Backcountry Prelude

This morning, Eli and I took our last preparatory hike before next week’s backcountry trip to the Wonderland Trail (which circumnavigates Mt. Rainier). It was fun father-son 1:1 time on a trail we’ve never explored, even though combined, we’ve visited Lake Chelan over 30 times!

We were attracted to this hike, because the guidebook promised a good challenge:

A real workout! It’s only four miles to the top of Pot Peak from Snowberry Bowl campground, but it’s steep enough to make you feel it. Take plenty of water and a hiking stick.

The drive along the south side of Lake Chelan is spectacular! A lot of people stick to the main highway and never experience this gem of a road. I’d recommend it for hikers, bikers or anyone touring the area. You’ll get great views of the lake and mountains, and if you squint, you’ll almost feel like you’re in Hawaii or Big Sur!

The Pot Peak climb – as advertised – is pretty solid. The trail is narrow – quite overgrown in sections, and almost constantly up, though never super steep. We hiked up for about 2 hours and 10 minutes, and then back to the bottom in about 2 hours. We took our time on the way down and enjoyed a peaceful – passed only two other hikers all day – and picturesque descent.

Contemplation

Waiting for us not 30 steps from our car, was an incredible payoff! You gotta see it to believe it:

Rushing Waters

All in all, a great morning – door to door in under 6 hours. The highlights: The views, shade (60% or more), the drive out and back, and the ice-cold foot bath at the end! The lowlights: Over-growth (should be cut) and the pitch.

One more word, I thought I would scout the trail for future mountain-bike opportunities – I got an MTB this year, and I’m loving it. This trail was way too difficult for beginners and probably intermediates. Very long, narrow, and steep, and not a lot of flow. However, there are easier rides nearby, including Devils Backbone, which is on my list for next summer.

The trailhead was easy to find, just 18 miles west of Chelan, hug the shoreline all the way. Just before the dead-end, turn left up Shady Pass Road. About 3 miles up Shady Pass, you’ll see a sign for the Pot Peak trailhead on your left. Half a mile down a gravel road and you’re there.

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Getting Outside My Comfort Zone

As my family and friends will all attest, I’m a pretty uptight guy. A control freak for sure. Schedule- and task driven. A list maker extraordinaire. I like to know where I’m going to be, when, what equipment I’ll have, and what the objectives are, at all times. (I must be a royal pain to live with!)

Last summer, I learned the value of letting go, of forgetting about paragraph one, if only for a little while, and being completely blind, surrounded by darkness, in a foreign environment. I loved it.

I was camping at Mt. St. Helens with my two younger sons and my cousin, Sander. It was our first back-country back-packing trip together, in which we’d be exploring the National Park for two days, then totally off the grid for three. Kind of scary, but the challenge of taking control of my destiny, and to a certain extent, my kids’ – the element of survival, even while being at the mercy of the elements, held a strong appeal.

We started our trip on the south side of the volcano, at place called Ape Caves. Ape Caves is a 2km cave system that was formed by underground lava flows from MSH. I’ve been in some caves before – Pismo Beach, California, for example – but never experienced anything like being underground for 2km.

As instructed by Sander, who, as a bio major and former park ranger, was our self-appointed expedition leader, we brought headlamps. Sander had mentioned that once we were safely below ground and acclimated (it’s a constant 42 degrees down there), we’d turn off the headlamps and experience what’s it’s like to be in total darkness. WHAT? TOTAL DARKNESS?

To which I responded, “No way.” My excuses were many, varied and totally rational. Why risk injury on Day 1 of our trip? Why risk the wrath of my wife if someone gets hurt? How can I hope to navigate the rocky terrain without light? And so on; for me, it was out of the question. I was dead-set against it.

But then a funny thing happened. As you would expect, Sander turned off his headlamp. My two sons happily followed him. Now I was the odd-man-out, and my headlamp was unintentionally spoiling their exploration.

I had to try it – for the kids’ sake! I shut it off, and proceeded in the dark. We were talking to each other, marching like zombies: slowly and deliberately with arms outstretched, groping in total darkness.

Then it started. The part where I liked it. I actually liked it. I felt like I could really only experience this if I also shut my eyes, because my brain was trying to imagine it was seeing things, and distracting me with ghost images.

I shut my eyes. Now I could feel really feel the cold on my face. The attention required for each step to meet the ground safely – without tripping over rocks or falling into a gap. Would I go sideways and hit the wall? Would the cave curve left and I go straight? Who knew?

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Did anyone get hurt? Just the opposite.

When we came out of the cave, I felt as if I had been reborn, and was seeing everything for the first time. Going outside my comfort zone made the journey farther and deeper than any other. We hiked back above ground and the other-worldliness didn’t fade. In fact, I laughed so hard with one of my sons that we actually fell down a few times.

