a Beautiful Mind gone terribly awry

Sometimes Charles Darwin should be wrong. I’m not in favor of invalidating evolution, mind you. I just think that the other processes than strict natural selection should come into play in certain situations. I think the character of John Nash summed this up best in the film A Beautiful Mind when he said:

If we all go for the blonde and block each other, not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because no on likes to be second choice. But what if none of us goes for the blonde? We won’t get in each other’s way and we won’t insult the other girls. It’s the only way to win. It’s the only way we all get laid.

Sometimes it’s better to be cooperating as a group for a group’s benefit, rather than competing in the “dog eat dog” world of natural selection. In that world, it’s every cockroach for himself.

These ruminations are being fed by the office politics at here company O. Here is the situation: we have two Vice-Presidents that we’ll call Cain and Abel working in different divisions of Company O. They both have underlings that are pursuing projects with similar, if not identical, goals and deliverables. Rather than collaborate and eliminate duplicated effort, Cain and Abel have decided to race to see who can deliver first in some weird exercise in competitive social Darwinism in order to curry favor with our El Supremo CEO.

Now if that isn’t bad enough, I work in Abel’s division. Abel has two Senior Managers, Jacob and Esau; I work directly for Esau. When presented with the goal delivering something for Abel to beat Cain to the punch, as it were, they both commit resources to producing what Abel wants because both want to curry favor with Abel. So, Jacob and Esau are now competing to produce something for Abel, so Abel can compete with Cain to curry favor with El Supremo.

A little explanation about the relationship between Jacob’s and Esau’s teams makes it clear why this is particuarly depressing and stupid. As a matter of history, Jacob’s team has a history of taking product our team develops (remember, I work for Esau), making minor improvements which we help to complete, complaining that we don’t help them enough, and then take credit as if they were responsible for everything from day one. Since both Jacob and Esau both are committed to finish this project for Abel, Jacob has taken the attitude that his team would “lead” and Esau’s team could “help”. Of course, history is repeating itself — Jacob’s team wants resources, personnel, and product from our team, but then refuse to share credit. So, again, rather than cooperate and share, a certain level of competition rears its ugly head.

A shrewd fellow, this Jacob, when he makes this strategy work. He justifies his existence and the existence of his team in the eyes of his superiors, while he gets other people not on his payroll to do most of the work. That’s a got a real upside for him; the only thing he lacks is integrity.

Not so for us, I’m afraid. This whole situation is depressing a lot of people I work with. Why? To use John Nash’s example, we know that everyone is hitting on the blonde, and no one is probably going to get laid. And how stupid is that?

white sugar, white death?

Hi. Welcome to my newly remodelled diaryland digs. I’ve been meaning to move away from the basic, Diaryland-provided template I was using for some time now, but, never seemed to find the time to make it happen. Until yesterday, that is. Having a mind to not get a whole lot of real work done (sshhh… don’t tell Company 0.), I whipped this little template up. I was initially going for a sort of Mondrian-esque motif, but, after seeing it all put together, I find that it also reminds me of Arts & Crafts-style stained glass windows. Either way, I think it really spruces the place up a bit.

Now, to give credit where credit is due: the basic HTML skeleton for this template was borrowed from a template I saw in The Template Challenge. Using that template as a guide, I used The Gimp, a Photoshop-like piece of free software, to create some new images and purchased the use of the photo from Corbis.Now could I have come up with something like this eventually on my own? Yes. It would have taken a LOT more time, however, because my HTML skills are a little rusty. Thanks to Skye at Vitriol for the short cut. All that, plus a Diaryland Gold membership to keep Andrew happy, and voila! The new Dr. Geek’s Laboratory is open for business!

I’ve been thinking about sugar for the last couple days. I remember hearing about early accounts of Europeans consuming refined sugar for the first time around the 18th century from a graduate student in the early 90’s. He told me that many of the accounts referred to a sense of energetic euphoria that sounds to modern ears more reminiscent of cocaine than something bought by the pound for the kitchen.

