Our fast march to fascism

It is hard to write when the world is so bleak. We’ve just come out of a political convention season in which one side put forth concrete policy proposals and consistent messages while the other flooded the zone with shit. The sheer volume of lies, illegality, corruption, and distraction is overwhelming — as it is meant to be.

You can’t have a functioning democracy when one side refuses to participate. And you can’t have a discussion when facts no longer matter. And, and you can’t have a functioning society when the President actively works against the elimination of a pandemic virus that has killed nearly 180,000 Americans and counting. And, and, and you can’t have a free and fair election when the mechanisms of the Federal government have been expertly arrayed to subvert it.

We are closer to fascism than at any point in our modern history, aided and abetted by every mechanism of information distribution, from social media to cable news to the so-called “mainstream” press. Today’s example? An extensive article documenting dozens of instances of rightwing extremist militias stifling free expression and inflicting violence on peaceful protesters while the police refuse to intervene, all framed as a traditional “both sides” narrative.

Even so, the article is a good read, because it shows clearly the thinking of racist extremists who have come to believe that a massive and amorphous “anti-fascist” threat is nefariously organizing to descend on their various tiny towns to attack their “way of life.” No logic can be brought to bear on this paranoia, but the flames of it, fanned by the entire Republican party, is spurring the rapid rise of large groups of right-wing militias bent on violence against anyone with whom they disagree.

I’m constantly amazed by how quickly it has all fallen apart. How does a country succumb to authoritarianism? Slowly at first, then all at once.

Optimism, Hope, and Gratitude

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday. For one thing, it occurs right after my birthday, and I might secretly still believe what I was told as a little kid — that the fireworks are for me.

My love of fireworks aside, the Fourth is not tied to any religious observance except the amorphous religion of patriotism, justice, and freedom. What those words mean in America, and to whom they apply, has constantly evolved over the course of the 244 year American experiment. My belief, my constant hope, is that the arc of history, aided and abetted by good people, bends towards justice.

But if you share the same principles I do it can be hard, upon waking up each morning, to face our present world with optimism. For the past few years, and particularly since the start of our most recent (pandemic) nightmare, America has felt darker and further off course than ever.

It is hard to be optimistic, but it is important to see hopeful signs.

While the current occupant of the White House stokes the flames of racial animus, millions of Americans marching for justice and equality presage a shifting tide.

While perverted national institutions reject science and good policy, state and local leaders try, valiantly if imperfectly, to keep their citizens safe in the face of an unprecedented health crisis.

While a minority party with fascist impulses has erected nearly insurmountable barriers to voting access in their quest to maintain power, an energized opposition has the glimmer of a path to retaking the halls of government and reinstituting democratic norms.

On the climate — well. I don’t know. I’ll keep looking for hopeful signs there.

And even as the world may be burning, I have immense gratitude for the many people and circumstances that make my own life a good one.

In just a few short years I have completely rebuilt my life.

I have a good job where I can work as a leader to make a positive impact through engaging work. I met and married an incredible life partner who makes me a better person and brings me joy every day. I am happily settled into a wonderful new home in a safe neighborhood. I have adorable animals whose antics bring me joy.

I have a yard, a hammock, a vegetable garden, and, currently, some amazingly juice heirloom tomatoes. I am building a new woodworking shop, and am excited about all the fun projects I have planned. I am financially secure in a time when financial security is sometimes hard to come by. I have far-flung friends who I care about and who care about me. And I even have an awesome new toy, a spaceship cleverly disguised as a battery-powered four-wheeled driving conveyance.

My spaceship, I mean Tesla Model Y

Some days it is hard to get out of bed. Some nights I am up for hours just worrying about where this will all end. But in so many important ways, my life is good. And I need to recognize that more, and be grateful for it.

The Never-Ending P1

Don’t worry, this diagram is explained in thousands of pages of documentation

As a computer systems administrator at a large organization I was introduced to a library of procedures and best practices for managing technology services called ITIL that originated in the mainframe era. ITIL is huge, complex, unwieldy, and bureaucratic. It is also a brilliant and incredibly useful resource for understanding how to manage and optimize large systems. And I am very much a fan of optimizing large systems. It’s sort of my jam.

I mention this because at a contention and stressful meeting a few days ago I was accused of being a “process person,” the implication being that I was out of touch with the reality of the situation. The situation being how to make reasonable business decisions during a global pandemic of a scale unprecedented in the last century.

Our business is keeping our community healthy and safe through effective cleaning, and that has never been more important than right now. There has been a huge surge in demand for a scarce pool of cleaning and personal protection supplies. Every day we are overcoming countless challenges to source and stock products, to manufacture disinfectants and other chemicals, to take orders, manage expectations, and to make deliveries, all while ensuring that our staff are kept safe from unnecessary risk.

