Monday, May 30, 2005


We've been thinking about architecture, and houses, and design. Apparently, I'm not the only one who's been thinking that it would be nice to build a new house rather than retrofit this one.

Insert usual 'grown up' caveats about finance, planning, need to be practical, and so forth.

I love the word 'praxis'.


What we talked about this morning was a combination of practical and fanciful.

The practical was a device known as a gravity film exchanger. Despite the name, it's not something from Star Trek, but a real plumbing technique. What you do is wrap a coil of tubing around the line bringing cold water into the water heater. The coil of tubing is connected to the waste waster drain from the shower, washing machine, or other hot water using appliance. The heat from the waste water warms the cold water before it hits the water heater, which means that the water heater doesn't have to work as hard, or cost as much to operate.

When I first heard of the concept, I thought they were describing another technique, where you preheat a loop of water so that when you turn on hot water, you get it immediately (from the loop) while the main feed line was changing over from cold to warm. This isn't that.

As it happens, its also possible that we'll get a system where you don't have a water heater, but one where the water is heated as needed. I don't know much about that technique. I know that means you don't run out of hot water, but I don't know what the economics of it are.

The fanciful parts of the discussion had to do with the feel of a house. I opined that I thought a house should work with you. It should accommodate the way that you actually live. If you normally dump the mail on the first counter into the kitchen, you should understand why (ie, is it because the kitchen is the first room you go into when coming home, or because its the first public area flat surface that you encounter when home), and then design the house to accommodate that. If you tend to accumulate newspapers in the dining room, as we do because we read the bulk of them on Sunday while eating brunch, the house should accommodate the idea that we want someplace to easily stack the discarded papers (right now, on a spare dining room chair). Or just general reading -- I like to curl up in a chair with a bright light and a footstool nearby, with a place to stack magazines, or sections of the paper that I haven't got to yet, or that I want to save -- the house should allow for that. Propagate that idea through all of the areas of the house that you use -- see how you use it, and make the house support you in that, easing the problems, multiplying the pleasures.

There's a book I know of but haven't read that speaks in this style -- it's called A Pattern Language, and its by Christopher Alexander. The idea being, you come up with the concepts that describe the characteristics you want your design to have (house, community, whatever), and only then do you begin to design it. I like that idea. (Whether I'm willing to pay for that level of detail, I don't know. Well, yes I do, but I don't want to give up the fantasy quite yet.)

I think that any decent architect can do that kind of analysis without APL, but I could be wrong.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Don't Tell The Auditor

One of the things that delights me about my marriage -- something that's delighted me for years -- is that we have thea conversations.

When we were recently married, my wife was asked by a sister what it was about me that attracted her. She replied that she liked that we had theoretical conversations, and said that surely her sister had those in her own marriage. Her sister laughed and replied that she didn't have theoretical, theological, or thea - anything conversations.

We do. And though its not a big part of our life, we both like it. Would it be arrogant to say that it lets us be smart? Well, perhaps 'smarter than we normally get a chance to be' would be more appropriate. We're not intellectuals, but we like to think. This time, we were thinking about auditors.

There is an international standard called ISO9000, part of a series of standards that have to do with how a product is created. In theory, ISO9000 is applicable to any production environment; in practice, it seems a lot more applicable to environments that produce tangible output, unlike our industry, which produces software and software environments. Thats not to say that it can't be made to work with us. It just seems pretty unlikely, based on our experience.

When it started, we thought that it meant that we would clearly document how we created what we created. We would document our processes, showing how we made the decisions for product creation and delivery. We would analyze the steps along the way along with the output from each step, and from that we would determine the best way to do it -- the best way to create and deliver our software product. After a couple of years, we'd be pretty amazingly consistent in the level of our quality.

What actually happened is that we developed a set of standards that could be summarized as Do Stuff. There would be some more detail than that, but not a lot more, because we found that if there was detail, then the auditors would pick at it like vultures tearing apart carrion. Far from helping us understand our environment, their only goal would be to nail us. So we deleted details as much as possible, made standards that no one could fail to follow, and, every year, just before the auditors would show up, we'd pull out the ISO documentation -- what Dilbert referred to once as a big honkin' binder -- and we'd brush up on how it was that we said we did what we did. We would most emphatically not be looking to improve our processes. The goal would be to Pass The Audit. If along the way we improved how we did things, fine, but that wasn't the goal of this exercise. The goal here was to Pass. The. Audit.

The other day I asked a coworker who the support person for a given software discipline on a given system was. He told me a name, and I said gee, thats not what my doc says. Must be an out-of-date copy. I paused, and said, with a smile: Don't tell the ISO auditor. I won't, he replied gravely.

Somewhere, I want to believe, ISO9000 works for software people, and makes their product better. Is that too much to ask?


Stuff, Bill's

Why can't commercial mailers put my name correctly on the address?

I'm not Stuff Bill's, or Stuff, Bill's -- I'm Bill's Stuff. I know this isn't hard. Why don't they do it?

Knotty Stuff

It's a beautiful Sunday morning. I'm sitting at the dining room table admist the partial wreckage of the Sunday papers -- three quarters of the way through the Post, haven't started the Times yet. There's a gentle breeze billowing the curtains in the kitchen, and I can hear my neighbor building a fence that will enclose the pool that's going to be installed in June. Things are good.

I've been reading a couple of challenging books lately -- one on networks and society, and one, a tensely-written mystery -- and I've enjoyed it. I don't get enough reading done. I most often read The Economist, and thanks to a friend's gift, I am still reading MIT's Technology Review magazine (I had let it lapse, because it seems to be searching for a focus, but when its good, its very good). I'd like to read more. When I'm in a new bookstore I go to check out their magazines, but I rarely find anything that speaks to me as well as what I've got. But I keep looking.

