Annual Reflections

Peter J. Denning



(Reflections for: 2004)

(Reflections for: 2005)

Reflections for 2006

For 32 years, Dorothy and I have been sending a year-end newsletter that wackiness revealed in the previous year.  A few of you have asked for more personal news.  Here goes.

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 their own house in East Rockaway -- and they became parents with a beautiful daughter Ava last July.  That makes me a grandfather!

Dorothy and I just completed our fourth year on the faculty of Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.  We are having a blast and have no plans to retire.  Some of our friends have retired, but we have not felt it is time to put our tools down.

Dorothy is a professor in the Department of Defense Analysis.  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 -- about networks, trust, and influence, about cyber security, and about terrorist financing -- all of which have been very popular.

In April 2006, Dorothy and I traveled to Purdue University, where we used to be faculty members until 1983.  Dorothy had been selected as for the Distinguished Alumna award from the CS department.  She joined the other distinguished alumni from the other departments of the School of Science in a great ceremony.  She gave a special lecture to the CS department about her career.  On the next day, I gave a lecture to my former colleagues as well.  We toured some of the town to refresh our memories of what it was like to spend 11 years there.  We paused outside our old house, remembering the good times there.

During the Purdue ceremonies, I learned that 4 of my PhD students had previously won School of Science distinguished alumni awards.  I did not know this.  It was a wonderful surprise: their peers recognized what I knew when they were students, their high caliber.

Later, in October, Dorothy went to Chicago to receive an award from Information Security magazine, who were honoring 7 security innovators.  And then in November, she was notified that the patent she and her Geocodex team filed four years ago for “geo-encryption” has been awarded.  She is now part of two security patents.

I chair the Computer Science department and direct the Cebrowski Institute.  In the CS department we oriented our curriculum around the theme “great principles of computing” and with my colleague Craig Martell I 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 worked on them is more effective than explaining in detail how the principles work.  We are learning to be good storytellers.  We 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 innovation and information superiority.  We are a federation of research centers, from network security to counter-terrorism.  We have been focusing on standing up a new center on Hastily Formed Networks, networks that come together rapidly to deal with urgent and important issues, such as disaster relief.  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.  It is not easy to get these networks right and the principles that make them work are somewhat counterintuitive.  With my colleagues John Hiles and Rick Hayes-Roth, we have mapped out a short book on the fundamentals that make such networks effective.  We are thinking of calling it Shocked!.  You can find papers on HFNs and two related topics, Infoglut, and Decision Making, at my website.

In 2006, we got a new Provost (Leonard Ferrari) for NPS, but not yet a new President.  To help the new administration, I ran for and was elected to office as Faculty Council Chair elect.  In one year I will become Chair of the Faculty Council for a year.  I want to help foster better communications between faculty and administration and in particular to help get the word out to the world about the truly wonderful things the faculty here are doing.

My big project is my Innovation Project.  With Bob Dunham, president of Enterprise Performance, I am writing a book tentatively called Innovation: The Foundational Practices.  I got interested in innovation as a personal practice about a decade ago in working with engineering students frustrated by their own inability to see their most ingenious ideas never get accepted and used.  Bob got interested because he coaches executives and found that many have trouble with their core competency, the ability to conceive of productive change and inspire people to adopt it.  Bob and I have discovered 7 foundational practices, designed a workshop around them, and are about halfway done with our book.  We published an overview paper in May.

Although there are over 12,000 innovation books listed in, only a tiny handful come close to discussing innovation as a personal skill that can be learned through practice.  Our discovery of 7 foundational practices at the core of the innovator’s skill has been a real breakthrough.  If the innovator is unable to bring any one of these practices to completion, the proposed innovation is likely to fail.  Our analysis of each practice shows what the essential elements of successful execution are, and the ways to deal with the inevitable breakdowns that arise around those elements.  Did you know that the industry-wide success rate of innovation initiatives is a measly 4%?  Someone who masters the foundational skills won’t succeed every time, but will do considerably better than 4%.  What a huge competitive advantage that is!

I’ve been working with colleagues Craig Martell and Sue Higgins in the Cebrowski Institute and Bob Beck and Frank Barrett in the business school at NPS to make this our innovation findings available in NPS, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security.

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.

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 (and climb a total of 1500’).  It is a huge event, very well planned and executed.  In 2006, Dorothy and I walked in the Power Walk for our third 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 6:05, with just one blister.  We are signed up to do it again in April 2007.  The opportunity to walk up the Pacific Coast line is too good to miss.

Dorothy and I celebrated 32 years of marriage last January.  What a blast it’s been!

We are now well into our second year of living in our delightful Salinas house, overlooking a wilderness area.  We have two large guest rooms.  If you’re anywhere near 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.


Hiking News

Dorothy and I like to take some of our long walks in the nearby Ft Ord public lands.  Ft Ord was a major Army training base until its closure ten years ago.  The local cities and developers are beginning to invade the former open space.  There are 100 miles of trails and maybe 50 miles of paved roads in there.  Some of the roads adjoin old munitions ranges, which are still dangerous because of buried, unexploded munitions.  These areas are partitioned behind barbed wire fences with strong warning signs.  Two signs read:





Will be Prosecuted




Explosives Area

Keep Out



Area de Explosivos

Mantengase Afuera


In these walks, the imagination runs wild.  I imagined that I could not resist entering the restricted area.  The moment I did a police officer rolled up.

“You’re under arrest,” he said.

“Wait, you can’t arrest me,” I replied.

“Oh, why’s that?”

“Do you agree that I’m trespassing?”


“And that I’m violating the rule?”


“Then you would agree that I’m a trespassing violator?”

“Yup.  Let’s go.”

“But you can’t. The sign says no trespassing violators will be prosecuted.”

“Ha!”  He starts to walk away; then slows and suddenly turns.

“But all I’m doing is arresting you.  You can ply the prosecutor with your logic.  Let’s go.”


Chastened, I no longer imagined violating the space.  But I did come across two sticks of dynamite and a bunch of little firecrackers sitting beneath the second sign, crying.

“What’s up?”  I asked.

“We wanted to take our family for a picnic in that area.  But we can’t.  It says Explosives Keep Out.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“But we aren’t leaving.  Sooner or later they will take down this fence.  We will stick it out.”

A little later I came across that police officer again.  I asked him about the family of sticks.

“Did you see them?”

“Yes.  I told them to go off.  But they dud not.  The more I tell them to leave, the more they re-fuse.”

A couple of weeks later I passed the same spot and there was a hole in fence.  Smoldering red confetti was all that remained of the mother and father sticks. The little crackers were inside with their picnic.  I asked them what happened.

“Fire works,” they said.