In the ITIL model, incidents are classified on a scale based on urgency and impact. Our business (and our society as a whole) is facing a priority 1 incident, and, as a senior Systems Engineer, I am very familiar with P1s.

In ITIL, service requests are prioritized based on urgency and impact

How do you typically handle a P1? First you wake up, because it is probably the middle of the night. You push away the grogginess and embrace the adrenaline rush. You assess the situation, triage as best you can, then figure out who else needs to be woken up and how to brief them. Next you work to analyze the problem, determine the corrective action, and implement the fix. Then you monitor the result.

It is rare in the sysadmin world for a P1 to last more than a few hours, or at most a few days. But dealing with the business impacts of coronavirus feels like a P1 that never ends. I’ve been on that groggy/adrenaline combination for a couple weeks now. I can’t sleep at night, and I can’t stop thinking about all the things we need to do.

When I moved to Maintex three years ago and started learning about the many aspects of running a business, it quickly became clear to me that process could solve a lot of problems, but also that my biggest problem was understanding all the things that cannot be easily formalized into a process. The physical world is rife with variables a technologist would not expect.

The physical world is rife with variables a technologist would not expect.

Fifty thousand bottles from a trusted supplier are fine, then suddenly a few hundred start leaking inexplicably. A step is missed in a sanitizing procedure and an entire 5,000 gallon batch of product is contaminated. A forklift driver accidentally smashes a fire sprinkler, flooding the loading dock. A shipping company returns an entire trailer full of product because a labeling machine with a dirty optical sensor placed a regulatory label two inches askew. An inspector with an imperfect understanding of building codes delays a project by 3 months before inexplicably approving it.

ITIL is a helpful framework for me because most other business processes are designed for incremental improvement, not crisis management. But a process is only as good as the people who implement it.

In the physical world, and in the world of people, the unexpected is routine, and no amount of checklists or procedures can account for every possible variation. So I have spent three years implementing systems and analyzing data, sure, but also learning what it means to manage an organization made up of people.

Attempting to maintain business continuity during a pandemic is like a P1 incident that never ends. And that means it is a problem I cannot just solve and then go back to sleep. Every day we need to make decisions and trade-offs that are uncomfortable and might not be the right ones, simply because a decision has to be made so we can keep moving forward.

A lot of my job is to make space so that the smart, hard-working people that work for me can do their jobs.

But most importantly for me as a manager, this P1 requires stepping back. Taking a breath. Checking in with staff to make sure they are okay. Listening to their concerns and figuring out how to help them to clear obstacles. A lot of my job is to make space so that the smart, hard-working people that work for me can do their jobs.

And that is decidedly outside my comfort zone.

But I’m finding it just as exhilarating and even more challenging than doing things on my own. Most of all, dealing with this crisis, and working with this team feels more consequential and important to me than any IT incident I’ve ever participated in. The coronavirus is an incredibly daunting challenge for everyone, and the effects are rippling across society and business in ways that are scary and uncertain. The best we can hope to do in our little corner of the economy is continue to conscientiously perform the valuable service of delivering critical cleaning and safety supplies where they are most needed.

I’m proud of Maintex, and of our team. I’m proud of the work we are doing to help keep society resilient in the face of an unprecedented crisis. And I’m more sure than ever that leaving my former career to start over was the right decision.

Tortoise-centered design

Hacienda de la Tortuga sits on a relatively flat 1/4 acre that came mostly devoid of foliage. Kip’s pen was constructed of chain link fence, as was our land boundry on one side. Mountain peaks poked tantalizingly through our dense ash trees. While the space is large, it felt penned in by the neighboring properties.

Taking inspiration from the British garden show Big Dreams, Small Spaces and wanderings around our neighborhood, we decided to pursue a reasonably priced transformation. Our goal was to gain a lush natural environment that would feel larger and more isolated. We wanted native flowering plants and grasses that would attract birds, bees, and butterflies. We were looking for something low maintenance and water-wise with meandering paths and hidden surprises.

Local landscape designer Susanna Dadd, who specializes in climate-appropriate “habitat gardens,” brought just the right perspective to this journey. She immediately identified our biggest X factor: Kip the tortoise. Many plants were out of bounds because they are dangerous to tortoises, and others wouldn’t work because he would quickly devour them before they had a chance to grow.

Kip explores his new maze-like environment

Sue’s design incorporates low-walled “islands” and “meadows” that serve to give Kip plenty of edible food and enrichment while allowing us to gain the dense, colorful vegetation we desired. To keep costs down, she found steel sheeting to act as the barriers, which will rust to a lovely brown patina over time. We also built a new redwood fence in front of the ugly chain link, and got the ash trees thinned and cleaned up.

