Fifteen interviews

Seven Nine people I have interviewed:

Two Four people who have interviewed me:

Six interviews I have blogged about:

Evaluating weather forecast accuracy: an interview with Eric Floehr

Eric Floehr is the owner of ForecastWatch, a company that evaluates the accuracy of weather forecasts. In this interview Eric explains what his business does, how he got started, and some of the technology he uses.

JC: Let’s talk about your business and how you got started.

EF: I’m a programmer by trade. I got a computer science degree from Ohio State University and took a number of programming jobs, eventually ending up in management.

I’ve also always been interested in weather. A couple years ago my Mom showed me my baby book. At five years old it said “He’s interested in space, dinosaurs, and the weather.” I’m not as interested in dinosaurs now, but still interested in space and the weather.

When I was working as a programmer, and especially when I was a manager, I liked to do little programming projects to learn things. So when I ran across Python I thought about what I could write. I’d wondered whether there was any difference in the accuracy of various weather services—AccuWeather, Weather.gov, etc. Did they use different models, or did they all get their data from the National Weather Service and just package it up differently? So I wrote a little Python web scraper to pull forecasts from various places and compare it with observations. I kept doing that and realized there really were differences between the forecasters.

I didn’t start out for this to be a business. It just started out to satisfy personal curiosity. It just kept growing every year. In my last position before going out on my own I was CTO for a company that made a backup appliance. We got to the point where the product was mature and doing well. ForecastWatch was taking more and more of my time because I was getting more business from it, and so I decided to make the switch. That was March 2010. Revenue doubled over the next year and it looks like this year it will double again. Things are going well and I really enjoy it.

JC: So you hadn’t been doing this that long when we met last year at SciPy in Austin.

EF: No, I’d only been doing this full time for a few months. But I’d been doing this part-time since 2004.

I didn’t have full-time revenue when I was doing this part-time. But it’s amazing. Once you have the time to focus on something, the opportunities that you hadn’t had time to notice before suddenly open up. Just the act of making something your focus almost makes your goal come to fruition. For years you think “too risky, too risky” and then once you make that jump, things fall in place.

JC: So what exactly is the product you sell?

EF: There are two main components. There’s an online component that is subscription-based. It provides monthly aggregated statistics on forecasts versus actual observations. It has absolute errors, min and max errors, Brier score, all kinds of statistics. It evaluates forecasts for precipitation, high and low temperature, opacity, wind speed and direction, etc. Meteriologist use those statistics to evaluate their forecasts to see how they’re doing relative to their peers.

The second component is research reports. Sometimes meteorologists will commission a report to show how well they’re doing. These reports are based on standard, widely-accepted metrics and time-frames, so they can’t just cherry-pick criteria they happened to do well on. But if they see there are statistics in ForecastWatch where they are doing really well, they might want to tell their customers. I’ve also created reports for media companies, large Internet service providers, energy trading companies and other companies who were evaluating weather forecast providers or want some other data analysis related to weather forecasts.

Something else, and I don’t know whether this will become a major component, but another area some people are interested in is historical forecasts. I have agreements with some of the weather forecasting companies to sell their forecasts that are no longer forecasts. Some people find this information valuable. For example, a marketer with a major sports league wanted to know how weather forecasts affected attendance. Another example was an investment manager who was looking to invest in a business whose performance he believed had some correlation with weather forecasts. For example, a ski lodge might want to know how far out people base their decisions on forecasts.

I have this data back to 2004. It’s funny, but most weather forecasting companies historically have not kept their forecasts. Their bread-and-butter is the forecast in the future. Once that future becomes the past, they saw no value in that data until recently.

Incidentally, because I’m monitoring weather forecasters’ websites, I sometimes let them know about errors they were unaware of.

JC: What volume of data are you dealing with?

