Wednesday, June 30, 2004

 

Fiends and Family (Yes The Spelling Is Intentional)

Courtesy of Little Green Footballs, we now find that Ralph Nader is expressing his opinion on certain eastern Mediterranean issues, and needless to say there's a bit more venom here than one would normally expect from an "activist" and "consumer advocate". I remember an interesting bit in Consumer Reports once a very long time ago (I was probably in high school at the time) where they were talking about Nader's influence and postition on CU's board. Needless to say there was a lot of dancing around and there was a certain distancing themselves from him. How prescient....

The creator of CWShredder has called it quits. This is not a good thing for the PC user community, since removing the infernal CoolWebSearch pest has only gotten harder as its variants have propagated, and removing it with tools such as HijackThis, RegEdit, and other low-level stuff requires not only detailed system level knowledge but careful process, which realistically might not be present when there's a crisis situation and your PC's Critical Need Detector has gone off. Merjin is definitely one of the real Good Guys out there.

The question then goes back to an earlier postulate of mine, which is who's paying for this? The CoolWebSearch code is devilishly insidious, and is obvious evidence of a well-trained system hacker. Guys like that are usually not the types to unleash this sort of thing just for the hell of it. It's possible there's some committed uber-Commie (this thing tracks back to Russia), perhaps ex-KGB who does it for the sheer pleasure of wrecking the information economy of the West, but a far more likely scenario is purely mercenary. Follow the money. The coder(s) doing this are likely being paid from fat profits from advertisers, be they porn peddlers or members/partners of Good Corporate Citizens.

I suspect the level of cutouts and intermediaries associated with the CoolWebSearch infrastructure (pardon my misuse of the term) would make investigating this require both a very large police force and a very large accounting team. And please don't talk about Interpol, unless you're referring to the rock band. Interpol is a useful fiction device in the movies, but in reality it's a few guys sitting in an office somewhere "coordinating" and harrumphing. For the icing on the cake about Interpol, consider that it numbers amongst its' past presidents the late unlamented Reinhard Heydrich.

The secondary question is why a college kid (now graduated) from Belgium can create something desperately needed by the IT security community, in Visual Basic yet, that Symantec, Network Associates and for that matter Microsoft can't do with all of their resources. I would think that MSFT does have at least a moral obligation to provide sufficient information and resources to the security community such that they can get fixes for this crap out there. In the case of their corporate customers, it may even be a fiduciary obligation (inane license agreements aside). Their response to this issue has been underwhelming to say the least.

The whirlwind sown during the browser wars is coming, thanks to MSFT's insistence on so tightly coupling the browser to the OS.

Update - just discovered this interesting link about who's advertising with a well-known piece of crapware. Another link points to the top 20 advertisers on another notably pesty service which keeps quote unquote offering crapware to your PC. Follow the money trail....

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

 

Kvetching

The day's cycle of meetings, instant messaging (surely one of the most evil things ever invented by my IT brethren), and general agita is finally over, and I can post. Plenty to bitch about, but without some significant context setup and sanitizing, it'll be pointless. Leave it said that a certain project manager who resembles Lou Costello still hasn't done his job properly, and we have absolute ca-ca based on his efforts. More remains to be seen tomorrow, at which point we know if we have a reasonable chance of making the newest arbitrarily decided deadline.

Rant du jour is about the Lexington Avenue IRT. I ride it from Grand Central down to the nexus of all things financial, and dammit, why are the quote unquote expresses so slow during rush hour? Case in point today, I got on the IRT 5 train at GC at 8:10, and it took almost twenty minutes to get to 14th Street (for the NY-impaired, that's the next southbound stop; during off-hours it takes between 7 and 10 minutes to get from Wall Street to Grand Central). It's not terribly overcrowded, and the A/C works (for the most part) on the trains, but if I've got to get downtown (or uptown for that matter), why is there some sort of cosmic locus around 14th Street that gums up the works for everyone? Then again, during rush hour it can take a solid half hour to go from Wall Street to GCT, heaven forbid you're on the subway later than 5:10 if you hope to catch any train from Grand Central in the 5:45 range.

Secondary rant du jour is that it's damn disconcerting, yet comforting in a strange way to see the intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street an armed camp. I'm very saddened in that the visitor's gallery of the NYSE has been closed thanks to some of our (ahem) allies in the war on terror's (double ahem) eccentric cousins. One of the most formative experiences of my childhood was Dad taking me to the NYSE, and explaining the action, all about the specialist posts, the two-dollar brokers and the like. I am doubly saddended that I now can't do the same for my kids. Dad would've muttered "Bastards!" under his breath, and like father like son.

Monday, June 28, 2004

 

Watch The Wallabies Feed, Mate....

