Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

March 20th, 2014

[NOTE: While I try to avoid out and out spoilers, purist may want to skip this post].

The easiest way to describe The Circle by Dave Eggers is as some sort of 1984 prequel for the digital age.

It is not a happy book.

The story follows Mae Holland, a relatively recent college graduate who is working a dead-end, soul sucking job at a local utility in a small town in California near Fresno that no one has heard of.

Through her college roommate Annie, she manages to land a job at The Circle, sort of an über Google/Facebook/Twitter company in The Valley. Annie quickly rose through the ranks at The Circle and is now part of the Gang of 40 – the 40 most influential people in the company. Through her, Mae is introduced to the culture of the company, including learning about its three founders, called the “Three Wise Men”.

Ty Gospodinov is the boy genius who created TruYou, a now ubiquitous single sign-on technology that made sure that people on the Internet were who they said they were. His goal was to remove some of the hate and vitriol that anonymity on in Internet permitted, and TruYou soon became the standard for most web-based commerce. Socially awkward and a bit of a recluse, Ty hired the other two wise men: Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Eamon was the ebullient visionary and Tom the corporate man who found a way to commercialize Ty’s product which resulted in a huge IPO. They later subsumed their competitors and became the main social, search and e-commerce company in the world.

Mae was extremely happy to be at The Circle, on its gorgeous campus with all the perks one could hope for and working among all the amazing people employed there. The Circle even allowed her to put her parents on her health plan, which was important because her father suffered from MS and was having issues with his current insurance company. It was like a dream come true.

Mae’s initial role in the company was in the Customer Experience department, basically customer service. While she gets off to a great start, things start to sour in wonderland when she is reprimanded, in the nicest way possible, for not being “social” enough – not sharing enough of her life, her likes and dislikes, and getting involved with the rest of the Circle community. At times it comes across as a little sinister, and much of the story follows her fumbling steps to become fully integrated at The Circle and her efforts to excel there. She does attend more company events which eventually creates a love triangle between her, a shy fellow employee named Francis with whom she feels empowered, and a mysterious stranger named Kalden who randomly appears and disappears at the oddest times, but for whom she has a strong attraction.

My favorite aspect of the book is the technology that Eggers introduces. I’m not sure if he came up with it all on his own or, Malcolm Gladwell-like, just assembled it into a narrative. My guess is a little of both. One such innovation is called SeaChange – an inexpensive, tiny camera that can be deployed anywhere and introduced with the slogan ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. As the book progresses we learn about the impending “closing of the Circle” which is identified as the completion of some grand plan that would make Big Brother blush.

Not everyone is as thrilled as Mae with The Circle. On a visit home she sees an ex-boyfriend named Mercer. He delivered one of my favorite quotes of the book:

Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing so well socially. And judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest sh*t in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.

I learned that Eggers was the founder of McSweeneys, which is really cool, and although this isn’t “Literature” with a capital “L”, his prose is well written and easy to read. I only had one issue with the book, concerning a subplot where CEO Stenton has The Circle create a submersible so that he can go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a lá James Cameron, and return with specimens. These animals are kept in a normal aquarium, exposed to atmosphere, which really bothered me since any life that could live at those depths would simply explode when the pressure was removed. He also talks about coral and other things that simply wouldn’t exist at those depths. I’m willing to forgive him since the whole thing is required for an metaphor at the end of the book, but it still bothered me. Plus, The eventual denouement is a little predictable, but overall I really enjoyed the book.

My reference to 1984 is not casual. While Orwell was working with post World War II technology, The Circle is what he would have imagined had he written the book today. Even the iconic “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is mimicked as “SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT”.

There is much more to the book, many more little jewels of social interaction that I loved, but I am trying hard not to spoil anything. It is worth checking out, and I’ll end with another of my favorite quotes, this one from Mae when she is distressed about some “frowns” she receives:

Why was there so much animosity in the world? And then it occurred to her, in a brief and blasphemous flash: she didn’t want to know how they felt. The flash opened up to something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.

Dev-Jam 2014 Registration Now Open

March 18th, 2014

Hot on the heels of the OpenNMS Users Conference in April comes another one of my favorite events: DevJam!

DevJam was started in 2005 when I invited anyone who could to come visit us in lovely Pittsboro, North Carolina. You get here and I would feed you and give you a place to crash at my farmhouse and we’d just spend the week hacking on OpenNMS.

We had seven people at that first meeting, and we realized that there were some logistics issues to work out. We needed better bandwidth and the ability for people to set their own schedules.

