<CharlieDigital/> Programming, Politics, and uhh…pineapples


Obama’s Address to the UN Assembly

Posted by Charles Chen

A great speech; too much to quote:

It is time to marginalize those who, even when not directly resorting to violence, use hatred of America or the West or Israel as the central organizing principle of politics, for that only gives cover and sometimes makes an excuse for those who do resort to violence. That brand of politics, one that pits East against West and South against North, Muslims against Christians and Hindu and Jews, can't deliver on the promise of freedom.

To the youth, it offers only false hope. Burning an American flag does nothing to provide a child an education. Smashing apart a restaurant does not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won't create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together, educating our children and creating the opportunities that they deserve, protecting human rights and extending democracy's promise.

...when you strip all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes with faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people and not the other way around.

The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations for our own people and for people all across the world. That was our founding purpose. That is what our history shows. That is what Chris Stevens worked for throughout his life.

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Introducing GameTime – Real Time Collaboration for SharePoint

Posted by Charles Chen


Since 2005, I've been thinking about building a web-based, real-time collaboration solution.  Back in those days, I had just discovered AJAX.NET (before ASP.NET provided an implementation of AJAX) and I had drawn up a design for a chat-centric collaboration platform.  My friend and co-worker Dan Chawner would sit in adjacent cubicles and exchange IMs over MSN Messenger as we worked on projects.  I thought: "wouldn't it be great if I could actually do things with these IMs instead of copying/pasting them?"

Over the years, that design languished as I moved on to other interests.  When I first saw Groove (before Microsoft purchased it) and Wave, it brought back memories of those designs.  Wave, in particular, was very close to what I had imagined building (albeit without all of the crazy in-line edits and what not).  I had kind of given up the idea after not being able to find any direction myself on how to make such a tool useful.


It turns out what I needed was more experience -- both technically and professionally -- to finally put it all together.  One thing that I've learned in the last few years of working with SharePoint is that it's generally a really cumbersome platform for collaboration when left to it's own devices.  It's great for:

  1. Storing documents
  2. Finding documents you've stored
  3. Storing lists of things
  4. ???

Everything else?  I guess it's kind of mediocre.

And yet, organizations -- multi-billion dollar organizations -- depend on SharePoint as a platform for collaboration, communication, sharing information, and in general, getting things done.

This is what experience has taught me as I sat through scrums watching folks update list items, as I dealt with the deluge of emails sent "Reply All" trying to figure out the status of tasks, and as I dealt with communicating effectively as a part of a team of remote consultants.

There are real inefficiencies when you try to use out-of-the-box SharePoint for scenarios which it was not designed and it's not a terribly useful platform for collaboration so much as it is for storage and retrieval of information (and even some would debate how well it's designed for those purposes....).

The question we set out to answer is how can we make the SharePoint platform more efficient for collaboration?  How can we help teams that work with remote members collaborate and communicate effectively?  How can we make SharePoint more than just a document and information repository?  How can we enable SharePoint to deliver notifications and updates in real-time?


Right before Christmas, my wife was put on strict bed rest at home carrying our daughter, Charlotte (she was deemed a high risk pregnancy as we've lost three other fetuses in two prior pregnancies).  At first, I considered taking the 6 week unpaid family leave.  But our due date was at the end of April; that would hardly get me through February with my vacation days.  I knew I had to quit and tough it out for at least these 4 months to make sure that we carried this baby to term.

This is when I finally put two-and-two together: I had to use this one opportunity to take a risk, go all-in and try to manifest this idea that I've been carrying around with me for years.

The Result

We've been "dogfooding" it for over a month now!

What came out of this process is GameTime, a real-time collaboration solution built on SharePoint and the same underlying technology in Google Wave, XMPP.  In one sentence?  It's Campfire for SharePoint.

At the core of GameTime is the concept of a "Huddle" where team members come together around a web-based chat interface.  But it's more than that; we've integrated it with SharePoint document libraries and lists to create a context for real-time collaborative efforts right in SharePoint.  Each Huddle is composed of collaborators, documents, milestones, and tasks -- the essentials of any collaborative effort and it's all wired up to react in real-time.

When a document is checked out in SharePoint, a real-time notification shows up in the chat stream and the document is updated in the Huddle.  When a new task is created and assigned, a real-time notification shows up in the chat stream and the task is added to the Huddle.  When a user comes into the Huddle, a real-time presence notification is sent and the user's status is updated immediately in the Huddle.