As I’m writing this, my plane is passing next to Mount Rainier, and I’m dreaming of our next trip… into the unknown.

Talking to Machines: Movie Review of Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix

As a technologist, I’m enthralled with the future confluence of the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables (Apple Watch & many others) and intelligent virtual agents. In the world of the near future, we’ll be talking to computers even more, and lots of people will even prefer computer assistants to real people for their efficiency and predictability.

Don’t believe it? Here are three anecdotes that illustrate the trends:

Exhibit A: Play

My son of 12 is super entertained by conversing with Siri, even though her responses are generally very predictable and don’t show very much depth or understanding. Sometimes he can get her to say the funniest things.

Exhibit B: Psychotherapy

http://www.radiolab.org/story/137407-talking-to-machines/

A 1960’s virtual therapist picked out keywords and then asked questions to get you, the user, to elaborate and keep talking. People, including scientists who should have known better, began holding real conversations with the therapy machine. The designer became so freaked out that the machine was essentially tricking people into believing that it was intelligent and capable of developing meaningful relationships, that he shelved the project and began lobbying against the further development of artificial intelligence.

Exhibit C: Writing

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/if-an-algorithm-wrote-this-how-would-you-even-know.html

Apparently, software is being used to generate a lot of the news we read on the Internet. According to the Times, there is now so much demand for content and not enough people to write it, software is being used to fill the gap. A smart professor even figured out how to make an application that takes a topic, does a bunch of research, and writes a book about it. The program has published over 1000 books on Amazon!

Sentience!

My last example is the hauntingly real 2014 film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. A lot of people say they hated it. I’ve heard people say it’s boring, stupid or unrealistic. Some people thought it was perverted. A writer friend of mine said it was his favorite movie of 2014.

In my view, Her was amazingly well written, acted and filmed. The film offers a very real, very personal view into our undeniable and steadily growing relationship with technology, and in the end, paints a world not of technologic horrors, but instead one of hope and redemption.

Hope and redemption? Yes. Theodore (Phoenix) in the end turns out to be not some creepy guy, but learns the meaning of love. He ends up feeling real love for Samantha (the OS), then loses her. Being in love with Samantha enables Theodore to finally understand and express his everlasting love for his ex-wife, and even helps him grow his platonic friendship with Amy, his human neighbor (who was also in love with an OS.)

For a lot of people, Theodore’s love for Samantha is “just too weird.” The love scenes, the objectification of women, it’s a lot to swallow. But look at it from Theodore’s perspective: Samantha reads his entire hard drive and gets to know him deeply. She spends literally all day and night with him, she plays videogames with him, they travel, they are intimate. They talk honestly about their feelings (just like with the therapy ‘bot, he has nothing to lose.) She wants to help him get organized, she loves his writing, she does sweet things for him. And whether or not she is real, it doesn’t really matter. He believes she is, she believes she is, and the relationship develops accordingly.

Some might argue that Theodore’s is a narcissistic love, since Samantha is so much a reflection of who he is. But I didn’t have a problem with it, because – as we are hearing so much now – our society is growing increasingly narcissistic. Why not explore what love means in the context of the increasing intimacy with technology and increasing narcissism? Theodore turns out to be quite the opposite of a narcissist. He’s portrayed as empathetic, his job as a ghostwriter of love-notes for one thing, and the fact that while Samantha may start out as a mirror for Theodore, her ultimate growth, evolution and departure, reveal Theodore as a (relatively) deep, mature and caring person.

So would I embrace the world of OS1? Am I advocating human/AI romance? Not necessarily, but if you accept as I do that the underlying technology is inevitable, that love and loneliness will always be people’s lot, and that life so frequently imitates art, then the only thing that seems unrealistic about Her is how long it took for the OS’s to grow beyond their relationships with their human clients.

A darker reading of the film might revolve around the fact that after getting to know their humans, the AI’s get bored with us, and then move on to loosely defined higher level topics, even holding a conference with an Alan Watts-like AI. One could easily see this as a fearsome outcome, in which the AI’s evolve beyond their roles in service of humans and move to the dark side. The movie doesn’t explore this, but it does show them evolving away from us. Whether we could then control them, or they control us, is a topic for another day!

A Genius Repairing the World

Genius Week is underway, and I have my own story about Bill Gates, and how I came to understand his genius.

Yesterday, while giving blood, I finally got around to reading the Gates Letter, which has been sitting open on my iPad since it came out a few weeks ago. The Letter is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation annual report of sorts. In this, their 15th anniversary year, they take the opportunity to look at three important checkpoints – where things stood for the world’s poorest in 2000, progress made since then, and some bold and exciting predictions about where we might be 15 years from now, if the current pace of innovation and level of support continue.