I got some of that same sense about sugar just a few short nights ago. I stopped working out regularly when I went on vacation back in late May until about two weeks ago. I gained a few pounds in that time. Now that I’m back on a more regular fitness regimen, I’ve been trying to mind what I eat and how much. This has meant cutting out a lot of in-between meal snacking and monitoring my portion sizes when I do eat.

I am not without moments of weakness, however. Fiancee S. and I went to taste wedding cake a couple weekends ago. Some leftover cake from that tasting has been sitting on a disposable plate under plastic wrap in our refridgerator. I couldn’t resist peeling back the plastic and helping myself to a few bites on Monday night. After all, the cake would just become stale and go to waste, right?

I remember the feeling I had when I helped myself to that cake. MMMMMmmmmmm! It was as if my taste buds suddenly said “Hey sugar… where have you been the last few weeks? We’ve MISSED you!” Yikes, that cake was good. I did manage to resist temptation enough to limit myself to just a few forkfuls… though it was hard to stop. Refined sugar indeed. Strong stuff when you’ve been away from it for a while.

the doctor dating game

Fiancee S. is suggesting that I go to a dermatologist to see about some lingering acne issues that have plagued me since adolescence. I’m fearing visits to the doctor. I’m not entirely sure why.

It’s not as if I’ve always feared a visit to the doctor. There have been times that visits to various medical specialists were almost routine. As a teen, I regularly (monthly or weekly) went to see a dermatologist for skin problems and had regular checks on my braces with an orthodontist. Going further back, I had some problems with my feet as a child and saw more podiatrists, orthopedists, and orthopedic surgeons in the first five years of my life than I ever hope to see again. Plus, I’ve needed vision correction for my eyes since about the age of eleven. That has entailed regular visits to an optometrist.

I think part of it must be that I dread finding doctors to go to in much the same way as going out on blind dates. That’s what it really amounts to, in a way. It took me a few years to find a few medical specialists that I felt I could trust while in graduate school. Now, I’ve moved away and need to find new medical people all over again, mostly by finding who is “in network” with my health insurer.

Picking people out this way has proved to be a mixed bag. I went looking for a general practicioner and got a short, bald little guy who hasn’t updated his tie collection in since the late 1970’s. When I set up an initial appointment merely to see what this guy looked like and asked about a physical, his answer was “the practice is shorthanded right now and most men your age are reasonably healthy, so let’s do a few blood tests just to make sure that everything is on the up and up and do something later.” I’ve been back a couple times since then when I’ve had the flu, and, I guess I’m satisfied with him. I’ve already written here about my visits to the dental “little shop of horrors.” I’ve also found a podiatrist and he seems reasonable too, but, he is not without his critics. Fiancee S. goes to a podiatrist and her podiatrist says that mine is a little too eager to pursue surgical solutions to problems.

So where does this leave me? Well, I need to find an optometrist (it’s been a few years since the old vision prescription has been checked), a new dentist (to stop going to the “little shop of horrors”), and now a dermatologist. Having Fiancee S. in my life helps; she’s a native of the area and can connect me with medical professionals that she knows and trusts (when they are “in network”.)

Still, this bugs me. Maybe it’s because a lot about my life has changed in the last few months and more changes are on the way. I like to have the illusion that I can limit the amount of change that goes on in my life… and being skittish about seeing new doctors may be the latest way to do that. At the same time, there is this stereotype that men don’t like to seek medical attention and thinking how that might apply to me also bothers me. I don’t want to be the guy who finally drags himself to the doctor only to be rushed to the hospital for some kind of life threatening ailment. Finally, there is Fiancee S.’s input to consider. She and I live together and that forces one to often reconsider some of the choices one made that have become habits. That’s a good thing, ultimately. Perhaps I am resisting that change as well.

queer eye for bigfoot

I don’t know how many people in the United States have been watching (though I heard that ratings have been great), but, the Bravo Network now runs a show called Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. The catch phrase is “Five gay men, out to make over the world — one straight guy at time.” It’s a make-over show that seems to operate on the dual premise that:

  1. Gay men intrinsically have an appreciation for a cultured, bon-vivant lifestyle.
  2. Straight men don’t.

The show recognizes that this is blatantly not true, but, perpetuates the illusion by finding the contestants that fit the following profile:

  • Subject name: Sasquatch
  • Physical appearance: Unkempt and hairy
  • Personal grooming and hygiene: Questionable
  • Personal style: Freshman dorm
  • Interior decor: Fast food container messy

Into the life of this stylistic living fossil swoop five gay men, each an expert in some relevant field (fashion, interior design, food & wine, culture, grooming) to make over Sasquatch into a dazzling urbanite rather than a creature seldom glimpsed in the backwoods. Of course, there is only so much they can do in a couple days. Manners sometimes remain attrocious and girlfriends often recognize the “gay” veneer with frequent exclamations of “oh, a gay man must have gotten this for you!!!”. All of this is done, of course, amidst a boatload of sarcastic and biting commentary from the five gay experts including color commentary of the “show and tell” of their current test subject after they leave. Oh yes, Sasquatch seems, more often than not, to want to undergo this transformation to impress a woman.

I have to say that it’s all good fun and interesting TV, but, I don’t know if I’d be all that good a contestant on the show. Why? My cooking repetoire moves well beyond reheating cans of “Dinty Moore Beef Stew” or sending out for pizza. I own more than two pairs of shoes. I have cleaning implements and know how to use them. Heck, I even iron Fiancee S.’s clothes if she’s in a hurry to go out… and I leave the seat down. I have also been graced by a few people in my life that have helped me to realize that a) nice furniture is cool, and b) some sense of decor is a quality that many other adults see as desirable. I’m sure that there are a few things that the “Fab Five” makeover squad can teach me, but, I doubt that the “before” and “after” transformation would be as dramatic. That and the show seems to have a penchant for wearing men’s dress shoes without socks… I don’t know how women manage wearing shoes without socks, but, after trying it a few times, I don’t like it.

when a member of the family goes psycho

It’s a sad, sad thing when a member of the family goes psycho. I mean really psycho. I mean that Charlie-Manson-“helter skelter”-eyes kind of psycho.

Of course, I refer to the recent “we own your ass” statements by SCO to commercial Linux users that somehow they are infringing on SCO’s copyrights and intellectual property. That is sad, very sad. So sad that it really raises my blood pressure.

As far as I can see, it’s all smoke and mirrors and it threatens to temporarily slow momentum for a product (Linux) that could theoretically challenge Microsoft in significant segments of the operating systems market. To understand why it is all so much hokum, one has to understand how the intellectual property system in much of the world works. When it comes to developing new innovations in the fields of computer science and engineering, two things come into being:

  1. An idea, often backed up by some kind of theoretical analysis, that is published in an article for a journal, a paper at a conference, or in a patent, and,
  2. An embodiment of that idea, in the form of an implementation in a product.

To give a fanciful example, one could invent an idea that would be about “chemically altering water to produce a high energy reaction capable of doing mechanical work” and then embodying that idea in the form of “a car engine that runs on water”.

It is also useful to note that the two things can be legally separate. The inventor who first comes up with the idea to alter water so that it can be used for fuel can build a car engine that runs on water. Or, someone else can use inventor’s idea to make their own engine that runs on water (in competition with the inventor’s engine) and pay the inventor a royalty for using it. In that case, the engine builder will own the design for the engine, but the inventor will own the idea of how to use water to power that engine. In fact that inventor can license his idea to as many companies or people as he wants, and still own the idea. That’s how the system works.

A further wrinkle involves the fact that software can be copyrighted as well as be the embodiment of a patent. This is to say that just as you cannot make photocopies of a whole book or push MP3’s out on the Net without paying the copyright holder a royalty, you cannot re-distribute software without paying the copyright holder a royalty. I don’t know exactly why, but I believe that this derives from the fact that things like books, recorded music, and software can be reproduced fairly easily and therefore deserve additional protection when it comes to reproduction and distribution.

Well, SCO holds the copyrights to an old operating system called Unix, developed by AT&T back in the 1970’s. Unix has been around so long that its features have become the basis for a standard for certain types of operating systems. This is like the Model T Ford being the basis for describing a lot of people expected later after in terms of cars… four wheels, an enclosed cabin, a spare tire. In the case of operating systems, this means that Unix provided the first implementation of a lot of ideas and ways of programming that programmers came to expect in all operating systems.