GameTime finally gives SharePoint users an actual reason to be in the SharePoint environment outside of point interactions (for example: trying to find a document); it gives SharePoint a central role in day-to-day collaboration instead of being just a storage repository that is called upon once in a while.  But even more importantly, perhaps, is that it adds a real-time element to SharePoint.  No more waiting for email notifications.  No more playing email-tag to get the status of tasks.  No more waiting for someone to check documents in/out.  You can see SharePoint activity in real-time right from your Huddle.

This short demo video should give you an idea of the functionality and capabilities of the product (this video represents about 60% of the current functionality):

Now the Hard Part

It's taken the small team of John Peterson (and his alter ego "Tyrone Engels") and myself nearly 4 months of work to get GameTime to this point and just this week, we've started our first AdWords campaign -- a great milestone.  The challenge of spreading the word and getting our first sale is now before us so indulge me with this shameless plug!

If your organization runs SharePoint 2010 (Server or Foundation) and you're interested in trying out that real-timey goodness of GameTime, fill out our contact form and get your first 10 licenses, free.  You can also use the form to schedule a live demo in our hosted environment.  I truly believe that you'll be sold once you experience it, live.

The Future

While we're focused on getting our first sale, we've started to plan for upcoming tradeshows and we've started to develop our next set of features.  These include:

  • Higher level, real-time dashboards built off of the same platform
  • Mobile integration for Android, Blackberries, iPhones, and Windows Phone
  • Chat and real-time notifications everywhere in the SharePoint environment -- get immediate notification of changes anywhere you are SharePoint.

So head over to our web site: http://thinktastic.com and contact us to get a fully featured trial license!

Filed under: News, SharePoint, XMPP No Comments

When Life Gives You Lemons…

Posted by Charles Chen

I love this photograph from the The Big Picture blog:

The caption for this photograph:

Cyril Forck, 90, catches a small perch fish from his backyard deck, which is usually 50 feet away from the edge of the Mississippi River, on Mud Island in Memphis, Tenn. May 4. (Lance Murphey/AP)

The flooding, loss of lives, destruction of homes and livelihoods is certainly terrible, but I guess it's important to keep your spirits about you!


Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan on Regional Politics

Posted by Charles Chen

I caught an interview with Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan this morning while listening to the BBC World Service.

Aside from being extremely well spoken, he expounded upon the issues in the region in a very straightforward manner, something that seems to be very exceptional from leaders in the region (or maybe the West just doesn't get enough exposure to the political workings of the leaders in the Middle East...).

Anyways, it's a great listen as he brings up many great points on the topic of democratization, political unrest, economic disparity, poverty, and human rights in the Middle East with a surprisingly Western flavor.

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Commentary on “Frankenfish”

Posted by Charles Chen

The news media has recently been abuzz about about this so-called "Frankenfish".

It's been puzzling to me what the hullabaloo has been all about.  The fact of the matter is that humans have been altering the genetics of just about everything we eat for centuries (millennia?).

Those navel oranges you eat? They're all genetic clones of a single mutation that occurred in the 1800's and every navel orange since has been grown via cutting and grafting techniques. Most cultivars of avocados are also grown via cutting and grafting of a single plant with a desirable genetic mutation.  That bread you eat? It's probably made from wheat that's been bred and cross-bred for resistance to certain strains of fungi and resistance to insects.  The corn that you eat (and all of the byproducts made from that corn)? It's been bred, cross-bred, and selected for desirable traits for centuries.

Humans have been manipulating the genetics of the food that we eat and disrupting or enhancing the natural reproductive cycles of plants and animals alike to breed for desirable traits like pest resistance, drought resistance, fatter meat, leaner meat, tastier meat, greater milk production, faster growth, sweeter fruit, and so on. And when genetics aren't enough to get the desired results, humans aren't shy to rely on other aspects of science like artificial steroids, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and so on. All of which make it into our waterways and our digestive systems.  I'm not saying that these are "good", but that the food supply that you already eat from is hardly free from human intervention.