Not much to report or opine on today due to the great deities of the Methodology sucking the life out of everything its tentacles touch. Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer finally noticed that the current methodology flavor of the month has a couple of glaring holes in it, but the client is expecting this methodology to be applied, He will be calling an expert harrumpher to determine just how to present the holes to our client, and if necessary, escalating. There are some moments when you just want to say, stop, take a step back, look at what you've got already, and if you've got holes, plug them before you go any further. Unfortunately the sales and contract types are very good at selling things without the remotest clue of how to actually make them happen.

The project managers are sufficiently useless today as well. We've got one who reminds me of Lou Costello, both in stature and effectiveness. He's been an astonishingly poor PM all the way through this project (but I must say he's not a bad person), and only knows his metrics. I don't think these guys could define a real milestone (as opposed to a method-mandated one) if his <insert something mission-critical or euphemism for buttocks> depended on it.

One joke I'm notorious for telling is somewhat applicable here in modified form - "What's the difference between an IT project and a buzzard?" "The buzzard waits until you're dead to eat your heart out".

Late posting tomorrow, as I will be banging out stuff at the client site, otherwise known as Camp Runamuck, where the sign on the door says "Anderer Tag der Freude durch Arbeit".

Sunday, June 27, 2004

 

Trade Shows

Comdex has been cancelled due to user indifference. No big surpise there, in that C[TI]Os are still tight with the dollar, and aren't going to spring for anything unless:The ROI from a Comdex trip is pretty hard to quantify, since demo software is easily downloaded from the web, sales droids will drop hardware off for you to try if you're even a remotely qualified corporate buyer, and if your company utters the magic three letters RFP, your project can expect obsequious fawning from any potential vendor, eliminating the need to fly to Las Vegas for debauchery.

Comdex was always a hoot to go to, mainly because of the swag (T-shirts, bags, pens, balls, you name it), the booth babes reading their prepared scripts, and the odd big budget booth with a killer attraction. Computer Associates put a boxing ring in with none other than Smokin' Joe Frazier in attendance, inviting attendees to spar with the champ if they wished (and of course the most frequently heard phrase that day was, "I'm not that crazy"). My personal favorite one year was Borland, which had a "You Bet Your Life" stage setup with a wisecracking Groucho who asked attendees the same sort of embarassing questions the genuine article would've.

We always ended up crawling the periphery of the show, as there were occasionally some niche items there of interest, but even back then the commoditization of the small systems business was blatantly obvious, and there were so many Most Wonderful Beautiful Lotus Flower Wong's Of Taiwan desktops and servers that our heads were spinning. PC Expo was no different, just smaller scale, in the incredibly overpriced and inaccessible Javits Center. I actually had to pull booth duty at one horrid little show called IT for Wall Street or something of the sort, where most of the folk wandering by were either looking to sell us stuff or inquire about employment. Four of the most absurd hours in my life.

Every once in a while there's an opportunity to talk to a real vendor propellerhead at one of these things, but overall these shows have become so useless, I don't bother any more, even with a sometimes-useful industry-focused show like SIA's. Too crowded, and six bucks for a hot dog?

Saturday, June 26, 2004

 

Venturing forth...

If you've picked up an electric guitar sometime in the last 40 years the odds are you've played something by the Ventures. These guys defined the instrumental rock genre and they are still awesome. Click here to download some video of these guys, and please stop by their online shop and pick up a DVD of one of their incredible concerts. One of the biggest shames in a fairly shameful business is that the Ventures have never gotten their real due in this country, and inexplicably they aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. There are some fairly questionable ones in there, for instance, The Moonglows, Brenda Lee, and Michael Jackson. The Moonglows - yeah, "Sincerely" was a nice piece of doo wop. Name another of their songs. Brenda Lee? All novelty stuff. Michael Jackson? Great stuff with the J5, but give some propers to the Motown house songwriters and the Funk Brothers, they made those records happen. A couple of good solo albums ("Off The Wall", and "Thriller"). Not my cup of tea, but well crafted, but frankly it's more Quincy Jones' vision. The moves? Pure Jackie Wilson.

One thing the Ventures did back in the 60s that was really cool, and gave a lot of guitar players their start, was their "Play Guitar With The Ventures" albums, where they walked you through learning classics like "Walk Don't Run" and "Pipeline". They've been reissued as a complete set on CD, although the guitar transcriptions that came with the albums aren't in the packaging (there are a couple of Ventures tab books available). If you or your kid are picking up the guitar, run, don't walk (ha!) to pick up the CDs to get them started.

