Friday, April 10, 2009

Did ASU snub President Obama, or just blow an obvious opportunity?

After a day of digging and talking to ASU staff and faculty, it seems this may have been more of a bureaucratic snafu than a political snub. Many have questioned whether such a decision not to award Obama an honorary degree could be racially motivated. ASU is intent to say - after the gaffe - that they will "honor Obama in every way possible."

Dawn Teo kept at this story, which was one of the hottest items yesterday at the Huffington Post, and she discovered a university administration about as jittery as cats in a room full of rocking chairs by the look of it.
Faculty and staff at ASU have taken a lot of heat over this issue. Laurie Chassin co-chairs of the ASU Honorary Degree Committee along with Christine Wilkinson, but she is on sabbatical this year and is not involved in this year's evaluations. She reportedly received death threats, though, after this story hit national news on Thursday. An ASU spokesperson said they started receiving hate-email within minutes after the story was published on Huffington Post. Crow's office was barraged with so many calls that many went straight to voice mail.
Dawn's discovered that when the President accepted the invitation to speak at the ASU commencement, the news was top secret, because Obama's press team wanted to announce the story together with the other commencements at the President would appear - but stopping leaks inside the beltway is difficult to say the least. It seems likely the right hand at ASU didn't know what the left hand was up to...

...but they sure did bungle the opportunity, and the coverage, and end up with a lot of egg on a lot of ASU faces.

Meanwhile, as you'd likely expect, the White House seems utterly unconcerned over the snafu in Arizona. There's been no mention of it I can discover via the White House blog or briefings. Today's message was largely about hope that the anecdotal signs of an economic turn-around might signal the start of broader progress reversing the downward spiral, though it's clear the recovery will not be quick.

Promise Technology, RAID, Cloud Computing and UC Berkeley


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I happened on a number of blog posts about a company called "Promise Technology" and became more interested in these terms: "RAID" and "Cloud Computing" and because my grad school, Cal Berkeley is apparently at the center of the creation of this technology. Also, I think, particularly in the wake of the San Jose fiber-optic cable crime of yesterday, it's important to shed a light on the little-known areas of technology and how they impact us.

Promise Technology (according to its website) is "a global leader in the storage industry and as an innovator in RAID technology". OK, fine and dandy, but what's "RAID technology" and why is it important? First, when David Patterson, Garth Gibson and Randy Katz created RAID according to Wikepedia at Cal in 1987 and confirmed by Scientic Commons , it was called "Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks" but some companies now call it "Redundant Array of Independent Disks". Ok, but why is it important?

It's important, and Cal Professor David Patterson's a Macher in this field. Patterson led the creation of RAID technology, increasing storage capacity dramatically and opening the door to the creation of the kind of web servers used today. But really it started as combining small disk drives into something called an "array" which is a way of arranging information so that each part can be gotten according to some specific code index -- in other words it's a way of "filing" information in a certain order then using that order to, say, make a calculation of something. We do this every day when we teach kids to count the number of items in a case, that number of items is an array of sorts. Programmers get computers to do that same act by writing arrays as in this case (ok, simple yes, but I want people to at least be exposed to these ideas.)

Thus, RAID is a storage technology that uses arrays and is widely used in the corporate world. Promise Technology is one of a number of companies that uses this Cal-created technology to store information or more to the point of what Promise does, is make hardware that "sees" an array of hard drives and stores, receives, and protects that data that's in them.

As an old Cal student and booster I hope you see this example of where our dollars public and private go at the university. At present, we need to change our spending priorties do that great California institutions like UC Berkeley get more money fro the State of California. California spends more money today on prisons than education; that wasn't the case when RAID technology was created. Cal's leadership and innovation in computer technology has helped transform the World around us for the better and caused the launch of a new industry and companies like Promise Technology.

Indeed, RAID served as a foundation for what we now call "Cloud Computing" which is using the Internet to, say, use a spreadsheet, rather than an old disk or CD that had a copy of, say, Microsoft Office and Excel on it. If you're thinking of Google Docs, you're on the right track.

So the next time you're poking around online and see some technical term you don't recognize, stop and research it rather than clicking by it. It will expand your understanding of the world and it may cause you to appreciate your public university more than you do.

Fiber Optic Cable System Vandalism A National Security Problem


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On Thursday April 9th a criminal incident impacting nearly a million people in three counties of Silicon Valley went largely unnoticed by the media, both mainstream and blogs, yet has enormous national security implications far beyond the scale and scope of September 11th 2001 or "9-11" and potentially impacting millions of Americans. What was it and why?

On that day, someone one or a group of people cut a fiber-optic and landline network placed beneath a manhole cover in San Jose, California. No one knows who did it, but the act crippled operations in hospitals, stores, banks, and supermarkets. No one could make a call using a cell phone or regular phone, or get information from the Internet. The full extent of the impact of this act is as of this writing not known, but imagine not being able to call the police or the fire department or your loved one for any reason especially if they need your help. And forget using "Skype", the Internet phone service, because access to the Internet itself was down.

That's what happened yesterday.

To explain the importance of this, I go back in time in my own life, to 1988.

