Category Archives: Society

Should be obvious…

An Observation on Economic Motivation

When we want to discourage people from smoking we levy taxes on cigarettes. When we want to discourage people from drinking we levy taxes on alcohol. When we want to discourage the purchase of a product from a particular country we levy taxes on their imports.

What should we interpret as the motivation behind taxes on businesses? Businesses of a particular size? Income? Income of a particular size?

None of this has a happy ending.

Speaking of police states, whatever happened to StackExchange?

StackOverflow, StackExchange, etc. and its whole community rather saddens me these days. It seems the assburgers who dump their angst on Wikipedia have found a new home making StackExchange sites as unfun as possible. The situation isn’t helped at all by the recent rabbit-like proliferation of SE sites which exhibit so much subject overlap as to make determining the “proper” place of most posts nearly impossible — all that has done is given the Post Police reason, in every case, to force re-posting, closing, pausing, deletion, or otherwise official vandalism of valid posts and answers.

Let’s say I have a question about travelling to Austria to see historical sites. Let’s put it in travel. But if the question is phrased in such a way as to reference a specific historical event, like say a little battle in which Polish king demonstrated how much he appreciated the Ottoman visitors, then it is an almost certain thing that some twerp who knows nothing about history or travelling in Austria will promptly vote to close or move the question on the grounds that it belongs on the SE site for history and not travel. The post will face the same fate once it arrives there, of course, and the asker will be helpless.

This sort of thing goes on all the time between StackOverflow, “Programmers”, and “Workplace” as many questions professional programmers have cut sharply across all three lines.

Another annoyance is unnecessary Post Police comments like the one left on this post. Sure, I was being silly in the way I did it, but my response represents the general consensus of the Erlang community on this particular subject and is, in essence, a fairly standard response. Obviously not good enough for 19-year-old Alexy Schmalko, Protector of the Realm.

Whatever happened to the sense of community I used to get from, you know, the community? Did that all die when usenet got retarded in the early 90’s? Did it evaporate with the coming of the cool web kids? I’ve probably got kids somewhere near his age…

On the Meaning of “Carbon Neutral”

I noticed that a few products in my house have begun to proudly proclaim themselves as being “carbon neutral” over the last few months. Apparently this is among the new set of empty phrases marketing people feel are necessary to distinguish their otherwise ordinary commodity products from identical products of comparable quality. It used to be “Made in U.S.A.” or “日本製” (depending on the neighborhood), then it was “low sodium”, then “waterproof”, then “low fat” then “low transfat” then “cholesterol free” then “omega-3” then something else I probably forgot.

The problem isn’t that any of these things aren’t potentially good selling points, its that they usually don’t apply to the things I see the labels on. For example, I remember seeing an electric wok that said “Made in U.S.A.” on the bottom. I’m not so sure that’s the best thing to concern one’s self with when buying a cooking apparatus that originated in another hemisphere. That’s like buying a tuna steak because the sticker on the package marks it as being “a peanut-free product” or believing that a piece of software is high quality because its written in Java (or even more uselessly, “utilizes Java technology!”).

This reminds me of my sister’s enlightening tale of the truth behind the now heavily regulated terms “organic” and “all natural” as applied to food labels. She did her undergraduate study in genetics and graduate work in nutrition, worked in colon cancer research for a while, started a dietary medicine program at a hospital in Virginia a few years back, and now (after reaching some disillusionment with the state of government-funded research) raises “range fed Angus beef” as a side interest. She is therefore directly governed by some of the more hilarious regulations the FDA has come up with.

Needless to say, her opinion on the value of these buzzwords has much more influence to me than whatever a “medicinal cannabis expert” has to tell me about the benefits of toking up or the local yoga girl at the gym has to tell me about the benefits of yogurt shakes or almond oil or peanut-butter enemas or whatever it happens to be this week (of course, she’s just right about the benefits of sex in exciting places). In short, the regulations governing terms such as “organic” and “natural flavor” (or even the way the term “X% fat free” is permitted to be used) are both economically draining legally apply due to the administrative overhead of regulatory compliance and yet so full of loopholes that there is really no clear distinction between a head of lettuce that is “organic” and one that isn’t so labeled. Essentially the only difference is the price of the market package.

Of course, the real difference is that the lettuce sporting an “organic” sticker on it is almost undoubtedly produced by a large agribusiness firm that can afford the overhead of doing all the pencil-drills necessary to proclaim their lettuce to be “organic”. Either that, or it is quite pricey lettuce only rich folks who feel the need to spend more to sate their moral thirst can afford, grown at an “organic” farm run by one savvy businessman and a flock of altruist peons bent on saving humanity from itself one vegetable at a time. I’m certainly not saying that large agribusiness is bad — ultimately its the only way we’re going to survive over the long-term (and here I’m including post colonization of space) — but that the terms used on packaging are enormously deceptive in nature.

But that’s food. It is a specific example where it is relatively easy to trace both the regulatory documentation and the research literature. Of course, very few people actually track all that down — other than unusual people like my sister who happen to be trained in genetics, directly involved in agriculture, and so habituated to both scientific and regulatory research that they find nothing daunting about navigating the semantic labyrinth the FDA has let agricultural regulation become in the US (and the phrase “let…become” could easily be replaced with “deliberately made of…”). I suppose the problem isn’t that few people track all that down, really; its more a problem that even if my sister were to go to the trouble of explaining what she knows to the average consumer they wouldn’t have the faintest clue what she was getting at. The average consumer is instead faced with an essentially religious (or at least dogmatic) choice of whether to trust someone that has a stack of official paper backing up her credibility, or a government agency and a huge food industry which are both populated by thousands of people who each have every bit as much officious documentation backing up their reputations.

And that brings me back to “carbon neutral”. We still chase the purported value of demonstrably empty terms such as “cloud computing”, demonstrably failed vehicles such as “social networking”, and demonstrably flimsy labels such as “organic” and “all natural”. But we don’t stop there. We are jumping head-first onto the “carbon neutral” bandwagon as well. The point isn’t that we shouldn’t be concerned with the terrestrial environment, but rather that we must at all times guard against political forces that constantly seek to invent new social mores and foist them on us by conjuring meaning into empty phrases like “carbon neutral”. It tricks you not just into buying ordinary thing A over ordinary-but-cheaper-thing B, but also into feeling morally superior. In this it is indistinguishable from other dogmatic rhetoric that engenders an unfounded sense of moral certainty. If we thought convincing people that a man in the sky doesn’t want them to fly airplanes into office buildings was hard, consider how much more difficult it is to convince average people who genuinely want to “do good” that reasonablish sciency words are nothing more than unfounded political siren songs trying to open one more door for the tax man.

So back to the reasonablish sciency phrase “carbon neutral”… what does it mean? This is where I have some semantic issues, mainly because nobody really knows.

Let’s say, for example, that we start a paper mill. We’ll make paper, but only from recycled paper and only using wind energy. This could probably qualify as being entirely “carbon neutral”. But so could the same paper mill if it planted its own trees. But what about the wind generators? They have to come from somewhere. What about the diesel-powered trucks that carry the old paper stock to the recycling mill? What about the initial material itself? Are we being carbon neutral if we don’t go replace as many trees as our recycled stock represents? How about the electricity used by the paper-compactors run by other companies we have no control over? What about our employees’ cars they use to get to work? What about all the flatulence the invite by eating pure vegan meals?