This being hot California, there was no avoiding irrigation. Most of the garden has a sophisticated drip system, while some of the more open areas where Kip roams (and might chew the hose) have traditional sprinklers.

After a month-or-so of work by two very diligent gardeners, the yard is mostly done. We are incredibly excited to see how it grows and develops as the new plants fill in and others are added as the season progresses.

I also built Kip a new tortoise house with a nice heat lamp to keep out the chill. It is made of recycled material from the old owners’ garden shed.

Kip’s new hacienda

We were also able to reuse all of the old vegetable boxes in a new horseshoe arrangement. Next week we will get some veggies going, and before long we will have an edible garden for humans as well as tortoises!

Adventures in chimney replacement

We purchased Hacienda de la Tortuga knowing that the circa-1928 chimney was no longer fit for purpose. The chimney is built with a single brick thickness and some of the bricks and mortar had deteriorated due to age and use. Because the structure is not reinforced, an earthquake could send it tumbling into the house or onto the neighbors driveway.

A chimney liner is a flexible or rigid metal tube that is placed into the existing chimney

A traditional fix for this sort of problem is the installation of a metal chimney flue “liner”, a relatively straightforward and inexpensive operation. But due to the narrowness of the chimney and the lack of reinforcement, a liner alone would not solve our problem.

The two masons we consulted both said we needed to tear down the chimney and either seal the fireplace (making it non-functional) or rebuild the chimney at great expense. Neither option was particularly appealing, but we were also unwilling to give up on the charm and comfort of a fireplace.

How a direct vented fireplace works when vented through a rear wall

Having lived on the East coast, I was convinced that another approach would be easy and cost-effective: tearing down the existing chimney and installing a direct venting fireplace instead. While standard wood burning fireplaces are dirty, inefficient, and actually pull heat out of the house, direct vent units are sealed, clean, use natural gas for fuel, and provide substantial heating capacity. Plus, they do not require a chimney!

And this is when I started to think I was losing my mind. While I was convinced that direct vent was the way to go, the local “experts” I consulted were dismissive of the option. They told me direct vent fireplaces are ugly, cheaply made, and inflexible, since you cannot use them to burn wood or to put in other decorative elements. They said that venting through a masonry wall was not possible and would not meet code requirements. I could only find one nearby store that even stocked direct vent units; even there the salesman tried to discourage me from buying one. And if I had bought it, would I have been able to find someone to install it?

I could only find one nearby store that even stocked direct vent units; even there the salesman tried to discourage me from buying one.

Direct vented fireplaces are sealed units that can look quite nice when properly installed

Eventually I identified a local company that was willing and able to reinforce and line the existing chimney for about half the price of a full replacement. That work was completed right before Thanksgiving and, pending final city approval, we now have a functional fireplace that can burn wood.

As I write this on a 40ºF winter morning, I still regret that the direct vent gas option was not possible. It would be nice to have a crackling fire accompanied by heat. At least I know I’m not crazy — plenty of YouTube videos, including one by This Old House, espouse the benefits of the approach I was pursing.

California is a land of paradoxes, and this strange fireplace journey is just another one to add to the list. In an era of climate emergency, why wouldn’t the state be encouraging and even incentivizing the replacement of dirty wood-burning fireplaces with cleaner natural gas alternatives? I wonder how often we will actually burn wood, and how much the heartburn about our contribution to atmospheric carbon pollution will offset our enjoyment of the crackling flames.

Introducing Hacienda de la Tortuga

My move to California meant giving up an old house by the sea in favor of modern apartment living. And while apartments have much to recommend them, I missed living in (and owning, and DIYing) my own house. (This mostly manifest in the form of nightly binges of home improvement and woodworking videos on YouTube.)

After getting married in June, Katy and I decided to start looking for a more permanent residence. We stuck to the Pasadena area — which is overflowing with charming Craftsmans — and the surrounding cities. Alas, none of them were in our price range, but after much looking and some stressful negotiations we were able to acquire a cute little bungalow in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.

Our new home is a single-story stucco structure with a flat roof trimmed in clay tile. The lot is a flat 1/4 acre on a quiet street within walking distance of restaurants, a grocery store, and several Armenian bakeries. There is a single car detached garage that is just perfect for a small workshop. And best of all, the house came with a reptilian occupant — a 25 year old, 65 pound sulcata tortoise named Kip!

The previous homeowners adopted Kip after he was found abandoned at the nearby Huntington Library in 2004. He seems pretty active on warm days and more pokey on the cold ones. We’ve been feeding him lots of leafy greens and vegetables and he seems content.

