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.

On Charter Schools and State Ballot Initiatives

There is intense debate in Massachusetts right now around Question 2, a ballot initiative aimed at raising the cap on public charter schools. I am generally of the opinion that legislating through ballot initiatives is a poor idea (with all the normal downsides of direct democracy). This being New England, we experience the flaws of direct democracy perennially at our horrible “town meetings,” which is apparently not enough to discourage proponents of ballot initiatives.

Which leaves us with Question 2, and the requirement for a simple “yes” or “no” vote. I have been a big believer in public charter schools ever since attending Santiago Charter Middle School in Orange County, California. Before that I attended a magnet program that was also excellent. Both were formative experiences that I believe profoundly affected who I would grow up to become.

I have no experience with privately run charters. I was in a very diverse environment, but as a student on an accelerated learning track my classmates often looked like me, and my experience has no relevance when discussing the needs of underserved populations. My school district was run at the county level, with over 20 elementary schools. My middle school of approximately 1000 students is roughly the same size as the entire enrollment of the school district of Hull, where I currently reside.

Santiago has 42 credentialed educators providing a diverse range of programs including wood shop, theater, dance, Chinese, and various other additions to standard, remedial, and honors curriculums. Hull’s Memorial Middle School has a quarter of the students but almost half the teachers, spends vastly more per pupil, and offers far fewer programs. Economies of scale cannot be achieved unless towns are willing to regionalize their school systems, which seems extremely unlikely to occur.

Which is all to say, educational policy and funding is extremely complex. A yes/no ballot question on charter caps is a very coarse instrument for making policy improvements. And based on my education, experience, and research, I cannot offer a concrete conclusion on whether passing Question 2 will improve things in aggregate, or not. From what I have read, the impacts of Question 2 in the first few years will be primarily in Massachusetts’ larger cities, while the majority of the opposition comes from its smaller suburbs. I don’t want to see public school districts anywhere suffer from decreased enrollment to competing charters if it negatively impacts educational outcomes. But I’m also not sure there is a better policy prescription than charters for continuing to experiment with new programs and approaches for education.

On balance, I think the benefits of more charters at least slightly outweighs the potential downsides.

White Trash Triptych

As a student of American civilization, I continue to work to understand what drives supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. The many media narratives to choose from are universally simplistic and self-reinforcing. The more I read, the more muddled my thoughts become.

The people I know who support Trump do not fit the narratives being peddled, and the people I know who should fit those narratives are not Trump supporters. One thing I know for sure is that the simplistic characterization of Trump followers as rural working-class white “trash” is an easy crutch for urban elites, but a false one.

I have been thinking about this and reading about it for months, for years, if you go back to the rise of the Tea Party movement, but even still I cannot form my thoughts into prose. I will delete the many paragraphs I have spent so long writing and instead simply link to a few of the stories I have found most compelling and enlightening. They don’t all agree with each other, but they are all good food for thought.

As I write this the odds are somewhere in the 90% range that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. But even if she wins, and even if the Democrats take back control of one or both houses of Congress, the Trump supporters are not going to disappear, and the problems of rural whites are not going to magically get better.

Two perspectives of the urban vs rural divide and the plight of the white working class, the first more irreverent than the second:

A long read that discusses the social science around white nationalism and traces its roots and effects around the world, going back to World War II:

And finally, two articles discussing recent books on the subject, Strangers In Their Own Land, about the Tea Party movement, and Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of growing up in an Ohio steel town:

Pacific View

On my run this morning I stopped by to visit my grandpa in the park. Looking over that vast ocean of grave markers, it occurred to me that no matter our standing, wealth, or lineage, we all end up in the same place in the end.

Passing the memorial to drunk driving victims on the way out, I pondered the many ways we can care for each other but choose not to. And I noticed the names that surrounded me, family names that span the world — some I could not even pronounce. I remembered that we all came from somewhere, near or far, but we all ended up here.

So maybe in the short time each of us has, we can try to be a little more understanding, a smidge more accepting, a tiny bit less hateful. Because in the end, we are all just a few words on a headstone and the memories we have left behind.

How do you be a good person?