Speaking of looking, we're looking for some software to control access to Internet Explorer. At the moment, we're relying on a password to the PC to keep my daughter from booting up at will, but that's not the best solution. I'm a little surprised that IE doesn't offer a boot password of its own, or customizable authority levels, as XP does. But until Bill G gets around to thinking that that's worth while, we'll look for alternatives. I had actually tried Firefox for a while, and it was okay, but I bailed when I realized that the bookmarks folder function in FF couldn't contain actual files, as IE's can. I have several text files embedded in the Favorites folder, and they're pretty useful, so until FF can handle that, we'll stick with IE. Yes, I realize that what what I'm doing is essentially choosing convenience over security.

This morning, I went to the local supermarket to pick up the papers. Before I got out of the car, I glanced over to the passenger seat and noticed one of my daughter's library books under mine. I was returning Courting Justice (its a pretty good book so long as you can handle the subtext, which seems to be that lawyers care not so much for ideology as for the cases that sound interesting), and she was returning
The Report Card. I leafed through it, and ended up sitting in the parking lot for another twenty minutes, reading the book to the end. I liked it, and I liked realizing that my daughter and I have similar tastes in books. When I got home, I made sure to tell her that I really liked a book that she had picked out, because it was true, and because I like boosting her ego. Its important to me that she get that message -- that she has tastes that matter, that her opinion matters, that she can handle difficult or skewed topics. My model is the daughter of a friend, who's just graduating from MIT now, and might go to Harvard Med. I don't necessarily want that for her, but that level of achievement, yes, and I think it starts with believing that you can -- being able to reject the popular 'but she's just a girl' image.

Sometimes, maybe, I push it, like when we were trying to unknot a string (we were taking Distinguished Duck out for another swim) and I told her about the mathematical concept of topology. It was reaching, but when I see the chance to casually mention a difficult concept to her, I do it. I want her to think that every concept is knowable, even if just at a conceptual level. Its important to me that she not think she has any limit except natural ability.

I didn't mention that I personally know almost nothing about topology.

Ten minutes after I wrote that, my daughter informed us that she no longer had the goal of doing well in school. She did not enjoy the resulting conversation.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Memorial Note

There is a kind of tired that comes from putting in several hours of good, solid work, getting things done... and there is a kind of tired that comes from getting up early to sit around for several hours and wait. I've got the second.

I'm doing what we call 'supporting' a system transition. Supporting means that you actually do have something to do, but for the most part all that you're doing is sitting and waiting. And that famous quote notwithstanding, its not my cup of tea. I'd much rather be busy, doing something when I'm working. Being bound to the computer, but not actually producing anything, is irksome to me. I even brought two books in here with me that I wanted to read, and I was frazzled enough that I couldn't get into either of them. Okay, one, the Six Degrees book, which is an examination of the nature of networks, is not light reading (well, perhaps for someone brighter than me, it would be), but the other is a Star Trek novel, and except for one, no Star Trek novel has ever taxed my mind. (That one wasn't so much a Star Trek novel as a novel that happened to be set in the Star Trek solution space.) But they're both sitting here, virtually unread. My brain is fried. And I didn't even do anything -- thats the worst part.

I could think about pleasant things. For one, we're drifting back to the thought of building a new house rather than retrofitting this one. We have gotten in contact with both an architect and a firm that sells elevators, and neither has seen fit to return our calls. We'll pursue it a little more, but at the moment, we're back to thinking about a new house. Its a pleasant fantasy -- large bedroom with tall windows, broad windowsills, gleaming woodwork, thick carpets, all of that. We're musing over somewhat non-traditional floor plans, too -- a clerestory, perhaps, for light and ventilation; or a folded shape that would let us have a breakfast nook that's open to the air (or openable: half the year, its too chilly for that!) between the kitchen and our bedroom. I keep saying 'and an indoor lap pool', but barring a sudden infusion of funds from Publishers Clearing House, that's unlikely to happen.

What can I say about the recent unpleasantness in the Senate? Perhaps they should change the nickname of the organization to The Worlds Greatest Sulking Body. Who was it, Sam Rayburn?, that said What Goes Around, Comes Around? You bite the opposition party when you don't have to worry about them, and then you're surprised when they do it to you, and more? I see where the Republicans feel that they lost more than they gained in the centrist coalition's deal. I think they both won -- they got moving again. But will they take a lesson from that? Hint: No.

But its a pleasant day, and I think I'm done for now -- though I get to get up early tomorrow to do another change, what fun -- so I am going to goof off, think about doing some baking, perhaps take a bike ride. God knows I need the exercise (and it has to be obvious when even I think so).

Or maybe I'll go read about networks.

Monday, May 23, 2005


MIT's Open Course Ware initiative is awesome. Not easy reading but endlessly captivating. As described in one of their mailings:

MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) is a large-scale, Web-based publishing initiative with the goal of providing free, searchable access to MIT course materials for educators, students, and individual learners around the world. These materials are offered in a single, searchable structure spanning all of MIT's academic disciplines, and include uniform metadata about the contents of the individual subject sites.

Okay, the 'uniform metadata' is a bit of unneeded geekspeak, but that doesn't detract from the value of the site. Its terrific stuff. Here's a sample of their most recent course additions:

Course 1.89 - Environmental Microbiology, Fall 2004
Course 1.964 - Design for Sustainability, Fall 2004
Course 2.854 - Manufacturing Systems I, Fall 2004
Course 4.602 - Modern Art and Mass Culture, Spring 2004
Course 4.491 - Form-Finding and Structural Optimization: Gaudi Workshop, Fall 2004
Course 6.270 - Autonomous Robert Design Competition, IAP 2005
Course 6.881 - Natural Language Processing, Fall 2004
Course 6.892 - Computational Models of Discourse, Spring 2004
Course 8.01T - Physics I, Fall 2004
Course 9.01 - Introduction to Neuroscience, Fall 2004
Course 9.56J - Abnormal Language, Fall 2004
Course 10.675J - Computational Quantum Mechanics of Molecular and Extended Systems, Fall 2004
Course 10.492-2 - Integrated Chemical Engineering Topics I: Introduction to Biocatalysis, Fall 2004
Course 11.947 - Race, Immigration, and Planning, Spring 2005
Course 12.808 - Introduction to Observational Physical Oceanography, Fall 2004
Course 13.400 - Introduction to Naval Architecture, Fall 2004
Course 15.969 - Dynamic Leadership: Using Improvisation in Business, Fall 2004
Course 16.07 - Dynamics, Fall 2004

Very, very cool.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

All I Know Is....

