Lynn Conway, Enabler of Microchips

Are you using something with a modern microprocessor on International Women’s Day? (If you’re not, but somehow able to see this post, talk to a doctor. Or a psychic.) You should thank Dr. Lynn Conway, professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan and member of the National Academy of Engineering, who is responsible for two major innovations that are ubiquitous in modern computing. She is most famous for the Mead-Conway revolution, as she developed the “design rules” that are used in Very-Large-Scale Integration architecture, the scheme that basically underlies all modern computer chips. Conway’s rules standardized chip design, making the process faster, easier, and more reliable, and perhaps most significant to broader society, easy to scale down, which is why we are now surrounded by computers.


She is less known for her work on dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS). DIS lets a computer program operate out of order, so that later parts of code that do not depend on results of earlier parts can start running instead of letting the whole program stall until certain operations finish. This lets programs run faster and also be more efficient with processor and memory resources. Conway was less known for this work for years because she presented as a man when she began work at IBM. When Conway began her public transition to a woman in 1968, she was fired because the transition was seen as potentially “disruptive” to the work environment. After leaving IBM and completing her transition, Conway lived in “stealth”, which prevented her from publicly taking credit for her work there until the 2000s, when she decided to reach out to someone studying the company’s work on “superscalar” computers in the 60s.

Since coming out, Dr. Conway has been an advocate for trans rights, in science and in society. As a scientist herself, Dr. Conway is very interested in how trans people and the development of gender identity are represented in research. In 2007, she co-authored a paper showing that mental health experts seemed to be dramatically underestimating the number of trans people in the US based just on studies of transition surgeries alone. In 2013 and 2014, Conway worked to make the IEEE’s Code of Ethics inclusive of gender identity and expression.

A good short biography of Dr. Conway can be found here. Or read her writings on her website.

Grace Hopper, Pioneer of the Computing Age

A white woman in a naval dress uniform is pictured. Her arms are crossed.

If you’re seeing this on any kind of computing device on International Women’s Day, you should thank Dr. Grace Hopper, rear admiral of the US Navy. Hopper created the first compiler, which allowed for computer programming to be done in code that could more closely resemble human language instead of the essentially numerical instructions that work at the level of the hardware.

These “higher level” languages are what are typically used to create all the various programs and apps we use everyday. What have you done today? Word processing? Photo editing? Anything beyond math was considered outside the domain of computers when Hopper started work.

Tech Revisionism is Already Happening

An article about the “most ridiculous startup ideas that became successful” has been making the rounds on social media. It amused me, mainly because the “ridiculous” ideas used to summarize each company are more like strained ex post facto descriptions that describe what they currently do, not the starting business model.

  • Facebook was not meant to be another Myspace. It started as a way for college students to communicate with each other (after a very brief life as a “hot or not” thing for Harvard dorms). If you’re a Millenial, ask your parents if they ever looked at Odds are that they have. Myspace was a public site where 13-year-olds made 90s-esque web profiles that were open to everyone, including 40-year-old men pretending to be 13-year-olds. That Facebook did not require this degree of openness has been part of its success.
  • Dropbox seemed like the first major file transfer program I heard of aside from Google Docs. As this XKCD shows, we’re still desperately working on file transfer and so almost any idea could go. (My current solution is Google Drive)
  • Amazon took off a lot after eBay drew people online. Amazon started around the time of the dot com bubble, so it’s not like investors needed much rationalization before investing in websites. But if you think about it, the basic starting idea kind of makes sense: Amazon could get virtually any book for a customer without wasting money on inventory costs. Also, Amazon hasn’t turned a profit in years because it tries to keep expanding, so maybe we should be wary of calling it a success for now.
  • Virgin was founded not long after the airline industry was deregulated, so the timing isn’t crazy.
  • I know virtually nothing about Mint or Palantir, but the idea of a company being really dependent on defense contracts is actually not uncommon.
  • Craigslist is a classifieds web site in a time when newspaper classifieds are slowly dying. Investing in it seems really reasonable. And actually, it doesn’t seem to be pulling in a lot of venture capital money. The one major outside investor is eBay.
  • iOS isn’t even a company or a standalone product. Why is it on this list?
  • The whole point of Google was that its indexing algorithm was almost completely different than other search engines at the time. Does the author not remember how bad search results were in the 90s? Also, Google grew out of Larry Page’s dissertation, so it’s not like pitching was done before the algorithm existed.
  • Part of PayPal’s appeal is that it’s more secure to give just one website your financial information and use that for purchases than to give your credit card information to a new person every time you make buy something online
  • LinkedIn totally confused me in college, but now I appreciate separating my professional and social networking activities. And evidently lots of companies do use LinkedIn for recruiting since they can sort-of target appropriate people better than random Internet ads.
  • Tesla actually does work with other car companies on some models and does have a goal of providing electric car equipment to other manufacturers to help mainstream electric cars. And considering that it was founded in 2003, its existence predates the cleantech “backlash”.
  • 2/3 of SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk. And SpaceX doesn’t just want to be a commercial NASA (and even if the author finds this really weird, I would invite him to read almost any science fiction talking about space colonization). It plans to do commercial satellite launches as well, which are big business now.
  • Firefox is the work of a free software group. Which is mostly funded by a non-profit (and a company that makes money, but that reinvests nearly all of that into the non-profit).
  • Honestly, the only crazy ideas here seem to be Instagram and Twitter. And people still seem unsure of how those are supposed to make money so maybe we’ll find that their current structures are ridiculous.