So the next year we moved it to the University of Minnesota, since Mike Huot (OGP) happened to live there and arranged for us to get a nice conference room as well as access to the dorm so that people could come and go as they pleased. We’ve repeated that formula for the rest of the years except two. One year we went to Georgia Tech, and the DevJam in 2009 was canceled due to the fact that it was a very tight year for us in the beginning and we didn’t think we could afford it.

Now I don’t believe I could afford to miss it.

DevJam is aimed specifically at developers working on OpenNMS, or those that want to work on OpenNMS code. It’s not a users conference per se (although all the people that come naturally use OpenNMS), and it tends to be very technical. It is very much an ad hoc or “unconference” in that a lot of the agenda is made up as we go along, but everyone seems to have a great time, we all learn a lot, and a lot gets accomplished.

If you want to learn a little more about it, check out this audio documentary created during last year’s event.

Last year we also sold out the conference, with 31 people in attendance. I added a few more rooms this year, but if you are interested please either register or let us know so we can hold you a spot.

It should be another amazing week and I can’t wait until the first week of June.

STUIv2: Focus on the Network

March 13th, 2014

One of the things that really makes me angry is when critics of open source claim that open source doesn’t innovate, despite the fact that the very business model is incredibly innovative and probably the most disruptive thing to happen to the software industry since its inception.

Another example of innovation is in the new network visualization (mapping) software coming in the next release of OpenNMS.

I have been a vocal critic of maps for years. It stems from a time when I was working at a client during the first Internet bubble and my job was pretty much to spend several hours a day moving icons into container objects on the OpenView map. It was mind-numbingly dull work that returned little value. Most experienced network and systems managers move away from maps early on, but often the bosses who tend to make the buying decisions demand it as part of any solution.

Now, I’ve seen “cool” maps so it’s not that maps aren’t cool, it’s just that they tend to require more work to make cool than they save by being useful.

That is about to change with the new OpenNMS Semantic Topology User Interface (STUI).

Before I talk about that, I should mention that OpenNMS has a map. In fact it has a number of them. The first one was built for the Carabinieri in Italy who liked OpenNMS but wanted it to have something like OpenView’s map. Now called the “SVG” map, and it does its job well, as well as any map of that type can.

Then when we built the remote poller we needed a way to represent the pollers’ location geographically, and thus the “distributed” map was born. People liked the geographical representation, so we made it available to all nodes and not just remote pollers with the “geographical” map.

None of this work was really innovative, map-wise. But we started to depart from the norm with the topology map introduced in 1.12.

The topology map was novel in that it lets the user determine the topology to view. By default OpenNMS ships two different topology APIS. One is based on level 2 connections discovered by the “linkd” process, and the other is based on VMWare data showing the relationship between a host machine and its guest operating systems, as well as any network attached storage.

But it doesn’t have to stop there. In JunOS Space, Juniper is able to show connection data through all of its devices by using the API. Any other source of topology data and business intelligence can be added to the OpenNMS system.

However, me, the map hater, still wasn’t sold. While it is fine for smaller networks, what happens when you enter into the realm of tens of thousands of devices? We eventually see OpenNMS as being the platform for managing the Internet of Things, and any type of map we create will have to scale to huge numbers of devices.

Thus the team created the new topology map (STUIv2), available in 1.13 and coming in the next stable OpenNMS release. The key to this implementation is that you can add and remove “focus” from the map. This lets you quickly zoom in to the area of the map that is actually of interest, and then you can navigate around it quickly to both understand network outages as well as to see their impact.

While I like words, it’s probably better if you just check out the video that David created. It’s 20 minutes long and the first ten minutes cover “what has gone before” so if you are pressed for time, jump to the ten minute mark and follow it from there.

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I like the fact that the video shows you the workflow from the main UI to the map, but then shows you how you can manage things from the map back to the main UI.

Note that I had nothing to do with this map. I often say that my only true talent is attracting amazing people to work with me, and this just drives that point home.

While I’m still not sold on maps, I am warming up to this one. I got goose bumps around minute 16:45 and then again at 17:30.

It’s great, innovative work and I’m excited to see what the community will do with this new tool.

2014 OpenNMS Users Conference

March 10th, 2014

There is less than month to go before the biggest OpenNMS user event of the year. The OpenNMS user conference will be held 8-11 April at the University of Southampton in the UK.

I just got back from a week in the area and I’d thought I’d share some of my favorite things about it. First of all, I got to see two UK OGP members, Craig Gallen and Jonathan Sartin, who will both be at the conference.

Craig got his doctorate at the University, and he has arranged for us to have access to some pretty nice facilities. I wanted to take pictures but class was in session at the time, but basically we have access to one large, auditorium style classroom and several smaller classrooms, all connected by a common area that we can use for chatting, coffee, etc. We have access to accommodation in a nearby dormitory as well, which should make getting around pretty easy. There is a cafeteria/restaurant next to the building with the classrooms where we’ll have meals.