...what I read in the papes. And as always, some interesting material in today's release.

Going Nuclear
The arguments on the filibuster option in the Senate, and how it might be overturned -- the so-called 'nuclear option' -- sparked several articles in which it was held that people's opinions of the effectiveness of the Senate specifically, and politicians in general, are plummeting as a result of the conflict. There was general agreement that this drop is not a good thing, though some people said that it would rise as the Worlds Greatest Deliberative Body got past this train wreck. Some said that if the judicial filibuster was removed from the realm of possibility, then the dominant party (whomever it is) would run rampant, possibly choosing judicial candidates from the far reaches of the spectrum. Others felt that this is a moot point, as the nominees being selected reflect the desires of the President, and those won't change even if he has a lock on getting his nominees through the confirmation process.
I think that the assessment about public opinion is correct. Most people don't care what the Senate is up to, and when they engage in this kind of spectacle, they become even less interesting. We deserve better, but the downhill slide in civility has been happening for at least three presidents now, and seems to be accelerating. Its possible that it will end with another governmental shutdown.
As for the effect of a lack of a filibuster on presidential selection of nominees -- given the choice between two candidates, one more desirable than the second , but the second more likely to pass muster in the nomination process than the first, most politicians will go with the second candidate. If that constraint is removed, the nominee still has to be acceptable to the majority of voting Senators. The nominee can be a few degrees further out on the political spectrum than would otherwise be the case, but an astute politician is not going to nominate someone who appeals only to the fringes. The nominee has to be electable, unless all you're trying to do is make a point, or set up the other party to be the bad guys.

Incidentally, when did a ‘yes or no’ or ‘aye or nay’ vote become an ‘up or down’ vote?

Horsing Around
Even someone whose knowledge of the details of horse races begins and ends with novels by Dick Francis (which is to say: me) had to be stunned and exhilarated by the performance of Afleet Alex in the Preakness’s final moments. For decades, my sole awareness of the Preakness was as a plot device in Seven Days in May. Now I’ll have that blood-pulsing moment when that horse stumbled, fell to its knees, was yanked by main force back up by its jockey – and then raced ahead to win.

Nickel and Diming Writ Large
An article in the New York Times Business section concerning the financial problems of American Airlines notes that Philip Purcell, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley and a member of the board of AMR, American Airlines’ parent organization, felt free to bill the company for $14,000 in travel expenses. Mr. Purcell earned twenty-two million dollars last year. As the author of the piece, Gretchen Morgenson, put it: "Do members of the executive class pay for anything they use or consume? Is it not enough that they make piles of money? Does every single product or service have to show up on some shareholders tab?"

Assuming the news from Korea is true, significant progress has been made in the creation of cloned human material. This material, from what I read, is intended for use with therapeutic procedures. One article said that this event makes the United States position, and its restrictions on cloning activities, appear outdated and backward; additionally, it puts US scientists at a disadvantage.

I don’t agree, entirely. I think that it is important that we have a standard for acceptable uses of cloning technology. Fans of science fiction have for years seen the good and bad that can come out of the cloning process (you may recall that even Obi-Wan was effective in The Clone Wars). If the process works, or if it leads to a process that meets the popular definition of cloning, we will need a standard to help us look past the immediate moment and see whether the process appears to be a generally good thing, one which should be treated with caution, or one which should be proscribed.

I think that’s enough pontificating for right now.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Only the Strong Survive

Which is actually nothing to do with what I was thinking about, but I saw it on a T Shirt -- "New Jersey: Only The Strong Survive" and I thought it was cool. I can see it on a neighboring state: Noo Yawk: Only ..... and so forth. Not sure about what Connecticut's might say. Connecticut all by itself would take up much of the writable area, I'd think.

I was thinking a little bit about the organization for whom I currently work. I really do like it; even as in practice the specific area where I'm employed is a grind and not much fun, so that I'm trying to move to a different part of the empire, the image of being part of this great enterprise is exhilarating (not that I'd ever say that to a co-worker). I like the things that this company is known for, and I shine, just a bit, in their reflected glory. Even when they get it wrong (by my lights), it has a good sound to it.

Take 'PBC', for example. That acronym stands for 'Personal Business Commitment'. When I first heard it, upon initial employment, I thought 'What a great idea'. Companies say that they want their employees to direct their energies in support of the direction where the company is being guided (in theory, this is what a 'mission statement' does, too) but they usually don't provide any guidance as to how you get there. At my former employer, the data center manager was fond of saying that we ought to consider how we spent our money, and use it wisely, yet most of us had no discretionary funds at all, and though monies were effectively spent by us -- for example, when we ran a job twenty times or were on the phone for ten hours -- we had no way of knowing how much we'd 'spent'. We didn't know where the money was going, so we didn't feel that we could control any of it. (Thats not quite true. One fellow went around to empty desks and scavenged the office supplies, putting them in a central place. It was a pathetic little pile, but I liked his effort.)

But at this place, it appeared that they actually had a program to say Here Is How You Can Support Our Efforts. Wow!