Of course, the reason this list is so popular is because people seem to love counterintuitive ideas proving some experts or conventional wisdom wrong. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell applied to entrepreneurship. And just as wrong.

The Future Is Now, If We Speak Slowly

So Microsoft has just announced a pretty awesome speech recognition/speech translation program.  More on this later, but the video is really cool.  If you want to skip to the translation bit, jump ahead to 7 minutes in and you’ll see English to Chinese text, and then later it goes to Chinese audio (I assume it’s Mandarin?).

There are a few obvious limitations – You can definitely tell he is speaking slower than normal.   A few times he gets really excited and you can see the English speech recognition accuracy really drop.  And even speaking slowly, it’s not perfect.  But it’s pretty good overall (I can’t comment on the translation, since I know no Chinese).  Also, they say his voice was used for the Chinese audio, and I believe it, but it doesn’t sound incredibly “unique”.  To me, it just sounds like it’s about his pitch, but that’s it.

Update: So what makes this different than other translators?  You may have noticed he described previous work as using “hidden Markov modeling” and this is a “deep neural network”.  Markov chains are basically networks of probabilities.  For instance, we can use a Markov chain to describe your lunch behavior if you’re really ritualistic.  Let’s say you and I are co-workers. We’re in separate wings and are good acquaintances, but maybe not super close friends, so if we run into each other, we’ll eat together, but otherwise we won’t.  There’s a 60% chance our morning meetings end such that we run into each other right before lunch.  If you eat by yourself, there’s a 30% chance you grab pre-made sushi from the cafeteria and eat at your desk, a 50% chance you eat something from the grill in the cafeteria, a 10% chance you go out and get barbecue for lunch and finally a 10% chance you go to the Mexican restaurant.  If you meet me, there’s a 10% chance we eat take-out sushi from the cafeteria, a 30% chance you we go to the cafeteria grill, a 20% chance we go get barbecue , and a 40% chance we go to the Mexican place.

Someone who knew all of this could figure out how often you’re likely to eat at each thing.  The equivalent of a hidden Markov model in this case might be a co-worker who always see your leftovers at your desk and then tries to work backwards to figure out the probabilities of these events happening.  As the above XKCD points out, sometimes the most probable thing following doesn’t always happen.  And that’s the big limit to a Markov model.  You can only work with the most recent state.

Peter Thiel versus Google

So the tech world is abuzz with the CEO equivalent of a catfight.   At a dinner in Aspen, Colorado (which seems to have cool meetings like every other week over the summer), Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) and Eric Schmidt (chair of Google) were members of a panel discussion.  Thiel launched the first strike, saying “Google is no longer a technology company“.  Google is known for having a large amount of cash in its coffers, but spends little of that on research and development.  Thiel argues Google is just sitting on it because the company “is out of ideas”  and accused Microsoft of being in a similar position.

