Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Steering Away from Vista

If there's one group of Internet partisans I hate, it is the Linux cultists. They rank somewhere between pornographers and furries in the internet food chain, possibly because they are both. Why do I dislike them? Because they assume that my life is so empty of meaning that I would love nothing more than to manually config a three hundred line text file so that I can run a web server. I do not wish to empty my head of all knowledge so that I can fill it up with command line sequences. There are better things to fill my mind with than meaningless clockwork babble.

Things have, however, changed in the Linux world, causing an endless uproar among the "I love config files" crowd and a sigh of pleasure from the rest of us. By "the rest of us", I mean those of us who steer the ship of IT for organizations that can not afford Windows Vista.

Not afford Vista? But it comes preinstalled! Sure it does, and then:

1) I get locked into another upgrade cycle for MS Office.
2) I need to make sure everyone has a gig of ram.
3) I need to make sure everyone has a graphics coprocessor with DirectX 9 HARDWARE PIXEL SHADING. For the OPERATING SYSTEM.
4) 40 gigs of HDD space. Ha ha. Ho ho.
5) It rejects unsigned hardware. Printer? What printer?
6) The components encrypt messages across the backplane. As in, encrypting messages from the memory bus to the processor. It's encrypting the chokepoint in the system. This is analogous to feeding a bypass recipient crystal meth to make him get more exercise.
7) Forget about watching DVDs on your computer ever again.
8) I am leery of any software project that is running four years late.

All these things wouldn't really stack up if it wasn't for the fact that my client is a small non-profit that can't afford even a quarter of the computer that Vista is asking for.

Monday, January 22, 2007


The Pacific Crest Trail, I've determined, is just too darned long. It is also the home of my nemesis, Heat. The Wonderland trail circumventing Mt. Rainier, however . . there's a nice, tidy 95 mile trail. It's repeatedly been voted the most scenic long trail in America, and it's plenty challenging; the profile map looks like New Hampshire at its worst. Even going six or seven miles a day, I'll have to be in pretty decent shape to tackle it.

The rewards, though, are nothing short of staggering. The vertical scale of Rainier is to the Whites what the Whites are to the mid-Atlantic. Even though the Wonderland trail never summits, it still goes up and over each spur ridge, circling the final seven or ten thousand feet of the massif, which is a kind of loom I've never seen.

Good times. I just need to see if they'll get their bridges repaired this season. If not, it might just be some other adventure this season.

EDIT Well, so much for that idea.

Children of Bradenton

I had not even turned all the way around in my seat when the stranger slapped me. I set up to put my head in the slapper's face, but was advised otherwise by two of the slapper's companions. They placed their hands pointedly in their pockets and shook their heads, as if saying, don't try it buddy. I leaned back against the bar and said, "Let's discuss this outside".

What followed was a long conversation about respect, how I was apparently well-educated, and how this difference in education resulted in a failure to communicate. I literally apologized for being educated in a place like Trailside Bar and Grill, and they apologized for being stupid, giving me advice on how to look stupid in the future. I pondered burning down the bar with everyone in it. My higher consciousness intervened, quoting Gibbon at me. It's time to leave the cities, said Mr. Brain. You'd have better chances in the Serengeti. I never set foot in a Bradenton pub again. A few months later I was on the trail in Georgia.

Mr. Brain was right. In the months that followed, I learned that Trailside had been the location of several shootings and two arsons. A woman I had chatted with at the pool tables had been stabbed by a hilariously inept prostitution/kidnapping ring pissed off at inventory. A friend of mine later identified Slappy as a compulsive stabber of people he thought were looking at him funny; one story involved Slappy getting off his motorcycle to assault someone through a half-open car window. Slappy/Stabby is, at the time of this writing, doing an altogether too short time at a state facility for- get ready for the shocker here- stabbing someone.

The hostility of cities is not restricted to Trailside or even Bradenton. I've had beer bottles thrown at me while biking along 41. I've had a gang of young nitwits stopping their car so they could threaten to shoot me. I've seen a lone middle-aged woman, screaming and bleeding from a head wound, threading downtown Sarasota traffic, which, when the light turned green, accelerated around her howling body. I've picked up a mutilated girl left on the side of I-75, only to have her accuse my friend and I of rape (a charge the police luckily straightened out). There is all this and more, and the motorcycle accident itself, where a stranger left me a life disfigured.