While some people criticize English cuisine, I do have my favorites and I look forward to having them again this trip. This last trip I stayed with some friends in nearby Lyndhurst, and on Sunday they rolled out the “full english“:

Okay, so it’s missing the black pudding, but I tend not to eat that anyway. I also have a fondness for “bangers and mash“:

But of course this conference isn’t all about food. Many of the developers will be there as well as numerous customers who will tell how they get the most out of OpenNMS. Jeff and I will be teaching a “boot camp” training course on OpenNMS for the first two days, but the main event will happen the last two days when the presentations start. David will be giving a keynote on the “new shiny” coming in 1.14 as well as an update on 2.0. Our newest hire, Ken, will be discussing what he learned running a huge instance of OpenNMS for the government of the state of Oregon. Eric, Mr. NoSQL, will present his work on the Cassandra backend to replace RRDtool for highly scalable performance data storage. Antonio will talk about the new features in Linkd.

But the sessions I will be attending are those by OpenNMS users that are part presentation/part case study. Markus will discuss a configuration done for a large company in Sweden that enabled category-base thresholds. Mike and Ron are going to talk about how they use OpenNMS to import odd but useful data into the system. Ian is going to discuss BGP monitoring.

And, while I can’t imagine that isn’t enough to get you interested, remember that other half of English cuisine, the beer:

I’m sure there will be lots of that. (grin)

Southampton itself is an interesting town. A major sea port, this is the port from which the Titanic set sail (slogan: when she left here she was whole). Craig took me to a museum dedicated to the port in the general and specifically the Titanic. It was pretty nice, except that someone needs to pay attention to their Adobe Air version:

If you want to spend the weekend after exploring the area, you can’t walk ten feet without tripping over something of historical significance. I got to visit Minstead, which is the final resting place for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

I also got to see “Satan’s Roundabout” up in Hemel Hempstead. This is a traffic circle with several little traffic circles hung off of it (in all fairness the locals call it the “Magic Roundabout“). It was weird to be driving the “right” way around it, which is actually wrong, and it made it even harder than usual for me to keep from getting run over by looking in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic.

And of course, if you get homesick for a taste of home, there is always Papa Johns:

So if you’ve been on the fence about coming to the conference, I hope I’ve convinced you that it will be both valuable and fun. I can guarantee you’ll learn how to get more value out of your OpenNMS instance than it costs to attend. Registration is still open and I hope to see you there.

Milgram’s Experiment

March 2nd, 2014

I returned home from a trip to England yesterday through London’s Heathrow Airport, and once again I was delayed by airport security. The experience reminded me of the Milgram Experiment, a famous study on how people respond to authority.

In the experiment, there were three roles: a researcher, a student and a teacher. While both the student and the teacher were introduced as volunteers, the true subject of the study was the person in the teacher role, who was given monetary reward to participate ($4 in 1961 or about $31 today). The researcher would explain that the purpose of the study was to explore the affects of negative reinforcement on learning. The teacher would read questions and should the student end up getting a answer wrong, it was the duty of the teacher to administer an electric shock. The strength of the shock would be increased if the student continued to answer questions incorrectly. The subject in the teacher role would be given an example shock at the lowest level before the experiment began.

I was introduced to the experiment in school through a black and white film called Obedience. It must have been in middle school, since I distinctly remember it as a film and not a VCR tape, which is what we had in high school. I can remember sitting in a dark room listening to the whirr of the projector as we watched the results of the experiment.

The teacher and student were separated, and the true subject of the experiment was seated in front of a console with numerous switches. Each switch was supposed to represent a level of shock, from mild shocks in the “green” area on the left side of the console up to extremely strong shocks in the “red” and finally “black” area on the right side (and yes I have no idea why I still see that panel in color when it was a black and white film – perhaps it was described). Now no actual shocks were administered to the student. Instead the panel was tied to a tape recorder that would play back the “student’s” responses. As the shock level increased, the recorded responses would get more desperate, often pleading for the experiment to end. In some variations, the confederate in the student role would even bang on the wall separating them from the teacher. Eventually, the pleading would simply end and be met with silence.

What Milgram found was that a high number of the subjects would be willing to administer shocks at the highest level as long as the researcher told them to do it. One should really experience this film because I was horrified when I saw it. Most of the people, while expressing concern, continued to press the buttons, and I can remember actually crying when one of the subjects simply refused to continue after administering the lowest shock – he was the only one to stand up to the man in the lab coat (at least in the film).