This seems to fit into Thiel’s more pessimistic view of the future of technology.   Unlike most people in this day and age, Thiel thinks the pace of scientific and technological development is slowing down.  Though I think that might only be true based on his definition of progress.  Thiel seems to think only “disruptive technologies” are meaningful.  Improving on existing technology doesn’t seem relevant to him, as he said Google is stagnating by sliding by on search, and his venture capital firm’s motto is “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

Thiel’s argument struck me as weird for two reasons.  First, I’m not really sure why he only called out Google and Microsoft.  If any tech company really strikes me as sliding on older technology, it’s Apple.  Yes, yes, Apple makes wonderful devices.  But very little in any of the Apple products released in the last decade feature new technology.   Look at the iPhone.  Touchscreens have been in various products for decades.  The music store and player is iPod with a touchscreen.  The main innovation was the idea of combining these things (which had been slowly coming together) and adding the app store.  Apple is great at designing attractive and easy-to-use technology and developing good software to go with it.  But it didn’t require any great basic research breakthrough in hardware or software to go from the iPod, Nintendo DS, and a cell phone existing separate to get to the iPhone.  To my knowledge, Apple does no basic research, and it’s known for spending less than most companies on overall research and development.  Google and Microsoft have basic research labs.

Secondly, I’m not sure there is any “tech” industry  in Thiel’s mind when you compare Google and Microsoft to other companies.  Both are in the top 10 for R&D spending in terms of total spending and percentage of revenue.  I understand that Thiel believes in big, breakthrough innovations, and puts his money where his mouth is by investing in lots of research himself.  But I feel like he doesn’t fully appreciate how very few companies are like him.  He’s called the Great Recession a symptom of technological underdevelopment not growing the economy fast enough to justify housing prices.  But can’t the fact that our economy placed so much of a bet on housing also indicate an inefficiency in the market (I know virtually no economics, so pardon the abuse of terms) that also leads to underinvesting in technology with few short-term payoffs?  Thiel himself seems to acknowledge this, as his new grant foundation, Breakout Labs, says it provides for the gap between federal funding and venture capitalists who want results on the market soon.

Walling in Wi-Fi

A roll of wallpaper is shown. A pattern of triangles arranged in hexagons is seen on the paper.A world of ubiquitous wireless networking poses numerous opportunities for theft.  Hence the fancy new trend of RFID wallets to secure credit cards.  Of course, new credit cards aren’t the only thing people want to protect.  Whether you’re incredibly concerned about someone hacking into your home wireless network or maybe you own a Panera and wish everyone at the neighboring burger bar would quit stealing your free Wi-Fi (I might have done this when working out of town one summer…), the stumbling block to applying this to your home was our society’s inability to make wallets that can hold people.  Or maybe you didn’t feel like making your home  follow neo-survivalist decor by covering your walls in chicken wire and/or aluminum foil (I’m scared to link to sites on that one, so just Google that on your own).

A more detailed view of the pattern is shown. It is a set of triangles, with a more ornate pattern in each.

Detailed Faraday cage pattern of ink

So leave it to the French to create a fashionable Faraday cage.  Researchers at the Grenoble Institute of Technology have made a wallpaper containing electrically conductive ink.  The ink, which contains silver particles, forms a snowflake pattern on the wallpaper.  This pattern is similar to something like chicken wire and so it forms a selective Faraday cage that prevents the electromagnetic waves of a Wi-Fi signal from transmitting through the paper.  It doesn’t affect the network in the room (or perhaps your house if you only paper exterior walls).  Even better, the team expects this to be no more expensive than original wallpaper.  And if metal snowflakes aren’t your thing, you can cover this with an additional layer of wallpaper without ruining the Faraday effect.

The researchers also make another claim about cell phone signals.  The original article is in French, which I don’t understand, but looking at it through Google Translate says they claim it doesn’t interfere with “emergency service” calls, but does block three kinds of signals.  Another English article I found says the wallpaper shouldn’t interfere with cell phone signals at all.  The claim about emergency services strikes me as weird because a call to 911 isn’t physically different from a call to your friend.  But I also don’t buy that it shouldn’t affect any cell phone signals.  If the photo is a somewhat accurate representation of the wallpaper, the pattern looks like there’s only about an inch of space between lines.  Since the “cage” isn’t solid, it does allow electromagnetic waves smaller than this space to pass through.  Wi-Fi uses radio frequencies in the 2400-2485 MHz range and cells phones work somewhere between 1700 and 2155 MHz (the exact range depending on your carrier).  Dividing the speed of light (300,000,000 meters a second) by the frequency, we see that the wavelength of Wi-Fi signals is about 12.5 cm while your phone’s signal has something between a 17.6 and 14 cm wavelength.  So based on my quick and dirty math, it doesn’t seem like either signal should get through ever.

P.S. The French researchers do also point out the survivalist/paranoid applications of this, saying you could also wallpaper your house in this to prevent some electromagnetic radiation from getting in.