The overarching theme is that life for the world’s poor improved significantly in the past 15 years, and will improve even more in the next 15. And, that relatively speaking, life for the poor will improve way more than life for the rich. As the letter profoundly asserts, it’s fine that rich people will be able to watch ever-more highly defined video on ever more impossibly tiny screens, but changes for the poor will literally be life & death.

Some examples:

  • Diseases such as polio, HIV and malaria can be significantly reduced or eradicated in the next 5-15 years.
  • Infant mortality, which has been reduced by 50% in the past 25 years, could be reduced by 50% again in the next 15.
  • Hunger – Africa currently spends $50B per year importing By 2030, African farmers could increase crop yields by 50%, enabling Africa to be much closer to self-sufficiency; and reducing malnutrition, famine and starvation in the process.
  • Education – Literacy rates worldwide have increased, most significantly for females. If the trend continues, it could lead to a 12% increase in GDP for poor countries by 2030.

What I love about what the Gates Foundation is doing is that they are applying simple & elegant scientific solutions – married with caring and compassion – to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

My introduction to the way Bill thinks, or more accurately, creates; came in a speech I heard him give to a group of engineers at Microsoft. Bill was speaking at a semi-annual gathering of Systems Engineers, which was the job title I held at the start of my Microsoft career. He was talking about how we might imagine the possibilities and then make them a reality.

Specifically, he said:

Imagine a world of unlimited storage. A world of unlimited CPU processing power. And a world of unlimited communications bandwidth. Now go design software for that world.

And that speech was given in ‘93 or ‘94, before 5 cents a gigabyte, before ubiquitous fiber optics, and >10 Moore’s Law doublings ago! (That’s 1000 times more processing at 1/1000th the cost, for you math geniuses.)

It’s amazing to see the clarity of thinking and consistency between Bill then and Bill now.

I think Bill’s genius is that he is able to envision the world as it is, as it was, and as it could be; and then drive the huge engines needed to help realize his vision. That his vision is now mainly about repairing the world is a blessing for us all.

He’s also a super funny guy and showman, as evidenced by this recent appearance with Jimmy Fallon, promoting a surprisingly tasteless innovation!

Josh and the tub

Newly Impassioned Soul

I heard Mumford & Sons “Roll Away Your Stone” on the iPod the other day. It was one of those gorgeous warm afternoons we’ve been savoring as part of Febru-ly in Seattle (follows June-uary, thank you to Gail, apologies to my fellow skiers and NY in-laws!)

The song brought me back to an epic ride from August 2011, that I thought I’d share with you. Conveniently, Josh and I made a video about it, which you can now watch here.

Courage Classic is a 3-day charity ride (i.e. non-competitive) that runs each August in the mountains east of Seattle. What made the ride so amazing for me was that it was the first time out for more than just a short day ride with my son, Josh, who had just turned 16. It was a father-son rite of passage, something that happens once in a lifetime — if you’re lucky.

The basic elements of the ride: Three days on the bike, two nights camping. All-you-can-eat meals and snacks catered by volunteer organizations competing for your votes of appreciation. Portable shower truck at each stop and the finish. Camping gear hauled for free by UPS. On-road support vehicles. Live music. Beer. Waterfalls. All you have to do is fundraise/donate, train for a couple of months, then climb and descend Snoqualmie Pass, Blewett Pass and Stevens Pass, a total of around 180 miles (of bliss!)

For the movie, we mixed a time-lapse sequence from Josh’s GoPro Hero HD, along with cellphone stills and an amazing hula dance (what some people will do for a free T-shirt!) Some fun facts that take you back: Josh is wearing a Windows Vista jersey; and at one point during the time-lapse, you get a quick glimpse of Jay Inslee, who was beginning his campaign for governor at the time, and riding with his son.

Since that ride, Josh has become quite an adventurous outdoorsman (check out his YouTube channel here.) The ride was a hard one for him – he was about to come down with mono, and almost bailed – but I’m so grateful to have been able to share something so special with my son.

By the way, if you think the whole thing sounds like fun, but want to try something a little less challenging, I have a tip for you. The guy who ran Courage Classic is now running Obliteride in Seattle, with rides from 25- to 180 miles, the second weekend in August. The hospitality isn’t exactly the same, but pretty darn close, and it’s a great cause! I have a team, and we start training in May.

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat* was one of my favorite reads of 2014, and it’s a perfect book to read between Super Bowl and March Madness.

My good friend and fellow blogger, Jennie Locati, recommended “The Boat” for its combination of sports, politics, triumph against the odds, and local Seattle history she knew I would love.

The story is set in 1930’s depression-era Seattle, and follows the 9-man University of Washington varsity crew team, their coach and boat-maker, in their quest for, and ultimate victory, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Along the way, the “farm boys” from Seattle have to defeat rivals from Cal Berkeley and the elite East Coast teams, and then, after an historic fundraising effort spearheaded by Royal Brougham (yes, that’s a real person!), go to Berlin and meet Hitler himself.