Then, I worked a temporary job at a firm called "The San Francisco Consulting Group" (SFCG) in of course San Francisco, California, and which still exists. (I must report I write this without contact with anyone at the firm. My friend who was a partner there and told the firm to work with me, Michael Taylor, passed away due to brain cancer in 2003 and who's survived by his wife and my friend Sandra Taylor.)

In an innocent conversation the human resources representative discovered that the person hired to help them with spreadsheets - me - was using a software program called "STELLA", knew the modeling paradigm "System Dynamics" or "SD" and as it happens "SD" was used by SFCG, so my value immediately increased dramatically. Michael and his staff wanted to use System Dynamics to make this "economic soft landing" computer simulation for a client.

What was changing is the provision of access by long distance companies to the cable fiber-optic lines owned by AT&T. With all of these companies now able to "poach" off lines owned by AT&T, the firm was certain to lose money, the question was "how much."

At the time, the Internet was not invented by Al Gore, but the fact was then and is now that national communications depend on the same fiber-optic and coaxial cables that are mostly owned by AT&T and were vandalized in San Jose.

In 2006, I pointed to the communications system that was established as vulnerable to attack by a hacker. I wrote in my blog:

The Old Economy firms are threatened by the continuation of a process that started almost 20 years ago: the constant and inexorable decrease in market value that they have suffered since the mid-80s. A chain of events started when the Federal Government forced the then-powerful AT&T to share its cable lines with other long distance providers as part of the breakup of AT&T. Ever since that point in the early 70s, the "Baby Bells" have been trying to slow the rate of decrease in market share and in any way.

Now, the only proof I have of this is rather powerful. In 1988 I was to be hired as part of a consulting team led by The San Francisco Consulting Group. I was to constuct a System Dynamics model of the US long distance telephone industry. That team was to determine how the market for long distance service was changing and how the client -- GTE -- should respond to this change. In other words, how they should achieve "a soft landing" as their market share decreased. The schematic I created for the model was formed to have a pattern of numerical behavior such that each long distance company was losing market share as new players arrived on the scene.

That was before the emergence of the Internet, which didn't become a major factor in how we communicate until 1995. But after that year, the number of Internet-equipped computers increased dramatically, as did the number of Internet-based services and companies. In 10 years, we've went from dial up to DSL to Broadband, and the one constant in this process has been the use of phone lines used by companies like AT&T.

Ever hungry for new forms of revenue generation, the firms that provide Broadband service -- and standard telephone service -- saw a way to cut off competition from the "Vonages" of the World: force them to pay for faster Internet speeds.

In this, they found the perfect driver to increase revenues and at the same time hamper the growth of the Global Economy. It's easier now than even before in our history for a small business to have a global reach using the World Wide Web. The cost barrier to entry for many is close to zero if one knows how to find the free services needed.

But from the perspective of thee AT&T's of the World, their revenue gain would be unescapable; absent a way of hacking the system, billions of users would have to pay them for faster access, thus introducing a new barrier to entry for small companies in the Global market.

To put it simply and to repeat my message folks, the fiber-optic cable lines that AT&T  created in the late 40s and up to the 80s and then had to share with new firms in the 90s and beyond, that sunk infrastructure of lines that carry the information that makes up what we call the World Wide Web, and the cell phone and telephone communications industry is still largely concentrated in the same system that was the victim of vandals in Silicon Valley on Thursday.  But when the matter of security has been discussed in the past, it was always from the perspective of stealing information from the network, not destroying it as was the case on April 9th. 

All the vandals did yesterday was open a manhole cover, go down below ground to the space under the streets that holds our fiber-optic system, find the lines, and cut them, then escape the scene of the crime just by climbing our and running away from the scene of the crime. Again, no suspects were captured as of this writing. No security camera was in place to "see" the crime. No locks on the manhole covers. Nothing. A group of people went in and then got out and crippled much of Silicon Valley's economy and lifestyle in the process. But it could have caused the loss of life just be not being able to contact and help someone in need.

And to add insult to injury, the talks about fiber-optic security that are available online only concern someone tapping the lines to get information, not destroying them altogether. The assumption is others will want to maintain the lines, but that's a terrible guess to make. This act of vandalism proves that there are people who want to cripple our economy and may have stumbled on something. We have to stop them.

How do we know this wasn't a dry run for some larger act of vandalism? Sorry to be a conspriracy theorist, but hey, I've got reasonable evidence to back my concern. I now state that a well-financed anti-USA terrorist effort could successfully cripple much of America's Internet and communications infrastructure in much the same way that vandals damaged fiber-optic cables on Thursday. Prove me wrong. Where's your counter-evidence?

This is such an important issue that the Federal Government, and specifically the Federal Communications Commission should work with the Department of Homeland Security to first eliminate the development of an Internet access system that's in the control of a few large corporations because of the problem of having such an important system concentrated in the hands of a few.  It's not that they're bad; it's a matter of protection. 

Municipalities should call for an end to Comcasts' exclusive control of cable access in cities like Oakland. The overall objective must be decentralization and redundancy (in other words having more than one of the same lines) of Internet-related access and control. We have to lay new lines of cable to act as a replacement and redundancy system for what's there now and make sure that those lines are secure from vandalism -- right now, given the events of Thursday April 9th, I write with great concern that our national system of fiber-optic cables is not secure and subject to attack.

I welcome anyone out there to prove I'm wrong. I already have my example of why I'm right in San Jose -- where's your proof?

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