Profile of Stanford chemical engineering prof. Channing Robertson

Here’s a profile that I put together for the Stanford School of Engineering on Channing Robertson, emeritus professor of Chemical Engineering. He’s a legendary teacher, former Senior Associate Dean, and was the first engineering faculty member hired by Stanford to focus specifically on the chemistry of life forms. Apart from all that, he’s been involved in some of the most significant legal cases of the last 40 years to touch on issues of chemical and medical engineering.

Amazingly, though, that’s far from his whole story. Thanks to the space constraints we were working with, we had to leave plenty of interesting material on the virtual editing room floor. I hope Professor Robertson gets time to write a memoir in his retirement. It would be a great read.


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Shaping the Cloud

Here’s something I wrote fairly recently for HP Labs about research conducted at their Bristol, UK facility that aims to rethink the underlying structure of Cloud computing.

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Why We Are Sad – Seven reasons why Steve Jobs is deeply mourned in Silicon Valley

By declaration of the Governor of California, today is Steve Jobs Day. A national memorial of sorts for him is being held about now at Stanford University. The degree to which Jobs’ death continues to affect people all over the world is remarkable. In Silicon Valley, though, we’ve felt – and continue to feel – his loss especially keenly. He was, after all, our very own global icon. But I don’t think that’s why a surprisingly large percentage of the people I know here took the time to visit his house in the days after his death. They weren’t feeling self-important, I think, or gawking . They were genuinely moved by the passing of a neighbor they didn’t know but to whom they wanted to pay their respects in some way, even if it was just to stop by for a few quiet minutes of witness.

The roots of our sadness are complex, I think. Here’s my attempt, though, to tease out some of the reasons for it.

– Firstly, it was because he was one of our own, by which I mean an entrepreneur, someone who took huge risks, who worked incredibly hard, who had huge belief in himself and the capacity of others. Even in his ego and his management foibles, he was an exemplary Valley figure.

– It’s because he was an outsider, too. Jobs managed to always stand as being with the people against The Man, even when he and his company were big enough to be the Establishment themselves. In addition, Jobs was not a technologist by training. What brought him prominence more than anything was the preeminence that he gave design – even his vaunted skills as a salesman were secondary to that. He didn’t have to sell snake oil, though, because he saw to it that the products he sold were simply beautifully – and brilliantly – put together. Even now, that deference to design is a path few here take. But this is also a land that loves mavericks – and so we admired Jobs’ difference, even as most of us have chosen much more conservative paths.

– It’s because he succeeded – Jobs was one of the greatest of all come back kids. And like all Americans, we love that story. He would have earned obituaries if he’d only founded Apple and then crashed out with Next. Or if he’d come back to Apple the second time, but blown it on his return. But he came back and rebuilt Apple into one of the most valuable companies in the world, even as he grew ever more sick. We revere that outrageous successes and mourn that we lost him at the top of his game.

– It’s also because he failed – in the end, of course, he wasn’t a come back kid. We were rooting hard for him to do it again and beat his cancer, too. We’re saddened and sorry that he couldn’t.

– It’s because he died young and in a place that doesn’t really know how to mourn. Seeing anyone die before their time has its own particular sadness. But in losing leaders from whom we still have more to learn, whom we feel would have inspired us yet more, that sadness is compounded. Silicon Valley remains a young place, too, and we face that loss without the rhetoric or rituals that have mollified the early loss of the great and good in other times and places. Perhaps because we’ve really only seen one great tech generation pass – that of the Hewletts, Packards, Termans and Noyces – we’ve yet to build death into our culture. We have no unique rituals to make sense of the passing of those who’ve most impacted our lives. Perhaps we never will – maybe that’s just antithetical to a community that is otherwise so relentlessly forward-looking. But without the ritual local comfort of an Irish wake, a New Orleans jazz cortege, or a Royal memorial mass, we’re left all the more bereft.

– It’s because Jobs acknowledged his mortality – Jobs had known he was very sick for years, as had we. He took that as a chance to meditate on his life path and to share the fruits of his mediation with the rest of us in his widely circulated Stanford graduation speech. His response to his sickness was to dedicate himself to two things only: his family and his work, both values that we profoundly share. But he did it in the context of his (and our) inevitable death. “Death,” he reminded his audience, “is the ultimate change agent.” And in that he broke a taboo we hold, despite our future-worship, against imagining our own demise, or perhaps he simply drew us out of our cultural immaturity. Again, he both exemplified our values and broke the Valley mold.

– Lastly, I think it’s because by his death Steve Jobs had become, somewhat surprisingly, the great living father figure of the Valley—and I think this is the ultimate root of our sadness. Jobs wasn’t the oldest of our billionaires, CEOs, former wunderkinds, or other local grandees and swells, nor was he the richest, or the most beloved. But – especially after the Stanford speech – he became our psychic taskmaster. We felt that if we knew him he’d only respect us if, like him, we reached for excellence too. If you take him at his word, and I see no reason not to, he wasn’t motivated by money, or power or glory. What drove him instead was a desire to fundamentally improve the world as best he could, and how he chose to lead was to try and inspire the same desire in others. In that he exemplified the hugely demanding but ultimately fair, strict but self-directed, bull-headed but in the end social-minded good father long mythologized in the American West. We might never have relished the idea of actually being his employee or child, just as few people ever really want to work for their dad. But fathers – and father figures – make indelible marks upon our lives and that, perhaps, explains more than anything why we morn the loss of our neighbor Steve Jobs to a self-surprising degree.