The initial production itself would almost certainly not qualify as being “carbon neutral” — which demonstrates that we have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere from which we can derive a meaning for the term “carbon neutral”. It is almost certain that something, whether directly or indirectly, involved an increase in carbon emissions (and the meaning of “direct” and “indirect” really should be their own battlegrounds here, considering what people think the term “carbon neutral” means) somewhere at some point, otherwise there wouldn’t be people to buy our recycled earth-friendly paper to begin with.

But what are “carbon emissions”? This is, apparently, intended to only refer to releasing carbon into the air. Consider for a moment how monumentally arbitrary that is. There are currently some well-intended, but enormously misguided efforts to “sequester” carbon by burying it in the crust of the Earth. This, of course, represents an enormously heavy emission of carbon into the environment, but we are calling this a “good” emission (actually, we refrain from using the word “emission” because we intend that to be a “bad” word) because it is going into the ground and not the air. Incidentally, it is also not going into something useful like diamond-edge tools or nano insulators or any other beneficial process that is desperate for carbon (which our planet happens to be poor in by cosmological standards).

So where did all this “bad” carbon come from? If you believe the press, its coming from our SUV exhaust, coal-burning plants, Lady GaGa (well, she might be a Democrat, in which case she can’t be bad), and pretty much anything else that humans use to modify local order at the expense of a probable increase in universal entropy.

Where did the carbon come from for the coal, crude, natural gas and bovine flatulence? Probably from the atmosphere and the sea. At least that’s what a biologist will tell you.

And here is a problem for me. Nobody has explained (not just to my satisfaction, but explained at all) where all the billions of tons of carbon necessary to create the forests that created the coal (and possibly crude oil) came from in the first place.

Well, that’s not quite true. In the first place it came from a long-dead stellar formation, some crumbs of which clumped together to form our solar system. That’s the first place. So the second place. Where did the carbon for all this organic activity come from in the second place? Was it distributed evenly in the early Earth? Has it always been a fixed quantity in the atmosphere? Does it boil out of the molten terrestrial substrate and gradually accumulate in the atmosphere and ocean?

If the forests grew in the first place then the carbon was in the air, at least at one point. If it is a fixed amount of atmospheric carbon then the growth of the forests and their subsequent demise and burial beneath sediment represents an absolutely massive sequestration of atmospheric carbon. If it is indeed a fixed amount, then the absolutely huge amounts of flora and fauna represented by these forests were not prevented from thriving in an atmosphere which contained a huge amount more carbon than the atmosphere contains today. If that is true, then either climate change is not affected much by the carbon content of the atmosphere, or a changed climate does not pose much of a threat to organic life on Earth.

Some parts of the fixed atmospheric quantity scenario don’t really add up. Despite a bit of effort I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of the ice core research literature, but a static amount of available atmospheric carbon doesn’t seem to be the story research efforts so far tell. This area of research has been made amazingly difficult to get a straight tack on ever since environmental sciences got overheated with politically-driven grants looking for results that validate political rhetoric instead of grants seeking research into what is still largely an observational field, but it seems fairly clear that there have been fluctuations in atmospheric carbon content that do not directly coincide with either the timing of ice-ages or the timing of mass terrestrial forestation. (The record is much less clear with regard to life in the ocean — and this could obviously be a key element, but it doesn’t seem that many people are looking there, perhaps because the current rhetoric is full of fear of rising sea levels, not full of hope for a marine component to the puzzle of eternal human salvation). That said, there must be some pretty massive non-human sources of atmospheric carbon which have been in operation millions of years before we evolved (as for where trillions of tons of carbon may have gone, I think the huge coal formations may be an indication).

While the idea that a carbon-rich atmosphere providing adequate conditions for thriving terrestrial life might seem odd (at least when compared with the “Your SUV is killing the Earth!” dialog), the idea that the Earth itself has both mechanisms to gradually ratchet up the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the eons and to drastically change the climate in spans measured in mere years (not decades, not centuries or millenia) without human or even atmospheric input is pretty scary.

A lot more scary than the idea that driving my kids to school might be damaging in some small way.

But this isn’t the way we are thinking. We are letting marketers and politicians — two groups infamous for being as destructively self-serving as possible — sell us a new buzzword stew, and we, the consumers, are ready to confidently parrot phrases such as “carbon neutral” about as if they mean something. “Oh, Irene, that salad dressing is 100% organic and carbon neutral — you’re such a gourmet!”

We’re clearly having the wool pulled over our eyes, except this time it doesn’t just play to our ego-maniacal craving to live forever (“If you eat gluten-free yogurt and drink positive-ion water you’ll live forever — and have huge tits/a thicker penis/ungraying hair/a tiny waist!”), it engenders a dangerous sense of moral superiority (“I’m doing this for the planet/global socialism/God/The Great Leader!”) which tends to eliminate all possibility of rational thought on a subject which could indeed affect us all.

What if, for example, the Atlantic currents are just panting their last, barely keeping us away from a global mass cooling event? We won’t just be blind to the threat because we’ve blown our research money on politically driven quests to generate the academic support necessary to pursue whatever new pork-barrel projects we come up with over the next decade or two — we will deny the very idea that a threat other than carbon emissions could possibly exist on moral grounds because we’ve already identified the “real enemy” (wealthy people in SUVs who come with the added benefit of being fun to hate). That’s dangerous.

Words mean things. We should remember that.

Keyboards, Machine Guns, and Other Daily Tools

I’ve got an annoying issue on my mind: keyboard layouts. This is brought on by the recurring need for me to travel to places where two different keyboard layouts are common and other programmers look at you funny if you have to glance down to make sure whether you’re hitting ‘@’ or ‘`’ or ‘”‘ or whatever is there just then. Neither of these regions, of course, use the keyboard layout of my region (Japan).

I was born in the US and grew up with that layout, but it is difficult to find US-layout keyboards here. Though I usually write only a few Japanese-language emails per day its just not practical to use anything but the local flavor — especially since I use かな input for Japanese, not the insane (to me) Romaji system so many people are accustomed to. Even if I did have a bunch of US-layout keyboards it would be crazy to switch among JP-layout laptops,  US-layout crash carts, JP-layout customer systems and US-layout workstations at my offices. So the “when in Rome” rule is in play and I’ve grown accustomed to this layout. It now works well for me.

“But what’s the big deal?” you may ask. Well, the main keys that do Latin letters and numbers are all generally in the same place, so it seems like this wouldn’t be a big deal. The problem is the crazy keys that do “top row” and wildcard stuff like bangs, hashes, quotes, backticks, at-marks, brackets, colons, semicolons, parens, etc. (Not to mention the Japanese-specific stuff like mode changes, 全角・半角, and other nonsense the majority of the world is spared.) All the parts of a keyboard that are pristine and rarely used on a typical email/pr0nz/games user’s keyboard are usually worn smooth on a programmer’s keyboard. Those frequent-use weird keys are the one that seem to be completely, unexplainably jumbled around when you compare US, JP and various European keyboards (so why even have different layouts…?).

But that brings up a point about how personal familiarity and user expectations play into the perception of a given tool as being “good” or “bad”. I grew up on US keyboards; I am intimately aware that they are not “bad” tools; they are bad tools for me right now. The idea that a concept being “easy” is not the same as it actually being “simple” intersects with the idea that a tool being perceived as “good” is not the same as it being objectively “better” than some given alternative.

(It is interesting to note that even the descriptive language must change between the two cases above. Though the basic pattern of thought is similar, “concepts” and “physical tools” are different in ways that magically prevent certain forms of direct comparison.)