EF: I have about 200,000,000 forecast data points back to 2004. I’m adding about 130,000 data points a day. My database is something on the order of 70 GB. That’s observation data, hourly forecasts, metadata, etc. Right now I’m looking at data from about 850 locations in the US and about 50 in Canada. I’m looking to expand that both domestically and internationally.

JC: So what kind of technology are you using?

EF: I’m running a LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, Python. Originally I was on Red Hat Linux but I’ve switched to Ubuntu server. I’m using Django for the website. Everything is in Python: the scrapers are in Python, the website is in Python, all the administrative back-end is in Python.

There are two websites right now: ForecastWatch.com, which is the subscription, professional site, and a free consumer site ForecastAdvisor.com. The consumer site will give you a local forecast and a measure of the accuracy for various forecasters for your weather.

JC: And who are your customers?

EF: All the major weather forecast companies. Also some financial companies, logistics and transportation companies, etc. I’m just starting to expand more into serving companies that depend on meteorological forecasts whereas in the past I’ve focused directly on meteorologists.

JC: Let’s talk a little more about the entrepreneurial aspect of your business.

EF: Well, for one thing, I don’t think I’d ever have done this if I’d thought about doing it to make money. There’s not an enormous market for this service, but in a way that’s good. I came from a completely technical background. There’s not a marketing or sales gene in my body and I’ve had to learn a lot. ForecastWatch has given me a great opportunity to learn about those non-technical areas of a business that were so foreign to me before.

I got into this entirely for my own use. And I thought that maybe there was already something that did what I wanted, and in the process of trying to find what’s out there I discovered an unmet need. Even though all the major forecasters said that accuracy was the number one thing they were interested in, they weren’t effectively measuring their accuracy. I thought that if I’m interested in this, maybe other people are too.

At first pricing was a mystery to me. Maybe I needed a new laptop, so I’d charge someone the price of a laptop for some analysis. I had to learn the value of my time and my product.

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Some talks by Eric:

PyOhio 2009 talk about ForecastWatch
PyOhio 2010 panel on Python and entrepreneurship
SciPy 2010 talk

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More interviews
More on entrepreneurship
More on Python

Why Food for the Hungry runs Ubuntu

Rick Richter is CIO of Food for the Hungry. In this interview Rick explains why his organization is moving all of its computers to Ubuntu.

Ethiopian farmer Ato Admasu

Ethiopian farmer Ato Admasu. Photo credit Food for the Hungry.

John: Tell me a little about Food for the Hungry and what you do there.

Rick: Food for the Hungry is a Christian relief and development organization. We go in to relief situations—maybe there has been a natural disaster or war—and provide life-sustaining needs: food, shelter, whatever the need may be. For example, the recent earthquake in Haiti. But the other part of what we do is the sustained, long-term development on the community level. The idea is to work with leaders and churches to better take care of themselves rather than relying on outside organizations for support.

I’m the CIO. I’m in charge of the information and technology for the organization. We’re in 25 countries. I have staff all over the world, about 25 people. There are about 12 who work directly for global IT, mostly in Phoenix, and the rest in various countries. There are also people who work directly for local offices, for example in Kenya, that coordinate with global IT. We’re responsible for about 900 computers.

John: You and I were talking the other day about your organization’s project to move all its computers over to Ubuntu.

Rick: We started an informal process to convert to Ubuntu two and a half years ago. It started when my son went to Bangladesh. He spent the summer there and converted some of their computers to Ubuntu. At first we didn’t have full management support for the process. They don’t really understand it and it scares them.

There were individual country directors interested in the project and I talked it up. There’s some independence in the organization to make those kind of decisions. Now, for the first time, we have full support of management for the conversion on a wide scale. I’m going to Cambodia next week. Right now they’re all running Windows but before I leave they’ll be running Ubuntu. In Asia we probably have about 80% of our computers on Ubuntu. We don’t have big offices in Asia. Our bigger offices are in Africa and they’re a little slower to adopt. Until now, a lot of it depended on whether the local country director was ready to change.