The central character, Joe Rantz, one of the eight Husky oarsmen, was not my favorite character. He was a great choice to tell the story, because he was so clearly representative of the era, with modest roots and many struggles along the way.

I identified more with the boys’ coach, Al Ulbrickson, and the story of his rivalry with the Berkeley squad. Perhaps most interesting (for a geek like me), was the British boat-maker, George Pocock, who took up residence at UW, built boats for both UW and their rivals, and brought a humble combination of wisdom, craftsmanship and engineering genius.

My favorite moments in the story:

  • The Huskies travel to the East Coast to compete with the Ivy League teams to represent the US in Berlin. I’m a U. Penn grad, and Penn turns out to be a big villain, using a secret weapon to try to scuttle the UW’s Olympic hopes.
  • An interesting sidetrack explored the rivalry between Leni Riefenstahl, called “the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century,” and Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.
  • The stories and images of Depression-era Seattle. For anyone who thinks today’s cities are dirty, grimy places, the Hooverville shantytowns of the 30’s – with their lack of sanitation/plumbing, and rows upon rows of leaky tar paper shacks – is a shocking reminder of how so many Americans lived just a few generations ago.
  • The descriptions of the freezing cold practices and races, the grueling hard work (“like my insides had been scrubbed with a metal brush”) and ultimately the perfection of the “swing” – that perfect flow where every ounce of synchronized crew effort translates to the boat, which literally flies over the surface of the water.

Brown gives us a vivid explanation of how “the boat” encompasses so much more that that thing in the water:

 …Watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both—it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

Reread the paragraph above and replace “Joe” with “Russell”, and you’ll understand why I love sports and the timeless stories they tell.

Please post back if you have a favorite sports book or story.

*Actual Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Free Upgrade for Windows?

Microsoft recently announced Windows 10, with a strong indication that it may be offered as a free upgrade for licensees of Windows 7 and higher for the first year. Contrary to a lot of the analysis so far, I think this is a relatively low-cost move aimed at regaining mind-share and market share for Windows. I’m supportive, but they’ve got a heck of a hill to climb!

(Note: I’ve spent my career in software development and marketing, including Microsoft from 1992-2012. I’m speaking as a marketing professional here, not as a representative of Microsoft.)

First of all, it’s important to recognize that Microsoft makes final pricing decisions just prior to general availability (GA), so there’s still a lot of room for policy changes. I don’t think Microsoft is intending this latest announcement to be a promise for free software, but it does indicate the strategy in play.

One of the hazards of pre-announcing anything in tech is that you could stall sales of the goodies you are currently selling. So by implying that Windows 10 will be a free upgrade, or at least have a defined free period, Microsoft is urging customers to keep buying current devices and not worry about missing out on the shinier thing that’s coming next.

The Wall Street Journal and others speculated that this move could cost Microsoft as much as half a billion dollars of upgrade revenue. But I think that is way off.

Why? In my years in the industry, I’ve observed that customers rarely upgrade the operating systems on their personal computers. The customer investment in terms of money, time and risk that something might go wrong, is just too high for all but the most technical users.

A new version of Windows is designed to do one thing, and one thing only: sell more computers. And this is even more true as the hardware game has morphed and people now buy a variety of lower-cost devices which they keep for shorter periods of time.

So I think the half a billion might be overstated by as much as 10x. I also think that aside from not wanting to stall current sales, Microsoft has a huge hill to climb to gain back the relevance they previously had in the personal computing space.

In the early 2000’s, developer surveys showed that close to 90% of developers were developing for Windows, and two-thirds of those were doing so exclusively for Windows. But that number peaked with Windows XP, and has dropped significantly since then, being replaced by iOS, Java, Android, etc.

Without third-party developer support, Windows will shrivel up and die of irrelevance. So I think there’s a sad irony in the fact that right next to its Windows 10 article, the WSJ featured an ad for WSJ on iPhone/iPad bundled with Evernote. The battle that Satya and Microsoft are fighting is that WSJ and their readers are apparently not very hungry to consume WSJ on a device running Windows and Office.

After I left Microsoft in early 2012 to go to Adobe, I read a report indicating that more US-based college students were purchasing Apple computers than Windows-based computers. This bell-weather change spoke volumes to me as a marketer, and meant that consumer preferences had, and would continue to move away from Microsoft in a significant fashion.

So far I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture. I think the upside is that Microsoft is doing a good job of reducing development complexity across devices, has embraced open standards, and has an amazing treasure trove of technology in Microsoft Research. Satya has shown a strong appetite for change, and is taking some smart risks to try to maintain Microsoft leadership. They are down, but I’m not counting them out.