Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 - A Rocket Ride

2014 was a transitional and transformative year for both my vocation and my avocations. It is a year that should be remembered in full -- the good, the bad, the ugly and the sublime.

Everything is Awesome!

The Lego Movie was one of the most insidiously revolutionary yet peppy stories to come out of Hollywood. Filled with shameless marketing tie-ins and pop culture references, it lampooned the "everyman superhero" genre of the Matrix or any other stumbling-to-victory messiah-savior "you must save the world" story. And it ended in a most curious and unsettling crossover into the fictional "real" world of father, son and family that cracked wide the myth of the ossification of adulthood. What is work? What is play? What is creation and destruction? How do we allow others to enter into our lives without feeling that they are "ruining" what we have built? (Especially little sisters!) What sort of stories are we telling others, and ourselves, day-in, day-out as we go through life?

I remember as a kid making all sorts of elaborate Lego creations and then, when bored, simply smashing them to pieces and starting all over again. That's what seemed to happen in this movie. They'd take a gag so far, get bored with it, and boom! Smash! On to the next trope, the next shtick. Fast paced, at times nostalgic and cozy, then suddenly cynical and biting, filled with elbow-elbow, wink-wink, and flash-by-too-fast-to-catch references of all sorts.

It also left me and my family with a silly tongue-in-cheek anthem to set off the year: "Everything is awesome!"

In a way, that's what 2014 was for many people: a rocket ride, a smash-and-dash utter destruction of what had come before, and a rebuilding of something entirely new. How people faced such tribulations and turbulence was based upon their own weltanschauung. For me, I left the movie feeling pretty buoyant, and came out of 2014 pretty well.

Yet while I was feeling "awesome," around the rest of the world, things were far more unsettled. 

Ukraine Revolution & Russian Irredentism

In February of 2014, the Ukrainian Revolution spun the country around in a historic turnabout. For nearly the whole past century, it had faced east, saluting towards its dominant neighbor Russia. Now it faced west, towards Brussels and the rest of Europe. Yet the ouster of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had a price. Ukraine and Russia squared off in an irredentist conflict that, to me, harkened back to the same category of conflicts that embroiled the Balkans throughout the 1990s: the language you spoke, the culture you identified with, determined your allegiance.

Crimea was annexed by Russia via an invasion in March. The Donetsk, Luhansk, and entire trans-Dneiper and Odessa regions have had unrest or were plunged into open violence and warfare. Separatists were branded as terrorists or patriots, depending on which side of the conflict you took. The aims of the conflict are myriad: Do they want local autonomy, but to remain in Ukraine? To create a separate state? To break away and rejoin Russia, like the Crimea? To bring Ukraine back into a united nation with Russia again? 

To date, over 800,000 Russian-speaking Ukrainians have fled to Russia, another quarter-million have been displaced internally, and thousands have been killed and wounded.

In July, the world was shocked by the downing of MH17 by pro-Russian separatist forces, killing all 298 passengers aboard. This eerily had followed the disappearance of MH370 in March. But this time, there was a clear indication of what had brought down the aircraft: a Russian made surface-to-air missile (SAM).

Ukraine continues on its path towards relations with the EU, signing a historic Association Agreement in September. And on 23 December 2014, Ukraine renounced its non-alignment status, seeking open military cooperation with NATO. The story is far from over.

Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings II

While the real world was plunging itself in violence repeatedly and incessantly, whether that was the Middle East with ISIS/ISIL or Gaza, the murderous rampages of Boko Haram in Africa, or any of a myriad of other blood-lettings, I spent a fair bit of time playing the historical global simulation games, Europa Universalis IV (EU4) and Crusader Kings II (CK2), by the Swedish company Paradox Interactive.

EU4 takes one back to the 15th - 19th Centuries, to understand some of the complex interrelations of religion, economics, politics and culture that have shaped the world into what it is today. You take on the role of any nation in the world at the time, and see how you can do in terms of navigating your people through the breathtaking era of exploration, colonization, conquest and modernization.