Tim Urban lays it out on his blog Wait But Why:

I think a great way to be a good person is to get in the habit of consciously thinking about the fact that almost every stranger, co-worker, friend, acquaintance, fling, customer service representative, driver, waiter, customer, client, neighbor, and person on the internet you come across:

  • Has a family who loves them and vice versa
  • Has hopes and dreams and regrets and frustrations
  • Has as many thoughts going through their head at all times as you do
  • Is dealing with random health problems, trying to make ends meet financially, and is probably tired
  • Might be supporting one or more other human beings
  • Might be just a little sad all the time about a tragedy in their past
  • Might be the most important person in someone else’s life
  • Is just trying to figure out how to be happy

i.e. They’re a full human just like you.

Remembering that will make you kinder and more empathetic.

— Tim Urban, Mailbag #1 on Wait But Why

A brief, hopefully useful rant on the inherent evil that is Sears

sears-logo-2There are too many rants about too many companies — everywhere you look online, really. So I won’t belabor the details. In mid-2014 we purchased a new dishwasher from Sears along with an extended warranty. In November 2015, it stopped working in an odd way. Thus began a saga of service appointments — trying to schedule them, staying home for them, the technician not having the right part, the technician taking the part and saying we need a different one, the technician not believing the problem was real.

After three rounds of this, we got stuck on a part that was backordered for over a month. I went and found the part on eBay and installed it myself — sadly, the problem still was not fixed. All the while I was courteous and friendly while navigating a bureaucracy to rival the movie Brazil.

After the final go-around of four or five transfers between individuals, supervisors, and departments, I was ready to declare defeat. That’s when Meghan got on the phone and let loose with laser-eyed rage. Surprisingly (or perhaps not?) this resulted in us getting a dishwasher replacement.

But not until January.

Today the dishwasher finally arrived. The installers took it off the truck, then attempted to extort $160 in additional installation fees. We are about to have our kitchen gutted and rebuilt — the last thing we need is temporary plumbing work. When I refused, they put the machine back on the truck. While installation was included in the replacement, if I wanted delivery instead, it would be an additional $70. Keep in mind they were already at my house, had already taken the dishwasher off the truck, and all I wanted them to do was leave it at the curb and drive away.

After an hour of phone tree hell with Sears I had no solution and they packed up to go. Just as they were driving away I got in contact with a helpful sales rep from the store itself, so I chased them down the street, banged on the truck, and handed the driver the phone. Two minutes later, I have my dishwasher. As well as the old one, which they won’t haul away.

Over the course of this two month ordeal I have spoken to over a dozen customer service representatives and supervisors, multiple service technicians, national technical support, local dispatch, and now two intransigent installers. The only people in the entire ordeal who have been helpful were the salesperson at the store who helped me get the replacement, and the salesperson who helped me get it delivered.

We were without a dishwasher for over two months despite having paid several hundred dollars for service coverage. We only received a replacement when my wife got on the phone and spewed vitriol for half an hour. In the end we are stuck with one broken dishwasher and one that still needs to be hooked up. Sears and their various departments, subcontractors, and divisions are, in short, customer-hostile.

This perhaps explains in part why Sears is being driven into a brick wall, and certainly has taught me a valuable lesson — never, ever buy an appliance from Sears.

Also…anyone want a broken dishwasher?

Experiments in Wardrobe

I acquire more “stuff” every year, especially now that I live in a house with a basement, attic, and garage. From time to time I go on a downsizing kick, lured by the appeal of minimalist living, tiny houses, and the search for quality goods. But it always feels like a losing battle against the forces of entropy and clutter.

About a year ago I identified wardrobe as an area ripe for attention and have achieved pleasing results. Step one was to move most of the clothes I rarely wear into boxes and store them in the basement. Step two was to revisit them six months later and either put items back into my rotation or donate them. Pretty much everything got donated. I’ve now gone through this exercise twice, and I have significantly fewer articles of clothing, all stuff I rarely or never wore anyway, including some expensive gifts that I had held on to for years.

Stack of T-ShirtsA few weeks ago I decided to go even farther. I have dozens of “vanity” t-shirts, most of which are showing their age. I pulled out the few that I wear most frequently and discovered that they are all the same model. It turns out you can buy this t-shirt brand online in a wide variety of colors (for screen printing) at incredibly low prices.  So I bought a dozen new t-shirts in several different colors colors, and have been wearing them exclusively for the past two weeks.