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Authenticity and the end of online anonymity

Just over a year ago I wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard that asked if it would soon be all-but impossible to be anything other than your true self online.

Those days, it seems, are fast approaching.  “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone,” announces a headline in today’s New York Times. Author Brian Stelter picks out several recent examples of people caught doing something unusual, illegal or embarrassing in public and then being swiftly identified through their online activities and social connections.

Another news item from today — detailing the arrest of an alleged member of the LulzSec hacker collective — suggests that even those who know their way around web anonymity are finding it hard to stay hidden.

Since I wrote the Standard piece, the financial information-sharing website that I featured, called Blippy, has gone under. At the time it looked likely to fail because relatively few people had taken their online self-revelations to the extreme that Blippy required to succeed. I was nevertheless interested in how the tell-all culture upon which Blippy was predicated was growing in strength, a development that I predicted would eventually spark suspicion of those who refused to share.

What I didn’t address was the idea that it’s also becoming ever-easier for one’s behavior, both online and off-, to be revealed even when you had an expectation of anonymity. But if we’ve reached that point too, as the Times article suggests we might have, then the same consequences hold: that we’ll likely feel ever greater pressure to be authentically ourselves whether we’re online or off, and that that pressure might in turn have us modifying our behavior in both spheres.

As I said in the article, “Maybe, as a result, we’ll all be inspired to lead more responsible lives in the future, figuring that since so much about our modern lives is searchable, we might as well just be good instead of worrying about looking good.”

The same caveats also hold, however. To live both publicly and safely requires a system that’s law-abiding, tolerant, open and totally accepting of its critics and malcontents. Unfortunately, that’s not something that our shifting ideas of authenticity and anonymity are likely to make it any easier for us to secure.


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A new feature for Stanford magazine

I really like writing for Stanford’s alumni magazine. It always looks great, it’s run by people who know their stuff and, best of all, it takes as its subject the achievements, interests and opinions of people associated with the university. The caliber and size of the institution pretty much guarantee that any story that the bi-monthy commissions will be a pleasure to research and write.

Here’s my most recent article for them. This was an interesting one.  It started out as a straight forward narrative, but then developed into more of a picture story.

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It’s official — there’s no better place to live in America than Silicon Valley

According to this year’s Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for the United States, Silicon Valley boasts the best quality of life in the entire country. The New York Times published a handy interactive map of the Index this weekend.

While the Times chose to review the results by state – where Hawaii comes out top – the results were actually compiled by congressional district. Of those, California’s district 14, which pretty much contains the entire Valley, was the highest ranked.

The Index was derived by aggregating measures of reported happiness, education, health insurance, job satisfaction, community safety and other factors that together make somewhere a good place to live.

To some of us who inhabit the Valley, our preeminence was a surprise. There’s really nowhere else better? In the entire nation? After all, the area is stupendously expensive. Try buying a house here. Or a tank of gas. And this is a place where everyone works insanely hard. They’re super-competitive. Commutes can be crazy. There’s very little job security.

But many of these negatives  reflect something that’s arguably also very positive about the place: that a lot of people here are very good at what they do. That means they get paid well, and wealth correlates very neatly with contributory factors to well-being such as access to housing, health care, good food, and clean air.

To be good at what you do also takes caring about your work. That can produce stress by the bucketful, but in the right environment it  promotes job satisfaction, too, and the flip side of the Valley’s poor job security is that its inhabitants feel free to leave any job, anytime, whenever they’re presented with a better opportunity.

Most crucially, then, the place offers – even in a recession – money and possibility, and maybe that’s what really puts us at the top.

The Valley remains full of people with new ideas, launching new ventures, making all kinds of deals every day with — and here’s the kicker — a small but genuine chance of actually succeeding. Plenty fail, for sure, but even that is understood as a learning experience here and not a judgement on your character for life. And that freeing, energizing potentiality rubs off even on those who simply service the more entrepreneurial among us.

Paul Graham, the founder of the startup incubator Y-Combinator, wrote an essay a few years ago entitled ‘How to Be Silicon Valley,’ that imagined what it would take to reproduce the Valley somewhere else. You’d need only three things, he argued: rich people, nerds, and a place they both want to live. Such a place would likely have a university, he suggests (nerds like to live among smart people), and also be “the kind of town where people walk around smiling.”

It’s a cute line but perceptive, too.

A smiling citizenry is either complacent or still hopeful about its future. We have plenty of wealthy people here who can afford complacence, but what’s remarkable is how many of them remain engaged as financial supporters of young people looking to make it themselves.

The rest of us, meanwhile, may not be rich enough to feel self-satisfied, but the sense of sheer possibility that permeates the culture in which we’ve chosen to live – for all that it makes the region a popular and thus breathtakingly expensive place to inhabit – is a great generator of grounded, realistic hopefulness. And isn’t that, in many ways, the ultimate marker of personal well-being?


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Metaphorical earthquakes

were my subject this week in an analysis piece for the London Evening Standard. I was trying to make sense of a week of big management changes in three Silicon Valley giants that are all doing pretty well in basic financial terms. So why the need for a shake up?

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