I could easily take the position that US-layout is poo and that JP-layout is superior. I could go uber nerd and pretend that some statistical study on finger reach, frequency of use, angle of finger motion, key tension and travel variance, etc. matters when it comes to programming. (Programmers who use Dvorak do this all the time. I always wonder if they take themselves seriously, are consciously crossing the satire-reality divide as a joke, or if they have a getting-punched-in-the-face fetish.) In the case of programming layout doesn’t really matter — consistency does. To imagine that the charater-per-second count of input matters in programming is to imagine that input is the hard part of programming. Its not*. The problem is figuring out what to write in the first place.

[* Unless you are a Java or COBOL programmer. I didn’t realize how intensely verbose either of those were until I dealt with both again recently after years of absence.]

More to the point, what matters is which layout prevents the wetware halting problem in a specific person. When the human doing the work has to stop what he is doing to figure out something unrelated to the essential task at hand then he’s distracted and that sucks, and you have a wetware halting problem.

But it is still almost certainly true that some layouts are probably objectively worse or better than others for intense input jobs that are not intensely creative, like transcription. If that wasn’t true then the stenograph would never have taken off and court reporters would have been just happily flying through rapid-fire legal discourse in an uncompressed, fully textual medium on their typewriters — which would have been quite a thing to witness, actually. But they didn’t because the stenograph was objectively better than the typewriter for this. It follows that other sorts of tools can often be judged against one another in the same way.

Languages can be like that. Not the ones we speak, I mean real languages, the one you speak math to your computer with. The problem with judging that is that there are several dimensions to a programming language. They usually center around three themes: some concept of “safety features”, and some other concepts of “operational features”, and some other concepts of syntax-as-a-feature.

Safety is a bit of a mixed bag, because few folks seem to declare what they want from a language in terms of safety up-front, and rarely define whether it should be a feature of the language, the runtime or the compiler (until after the fact, of course, which is when everyone bitches about whatever the design decision turned out to be). There is the “safety from others” aspect, which The Management loves because they believe it permits them to demand that different elements of a program become invisible to other elements (the whole `public static blahblah` bit in Java). There is the type safety angle, which people are either really loud about or have nothing to say about (probably because once type systems start making sense to you you’re prone to freaking out about it for about a month). There is the runtime safety angle (Three competing approaches: “It will never run if its unsafe.” VS “Its OK if it crashes.” VS “Nothing is safe and it will always run but gradually grow more magical and mysterious over time and you will never really know bwahahahahaha!”).

Operational features are sort of hard to judge, though it seems like this would be easier somehow than the safety tradeoffs. I think this is because language design is still in its infancy and we’re still totally turned around backwards about the idea that “computer science” has anything to do with computers. So the language feature problem turns into the problem of finding the Goldilocks point of “just enough of the right hot features mixed in with the cool familiar ones to get work done” as opposed to having way too few or way too many features to make much sense to use in production.

Judging syntax is totally arbitrary — until you have to come back and read your own code after two years of not having seen it. There are sometimes languages X and Y where both have the same major features but the syntax of one makes it look more like line noise than code. Meh. This is why language arguments are never going to end (so I tend to have runtime arguments instead).

That’s a lot of dimensions. With all that in mind, I personally dislike Java. I dislike some of the things the JVM assumes should be true. I dislike that its taught first to people who really should learn more about the nature of programming first. I… ugh, I just really dislike it as a platform. It solved a certain sort of problem we almost sorta had in the 90’s, but now its just causing problems — and yet as an industry we are too brainwashed to even spot them.

And, to make this post meander even further, that reminds me of guns. No, seriously. There are several excellent machine gun, rifle and pistol designs employed in militaries across the world. Many of them are decent enough that, while some have a slight edge over others in some areas, I’d go to work with pretty much any of them.

For example: the M4 vs. the SCAR. Meh. The SCAR is indeed objectively better, but the M4 is familiar enough to me that I just don’t really care which one I wind up getting stuck with. On the other hand, I don’t have nearly as much faith in the AK-47, especially in an environment where precision, reaction time, quick on/off safety and partial reloading are critical. While they are famously resistant to neglect (which is often mistaken for durability) that’s really a key attribute for a rifle intended for the Mindless Commie Horde or the Untrained And Unwashed Mass Formation of insurgent/freedom-fighter/terrorist whose backers need cheap, trashy guns with which to arm their cheap, trashy goons. Indeed, the AK-47 is in real terms dramatically less good than the SCAR or M4 and there is a whole list of rifles and carbines I would consider before going to work with one. (That said it is not absolutely awful, just so much less good than the alternatives that I’d avoid it if possible — sort of like Java. I mean, at least its not the C++ of guns.)

Where this is really striking is with machine guns and pistols. On the pistol side there are a rather large number of designs that actually break down frequently during heavy use (granted, “heavy use” meant something very different for me than most people who don’t shoot for a living). This never happens in a James Bond movie, of course, but in real life it happens at the most inconvenient times. Come to think of it, there is never a convenient time for a pistol to break because usually if you’re using your pistol it means your real weapons already broke. Once again, despite the absolute superiority in design of the semi-automatic over the revolver, familiarity can overcome the technical deficiencies between the two (with lots of practice) and I would actually prefer to go to work with certain revolvers over certain semi-autos. (This is to say nothing, of course, of the issue of caliber…)

With machine guns, however, the differences in good vs. bad designs are vast. In nearly any modern military you’re absolutely spoilt. A “bad” gun is one that doesn’t have a TV built into the stock to ease the passage of long turns on security and automatically arrange for pizza to be delivered to an 8-digit grid. They are mindlessly easy to load, sight, barrel change, fire, strip, clean, carry, etc. The links disintegrate and can be re-used on unlinked ammo, all sorts of cool toys fit around the thing (which can, sometimes, make them start to suck just from the “too much Star Wars” problem), runaways can have their belt broken, they will eat through just about any garbage that gets caught in the links or even fire bent ammo, and they probably prevent cancer. They aren’t even unreasonably heavy (and its patently unfair to compare it to the uber lightness of an M4). Its amazing how well these things work. But when great machine guns are all you know you start complaining about them, wishing you had a 240 when you’ve been handed an M60 (because its possible to jam it up if you accidentally load it bolt-forward, usually lacks a rail system, or you’re an unsufferable weakling and won’t stop bitching because you didn’t get the lightweight bulldog version).

I’ve had the misfortune of having to go to work with old Soviet machine guns, though, and can attest that they are indeed objectively horrible.

When we say “crew served weapon” in modern armies we mean “the weapon is the centerpiece of the crew” not “this weapon is absolutely unreasonable to assign to any less than three people”. The term “crew served” may have had more semantic purpose back when operating the machinery actually took a crew — back in the days when tripods included full-sized chairs, ammo came on a horse-drawn cart, and vast amounts of oil and water were consumed in operation. But that was the early 1900’s. We still employ machine guns as “crew served weapons” because it is generally advantageous to have an AG with you and usually a good idea to actually set up a tripod if you find yourself facing off against a for-real infantry force. That is completely different than calling it “crew served” because wielding one is equivalent in complexity to running a mortar section.

Today a single person can easily maintain and operate an M240, M60, MAG58, 249, MG42, MG3, MG11, or whatever. Not so with, say, the PKM (or heaven forbid the SG-43). An RP-46 is actually better if you come to the field with American-style assumptions that a single person is adequate to handle a machine gun (the “zomg! PKM!” not-a-Soviet fanboi hype may have infected your brain already though and make this sound like a crazy statement — until you actually try both).