Didn't work out that way. The PBCs started from On High -- whats referred to as a fourth or fifth line manager, meaning four or five levels of management structure up from where you are -- as a general statement, and were then acrreted to by each descending level, until when they arrived at your level, they were interesting amalgams such as 'Ensure business continuity by utilization of resources in an efficient yet cost-sensitive manner while maintaining all required standards of business conduct in accordance with organizational and customer service delivery requirements and related deliverables.' Ah....sure. When I first saw those, in my first year, I spent about an hour analyzing the statements -- this one is generally oriented toward saving money, this one is generally oriented toward customer satisfaction, and so forth, trying to tease out the themes. I clustered them by type, then I wrote my 'money saving' idea, and my 'customer satisfaction' idea, and so forth. Which actually worked pretty well until, in a mistaken gesture of collegiality, I told my group's manager what I had done. (I don't have a manager. The group of which I am a part has a manager. Its a subtle distinction, I agree. ) Thinking that I was mocking the effort, or suggesting that the words from On High were less than totally perfect, he was Less Than Amused. I thought I was doing a Good Thing, but apparently not. (I persist in thinking that managers want you to think, want your input. Even as I know that they want it But Only In A Very Constrained Sense, Buddy, I try to enlarge the parameters of the dialogue. Doesn't work. Years ago, Robert Culp, an actor, said about his several failed marriages:. 'After a while, I began to think that maybe its me.' ..Maybe its me. )

But the idea of PBCs is pretty cool, and I honor them for it. And who knows, maybe its a weeding mechanism. Those who can make sense of the PBCs progress through the organization, and those who don't, don't. PBCs: Only the Strong Survive. Now theres a T shirt.....

More speculation

About six years ago, I took an early retirement from the company where I had worked for over twenty years. For the next year, I took care of the house, including being point man for a kitchen remodel, making dinners, and cleaning, and went to the Y frequently. I read a lot, too, though not as much as I'd thought I would. At the end of the year, I was offered a job by a company that I'd always wanted to work for, and I took it. Three weeks later, I resigned, finding that while I still wanted to work for the company, I didn't want to do the frequent travel that working for them entailed. But I had found that I liked the idea of earning money again, and so I found a job with the Largest Software Company In The World. On the second day, I discovered that the job wasn't what I had thought it would be, and, true to the ethos of my first (and damn near only) company, where one of the dicta was that Bad News Did Not Improve With Age, I called my group's manager and told him that we seemed to have a mismatch. He was less than interested in helping to resolve this issue, but I stayed anyway.

Now I find myself in a position where I am between seven and twenty four months from retirement (seven if I bail as soon as I'm vested in their retirement program, and twenty four if I stay long enough to bring our savings over a certain magical number, and let my wife stop working in a relatively short number of years afterward). The decision on whether to retire soon or later has been on my mind, and as the job I'm in grows more onerous, I think about it more often. I'm hardly unique in that regard! I'm charmed by the prospect of not working, again, but also a little saddened and a little apprehensive. Saddened, because like a lot of people I derive much of my self image from what I do. Even though theres a goodly amount (including the nature of the job itself) that I'd gladly give up, I'm not sanguine about just - stopping. I still dream of greatness with this company. I know that the possibility of working with any of the people doing marvelous things is vanishingly remote, but while I'm here, I can at least be aware of them, and send them internal emails on occasion -- and they'll respond! Its the only contact I have with seriously bright people, and I'm reluctant to give that up. And apprehensive, because as things go even the later date would be an early retirement; I'd be stopping when I'm 58, which is several years before most people, and, if the Ownership Society comes to pass, decades before some. Thats a lot of time to have to fill up.

I've been asking myself what I want to do with all of that time. Some whimsical thoughts occur to me. I'd really enjoy learning a lot more about artificial intelligence, for example. The areas of expert systems, neural nets, pattern recognition, and all of that, are fascinating to me. I only understand them at a slightly deeper level than Popular Science, sometimes, and I'd like to know more -- to twitch aside the curtain and see how these things actually work, and how they're made to work. I'd like to learn how to identify where these tools, these products could be used, and then help to make it happen. I don't think that its realistic for me to have those aspirations, but I do.

I'd also like to know more about some areas of medicine. (I've been tickled for quite some time that we call the field where doctors work 'medicine'. It's like calling the field where carpenters work 'wood'. Though calling it 'health care' or some of the other clunky phrases that have come along is hardly better.) I'd like to know more anatomy -- what the diaphragm looks like, how a ligament is attached, how a shoulder works. And I'd like to know some biochemistry.I'd like to understand, if only in a general way, how drugs are designed. Like the computer area, some of this isn't realistic for me to think about, but I do anyway.

And I'd like to be good at portrait photography. I think that a good portrait -- one that is lit well, with expression and humanity evident in the subject - can be a delight. I'm not speaking so much of the technical details, but the creative act.

Its true that when I think abstractly about what I'd like to do, my thoughts are usually incoherent -- about at the level of what I thought when I asked myself that same question at the dawn of my employment years, and the best I could come up with was I'd like to do cool things. I still want to do cool things. I want to learn, and I want to apply what I learn. I have no interest in the 'classic retired' things -- hospital volunteer, crafts, trips to Our Nations Capitol. I suspect that image is outdated, but I sure don't see a lot of retired people studying medicine or pattern recognition. I want to be with the people who are doing that. That's fun. That's cool.

Dreams are a good thing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


One of the things that drives me crazy about the place where I work is that I don't get to be a techie. That's what I used to be, at a prior company, and its what I like to do, but it's not my job, you see; its not what I was hired to do, and for all of the time that I've been there, its been the position of the people that I work for that while its nice that I can do these other things, its not what they're paying for. Consequently, when I do something useful in that line, its treated as not much more than an amusing trick, not to be rewarded or regarded of value.

Its only been lately that it occurs to me that this might be a good thing. I'm having a little trouble swallowing that concept, but here's how it's been playing out in my mind, lately.

I'm a decent technician, but I'm not a superior one. I do well at what I do, but I don't excel at it, either in volume of output or quality of output. My one strength is that I am dammed persistent. I will look and look and look again, I will walk around in the parking lot thinking about what I'm trying to solve, I will take breaks from one thing to poke around a little on the thing I'm trying to solve. When I do solve the puzzles I'm trying to solve, which is about eighty percent of the time, its about two thirds ability and one third persistence.

There's a little curiosity in there, too. I wonder about things that other people don't seem to wonder about. I wonder how that works, I'll think, or I wonder why it does that. Usually, the wondering doesn't lead anywhere, but every so often, it turns up something interesting. If I think its useful, I tell other people via an email to the group. They almost always don't acknowledge it, which leads me to wonder if they find it useless or just don't think it's worth acknowledging. I've never asked, though I've wondered.

