Reflections on 2005

Peter J. Denning



For 31 years, Dorothy and I have been sending a year-end newsletter that offers something zany inspired by the previous year, but with almost no personal news.  A few of you have asked for more personal news.  Here goes.

We just completed our third year on the faculty of Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.  You may have heard that the NPS was considered for base closure in this year’s round, but in the end the DoD and the President’s Commission both agreed to keep it.  NPS has excellent faculty, teaching, and research programs, easily as good as the universities we were previously in, but is under appreciated.  The next NPS President and Provost have made it top priority to make sure everyone knows about what we can do.

Dorothy is a professor in the Department of Defense Analysis.  That turned out to be an ideal department for her because it aligned so well with the kinds of projects she was involved in during her final years at Georgetown.  It is a multidisciplinary department with representatives from many fields including policy, sociology, ethics, counter-terrorism, special operations, information operations, and information technology.  The students are all officers in Special Operations; most have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  She has designed several new courses, all of which have been very popular.  One is about networks, trust, and influence; another about cybersecurity; and another about terrorist financing.

I chair the Computer Science department and direct the Cebrowski Institute.  In the CS department we reoriented our curriculum around the theme “great principles of computing” and have continued to refine the introductory course of that name.  This course has been quite valuable to the 80% of our students who are transitioning from another field into computer science.  We are finding that telling the students stories about how the principles evolved and who did them is more effective than explaining in detail how the principles work.  We are learning to be good storytellers.  I have already compiled a collection of good notes and will eventually turn them into a book.

The Cebrowski Institute is a research institute dedicated to information innovation and superiority.  We are a federation of research centers, from network security to counter-terrorism.  Each year we select a specialized annual theme; our affiliated faculty and their students work on projects relating to it.  This year’s theme is Hastily Formed Networks, meaning networks that come together to deal with urgent and important issues, and then disband when the job is done.  HFNs depend on mobile communication technology and skill at cross-organization cooperation.  This topic has been of central interest for several years, for example, in assisting New Yorkers and Washingtonians after the 9/11 terror attack, helping the victims of the tsunami in Thailand after December 2004, and helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.  A common feature of these networks is that they involve military and civilian units working together, and often they involve setting up communications where infrastructure has been wiped out.  We will sponsor many faculty presentations and discussions, bring in external speakers, seek sponsored research, and engage in many experiments.  We are considering a fast-track book with first-person stories about these networks in seven or eight cases, with lessons learned about how to make these networks successful.

Leaders are judged by their ability to conceive of productive change and inspire their people to adopt it.  The skill of innovation is therefore at the heart of leadership.  In our work at the Cebrowski Institute, we have discovered seven foundational practices that make up the innovator's skill.  Through the CS department, we are offering the Innovation Course to show our students these practices and how to apply them in their masters theses.  These practices are the foundation of their work as officers and everything they will accomplish.

I have been doing this work in partnership with two NPS colleagues (Sue Higgins and Craig Martell) and with Bob Dunham.  Bob is an executive consultant and teacher of leadership and management.  He and I are writing a book on the subject, to be called Innovation: the Foundational Practices.  We kept on making new discoveries and did not meet our original goal of completing the book in 2005.  Now we’re shooting for 2006.  Our big breakthrough this year was our discovery of seven interactive practices that make up the innovator’s skill.  If you’re interested, and we hope you are, you can see a paper that Bob and I wrote about the work.  We think this breakthrough is significant because the bulk of the innovation literature ( lists over 8400 titles) deals with organizational environments for innovation but not about the personal skills that enable innovation.  We will be in small but good company.  All those years I spent studying leadership, management, and coaching, combined with my long experience as a technologist, have all come together in this very harmonious and rewarding way.

Back when I was a graduate student at MIT in 1966, I conceived of a method, the “working set”, to measure the dynamic memory needs of executing programs and to use that method to prevent thrashing.  Thrashing was a costly condition of a computer system where it suddenly and unexpectedly ground to a near-halt.  We traced the problem to the system’s allocating too little memory to the executing tasks.  The working set guaranteed that every task got the memory it needed.  It helped engineers eliminate thrashing and it averted a multi-million dollar liability for computer vendors.  I wrote a paper about the working set for the first symposium on operating systems principles in 1967.  The paper became very influential and helped put the words working set, locality, and thrashing into the standard lexicon of computer scientists.  This year, the ACM named the paper as one of four first entrants to the Operating Systems Hall of Fame.  I was delighted!

With colleague John Hiles, I applied the principle of locality -- the underlying phenomenon that makes working sets work -- to the chronic problem of software that is not dependable, reliable, usable, safe, or security (most software!).  John and I called such software “autistic” because it often appears anti-social and detached from meaningful context.  We speculated about a new generation of Post Autistic Software.

Since 2001 I have three columns a year for the Communications of ACM on various topics for computing professionals.  Take a look.

For the past twenty years, the Big Sur Marathon closes down Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast for an April Sunday morning while 4000 runners run northbound to Carmel from a park 26.2 miles south, and another 700 Power Walkers hustle northward from mile 21.  It is a huge event, very well planned and executed.  Dorothy and I walked in the Power Walk for our second year.  It was not hard to train for since we take 8-15 mile walks every weekend anyway.  This year we completed the Power Walk in 5:40, without one blister.  We are signed up to do it again in April 2006.  The opportunity to walk up the Pacific Coast line, with 1500’ of elevation gain from start to finish, is too good to miss.

Some of you know that we bought a second house in Ojai, California, in 2000 while we still lived in Virginia.  We visited Ojai frequently during vacations from Virginia.  After we got to California in 2002, Ojai started losing its allure because Monterey and its environs were so pleasant.  We sold the Ojai house this year.  We also sold our Monterey house and consolidated everything into our new Salinas house.  We love our new place.  It overlooks a wilderness area and has guest rooms so that you can visit with us.

Both my daughters live and work in Long Island.  Anne, the elder, lives in Baldwin and commutes to Forest Hills for work.  She and her husband Mike Schultz live on a small canal and can boat down to the ocean.  It’s very attractive.  Diana, the younger, and her husband Jack LaVolpe have into their own house in Oceanside.  I am not yet a grandfather.  My younger brother already has grandchildren.  His daughters married young.  Mine waited until their 30s.

Dorothy and I celebrated 31 years of marriage last January.  What a blast it’s been!

If you’re visiting Monterey or Carmel, look us up!  We would be delighted to show you around, lend you our guest passes for the Aquarium, or just hang out with you for a while.



(Reflections for 2004: click here.)