Let’s clear one point of nomenclature up straight away. The PKM is not really belt fed, it is chain fed, and the chain doesn’t disintegrate. Its also extremely strong. “Strong” as in you can support more than a single person’s weight from an empty belt. The longer the belt the more bullets, and this seems good at first, until you realize that holy shit it feeds from the wrong side (the right). This prevents a right-handed shooter from feeding the pig himself with his left hand and leaves the indestructible spent chain right in front of the shooter, or rather tangled around his feet the moment he has to get up and move which you have to do pretty much all the time because gun fights involve a lot more running around than shooting.

This little design whoopsie! has made be bust my face in the dirt or on the top of the gun more than once — not so convenient at interesting moments, and absolutely detrimental to my Cool Point count. Being at a tactical disadvantage and almost getting killed is one thing, but people actually saw that and it was embarrassing. Every. Goddamn. Time. It also hurts pretty bad (like, my feelings!).

But the failure of design doesn’t stop there. That stupid belt is nearly impossible to reload by hand without wearing gloves and using a lever to force the rounds into the thing. You have to at least find yourself some gloves and a stiff metal boxtop, wrench, ancient steel desk or something else firm that the butt of the round casings won’t slip too easily on to force those stupid rounds into their fully-enclosing holes. (And to you, the guy reading this who is thinking “I went to the range once and loaded a brand new, totally clean, uncorroded, never-been-fired-or-stepped-on belt — didn’t seem too hard to me”: sure, you might load 50 rounds into a pristine, lubricated belt by hand, but how about 5000 into a hundred chewed up belts?).

They also rust instantly, in accordance with the PKM Belt Rust Time Law: the time for a belt to rust to the point that it will malfunction if not serviced immediately, but not enough for it to be replaced by management will be exactly the amount of time since you last placed it in a sealed container and now. (Go check right now — you’ll see that this rule somehow always holds.) If you try oiling them to prevent that they gum up or actually start “growing hair” instantly. Its a never ending cycle of trying to keep the belts from making your life suck without giving up, throwing them all away and resolving to fight by using your bad breath and attitude alone.

This brings me to why the Soviets conveniently invented a reloading machine. Which also conveniently sucks. (Compare.) I can’t even begin to explain the inadequacy of this stupid machine, but it actually is the only way to maintain even a marginally reasonable reload rate for belts. There is, however, no way you could do this under fire. Or on Tuesday. (The machine jams spectacularly at random, Tuesday tending to be the worst day.)

I haven’t even begun to mention the inadequacy of the ammo crates. The standard ammo crates are insanely stupid. Actually, this isn’t a gripe reserved just for 7.62 ammo, its true for all commie ammo I’ve ever seen. The ammo cans aren’t like the infinitely reusable, universally useful, hermetically sealed, flip-top boxes found in non-backward armies. They are actually cans. Like giant spam cans, but without a pull-tab — not even a sardine-key. They come with a can opener. A huge one (but only one per crate, not one per can). You read that right, a can opener — and only one for the whoooole crate, so you better hope Jeeter doesn’t drop it in the canal.

You may be thinking “Oh, a can opener, I’ve got one of those that plugs into the wall, how could Jeeter drop such a thing in the canal?!” Glad you asked. When I say “can opener” I don’t mean the first-world type. I mean the part of your boyscout era Swiss Army Knife you never realized had an actual use. You know, the lever-kind where you hook the grabby part onto the crimp at the top edge of the can and pull to lever the pointy part down until it makes a tiny puncture, then slide over a touch and repeat until you’ve prized and ripped a gash large enough to do your business. Let that sink in.

(Here is a video of a guy opening one to illustrate… WTF. And that’s a really nice crate in pristine condition — which you will never, ever see while on contract in, say, Nigeria.)

Now remember, we’re talking about an ammo can. Like with bullets that people need to do their job, hopefully sometime this year, but perhaps much sooner under the sort of conditions that make calmly remembering details like where the fscking can opener is very difficult.

Once you’re inside the fun just doesn’t stop — no way. The thousand or so rounds inside are in boxes of 5 or 6 or so. Well, “boxes”, what I really mean is squarishly shaped topographic nets made of some material that tenuously holds together well enough to almost seem like a paper packing material — so it loosely resembles a little paper box. So this means that, unlike what you would have come to expect from armies in nations where maximizing busywork employment wasn’t the main and only goal, the can that you worked so hard to open isn’t full of pre-loaded belts. That would deprive someone of a government job somewhere and that’s just not Progressive. So inside there are dozens and dozens of those tiny, crappy, flimsy little cardboard boxes, each containing a few rounds. And before you start worrying that those stupid boxes are the end of the show, let me assure you that the party just keeps rolling along — each round is individually wrapped in tissue paper.

You just can’t make this shit up. Its amazing. How on earth could such a horrible, stupid, backward constellation of designs emerge from one of the two nations to achieve serious, manned spaceflight before the end of the 20th century? GHAH! Had WWIII ever occurred I wouldn’t have known whether to snicker and lay scunion, secure in my knowledge of how thoroughly the enemy had hamstrung himself, or feel pity and offer a face-saving peace deal to spare the poor saps who are forced to try to actually get anything done under these conditions.

But maybe its brilliant

A guy I worked with a few years ago called Mule had a theory that this was, in fact, an excellent design for a machine gun system in a Marxist paradise. His reasoning went something like this:

  • Nobody can use it alone, so you can’t get a wild hair up your ass and get all revolutionary — you need to convince at least a platoon to get crazy with you.
  • You employ a gazillion people not only in the production of a billion lovingly gift-wrapped-by-hand rounds of machine gun ammunition throughout the nation, you employ another gazillion or so to open and load the belts.
  • Its the ultimate low employment figure fixer — at least until the state digests enough of itself that this becomes suddenly unsustainable, of course (but that never stopped a socialist, despite the ever-lengthening list of failed socialist states).
  • You never really intended to go to actual war with the Americans in the first place (wtf, are you crazy?!?), so what you really needed was a police weapon of deliberately limited utility with which to suppress political dissent, not an actual infantry weapon of maximal utility under all conditions.

Mule’s theory was that this machine gun design — from the actual shittiness of the gun itself to the complete circus of activity which necessarily surrounds its production, maintenance and use — is a brilliant design from the perspective of the State, not the soldier. Furthermore, that the aims of the two are at odds is simply the natural outcome of being produced in a socialist/Marxist system. Mule was one of the most insightful people I’ve ever met (and I’m not being rhetorical — he really was a hidden genius).

Thinking about what he said has made me re-evaluate some of my assumptions of bad design. Perhaps the “bad” designs are excellent — not for the end user, but for whoever is in charge of the end user. And that brings me back to thinking about just why the Java programming language is so bad, yet so prolific, and how perhaps the design of Java is every bit as brilliant as the design of a good keyboard, differing in that each is brilliant from diametrically opposed points of view.

Java is the PKM of the programming world. Its everywhere, it sucks, it is good for some (Stalin-like) bosses, and the whole circus surrounding its existence just won’t ever go away. And sometimes those of us who know in painstaking detail why a 240 (or nearly anything else in common use) is better are still stuck using it to get real work done.

I should, perhaps, write another edition of this interdisciplinary mental expedition in text focused around the failings of JavaScript (oh, excuuuuuse me, princess, “ECMA Script”). Or Ruby. Or MySQL. Or SQL itself. Or HTTP. Come to think of it, subjects of my angry dissatisfaction abound.

“Never Underestimate…” Revisited

One of my daughters just surprised me by showing up dressed for bed — underbits, bound hair, PJ bottoms and top buttoned up. It surprised me because I was headed in to dress her. At first I figured her mother must have dressed her for me. But nope, she had done it alone and wanted to show me.