We found it was important for a number of reasons. One is security. Linux is not as vulnerable to viruses. We have so many places where entire computer systems have been totally crippled because of viruses. A lot of networks are very primitive, so the network is basically a thumb drive between offices in a country. A thumb drive is the best way to transmit viruses you can find.

We’ve also found in the last few years anti-virus software has become less and less effective. Three or four years ago, if you had up-to-date anti-virus software you wouldn’t get a virus. These days, you still get them. Some of our staff have other jobs within FH besides their IT responsibilities and may not have a lot of IT experience. As a result, staff often do not have the time to pro-actively manage IT.

Another issue is maintainability. Windows computers don’t run as well over time. With Ubuntu, when we come back to a computer two years later it’s in as good a shape as we left it.

Linux requires much less hardware to run than Windows. We have eight- or nine-year-old computers at a lot of our sites that will no longer run or barely run Windows.

John: So saving money on software licenses is a benefit, but not the main consideration.

Rick: Saving money on licenses is important, but it’s not the driving force. We’re a non-profit and we have a contract with Microsoft where we get pretty good prices.

Another reason for moving to Ubuntu is that in some countries it is very difficult to legally obtain licenses. Sometimes it’s next to impossible. You can’t buy legal Microsoft licenses in some places, or if you can, the price is outrageous. So many legalities and so many weird hoops you have to jump through.

As a Christian organization we need to set a good example and make sure all our licenses are legal. We want to be clear and up-front about our software. Ubuntu eliminates that problem.

John: What experience have you had retraining your IT people to support Linux?

Rick: We have IT professionals and we have people who are much less skilled. Most of the IT people who do the support have really bought into it. They’re excited about it and they’re pushing it. Those who do support in the field who have had less exposure, some of them have bought into it, some have not as much. It requires time. It requires dedication. It also required commitment from their management.

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Applied topology and Dante: an interview with Robert Ghrist

Robert Ghrist A few weeks ago I discovered Robert Ghrist via his website. Robert is a professor of mathematics and electrical engineering. He describes his research as applied topology, something I’d never heard of. (Topology has countless applications to other areas of mathematics, but I’d not heard of much work directly applying topology to practical physical problems.) In addition to his work in applied topology, I was intrigued by Robert’s interest in old books.

The following is a lightly-edited transcript of a phone conversation Robert and I had September 9, 2010.

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JC: When I ran across your website one thing that grabbed my attention was your research in applied topology. I’ve studied applied math and I’ve studied topology, but the two are very separate in my mind. I was intrigued to hear you combine them.

RG: Those two are separate in a lot of people’s minds, but not for long. It’s one of those things that the time has come and it’s clear that the tools that were developed for very abstract, esoteric problems have really concrete value with respect to modern challenges in data, or systems analysis.

JC: Could you give some examples of that?

RG: Certainly. One of the first groups of people who do full-scale applied algebraic topology were Gunnar Carlsson’s group at Stanford doing applications to data analysis. The setup is you have a collection of data points in a space, a point cloud, that is a discrete representation of some interesting structure. For example, you might want to know how many connected components does this data set have. That might correspond to different features. For example, this might come from customer surveys that a corporation has out. It’s trying to cluster these customers. Or if it is medical data, say they are trying to discern different types of cancers. Then you might look at what statisticians call clustering, grouping data sets into connected components.

Well, topologists know that’s just the first step in a larger program of finding global structure. Besides having connectivity properties, spaces can have holes in them of various types. There are formal algebraic methods for finding and classifying those holes. That’s homology, cohomology, homotopy theory. And applying that to data turns out to give some really revolutionary techniques that don’t rely on projecting the data set down to a two-dimensional picture and trying to visualize what’s happening. It’s automatic.

