as possible, the thinking of all the many parties involved in the many battles over Palestinian territory since 1906. In contrast, Carter is taking sides, attempting to be persuasive: and perhaps for that reason, is not as persuasive as he might be.

Still, I can't fault his vision for Palestine and for Israel, to live together in peace; and for both sides to compromise pretty substantially to get there. It's pretty clear that if Israel and the Palestinians could make reasonable progress, my Special Forces seatmate would be out of a job. And with all due respect to him and to his profession, and with every realization that it's highly unlikely this side of the eschaton: that would be a very fine thing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Poems vs. Poetry

At a church I went to recently (not my own), we sang the following chorus: You are my world, you are my God, And I lay down my life for you. You are my Lord, the one I love, No one could ever take your place. Singing this made me sad. There was a time in the distant past when Christians believed that God was interesting enough to deserve not only praise, but well-crafted praise; that God was beautiful enough to be described with beautiful language; that our poems to Him could actually have something in them of poetry. Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. It's common to defend lifeless choruses with Jane Austen-like words to the effect, “At least their sentiments are correct.” But that's precisely what is not correct about the chorus we sang. It has no sentiments. It has no feelings of its own; it does not make the slightest appeal to ours. The blank, cold, naked thoughts behind that chorus are indeed correct. What else should God be to us if not the whole world? And should we not love God? And there is, of course, no one who could take God’s place. But if we were not already convinced, that chorus could do precious little to change our minds. I don't deny that the this chorus – and the thousand others we sing – may express true and even worthwhile thoughts. Indeed, the meaning of this chorus is high and holy, as with all platitudes. It's much more valuable to know such things are true than to pen lines that confess them worthily. A saint is better than a poet. But times were when saints wrote poetry that could move men a thousand years hence. The poetry of the saints has lasted precisely because they believed that God was worthy of their very best: first, of course, worthy of their best actions and thoughts, but secondarily, worthy of their best words. Nor does God scorn words. Εν αρχη ην ο λογος: in the beginning was the Word. Sitting in front of us at each church service are 1500 pages of those words – and it's no coincidence that those words contain some of the best poetry in any language in the world. So why do our churches have so little poetry? One answer might be that we don’t want the beauty of the words to distract us from their meaning, that we don’t wish for the towering clouds of incense to distract us from the altar. There are indeed some Christians who might make this claim and make it believably. But they do not attend any church I know. The old Huguenots who striped the icons and the paintings and the color from their churches might reasonably strip metaphor and alliteration from their praises; their songs might quite reasonably be as plain and gray as their places of worship. But however convincing a Quaker or Mennonite appeal for simplicity might be, it sounds rather ingenuous in a multi-million dollar sanctuary, with professional musicians pumping out pop-rock praises, a twenty foot electronic image of the pastor standing over the pastor’s shoulder, and DVD's of each service available for five dollars in the sanctuary. No: I think the primary reason we have no poetry in our churches is that we have none in our lives. I don't mean that we have nothing in our life that is worthy of poetry. Far from it: those things which have been the subject of poetry since the foundation of the world – love, loss, heroism, bravery, war, life, birth, death – these are the birthright of Man, and no television shall take them away. Nor do I mean that nobody writes poems anymore. On the contrary, everyone writes poems. But almost no one writes poetry. My theory is that there is a very particular reason for this. No one who hears -- For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright Who art as black as death, as dark as night -- believes that they could write half so well. But it takes a real ear to recognize that – I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you -- is just as good and just as difficult to write. Because free verse has no obvious rules, an unfortunately large number of people have concluded that poetry has no standards. A 19th century poet might spend all day on a sonnet, conclude when it was finished that it was “not very creditable”, and yet produce something worth reading: because in the 19th century, at least some of the marks of good poetry were obvious and therefore could be learned and therefore could be taught. But Holden Caulfield might spend five minutes “expressing himself” in a form with as little regularity as Whitman, as little point as MTV and as little value. In a singularly unfortunate “celebration of myself,” he would conclude that what he has to say is worth saying because he is the one saying it. One result is that within the last several years, an honest-to-goodness bona fide poet laureate wrote the following lines: Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day Many people have quite rightly complained about the writer’s astonishingly elusive grasp on reality. But I haven't heard anyone note the far more striking and horrifying fact: that the author of these lines calls himself a poet.

