Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Morning in San Juan del Sur

after a restless night, the stirrings of first light are soporific and calming. Sleep finally comes along with the daylight. A few hours slip by, and we are awakened by loud small-engine sounds. This must be an all-too-common rude awakening for homeless trying to sleep through the noise of leaf-blowers in a park, but we are not homeless right now, nor in a world with leaf-blowers. We are in an inexpensive upstairs room in a Nicaraguan pension, at the end of an Escheresque labyrinth of unevenly rising and winding stairs and wooden planks with uncertain orientation and unpredictable gaps.
    Our room has big windows facing out onto another maze of stairs and composed entirely of horizontal slats of frosted glass, mostly all there except for the few open slots that the household wasp uses to come in & reconnoiter the kitchen every few minutes during the day. Generally speaking, there is no airflow barrier between the inside & outside in these tropical places anyway, and the rickety arrangement of glass slats with its frequent gaps only accentuates that fact.
    So when a thick smoke smelling of insecticide started billowing in the window, we had no choice but to jump out of bed, throw on whatever clothes were there, and run out the door and into the street holding our breath until we reached something a little less chromosome-bending than an insecticide-cloud to breathe. Only there were men with backpack sprayers filling the street with the same stuff.
    We hurried down to the cafe, where the smoke was more like a light fog, and sat down to breakfast and to share our bewilderment with other diners while we had our coffee with it's sickly sweet insecticide aftertaste.
    Log on, get stuck on Facebook for 15m, then resume conscious life and look around for information on what this pesticide might be. Nothing - lots of tids about spraying and that it's happening, but no information on exactly what is being sprayed, save for a few cryptic remarks about how damaging it is and how it's banned here but they still use it there. Circuitous as the internet can be, I am soon navigating a completely different story-line, discovering about how the CIA has been caught deliberately infecting people in Nicaragua and several other places, as well as in poor black neighborhoods in Florida, and allegedly en masse in Cuba, with Dengue, as a 'biological weapons' test.
    I am so disgusted by the predatory psychosis of the US government that, at least for a few minutes, I am completely free of worry about what has just been jammed down our respiratory tracts, and a little disappointed that a citizenry that are quite literally being murdered by their government in the US would not be more inclined to return the favor.
    So the question remains - what in the world did we breathe this morning? The scene was so surreal. It took less than a full minute between the time we realized the noise was fumigation and the smoke in our room was so thick you could not see the door. The trip down the uneven meandering stairs, over the cement ridges and soaked floor-mats in the darkened inner courtyard, and out the door, was dream-like. It felt like archetypal images from the collective consciousness of the American Embassy in Saigon in '68 - scurrying through something difficult to comprehend in the moment except at the base level of needing to get out of there, following a small window of light that seemed to recede almost faster than we could move, and landing outside in a crowd of equal parts complete bewilderment and absolute apathy - as if these two parallel worlds coexisted here al the time - one that clings instinctively to survival, and one that simply accepts it as inevitable, until it isn't.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Morning in Guatemala City

It's always hard to find a cheap & safe hotel in the rain - it was pretty torrential yesterday as we pulled into town. Adding to the confusion, our psychological conditioning was not really up to par. We heard frightening and disorienting noises, which turned out to be airliners flying low overhead. I think yesterday was the first time in 20 days we've suffered such an assault on the senses. One gets re-acquainted with it quickly, but it's a shocker the first few times.

Then there's the functioning in a low-oxygen high-carbon-monoxide atmosphere - which amounts mostly to learning to extract the meager oxygen that survives in the eddies of incomplete combustion from the billowing black clouds of diesel exhaust that make up much of the atmosphere up to about 20 feet off the ground.

Still we forged on, double-parking in congested downtown streets and sprinting around the block whenever we spied a hotel - zone 9 was really grimy and many people had not heard much about the internet - much less so in a hotel - I think the very question seemed disorienting to the concierges, like the first time an american hears someone who looks chinese speaking English with a British accent - it just didn't quite fit.