Eric Clapton raised an awful lot of money for his pet charity by selling off a good chunk of his guitar collection. "Blackie", a Franken-Strat (i.e. a Stratocaster cobbled together out of parts of other perfectly good Strats) raised almost $1M. Frankly, I never liked his tone with Blackie. It always seemed too wimpy. On the other hand, his Gibson ES-335, which dated back to the Yardbirds and which had several star turns during Cream ("Badge", the farewell concert) raised about $850K, and that guitar has awesome tone. Funny enough, the new owners of these guitars is Guitar Center, Inc. I suppose that they will arrange for them to be seen by players, but I doubt they will be played again.

Friday, June 25, 2004

 

Vonce ze rockets go up who cares vere zey come down...

The BATF is going after model rockets. Without a doubt, these guys are out of control. First, some background here - as I mentioned on my very first post, I was across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and got to see the action from entirely too close. Needless to say that's left me with a very cautious streak when it comes to air travel (which I loathe anyway) and I completely understand and cooperate with the TSA on those occasions when I do fly (for whatever it's worth they've always been polite to me, and I haven't had any grief from them). But model rocketry is a very different animal, with a very safety-minded community. There's a huge interest in high power rockets, as the small Estes kits are fun for a while, but they don't go very high, are somewhat fragile, and it's hard to push the performance envelope any further. High power is about lofting big heavy rockets, in some cases to unbelievable altitudes (I probably should differentiate here between high power rockets, which have basically been productized and are consumer-type things, albeit a very sophisticated consumer, and amateur rockets, which really push the envelope, with regular flights above 50K feet. Amateur rockets tend to be more, ahem, problematic than your garden variety high power bird, with the odd spectacular failure not being unknown).

That said, the BATF has made it all but impossible to purchase and store rocket motors. Most folks who buy these don't buy a lot of them, as a) they're really expensive b) you don't really want to keep them inside your house just in case and c) leaving them in an outside magazine during the winter isn't a great idea, as the temperature changes will likely crack the propellant grains rendering the engines dangerous or useless. Also, these aren't like Estes rockets, in that if you're building a high power bird, you're pretty much dedicated to that bird, and getting three or four of these big mofos ready for flight isn't really practical, unless you're on a team. Odds are you'll be flying three, maybe four times a year, and you're lucky to get a couple off the ground at any one meet.

It's not a huge inconvenience to buy motors at the meet, and in fact it's probably preferable because if the manufacturer's reps are there (they usually are, this is a small community) you have on-site support getting the things ready to go, and you don't have to pay insane common carrier prices to get the things delivered. The only real reason to keep them around is to do balance and fit checks, but dummy cases would probably work just as well. So why am I bitching about this?

Because even if you just want to buy them at the meet (the hobby is very much self-policing, and cooperates well with the FAA, for an example where regulation is needed - after all, you don't want one of these suckers in a real plane's flight path), you've got to get a permit. And getting a permit involves lots of layers of bureaucracy, analogous to getting a pistol permit in a big city, such that it's becoming nigh impossible to get a permit. Unacceptable.

As I noted, it's a relatively small community, and newcomers to this hobby are noticed. If you want to fly the big (and somewhat dangerous) birds, you've got to pass a certification test. No one's going to sell you motors to take home unless you've got that ticket, you've got to get your motor at a launch to get your certification (which basically consists of someone checking your construction work on the rocket, then flying and recovering the bird). Odds are that some unknown guy named Abdul wanting to buy or fly M-class motors would get a lot of scrutiny. This is a very law-abiding and patriotic bunch in this hobby, again analogous to the firearms community.

I should qualify my "somewhat dangerous" crack in the last paragraph. These things are not kids toys. Like real rockets, they do occasionally go boom. They do go fast, and would probably startle a pilot if he encountered one during a takeoff or landing. And some of them are heavy, so given a large total impulse (an O-class motor has 40960 Newton-seconds of total impulse,defined as the integral of the thrust over the operating duration of the motor) you can have a fair amount of kinetic energy during a boost phase.

And of course, why the heck would Abdul want to use Ammonium Perchlorate to do his dirty work, when he could just as easily buy gasoline and fertilizer, two commodities which the BATF is obviously not regulating, and make a big boom? Or for that matter some Stingers or other nasties which the folks in the old country could send over marked as religious articles?

The nanny state strikes gain.

Apologies in advance for what may be a light posting week ahead. Herr Oberscheissefuhrer Von Arbeit decided to enact total mobilization and martial law.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

 

Very short shrift today

Long meeting day today, and not much bandwidth for observations or rants. Lots of nastygrams going back and forth between the client and us, nasty conference calls, and pretty much a bad day all around.

Update - probably won't be anything else coming down the pike from me for a couple of days. Crunch time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

 

Would you like fries with your aggravation?