So, given that analysis, I have to admit that there isn't anything about my ability that would make a manager say Damn, this is someone that I really want, someone who, if they want to be in my group, I'll make sure I get. Granted, it seems that most managers have a very cut-and-dried view of their jobs, last couple of years; it seems to consist overwhelmingly of satisfying whatever the current desires of their manager might be. It does not consist of making me happy. Sometimes, when I'm in a grumpy mood, I think it consists of making me unhappy, but when I come out of the grump, I realize that thats silly. They don't care enough about me to want to make me either happy or unhappy.

If I did make it into a group where people did tech stuff routinely, the standards for what qualifies as decent would be higher. So, if I made the transition, I'd have to work harder and be judged harder. The things I do now that I think are exceptional (and they are, relative to the group I'm in) would be normal, even trivial.

I'm not sure how I'd do in that environment. I wonder if I'd find out that my semi-bleak personal assessment is true. How would I feel if people whose skills I admired didn't admire mine?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

1 + 1 NE 2

I was thinking very lazily (as I usually do) about the dual CPU in a PC question, and so did a web search, coming up with this site, where thirty seconds reading reminded me of something I knew once, and should have remembered:

You can have a zillion CPUs, but if the software isn't coded to multitask (not preemptive or priority-based dispatch on one CPU but simultanous symetrical execution on multiple CPUs), all but one of those CPUs will be sitting there eating pretzels and watching Oprah while the one is working so hard, paint is bleeding from the edges.

Oh. Yeah. Operating system. Gotcha.

Monday, May 16, 2005

PCs and Mainframes

When a mainframe is upgraded -- given a more powerful 'engine' - there are a couple of ways to do it.

You can swap the existing CPU card (actually, a pretty large piece of hardware, but not enormous) for a more powerful one. Or you can add an additional one (or two, or three, up to the physical limits of the cabinet.)

None of this involves having to mess around with the storage. Your programs are still out on DASD or tape. Once the new CPUs are in place, you do an IPL (Initial Program Load), starting up the system, and you're off and running.

So why does an upgrade of your home PC require a physical swap?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Diving for the Duck

So the kiddo, la mama, and I were out for a walk, bringing along with us a bright red rubber ducky that she'd picked up in Williamsburg. Where we walk, we pass over a small stream that drains from the wetlands, and we thought it'd be fun to drop the rubber duck in and see how long it took to get under the bridge and out the other side. But as this was a special duck -- we called it a Distinguished Duck -- we didn't want to lose it, so we tied a long string to it.

In it went, and we marveled at it and at how fast the water was flowing. We hauled it out, and did it again. And once more, for the heck of it. And then we continued on our walk. Coming back, we thought, what the heck, once more. In it went.

Trailing its string behind it.

I volunteered to go down and splash in the muck to where the duck was snagged on some grass. Which is how I found out that the bottom of that little stream was very slippery...and very muddy, too, as I plunged my watch-wearing hand down into the chilly water in an ultimately futile attempt to keep my balance.

Fortunately, I wasn't wearing my brand new jeans. I was, instead, wearing my almost brand new shorts. And an old pair of sneakers.

But we saved the duck.

Sunday PM

Its a little bit of a chaotic day...and a little bit of a quiet one. I suppose, sufficiently dispersed, chaos can be subsumed in quiet, and sufficiently concentrated, quiet can tame chaos... but today seems to be both. Chaotic, and quiet.

Quiet because the house is virtually empty. My wife and daughter are off to a Girl Scout event -- the daughter is volunteering to be an assistant at that event, which is, from what I gather , pretty much of an open house, and she's been wanting to do that for a while. They'll be gone for several hours -- at least another three, possibly another five. And my mother is asleep. That leaves me, the guinea pig, and the new guinea pig that we just got yesterday, whose name is either Chocolate or Cocoa, depending on the moment. The daughter has wanted an additional one for a while, and so yesterday we went to the pet store to buy the cage and such. The plan was that we would check the local SPCA for guinea pigs before buying one.

You'd think that by now I'd have realized what would happen as soon as she saw them.

You'd think that by now I'd have realized what would happen when she gave me The Look.

So now we have two, and they're getting along pretty well in their separate but equal cages -- the occasional squeak, thats about it. And the neighborhood is quiet -- which is actually one of the things that I was thinking about this morning, and which is causing me a bit of angst.

Here's why. A few months ago, we were thinking quite intently about buying a smaller house in about fifteen years (we tend to plan in advance) - with what it would cost being one of the major factors. After kicking it around for a while, we came upon the idea of staying in the house we are in, but with some substantial changes -- most notably, adding a room over the garage, turning the existing master bedroom into a storage room, upgrading the master bath a bit, and installing an elevator for those years when the stairs will be too much for us on a routine basis. (Sometimes, they are now, for that matter.) We swagged that doing this would cost us about $80,000, which is a pretty hefty sum. But for that, we would get to stay in a house we like, in a location we like, with features we like -- most notably, the upgraded kitchen inside, and the landscaping outside. This sounded like a Good Plan.

Then I started reading newspaper articles about the price of houses. And two thoughts occurred to me. One was, if we spent $80,000 on this house, and didn't get any of it back, how would we feel? And the other was, if we had a new house built, we could have exactly what we want, but for a cost that might well exceed the value of this house-- even the value of this house plus $80,000. What would we think then?

So we're a bit up in the air. The good news is, we have time. We're going to get with an architect to see about generating some ballpark estimates on costs for renovation, and for building.

I also read in todays paper some more articles about retirement planning. Whenever I read these things, I have to take a deep breath, because I know that as a general statement we're in a significantly better financial situation than anyone there. We've been careful with money over the years, and we've both been paid well, so right now we have a seriously good amount of money in hand. It would be an exaggeration to say that we could live on just what we have -- unless we worked for about another ten years or so, which isn't the plan -- but so long as one and a half of the three basics holds true -- the three basics being 401K, pensions, and Social Security -- we'll be okay. That doesn't mean that we will be flush, but we'll have little to worry about. If, on the other hand, 401K values drop, private pensions get jettisoned (which I thought was impossible and illegal, but , vis. United Airlines, apparently not), and Social Security gets torpedoed -- well, its not quite 'you want fries with that?' time, but its a scary proposition.