CK2 is more than just the classic Christian-Muslim conflict now. Expansions have deepened the historic era of the game from the 8th - 15th Century, and broadened the horizons of the world from the North Atlantic to the Indian subcontinent. Beyond Byzantine Orthodox and western Catholics, you can now play as Sunnis, Shia, Zoroastrians, Monophysites, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Norse or Tengri pagans, and a myriad of various minor religions all historically appropriate for the development of medieval Europe, North Africa and Asia. If you want a bit of alternative history, they even have an Aztec invasion for a "what if?"

These are not perfect simulations of real-world conditions, but they are eye-opening experiences to anyone who wants to see how the map of the world has changed over time. Moreover, they give insights into precisely how intransigent so many conflicts have been over history. They show the shift from the rule of monarchs, prelates and aristocrats, towards powerhouse nation-states, with their modern armies and globe-spanning economies.

Paradox also produces games about the industrial era (Victoria II) and on into World War II (Hearts of Iron). If you chain your campaigns back-to-back, using various Paradox-and-community-developed porting tools, it would be theoretically possible to take your historical postage-stamp sized county from the 8th Century, and watch it grow and expand into the 20th Century. Even if you just sit back and let the simulation run unattended, it is always a marvel to see just how different our world could be.

All of my simulation gaming I see as "practice." What I truly and continually hope for is to apply game theory to real-world conflicts and crises, and see how simulations, databases, and applications can be used to model and solve for actual problems in our own day and age, and on into the future. Expect to hear more about this in 2015.


Guardians of the Galaxy


This movie was the ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!

Guardians of the Galaxy was, for me, the motion picture highlight of the year. The humor was perfect. The music was even better. Peter Quill was an everyman, like Emmet Brickowoski from the Lego movie, and, coincidentally, also played by Chris Pratt. Yet Peter Quill was nowhere near as ignorant or naive. He was roguish and smarmy, charming and egotistical at times, but also capable of self-deprecation and humanity.

Opening in early September, Guardians was a perfect way to balm the harshness of reality with a bit of slapdash heroism, raucous humor, and a genocidal maniac that is defeated with a dance-off.

Groot's secret groovy dance to the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" was an ingenious way to end the movie, both for its humor effect, as well as to give voice to the sincere wishes from pleased audiences who were actually eager for a sequel to a superhero movie for a change.
I Turn 50

"And so we're told this is the golden age

And gold is the reason for the wars we wage"

                                                                        — U2
Speaking of wars and a "golden age," I am losing a war against Kronos, the titan of time. 23 September was my 50th birthday; a "golden anniversary" of being on the planet, if you will. In many ways, a lot of what happened to me personally in 2014 occurred with greater and greater velocity once my birthday rolled past. On that day, I got well over 120 birthday wishes from social media. Afterwards I started to "plug in" to a lot of different real-world causes. My career took a sudden turn, too. All in rapid succession.

Ebola Virus Info, Ebola Social Media Coalition (16 October)

The West African Ebola outbreak was first reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 25 March 2014, with 86 cases and 59 deaths in Guinea. By early April, it had spread to Liberia. By mid-April, it had reached Sierra Leone. The case numbers were still low, but most of the rest of the world, myself included, only remotely paid any heed to what was going on. By July it had skipped internationally to Nigeria. By the end of August, case numbers were now in the thousands, and a case had been found in Senegal. Now people were starting to pay attention. 

Yet it was not until 30 September 2014 when the first travel-related case occurred in the United States that the country truly turned its attention to the crisis. Though the outbreak had been well-known for months, the United States was seemingly caught utterly by surprise and the pot of social media attention immediately began to boil and hiss.

Since I had spent a great deal of time in 2012-2013 doing Social Media Emergency Management (#SMEM) for Hurricane Sandy, as well as helping manage a group for Philippines Typhoon Aid in 2013 (more on that below), in October 2014 I was brought into an existing group focused on using social media to respond to the West African Ebola crisis: Ebola Virus Info.