So we made it all the way to the center of town, zone 1, where the real urbis lay. Beautiful, hardened, socialist community relations with capitalist economics, and a watering hole with tall dark swinging wooden doors inside a mall that only sold jewelry - a bastion of downtown unchanged since the 1930's, where the bourgeois working class came to make up for tolerating subservience all day - complete with pictures of naked women fighting bulls.
Greening the Code

A couple of years ago I worked for a short while at Current TV as a data architect and then a systems architect for The place was as politically labyrinthine as medieval Florence, so the constraints on architecting scalability were heavy: fundamental things like a software release process were verboten, and a certain amount of money had to be spent on specific vendors, but no one wanted to say anything like that directly, so planning meetings tended to have a very strange flow, but that's another story altogether.

As a media company, Current is a heavy user of CPU cycles in video production, post-production, transcoding, programming, playback, and many other ancillary activities, and the official gospel was that current।com would become similar to myspace as an important social web destination, so the architecture I was tasked with designing needed to be 'fiscally responsible' but at the same time 'scale-ready' - of course, this was back when facebook was only open to university affiliations, so those numbers had not quite ramped up to current levels

Since Current's stated objective was to provide professional production for user-generated content ideologically aligned with Al Gore both politically and socially, and since Amazon was just then launching S3, the very first cloud, I made a proposal that would use dynamically instantiated virtual servers on a cloud, with load-balancing taking the form of controllers that managed these instances in response to demand. My initial estimates showed that instead of spending millions on equipment and hosting, this would enable a staggering reduction in projected costs and carbon footprint - if my numbers were right, this new cloud would, for example, enable mySpace to handle all its volume at that time for a total operations cost of just under $40K per month.

Well, I thought this was earth-shatteringly good news, and well worth pursuing on an aggressive exploratory line, since even if my figures were off by a factor of ten the numbers were still very attractive... It was also very exciting to come up with an alternative to traditional scalability plans that was so very ecologically friendly, and that very much went along with Current's stated political and social beliefs. On the other hand, it did not satisfy certain political objectives at all, which I would later come to understand were the top priority for management.

Even though I never got to implement the green cloud data center idea at Current, and it's been 3 years, the idea is more relevant today than ever. While I was at Yahoo, I noticed that there was a sort of soft wall of isolation among groups. Yahoo is divided into properties, such as Flickr, Buzz, or Mail, and functional groups that provide infrastructural services to these properties, such as login, video, or reputation services. Unfortunately, some of these services have sub-functions that are very repetitive, result in unnecessary bandwidth and CPU usage, and have imperfectly duplicate data, causing consistency problems that create yet more usage.

It is not rocket science that every CPU cycle has a direct carbon-footprint cost. Duplicate services translate directly into duplicate energy consumption during use, and they complicate QA cycles, causing more wasted energy. What is even more inefficient is that many of these data are stored in de-normalized forms, causing unnecessary disk i/o at each of these repeat trips.

So there too, at Yahoo, my idea was that the carbon footprint of serving one digital asset to one consumer could be greatly reduced by normalizing data and removing duplication of work. Unfortunately, getting a good picture of the cost in watts, for instance, of a single functional operation, such as logging on, is pretty tough, since it cuts across departments, disciplines, and possibly spans considerable geography as well, so putting the dynamic metrics in place to express the goal clearly would be a bit of work. Nonetheless, there is no question that an investment in analytical and architectural work would pay big direct dividends in energy-consumption per unit interaction, and yield some very direct public relations benefits as well.

As cloud computing becomes more popular, vendors are scrambling to make their clouds more palatable to architects, and the progress is palpable. Redundancy levels are up, outages are down, and spinning up high-level functionality like virtual data stores that offer an acceptable level of integrity and availability becomes simpler every day. Perhaps it's time to get serious about greening the code.