There are similarly themed application in the work I do in engineering systems where you take data that comes from, say, a network of sensors or a communications network or a networked connection on computers or a networked collection of autonomous robots. And you try and take all that local information, say in the context of sensor networks, you take collections of local data and try to patch it together to give you global understanding of an environment. That kind of local-to-global transition is what the techniques of topology were built to do. And they are surprisingly efficacious in these very applied problems.

JC: I’m familiar with Van Kampen’s theorem in homotopy. Is that the sort of thing you’re talking about?

RG: Yeah, homotopy tends to be less computable than homology. Homology is much more natural in these contexts. The corresponding principle is the Mayer-Vietoris principle, the homological analog of Van Kampen. And the Mayer-Vietoris principle is really telling you something about integration, how you stitch together local bits of data, how you integrate it into a global understanding of your network. That is a very deep idea that is very important to transitioning from local to global data.

JC: One mental block I have when I’m thinking about these sort of things is that in my mind topology seems sorta fragile in the sense that one random connection can change something. Connect just one pair of dots and suddenly a disconnected space becomes a connected space. It seems that would be a problem in these settings where you make some sort of topological statement, but any missing data or erroneous data invalidates your conclusions. But I remember you said something that was sort of the opposite on your website, that topological methods can be more robust. I could see that, but I’m having trouble resolving these two views.

RG: There are different types of robustness that are critical in different types of applications. Because the constructs of algebraic topology are invariant under homotopy or deformation, it turns out to be very robust with respect to, for example, coordinate changes. That is extremely useful when you’re dealing with data that has some anchor to the physical world.

Let’s say data that’s being collected by our cell phones. Put a couple sensors on a cell phone and we have lots and lots of interesting data streams. And that data is tied to physical locations. But you might not know exactly where it is. GPS doesn’t work so well when you’re inside a building, for example. In contexts like that, you want the kind of robustness that doesn’t depend on having a carefully laid-out coordinate system.

Now robustness with respect to noise, especially robustness with respect to errors, is a much more difficult problem to solve in general. But even in that case there are some topological tools that in specific examples can be deployed. This gets into slightly more technical stuff involving persistent homology and topological properties that persist over a range of samplings.

JC: Could you give an example of how knowing the homology of a data set might tell you something about a physical phenomena?

RG: One example that I’ve worked with a lot has to do with coverage problems in sensor networks. Let’s say we’re talking about cell phone coverage, because everyone’s familiar with that. If you get into a hole in the cell phone network where you’ve dropped coverage, that’s frustrating. You’d like to know whether you have full coverage over an area or not, whether you have holes.

This gets much more critical when you’re talking about a security setting. You have video cameras or satellites that cover a region and you want whether you’ve covered everything, or whether there are holes where you are missing information. One of the things I’ve used homology theory for is to give criteria that guarantee coverage, that guarantee no holes in your sensor network based exclusive on coordinate-free data. So even though the sensors may not know where they are, and only know the identities of the sensors near by, it’s still possible to verify coverage based on homological criteria.

JC: Interesting. I suppose especially if you’re looking at higher-dimensional data you can’t just draw a lot of circles on a map and see whether they overlap. You have to do something more computational.

RG: Exactly. Especially if those circles are in motion and you want to know what’s happening over time. Especially if there are no coordinates and you don’t know where to draw the circles to see how things overlap.

One thing I want to get across when I’m talking with people is that I view a mathematics library the same way an archaeologist views a prime digging site. There are all these wonderful treasures that are buried there and hidden from the rest of the world. If you pick up a typical book on sheaf theory, for example, it’s unreadable. But it’s full of stuff that is very, very important to solving really difficult problems. And I have this vision of digging through the obscure text and finding these gems and exporting them over to the engineering college and other domains where these tools can find utility.

Now, a lot of esoteric mathematics has already crossed the fence. No one will claim any more that number theory is useless. But topology is the place where you have the most-useful, least-used tools. So that’s my vision for what I want to see happen in mathematics and what I’m trying to accomplish.