On my first day, I designed the above logo for the team. Working with a distributed group of dedicated volunteers and globally concerned citizens, we shared news and information and provided analysis for the unfolding human tragedy that is occurring to this day in West Africa.

  • The first initative was Ebola Virus Info. It is a Facebook "Page," which means that though others can post on the side, or in the comments, all main posts in the feed are "authoritative." It has a reach of over 5,600 people who have "liked" the page, and we've used it to share our message to hundreds of thousands of individuals through re-sharing of articles, memes, and messages.
  • The second initiative was the Ebola Social Media Coalition. Though it is administered by the same people who do Ebola Virus Info, it is more of a peer-to-peer open group, where anyone can share information to the thread. This is for people who are actively being social media advocates for Ebola, and includes members of NGOs and international contributors. It therefore is a smaller group, comprising over 460 members to date. It is where I publish my updates for the WHO situation report analyses, showing how many more cases there have been or how many have died, and do a country-by-country analysis of the rate of growth of the disease outbreak.
  • The third initiative is the Ebola Virus Information and Awareness Campaigner (EVIAAC). This is a group formed by West African nationals, spanning the affected community from Nigeria and Liberia. I was honored to be brought in to help administrate the group, and taught the other West African admins how to identify and shut down spammers and scammers -- a perennial problem in any social media activity, but one which was hampering their efforts to keep the group focused on the mission of sharing Ebola information. It is now grown to massive proportions, having over 18,000 members. When I share to this group, I am sharing directly with the residents of the affected nations.

The pattern of response to the disease has been disquieting to me. First, a general sense of utter apathy, which then switched on like some piece of mass and social media machinery that went into utter freak-out and meltdown mode. This mania actually was given a name: Ebolanoia — the irrational fear of Ebola.

To me, it was not surprising that as soon as the November 2014 elections came and went that the United States has again for the most part gone back to utter apathy. It was all-too-easy for politicians to be "tough on Ebola," but doing actually very little of substance for the issue.

Even though I have a lot of other things on my plate, week-by-week I still maintain a Google spreadsheet and produce an analysis of the casualty figures as they mount, trying to glean from each new release of World Health Organization situation reports how we, as a species, are collectively doing in regards to stopping this deadly disease.

Just for your information, as of the end of the calendar year, 31 December 2014, there have been 20,206 cases of Ebola, and 7,905 reported deaths.

That's a weekly increase of +709 cases, and +317 deaths just since Christmas Eve. Over 100 cases and 45 deaths every day.

If you would like to help support this initiative:

Neponsit Home Redevelopment (18 October)

As if tackling the world crisis of Ebola wasn't enough, another issue that came to my attention was a group of individuals in Rockaway who were circulating a petition for the restoration of the old Neponsit Hospital in Rockaway Beach, New York. This site, which had been created a century ago as a hospital for tubercular children by the historic journalist and advocate Jacob Riis, has been left unused since 1998, when it was shuttered by the city. It withstood Hurricane Sandy, but has been ravaged internally by graffiti and other vandalism. The site is currently owned by New York City's Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC).

The petition was pretty simple and straight-forward: "We, the residents of Rockaway want to ensure that the Neponsit home site is utilized in the best interest of the entire Rockaway community."

I could totally get behind that! So, hoping to form more of a conversation and to help gather a consensus of opinion behind the efforts, I created another Facebook group: Neponsit Home Redevelopment.

The current focus of the group is to gather information about the legal status of the site, such as getting a copy of the deed and the covenant upon it. The covenant reputedly states the site can only be used as a hospital, or as a public park, unless the New York State legislature passes a law to permit any other use for the site. If that is the case, then it would be a very high bar to cross for any other site use proposal!

The group, which now numbers 170 members, was presented with a survey of what could be done with the site. You could vote for as many ideas as you liked. So far, the top ideas are as follows:
  1. Hospital/Health Care Center (23 votes)
  2. Civic Center/Theatre/Auditorium (23 votes)
  3. Wounded Warrior Health Center/Rehab (17 votes)
  4. Educational Center (9 votes)
  5. Public Park/Recreation Center (8 votes)
  6. Climate Change Museum/School/Park (7 votes)
Since creating this group and getting input from the community, as well as having some private conversations with Rockaway and Queens community leaders, it seems like there are some ideas percolating, and rumor of an HHC and New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC)-led initiative in 2015 for possible site redevelopment.