We are planning a few major projects that involve professionals, like replacing outdated sewer systems and old windows, as well as lots of small projects that we can tackle on our own. Katy has managed much of the unpacking and organizing while I’ve been installing new locks, shower curtains, smoke detectors, speakers, and the like.

Surprisingly all of the YouTubing seems to have paid off a bit, or maybe it’s the benefit of all my experience in Hull over the years, plus a bit more patience and planning. So far I haven’t put any holes in walls that weren’t intended, haven’t electrocuted myself, and haven’t needed to make unexpected hardware store visits. I seem to be getting marginally better at patching walls, fishing wires, and adjusting stuck doors.

Our first night here was rough — we felt unsettled, we were surrounded by boxes, there were swarms of ants everywhere, and none of the light switches did what we expected. A week later we are starting to feel more settled and more at home, as well as more confident that this wasn’t a huge mistake.

We are working on coming up with a silly house name, and I’m advocating for Hacienda de la Tortuga. Hacienda for the home’s Spanish heritage and our plans to make it a homestead with vegetable gardens, chickens, and who knows what else. Tortuga for obvious reasons. But Katy would like to incorporate our gatos into the name as well. I guess we’ll keep thinking about it. We plan to be here for a while, so there is no rush, and in the meantime there is so much else to do!

Politicizing the weather

Trump’s Sharpie vs. reality

As all levels of government are subverted and corrupted at a pace few would have thought possible, even something as fact-based on weather predictions are subject to the lies and whims of a whiny and narcissistic chief executive:

“It makes me speechless that the leadership would put [Trump’s] feelings and ego ahead of putting out weather information accurately,” said Michael Halpern, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If we’re politicizing the weather what is there left to politicize?”

NOAA staff warned in Sept. 1 directive against contradicting Trump“, Washington Post

The corruption of any notion of objective, agreed-upon reality is the point. The breakdown of social cohesion is the point. Once even the weather is a political opinion, the fabric of society is so ripped asunder that unity and common purpose may never again be achievable.

A statement of principles

It’s been over two years now of “shock and awe” tactics aimed at destroying the foundations of American democracy. Equivocating is not an option. Mincing words is not an option. It’s hard to stay focused as each new atrocity becomes normalized. So here is my list, Arya Stark style, of what I believe is most important:

  • Climate change, because There Is No Planet B
  • Gun violence, we should Protect Kids, Not Guns
  • Police brutality: Black Lives Matter
  • Women’s rights: Abortion Is A Civil Right
  • Immigration and asylum: Abolish ICE

Unlike Joe Biden, I see no middle ground on these issues, not anymore. There is right and there is wrong. I refuse to compromise with monsters.

Chasing cannoli

As former Boston residents, Katy and I come down on opposite sides in the whole Mike’s vs Modern debate. So on a recent trip back East, I decided to enlist a cadre of tasters in a cannoli test panel to put this controversy to rest. The results were not at all what I expected.

We ventured to the North End on a Friday night and braved the lines to acquire half a dozen cannoli each from Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry. Awkwardly, we reconvened at Modern for our taste test.

Modern has a more traditional assortment with fewer varieties. I asked for a mixed batch and received two each plain, chocolate, and vanilla. I was given the choice of powered sugar dusting, or not. The cannoli were filled to order and neatly packed in a small box tied with the trademark string.

My compatriots at Mike’s were offered a plethora of flavors to choose from, all pre-filled and on display behind glass. Their six selections ran the gamut, including one with chocolate peanut butter filling and one with a florentine shell. Unfortunately due to Mike’s messy packing strategy, it was impossible to get a picture of all six cannoli in their boxed glory.

The product from Mike’s cost a bit more but are also substantially larger. Testers enjoyed the chocolate chips, which were not offered at Modern. On the whole, everyone preferred the variety of flavor options at Mike’s over Modern’s more traditional selection.

The real test is on taste, and this is where things got a bit more complicated. The panel universally found the Modern Pastry shells crisper and more satisfying. The Mike’s Pastry shells were denser and tasted slightly stale in comparison. But when it came to filling, Mike’s plain and chocolate fillings were universally lauded as lighter and more pleasing, while Modern’s more custardy fillings were felt to be inappropriate in this type of pastry. Some of us enjoyed the creaminess of the Modern filling, but we all agreed that the filling from Mike’s was a better overall fit.

Surprisingly, there was near universal agreement on the overall winning cannoli, and it turned out to be the florentine. This is, of course, non-traditional in the extreme, but it was undeniably delicious, and, at the end of the day, that is what really matters.

The choice of cannoli is a deeply personal one, and I wouldn’t claim to have resolved this never-ending debate. In conclusion, cannoli are delicious and sharing them with others only adds to the experience.

Is a carbon-restricted future really impossible?