The tyranny of this place, though, is not its tortures or violence. The singular thing about Florida that crushes the spirit is its lovelessness. Loveless, people inject pleasure; torpid they hurt and maim. It is a form without function. It is, as Malcolm Gladwell observed, "the Crucifixion without the Christ". Things are good. Good people are good things.

Children of Men is not a movie about 2027. The urban battles are taking place as I write this. In the movie you can see this machine clearly, practically smell the diesel fuel, burning metal, gagging cordite: the blood, bone, and shit of modern society. Amidst all the other terror, though, is the one fact most horrible of all: in a world without children, without love, the machine has more life than any of those trapped inside it.

There are a lot of other things going on in this movie, which might well be one of the best of this decade. In the words of Anthony Lane:

"The people I know who have seen “Children of Men” have admired its grip, but they had to be dragged to the theatre; it’s a film that you need to see, not a film that you especially want to."

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Diversity as Source

One of the failures of the conservation movement, at least the conservation movement as it has existed for the past forty years, has been its inability to explain how its concepts affect humanity's living standards. This is largely because conservation began as an elite movement, specifically, as a movement intended to keep the hunting grounds well stocked. This was back when hunters actually went into the wilderness to shoot large and occasionally dangerous wild game, as opposed to today, where well-to-do hunters go to small plots of private land to shoot farm raised animals.

To have a wilderness the wild has to function. This wasn't a problem in the early twentieth century. The wilderness worked because there was so darned much of it, but by the time of the latter twentieth century, things were looking a little different. Larger groups of species, whole families, in fact, were about to be gone forever.

Right around now is when the pragmatist in me says, "So what?". Everything has to die sometime. In one sense, this is correct. Cheetahs are probably overspecialized. Blue whales probably are stretching their environment to the limit, in terms of calorie per hectare. Why not accept fate? Even humans have to be extinguished sometime, don't they?

The difference here is a matter of attitude, an attitude of ownership. The difference is, do we want humans to be users of the system, or do we want humans to be administrators?

How does this work? Don't things come and go by chance? This is a situation similar to explaining the concept of source control. Source control is basically a way of preserving every step in a software project. Ideally, you can go to source control, say "I want today's application window with last year's login screen", and with a bit of pushing and huffing, get exactly that. At some point, non-technical staff- the users of the system- will say, "Why are we using all this disk space on historical source code?". The answer is, "Because we don't know how to make it anymore". We hold onto last year's login screen because- surprise!- it has a "Forgot my Password" widget that does things just so, in a way that no one can manage again.

So when we have an animal that eats this particular plant that no one else wants to eat, or if there's a termite that clears away all the shit, or if we have anything that fills a niche, we want a backup- because there is nothing else that can do what it does. Letting an insect leave this world is like removing a branch of the tree from a software project in the hope that something better will come up. Conservation, when you get past the cuddly animals and failed liberal arts majors, is a matter of source control. It's an attitude of ownership, of administering what is, after all, the most complex system of all.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Fun is Usable

A long time ago, some programmers I knew came upon a pretty familiar dilemma. The specifications required more data than could be efficiently queried from the database. Furthermore, the volume of data and the detail in which it was retrieved made it dubious that a mortal human of the early 21st century could make any sense of it whatsoever. What to do, what to do. In my naivete, I thought, Let's make a game! You could assign numbers to different levels of criteria, and when you total the numbers you get the cost of the query. Certain levels of staff could only "afford" particular kind of queries. It makes it a game to narrow down search terms. To make it really fun, the organization could assign goals, and when a staff member meets a certain set of goals, the system could let that user create more expensive queries. "SalesSteve has gained +20 Query Points". Which lets a bright employee do his or her job better, which gets better query points, etc. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but, well, I was younger and exceptionally excitable. Data mining isn't supposed to be fun.

Data might not be fun (for some people), but usability is. It's something I was thinking about during the holidays spent with my future in-laws, where I enjoyed a Christmas present of a computer game. This game, Knights of the Old Republic 2, is in many ways indistinguishable from work. You go through a somewhat repetitive series of number crunching exercises, face crises, deal with them by crunching more numbers . . . for what? Why, I asked myself, am I working for free? The reason immediately slapped me in the face: I'm playing to get Force Storm so I can really cream these goody-goody little Jedi freaks. Playing evil aside, I was playing because the game had a constant and consistent framework of reward and punishment. It was just that my character's idea of a reward was a goblet filled with the tears of the innocent.