“Real” Unix has been in trouble for the last few years. Yes, there are a few large companies like Sun and IBM that based their propietary operating systems (called Solaris and AIX) on Unix because they got a license from AT&T and originally adapted Unix for their needs. By and large, however, the features and ways to write programs used by Unix have become so widespread that programmers don’t feel the need to get “real” Unix anymore. The business revenues on real Unix have dropped appropriately. The ownership of the original “real” Unix has changed hands a lot in the last 10 years, and is currently owned by SCO.

One of the major reasons why real Unix doesn’t sell so well anymore is because of Linux. Linux conforms to a set of standards that allow Linux to look and act like “real” Unix in all the ways that programmers expect. It is also developed completely in the open with a copyright license that promotes sharing and is free. So why buy “real” Unix when a free product works about as well and has nearly everything that a programmer wants?

Well, this is where SCO goes really psycho. They see the handwriting on the wall as far as how Linux will affect their revenue on “real” Unix, and make some astounding claims:

  • that IBM, which works on both AIX (it’s own “real” Unix to which SCO has some claims) and Linux, copied code directly from AIX to Linux,
  • that ideas which were implemented for the first time in “real” Unix by various companies over the years are actually part of Unix and therefore somehow owned by SCO,
  • the fact that these same ideas were also put into Linux means that Linux is somehow partly owned by SCO, and
  • the people who use Linux for profit somehow owe SCO money because of copyright violation even when they aren’t redistributing Linux.

The first idea is fairly ludicrous because IBM is nothing if not fully aware of its legal responsibilities. You can be sure that the people who worked on Linux were properly briefed by lawyers… because IBM knew it would be in trouble if its engineers copied code from AIX to Linux. The second idea borders on unrealistic because it is legally possible for someone who owns an idea to put it in “real” Unix and Linux without SCO owning it. Finally, the last two ideas are absolutely insane. Linux was developed in full view of everyone, including SCO. SCO even distributed Linux for a time. To suddenly claim that even parts of Linux are owned by SCO would be like Ford saying “we built the Model T, it has four wheels, a Chevrolet has four wheels, therefore we must own part of General Motors”. To also suddenly claim that Linux users somehow owe SCO some money is like saying “you drive a Chevy, and even though you bought it legally and own it free and clear, you owe Ford money because it has four wheels.”

It’s like Jack Nicholson running with an axe in The Shining screaming “Heeeerrre’s Johnny!!!” It’s psycho. It makes my blood boil.

“I’ll be back” quoth the Governator

I’m feeling a bit cynical today.

It was announced yesterday that the Governor of the state of California is going to face a recall election. Now while “votes of confidence” and the rise and fall of individual governments may be very familiar to readers whose government follows the British Parliamentary model (let’s face it, two Italian governments probably rose and fell in the time it took me to write this), this is going to be something of a first for us here in the United States. There really hasn’t been a statewide recall election for a senior government official in the United States. We don’t generally do that sort of thing here in the United States. That California has an economy bigger than most of the nations of the world just makes it seem all the more important.

From what I’ve read of the situation, the recall is bogus, at least on its face. Opponents of the governor say that they are calling for a recall because of the deep financial trouble that the state is in; it is all clearly Governor Gray Davis’ fault. On the one hand, I would take issue with that because a) the economy is bad (especially the high tech sectors of the economy that California depends on), b) the state got massively fucked by electricity providers that manipulated the market a few years ago, and c) look around, state and federal governments are bleeding red ink everywhere right now. Do we see George W. Bush being impeached for ringing up the largest deficits in US history? I think not.

It is not as if the opposition in this case has been entirely honorable either. From what I can see, the effort is being sponsored by Congressman Darrell Issa, who has spent millions of dollars in his own money to make the recall happen… and so he can run against Governor Davis in the election. It all seems like a naked grab for power or an exercise in mob politics. The alternatives to Darrell Issa in the election include Arnold Schwarzenegger. No offense to Arnold, but the man has shown zero committment to public service… other than serving on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. I don’t see how having “the Governator” in office is suddenly going to make a deadlocked political system work well. Finally, it is not as if the Republican opposition has a very viable method for dealing with the fiscal crisis in place. Their intent seems to be to dismantle the social services system in California… education, welfare, etc… in order to make up the difference in fanatic aherence to the orthodox slogan “NO NEW TAXES.”