The meeting schedule lurches forward, with three meetings alone scheduled for today. 37.5% of today's quote unquote normal work time scheduled for nothing but people reporting status for the third time. All day meetings scheduled for tomorrow. A project manager actually said yesterday, "this is where the methodology falls down". Aha, the beginnings of wisdom. Scope is constantly changing on this cockamamie project, when we should be nailing designs down and handing off to the implementers. Moral: methodologies are not one size fits all, and most projects are "corner cases", where a unique, tailored approach is required.

Some random observations for today in lieu of coherence:

Finally someone has the cojones (anatomical differences aside) to get in front of that cesspool on First Avenue otherwise known as the UN and confront them on their anti-Semitism. Even Kofi "Am I Really As Bad As John Lindsay?" Annan paid lip service here. I look forward to seeing the vote in the General Assembly for the sheer amusement factor. Sort of reminds me of the old joke about the rabbi visiting his congregant in the hospital, "Mr. Schwartz, I want you to know that the synagogue board passed a resolution wishing you a speedy and complete recovery by a vote of 14-9, with three abstentions".

An interesting observation on Annan's bland pronunciations on anti-Semitism. Kofi's buddies have been spewing this shit out for decades, and not one major US media outlet has called them on it. I well remember one "60 Minutes" segment on some aspect of the Paleostinian-Israeli conflict, and they were interviewing one of the keffiyah-wearing slobs. The voice-over translator said "...the Israelis..." but I clearly heard the terrorist say "el yahoud", which translates as "the Jews". No difference between Mrs. Goldblatt in Riverdale and Ariel Sharon to these animals.

Senator Hatch (R-Disney) wants to overturn Sony vs. Universal, the 1984 decision known as the Betamax case, under the pretense of preventing child pornography (in the same sense that banning matches will reduce arson). The way the legislation is written, it's possible that even VCRs will be outlawed, never mind P2P networks or things like analog capture devices. I may seem to be harping on this particular issue, but there's method to my madness. While any sane person recognizes that even in wartime some domestic issues must be addressed, there is an inordinate amount of obeisance being paid here by these two senators to an industry that lately has contributed nothing but unpatriotic sentiment and most of its product is absolute shite that has neither lasting artistic merit nor contributes anything to a positive discourse that any healthy society needs. In other words, stop wasting time shilling for Jack Valenti and Cary Sherman's constituencies when our enemies are lopping off American heads.

To increase your consternation level, consider that the quote unquote adult entertaintment industry has actually been responsible in certain ways for innovations that wouldn't have been commercially practical without the demand of a clientele willing to repeatedly pay premium prices for something. Early satellite TV providers made an awful lot of money on the stuff, and secure and micro-payment technologies have been driven in large part by this garbage.

And a bit more on DRM here, here and here. The good Doctor is venting his spleen in a more positive manner nowadays, I suppose it's the success of Spaceship One :-)

Microsoft to buy Network Associates? Good thing or bad? Potential upside is that nobody knows their OS like MSFT so perhaps the anti-virus and trojan defenses will become more effective, downside is that we can count on MSFTs usual intensive testing and quality control efforts. Anti-trust, anyone?

And finally, who's paying for spyware ads? Awfully nice company they're in...

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

 

To sleep, perchance to DRM

Yesterday's missive about the RIAA and copy protection in general got me to thinking about actually where it could be useful, and also the good guys in the IT industry who actually trust their customers, thereby gaining market share. A specific example of a good guy is Oracle (yes, Oracle!). Why? The Oracle Technology Network lets you download fully functional copies of every single product, not time-bombed or otherwise crippled, and lets technologists play with them. It's a win-win situation all the way around - companies get to check out the entire product suite on their own time with minimal hassle from sales droids, Oracle gets feedback from the user community on their likes, dislikes and usability, and overall, a generally favorable impression is left that will make folks more likely to consider Oracle. Sybase and IBM are doing similar things with their respective industrial-strength RDBMSs, although it's a bit harder to track down the appropriate sites than with Oracle. It's a cool way to take a test drive, and a relatively intelligent deployment plan can be worked out along the road, ultimately enabling shorter time to market.

The user community has had some tangible benefits as well, in that installing Oracle on Linux was a bit hard (Oracle has opted for a Java-based installer to alleviate cross-platform concerns), but by getting Oracle's Linux implementations out there to the wider community, people have been able to decipher where the issues are and post them out to user groups and the like. While it's still a non-trivial exercise to get Oracle running, the combination of an open-minded company and an active user community is always a good thing. Contrast this with the boys from Redmond, who do give out freebies, but they're timebombed. It's not an unreasonable period for an evaluation (120 days), but they don't make the migration path to a fully licensed product clear, making it harder to take your successes to production. In MSFT's case, at least from a corporate standpoint, it's probably better to buy an MSDN subscription, where you get all their goodies, fully licensed (albeit with user count restrictions) for one relatively low price annually.