The movie had a strong impact on me and my personal philosophy, and Peter Gabriel even wrote a song about it called Milgram’s 37 with the repeating lyric “We do what we’re told.”

So what reminded me of this experiment at an airport? I’m glad you asked.

I suffer from an eye condition that requires me to put saline solution in my eyes periodically. This becomes more of an issue when I fly due to the dry air in airplanes. Unfortunately, I have to use a special sterile, preservative-free solution that only comes in 118 mL (4 oz) bottles. The bottles are sealed to prevent contamination.

Back when I had only two of my three readers, I ran into a problem transferring at LHR on a trip to Portugal. The liquid limit in Europe is 100mL and they refused to let me through the airport with my solution (even though it is stamped with “TSA Approved” on the bottle). I would say about 50% of the time when traveling internationally someone spots the bottle, but in every single airport outside of Heathrow, including Bangkok and Dubai, the security people have accepted my explanation and let me take it through.

After my last problem at this airport, I sought out the policy that would allow me to take this liquid on the plane. I found this in regard to medicine on the Heathrow website:

Liquid, aerosol or gel medicines in containers over 100ml must be carried separately, together with supporting documentary proof of authenticity, such as a prescription or letter from your doctor.

I had my eye doctor write me a letter explaining the situation and I carry it with me when I travel. Luckily, I haven’t had to use it.

Until now.

As I was going through screening, the lady noted that my saline bottle was above the limit. They had also held my bag for additional screening (I travel with a lot of wires and they sometimes call it a “spaghetti bag”) so I told her that I could produce from that bag a letter from my doctor explaining that I needed that liquid for a medical reason and that it was only available in a 118mL bottle. She sat the bottle aside and called over a supervisor.

Mr. Bally Balkar (an STL or Service Team Leader) arrived and I dutifully showed him my letter. He seemed very confused, although the letter explained in detail why I needed the sterile solution in that particular container. He suggested, as did the lady the last time this happened, that I could go to Boots and get a smaller bottle. Apparently the English system of education tends to skip over the definition of “sterile” or maybe he was out that day. I patiently explained that the whole reason I didn’t do that in the first place, such as I do with other liquids, was due to the fact that the liquid both had to be sterile and could not contain preservatives, and I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to transfer it on my own, much less in the departure terminal of an airport.

He called over his supervisor, a Mr. Harry Singh (also an STL), who very solemnly examined my letter and then proceeded to suggest the same things Mr. Balkar had done. At this point I realized that despite my having followed the procedures for an exemption, there was no way that I was going to get that bottle (which, I should point out, only contained about 30mL of liquid at this time) on the plane. I decided to see if either Mr. Balkar or Mr. Singh possessed the ability to reason.

Me: I’m a little confused. I have followed the procedure. Why am I not allowed to carry this bottle on?

STL: Well, this letter doesn’t look like a prescription.

Me: The liquid itself is not prescribed. My use of this particular liquid is, however, necessary for the health of my eyes. And in the US you usually have to surrender the prescription when obtaining the medicine.

STL: But this is not a prescription.

Me: I understand that, but it is a letter signed by my doctor on official letterhead explaining why I need it. Isn’t that sufficient?

STL: But it is a year old.

Me: It’s dated April 15th, 2013, which makes it a little less than 11 months old, but as my condition hasn’t changed I didn’t see the need to bother my doctor for a new letter.

STL: (silence)

Me: I’m confused. You let the family ahead of me through with litres of baby formula and didn’t even swab it for chemical traces, yet you are saying that my doctor’s letter isn’t sufficient?

STL: Well, they were traveling with a baby.

Me: So you are saying that terrorists wouldn’t think to travel with a baby?

STL: (silence)

Me: Here, let me demonstrate the safety of this liquid. (I open the bottle and squirt a bit into my mouth). See?

Balkar: Oh, if you’ll finish that here we can let you go.

Me: (incredulous silence)

As I had now been at security for over 30 minutes and really wanted to leave, I settled for getting the names of the inspectors who denied me and I plan to file a complaint with the airport as well as with my airline. I am a frequent traveler through Heathrow but I’ll change airlines if this is not addressed. If anyone reading this knows of someone else who might be sympathetic to my story, say a UK government agency or a newspaper, please drop me a note with the contact details.

I both pity and fear men like Mr. Bally Balkar and Mr. Harry Singh. I pity their cowardice. In much like the subjects in the Milgram experiment, they were so afraid to make a mistake in the eyes of an authority figure that they would ignore overwhelming evidence that their actions were wrong.

I also fear them, as under a slightly different set of circumstances these are the men who drag families and children into vans in the middle of the night for “re-education”.

We do what we’re told.