So, in honor of this political nightmare, I think Hollywood needs to make a new, updated version of the Jimmy Steward-Frank Capra classic “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”:

Jefferson Smith, a weathly private businessman, is appointed as senator to fill the remaining term of his state’s junior Senator after that Senator was discovered to be having sex with Congressional pages and taking a few too “fact finding” trips to Central America with his big political contributors picking up the tab. A political unknown, Jefferson Smith is initially seen as a “great white hope” of American politics… because his “business experience” and “political outsider” status will show all those rascals in Washington how it’s really done. His first test comes when he attempts to sponsor a bill to develop a “recreation and resort area” in an economically poor but ecologically rich area of his state. It turns out that development of this area will require the approval of a dam. That dam will destroy the habitat of the “furry footed ferret”, a possible candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. After learning of the resistance to his plan by environomentalists and the State’s senior Senator, Jefferson Smith begins a smear campaign on Sunday morning talk shows by vilifying the environmental interests as being “anti-American”, “anti-business”, and “tax and spend liberal”. He also privately puts pressure on the State’s senior Senator by threating to implicate him in the sex scandal that brought Smith’s predecessor down, based on information about an affair with an intern many years before. Smith eventually wins, and is rewarded with improved standing on Congressional committees. He is also elected to a full term in the Senate in the next election thanks to monumental amounts of fund raising and the development jobs he brought to his state.

Hey hey it’s Bollywood!

Sometimes I worry about my chosen profession. I’ve already ranted a bit about I fear that software development might one day be taken over by machines. Well, as possible or impossible as that might be, a potent reminder of far more concrete threat for my job is looming on the horizon was provided by the New York Times yesterday: migration of IT jobs to parts of the world where service labor is cheaper.

For those who can’t follow the link above, let me summarize: the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers provided a recording of a conference call between senior officials at IBM discussing strategies to migrate jobs out of the United States. The reason: trained programmers that cost a $60,000 salary here in the United States can cost $5,000 in places like Bangalore, India. Because we now live in a networked global economy, that programmer in Bangalore can do just as good a job as a programmer in London or New York. Better yet, that programmer can do the work when major clients in the United States and Europe are asleep.

There is almost a cosmic sense of irony at work here. Part of the reason that IT jobs pay so well is that colleges and universities in the United States never produce enough programmers to meet demand. Never. (Too many people want to be come low paid lawyers.) The fact of life in IT staffing is that a large part of the Internet revolution was founded and/or built by people from other parts of the world — many of them here on H-1B visas. That rarity drove IT salaries sky high as the computer technology began to transform society. Those high salaries attracted hosts of foreigners to this country, many of them from the best universities in their respective countries. Now, the circle is closing and some of them are going home. Jobs will be going with them. It just makes too much sense for large software companies to simply transfer their own foreign employees to developement centers in their own countries, where much lower standards of living allow them to make less, but still live very well. Corporations get the same service for less money; it is simple economics.

Now do I fear for my job immediately? No. The United States still has some advantages in the face of this change. Infrastructure is one. A history of innovation in this area is another. Proximity to global leaders in the business arena is a third. But still, it is something to worry about.

I guess I need to think about keeping my skills sharp. It is perhaps a legacy of being born within that magical 25 year period after World War II that I have some memory of perpetual job security — the sense that you choose a career when you are about 20 and stick with it for 40+ years. I have to think that in some measure, those days are gone. There is too much competition. One always must keep some sense of the horizon of employment opportunity because there is some person in India, Africa, South America, or even some small island in the middle of the ocean who could one day have a shot at doing your job.

The solution is not about avoiding that change, but having the next move, or at least a fall back position, ready when the moment comes. Humans are a resilient species. We scrap, we move, we change. It is often not as easy as we like, but we survive.