The “Green New Deal” is a blanket term for an amorphous set of ideas about restructuring American society to address the coming climate crisis. If it does nothing else concrete, the Green New Deal has ignited long-overdue discussion about the destructive effects of climate change and practical solutions for mitigating the worst impacts.

In some ways, the climate crisis seems hopeless. What is required is massive, wholesale societal change, yet what has been most frequently proposed up to this point is tiny individual changes, such as eating less meat.

There is justified concern that larger changes to consumption, commodity pricing, and distribution models would be anathema to the citizenry, and thus unobtainable. But as I think about programs implemented in the past few decades, I think there is reason to be hopeful and optimistic about some of the changes required.

In the mid 1980s, California introduced a 5¢ fee on beverage containers, which could be recovered through recycling. Over time, an entire infrastructure sprung up around this market-based recycling approach. I fondly recall smashing soda cans in the garage as a kid, and then bringing a big bag of them to a recycling center near our supermarket in exchange for a voucher we could redeem for groceries. Recently this program has struggled as the result of a global shift in how recycling is processed, but even still 80% of beverage containers in California end up being recycled.

Starting in 2017, California banned single-use plastic shopping bags statewide. While there are a variety of exceptions, on the whole the entire state has shifted to reusable bags. This may feel like a large burden, but carrying reusable bags quickly becomes an ingrained behavior, and before long it feels completely normal:

For the most part, Californians took in stride the sudden absence of some 13 billion bags that in previous years were handed out at grocery checkout counters and by other retailers of all sorts. Maybe a few grumbled at first about the inconvenience. But most adjusted quickly, perhaps because they intuited that something was not right about all those plastic bags hanging from trees, caught up in storm drains, clumped by the sides of freeways and floating in the ocean.

Los Angeles Times

How do plastic bags and soda cans relate to the Green New Deal? Changes to our food distribution system will be critical to achieving the necessary carbon reduction targets. Taxes, caps, subsidies, or whatever other approach is chosen, at the end of the day, certain types of foods and transportation will become more expensive, and certain types of packaging will need to change.

Think about everything that comes from a grocery store, and just how much single-use packaging is involved. Every single-serving yogurt, granola bar, bag of chips, tub of hummus, frozen dinner, and clamshell case of strawberries is made up of single-use packaging that is devilishly difficult to recycle, if we even try.

On the other hand, glass, aluminum, cardboard? Pretty easy (assuming the packages are clean). The future I envision is more like Sprouts or Whole Foods than Ralphs and Safeway. More prepared foods made in-store, distributed in reusable plastic or aluminum trays that come with a redemption value attached. More large bins of bulk items — coffee, nuts, grains, snacks — that are distributed in reusable bags and tubs that we simple get used to bringing with us every time we shop.

A lot of the innovations in packaging in the last few decades have been around making products last longer in transport and on shelves. We have made the tradeoff of reducing food waste in exchange for distributing food in increasingly complex packaging that is impossible to recycle. This is an energy-intensive and petroleum-heavy endeavor, and I think the trend will need to shift the other way.

We will be faced with some level of reduced choice as the cost of carbon-heavy packaging and long-distance transportation rises, driving up the prices of foods that are distributed that way. Some of the biggest names in food production and distribution will not be able to adapt, and will go out of business. But we will shift towards more local production, more buying in bulk, and more local preparation.

It is not just transportation and packaging that needs a drastic change, it is also how we choose to subsidize food production. Right now we dramatically subsidize the cost of meat, dairy, snacks, and sugary beverages through our subsidies of sugarcane, soybeans, and corn. On the one hand this helps to prevent food shortages and ensures that high-caloric food is affordable. But more sustainable would be to shift in the opposite direction, towards foods that are inherently calorie-dense (and healthier) without many levels of processing and intermediate steps.

Source: http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/shrink-your-food-footprint

Will this raise the price of meat, cheese, and snacks? Sure it will. But if we can have a corresponding drop in the price of grains, fruits, and vegetables that are local and in season, consumption habits will adapt. Before long, our new food system will be the new normal.

The food system, including agriculture, packaging, and distribution is incredibly complex, and the shifts and changes will be far more consequential, difficult, and expensive than simply reducing plastic bag waste. But programs like the plastic bag ban, can recycling, and others like subsidies for solar panels and electric cars show that we do have the tools at the policy and economic level to address these problems in a systemic way. And they show that, done sensitively and carefully, such changes need not result in widespread suffering or anger.

I am not optimistic about our changes against the forces of nature and the impacts of over 100 year of industrialization, but I do believe there is a path forward. The fact that we have started talking about solutions — FINALLY! — gives me a little big of hope.