In any case, the reason (good) computer games can get people to work almost indefinitely for free is because of this system. This is what makes them fun, and, ultimately, usable. All too usable, in some cases. Imagine, I thought, if when a programmer finishes a certain number of graph functions he gets a level up as "Graphmaster" (displayed in a tasteful little HUD below the IDE, like KOTOR's level up tooltip), or a programmer who is a rapid typist gets "Speeddemon". The guy who puts the smack down on the project could be "Finisher". These sorts of points could go towards awards, from micro-bonuses to extra training. Ideally the rewards help the player to work harder to get more rewards. Just like in the video game: you kill to shop, and you shop to kill.

All these different aspects or "levels"- Graphmaster to Connectrix- might not mean a hell of a lot by themselves. Probably the most important guy on the team will have high combined scores in all his levels. That's not the important bit (well, it is important to HR, but let's leave that out of this for now). The important bit is that each member of a team gets immediate feedback on something they're doing- and something they can immediately compare against everyone else.

Maybe when we start seeing the next generation of HR technology, we'll hear a new cry coming from the corporate office:

"Level! Woot!"

Monday, January 01, 2007


I saw that a publicly traded company I used to work for had been bought by one of the more Aryan private equity groups. I had mixed feelings. Big companies are sort of cool in that they are democratic, but they tend to be retarded for much the same reason. While I was still thinking about this, I noticed that my old company's biggest competitor (one of them, anyway) was going through the exact same thing. Another Death-Star sized ball of money sucking in a company in a dysfunctional sector. Then the company that bought my former company decided, hey, what the hell, and started buying other competitors in the sector.

What the hell?, I asked myself, and I did not have to wait long for the answer. "2007: THE YEAR OF PRIVATE EQUITY!!!", screamed at least five newspapers. I was seeing firsthand the tinest fjord of the 2007 Private Money Flood. While the transfer going on in my old company doubtlessly was taking place for the most innocent of reasons, the drama of boardroom money in general has been going on for some time.

It's an old story now. Public company with a fantastic deal of assets gets bought by private firm with a fantastic deal of cash. Perhaps said public company has not had the most honest of boards, and the stockholders will not say no to millions of dollars of clean private money. Voila, instant new ownership and transition from public to private. The shareholders call it a day and the executives crawl back into whatever hole they came from, preferably in a directorship of HBS buddies. Meanwhile the private firm sits down to figure out what kind of "fantastic" assets they just acquired.

This is easier than it sounds because, really, no publicly traded company has a transparent, honest board. They're not set up to be honest, transparent, or even to maximize the profits of the shareholders. For the past twenty years the average board has had the singular goal of raping as much money out of the company as humanly possible. Those huge salaries you always read about are sustained by a consummate kleptocracy that is magnificently free from any type of oversight, be it from workers, shareholders, or the government. No executive would dare call attention to this magnificent machine for fear of clogging up its pendulous money tit.

Shareholders were more or less satisfied with this arrangement so long as they got added value from their overpaid CEO monkeys. The shareholder was especially satisfied if he or she was a mutual fund manager, because then you could pretty much guzzle whatever fees you wanted without anyone asking questions. In the sweet fevered dawn of the 401k era, you weren't dealing with a sharp Grieco-style Wall Street wanker- you were dealing with Gramma, who doesn't know active management from a runny colon . Worse yet, there's no rule saying you can't take money from a company while managing a fund that has that company's stock in it. Ho ho ho. What do YOU want to be when you grow up, little boy? Why, I'd like to funnel Gramma's money while talking up Enron stock, grandpa.

So between the fund managers and the board members waiting to be executives, American stockholders and employees became accustomed to that huge thing in their ass. Trickle down indeed.

But nothing gold can last. Nothing like a seizure in the money supply to wake people the hell up. In the midst of inflationary pressures and imaginary capitalization, it's clear that the cash sums given to leadership superstars are not reflected in value. The townsfolk have rounded up with pitchforks and torches around the laboratory of the mutual fund manager, led by folks like Fidelity and Vanguard. The managers in the private firms are pissed the hell off, wondering exactly what these people have been doing for, oh, sixty years.

SO we can't really blame the shareholder who thinks, sincerely, screw this: just give me my cash so I can put it in a Chinese utility, ideally before the whole goddamn thing is revalued by someone who isn't some combination of incompetent, corrupt, or drunk.