Stupid technology, happy Valentine’s day, overmediation

So, I fix my blog late Friday night, am getting a little of a yen to restart blogging, and then early Saturday morning, I hit an immediate roadblock. My Apple Time Capsule— which has functioned wonderfully as a router and no-brains-required backup device for about 18 months— suddenly stopped being able to route to realfake.org, rainyplanet.org, and shyturnip.com. It took 1 support ticket to my hosting service, and a support call to my home ISP (RCN) to figure this out.  The RCN support rep had  hook a computer up directly to the cable modem to rule out the router. I rolled my eyes when she told me to do this— why would the router be the problem? So of course, when I take the router out of the equation, I can get to the site without an issue.  Why the router is doing this is beyond me– it’s an Apple home router, not exactly some esoteric Cisco thing meant for huge companies, there aren’t a lot of ways that you could even put some kind of rule in there to filter out websites if you wanted to. I spent more of my time than I’d care to admit trying to figure out how to debug the stupid thing before I finally decided that there was no good explanation for what it was doing, no good way to debug it, and probably no way to fix it even if I could debug it.

Luckily, I have a spare cheapo Linksys home router at work, so I figured that I’d grab it first thing this morning because I’d already hatched a plan to go out early and get some Valentines’ day flowers for Terri. So, Rainey woke up at 7, I changed him, we played a little, read a few books, and then I bundled him up and we trekked into town to my office. Thanks to your tax dollars and mine, the Big Dig has made this a 10 minute drive on a weekend morning when there’s no traffic. There was no parking on Pearl St, where I usually park when I make these quick jaunts. I remembered that there’s an alley behind the building, so I looped around the block and turned down it. A homeless guy who lives in the neighborhood was dumpster diving in the alley, and there were maybe two dozen huge seagulls, all squacking and waddling toward him. They were thrilled that he’d opened the lid on the dumpsters. Of course, when I turned down the alley, neither the seagulls nor the guy seemed too thriled that I turned down their alley.  I wasn’t exactly happy to be disturbing them either, and all for naught, as it turned out; the loading dock where I’d hoped to park is full with two pickup trucks. So I found a place on the street not too far off. The jaunt up to the office and retrieve the router was quick and uneventful, as was the drive back to Somerville. We stopped at Whole Foods and got some black velvetty looking roses that I figured (correctly) that Terri would like, and we came back and I helped Rainey make his mom a valentine (which Terri also indeed liked).

Guinness & NYT crosswordOnce Terri woke up and found her valentines treats and we got our act together, we walked into Davis Square to the Burren for what has become our Sunday morning — er, afternoon— ritual of reading the NY Times and nursing a few Guinness and letting Rainer flirt outrageously with women 20 – 40 times his age. We had the same waitress as last week. She remembered Rainer’s name (last time we discussed Rainer Maria Rilke (and how he was only one of many factors which led us to Rainey’s name)). This time we discussed how one of the great things about the Burren is that there are no TVs.

Seriously, you can’t go into a place and have it actually be that place anymore. There have to be at least 2 TVs playing at least 2 different channels. Part of the wonderful conversation that Terri and I had during our 5 hours (!) there this afternoon concerned how we’ve really appreciated going to the Burren because it’s somewhere where there are no distractions. This in contrast to our home, which has become a bit overmediated. I definitely feel like we spend a ton of time physically there without really being there. And we have the dirty kitchen of a heavy traveller to prove it. And I realize that driving 5 miles into Boston and 5 miles back before 8am just so that I can get a router that lets me blog is precisely part of the problem. But I am also giving myself some slack; blogging is at least requiring me to sustain some thoughts for more than 140 characters. Blogging is realtime like Twitter, but in high-definition!

Daily Dispatch 13 Feb 2010

I realized that the archives to this blog were broken a few days ago when I tried to use Google to find something I’d written. I figured out what the problem was last night, and fixed it.

There were two side effects. First, I ended up with dozens of items in my RSS reader, as you may have too. Not sure why. The other side effect is that I got the hankerin’ to write in it again.

Actually, there’s probably another reason for that hankerin’, as I have been incapacitated to the point of boredom by a really awful stomach bug the last two days. I’m on the road to recovery now, but for the first day or so I didn’t really even have the gumption to force myself to sit up and use a computer.  I did watch a lot of movies on TCM. Well, I watched the part of Roberta with Fred Astaire and Irene Dunne that I’d seen before and slept through the ending which I hadn’t seen. I also watched the part of Seahawk with Errol Flynn that I’d seen before and also slept through the part that I hadn’t.