Personally, I am very excited with what can be done there for the community, and how we can extend Jacob Riis' legacy for New York into this new century.

Yet at the same time, especially today, I have to stop and also relate that the man who had been behind the group circulating that petition which had caught my attention in the first place, John Patrick Larkin, was hospitalized late in 2014. Even today, New Year's Eve, when he was supposed to resting comfortably at home, he was just returned to the hospital. I just want to pass along my personal best wishes, prayers and sincerest sympathies for John and the entire Larkin family.

Civility Movement (6 November)

Not enough on my plate yet? Nope. Apparently not. So let's focus on more domestic issues here at home in the United States, by creating a nationwide Civility Movement (#CivilityMovement).

How did this start? With Rockaway Beach, NYC. My childhood home town. It has now been more than two years since Hurricane Sandy, so it seemed to me an increasing number of posts to Rockaways - Hurricane Sandy News were related to endemic issues of the community which long pre-existed, and thus, were still issues long after the recovery for most was complete: issues of income inequality, educational and economic opportunity, gang violence, and other indications of the basic fraying of the social fabric. 

Plus, with the increasingly contentious national discourse related to race relations (Ferguson, Staten Island, etc.), it seemed to me fitting to create a group to hopefully foster better communications, and to unite the community around issues of interest common to all: anti-violence, anti-gangs, anti-domestic-violence, anti-bullying. Yet it was better to be for something. For peace. For community. For civility.

However, no sooner had the group started than the arguing broke out. The tensions in the community came to light rather quickly. Remarkably, I was blamed by someone for "race-baiting." Also, as being an interloper sticking my nose where it didn't belong. Attempts to calm things down, and removing libelous and inflammatory posts also had me labelled as a biased censor.

Still, for all the bickering, it seemed to catch on, though difficultly. There are now three groups, and I hope to create more throughout 2015:
  • Civility Movement - the "top" group, for nationwide interests and coordination of efforts
  • Rockaway Civility Movement - the "original" group, the experiment to see if a community could rally around common cause for civility.
  • San Jose Civility Movement - it makes sense that if I am trying to solve problems across the country that I also look to care for the issues right here in my own front yard.
Let me know if you'd like to be involved in starting up your own local Civility Movement. I'd like for there to be a group for every community in the nation that is interested. I also need social media advocates and leaders who would want to take on scaling it as a movement.

Feeding Liberia (17 November)

Through my work with Ebola Virus Info, and especially my work with the West African-based Ebola Virus Information and Awareness Campaigner (EVIAAC), I came to meet Mr. Josephus M.C. Freeman. He is an English and Bible Studies teacher in Liberia. Just as Hurricane Sandy was simply an acute crisis that uncovered many of the systemic chronic problems of the Rockaways, so too was Ebola just an acute crisis that laid bare many of West Africa's most endemic issues: food insecurity.

Josephus and I spoke long and often about what could be done to help Liberia to face its food problems. More than half of the food in Liberia is imported. Ebola has attenuated transportation grids, degraded crop yields, and has closed public markets. What is to be done? Josephus' solution is simple: Liberians should grow and eat their own crops.

The plan for 2015 will be to create a small farm program in rural Tuzohn, a village in Grand Gedeh County, Liberia. We are in the planning stages now, and need advisors with sustainable agricultural and small scale farming expertise.

Kano Bombing
 Survivors Fund (1 December)

Just as Liberia has endemic problems with food insecurity, Nigeria has problems with physical, personal security. As in, life-and-death safety. The Islamist Boko Haram sect, renown for its brutal attacks, suicide bombings, and kidnappings, launched an attack on Kano on 28 November 2014 that killed 120 and wounded another 280. This had followed other attacks earlier in the month, and more attacks have occurred across Nigeria in subsequent days.