Conversely, where could copy protection or more precisely Digital Rights Management be userful? Certain financial transactions, for example, such as swaps with multiple counterparties, might be an area where you might want certain parties to see certain parts of the documents, but not necessarily the whole thing, and in any sort of transaction where you would need a paper trail of who saw what when. The problem with this scenario, as always, is systems integration, and making it work seamlessly with quote unquote standard tools (e.g. MS Office). The problem of course here is that with documents such as this that need to be transmitted between enterprises, how does the DRM system phone home? The obvious answer is through web services, however, the problem of an unintentionally, or intentionally disrupted Internet connection arises. Most DRM systems allow a certain number of unaudited or unpermissioned content views (although the content provider can change the number of allowed uses when encrypting and preparing the content for release) before locking out the content, but in the case of a sensitive document, even one unaudited view may be too many.

The case of entertainment content is of course an entirely different matter since (according to Senators Hollings (D-Disney) and Hatch (R-Disney) some kid downloading the latest pop nonsense is a national security threat). Without adding a redundant call for CD prices to come down, the RIAA members have to realize that they've been giving short weight for quite some time now (and let's face it, the business model that Dick Clark and Don Kirshner had in the late 50's and early 60's is still working today for these clods, so why fix it?), and without giving perceived value, their sales are still going to fall. What value is being added, especially to the back catalog, to justify these prices? People will pay for added value on back catalog items, just look at what audiophiles will pay for half-speed mastered vinyl, or the success of "Let It Be Naked".

And just to add insult to injury, I checked out the cost of duplicating CDs in standard jewel cases with a 4-panel color insert from a major disk duplicator used by many independent artists. The cost per disk in quantity ten thousand was $0.79. If you look at ASCAP's royalties example on their website, the royalty basis for a CD is the list price minus a four dollar plus "packaging fee". Presumably the captive pressing plants of the RIAA members can provide a lower unit cost, but it seems like someone's making about 300% right there.

Monday, June 21, 2004

 

The sound of no fans clapping

The always erudite and logical Steven Den Beste has mirrored an excellent article on the mess that the Islamofascists make of the world. Well worthy of your attention.

If for any reason you either support the RIAA or are buying new CDs, this should give you pause. At the very least, turn off Autoplay on your CD and DVD drives on your computer. The potential for installing malware is appalling. The copy protection industry despite their protestations of being reasonable guardians of intellectual property is actually a bunch of loose cannons, who if given the chance would put code on your computer that would wipe out content they feel is unlicensed, pirated, or for that matter inappropriate (Senators from Disney Hollings and Hatch, anyone?). I remember an interview with an executive from a well-known copy protection company many years ago saying that they had stuff ready to go that would (I'm paraphrasing here, but the war reference was correct) make Vietnam look like a playpen when unleashed on a PC. This is the sort of nonsense the RIAA endorses.

I have to laugh at how the RIAA feeds us a line that we're paying for the costs of getting a recording out. If you ever look at a recording contract, you'll notice that all expenses for recording, promotion, etc. are advances to the artist, and the record company will recoup their advances to the artist before one dime is paid to him or her. Conversely by that logic, recordings that are long since paid for or otherwise amortized should only be sold to the public on a cost plus basis (costs being packaging and royalties, plus a reasonable profit), something unlikely to happen as the back catalog is a cash cow for most record companies. The current list price for the CD version of Please Please Me, an album recorded in 1963 in a single 14-hour session, is $18.98. Comment unnecessary.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

 

Gerry Anderson, amongst other things

My missive yesterday mentioned the current crop of chanteuses who (allegedly) use headset microphones that to my eyes looked like the one that dropped down from Captain Scarlet's hat when he needed to communicate with Cloudbase and all those other neato Spectrum guys. Ms. Spears and Mrs. Ritchie obviously don't have a clue as to the cool factor that the Gerry Anderson shows had for us kids who grew up in the 60s, but it helped raise a generation of serious geeks who actually contributed something to technology and society, as opposed to the tripe the ladies in question put out that cheapens popular music and culture. There's any number of uber-gurus in various disciplines out there who when the subject of any Supermarionation show, especially Thunderbirds, comes up in conversation, get that really excited vibe going on and the conversation inevitably gets to "You know that Thunderbird 2 could've actually worked!".

One thing that absolutely cracked me up was that Thunderbirds were useful in a current Internet issue. As you know, there are tons of Nigerian "419" scam letters being bulk e-mailed every day, and there are some folks who've taken up baiting the scammers to turn the tables on them. One enterprising fellow has enlisted the aid of none other than Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward to play with their criminal heads, as can be seen here and here.