I’m really enjoying the change.  I don’t have to spend any time thinking about what to wear in the morning. The shirts are sufficiently decent that they don’t look out-of-place in my workplace or around town.  But I can also wear them for yard work or cooking and not worry, because if I ruin one I can always buy six more for the same price as I used to pay for one of my old tees.

I have also standardized on one type of khakis (I now own four pairs) and gotten rid of almost all my other pants.  And I’m slowly working up the nerve to dump any jacket, pullover, or sweater that I don’t wear at least a few times a month.

Of course I will still keep some formal attire for the (very) rare occasions when I need to actually dress nicely, and I have various seasonal garments like swim trunks, hiking pants, and ski clothes that can’t get quite the same treatment.  But I continue to be on the looking for opportunities to standardize and downsize wardrobe.  It’s probably not the right choice for most people, but I find that I get no joy out of fashion whereas having a “uniform” is quite freeing.  And — so far at least — my wife hasn’t complained. 😛

Danny and Meghan at the Breakers in Newport
Me in my “uniform” of LL Bean Pathfinder Canvas Cargo Pants, Gildan Ultra Cotton G200 polycotton t-shirt, and Adidas Premium Essentials Hoodie with Meghan on a recent trip to The Breakers in Newport, RI.

Never Forget

On September 11th some t-shirts I had ordered arrived. One of them looks like this:


I bought it because I thought it was funny and clever, but when it arrived I was a bit dismayed.  I had forgotten about how the usage of the phrase “never forget” has changed since 2001.  I first heard the phrased paired with “never again” in reference to the Holocaust.   The message was clear: we must remember humanity’s past misdeeds, lest we repeat them.  Similar phraseology has been used around other genocides, and the unfortunate fact is that we do forget, and we do allow them to repeat — Armenia, Rwanda, Congo, and now the ISIS actions in Iraq and Syria.  The world has not decided on a shared mission of preventing genocide in all its forms, and in that way the phrase “never forget, never again” is comically sad.

Never forget the dinosaurs plays on that — on the one hand its funny, because dinosaurs, right?  On the other hand it does make you think.  A great civilization came before us, a huge civilization that rose and covered this planet, and then was wiped out in its entirety such that none but bones remain.  We should remember this, we should remember our fragility as a species, as a planet.  We should think about the costs of the things we do to our world, and to each other, and we should remember that there is no guarantee that we will survive.

But now “never forget” seems to mean something different, something more insidious.  We apply it to the national tragedy of September 11, 2001, when a small group of Islamist terrorists committed a great atrocity in New York City that killed nearly three thousand people.  It is a testament to the power of terror and the dangers of an open society that such a small group — 19 actors — could commit such a large crime, and one so symbolic.  It was terrorizing as intended, and it embarked our country and the world on a new political, economic, and military path that has reshaped our modern world at the dawn of a new century.

“Never forget” is the wrong phrase here — we should remember the tragedy and honor the fallen innocents, certainly.  But the phrase became a rallying cry for two wars of revenge and destruction that have resulted in far more lives lost while arguably doing little, if anything, to make America safer or the world a better place.  It is not a cry for our shared humanity, but is instead a statement of division and anger.  The phrase itself has been twisted, turned petty.

I’m uncomfortable with my silly little dinosaur shirt, but not because I think it is wrong to wear it.  I’m uncomfortable because it forces me to confront the many mistakes we made after 9/11, the opportunities we missed, the actions we took from a place of fear and anger and sadness that were the wrong actions, with the wrong consequences.  We have this one world, this tiny precious world, this world we must all inhabit together, but through thousands of years of societal evolution we continue to repeat the same mistakes, to commit the same tragedies.

So the shirt does serve its purpose, even if accidentally — perhaps it is more meaningful, more impactful than I ever would have thought.  In that two-word phrase, “never forget,” is so much wrapped up meaning.  It makes you think.  Maybe it makes you think that I’m an idiot who got it all wrong, but you’re still thinking about it.  I guess that’s worth doing, and maybe September 11th of each year is the time to do it.