JC: Switching gears a little bit, another thing on your site that caught my eye was your quote about old books.

Reading anything less than 50 years old is like drinking new wine: permissible once or twice a year and usually followed by regret and a headache.

I thought about C. S. Lewis’ exhortation to mix in old books with your reading of new books because each age has its own blind spots. Old authors have their own blind spots, but maybe they’re complementary to the ones we have.

RG: Exactly. I definitely have followed that dictum. Maybe a little too much so, in that I rarely read anything modern at all. When it comes to books. I don’t follow that rule when it comes to music or movies or blogs. But on the level of books, there is so much good stuff out there that has stood the test of time, I don’t run out of interesting things to read. I had the wonderful experience as a college student to take a great books-type course that involved a lot of reading, a lot of discussion. Really changed my outlook and got me loving the classics and really living inside a lot of those books.

JC: Were you a math major when you took this great books class?

RG: No, I was an engineering major. My undergraduate degree was in engineering. I came to math a little late in life.

JC: You said you were particularly fond of Dante.

RG: That’s correct. Yeah, I’ve lived in that book [The Divine Comedy] a long time and I still find new and very engaging ideas in it every time I crack it open. Most people don’t get very far past the Inferno. The Inferno is the exciting, action-movie part of the story. But the later parts of the story — purgatory, paradise — those are really nice places to live.

JC: Have you had to do a lot of historical research to be able to read Dante?

RG: If you get a good translation with a good set of notes, that makes it much easier. I find the translation by Dorothy Sayers has excellent notes. She got turned on to Dante late in life. There’s an interesting story. While they were having bombings in the early 1940’s, she was going down to the bomb shelter to spend a few hours, she decided to grab a book off the shelf on the way down. She saw a copy of Dante. She said “You know, I’ve never really read Dante.” Pulled it off the shelf. For the next two days she didn’t eat or sleep. She was engrossed with the story and how masterful it was. And she wound up devoting the rest of her life to mastering the Italian and producing her own translation.

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For daily tweets on topology and geometry, follow @TopologyFact on Twitter.

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A few questions with Frederick Brooks

The shelf life of software development books is typically two or three years, maybe five or ten years for a “classic.” Frederick Brooks, however, wrote a book on software development in 1975 that remains a best-seller: The Mythical Man-Month. His book has remained popular because he wrote about human nature as applied to software development, not the hottest APIs and development fads from the 1970’s.

Frederick Brooks has written a new book that should also enjoy exceptional shelf life, The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist (ISBN 0201362988). In this book, Brooks looks back over a long successful career in computing and makes insightful observations about design.

Frederick Brooks, Jr.

The following interview comes from an email exchange with Frederick Brooks.

JC: You did a PhD in math with Howard Aiken in 1956. Did you study numerical analysis? Did you intend at the time to have a career in computing?

FB: Oh, yes indeed. That’s why I went to Aiken’s lab for graduate work.

JC: I was struck by your comments on conceptual integrity, particularly this quote: “Most great works have been made by one mind. The exceptions have been made by two minds.” Could you say more about that?

FB: I give lots of examples in the book of the one mind case, and a few of the two-mind case.

JC: You said in your book that your best management decision was sending E. J. Codd to get his PhD. That certainly paid off well. Could you share similar examples of successful long-term investments?

FB: Well, IBM’s decision to gamble everything on the System/360, terminating six successful product lines to do so, is a great example. DARPA’s funding of the development of the ARPAnet, ancestor to the Internet, is another great example.

JC: What are some technologies from decades ago that are being rediscovered?

FB: I find it useful to write first drafts of serious things, such as scientific papers and books, by hand with a felt-tip pen. I can type faster than I can think, so composing on a keyboard yields unnecessary wordiness. Writing by hand matches my thinking and writing speeds, and the result is leaner and cleaner.

JC: What are some that have not become popular again but that you think should be reconsidered?