And finally, to add to the chaos, I'm tangentially involved in a software project which is badly managed, and which just yesterday had some surprises of its own -- the kind you don't want when you are less than a month from a major implementation. Nothing I particularly have to worry about myself, but still -- a disturbing arrangement. In a nutshell, it appears that another contracting company has been less than forthcoming with the truth when it answered our questions about the transition. They didn't lie.... they just were careful in what they said. As one person on yesterday's teleconference put it, they treated it like an audit. And our people didn't catch it.

Oh, boy.

But heck, its a pretty day, which is something....

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Political Skills

This, from Fast Company, is excellent:

Politically Proactive

Make things happen by mastering the game of day-to-day politics.

From: May 2005 Page 93 By: Samuel B. Bacharach

Most of us regard politics in organizational life with a degree of suspicion. Office politics -- that behind-the-back world of gossip, whispering, manipulation, and Machiavelli -- has tainted the positive aspects of having political skills. The difference between someone who can get an idea off the ground and accepted in an organization and someone who can't isn't a question of who has the better idea. It's a question of who has political competence.

Political competence isn't something you're born with, but a skill you learn. It's an out-in-the-open process of methodically mapping the political terrain, building coalitions, and leading them to get your idea adopted. Building a coalition lets you improve your chances of implementing your proposal, increases your chances for surviving any unintended consequences of your initiative, and enhances your position for pursuing future opportunities. Many of us absorb these things as we go, but a systematic approach can be helpful. Think of it as Brooklyn meets Harvard Business School. Here are a few ways to start learning those skills.

You want others to see your idea as you see it. The only way to do that is to constantly reverse the process and think about them and their needs as related to your idea. You have to anticipate what people will say. If you're a newly appointed leader who wants to shift your organization's strategy, there's bound to be resistance. Some may think it's too risky, while others may believe it'll make things worse or wouldn't change a thing. What would you expect? That your colleagues would wrap their arms around you as if this was what they'd been waiting for?

Political competence is methodical. Only through careful preparation and analysis can you understand to what degree key people in your company share your goals and approach. Few people will directly tell you their agenda, so you have to figure it out. Ask yourself: What are their goals? How do they approach implementing change? Determining potential allies and resisters to your idea will make it easier to build a coalition.

Words and approach matter. Persuading people to buy into your coalition is a question of language, expression, and the use of words. It's critical that you not talk past them; you need to make sure that you're talking to them on the same level. If Jeff is talking about IT security and droning on about servers and "Active-X controls," he's going to lose Melinda, whose knowledge of computers stops with email and the Web. Some may view your proposal as being broad and ideological; they're going to want to discuss subtle issues of meaning, symbols, and understanding. Others may consider your idea very specific and will want to get into the who, what, when, where, and why.

The small stuff makes a big difference. Ideally, in trying to persuade others, you should deal with big-picture issues first and then work out the nuts-and-bolts tactical matters. That said, tactical details can be the key to winning over those who disagree with your strategic goals. It may be easier to begin the dialogue with the details and develop trust and understanding that will result in consensus. You have the opportunity to persuade folks on a line-by-line basis. Consider politics in the Middle East. No one can agree on what the broader, strategic goal of peace means. So it's difficult to build a coalition that can support conflicting notions of peace -- everything from "live and let live" to significant cultural and commercial exchange. Rather than being caught in the continual debate, if Israeli and Palestinian leaders could negotiate the basics of a shared industrial zone, maybe peace would follow. You need to know when to focus on nuts and bolts and when to focus on principles.

Proactive political competence is empowering and essential to good leadership. And if done correctly, it'll serve you well.

Samuel B. Bacharach is McKelvey-Grant Professor at Cornell University and director of its Institute for Workplace Studies. He's the author of Get Them on Your Side (Platinum Press, May 2005).

Friday, May 13, 2005

Economic Indicators

I just learned that a cook in the cafeteria at the company where I used to work is being fired because his position is being eliminated as a cost-cutting measure.

I have no idea what a cook makes, but I cannot believe its any significant amount of money.

I don't work there any more, I don't really know the guy, but still:

That really sucks.

Somehow -- I don't know how, but somehow -- I just know that this is George W. 's fault.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


I don't know much about this site, because I just stumbled across it, but the story that it tells -- actually a bunch of stories -- about the early days of the Apple guys, and the stuff they built, is pretty interesting.

And I'm not even a Mac bigot.

HAL, Cont'd

I did some reading last night on the general subject of text parsing, and a little bit on the design of web crawlers.

The reason I was doing this was that I wanted to look into how hard it would be to design a tool along the lines of the one that I (somewhat facetiously) suggested: an AI tool that can assist in network problem resolution. Its more than a little bit humbling to realize not only how much I don't know, but how much I don't even suspect, when it comes to those things. I know better than to think I can design one. I'd just like to think that I can at least generate a clue about how someone who could do that would go about it. A long time ago, I read an article about technical learning which referred to that as 'learning at the edges'. I have some pretty big edges!

I also had an idea for something that I will pretentiously called 'the Delphi technique' for feeding a tool like that, but at the moment, I think I'm sufficiently overwhelmed.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

HAL? You There?

I was thinking, in my normal disorganized way, about artificial intelligence. Disorganized is meant to imply one of those random thought processes that indicate an amazing depth and breadth of thought, one of those minds that cannot be constrained by the usual niceties of how people think. Of course, anyone who's read more than a couple of lines of what I write knows that disorganized simply means messy, with just a soupcon of 'then a miracle occurs'.