The eighth iteration

The last time I substantially changed this blog was in 2009, and in the last few years it has languished. I’m very happy with this modern update, which is very clean, simple, and content-focused. I’ve removed almost everything else, which should help me focus on the writing.  I plan to back-fill some posts from things I’ve written on Facebook and elsewhere, and go from there.  Welcome to AgBlog version 8, now with a new name and location!

Serious steel

Japanese Santoku KnifeThis week I bought my first “adult” kitchen knife, and I’m excited. As I have gotten a bit older and just a tiny bit wiser, I have started to realize that the matched set is less important than the single item of quality. In this case, that means getting rid of a block set filled with fifteen matched knives of all shapes and sizes — most of which I never use — in favor of three or four really nice cutting implements that I will use every day.

I’m not obsessed with having the best of everything — that involves a level of time commitment and monetary outlay that is at odds with my lifestyle — but I am interested in quality. I lean heavily towards very good single-purpose tools rather than mediocre multi-function devices.

When it came time to purchase a new television of a larger size, I settled on one that was not the most expensive — not by a long shot — but was very good at being a television. That’s it, just a television. No “smart” features, no whiz-bang 3D or other fads, no super-fancy speakers or internet-connected doodads or motion-control thingamabobs. It is just a television, and I am very happy with it. While peripherals and set-top boxes and remotes will change, I think this television will stand the test of time.

My first adult knife is a 7″ Japanese Santoku. I love holding it and feeling its weight and balance in my hand. I am looking forward to some serious chopping and dicing in the near future. I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, and perhaps this new high-quality tool will push me to up my food prep game a bit.

iPhone lover “confesses” to switching to the Nexus 4

Ralf Rottmann lays out his reasons for switching from an iPhone to the newest Google Android device. I too have been interestingly eyeing a Nexus 4, for many of the same reasons he expresses. The iPhone has consistently won out with both hardware and software design, quality of user experience, and availability of compelling applications. But Android has finally improved to the point where those advantages are greatly diminished. Meanwhile Android’s advantages with regard to intra-app communication, more seamless sharing, and Google service integration have not been matched on the iPhone side, no matter what the misleading Siri advertisements claim.

My concern continues to be what it has been from the beginning — in addition to wanting a device that works reliably and well, I also want one that belongs to me. I am extremely wary of loading my entire life into Google’s digital vaults, from which it can never be fully extricated, is subject to massive amounts of collation and analysis, and is sold to their advertisers and kept for their future uses.

I do use Google’s Gmail service for my email, but I pay for it, and I wish that along with that payment would come a much more significant promise to segregate my data and not use it for evil. Until such a promise is more clearly expressed, I don’t trust Google’s Android ecosystem any more than the rest of the services they provide — the Chrome sync that I disable, the Web History that I purge, the mandatory public Google Plus profile that I strip of all useful information, etc. It’s not that I’m afraid to share information online, simply that I want to control my own information and make my own choices, and have the right to change my mind in the future. I don’t think that is too much to ask.

Gun violence triptych

We don’t have to go far. Following the tragic school shooting yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut, the New Yorker is out in force with a set of devastating reactions, all worth reading:

I’m seeing the same sentiments all over the media I read and among the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter. I hope this is a trend, and that we may finally, finally have the momentum to take meaningful action in America on firearm legal reform. Remarkable — yet not — that it took the mass murder of nearly two dozen kindergarden children to get us here. If we don’t take action now, I’m not sure we ever will.

A Portrait of the Systems Administrator as a Young Man (Part 1)

When I started at the Instructional Computing Group, I aimed to be subservient. I was coming from a small fast-paced research center with a lot of strong personalities, complicated politics, and limited technical resources. I had charted my own path there, and I thought it was a good one, but now I was ready to learn how the “professionals” do things. Plus I was looking forward to working normal, non-crazy hours.

Through reorganizations and office moves, I stuck with the philosophy that I was here to do a job, and it would not behoove me to be involved in the politics of the place. Boy was I naive!

I came into the group tasked primarily with maintaining and improving three servers, and secondarily with building some new stuff. Anyone who knows me can guess I was much more interested in the latter than the former.