FB: Probably the previous example answers this question better than it does the previous question.

JC: Apart from technological changes, how have you seen the workplace change over your career?

FB: I’ve been in academia for the past 46 years. The biggest change in academia is a consequence of personal computers and networks: faculty members don’t use secretaries as such, they write their own letters, and make their own phone calls. Our assistants are indeed administrative assistants, rather than secretaries.

JC: What change would you like to see happen as a result of people reading your new book?

FB: Even more recognition of the role of a chief designer, separate from a project manager, in making a new artifact, and more attention to choosing and growing such.

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Update: Three years after this interview, I had a chance to meet Fred Brooks in person at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

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Interview with author Cliff Pickover

A few weeks ago, Sterling Publishing sent me a copy of Cliff Pickover‘s new book The Math Book. I enjoyed reading the book (see my review) and set up the interview that follows.

Clifford Pickover photo

JC: The Math Book is your first book that I’ve read. Is it typical of your writing? How would you summarize the topics you’ve written about?

CP: My past 40 books cover many different topics. A number of these books concern the beauty of mathematics. Others cover topics at the borderlands of science, roaming far and wide on topics ranging from creativity, art, mathematics, and human intelligence, to higher dimensions, religion, strange realities, time travel, alien life, and science fiction. You can see a listing of my other books here. This should give your readers a flavor for the kinds of topics on which I enjoy writing.

Of course, The Math Book is serious mathematics, but I hope I’ve introduced an element of art and playfulness as well — the topics flow from fractals, to Rubik’s cube robots, to the infinite monkey theorem! For me, mathematics cultivates a perpetual state of wonder about the nature of mind, the limits of thoughts, and our place in this vast cosmos.

With respect to my other books, some of which may be more at the fringes of science, I’d point out that “fringe” research is crucial — not just for its educational value but because significant discoveries can come from such study. At first glance, some topics in science or sociology in my other works may appear to be curiosities, with little practical application or purpose. However, I have found these experiments useful and educational, as have the many students, educators, artists, and scientists who have written to me. In fact, science is filled with hundreds of great discoveries that have emerged through chance happenings and serendipity, for example: Velcro, Teflon, X-rays, penicillin, nylon, safety glass, sugar substitutes, dynamite, and polyethylene plastics.

Several of my past books explore a variety of topics to test your curiosity and powers of lateral thinking. Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.” This also applies to the joy that writers experience when letting their minds drift and when wondering about humanity’s place in the universe.

Beltrami pseudosphere. Image by Paul Nylander

Beltrami’s pseudosphere by Paul Nylander, included in The Math Book

JC: You’ve written a lot of books, especially for someone who has a full-time job in addition to writing. How do you manage your time?

CP: When people ask me how I manage my time, I reply: “Some people play golf on the weekends. Instead, I prefer to write.” Of course, my prolific writing pales in comparison to American novelist, lawyer, and workaholic Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970), who once worked on seven novels simultaneously and dictated 66,000 words a week! Gardner would never start to dictate until he had worked out the entire plot of his novel. He actually hired six secretaries to handle his dictation, which he found more efficient than typing. His best-known works focus on the lawyer-detective Perry Mason.

I don’t know how writers like Isaac Asimov were so prolific before the age of the computer. I would have a very difficult time writing books, and doing all the necessary text rearrangements and editing, without a word processor. According to the New York Public Library Desk Reference (4th ed.), Isaac Asimov wrote over 400 books and is the only author with a book included in every major Dewey-decimal category. I sit in awe of Asimov, but a few people have exceeded his book output. Lauran Paine (b. 1916) has published over 900 books under more than 90 pen names. Paine spent his youth working as a cowboy, and today at least 500 of his books are Westerns.

JC: How do you write? Do you have a set schedule and place for writing? Anything unusual about your environment or equipment?