When I was looking into my network problem (and oh, by the way: now that I am using the other protocol for file and printer sharing, the PC boots faster. I guess it used to be trying to do something and failing, and now it just does it. Or doesn't even try.) I thought on more than one occasion that this ought to be something that a canned artificial intelligence program could handle for me. I was not thinking exactly of the AIs that appear in commercial science fiction novels (Roboticon, make some dinner for me, please, something light, and get my broker on the phone, too) but something closer to reality. The steps I took, the things that I looked at were for the most part limited to this PC on which I'm writing this screed, so it ought to be possible to write a program, or a series of programs, to do that analysis automatically. Further, it ought to be possible for such a program to know all of the possibilities that could result in the condition being analyzed. (Okay, already; if the network wasn't working because someone had dropped a bowling ball on the keyboard, I wouldn't have expected the AI to know that. ) But all of the likely candidates, yes, I think it would.

Now, bear in mind that I still do not know what it was that changed which causes my file and printer sharing to stop working. That means that there is something that I don't know (possibly more than one) that could and in this case did cause my problem. But I do know of several things that could have caused it, and did not. For example, it isn't because all of the computers involved weren't in the same workgroup. It isn't because more than one computer in the workgroup had the same name. It isn't because the GUEST account wasn't active. It isn't because the account in use wasn't a Computer Administrator. It isn't because a firewall was inhibiting communication. It isn't because a crossover cable was bad. It isn't because a network card was in the process of failing or had failed. Is isn't because the Domain Name Server was inaccessible. All of these possibilities, I had to tease out of various articles. Most of the articles agreed about details; when they did not, it seemed that they still agreed about the major things to check.

So what the Network Problem Analysis AI would do, then, is to run through these possibilities and check the state of all of these conditions. And, what the heck, download from Redmond Command the current set of possibles for the configuration in question (which means it asked me How Many Computers in the Workgroup? Which are hardwired into the router? Which use wireless cards?). And then it would say, in my ideal world, "TCP/IP File Sharing is inoperative for an unknown reason. IPX/SPX protocol is available but not installed. Recommend installation of IPX/SPX protocol."

Even I see that one of the problems with that scenario is that its very focused. The next guy who comes along might have a problem that is somewhere else entirely -- perhaps not one of those 'could be the network, could be your PC' deals -- so the AI has to figure out what steps would solve that guys problem. What it'll need is a generalized problem analysis routine, just as an expert would do it. And, being an expert myself in some areas, I know that frequently the expert -- at least, the field expert -- doesn't know all that there is to know, and many times just tries the most likely things first -- the ones that come up most often. So the AI would do that, trying the top ten picks from Redmond first, only later delving into more arcane analyses.

There's nothing inherently magical about AI. It COULD be done.

I wish it were. And I wish I could help it happen.

Good Thing There's A Delete Key

This morning, I wrote, and deleted, a blog entry. Twice. It wasn't that I was unsure about what I wanted to say. It was that I was unsure about why I wanted to say it.

Here's what I wanted to say, summarized:

Pastors who use the pulpit to organize the members of their church in support of a particular politician or political goal should be severely penalized.

The thought was prompted by an article concerning a small-town pastor -- Baptist, I believe, though I'm not sure about that -- who has become quite active in political activities which espouse the fundamentalist conservative point of view. It was augmented by an article about a different paster at a different church who insisted that members of the congregation who did not share his political views must leave the congregration (although he later recanted that statement).

I didn't, and don't, like this, for two reasons.

First, because it's promoting the fundamentalist conservative view, which I regard as dangerous, akin to the shut-up-and-salute patriotic fundamentalism of the fifties. I don't trust ideologues. I am afraid for my own freedom when they get power. Good ol' boy Taliban.

Second, because it's wrong for a person to take advantage of a captive audience to force an opinion on them in a way that plays on their faith and leads them to believe that they'll go to hell if they don't support what the person says.

I wrote all of that, more or less, twice. And I erased it twice, because I'm a liberal, which means that I try to give opposing points of view some consideration (unlike fundamentalist conservatives, who usually don't). And in this case, I kept coming back to this question:

If these guys were doing exactly the same thing, but only affecting their local town or congregation, would I even care at all?

And, if these guys were doing exactly the same thing, but for liberal causes, would reason two still apply?

I think the answers are no...and no.

And that bothers me, particularly the second. Still working on why.

I want to be fair, which is a liberal failing. At what point does a desire to be fair become an exploitable weakness?

I think I know what the ruling party's head would say.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Persistance Pays....Again.

A comment on a site called Crosswalk.Com (which is apparently a religious site, but has a tech section) suggested to a user with a problem similar to mine that he enable the IPX/SPX protocol, commenting that it was superior for LAN communications. I did that, and I can now see the desktop files from the laptop, and the reverse, again.

So I'm guessing this means that my original method of f ile and printer sharing used TCP/IP, and that connectivity path died. Given that it works with IPX/SPX, I'm guessing that this means that it wasn't an authentication thing, and it wasn't a connectivity thing -- which makes me wonder if somehow file and printer sharing got turned off for TCP/IP, or explicitly blocked for it. I don't know.

But I do know this.
Its working. Yee-hah!

Kill the Flag

Not that flag, the Broadcast Flag.

Apparently, a court has ruled that the FCC overstepped its bounds when it approved the concept of a broadcast flag, a device to digitally flag content so that, among other things, it could not be copied without the permission of the organizations that created it, considerations of rights transferred through purchase (not to mention, hacking, sawing, and blasting through the layers of plastic that surround the typical commercially sold CD) notwithstanding.

I'm not totally insensitive to the position of the producers of this stuff. They do have the right to a reasonable return. But they don't have the right to having that return occur in perpetuity. (Although if certain software companies were more sensitive to the need for support after the purchase, I'd be a little more receptive to their plea. Not a lot, but a little.)

In an allied area, I've seen suggestions that if you buy a used book, you should send money to the author, on the grounds that you've effectively shortcircuited a purchase that would have benefitted a different author, so somebody should be compensated.

I think thats the motto of our litigious society, by the way:

Somebody Should Be Compensated
But in the case of the BF, I believe that its motivated by a simpler concept.


Friday, May 06, 2005


I received a couple of surprises today.