The rampant and unjustified fear around genetically modified food is symptomatic of a culturally ingrained distrust of science (maybe it stems from religiosity...) and a general ignorance about agriculture and the long history of selection and crossbreeding for genetic traits. Certainly, we can't simply take AquaBounty's word, but we can approach this rationally and study the science and study the data to ensure that indeed, the inserted genes do not have an undesirable side effect in humans and that the environmental impact will be safe.

In the big picture, this type of science is needed if we wish to responsibly address the growing population of the Earth. Our natural resources aren't getting any more bountiful, yet the human population continues to grow, devour, want, and so on. If genetic modification can help yield greater harvests from the same land, if genetic modification and result in the decreased use of pesticides or fungicides or herbicides or fertilizer, if genetic modification can make farm raised fish profitable and thus help the recovery of wild salmon stocks, if genetic modification can help feed the growing population of the Earth and decrease famine and hunger, then I ask why should we not embrace this science and find solutions that work?

It recalls the criticism that Norman Borlaug's work received:

Borlaug's name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution, against which many criticisms  have been mounted over the decades by environmentalists, nutritionists, progressives, and economists. Throughout his years of research, Borlaug's programs often faced opposition by people who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or to have negative effects.

And yet, Borlaug's work has arguably saved billions of lives:

Borlaug received his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.

During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations.  These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

Of course, there are many that decry humanitarianism as being far from the objectives of AquaBounty; they say that AquaBounty is only in it for greed, for money, for profit.  But then I have to ask: what commercial fishing or farming operation isn't in it for money and profit?  Even that mom & pop organic farm down the street is in it for profit.  It's the very basis of the capitalistic system: do more, cheaper, faster, more efficiently.  There's no such thing as food production that doesn't follow this basis (with few exceptions like the production of fine liquors or wines, for example).

Certainly, there are pitfalls and certainly, there are dangers. However, the reality is that many wild fish populations are being fished to the edge of extinction or will be fished to the brink of extinction if we don't take responsible action today. That includes developing better systems of quotas and monitoring of natural populations, decreasing pollution in our waterways, and developing alternatives that can alleviate the strain that commercial fisheries place on these populations.  In the broader picture, if we also consider land based crop farming, improving efficiency through genetic engineering may be necessary to curb deforestation and the continued destruction of natural habitat while still meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population.  Borlaug developed a hypothesis with regards to the importance of increasing yields through science:

The large role he played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the "Borlaug hypothesis", namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. According to this view, assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land. It is thus argued that high-yield techniques are ultimately saving ecosystems from destruction.

I deem these fish safe until the science tells me otherwise. For all intents and purposes, they've only inserted genes from two other fish species (one of them being another type of salmon!) for their desirable traits; hardly worth the shock response and uproar over these GM salmon. The "Frankenfish" label is completely based on ignorance and stoking the fears of the ignorant.


Obama Increases Funding for Prompt Global Strike

Posted by Charles Chen

Bear with me here for some politics 😉

Caught an interesting article last night regarding increased investment in a new weapons program to complement the decrease in the nuclear arsenal.

Prompt Global Strike (wiki)


The administration has asked Congress for $240 million for next year's Prompt Global Strike development programs, a 45 percent increase from the current budget. The military forecasts a total of $2 billion in development costs through 2015 -- a relative bargain by Pentagon standards.

Nuclear arms have formed the backbone of U.S. deterrence strategy for six decades. Although the strategy worked during the Cold War, military leaders say they need other powerful weapons in their arsenal to deter adversaries who assume that the United States would refrain from taking the extreme step of ordering a nuclear strike.
"Deterrence can no longer just be nuclear weapons. It has to be broader," Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a leading proponent of Prompt Global Strike, told a conference last month.

Some U.S. military officials say their current non-nuclear options are too limited or too slow. Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles, which travel at several times the speed of sound, it can take up to 12 hours for cruise missiles to hit faraway targets. Long-range bombers likewise can take many hours to fly into position for a strike.
"Today, unless you want to go nuclear, it's measured in days, maybe weeks" until the military can launch an attack with regular forces, Cartwright said. "That's just too long in the world that we live in."

This is encouraging and I like it. After reading some of the comments on CNN.com on the new START treaty, I started to wonder if some of those posters lived in the same reality. A lot of folks seem to be stuck in the Cold War mentality.  Today, our economy is deeply intertwined with that of China and our European allies depend heavily on Russia for oil, natural gas, and Russia's vast diamond supply (well, and hot women, too).