CP: French writer Marcel Proust composed his books in a haphazard fashion. He did not start at the beginning and finish at the end. He did not write linearly. Instead, ideas came to him in flashes as he went about his daily routine. Most of my own books are composed in the same way. As ideas come to me during the day or in the realm between sleep and wakefulness, I jot them down and continue to fill in details in the book. For me, writing is exactly like painting, adding a spot of color here, a detail there, a twig on this tree, a bit of foam on that ocean wav … No painter starts at the top of the painting and finishes at the bottom.

My approach to filling in detail, like a painter dabbing paint, is fine in the age of word processors, but it was amazing that Proust used the same approach so well. He would dictate to his stenographers who would type an initial manuscript. Then, he would crowd the margins with additional details and establish links between scenes and characters. He would paste in new pages and have the new work typed again and again. Edmund White notes in his biography of Proust, “If any writer would have benefited from a word processor, it would have been Proust, whose entire method consisted of adding details here and there and of working on all parts of his book at once.” As for my books, there’s nothing special about the tools I use and nothing special about my environment. These days, I use Microsoft Word.

JC: Are you writing a book now?

CP: I am finishing a book in the style of The Math Book — one page of text facing one page of illustration. Entries are in chronological order. Let’s wait to see how well The Math Book sells. If it sells a sufficient number of copies, perhaps I can convince a publisher to consider this newer work that covers a particular array of topics in science, art, history, and popular culture.

JC: Would you be interested in writing a computer science analog of The Math Book?

CP: I very much enjoyed creating The Math Book with my publisher, Sterling, and the $19 price offered by Amazon.com is amazing for a 528-page all color hardcover. I would welcome doing another book of this kind if we feel that such a book has not been done before and that it is marketable.

JC: Who are some of your favorite authors, either for content or style?

CP: My favorite tales of parallel worlds are those of Robert Heinlein. For example, in his science-fiction novel The Number of the Beast there is a parallel world that appears identical to ours in every respect except that the letter “J” does not appear in the English language. Luckily, the protagonists in the book have built a device that lets them perform controlled explorations of parallel worlds from the safety of their high-tech car. This is my favorite novel, and the only one that I’ve read over five times — although I could never finish it the first few times. It’s a novel that many readers dislike, can’t finish, or understand. The final section is nearly incomprehensible. But for me, it provides a sense of mystic transport as the brainy characters enter parallel worlds, fleeing from danger.

JC: There is a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’ character, Sean, asks Matt Damon’s character, Will, what he likes to read. Will’s response is “Hey, whatever blows your hair back.” What blows your hair back? Any books, blogs, podcasts, etc. that you turn to for inspiration?

CP: These days, I’m enjoying CDs and DVDs from The Teaching Company – on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, to the history of the world, to an introduction to Judaism. Some of their classes on the history of mathematics are awesome mind-bogglers.

My most popular blog, Reality Carnival, highlights the kinds of topics and stories that interest me.

JC: Your writing indicates you have broad interests. Have you struggled to find where you want to be along the continuum between Renaissance man and specialist?

CP: I prefer to be a generalist. In fact, if I had to manage a foundation that gives money to scientists, I would also consider high-quality “generalists” as recipients. Experts have become very specialized, and science popularizes are often frowned upon by their more “serious” colleagues. Sometimes, specialists develop blind spots after years of intense focus on a single topic. Thus, I would devote a portion of my money to training “generalists” who traverse several fields and then bring together ideas in ways that specialists may be unable to do. They will also look for overlaps between different domains of research and try to solve shared problems with a single approach. As our rate of technological progress skyrockets in the 21st century, these Facilitators will study the multidisciplinary implications of this acceleration and work on technologies or new ways of seeing that help humanity assimilate advances that outstrip our comprehension and the restrictions of our intuition.

Other interview posts:

Carl Franklin interview

Carl Franklin is a many of many talents: talk show host, producer, software developer, musician, etc. He’s probably best known for his excellent .NET Rocks podcast and for the other podcasts he hosts and produces. I hope you enjoy the following interview with Carl.