More comments on management

A colleague who is also a Facebook friend posted something about The Management Myth recently. My comment I think sums up my opinion of management books and management in general as concisely as I’ve done to date.

Comment #1: I had an epiphany as a young programmer that the best programmers were people who had liberal arts degrees rather than computer science or software engineering degrees. Programmers are supposed to make useful models of the world, and the hardest part turns out not to be the modeling part, but the understanding the world part. When I transitioned into management, I learned the same was true of MBAs.

That said, just like you can get in way over your head in software development if you don’t get some pure engineering training, there really is something to be said for management as an abstract discipline. My gripe with the literature is not so much that it’s all complete hooey, but the books have a very low ratio of valuable insights to hooey, and are very repetitive and information-sparse.

Comment #2: (when I said “the hard part turns out not to be the modeling part” what I mean is that the tools of modeling, the computer languages, the hardware, the infrastructure– those things have reached a state of maturity such that you really don’t have to spend years studying computer science to be able to use them properly).

There’s also one of those great New Yorker reviews-that-is-almost-as-meaty-as-the-book-reviewed here. Which is a pretty interesting history of management consulting going wayyy back to the 19th century.

On why I’m not a Dilbert fan

I put enough thought into my response to this excellent post that I’m stealing it to publish on my own blog.

* * * * *
It’s just a hunch, but historically, I think the rise of the PHB stereotype coincided with the rise of the post WWII military industrial complex. Friends and relatives who have worked in engineering for defense contractors have had a far more Dilbertian experience than I have programming in the purely private sector. If you think about the Manhattan Project or the space race, the engineers in question were more pure scientists– even farther down the spectrum from the PHB stereotype than a typical engineer. And yet the bureaucrats and generals who commissioned their work didn’t understand the science itself. As much of this became privatized, this division of labor continued.

This is mostly conjecture, but it sounds plausible to me.

And I suppose my mileage has varied from the typical programmer here, but I came fairly early in my career to not only believe that good management exists, but to value it. Perhaps it’s because the manager in question was truly a foreman, by your definition, but he understood enough about the work itself to fight for the time and resources to do it properly, but to also keep the team grounded enough to actually *ship*. Maybe it makes me an odd duck, but I find the most satisfaction in finding the simplest solution to a problem– and actually getting my work in front of users. I’ve always felt my fellow programmers if left to their own devices would rather write beautiful or clever code that impressed each other rather than shipping something real.

That’s another reason I too feel little for Dilbert– on one hand the strip seems to suggest that if only the world could be rid of PHBs, workers would magically organize themselves to… to do what exactly? Dilbert gives lip service to wanting to do useful work, but he rarely demostrates much love of craft, certainly not enough to pick up and move to a company where he could exercise it– they do exist. I think it’s in this fatalism where Adams shows his true colors: if Dilbert were a real engineer, he’d figure out that this is a problem to be solved and get himself out of the situation rather than suffer the PHBs idiocy merely to collect a paycheck.

Covers

This is a genuine question. Is there something about the way kids hear music that makes it so that they will only listen to “kid” versions of things and not the adult version? Or is this just an affectation of the adult world?

Someone recommended the Baby Einstein Baby Mozart CD to us. I played it for the kid yesterday. It was basically a bunch of Mozart piano concertos played on a cheesy synth. It wasn’t terrible, and the kid seemed to like it insofar as he realized it existed (which is to say, not that much). But wouldn’t he have liked a version with piano and traditional instrumentation just as much? Was this just to keep from paying royalties or hiring real musicians? Or was there some developmental psychological research that showed that xylophone and bonky drum sounds stimulate babies brains more than pianos and violins?

Later yesterday we took a walk and ended up at Stellabella Toys in Cambridge. They were playing some kind of kid’s CD that featured “What Goes On” by the Velvet Underground as performed by a woman with a sunny voice and an acoustic guitar. Now, I don’t personally see why you’d need to re-record this song to make it palatable to kids, it’s pretty basic, catchy, stripped-down. But maybe some parents with more delicate sensibilities would flip if the same band that recorded “Sister Ray” or “Heroin” was on their kids CD. I don’t know. What makes me think that something else is going on is the version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” we heard there– it sounded exactly like the original, just a different singer.

A kid doesn’t have the cultural context to know the difference between John Lennon and a random studio signer, why even bother? It’s obviously for the parents’ sake. Why would parents choose the studio singer over John Lennon? Maybe hearing his voice conjures up his assasination, his embarassing and ultimately-not-world-changing protests involving hair and bed and Yoko, and “Double Fantasy”.

So, my hypothesis is that kid covers are a slightly self-delusional way to make parents feel like they’re protecting their kids. I will revise this opinion when, if I play both versions side by side, my kid prefers the dumbed-down kid version of a song. Until then, he gets the real deal.