In case you need an introduction or reminder of how cool Thunderbirds were, check this out.

I learned one interesting, yet sobering fact out of being a "Fanderson". I've always loved the absurdly complicated launching sequences of the various craft on the Anderson shows. Moving Thuderbird 1 down what looked like an escalator at Macy's 34th Street to underneath the pool, then sliding the pool out of the way for the launch was a hoot, but for me the wildest one of all was Fireball XL5's long launch down a ramp. I had always assumed that Anderson had nicked this launching from the 50's sci-fi potboiler "When Worlds Collide", however, in at least one interview, Anderson mentioned getting the idea from a German, then later Soviet scheme to launch a hypersonic bomber against an American target. The targeting the Germans had intended was especially chilling (scroll down about 3/4 of the page).

Saturday, June 19, 2004

 

In Das Gerecht Von Die Beobachterkoening....

Since Madonna has decided to take on yet another persona (has anyone told her about "Sybil"?), the following lyrics to the tune of Lady Madonna, courtesy of the Beat Gear Cavern forum, seem appropriate:
fading madonna
her career is growing weak
she kisses britney spears to get the publicity she seeks

fading madonna
record sales decline
but we still have to listen to her whimper and whine

fading madonna
she wears underwear when live
thought she hasn't been "hot" since 1985
One thing I'd really like to see and hear from Madge and all the other (ahem) chanteuses who wear those ridiculous headset micropohones (you know, the ones that look like the one Captain Scarlet had, or that some Level 1 tech support guy in Hyderabad has surgically grafted to his face) would be a sound board tape from one of their "concerts". What do you want to bet that the only part of the show that actually has the "singer"'s microphone turned on is the part where she goes "Hello Cleveland"?

Some readers might be wondering what the heck is with the German bits here and there in this blog. I have a minor capability in a few foreign languages (Spanish being the best of the lot, and I'd call my French and German tourist-level; I never had any problems making myself understood when traveling through Europe, although usually the locals would smile broadly at my ghastly interpretation of their dialect and switch to a somewhat better English than I speak if they had any facility at all in it), and the damndest thing is that sometimes it's easier to communicate a concept or specific feeling in a foreign language than using the native English version, or since I prefer to wield a leaden rapier rather than a battleaxe (I defer to the experts in the latter, specifically my dear sweet mother-in-law), it's a touch more kulturny (you didn't know I spoke a bit of Russki as well, did you?) to make a point in a more (ahem) civilized (cough) manner. The title of this post translates as "In The Court Of The Observer King", a minor play on the King Crimson song title, but of course this is blog is a tiny bit of a stream of conciousness observational thing, so it just sounded good.

One gag repeated in various comedies throughout the years involves the group of either German or Japanese tourists who don't speak any English, and some factotum announces he was in the army during World War 2, and proceeds to greet the tour group in their native language, and the tour group promptly and puzzledly put their hands up in surrender. A funny bit (I think the best version of it was Gordon Jump on WKRP), but absolutely implausible in German ("Hands up!" would translate as "Hande hoch!", and I would guess that someone would usually welcome foreign visitors with something along the lines of "Wilkommen", rather than "Sie sind umgeben. √úbergabe").

And speaking of WKRP, without a doubt, wasn't Jan Smithers absolutely awesome? Not much about her on the web unfortunately, save for this fan site.

Friday, June 18, 2004

 

Rants and Skewers Part 2

This and this are well worth reading. The (insert present participle of an Anglo-Saxon Epithet) Democratic party strikes again.

I mentioned one teacher that was perpetually in a mood. If you were at that school in those days, this would qualify as the understatement of the epoch. Said teacher was Mrs. Sherwin, who had the charms of Medusa and the temperament of Yosemite Sam without the redeeming social graces. In addition to intimidating either a fifth or sixth grade class, Mrs. Sherwin ran the school assemblies, most of which consisted of either singing patriotic songs or camp songs (her favorite being a real toe-tapper entitled "I Love The Mountains", which usually necessitated playing Disraeli Gears as soon as you got home to get the damn song out of your head) in rounds, or running some ghastly educational film, usually from Coronet or some other sadistic provider, "teaching" you to clean your nails, or focusing on some piece of broadloom for 20 minutes while some guy channeling Ben Stein's monotone droned on (invariably the projector would be misthreaded, and the soundtrack would come across sounding something like "rrrrrryyyydddennnnnnn rrrrooooooeeerrr").