Vista Support

Supporting Vista has been a pain in the royal ass.

Version 10.0 of Zango's toolbar and advertising client is due out next week.  Our dev teams in Bellevue, Montreal and Tel Aviv have been working on this release since last November, and by far the biggest headache in the entire dev schedule has been supporting Vista.  These days, Vista users make up about 5% of the folks coming to  That's not a huge number, but because we can't support them, it doesn't take a math genius to figure out that we're leaving money on the table.  So we're rushing to get them support as quick as humanly possible.

 Now, of course, we've all known that Vista was coming for a long time, and if you cared to make the argument that, really, we should have been ready back in January when Vista shipped, I'd have to agree with you.  There are three main reasons why it's taken us this long.

  1. We got started too late.  At some level, this was intentional: from last June through November, our client dev team was focused like a laser on integrating the different Hotbar and Zango product offerings in a way that would actually make us some money – and I'm proud to say that we succeeded nobly.  But it left us rather behind on our roadmap.
  2. It was harder than we thought.  Nobody on our team had ever supported Vista before, so nobody had the slightest clue how difficult it would be.  (Is it bigger than a bread box?)  It shouldn't be any big surprise to learn that our estimates were fairly optimistic.  Back in November, we thought we had a reasonable chance of rolling this thing out in February or March.
  3. We threw too much in.  We couldn't quite stand the thought of waiting four months without any user-oriented features, so we decided to add the ability to cross-promote content across our brands.  That may have been the right call, but it added another two months to a project that was already larger than it should have been. 

So why has Vista support been such a pain?  The biggest problems, and the most headaches, have resulted from the new security model. In Vista, each process gets launched with either a "High", "Medium" or "Low" level of protection.  By default, unless you turn off User Account Control, all processes are launched at the "Medium" level of protection.  But because IE has been subject to any number of severe security holes over the years, and because Microsoft apparently doesn't think that will go away anytime soon, IE (by default) will run in "Protected Mode" for any URL from the Internet zone.  Microsoft has a fairly detailed discussion of Protected Mode here.

Here's just one example of why this is such a pain.  Long ago we architected our search assistant to run in its own process.  This master process (ZangoSA.exe) communicates with a DLL loaded in IE, and periodically uses the IE COM interface to launch ads in new instances of the browser, sized and positioned correctly.   The problem is that on Vista, ZangoSA.exe runs – and necessarily runs – at a medium integrity level. And because IE's Web Browser object is an activate-as-activator object, the browsers ZangoSA.exe creates with CoCreateInstance() also run at medium integrity. When a browser created this way navigates, and figures out that it should be running in Protected Mode (but it isn't), it hands the navigation operation to an instance of IE that is running in Protected Mode – creating such an instance if one doesn't already exist. At this point control over the navigating browser is lost.  No, honestly, this is how it "works".

Fine, we thought: we'll just create the browser in Protected Mode to begin with, there will be no need for the aforementioned bait-and-switch, and the problem will be solved. Well after scouring the posts on MSDN and working with Microsoft we discovered that starting IE in Protected Mode via CoCreateInstance() isn't possible today. You can start IE running as a low integrity process this way, but IE running with low integrity and IE running in Protected Mode are not the same thing: even a low integrity instance of IE does the bait-and-switch to an instance in Protected Mode.

Suffice to say, the good folks at Microsoft hadn't precisely thought this one through.  Sigh. (I recently wrote about the dangers of feeling self-righteous.  All that applies here.) They swear that it'll get fixed in the next release of IE – an assurance which isn't as helpful as you might think.  We came up with a workaround eventually (IELaunchURL()), but it's ugly, shows a nasty flash of IE before resizing it, and in general doesn't behave like we'd want.  We'll keep looking for a better solution, but we're going with this one for right now.

So: I was able to explain the above in about three paragraphs.  But figuring this out – and figuring out that there wasn't any solution down this path – took the better part of a month.  And when you add in all the other security issues (typically, bizarre IE dialog boxes offered up in strange situations, sometimes reproducible, sometimes not), and all the code that suddenly crashes under Vista that never crashed before, or breaks due to the new security model . . . and that's at least two months out of our seven month project.

