Look for the Union Label

I don’t remember what inspired this train of thought this morning. Maybe it was when I drove past the junk antique shop with the Republican signage, or maybe it was just thinking about how my labels have changed although I don’t actually think my core positions have. But anyway, I started thinking about politics and political party affiliation. Over the years I’ve been affiliated with several different parties, mostly because I’d be attracted by some policies but then later repelled by either the actions of the politicians or by the real platform of the party. It took a lot of disillusionment and protest to get me around to where I am today. But fundamentally, I think people are important, more so than are things. Property is nice, certainly, and I sure do like living indoors and having a computer, but I’m not prepared to enslave or kill anyone to make that happen.

I was in a job interview recently and one of the interviewers looked at my resume and asked, “So, your degree is in drama. How did you get to software engineering from there?” This question always comes up. Depending on how I feel at the time and what I think about the people I’m talking to, I tell the story differently. I never lie, but of course one can tell the same story different ways to emphasize different points. This time, I mentioned that if I’d wanted to keep on the track from my degree (I’d been focused on theater tech, particularly electrical) then I’d either have to go to grad school and join the union or I’d have to go find a shop to apprentice in and join the union. I’d worked with union stagehands and electricians when outside events came to campus and I hadn’t been terribly impressed. I recognize that unions exist because without them the workers would be exploited horribly. I think it’s terrible that they have to exist and I deplore the management practices that make them necessary. In fact, I refuse to work in an environment where unions are the only way workers can get treated with some decency.

This post is now all of three paragraphs long, and it has taken me half an hour to write it. Once upon a time, I would have spewed out several pages by this time, but I wouldn’t have believed half of what I wrote and nobody would have been interested in reading it. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have a clear idea of where this was going when I started out and now I’ve forgotten what point, if any, I was going to make. Something about people being important (did that, paragraph one) and the story about how I dislike unions but at the same time I recognize that they’re necessary (did that, paragraph two). Anyway, I have piping to get done and that’s all the profitless noodling I’m going to do for today.

Too Much Information

I saw this story this morning, that Sandia Labs has come up with a smart bullet. That is a pretty cool thing, for sure. But way down at the end of the story there’s this quote:

“Where we’re going is to a world where the individual soldier, Marine, sailor or airman lives in a bath of knowledge. The world would be surreal in the original sense of super real. When you look at something, you see what you need to see when you need to see it,” Firestone said. “They will have the ability to make decisions more accurately and that will have a significant impact.”

This reminds me of a passage in Starship Troopers where Heinlein is describing how the powered armor works:

If you load a mud foot down with a lot of gadgets that he has to watch, somebody a lot more simply equipped — say with a stone ax — will sneak up and bash his head in while he is trying to read a vernier.

I’ve just finished reading 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang and one of the points he makes about the global financial crisis of 2008 is that the problem was not that people didn’t have enough information but rather that people were unable to understand all the information they had already. Knowledge is power, when we compare having it to not having it, but there comes a moment in time when most of the knowledge available is irrelevant and one needs to act on the one or two facts that are pertinent right now. It is certainly true that part of good user interface design is figuring out what information to reveal and what information not to reveal. Too much information at once makes it hard to make a decision.

Get Excited!

Back in October, I wrote this:

So right now, what do I want? I want to be a good piper, I want to be a good husband, I want to be a good father, and I want to put good into the world. I’m still working on the actual implementation. I guess I need to come up with a new dream. I’m not that good at dreams; I’m better at nightmares. But I refuse to work on my nightmares. I’m just going to have to get better at dreaming.

Well, check it out! What you put out into the universe comes back to you. I’m playing the pipes better and looking forward to a good competition season with a new and very difficult 2/4 march finally coming to heel. I’m very excited about a job for which I’ve interviewed, as I’ve heard that an offer is imminent. And most exciting for anyone who is not me, TechRaising is coming up! Junglemonkey has a couple of really cool ideas which I think are very exciting. I’m sure there are lots of other people with great ideas, too. I’m busy learning Javascript so that I can bring more tools to the task of making someone’s great idea a working reality. I would love to see all my fellow software developers there, too. Let’s make some cool stuff happen!

How Long, O Corp?

I saw this headline on the BBC this morning and I thought, “You know, that is a wrong question.” The right question, I think, is, “How long should a company live?” Whether a company is successful or not, I am of the opinion that it ought to ride the carousel after a brief run and get reincorporated only if society at large thinks it’s a good idea. Seriously, do we want immortal sociopaths running our world?