If she was 17 the only odd part would be that I felt the need to dress her in the first place. But she’s 2. Two. And all her buttons? And her hair? Kids these days…

It reminds me not to underestimate what can be accomplished when motivation is intrinsic to the doer. The skill might be marksmanship, programming, aesthetic design, buttons and hair or whatever; the capacity for a person to demonstrate extraordinary ability in an area they can bring themselves to focus intently on should never be underestimated, regardless their assumed level of competence. Consider the proto-Israelis in 1947, Japanese chip makers in the 1970’s, me writing rainbow box emulators in 1989, Chinese component makers in the 2000’s, and my daughter in 2013. None of these things seem odd when referenced lightly, but all are quite extraordinary when remembered in the context of their time.

The number of daily, unheralded, extraordinary private achievements must be mind boggling.

Interview from Another Dimension

I was asked if I was interested in covering a temporary administration position a few days ago because finding bilingual Unix people is pretty hard here in Japan. It sounded marginally interesting and stood a chance of getting me in touch with the local Unix community, so I said sure, have the interviewer give me a call.

One day the positioning agency asked for a resume. I sent one in. The next day at 3pm I got a call saying that I would get a call an hour later to conduct a phone interview.

At 4pm I didn’t get a call.

At 5:30 I called their office back to say that I didn’t get a call. They called me back asking if I’m still available today — I tell them that if its OK that I’ll be playing with my kids then I’m game. They call back again telling me that the company is really going to call this time but from the office in Yokohama, not Okinawa — I’m fine with that. They also told me that the guy calling would “be a foreigner, like you” — I’m fine with that, too.

Not a minute later I did get a call but not from Yokohama, and from a foreigner but not “like me”. The call was from India over the world’s worst connection.

This amazed me. For one thing it was 2013. I expected bad connections when calling across multiple satellite hops from contested jungle territory in Southeast Asia in 2004. But this was a lot worse than that, and this guy was supposed to be calling from an office. And he supposedly works for a high-tech company looking to contract me. It bears mentioning that you could get crystal-clear cell connections from most of Afghanistan in 2010.

So that was the first weird smell. The second hint of rotten tuna was the voice. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand most of what he was trying to say. I’ve never been one of those “You gotta speak ‘merican!” types (hard to justify it being an expatriot myself), but if you’re going to speak English it should be English and should be intelligible, if not at least generally correct. Otherwise speak Japanese, or German, or get an interpreter, or have someone else do the interview — I’m open to any of the above. If you do know English but have a heavy accent, just slow down. But such ideas are lost on some people.

His speech had a magical pattern to it. Merely missing syllables or mushing sounds together like most non-native speakers was beneath this guy. He set a new standard for unintelligible second-hand language by injecting new syllables and sounds into each word.

The deft ease and fleet pace at which he mangled the language makes me think in retrospect that he probably considered English to be his first language. Maybe it was just taught to him wrong as some sort of cosmic joke. It was what speech would sound like if you could somehow hear a hash salt being added to it. This blew Pig Latin out of the water.

An abridged transcript of the conversation follows:


Him: “Dis is Gumbntator Hlalrishvkttsh koling flum Ueeplo en Eendeya an ayam surchelin Mestarh Kleg Ewurlet?”
I could sort of make out what he was trying to say.
Me: “This is he.”
Him: “Ah see. But dis is Governator Ralrishevdish koling flum Weepro en Indeya an ayam surchen Mestarh Kleeg Iwuuret?”
Perhaps he couldn’t make out what I was trying to say?
Me: “Yes, I am the person you are looking for.”
Him: “OK.”
Me: “…”
Him: “…”
Me: “You are calling about the interview?”
Him: “So ifna kolik abbaud arun foha.”
Me: “I’m sorry, the line is echoing very badly, can you please say that again?”
Him: “So if colling aboud arun four?”
So here I think he’s calling to schedule a call at four because they screwed up today’s schedule already.
Me: “Tomorrow? Yes, you can call me at four.”
Him: “OK. So hou abbaud you al habing eksperens an de Sulrais Ziss?”
Now I don’t know what he’s saying, but I know its not a scheduling question.
Me: “Can you please say that again? This connection must be very bad.”
Him: “You al hawing eksperens wit Lenaks an de Sularis swistems?”
Me: “Yes, I have experience on Linux and Solaris systems. Mostly Linux, though, because that is the platform I develop on.”
And here it began to dawn on me that this was the actual interview. In Indo-Pig Latin.
Him: “Okai. Bud wud abaudd yor kulanted lol on de dekuhnikal missm?”
Me: “I must be having a bad phone day. Please give me a moment to get to a quieter room so I can hear you.”
Him: “So komaing fru dat ayem ah phookink zandngar an…” [and so on…]
He kept babbling on and on about something that I couldn’t hear as I moved to an environment better suited to auditory-verbal cryptanalysis. Hope I didn’t miss anything paradigm shifting.
Him: “…[continued spacetalk]…”
Me: “What would you like to know about my experience?”
Him: “Inna suba sisesutm hau ew mak da pashink?”
Me: “The reception is poor again, can you please say that again?”
Him: “Inna subaa susutem hao eww poot a pach?”
Me: “Patching? Are you asking me how to patch a server? It depends on what you mean by ‘patching’. Are we patching sources to rebuild a program, or installing upgraded binaries through a package manager or performing an automated patch and rebuild the way ebuilds and ports work?”
Him: “Yesss. Inna sabaa, hou eww poot a pach?”
Me: “What system are we talking about?”
Him: “Inna sauce.”
Me: “Sauce? In source? Oh,  Solaris? If we are receiving updated binaries I would use the package manager. I haven’t seen people bypass IPS and use the patch manager directly for a while.”
Him: “Zo uatt ai am gunda be dou nuh is abbauda passhin inna sabaa. Hau yu du?”
Me: “I’m sorry, I think you are asking me how I would patch a Solaris server, and without knowing anything else about the question I think you mean we are receiving updates from a repository. My answer is that I would use the package manager, probably IPS, or if just patches then the old patch manager. But I don’t really understand your question. It is really broad.”
Him: “SO hao eww do?”
Me: “You mean the command sequence?”
Him: “Yeis.”
Me: “You want me to spell it out over the phone?”
Him: “Yeis.”
I couldn’t help but snicker a little… is this really the way system administration interviews go?
Me: “OK, which version of Solaris?”
Him: “Inna sabaa.”
Me: “I understand in a server, but that doesn’t really change the question much, unless I’m missing something. Which version of Solaris? We are talking about Solaris, right?”
Him: “Zo vot ah em denkning niss uii nut dokkin abbaud da deweropent zicheeshn. Dust a passh a sabaa.”
Me: “Right, not a development situation, just patching a server. But this is a difficult question to answer unless I know what system we are talking about. They don’t all work the same way.”
Him: “Du eww habba poosiija fou da makkink na fou da af emma lepozitorian?”
Me: “I’m sorry, the phone is being worse than usual again, can you please ask the question again?”
Him: “Enna proosiija fou passhing. Eww habba lepozitori an poosiija. Du garanti ob da safti?”
Me: “My procedure to guarantee the safety? You mean during patching? If I make a repository? Was that part of the question?”
Him: “Yeis.”
Me: “OK, yes, in a production environment I would expect that we have separate testing and production repositories at least. I would patch or update the test servers, run applicable tests for whatever application or server software we have installed, and then deploy the update to the production servers. But this is a really basic thing to say, and I can’t give you any details without knowing what system we are talking about. Is this even a Solaris question?”
Him: “So abbaudda Lennuks.”
Me: “Linux? The question is about Linux?”
Him: “Onna Lenuks hau eww makka lepozitori?”
Me: “Repositories on Linux? Which distro?”
Him: “Onna Lenuks.”
Me: “OK… What package manager are we talking about? RPM, yum, smitty, portage, aptitude, they all do things very differently. Even RPM is different on different distros that use it.”
Him: “Yeis. Onna Lenuks. Hau eww mak da lepozitori?”
Me: “Just assuming you mean Red Hat or CentOS or something else derived from Fedora, I would collect the RPMs we want to distribute, sign them, write a meta RPM for yum installation that has the public key and config file in it and build the repository metadata with createrepo. But if this is not a development environment we’re probably just mirroring an existing repository, so most of the time syncing with the master is sufficient. If not we could sync, re-sign, and recreate the repodata with createrepo.”
Him: “So hau eww mak da lepositori?”
Me: “I think I just told you. I have maintained several software repositories in the past and using createrepo is by far the easiest and most reliable way to do it, if we are talking about a yum repository full of RPMs for a distro like Red Hat Enterprise Linux.”
Him: “Yeis. So da Redhat.”
Me: “Maybe I don’t understand the question. You want me to tell you how to create a repository?”
Him: “Inna Lenuks hau eww mobbing fom weri zmar drraib enna rojikalworuum?”
Me: “Sorry, I can’t hear the question very well, the phone is full of echoes. You are asking me in Linux how to do something?”
Him: “Mobbing werri zmorr drraib anna rojikalworuum.”
Me: “Moving a small drive in Logical Volume Manager?”
Him: “Yeis.”
And here is where it dawned on me that I should have hung up at the first sign of weirdness. Instead I had hung on and now I was really along for the ride. Until the bittersweet end…
Me: “Do you mean changing a physical block device from one volume to another, or moving the volume itself?”
Him: “Retzsai eyabba  werri zmorr drraib anna wanna denk u poot enna rojikalworuum. Hau kann godu boot?”
Me: “You are asking me how to move a Linux installation from a small drive onto a logical volume, and then boot it later?”
Him: “Yeis.”
Me: “Assuming this is a simple case I would copy the filesystem to a new partition within the logical volume and add an entry to the bootloader so that we could boot it from the new location. But what bootloader we are using in this case? Grub or LILO or Grub2?”
Him: “Inna Lenuks.”
Me: “Right, in Linux, but which bootloader are we using?”
Him: “In da Lenuks.”
Me: “Right, but are we using Grub or LILO?”
Him: “LILO. Inna Lenuks.”
At this point I was relieved just to get something other than “Inna Lenuks” by itself out of him.
Me: “OK, assuming that the version of LILO we are using is logical volume aware, I would add the entry to the LILO configuration file that points to the location of the kernel on the relocated installation.”
Him: “Wat fail?”
Me: “What fail? You mean what file? The LILO configuration file.”
Him: “So wat fail?”
Me: “You mean where is it? Its usually in ‘slash E T C slash L I L O dot C O N F’.”
Him: “Inna Redhadd.”
Me: “In Red Hat? LILO isn’t a part of that distro any more. They use Grub2 now.”
Him: “Uadda za komunt fur addikt inna neu intree?”
Me: “The command for adding the new entry? There is not a command to add a new LILO entry, you have to edit the configuration file directly. Grub2 has some commands like grub-install and grub-update. But you still have to check the configuration file to make sure things are in the right place. Is that what you mean?”
Him: “Inna Lenuks?”
Crap! We’re back to this again. I really don’t know how to debug this guy. He’s worse than the Emacs Psychoanalyst.
Me: “Yes, in Linux. But this is not exactly a Linux question. The bootloader can load anything, so I don’t know what you mean.”
Him: “Adnanujinnadundaweenananndana…[A good five-minute bunch of spacetalk that I completely cannot understand. It was riveting, though. Like a symphony it had its own movements. Initially with the monotone of a public announcement, then to the lively staccato of a friend relating a happy story, capping with a crescendo of alternate gravelly and soft sounds unique to Indian speakers, and ending with a friendly chuckle — as if he had enjoyed himself and was ready to say goodbye.]…”
Me: “OK, thank you for the call.”