The Life-Changing Magic of the $15 Minimum Wage

I’m currently in Denver, Colorado at an industry conference. I’m sitting through a terrible talk by ITR’s chief economist, an old white guy who is playing to a room of old white guys, and it is making me seethe. He is talking about business growth and making all sorts of jokes at the expense of states with low birth rates, nations with fewer national resources, and “millennials” – just for existing.

He also made the requisite jokes about how people hate economists. And we certainly do, when economists ignore the human costs.

The only thing that has kept me from walking out of the room is ignoring him and reading this great article about the power of positive economic change:

For years, when American policymakers have debated the minimum wage, they have debated its effect on the labor market. Economists have gone around and around, rehashing the same questions about how wage bumps for the poorest workers could reduce employment, raise prices or curtail hours. What most didn’t ask was: When low-wage workers receive a pay increase, how does that affect their lives?

Well, now that research has been done:

A $15 minimum wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect. But why? Poverty can be unrelenting, shame-inducing and exhausting. When people live so close to the bone, a small setback can quickly spiral into a major trauma. Being a few days behind on the rent can trigger a hefty late fee, which can lead to an eviction and homelessness. An unpaid traffic ticket can lead to a suspended license, which can cause people to lose their only means of transportation to work. In the same way, modest wage increases have a profound impact on people’s well-being and happiness.

But what about all those “negative externalities” of increased wages? Well:

A 2017 study co-authored by Lindsey Bullinger, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, found that raising the minimum wage by $1 would reduce child-neglect reports by almost 10 percent. Higher wages allow parents working in the low-wage labor market to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked; failing to do so can court neglect charges. “These studies show the positive externalities of increasing the minimum wage on serious outcomes, like reducing child abuse,” Bullinger said, issuing an eloquent barb at economists’ obsession with the “negative externalities” of minimum-wage hikes.

All that, and it gives people back their dignity, too. (via Kottke)

Faux Art

I picked up the sport coat for $5 at Goodwill a few hours before the soiree.

Six years ago some creative friends held a home art show.  I was invited to participate, but lacked any works of artistic merit to present.  So instead I whipped up some — let’s call it meta art? — in the form of an absurdly pretentious photo exhibit.  The photos came from a then-recent trip to Scandinavia I had taken with my friend Kevin (and I’m sure he is going to be thrilled that I’m posting this…).  The text was generated with the help of a site called the Arty Bollocks Generator.  The outfit was assembled at Goodwill for a few bucks.

In honor of the sixth anniversary of the debut, here is my “art” reformatted to fit your screen…

Continue reading “Faux Art”

Checking in on the climate

I keep reading more and more grim climate-related stories and wanting to post them here, but what’s the point?  Curious, I searched this blog and discovered my first mention of climate change was in 2004, and my next was a yer later when the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush was reducing emission standards and claiming the the science was not settled.

Fourteen years on, history keeps repeating itself.  Meanwhile, California suffers the largest wildfires in history.  The world is experiencing an unprecedented global heatwave.  And now discussion focuses on the idea that we may be entering a dreaded climate “feedback loop” with possible unchecked warming of 8 degrees and future sea level rise of 300 feet or more.

It’s a recipe for immense global suffering, massive loss of life, possibly the extinction of humanity.  The only hope, if there is any chance left of fending off complete disaster, is a coming together of world governments to enact sweeping reforms.  We seem further away from this today than ever before.  But hey, San Francisco is banning plastic straws.

What is heartbreaking is how close we came 40 years ago to warding off the oncoming disaster.  We will have plenty of time to reckon with our failures as a civilization while we become part of the waves of mass migration.  But hey, at least Elon has his rockets, so maybe a few of us will end up on Mars!

The Last Ten Years

In January 2008, I adopted the best cat in the world.  He was named Miso at the time, but his real name was Oscar.  He had lived a few years with another family, but his forever home was with me.

I knew this girl, Meghan, who fell in love with Oscar.  Eventually, she decided she liked me too.  In April 2009, we went on our first date, but no one told me.  I was going rock climbing in New Hampshire with some friends, and she came along, even though she was scared of heights.

Meghan introduced me to her large extended family, and taught me a different way of vacationing that involves staying in one place rather than being constantly on the move.  I showed her the Western US and later took her out of the country for the first time.

In no time at all, Meghan moved in with me, displacing my long-suffering roommate Igor.

Continue reading “The Last Ten Years”

Brushes with disaster

In August I started driving a Volvo XC60 with the latest generation of vehicle autonomy features. Since that time I have driven nearly 10,000 miles in the car, and the experience has been mostly positive. Early on there was one aberrant behavior where the vehicle, while running in its “Pilot Assist” mode, suddenly and inexplicably changed lanes and nearly caused a collision. I don’t know if the car lost its lane lock or it was attempting to swerve around a perceived but non-existent obstacle.