This was a transitional time in IT, or at least in Harvard IT. At my last job I had stood up virtualization, letting a few powerful servers run many smaller virtual systems. This was a pretty new thing, but it was awesome, and I just assumed everyone was going to be doing it soon. I had no idea at the time how conservative IT organizations often are, or how fragmented. Yes indeed there were virtualization initiatives — four of them that I was eventually became aware of, some well-funded and some small, some for Windows and some for Linux and some for both, none out of the pilot phase.

To do cool new stuff for instructional computing, I needed hardware, and if we were speccing out a few powerful (and expensive) servers, and there was no current virtualization solution available and supported, it just made sense to me that we should install VMWare or Xen on them (this was before KVM) and spit out a bunch of little VMs we could use for experimentation and student projects.

This was when I (and my boss) discovered that things were changing, control was being centralized, and being an “Instructional Systems Administrator” meant pretty much squat when it came to making decisions about infrastructure. Our request was not outright denied, it was just delayed and eventually pocket-vetoed.

Given the new realities, and the lack of enough work on the existing systems to fill my days, we came to the conclusion (my boss and I) that I should be embedded in the systems group part time, giving them a hand, learning about their technologies, and advocating for/formulating plans for ICG’s technical future.

And here’s where things went awry again — the UNIX/Linux team didn’t want me, I got to go sit with the Windows folks. Which is fine and all, but not at all relevant to what I was hired to do. Nor did they seem to much understand what to do with me.

Four months into the new job, I had accomplished very little, and things were not going very well. So I took a vacation to Barcelona. Sitting in a hot hostel common room after a long day I was finally able to cajole my Linux netbook onto the wifi. The first email that came in was from my boss, telling me he wasn’t my boss anymore, and I had been reorganized.

Coming in part two of our gripping tale: becoming a technical architect!

Two days back with Fitbit and I’m already annoyed

Yesterday morning I picked up my old Fitbit sensor and plugged it back in for the first time in about two years. If I’m going to do this thing, I want to do it right — record all food eaten, record weight and body fat each morning, etc. And ostensibly Fitbit supports this. But it is stunningly opaque. It flashes up calculated data such as calories burned that fluctuate wildly throughout the day. So I’m eating based on its estimate of 2300 calories, and at the end of the day when I sync it up I’ve walked 11,000 steps and 5 miles, and the little flower tells me I’m being active, but my “activity” score is 15 (out of 1000?) and my calories burned are down closer to 1800, way lower than it was predicting.

And “whoops,” it tells me, “you’re over your daily calorie goal.” Well, I wouldn’t have had that cookie after dinner if you had just given me some consistent data! I think this is why I gave up on Fitbit pretty quickly last time — I don’t want your faked up data, I don’t want your opaque “scores,” I don’t want your meaningless graphs that say I’ve been sedentary all day and seem to ignore the walks I took and stairs I climbed. The hard truth is that these pedometer-based fitness tracking systems are all hopelessly inaccurate and seem to verge on pseudoscience. If all you care about is footsteps, go nuts. For anything better, you’re going to need something much more sophisticated.

Funny, you would think the amazing tiny pocket computers studded with sensors that we all carry around nowadays and refer to as “phones” could help with this problem!

Surprises in the garden

This is my second year of serious “square foot garden” experimentation, and so far it has not been going nearly as well as last year. My lettuce was infested with little bugs, which apparently is par for the course. After copious washing I got a nice (if somewhat bitter) salad out of it, but was constantly worried about finding more bugs in my dinner. I didn’t end up using the other two heads, and eventually threw them out.

I kept seeing maturing strawberries appear, but by the time I got to them they had disappeared — apparently eaten by birds. Now I’m putting up bird netting to try to protect my other berries, none of which have come in yet. My bell pepper seedlings refuse to grow, for no clear reason. My broccoli bloomed and was ruined because I wasn’t paying attention. And when I just pulled my single head of cauliflower (1 per square foot), it was infested with both earwigs and little green worms. Yuck!

I’m tempted to call the whole thing off and go back to just getting everything from the supermarket. Or, I guess, learning about pesticides. Bah.