A part of me understands why Microsoft made the changes that it made in Vista.  But a heads up to anyone else out there: supporting Vista isn't like moving from Windows 2000 to Windows XP.  This is a new OS, from the ground up, and the fact that it uses what looks on the surface like the same API shouldn't fool you.  Vista represents a change at least as substantial as when MS moved from Windows 3.1 to Windows NT, and you should expect a similar level of compatibility issues.

The good news is that we're now at release candidate status.  Unless we find something else substantial over the weekend, we'll be releasing next week.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Self Righteousness and Baseball

I got invited last night to a Microsoft suite at Safeco Field, to watch a Mariner’s game. Under the category of “biting the hand that feeds you”, I took the opportunity to unload on our hapless Sales rep about every Microsoft product that annoys me – and trust me, there was a long list. He was bragging about Proclarity – until I launched into my “have you ever tried to organize a briefing book?” speech. I ragged on Sharepoint. I really ragged on Office 2007. (“The ribbon? What in the wide world was Microsoft thinking? Did anybody there even use Excel 2007 graphs? They’re at least an order of magnitude slower than Excel 2003.”) When he pulled out his shiny new Cingular Blackjack, I asked him to try to file an email. (“Why couldn’t the SmartPhone developers just have used the tree control from Windows Mobile?”)

It was a rare and delightful opportunity to bitch: and because he’s a sales guy, and because Zango spends a substantial amount of money with Microsoft, he had to listen and pretend to smile and be nice. I love being self-righteous, especially when you’ve got the poor guy who has to listen to you at your mercy. I get to be knowledgeable and superior and annoying all at once. It’s addictive.

But I think that “addictive” is the right word to describe it. I’m sure that – like sex, or food – that wonderful feeling of self-righteous indignation has its place. God wouldn’t have made us love fighting so much if He hadn’t intended for us to do it now and again. But there are good times to fight and bad times to fight, and most of the times that we actually do fight are bad times. I’ve noticed that when I’m at my most self-righteous, I’m generally taking advantage of someone else who, for whatever reason, can’t defend himself: often because he’s not there, but often for other reasons, having to do with disparities in power. And it is bad to get addicted to that feeling of power. It’s pride by any other name: it’s as tempting as the Ring, and as dangerous and corrupting.

On a side note, Zango has had its share of detractors over the years, and I’ve often noticed this same attitude in many of them. It’s certainly an attitude I can understand, and even sympathize with. Heck, I know myself: if I didn’t work here, I’d be posting witticisms about Jeffery Dahmer on Slashdot too. It’s easier, and a lot more fun, to be self-righteous than to take the time to understand (or even notice) how diligently Zango’s been working to clean up the problems in our industry. Or how hard MS works to bring new products to market, whatever their challenges. Perhaps, ultimately, I shouldn’t point too many fingers (too often, anyway) at Zango's detractors: “Let him who is without sin” and all.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Divine Peek-a-boo

Today at church was the last service for my pastor, Charlie, for the summer. He's taking a three month sabbatical over the summer, and is starting it out with a trip to Israel. (A trip which I will narrowly miss, worse luck: it would be fun to spend time over there with him.) In the course of his sermon today, he mentioned how he was looking forward to spending each day "just looking for God", and he went on to describe his sabbatical as a "God hunt".

That's an image which has always puzzled me. Given my Calvinism -- perhaps more of a latent Calvinism these days -- talking about our "search for God" has never seemed the right way to think about it. Isn't it God who finds us? Or rather, since He presumably knows where we are, who draws us to Himself?

But a thought struck me today as I was listening. Of course, in a sense, God is in charge of all things: but I still need to remember to stop when I come to a stop sign if I don't want to get a ticket. And I still need to remember to pick up the groceries on my way home if I want dinner (or at least, if don't want Galena annoyed at me). Pascal once said that God established prayer, "Pour communiquer à ses créatures la dignité de la causalité": to grant us the honor of being able to make things happen.

Similarly, I think that sometimes God hides from us to give us the fun of finding Him. We can't really find him, of course: no more than an infant can "find" his mother when they're playing peek-a-boo. But just as it's important for a child to move from finding his mother when she removes her hands from his eyes, to finding her when he's skinned his knee, so it's important for us to move from being purely passive recipients of God's grace to actively seeking Him out. It's a part of growing up, I suppose: a way for us ghosts to learn to walk on the hard, unbending grasses of heaven.