When to Lie, and Why

The title of this post refers to a wonderful book of manners, “How to Behave, and Why” and I’m thinking about that particularly because we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t lie. We especially shouldn’t lie to the government. Not only is it not right thought nor right action nor right speech to lie, but it could get you into real trouble. And yet, I’m here today to tell you about a time when you really, really, should lie to the government.

When creating a user account at the Franchise Tax Board website, one is asked to provide security questions and answers which will be used for user name and password recovery. Note that the account is used to get tax information and to make tax payments. Pretty sensitive stuff. And yet, one is not permitted by the website to choose one’s own questions. One must select from a list of questions provided by the State. The list includes questions whose true answers would be easy enough to figure out just by looking at, say, one’s Facebook profile (what high school did you attend, what was the high school’s mascot, in what year did you graduate from high school, etc.).

The answer here is to lie like crazy, or even just make up gibberish and then write it down and put the questions and answers somewhere safe – a fire safe, for example. The government’s computer doesn’t care if you tell the truth, and you certainly care that nobody else has access to your tax records.

Anxiety Magnet

I have been listening to Niall Ferguson’s book, “The Ascent of Money,” and it’s making me nervous. I’ve read other popular books on economics, as I find I’m fascinated by the field. This is dovetailing in my mind with other books I’ve read: “Collapse,” by Jared Diamond, “What Went Wrong,” by Bernard Lewis, as well as histories of Alexander, the Byzantine Empire, and the Enlightenment. I’m wondering what horrible collapse I’m going to be experiencing in my lifetime. I am feeling highly motivated to try to ensure my family’s security but I don’t have a good idea what to do beyond what we’ve already done and what we continue to do: be frugal, be humble, and stay scrappy.

I May Work Again After All

Shortly before I left my last job I was disillusioned with the company so much that I’d started interviewing at other places. I wasn’t a great match at any of the places I talked to, and then Junglemonkey convinced me just to quit. That was totally the right decision; it’s let me be bitter and play the bagpipes and spend time with my family, who are truly important to me.

Since then I’ve continued to receive emails from recruiters sounding me out for various companies, sometimes secretive and sometimes open both about their identities — “…well-funded pre-IPO company…” — and about their projects. All of these have just left me cold. They all just seemed reiterations of the last bubble and reading the pitches or trying to imagine myself working on their products I’d get tired. Tired the way that depression makes you tired: unable to imagine even wanting to keep breathing. Now, the offers aren’t unusual; around here anyone who can bang out code and has demonstrated any kind of competence gets a couple of these things a month. I gauge the strength of the job market by how many recruiter emails I see in a week. The anomalous thing for me lately is just how much these companies turn me off. A year ago I’d maybe roll my eyes at the hyperbolic buzzwords but now I feel disgust.

Junglemonkey expressed concern that maybe I was letting my bitter disappointment at the way things went at my last gig cloud my judgment. What if one of these recruiters were hiring for a company that I’d really love? I grudgingly agreed to try not to be so negative but really I just thought I’d have to start my own company to get that kind of satisfaction and excitement again.

But today I got a query that made my heart race. Would I be interested in doing what I do best at an organization I’ve wanted to work at since I could read? Seriously, is it even a question?

Well actually, it is a question. Four years from now, I’d love to have that kind of opportunity. Right now, though, I’m fully engaged in supporting my family. I’ve promised them that I’ll be doing domestic support while Junglemonkey takes her career off hold. I love my family and I’m not going to torpedo their lives just to chase a job with some geek status. This gives me some hope, though, and some confidence: I’m not hopelessly embittered by my last job. It is possible for me to be excited by the idea of working on the right project. Those other companies? They probably are soul-sucking jerks.

Cleansing Fire

What do you find in a woodpile, besides wood? Anyone who spends only a couple of minutes thinking about it will come up with the straightforward answer: bugs. And yes, that’s what I find in our woodpile. I’ve found beetles, worms, millipedes, spiders, scorpions, rats, slugs, earwigs, and even a couple of salamanders. I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when a huge black widow came crawling over the log I was putting into the fireplace just now. Shouldn’t have been.

At least I didn’t let out a scream. I’ll cop to a shudder, though, and a renewed determination to wear gloves while I’m building the fire, not just when I’m tending it. Ugh.