Nerd Boyfriend

I find Nerd Boyfriend endless fun. Each post is a picture of a guy fitting the Warholian definition of a good picture (“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous.”). But there’s always the added twist that the pictures make the subjects look nerdy in addition to merely un-famous. And then there are links to shop for one or more items of the apparel pictured. Genius.

I love it when a plan comes together

I love it when a plan comes together

Juice, vintage 2003

I’m kind of amazed at the amazement of many of my fellow Sox fans that finally some Sox players are finally implicated in the steroids mess. I mean, it stings, sure. I wish it weren’t so. I really wish one of the names named weren’t David Ortiz who by all accounts is The Nicest Guy In The Universe. I agree that the guilty-til-proven-innocent witch-hunt-y way names are tarnished is a travesty (but also think it’s a little disingenuous to think that when I certainly allowed myself a little schadenfreude when the names Rodriguez and Giambi were so tarnished).

But come on, even at the time in question (2003), I have to admit, I had an eyebrow raised. The Sox offense was explosive, you had several capable players suddenly having superstar-quality years (Mueller, Varitek, Ortiz, Damon), and a couple of established superstars having great years, too (Garciaparra, Ramirez). Maybe at the time, the all-pervasive sense of being the perennial bridesmaid made people not even let that thought bubble into consciousness. But I gotta figure I can’t be the only one who had that thought, but quickly filed it away in the back of my mind in the bin labelled “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

A slightly cynical thought I’ve played with for some years now is that there should be two MLBs. One that allows steroids, and one that is “clean”. I don’t know. These dudes are highly paid, and if they’re willing to trade years of their life for cash and glory, so be it: it’s not cheating if everybody’s doing it. Also, my strong hunch is that the league with steroids allowed and out in the open would be vastly more popular, full of lots of home runs and lots of game twists (ala the Red Sox circa 2003 and 2004, where you could never count out the offense, even if they were down a couple of runs and it was 2 outs in the 9th inning). Those were years which have since been unmatched for sheer entertainment value.

Still, I do wish that the only juicing that had been going on was the slug of Jack Daniels that Kevin Millar claimed was part of the team pregame ritual.

PS: Lesson learned on schadenfreude. However, I will allow myself a slight bit of glee if that sanctimonious twit Curt Schilling gets implicated too, since he has clucked loudly at every name that comes to light.

PPS: As I’m writing this and watching NESN, Boston Mayor Tom Mennino and David Ortiz are urging the young people of the city to make good decisions this summer.

Catching up

Yes, it’s been a pretty long lull in blogging. I blame Facebook/twitter for letting out some of the blogging steam. But it’s also been mostly that I’ve been getting ready to be a dad. Clarification: busy trying to feel ready to be a dad. Well, with 2 1/2 weeks to go, we had a couple of loose ends to tie up, but that didn’t stop Rainer Eli from making a grand entrance on July 17, weighing in at 6lbs, 9oz, and 18 inches long.

P1000995So far fatherhood has been much as advertised (the sleep deprivation, the “wow, look at this amazing little creature!”, the diapers). But again, having an idea about what’s coming is different than actually experiencing the thing. Which I’m enjoying greatly. In fact, I’m going to go visit him right now.

“people who don’t work with their hands are parasites”

This “Shop Class as Soulcraft” book that has been getting a lot of attention lately bugs me for a lot of reasons. So it’s nice to see that someone has written a far more lucid essay than I could have, hitting all of my main gripes.

I mean, I get where the motorcycle repair guy is coming from. For the last 10 years I’ve either been a software developer or, abstracted one more level, a manager of software developers, or, abstracted one more level, a director of software development— the latter being so abstracted even I’m not really sure what it means most of the time. I spend most of the day communicating mostly electronically with often remote colleagues to build symbolic representations of things which are themselves symbolic representations of other things. So sometimes it all gets a little hairy, and when it does, I come home from the office, turn off the computer and do some gardening: I touch dirt, and cultivate living things that enjoy the sun. Or I mess around with my 3/4 ton cast iron letterpress built in 1925,  making physical things on actual paper using real ink that stains my hands, setting the type by hand, metal letter by metal letter. There is a definite satisfaction to manipulating things in the physical world for a change.

And when I talk about these things with people who don’t know me well, they often assume these are my true passions, what I’d spend 100% of my time doing if only I could throw off the golden handcuffs of my day job. They seem a little surprised when I tell them that I’d go totally crazy if I had to do either of those things full time, and that I find my real job far more stimulating. But it’s true. If I really wanted to grow things for a living, I’d have stayed on my parents’ farm, and if I wanted to do letterpress full-time I’d do it— I know many people who have thriving letterpress businesses.