I have no idea what most of that was about. I got the feeling he asked me some Solaris questions and some Linux questions and some general installation-wide question at the end that I never quite got a fix on. Actually, I never quite got a fix on anything at all, and I don’t think he did either.

This was the weirdest interview experience in my life. It is like a trick they would pull you at Robin Sage but this guy was for real; no OC is going to come evaluate me on how I did and counsel me how to better deal with the crazy and ambiguous.

Now for the scary part. This is the new face of IT outsourcing. Think long and hard whether you want to trust your data integrity and the construction of business systems you expect to get reliable answers out of to companies that have trouble communicating with their own (prospective, in this case) subcontractors and employees.

Since this is Japan, I wonder how on earth they manage to conduct interviews of Japanese people?

Am I alone here? Has anyone else ever experienced this sort of thing? (Other than when calling Dell or Microsoft tech support and being redirected to India, that is.)

Fedora: A Study in Featuritis

Its a creeping featurism! No, its a feeping creaturism! No, its an infestation of Feature Faeries! No, its Fedora!

I’ve been passively watching this thread (link to thread list) on the Fedora development list and I just can’t take anymore. I can’t bring myself to add to the symphony, either, because it won’t do any good — people with big money have already funded people with big egos to push forward with the castration of Fedora, come what may. So I’m writing a blog post way out here in the wilds of the unread part of the internet instead, mostly to satisfy my own urge to scream. Even if alone in the woods. Into a pillow. Inside a soundproof vault.

I already wrote an article about the current efforts to neuter Unix, so I won’t completely rehash all of that here. But its worth noting that the post about de-Nixing *nix generated a lot more support than hatred. When I write about political topics I usually get more hate mail than support, so this was unique. “But Unix isn’t politics” you might naively say — but let’s face it, the effort to completely re-shape Unix is nothing but politics; there is very little genuinely new or novel tech going on there (assloads of agitation, no change in temperature). In fact, that has ever been the Unix Paradox — that most major developments are political, not technical in nature.

As an example, in a response to the thread linked above, Konstantin Ryabitsev said:

So, in other words, all our existing log analysis tools have to be modified if they are to be of any use in Fedora 18?

In a word, yes. But what is really happening is that we will have to replace all existing *nix admins or at a minimum replace all of their training and habits. Most of the major movement within Fedora from about a year ago is an attempt to un-nix everything about Linux as we know it, and especially as we knew it as a descendant in the Unix tradition. If things keep going the way they are OS X might wind up being more “traditional” than Fedora in short order (never thought I’d write that sentence — so that’s why they say “never say ‘never'”).

Log files won’t even be really plain text anymore? And not “just” HTML, either, but almost definitely some new illegible form of XML by the time this is over — after all, the tendency toward laughably obfuscated XML is almost impossible to resist once angle brackets have made their way into any format for any reason. Apparently having log files sorted in Postgres wasn’t good enough.

How well will this sit with embedded systems, existing utilities, or better, embedded admins? It won’t, and they aren’t all going to get remade. Can you imagine hearing phrases like this and not being disgusted/amused/amazed: “Wait, let me fire up a browser to check what happened in the router board that only has a serial terminal connection can’t find its network devices”; or even better, “Let me fire up a browser to check what happened in this engine’s piston timing module”?