JC: Your .NET Rocks podcast goes back further than podcasting. Did the show start on radio or was it always online?

CF: It was always online. Although I was inspired by public radio programs like Car Talk and Whad’Ya Know, I always thought the audience was too narrow for general radio. That, and I had web resources readily available.

JC: So the show was a set of downloadable MP3 files before RSS feeds came along to organize the files into a podcast?

CF: Exactly. We had a site more or less like it is now, with links to and info about the current show on the front page, and an archives page. We also had a newsletter we used to notify people of new shows.

JC: Could you say something about your podcasts, ones you host, produce, etc.?

CF: Well, .NET Rocks is a twice-weekly interview show for .NET devs. I am the host and Richard Campbell is the co-host. It’s an hour long, more or less. Topics range from low-level techie stuff to new technologies and methodologies to speculation about the future.

We also produce a weekly video screencast/interview show also about an hour long called dnrTV. Topics are hands-on practical. It’s recorded at 1024×768 so it will fit most projectors.

Hanselminutes is a 30-50 minute podcast with Scott Hanselman covering a wide variety of developer and technology topics. Also weekly.

RunAs Radio is a 30-50 minute weekly interview show on Microsoft-centric IT topics with Richard Campbell and Greg Hughes.

We also do an adult comedy podcast called Mondays. Richard Campbell and I basically spend an hour or so laughing at the stories and wit of Mark Miller and Karen Mangiacotti. NSFW but hilarious.

JC: On .NET Rocks, you’re the alpha geek programmer, but sometimes you mention your life as a musician and entrepreneur. Were you a musician first?

CF: Yes. I was singing in the Westerly Chorus from age 8. Piano since age 4. Guitar since age 10. Trumpet since age 10. Bass and drums came later. Programming didn’t come around till I was 17. I went to Berklee School of Music in 85-86 and Full Sail School of Recording Arts 86-87. Learned computers on my own. I was lucky to have many smart programmer friends who were willing to share their knowledge. That experience has shaped everything I have done since.

JC: How did you get started as a programmer?

CF: My dad bought a TRS-80 model 4 when I was a kid to do taxes and bills. I think VisiCalc was the only program he used. It had a guide to BASIC programming that I started reading. Between that and the TRSDOS manual I started writing some cool programs. Then I got a modem and was introduced to the BBS world. That was it. I was hooked on writing serial communications programs.

JC: You’ve mentioned Franklins.Net and Pwop productions on .NET Rocks. Could you describe these businesses and how you got started?

CF: Franklins.Net was started in 1999 as a training company. I taught VB6 and then VB.NET for several years. Pwop was started as a media production company to support the podcasts. Now Franklins.Net is the .NET education brand and Pwop is all about audio/video/music production.

JC: Do you have any other businesses?

CF: No.

JC: Let’s go back to your music. Who are some musicians that influenced you? Who do you like to listen to now?

CF: I was brought up on good old classic rock. On acoustic guitar I was influenced by John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Jorma Kaukonen, and the like. On electric guitar: Jeff Beck, Brian May, Peter Frampton, Eagles, Skynyrd, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, and more recently John Scofield, John Pisano, Lee Rittenour, and Pat Martino. Nowadays I’m on a New Orleans kick, hanging out with The Meters and Professor Longhair.

JC: Sounds like you’re active as a performer and a producer.

CF: Yes. I’ve produced music for a handful of artists and I play in local venues regularly.

JC: Your website says recorded a CD with your brother Jay a few years ago. Where can we find it?

CF: We will announce a website soon with our new album, and free links to our old album.

JC: Tell me about the new CD you’re working on.

CF: It’s all original but you’ll be able to hear and identify our influences easily.

JC: Anything else you want to talk about?

CF: Sounds good to me! Thanks!!!

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Best podcast intro music (Includes a couple links to Carl’s music.)