Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Roads Must Roll

I have this theory. It's a variation on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that the language someone speaks influences their thought patterns. That is, if a language has lots of words for XYZ, the people who speak it might be preoccupied with XYZ. Science fiction fans would naturally glom onto the idea that Klingon has lots of words for war and fighting; but that would be the Sapir-Worf hypothesis.

I was reminded of this theory the other day, reading this post comparing the usability of Apple's campus in Cupertino with Microsoft's campus in Bellevue. It seems logical that the founders who planned out a company headquarters would leave some mark of their own personality. And that environment would reinforce the same company culture on future generations of workers, forming a closed loop.

My theory, and I hesitate to name it after myself because maybe I'll have some better theory later, is that software (particularly networking) companies are defined by the roads around their headquarters.

Now I'm from the sparsely populated east coast of Canada. In my home town, there's not much excitement on the roads except once or twice a year, when a regatta or air show backs things up so much that it takes an hour to get out of the parking lots. There's only one major east-west highway across the province, and many communities are only reachable by boat. So it's not surprising that network-oriented companies from Newfoundland concentrate mostly on marine navigation, sonar, radar, etc.

I spent some time in Toronto. Very grid-like structure for the surface streets. Most highways are also essentially east-west or north-south. In fact, take one wrong turn or miss one exit and you'll never make it to your destination. There's also a deeply nested system of lanes on the major '401' highway, with "collector" lanes on the outside and "express" lanes in the middle. But that's a trap! The collector lanes are the ones that flow freely, the express lanes are jammed up with big trucks. Don't get too deeply nested or it'll take forever to get somewhere.

What software technology do we associate with Toronto and area? SGML and XML, via Tim Bray, Yuri Rubinsky (RIP) and SoftQuad. Lots of nesting; error detection but not a lot of error correction.

I've only visited Boston a few times, but I remember driving through the Big Dig tunnel when an ambulance sped by, siren blaring. And a dozen cars were tailgating the ambulance, passing all the drivers who kindly got out of the way. Who's in Boston? Right, Akamai, with big pipes transferring traffic as fast as they can.

Now the Bay Area has some geographical quirks that are reflected in the roadways. You can get on the wrong highway entirely, and still get to your destination. Try to figure out the interconnections between 101 and 280 through San Francisco. Cross the Bay Bridge and you're on 80, 880, and 580 simultaneously. Take 580 east from Oakland -- it's the one that goes south -- and even if you meant to take 880, in 20 miles you'll see a sign saying "880 this way", and everything is OK again. Go south on the east side of the Bay or the west side, and you'll end up in San Jose either way. It's impossible to go through the 92/880N interchange without fantasizing some better way to organize it.

Which explains why Google is so hot for directed acyclic graphs. And why Google maps will doubtless keep getting more and more features revolving around traffic routing.

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