Silicon Follies

Chapter 31 -- What's an NDA between friends?


Thomas Scoville
June 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The Aquarius Theater hung precariously but tenaciously to its lease, one of the last surviving slices of pre-Internet Palo Alto, wedged between the boutiques and microbreweries choking downtown like kudzu.

The Aquarius screened pictures few other theaters would touch. Paul and Steve had just attended an edgy but highly problematic cinematic opus involving nonlinear math, stock market prediction, the Cabala, computing and do-it-yourself brain surgery -- not your standard blockbuster fare. That's what set the Aquarius apart: It was the only downtown theater that still catered to the oddball tastes of the local intelligentsia.

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Another of the theater's endearing qualities was its location, directly across the street from a good Chinese restaurant. Jing-Jing was a mainstay of Stanford students, Palo Alto hackers and art film buffs. The two friends ankled across the street for a late meal.

Though Jing-Jing's clientele leaned toward the chow-mein-and-potstickers crowd, the restaurant did serve some more obscure ethnic specialties. Paul and Steve liked the nasty stuff. They placed an order for the usual daunting array of offbeat specialties: deep-fried pork intestine, geoducks in oyster sauce, a dish involving tiny dried anchovies that looked like glazed cockroaches. They poured a pot of jasmine tea between them.

There was an unscheduled floor show. A panhandler had slipped through the restaurant door, a tattered vision of '70s mania: enormous head of hair, paisley shirt, huge, bug-eye glasses and a wrecked top hat. The boombox he'd slung on his shoulder barely had time to beat out eight bars of "American Woman" before the proprietress expelled him, waving a stack of menus.

"Groovy," Steve grinned. The more Palo Alto became a high-rent outdoor shopping mall, the more he rooted for the local color.

Paul sipped at his tea, then was taken by a sudden conversational urge. "You know, I've been thinking," he began.

Steve cut him off, shaking his finger archly. "Hey, what did I tell you about that? It's dangerous, it's subversive and it leads to acne and impure desires. Knock it off."

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Thoroughly familiar with his friend's spasms of impertinence, Paul continued unfazed. "I'm starting to get an idea of how much time you must have put into your little robotic performance art stunt," Paul said, referring to Steve's contribution to Psychrist's oeuvre. "That's some non-trivial territory you were exploring there."

"Yeah," Steve agreed, quickly shifting gears into techie mode. "Asynch is always hard. Collision detection and rebroadcast can be a bitch, especially when the traffic peaks. You've got to be real clever to sort out the dog-pile when all your devices start chattering at the same time."

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"Tell me about it," Paul commiserated, bemusedly observing a pair of diners juggling chopsticks and cell phones. "I'm dealing with very similar issues at my current gig. Wireless networking protocol. Works great in the lab, with a finite number of nodes. Gets real squirrelly in the real world, though. Expand the network unplanned, and things get real weird real fast. Real hard to debug. You can't possibly hope to reproduce all the race conditions and asynchronous events whenever something breaks."

"Yep, it's out on the edge for sure. I did a bunch of reading up on it. Seems like nobody does it particularly well. And the more traffic you throw at it, you get this real nonlinear drop-off in efficiency. Hey, how do your monkey boys -- um, I should say your client -- deal with the compression issue?"

Paul winced. "Badly. They rewrote it three times, and it still doesn't work. What did you do about it?"

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Steve looked at the stained ceiling, searching his memory. "I think I just punted, more or less. I cut-and-pasted some Huffman routines, then hacked them up a little bit to make them fit. I put most of my effort into the protocol handler. All that tap-dancing between layers can be a little hairy. I mean, I kind of reinvented TCP/IP in miniature." He smirked. "I'm sure it'll earn me a place in history," he added sarcastically.

Paul grinned. "You probably coded it in a weekend, right?"

"Well, three or four days. I'm not as quick as I used to be."

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"Jeez. What with all the code validators, project meetings and standards committees, we probably did the same job in three months. Shows what superior technical resources will do for you," Paul said a bit wearily.

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By the time the glazed cockroaches arrived, Steve was convinced his little network hack bore more than a passing similarity to the core internals of TeraMemory's WHIP engines. This satisfied more than a bit of personal curiosity. He had been wondering how he fared against The Man these days.

Further, the details that most interested Steve were, not uncoincidentally, the same ones around which TeraMemory had focused its most intense proprietary effort. Steve had a gift for homing in on the meat of any computational problem, so of course he knew. But he couldn't help asking to be sure, either.

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"The only angle that really vexed me," he said, trying his best to be nonchalant, "was the throughput issue. I couldn't figure out how to implement a multitasking model in a compact space. If I could crack that nut, I bet my little beast could run a hundred times faster. How did your boys attack the problem?"

Paul hesitated, then answered. "Remember 'threads'?" he asked, referring to a technique fashionable with software architects in recent years. "Well, it's kind of like that. Multiparous, reentrant code -- beefed up by symmetric multiprocessing. That was the big fix. In fact, I'm not entirely sure it works all that well."

Paul cracked open a fortune cookie. "You realize, of course, that I've just violated my Non-Disclosure Agreement. I'm sure Barry Dominic's Men in Black will burst in and take me away any second now."

Steve gave him a sidelong look. "Oh, as if ... You know all about me and commercial coding. I'm allergic to suits. I'd never come within five miles of anyone who'd care. Besides, does it still count if I have no intention to profit economically?"

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Paul glanced at his fortune. You have many secrets. 23 - 56 - 4 - 71 - 66. He tossed it across the table to his pal.

Steve read it. "Not anymore," he laughed.


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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