The problem with a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent is that it has no effect in an asymmetrical war against a stateless, nationless, enemy; the enemy already knows that we can't and won't use them due to the collateral damage to civilian populations and nuclear fallout that would result.  Prompt Global Strike gives us the ability to deliver munitions with the same expediency as ICBMs do without all of the nasty side effects. Effectively, it becomes a weapon that we can actually deploy and use rather than a stockpile of nuclear arms that I simply cannot foresee us ever using.

However, it's not without its own dangers (at least until a proper protocol is designed):

Although it is technically simple to replace nuclear warheads on a missile with conventional ones, Prompt Global Strike has been dogged by a significant problem: how to ensure that Russia could tell the difference if a launch occurred.

Because it's basically a modified ICBM with a non-nuclear warhead, new protocols are needed to ensure that launching one of these isn't going to trigger an accidental nuclear response. The article mentions some options on the table including lower trajectories, higher trajectories, pre-launch communication with nuclear powers, etc.

Many have decried the START treaty as "weakening" the US.  However, this fails to consider that the US and Russia today hold over 90% of the worlds nuclear armaments and the new START treaty reduces this from 2200 to only 1550 - still plenty to flatten most of the world's major cities.  Ultimately, as Air Force General Kevin Chilton says, the Prompt Global Response missile system gives "an additional weapon in the quiver of the president to give him options in time of crisis today, in which he maybe only has a nuclear option for a timely response."

The wiki article has some pretty gnarly details on how it can be deployed:

  • Ballistic missiles, based on either the ICBM or SLBM
  • Hypersonic cruise missiles, such as the Boeing X-51
  • Air launched missiles
  • Space based launch platforms

Very interesting indeed. As a Command in Chief, working in concert with Gates to realign our military spending and investments in addition to changing our international persona (especially in predominantly Muslim nations and with our European allies), Obama has been miles ahead of Bush in my book.


Google Buzz > Facebook

Posted by Charles Chen

Well, at least for me (and I suspect many others).

I caught Pete Cashmore's analysis:

There are arguably better video sites than YouTube and better photo hosts than Photobucket, but network effects tend to trump technical prowess in the social networking realm.

Google Buzz certainly isn't groundbreaking, but it will achieve critical mass virtually overnight. Thanks to integration with Gmail, the new tool is in the eye-line of the millions of users who obsessively check their inboxes for new mail. ComScore pegged Gmail at 176.5 million unique visitors in December.

But I think he just narrowly missed the mark, at least for me.  One critical difference is that because Buzz relies on your Gmail contacts, it creates a more focused social network; in other words, these are people that you actually communicate with already and thus content in Buzz seems to be much more relevant and interesting than Facebook.

Consider someone like my sister.  She has 643 friends in Facebook.  The question is what % of those people does she actually communicate with on a daily or even weekly basis?  How many of those people are just incidental contacts?  How many of those people are just sort of there? How many of those people does she actually care about?  How many of those people would invite her to their wedding?  I would guess that it's somewhere around 10-20%.

By integrating with Gmail, Google's big win is that your network is based on people that you actually communicate with.  In my opinion, this makes the social network more valuable and the information much more relevant.  Integration with a mail client will help the adoption rates for sure, but I think that the big win that will carry it forward as a success -- at least for users like me, who don't use Facebook as a network building or discovery tool -- is that the quality of content is much improved over Facebook.


Galileo’s Fingers Found

Posted by Charles Chen

Cool story because Galileo is one of my top 5 scientists:

(CNN) -- Two fingers cut from the hand of Italian astronomer Galileo nearly 300 years ago have been rediscovered more than a century after they were last seen, an Italian museum director said Monday.

Removing body parts from the corpse was an echo of a practice common with saints, whose digits, tongues and organs were revered by Catholics as relics with sacred powers.

There is an irony in Galileo's having been subjected to the same treatment, since he was persecuted by the Catholic Church for advocating the theory that the earth circles the sun, rather than the other way around. The Inquisition forced him to recant, and jailed him in 1634.

The people who cut off his fingers essentially considered him a secular saint, Galluzzi said, noting the fingers that were removed were the ones he would have used to hold a pen.

"Exactly as it was practiced with saints of religion, so with saints of science," Galluzzi said. "He was a hero and a martyr, keeping alive freedom of thought and freedom of research."