An -ism Trap

I’ve been listening to a bunch of Commonwealth Club podcasts: Joel Brinkley on Israel, Eric Ries on “lean startups”, Gavin Newsom on the state of the state, and then this panel on public-private partnerships to boost jobs. By the time I got to the panel, I’d been completely primed to be thinking about structural change. Mr. Newsom mentioned that unemployment in the central valley is up near 30% and contrasted that with the statewide number of just over 12%, as an illustration of why it’d be a good thing for politicians to get out of their comfortable cities and go meet with people who really need their help. Mr. Ries was talking about how entrepeneurs really need to think scientifically about their businesses – a point of view that seems very natural to me and probably feels familiar to many folks who’ve been doing startups for a while, but which does go against the conventional wisdom about how to run a business. Mr. Brinkley made the excellent point that people who criticize the president of the United States or who criticize the foreign policy of the United States are not necessarily un-American nor anti-American, and that the same standard really ought to apply to any state, including Israel.

So here I am, all primed to think about structural problems in the California economy, my excitement at making a difference momentarily rekindled, and what does the panel start up with? Each panelist got to start out talking about how he or she saw the economy right now. Understandably, Nicole Levine, Executive Director for the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment for San Francisco and the Bay Area, talked about unemployment just for women — and then sliced it further into unemployment for various segments of non-white women. And then I started getting frustrated.

What that kind of segmentation says, to me, is that the person doing the segmenting doesn’t believe that the segments can or should be held to the same standards. One has got to be very careful about this kind of thinking; it’s one thing to look at all the demographic and economic data and say, “Gosh, we’ve got x% unemployment, and of people who’ve been unemployed and then started a business, y% of them fail within M months. Maybe we should see what’s going on with them versus the ones who don’t fail and see if there’s an opportunity to help them out.” It’s quite another thing to say, “You know, there’s unemployment, and there are people who try to start their own businesses, but I only care about the black and latina women and what’s up with their businesses.” And sure, that’s fine — there will always be more people who need help than there are resources to go around, so one has to target those resources. But it just struck me as…short sighted. What a weird way to segment things. Of course, any black or latina woman in San Francisco who wants to start a business would be a fool not to take advantage of those resources. I know that if I do decide to come out of retirement and start a company I am totally going to have my latina wife be the owner so it can get that kind of boost.

But I just don’t see that kind of segmentation as being a productive way to think about solving what is, fundamentally, a structural problem. The problem in California is not that black women don’t have jobs, it’s that Californians don’t have jobs. Many people are pointing out that big companies don’t create jobs, they eliminate them. Job growth comes from small businesses, so our attention ought to be on coming up with ways to make it easier for small businesses to get started and to succeed. To the extent that Women’s Initiative for Self Employment for San Francisco and the Bay Area is concerned with getting small businesses started up and running, they’re part of the solution and I think that’s awesome. But how much should a human who is not in San Francisco nor the Bay Area, or who is not a woman, care?

What’s this “-ism trap” I refer to in the title? It’s particularism; thinking that women, or Jews, or blacks, or white men with blue eyes are somehow fundamentally different from all other human beings and that businesses or states run by these people must therefore be subject to different rules than those that apply to every other human being. It’s thinking that, if I point out that gravity does too affect them the way it affects everyone else, that means that I must necessarily be anti-woman, anti-Jew, anti-black, or anti-white-blue-eyed-man.

In a time when everyone is having trouble, this particularism feels to me like a weird sort of inverted contest where the challenge is to be the most victimized segment. What good does that do? How does that make our world better? “Victim” is a powerless position. People who define themselves as victims are defining themselves as powerless. That’s not a position of hope, that’s a position of despair. I’ve had my own struggles with despair and I don’t want to get sucked into that trap. The only way out of victimhood is to stop being a victim. And once you stop being a victim, you join the rest of humanity in trying to solve our problems, not just the problems of some particular demographic segment.

Content Migration

We’ve changed this blog to use WordPress instead of our own hosted Drupal installation, and I’ve got all the old posts dumped to an XML file. WordPress doesn’t know how to import the schema we’ve got, though, and it’s made trickier in that the posts to all three of our blogs were stored in the same database table. So getting it all sorted out into a file format that WordPress can import is taking a bit of time. What we have is a single file of XML. What we want are three files formatted as WXS (which is a WordPress specific format that sort of looks like XML but which isn’t actually documented anywhere). I do have a sample WXS file which I’m using to reverse engineer the transformation, but I’m also going to want to split the posts up, some to this blog, some to the QBCPS blog, and most to Junglemonkey‘s blog.

If each record were a single line, I could probably use sort, grep, and tee to get two files (things I wrote and things Junglemonkey wrote), but there’s still a manual sorting that will have to happen, with the bulk of the work not being mine. I think I can come up with a nice looking interface that shows the list of all the records and, for whatever record is currently selected, the post’s text and author. Then the user can assign the post to one of the destination blogs. When that’s all done, the program can then output the three WXS files and we can try to import them. If this all works, I’ll probably share the app somehow.