There was a second incident, also in Pilot Assist mode, when the vehicle (presumably) lost its lock on the car ahead and started accelerating. And on a few other occasions, the automatic collision braking system has kicked in when not needed.

Continue reading “Brushes with disaster”

The Elon Musk Endgame

What are the minimum necessary components for a viable and sustainable long-term colony on Mars?

First we have to get there, so we will need inexpensive and reliable rockets.  They should be reusable both to keep costs down and to allow for return journeys.

Once we are there, we will need to be able to produce and store energy.  This will require extremely durable solar panels hooked to efficient battery packs.  We can use this energy to power our transportation — the small battery-powered vehicles (let’s call them “cars”) to transport people and supplies, and the larger heavy-duty construction equipment (“trucks”).

Mars is extremely cold and has minimal atmosphere, so it will make sense to build a a substantial portion of our colony underground.  For this we will need advanced tunnel boring equipment.

With thousands of people across multiple settlements along with hundreds of vehicles and other bits of autonomous equipment, it will be critical to have an advanced communication and geolocation grid.

And we will need highly optimized mining and manufacturing techniques.

I’m surely not the first person to notice this, but Elon Musk is pursuing every single one of those goals.  SpaceX has made remarkable advances in reducing the cost of spaceflight and the reusability of rocket components.  Tesla (along with its SolarCity acquisition) have produced efficient electric vehicles, stationary battery packs, and have just unveiled their extremely durable solar roof tiles made of glass.  The Boring Company, Musk’s latest endeavor, is aiming to improve the efficiency of tunnel boring machines by 10x or more.  And as for communications, SpaceX recently announced plans to build a low Earth orbit communications satellite swarm consisting of twice as many nodes as all currently existing satellites combined.

If Musk’s master plan is to build every component necessary for successful Mars colonization, his logical next step would be to invest in breakthroughs around food production, packaging, and storage.  We are also going to need environment suits, so maybe he will start looking into new types of fabrics, breathing apparatus, and the like.  And of course he will eventually need to pivot from factory automation to include advanced automated manufacturing of stationary buildings.

The Musk portfolio of companies has cranked out in a little over a decade a substantial portion of the breakthrough technologies necessary to make us an interplanetary species.  He is fighting a desperate battle against time as the effects of climate change compound and produce more disruption.  We need to get some people off this rock before other people, driven by greed or desperation or hatred, do their utmost to destroy it.

More Tales of American Health Care

I periodically post here, on Facebook, or elsewhere about confounding health care experiences. I’m relatively young, relatively healthy, and have very simple care needs. The failures I experience worry me because they imply that people with more complex or urgent needs are likely being even more poorly served. All of my experiences are with managed care providers. The most recent is with Kaiser Permanente.

I had symptoms that presented as a simple stomach ailment. I won’t go into the details because, as you might expect, they are not fun. After 96 hours of being barely able to eat, and having lost over 6 pounds of body weight, I decided it might be worthwhile to call the Kaiser consultation line and get an expert opinion as to whether I should take any further action or simply let it run its course. I was specifically concerned because I was going to need to travel for work, so I thought talking to a nurse would help me decide if the trip should be cancelled.

The phone tree was mystifying, as always. I kept being transferred to the wrong place, but after talking to three people I landed on a pre-screener who asked a few simple questions and, based on the answers, determined that I had no use for a phone nurse but instead needed an in-person appointment. He transferred me to appointments. They told me that none were available, and I should go to urgent care instead. And so off I went.

After the expected hour or so of waiting around and repeating my symptoms to three different people, the doctor gave me a cursory exam and confirmed that it was, indeed, a simple stomach virus which would run its course. He offered to do additional blood work, which I declined, and prescribed some medication to help with symptoms.

This is all fine, I suppose. If someone could make a cheap home combination blood pressure cuff, pulse/ox, and stethoscope that plugs into an iPhone, that would probably eliminate 20% of routine office visits. It’s the 21st century, where’s my telemedicine?

Anyway, the interesting bit is the prescription. You see, modern pharmacies have complex software to check for possible drug interactions. That’s in addition to the job of the doctor and the pharmacist, of course. I’m no expert, but reading the printout that came with the prescription immediately raised alarm bells. Dr. Internet suggests that taking this stuff could be a Very Bad Idea as in some cases it interacts with something I’m already taking to cause fun symptoms like coma. Now, I’m no expert, and I may be wrong about whether this is really dangerous. But yikes!

So I called Kaiser. The pharmacist I spoke to suggested tapering off the other medication while taking this one. I suggested that seemed ridiculous given the other med’s long biological half-life. He stumbled around a bit, and said he would have my doctor follow up. Right. In the meantime? Unclear.