Very awesome.

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On Healthcare: What We Can Learn From The Music Industry

Posted by Charles Chen

Nathan Alderman has an interesting write up on the effect of a public option on the healthcare industry:

A decade ago, the major record labels were fat and happy, making piles of cash off CD sales. They could use their massive marketing muscle to push manufactured bands onto the airwaves and into listeners' ears. If you had to buy a whole subpar album just to get the few songs you really wanted, well, too bad.

Then Internet file-sharing rolled into town. I'm not arguing that piracy's right, but digitally available tunes did become a real competitor to the established music business. Rather than adapt to consumers' changing tastes by going digital themselves -- which would have meant surrendering their fat margins, and some of their control over what people listened to -- the record labels panicked. They started suing file-sharers, driving their own customers away. In short, the record labels weren't meeting customers' demand; they were trying to dictate what they thought customers should demand, and actively ignoring what the free market really wanted. Does that sound like capitalism to you?

Industry outsider Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) finally had to almost bully labels into offering digital tunes at a fair (or at least fairer) price. Now Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) and a host of others compete with Apple's iTunes, a rivalry that has lowered prices, eliminated restrictive copy protection, and generally given consumers better music options. In return, audiophiles bought more music in 2008 than ever before, according to a January USA TODAY article. Most of those sales came in the form of digital downloads and individual tracks.

In my opinion, private health insurers are no less slothful and stubborn than record labels were at the dawn of the digital era. Insurers' defenders say that a rival public option would "destroy their industry." WellPoint (NYSE: WLP) has set up a website to oppose it. But in my opinion, it's more likely that the increased competition would merely reduce their profits, loosen their control, and force them to work harder, smarter, and more efficiently. That may be bad news for health insurers' stockholders, but you can't deny that it's good news for folks who need health insurance.

I tend to agree with this view.  A public option would, like Apple's iTunes, hopefully drive prices down over time and force the private insurance industry to adapt, streamline,  cust costs, and come up with a better product.  This is good for consumers.  The whole debate has been pretty baffling to me given that it's an option

Alderman doesn't address two other facets of a public health insurance option that would be good for Capitalism:

  1. It would allow people to take risks.  No, not like jumping out of airplanes or something, but employment risks.  People would feel more comfortable seeking jobs at startups and small businesses (or starting their own!), which traditionally have a hard time offering competitive healthcare benefits.  Risk is good since it is what spawns invention and innovation; it would give smart people more flexibility in moving around and brining their ideas with them.

  2. It gives employees greater freedom (and employers a greater talent pool).  This is kind of related to the first point in that I think this is important to help spread ideas and innovation.  Employees who are dependent on their employer provided healthcare (like people with young kids, a sick spouse, or with a pre-existing condition) are kind of locked into their employers if they are dependent on employer provided healthcare.  Greater freedom to change jobs without worrying about losing health benefits would seem to lead to better wages, greater spread of innovation, and better options for everyone (employee and employers).  How can this be anything but a good thing?

Alderman's basic premise is spot on, in my opinion, that a public option -- if not a full out single payer system -- would help Capitalism and not hurt it.

Filed under: News, Rants 1 Comment

TARP Paying Off…At Least For Now.

Posted by Charles Chen

Whoa, caught whiff of this just now:

On June 9, the Treasury Department announced that 10 of the largest financial institutions that participated in the Capital Purchase Program (through TARP) have been approved to repay $68 billion. Yes, they had to be approved to repay the money. The companies had to prove they no longer needed the money, because the government doesn't want them begging for more down the road.

To date, those 10 companies have paid dividends on their preferred stock to the Treasury totaling about $1.8 billion, the Treasury announced. Overall, dividend payments from all of the 600 bank participants has come to about $4.5 billion so far. That's commensurate with the 5 percent (annualized) dividend return that was part of the terms of the program.

Bank analyst Bert Ely said while the government may end up losing money on investments in some financial firms, it's likely the entirety of the bank portion of the TARP will ultimately turn a profit.

The 5 percent paid in dividends on preferred stock purchased by the Treasury will certainly outpace the interest rate on money borrowed to finance the program, he said. And the warrants could also prove profitable.

"People think the government gave banks money," Ely said. "They made investments in banks."

So we could still end up losing money, but at least for now, it seems like it was a wise move.

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