Slide West 2005 report

The main reason for this trip to California was to attend Slide West, a periodic gathering of some of the world’s best photographers at Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio’s house in Napa, California.  Menzel and D’Aluisio are the brains behind the books Material World, Robo Sapiens, and some very interesting new books on food and death.  The event started with an outing to COPIA, the Napa art and culture center, currently showing some large prints of families in 24 different countries, each photographed with a week’s worth of the typical food that they eat.  These were made with the last generation 12 MP Canon EOS-1Ds body and the results are technically beautiful.  They will all be available in September as part of the new book Hungry Planet.

The stars of the unlimited budget annual report world were represented by Peter Ginter from Germany and Louie Psihoyos from Boulder, Colorado (nice photos of Netscape founder Jim Clark’s various yachts and helicopter adventures).  The world of fine art photography showed up in the person of Elizabeth Opalenik (mostly nudes).  Three photojournalists from the San Francisco Chronicle showed slides.  Deanne Fitzmaurice showed the pictures of a 9-year-old injured Iraqi boy who had been treated at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital.  These won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism.  Kurt Rogers showed an amazing set of photos from day-to-day work, also for the Chronicle, around the Bay Area.  My favorite was a clown being frisked by security at SFO.  United Airlines runs a “fantasy flight” program where they load sick kids and parents onto a big jet and fly them on a scenic route down to Monterey with various musicians and clowns on board.  Since September 11, 2001, however, the airline can’t afford the jet fuel so they just load them onto the plane, taxi around SFO, and go back to the terminal.  And since September 11th the dressed-up clowns end up getting special scrutiny by the metal detectors.  The paper never ran the photo, sadly, and it made me think about how much great photography goes to waste because the newspapers don’t use more photos on their Web sites and, when they do, make them available at such puny sizes (maybe filling 1/20th of the latest big LCD monitors).  Biologist Pete Oxford, based in Quito, Ecuador, used photos to tell an interesting story about a Harpy Eagle being tagged with a GPS-equipped radio monitor.

The strangest presentation was by Timonthy Archibald.  He has been going around the country photographing inventors in their suburban homes showing off their “sex machines”, most of which are high-powered rotating motors that convert the rotation into a back-and-forth oscillation.  At the end of the oscillating rod a plastic dildo is attached.  These can sell for $5000 and, supposedly, chicks dig them.  He had some interesting stories to relate…

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Google: The Last Best Place for Programmers

The engineering staff at Google threw a big party for Silicon Valley nerds last Thursday night, complete with band and Cinco de Mayo-themed food and drink.  The last time I visited was so long ago that Segways were still cool (Google still has a few but today they gather dust in a corner).  Google has grown up to employ over 3000 people and occupies a campus built for Silicon Graphics (SGI; kids: this was a Unix workstation company that bloomed in the late 1980s and faded as Sun grew).  The center is built around a volleyball court and an endless pool, complete with lifeguard until 9 pm.  The company provides all of the fun things that profitable companies can provide, e.g., haircuts, massages, day care for kids, free meals, etc.

Larry Page, one of the founders, gave an inspiring talk about what a great time this is to be an engineer.  He recalled how at one point Google had five employees and two million customers.  Outside of Internet applications it is tough to imagine where that would be possible.  Page also talked about the enjoyment of launching something, getting feedback from users, and refining the service on the fly.  The Google speakers made a persuasive case that there is no better place to be a programmer.  No startup company is going to have a 5000-machine cluster available to launch a new service or a guaranteed first day audience of 100 million people.  Financially it might also make much more sense to work at Google as opposed to a startup.  For teams of engineers who create a lot of value for Google the company is able to hand out $millions or tens of $millions in bonuses, to be shared among a group of 5-10 programmers.  That is admittedly a small percentage of the new advertising reveue that Google earns from a new service but it is in absolute terms more than someone is likely to make creating the same service at a startup, where hardly anyone is likely to find out about it and use it.

One of the anecdotes that Page related was about an experienced Silicon Valley executive who told him, several years ago, “in the long run, every company is led by either marketing or sales; you just have to choose which it is going to be in Google’s case.”  This prophecy does indeed seem to be true for the big tech companies.  Microsoft never does anything because an engineer thinks it is fun or cool; they wait for the marketing department to notice a new product from a competitor and then go to work.  Oracle seems to be led by their sales organization.  They add features if customers are telling the sales people “this is what I need to make it worth buying the next release.”  Google remains an engineering-led company.  They launch Google Maps with satellite imagery because they can.

As I wandered through the party and through the offices I kept noticing more and more familiar faces and the names of former students whom I remembered as among the smartest and nicest.  They will, of course, need all of those smart people if they are to deliver on their long-term goals.  Doing search right will eventually require machine understanding of natural language, i.e., full artificial intelligence.

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