For one, my daughter and I had the traditional pre-Mother's Day trek to the store, where she would pick out something and allow me to pay for part of it-- her logic being, there wouldn't be a mother if she weren't here, and she wouldn't be here if it weren't for the both of us, so its only fair that we share in the cost. I'd love to say that she has pretty good taste for a kid, but -- well, its okay. She picks out things that she would like, so of course Mom will like it too. And her logic must be sound, because every year, Mom does like it. What a surprise!

For another, upon our return home, she handed me a sheet of paper which said in typically graceful bureaucratic prose that she had not passed the first of the two qualifying tests for algebra, and so would not offered the opportunity to be in that program. She will, apparently, be given the chance to be in a moderately accelerated program, taking pre-algebra courses a year early. I thought I was prepared for the idea that she would not make it -- after all, three out of four do not -- but apparently I was not prepared for the possibility that she would not make the very first hurdle. I was well and truly pissed, and it was at her, because I felt that she had let me down. I knew that wasn't rational, and so I didn't talk to her about it until I was calmer. I just sequestered myself in the bedroom, found a book, and immersed myself in it. Well, when I wasn't just lying there with it on my chest, staring up at the ceiling.

I eased into the subject over dinner. She didn't seem too unhappy about not making it, and that stoked my fires a bit, but then she said something that widened my eyes. She said that she wasn't allowed to be disappointed, because the principal had said that they all should be pleased that they were selected for the test. Being selected alone was an honor. They should not be disappointed, she said, if they did not make it. I leaned over and said Kiddo, I like your principal, she's a nice person and she tries hard, but I've got to tell you: she is clueless about this. I'm not saying you have to be devastated, but if you want to feel disappointed, go right ahead. The heck with what your principal says.

I did not say that she should go in there tomorrow and kick over the principals desk, set fire to her inbox and light a stogie from the ashes, but I did think it. Not allowed, indeed.

I really do believe that my child is superior in some ways. If I had to swag a number, I'd say that if the average kid is a 5, a dullard is a 1 and a super bright kid is a 9, she's probably about a 6 overall, and a 6.5 in one or two areas. Like any parent, I want to give her the best possible foundation. I don't expect that she's going to get a PhD in Biochemistry at 17, but I think she's got good intellectual genes (if there were such things), and I want her to feel the satisfaction of meeting challenges. Of stretching just a bit, in lots of places. Of feeling herself grow. (And not just physically: the other day she came into the room and struck a pose, asking me what I thought. Very nice, I replied, wondering what I was complimenting. New sports bra, she said happily, and ran out. Oh. )

I'll admit it: I want her to know she's bright.

We're going to pass these thoughts to the middle school folks (who we met last night, and who are generally pretty sharp, if occasionally unable to remember to use bigger words and less boosterish enthusiasm when they're talking to adults than they do when talking to kids), and we're going to give them this message: As you watch our daughter, keep in mind that we want her to do as well as she possibly can. If you find ways that we can help, outside of the usual (the usual being all of the cute phrases educators like to use, including, god help me, 'kids need a lot of sleep', which the guidance counselor for her class used last night), then tell us, and we'll pursue it. We'll even look into a tutor to enhance her strengths and address her weaknesses.

We think she's a bright, wonderful kid, and we want her to excel.

Gee -- another surprise.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Networking Notworking

I have -- again -- the beginnings of a hunch about why the networking between our desktop and laptop isn't working. The idea makes sense. Whether its true, and if so, how it leads to a fix, is something else again.

Whats weird is that I feel motivated on this because people in the book I am reading just solved a serious technical problem. That has absolutely no bearing on my real-world problem -- but it has that effect. I've noticed the same thing happens when I read books about people who've achieved something notable -- I feel that *I* could do something notable.


But anyway -

The home laptop can ping the IP address of the router ( , my work laptop (.3), itself (.4), and the desktop(.5). No idea what the missing .2 is, though it could be my wife's work laptop. And it can ping, aka the 'internal loopback adapter', whatever the heck that is.

The desktop can ping the IP address of the router, my work laptop, itself, but not the home laptop .

And just to round out the field, my work laptop can ping the router, itself, the desktop, but not the home laptop .

And nobody, zero, nada can address a 'friendly-name' aka DNS address for the network or its components-- mshome/library (the desktop), or mshome/ourlaptop (the laptop), or mshome/workpc (my work laptop) .

All of which kind of tells me that at least one serious problem must be with the home laptop , since no one can ping it at all, IP address or DNS. And that the problem must somehow be 'inbound', since it can ping out, but others can't ping in. And that the higher level networking functions- ie, the 'MSHOME network' itself - are kerflooey.

Why do I think of that scene in 2001?

"Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it."

Mine, too, HAL.

Casual but Interested

My daughter and I just took a short walk around the neighborhood. I walked; she skated. We talked about this and that, nothing of particular consequence. Then, coming up one block, she casually asked me if we would have kept her from going to a much-wanted event -- a birthday party for a close friend, say -- if some time between committing to it and the actual event she had done something requiring punishment. I told her that it depended.

A bit of background. Last weekend, she was rude to a friend while at a Girl Scout party. She's done that in the past, to this one particular girl. The reasons, though of interest, are immaterial. We told her that as a consequence, she could not have any friends over this weekend. Three days ago, we learned that she had taken a blank composition workbook from a school storage cabinet, and, challenged on it, lied to the teacher. Her punishment was an extra week of no television -- next week -- and she had to write a letter of apology to the teacher. She didn't really mind the television; she didn't like the letter. We told her that contrition was good for the soul, as was owning up when you did something wrong. And that it would have been bad enough had she taken the workbook and returned it when asked; it was the lying that moved it from a moderate to a serious offense. She seemed impressed -- and dejected -- by the definition.

So when she asked about how lenient we'd be given the circumstance she cited, what she was really asking was, how lenient is your justice. What I told her was that while she'd be punished no matter what, the timing would be affected by how serious the offense was, and how major the event that might be missed was. She wouldn't get crucified just because, by god, thats what we said we would do. Neither would she get a get out of jail free card just because the timing worked out right.

I hope she heard the underlying message.