The lady in question also had what I charmingly refer to as "The Alternate Lesson Plan", which she would break out every couple of months to demonstrate the proper procedure to accomplish a power trip. The "Alternate Lesson Plan" consisted of Mrs. Sherwin becoming royally annoyed during the Pledge of Allegiance / Star Spangled Banner ceremony that opened each assembly, usually when the kids were sitting down after the flag was placed into its holder. She would announce in that withering voice that "Your sitting is very poor today", and then would proceed to have two complete grades worth of kids practice standing and sitting down on command via piano chords (and let me tell you, Jerry Lee Lewis or Vladmir Horowitz, she wasn't) for the next 90 minutes.

The "Alternate Lesson Plan" was not restricted to that school, and actually made appearances in junior high school and even once in high school (where it was met with the contempt it richly deserved), and apparently it was well-known throughout the New York City public school system. The late, great Sam Levenson even mentioned it in his 1970's book "In One Era and Out The Other", and he had stopped teaching sometime in the 1950s. A rather small potatoes approach to wasting tax dollars compared with the other nonsense that New York City and specifically its Board Of Education could muster, but I found it rather interesting that not one parent complained that this teacher completely wasted two hours of instructional time on a fairly regular basis in order to either a) make a disciplinary point because the kids banged the seats a bit too loudly, completely idiotic in this school, as it was mostly filled with kids who made the Brady Bunch look like juvenile delinquents, or b) had a serious power trip going on. I recall mentioning my distaste for this activity to the parental units, who responded with the traditional cultural approach to a problem such as this - "Shhh, don't make trouble".

The gentleman whose reminiscences formed the basis for this particular thread posited in his missive that Mrs. Sherwin was, shall we say, frustrated in certain aspects of her life. His phraseology in the matter was somewhat coarse, which as a matter of course completely cracked me up (and probably would any alumnus of this particular institution) as no one in their right minds would've dared postulate on such matters, as it was alleged that Mrs. Sherwin was telepathic and her mere askance glance could kill at thirty paces.

Rather nice to know that today's educational idiots were able to evolve nicely from the Cro-Magnon educational idiots.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

 

A Rant And A Skewer (part 1)

The paid lackeys of Saudi Arabia are at it again. For some reason Foggy Bottom seems to graduate a bunch of people who specialize in rim jobs for the regimes that are doing their utmost to destabilize the world because of their perceived inferiority complexes (I hear that Nasser spent millions of US aid provided through the courtesy of Foggy Bottom to have himself cured of halitosis). They're bitching about Iraq? Remember the Werewolf operations that were going on in Germany throughout the late '40s? Every time you see something like this, undoubtedly this is a quid pro quo for goods or services to make the former State or Defense official's life quite comfortable (do you really think that Mercedes in the diplomat's driveway was paid for on a government pension?).

A while back, I found a delicious skewering of the culture in my old elementary school on the web, written by a fellow a year older than me (who I well remember as a notorious prankster and intellectual troublemaker akin to myself). I had saved the text on my previous desktop machine, but through various rebuilds and upgrades (not to mention a flaky Travan tape drive) the file got lost. Although the school was noted for its academic reputation, the staff were quite a bunch of characters (I've already mentioned "Rosa Luxemburg") and there was an almost surreal air about the place. On an unrelated quest to look for some distant cousins, I was poking around the Social Security Death Index and on a lark decided to enter the names of the teachers at the school (I knew the principal was deceased, as I was friendly with his son, and was invited to the funeral; I couldn't make it because of a bad flu), and since the teachers have passed, it might be time to retell that skewering with my own slant.

The school was an interesting statistical anomaly, absolutely huge numbers of gifted kids in comparison to other schools in the area (a conservative estimate was something along the lines of 20:1). It all changed in the early 70's, and the school is now just a faceless clone of the other schools in Brooklyn with a decidedly average population.

The principal was a short man, but had the loudest damn voice you ever heard. This guy would have made a great Roman orator. Despite being from Brownsville, Brooklyn, he affected a phony English accent to maintain an air of culture. Forty years later, I can still hear him booming "THAT BOY! GO WHERE YOU BELONG!". If that was directed at you, odds are you would have the Royal Order Of The Underwear Skid Mark, as this little shrimpy guy could scare the living crap out of you with just that and a stare that rivaled Svengali's. The affectations of speech could get quite annoying ("Up-hollo" was his vainglorious pronunciation whenever the conversation demanded mention of the space program).