Maybe it’s fine. But I’m sufficiently freaked out/miffed that I’m not touching the new stuff, and am just going to have to suffer the old-fashioned way. And I’m concerned about Kaiser’s capacity to effectively treat me while keeping me safe from iatrogenic effects.

Update (2017-05-04): I never received the promised follow-up call.

Spit and polish

My grandfather, Ralph Silverman, trained as a chemist at Indiana University on the GI Bill after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. In 1960 he uprooted his family and moved to California to form his own business manufacturing cleaning chemicals. Through grit, hard work, determination, and a little luck, he built a successful enterprise and gave his family a better life. It is a classic American Dream story, and fifty-seven years later, Maintex is a thriving facilities solutions company.

As a child I would go into work with my dad and help grandpa open the mail: checks in one pile, bills in another. As a teenager I worked part of my summers on the company’s catalog and web site. My first major programming accomplishment was designing a content management system for Maintex at age 14. While in college I helped maintain the servers that ran the web site, email, and FileMaker database.

While some employees assumed I would move into the family business, my parents and grandparents encouraged me to pursue my own dreams. I had the privilege of graduating from university with no debt thanks to my grandparents’ generosity, and I was able to successfully pursue a career in information technology.

The rest is well documented on this blog. I built a life in Boston, forming friendships, getting married, buying a house, and working in tech. I moved between several jobs, advancing my career but never quite satisfied with my role and level of responsibility.

All along, Maintex kept gnawing at the back of my mind — the amazing opportunity and awesome responsibility of potentially stewarding a multi-generational company. A company with a mission and purpose. A company that provides for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees.

It was a massively difficult decision. Meghan and I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed to give it a serious try. I plan to spend the next six months learning the ins and outs of the business, and contributing as much as I can. As I do so, I am very cognizant of the risks and potential pitfalls of coming into a family business in the third generation. To that end, my aim is to observe as much as possible and ask a million questions, especially in the areas where I know the least. I think I’m in a good position to do this — I have never been afraid to expose my ignorance!

Another Final Day

Friday was my last day as an employee of Brightcove. It has been a whirlwind 2 years and 8 months. After so much time in higher ed, a stint at a product-driven technology company was a breath of fresh air. I got to work with some incredibly talented people, and was given the opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience in exciting new ways.

In terms of buzzword compliance, Brightcove does pretty well. The majority of the company’s product suite is run on top of cloud computing providers like Amazon and Google. The technology stack utilizes a distributed, service-oriented architecture, with the microservices exposed via public APIs.

As a complex online video platform, Brightcove’s stack includes workflows for ingesting and transcoding video and other assets, centralized content management, pipelines for packaging assets and generating video players, global distribution using content delivery networks, and complex analytics using tracking beacons. In total over 100 distinct deployable services contribute to a seamless end-user experience that can reliably accommodate hundreds of millions of daily video views around the world.

Brightcove occupies the third and fourth floors of the Atlantic Wharf complex on the Boston waterfront

I joined the Systems Engineering team, and worked as a Senior and then Principal engineer, focusing on both operational execution and, increasingly, designing and building complex core infrastructure projects. I was pushed to create elegant and reliable solutions, but also to evangelize technologies and approaches across development teams.

Brightcove’s engineering organization is composed of many independent teams, each of which makes its own decisions about how software is built, deployed, and managed. The advantage of this approach is in agility and speed. The trade-off is that it can lead to a plethora of different languages, tools, solutions, and techniques — in short, an accumulation of technical debt.

Much of my challenge was in convincing disparate teams of the advantages of adopting common tools and techniques and standardizing deployment and service management. This task was at times enjoyable, but often frustrating. The incentives for teams are to deliver on product commitments, and this often leaves little time for work that is not customer-visible.

This challenge is common in my realm; some companies solve it by creating a Site Reliability Engineering team, although this typically bifurcates operational responsibility for services from engineering responsibility. On the whole, I like Brightcove’s approach of keeping engineering teams responsible for running their own services. I hope that the pendulum moves a bit, and the Systems Engineering team’s unique role become more valued and supported over time.

The thing I will miss the most about Brightcove is the community of people, both in person and on chat, who made every day a chance to learn, grow, and have fun. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much at work before, or had so many interesting in-depth technical discussions. Culture is a hard thing to cultivate. Brightcove’s senior management and the supporting cast, like our amazing office services team and our HR business partners, work really hard on this, to their credit.

I’m leaving Brightcove for a unique opportunity outside of technology that involves a management component. I never thought I wanted to be on a management path, but now I’m giving it a try, in part due to my experiences at Brightcove. More on the new gig in a future post.