The way I came to learn about this attack is personal. Another friend of mine from our work on Ebola, Mustapha Adamu Indabawa, a media personality who works for AREWA24 news network in Kano, posted a brief and sudden message. In it, he acknowledged the personal loss of a member of his own family and friends in that attack.

It was a gut check. Just as Nigeria was celebrating that it had defeated Ebola, another enemy, this one entirely under human control, yet insidiously more virulent and deadly, had stolen away any sense of relief from his nation.

Together, we pledged to create a fund for survivors, either those who have wounds and will face the rest of their lives with medical problems, or those who are now at a loss of their family members as a result of the attack, especially widows or orphans.


Philippines Typhoon Aid (4 December)

Often with Social Media Emergency Management, you don't get much of a choice. While you can anticipate problems, you never really know precisely when they are going to hit. Most natural disasters are stochastic events, with a probability of occurrence, but no true predictability. So, with a ton on my plate already, suddenly came the onslaught of Typhoon Ruby/Hagupit.

Upon seeing the initial reports, and knowing it was going to be bad, I reactivated the Philippines Typhoon Aid Facebook group. This #SMEM group was originally founded in 2013 by Facebook user "Worth Noting" to deal with the Category 5 Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda.

Now, just at the tail end of the year, a second tropical storm, Jangmi, crashed into the Philippines and took another 53 lives.

Remotely, I'm working to highlight and support the on-the-ground work of Young Pioneer Disaster Response (YPDR) and other non-profits/NGOs/government agencies operating in the country. I would like to create more maps for them in 2015. There's going to be a lot of work to do!

A New Day Job: Aerospike

Richard Clark & team at the Aerospike Christmas party

As I said, 2014 was a rocket-ride. Not long after my birthday, on 2 October, I logged in to LinkedIn one day and saw a message from an old friend from my days back at Cisco Systems, Richard Clark. "I'm hiring!" He wasn't kidding. He had pinged me and a bunch of other folks to see if we knew anyone who would be open to a position doing business development at Aerospike, the open source, key-value, in-memory NoSQL database vendor.

Eventually we met and chatted about what he was looking for. By 17 November, the same day Feeding Liberia was launched, I was hired on at Aerospike, starting immediately, and full-time. So by Thanksgiving I had a lot to be grateful for. But, like at Thanksgiving, I also recognized I had too much on my plate!


It's been a great deal of learning about NoSQL, the competitive landscape, the customer requirements, having discovery calls and more. Each day I am reaching out to new companies, learning new acronyms and buzzwords, and getting deeper and deeper into an appreciation for cloud computing, big data, real-time bidding, and other groundbreaking applications of our product.

Since this is my new day job, it means a lot of the other "avocational" projects I've listed above will need to remain on a low-priority queue. As anyone who works in Silicon Valley knows, your day job is definitely going to take more than 40 hours a week!


NASA Orion Spacecraft Launch, 5 Dec 2014: "We were all aboard"

There was a lot more that filled 2014 for me. Honorable mentions include my concerns over ISIS/ISIL, the video game Kerbal Space Program, a young Nigerian rapper I am mentoring, my investigations into the world of NoSQL, the Rogen/Franco comedy The Interview, a trip to Stanford's X-ray laser experiments on site at the Stanford Nuclear Accelerator (SLAC), and much, much more. I might have to do a 2014 "sequel" myself! (or "no sequel..."?)

For now, though, I am pretty sure eyeballs are exhausted. Thanks for reading all this!

If there's anything you've read about that I'm doing, and you'd like to get involved, feel free to join in. You can always email me privately at, or professionally at, or give a jingle at 650-906-3134.

Whether you're a company looking to deploy a NoSQL database, or someone who wants to help with social media advocacy, I'm always looking to partner with others who seek to apply their passion to technology.

That's my rocket-ride for 2014. Filled with exploration of new opportunities, and pushing my own personal boundaries of productivity, learning, and engagement with the world, both professionally and personally. How was your year?

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