Unless Fedora derived systems completely take over all server and mobile spaces (and hence gain the “foist on the public by fiat” advantage Windows has enjoyed in spite of itself) this evolutionary branch is going to become marginalized and dumped by the community because the whole advantage of being a *nix admin was that you didn’t have to retrain everything every release like with Windows — now that’s out the window (oops, bad pun).

There was a time when you could pretty well know what knowledge was going to be eternal (and probably be universal across systems, or nearly so) and what knowledge was going to change a bit per release. That was always one of the biggest cultural differences between Unix and everything else. But those days are gone, at least within Fedoraland.

The original goals for systemd (at least the ones that allegedly sold FESCO on it) were to permit parallel service boot (biggest point of noise by the lead developer initially, with a special subset of this noise focused around the idea of Fedora “going mobile” (advanced sleep-states VS insta-boot, etc.)) and sane descendant process tracking (second most noise and a solid idea), with a little “easy to multi-seat” on the side to pacify everyone else (though I’ve seen about zero evidence of this actually getting anywhere yet). Now systemd goals and features have grown to cover everything to include logging. The response from the systemd team would likely be”but how can it not include logging?!?” Of course, that sort of reasoning is how you get monolithic chunk projects that spread like cancer. Its ironic to me that when systemd was introduced HAL was held up as such a perfect example of what not to do when writing a sub-system specifically because it became such an octopus — but at least HAL stayed within its govern-device-thingies bounds. I have no idea where the zone of responsibility for systemd starts and the kernel or userland begins anymore. That’s quite an achievement.

And there has been no end to resistance to systemd, and not just because of init script changeover and breakages. There have been endless disputes about the philosophy underlying its basic design. But don’t let that stop anybody and make them think. Not so dissimilar to the Gnome3/Unity flop.

I no longer see a future where this distro and its commercially important derivative is the juggernaut in Linux IT — particularly since it really won’t be Linux as we understand it, it will be some other operating system running atop the same kernel.

Come to think of it, changing the kernel would go over better than making all these service and subsystem changes — because administrators and users would at least still know what was going on for the most part and with a change in kernel the type of things that likely would be different (services) would be expected and even well-received if they represented clear improvements over whatever had preceded them.

Consider how similar administering Debian/Hurd is to administering Debian/Linux, or Arch/Hurd is to administering Arch/Linux. And how similar AIX and HP/UX are to administering, say, RHEL 6. We’re making such invasive changes through systemd that a change of kernel from a monolothic to a microkernel is actually more sensible — after all, most of the “wrangle services atop a kernel a new way” ideas are already managed a more robust way as part of the kernel design, not as an intermediate wonder-how-it’ll-work-this-week subsystem.

Maybe that is simpler. But it doesn’t matter, because this is about deliberately divisive techno politicking on one side (in the vain hope that “if our wacko system dominates the market, we’ll own the training market by default even if Scientific Linux and CentOS still dominate in raw numbers!”), and ego masturbation on the other (“I’ll be such a rebel if I shake up the Unix community by repeatedly deriding so-called ‘Unix traditions‘ as outdated superstitions and generally giving the Unix community the bird!”) on the other.

Here’s a guide to predicting the most likely outcomes:

  • To read the future history* of how these efforts work out as a business tactic, check the history of Unix from the mid-1980’s to early 2000’s and see how well “diversification” in the interest of carving out corporate empires works. I find it strikingly suitable that political abuse of language has found its way into this effort — conscious efforts at diversification (defined as branching away from every other existing system, even your own previous releases) is always performed under the label of “standardization” or “conformance to existing influences and trends”. Har har. Joke’s on you, though, Fedora. (*Yeah, its already written, so you can just read this one. Easy.)
  • To predict the future history of a snubbed Unix community, consider that the Unix community is so used to getting flipped the bird by commercial interests that lose their way that it banded together to write Linux and the entire GNU constellation from scratch. Consider also that the original UNIX was started by developers who were snubbed and felt ill at ease with another, related system whose principal flaw was (ironically) none other than the same featuritis the Linux community is now enduring.

I don’t see any future where Fedora succeeds in any of its logarithmically expanding goals as driven by Red Hat. And with that, I don’t see a bright future for Red Hat beyond v7 if they don’t get this and other priorities sorted**. As a developer who wishes for the love of everything holy that I could just focus on developing consumer business applications, I’m honestly sad to say that I’m having to look for a new “main platform” to develop for, because this goose looks about cooked.

** (sound still doesn’t work reliably — Ekiga is broken out of the box, Skype is owned by Microsoft now — Fedora/Red Hat don’t have a prayer at getting on mobile (miracles aside) — nobody is working on anything solid to stand a business on once the “cloud” dream bubble pops — virtualization is already way overinvested in and done better elsewhere already anyway — easy-to-fix media issues aren’t being looked at — a new init system makes everything above worse, not better, and is distracting and requires admins to completely retrain besides…)

Decisions: I’m supporting Ron Paul

tl:dr: I’m supporting Ron Paul. He actually knows enough to hold and argue positions, something sorely lacking from the political field.

I’ve been overwhelmingly busy with trying to start an open-source focused IT company with literally zero financing (yeah, “fat chance” right?) so haven’t had much time to pay to elections lately.

Anyone familiar with my thoughts on geopolitics, economics and political philosophy can probably guess that I perceive a significant separation between the way that establishment political parties portray themselves and the actual policies they adhere to, the way people think and the available menu of parties to choose from, and the way Americanism as a political philosophy is taught through history and the way the situation stands today.

For those who aren’t familiar with my thoughts, or aren’t able to infer just where I believe these political divides to be, you can simply read them directly. Two or three years ago I laid out how the American political landscape is removed from the current menu provided by establishment politics. The basic problem is one of uncomfortable couplings of incompatible principles.

These weird couplings lead to incoherent policies, inventive ways to sell such incompatibilities in elections and then even more inventive ways for supporters of this or that politician to justify just why they favor this or that candidate, having been robbed of any logical foundation for decision.

The mental and even emotional agility required to follow, say, Mitt Romney’s (just to pick someone who is current and known) statements on just about anything tire me, and I’ve got a company to try to establish. And I’m not even in the US right now (Japan, currently).

A close friend of mine from my Special Forces days (which I may be returning to soon in the event my company fails… wahahaha!) met with me the other day and asked me what I thought of Ron Paul. I hadn’t heard of him, so I did what everyone does and asked the internet about it.

It turns out that while the media consciously tries to avoid Ron Paul, he’s all over the internet. Actually, looking at poll numbers, it is amazing he doesn’t get more media time, until you consider what he talks about. (The link is fascinating if you consider that it has been subtitled in German, and contemplate the way a German may interpret this story.)

The man is too correct and too sincere. He is also far too consistent to even sound like a candidate. I found myself disagreeing with him on two areas, but not at all on principles. So implementation arguments I might have with the guy, but all the big stuff I believe him to be dead right about. So I’m endorsing him and I will vote for him if he winds up on the ballot.

Where do I disagree?