But my job is sort of endlessly interesting: it’s basically to learn how a part of the world works and then to model it as software. When something becomes rote, you just write a program to do it for you. Or, as Alan Turing said:

Instruction tables will have to be made up by mathematicians with computing experiences and perhaps a certain puzzle-solving ability. There will probably be a great deal of work to be done, for every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form at some stage.

The process of constructing instruction tables should be very fascinating. There need be no real danger of it ever becoming a drudge, for any processes that are quite mechanical may be turned over to the machine itself.

In the process, I have gotten to work closely with people from China, all parts of India, Ireland, Korea, France, Bangladesh via Saudi Arabia, England, Russia, and every conceiveable part of the US. While I do sympathize with the movement toward more local economies like the movement toward eating fresh locally grown food, and while I do get concerned at times at the really dramatic extent to which US manufacturing has moved overseas, I do know that my life has been enriched by developing personal relationships with people from all over the world. I have a hard time believing that this kind of international exchange of labor is a bad thing.

Back to the New Yorker piece: one of the things that irks me to no end about the “Shop Class” guy (whose book I have not read, but whose NYT Magazine article I did read) is his kind of shocking lack of historical perspective. The insight that mechanized or abstract work can be kind of alienating is not exactly new. While he does cite some influences (like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), he writes as if he never heard of, oh, the arts and crafts movement. The New Yorker piece does a decent survey of a history of this idea, all the way back to Adam Smith himself.

I guess, finally, what also bugs me is that I do agree with his basic premise: that “manual” labor actually requires creativity and can be a satisfying, valuable, and worthwhile way to spend your life. I just dislike that he seems to rule out the possibility that others mileage may vary, and would not find it so. But it seems like bashing white collar work seems to have struck a nerve with enough white collar workers to sell quite a few books.

[PS: To save you the trouble of looking it up, the title of this post is a Jenny Holzer Truism]

Driving in Massachusetts with the… with the… radio on!

We drove to the Petsmart in Everett to get some wet food and some litter. The radio we heard there and back could have been taken from my casette collection in 8th grade. On the way we heard the end of “Aqualung” and then we switched stations to some kind of jazz thing on 91.5, which I think is Tufts University radio, but weren’t really paying attention. In Petsmart the woman with the purple fingernails so incredibly long they curve into themselves — I don’t know she bags heavy containers of pet food all day– made small talk with Terri about when her due date was and if we know if it’s a boy or a girl. When we got back to the car, Tufts University radio is no longer playing jazz, they’re playing “Thick as a Brick”. It’s not every day you hear the Jethro Tull on two different radio stations within 15 minutes of each other, and you pretty much never hear them on college radio– maybe all the music snobs have gone home for the summer? Anyway, we headed back toward home, and they cut off “Thick as a Brick” abruptly partway through and kick into “Nights in White Satin”. Now, the clouds were kind of thick and grey, but as we came over the crest of a hill on Route 16, the Moody Blues coming to a crashing, overblown symphonic crescendo, a huge break in the heavens opens up and beams of sunset light are shining down on us, and we both just started laughing because the moment could not have been more perfectly synchronized if we were in a car commercial. We decided to grab dinner at Cambridge Common, so we got to hear “Tuesday Afternoon” and the beginning of “Locomotive Breath”.

After dinner, back in the car, I’m the DJ because I had beer and so Terri is driving. Fresh Air with Terri Gross is on NPR, and she’s interviewing some guy who is talking some crap about relationships and the new song on his album and the guy is all “don’” this and “singin’” that (I admit that I tunred to Terri and said “sounds like this guy forgot to bring his G’s to the interview”) and talking about how insensitivity creeps into relationships and I assume it’s some folksy pretentious faux man of the people NPR darling like Steve Earle or some such, so I flip stations, but nothing else is on, so I flip back, and I swear to god, the words out Terri Gross’s mouth are “ok, so, Iggy Pop, now we’re going to listen to your cover of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” from your new album”.

!!?!?!!

And, during the clip, I’m thinking, while I’m not rushing out to buy this, it’s also not as bad as Rod Stewart’s standards album or the Billy Idol christmas album. At the end she asks him if he’s going to be doing cabaret anytime soon, and he says that he admits that pretentions of the Cafe Carlyle or the Rainbow Room are creeping in. She asks if the Cafe Carlyle called tonight would he do it, he says “you know, I might be tempted but I’ve done stuff like that before and I just hate singin’ with my shirt on”.