Hard VS Soft currency

I subscribe to soft currency Chicago/Friedmanist style economics, Ron Paul is an Austrianist who believes in removing the Federal Reserve completely and returning to the gold standard. I believe the gold standard to be literally impossible to properly implement across the board, and since gold is a major economic commodity today I don’t find it reasonable to base a currency on it. From a practical perspective I don’t see the sense in taking it out of the ground in California at incredible expense only to put it back in the ground in New York or Kentucky. Or London or Tokyo for that matter. People need to trade, so they will trade. A soft currency provides a vehicle through which a farmer can trade cows for soccerballs without having to chop the cow into tiny pieces to buy a single soccer ball. Its a representative wealth vehicle. But it can be mismanaged. Bad management of fiscal policy, whether soft or hard, or even improper regulation of a derivative or certificate market system, can accelerate a boom-bust cycle which I perceive as somewhat inevitable, but exacerbated by mismanagement of policy (and absolutely, unsurvivably catastrophic when linked by society-wide regulatory systems like socialism or fascism).

The problem I see is that hard currencies can be just as easily mismanaged by government as soft currencies, and there is simply no silver bullet (no pun intended) to that situation other than simply removing government from the economic equation as much as possible — and this is the lynchpin of both my ideas and Ron Paul’s. Hard currencies have been abused throughout the ages, and soft currencies have as well. So I see hard VS soft as an issue of practicality and nothing more. I can argue convincingly that abuse of the system — whatever system that is — by government interference is the core problem and that must be the focus even more than any focus on a specific method of wealth conveyance.

Isolationism VS Non-Interventionism

Ron Paul is not an isolationist. He says so himself and he clearly doesn’t believe in that by its purest definition. I don’t believe in isolationism, either. I do believe in a slightly higher level of intervention and martial preparation than he may, however. In particular, he hasn’t had a chance to fully explain his position on recalling all foreign military bases, or even whether that’s what he really means. I don’t think a 100% elemination of all US bases from overseas is wise, specifically with regard to maintaining a global naval capacity. Maintaining a truly open maritime trade environment is what I’m really concerned about, not whether or not we continue to keep forward deployed American armor units in Germany, Poland or Turkey. There are other ways to maintain forward readiness that are cheaper and perhaps more responsible than what we’re doing today, and from a strict security-only perspective a strong navy is the only really critical part of our strategic posture (and I’m an ex-Army Green Beret saying that, not an ex-Navy whatever). When we go beyond that we start getting into really fuzzy discussions (“Well, if this one base in Japan is too important to do away with, why aren’t bases X, Y, and Z in Korea, Germany and England?” &tc.).

Having spent a lot of time in Congress and having heard deep national strategy discussions from time to time, I suspect Dr. Paul probably thinks the same things I do about foreign policy and simply doesn’t have time to get into it during political debates in campaign season. The fact that he could argue reason based on a studied position on these issues, however, defines a significant separation between him and the rest of the politicians from all parties — and that is what scares me a bit.

And that brings me to why the media is shutting him out — including the people who should love this guy at first look: Fox News. The problem with Ron Paul is that he’s really frightening to the establishment. Any establishment. Once an establishment gets large enough it magically gets in bed with government in America, and that is more representative of the fact that we don’t quite really have capitalism in America; not nearly how it was intended to work anyway. The amount of money that is wrapped up in ties to government is only increasing, and that means that large establishments tend to be more reliant on government as time passes, which means that any and all large establishments, whether politically Right or Left (which I don’t believe to be accurate labels any longer) are threatened by ideas like Ron Paul’s. When you hear “the budget went up” it went somewhere, usually to contracted arrangements to federal employee budgets, most of which are not specifically authorized by the Constitution.

Dr. Paul is right about nearly everything I’ve heard him speak on, and the other candidates aren’t really saying much of anything. Its almost like George Friedman, Milton Friedman (no relation), and Ayn Rand got together to run for President — but its just one guy.

If you haven’t made the time to pay attention to the elections because they “just don’t matter” (which is the attitude I was taking until last week) please look Ron Paul up. Listen to some of the things he has to say and the things he has written over the last several decades in office. He knows what he’s talking about and hasn’t changed his story since he was initially elected 12 terms ago. That’s truly amazing in politics in any era.

If my friend happens to read this, I suppose he’ll know what I wound up thinking about Ron Paul.

Gradkell Systems: Not assholes afterall

I was contacted yesterday (or was it two days ago? I’ve since flown across the international date line, so I’m a bit confused on time at the moment) by the product manager for DBsign, the program that is used for user authentication and signatures on DTS (and other applications? unsure about this at the moment). He was concerned about two things: the inaccurate way in which I described the software and its uses, and the negative tone in which I wrote about his product. It was difficult to discern whether he was upset more about me making technically inaccurate statements or my use of the phrase “DBSign sucks”.

Most of the time when someone says something silly or out of turn on the intertubes it is done for teh lulz. Responding in anger is never a good move when that is the case (actually being angry about anything on the internet is usually a bad move, one which usually precipitates a series of bad judgement calls and massive drama). Mike Prevost, the DBsign Product Manager for Gradkell Systems, not only knows this well, he did something unusual and good: he explained his frustration with what I wrote in a reasonable way and then went through my article line-by-convoluted-line and offered explanations and corrections. He even went further than that and gave me, an obscure internet personality, his contact information so I can give him a call to clear up my misconceptions and offer recommendations. Wow.

That is the smartest thing I’ve seen a software manager do in response to negative internet publicity — and I have quite a history with negative internet publicity (but in other, admittedly less wholesome places than this). So now I feel compelled not only to offer a public apology for writing technically inaccurate comments, I am going to take Mr. Prevost’s offer, learn a bit more about DBsign (obviously nobody is more equipped to explain it to me than he is), and write about that as well.

The most interesting thing here is not the software, though — it is the wetware. I am thoroughly impressed by the way he’s handling something which obviously upsets him and want to ask him about what motivated his method of response. When I say “obviously upsets” I don’t mean that his email let on that he’s upset directly — he was quite professional throughout. Rather, I know how it feels to have been deeply involved in a knowledge-based product and have someone talk negatively about it out of turn (actually, it can frustrating to have someone speak positively out of turn in the same way). I’ve developed everything from intelligence operations plans to strategic analysis products to software myself and I know that one of the most important aspects of any knowledge worker’s world is his pride and personal involvement with his work. This is a very personal subject. Just look at the way flamewars get out of hand so fast on development mailinglists. I still have epic flamewar logs kept since the very early days of Linux kernel development, Postfix dev mayhem and even flamewars surrounding the Renegade BBS project. While the decision to use a comma (or a colon, or whatever) as a delimiter in an obscure configuration file may seem like a small point to an outsider, to the person who spent days ploughing over the pros and cons of such a decision or the people who will be enabled or constrained in future development efforts by such a decision it is very personal indeed.

Unfortunately this week has me travelling around the globe — twice. Because of that I just don’t have time to call Mr. Prevost up yet, or make major edits to anything I’ve got posted, but I’m going on record right now and saying three things:

  1. I should have personally checked what the DTMO help desk (clearly a dubious source of technical information) told me about how DBsign works and what the hangups in interoperation with current open source platforms are. I’m sorry about that and I likely cast DBsign in the wrong light because of this.
  2. Gradkell Systems are not a bunch of assholes — quite the opposite, it seems. Their openness is as appreciated as it is fascinating/encouraging.
  3. DBsign might not suck afterall. Hopefully I’ll learn things that will completely reverse my position on that — if not, Mr. Prevost seems open to recommendations.

I've been turned into a mudkip. Nice move.
So yes, I’ve been turned into a mudkip.

The part in point 3 above about Mr. Prevost being open to recommendations, when fully contemplated, means something special (and I’ve had a 16 hour flight and two days in airports to think about this): Great managers of shitty software projects will eventually be managers of great software projects; whether because they move on to other projects that are great, or because they take enough pride in their work to evolve a once bad project into a great one.