One of the more interesting methods he developed was the Stop sign. Nothing more than a wood facsimile of a regulation traffic sign, it was held up by the Guide force (the school was progressive, you see, so we had "Guides" instead of hall monitors or guards; needless to say the female component of the Guides were deputized into babysitting the lower grades at lunch while the teacher snuck ciggies, and the male component was a bunch of mostly shrimpy white kids drunk on the power that that stupid yellow button conferred on them as if it read "Geheime Staatspolizei" instead of "Guide"). The Stop sign would be hoisted and everyone would have to freeze and keep utterly silent. If for some reason the schrecklichkeit didn't take hold and you talked or moved, a Guide would come over to you and utter the dread words "You're reported!", which was the equivalent of being denounced directly to Comrade Koba in our impressionable minds (with similar feared consequences). Of course if you were "reported" to your teacher, the odds were that the teacher would courteously brush off the Guide unless of course the teacher was in a mood (there was one teacher who was perpetually in a mood, more on her later) at which point you'd be practicing your Palmer method or some other irrelevant nonsense for several hours. The implicit threat of a call to your parents was of course enough to ensure compliance.

The teachers were mostly middle-aged ladies bearing down on that glorious UFT pension. Physically they were mostly the same, varicose veins and a physique that, were they inclined to exercise, would have their breasts hitting the floor before their fingertips when they attemped to touch their toes. They had a couple of things in common, police whistles and the astonishing ability to intimidate the hell out of you if you displayed a modicum of individuality or other form of non-conformity. That wouldn't stop them from fawning all over a kid if they felt it was to their advantage - there was the daughter of a minor official in the Lindsay administration who "Rosa Luxemburg" turned into a teacher's pet to the kid's obvious discomfiture.

To be continued....

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

 

Certifications

Ever since Novell came up with the bright idea of certifications in the early 90's, for the most part they've been the flavor of the month in the arena of corporate fools. The expression "paper CNE" was coined early on for people who could buy study guides off the shelf, memorize enough to pass the tests, and then the instant they were presented with a practical production problem, cried havoc. I well remember a harrumphing MCSE at a Large Asset Management firm who constantly crowed about his passing his exams on the first try, but was completely useless as a system administrator (he couldn't properly manage users in a mixed NT-NDS environment). The upshot of most of the Novell / Microsoft certification antics was that they only became useful to recruiters, human resources professionals and other such lower forms of life as a screening criterion.

The exception to this was Cisco's CCIE, a well-designed program that had not only a tough written exam that could only be passed by a person with hands-on experience, but also a devilishly complicated two day practical exam where the proctors devised all sorts of nasties that you had to solve under tight time pressure. It's a tough certification, and the people who pass it are worth everything they get paid and more. It also requires ongoing recertification, preventing skills from rusting out. But even Cisco saw the lure of the almighty training dollar, and created a bunch of lesser certifications, such that even mere mortals who just know the word "router" can buy themselves a cert. (One of the funnier aspects of this is that in a relative sense, network engineering is one of the easier disciplines, as opposed to say large package - think Peoplesoft or SAP - configuration. Networking is basically a binary solution set; it works or it doesn't. A junior person who understands subnet masking could easily configure a router running RIP or EIGRP, and probably could do a passable job with a small OSPF installation. Of course the rocket science comes in with BGP, IS-IS, route redistribution, multiple protocol instances, etc. But to most folk, networks are a black art)

The current flavor of the month of course is the PMP, created for Project Managers, a subspecies that is opposed to a professional who manages projects. I interacted very closely with a Project Manager who was very proud of his PMP trying to implement a Large Package for a Large Financial Institution. The only problem was that while he had great project plans (which I had to help him Immanentize!), checklists, daily, weekly, fortnightly status reports, Powerpoints and every freaking metric you could imagine, this guy was completely, and I mean completely clueless about technology. Not a particularly good idea if you have a complicated project than involves a three-tier architecture, huge batch jobs on the mainframe (we always asked what happens if something goes bump in the night?), really strong security, privacy and auditing requirements, and lots of separate streams that all had to synchronize (everything was on the critical path!) It's rather disheartening when the person who's in charge of a project that has a serious mainframe component has to ask what a CICS region is.

And then there is the internal certification, created by certain large firms as a means to further justify their Knowledge Management and Human Resources types as well as an additional stick to wield against people who are actually delivering services to their clients. The internal certification of course is completely irrelevant to any external party when presenting your qualifications (either to be engaged or for that matter when looking for another position), but it is presented as having a certain amount of internal prestige (the old "Your Permanent Record" routine). The real problem arises when the internal certification is made mandatory, requiring the consultant to double up on his already huge workload to present him or herself as appropriate to the powers-that-be to grant the certification grail (presumably the certificate will be printed on unobtanium). I guess that's OK, since these folks figure you're already sleep-deprived and your family is totally alienated, you might as well complete the package.

/spleen and bile

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

 

Dashed Off Commentary

A rather short commentary today, given the day consumed with meetings and various unpleasantness that kept the aggro factor up there.

Saw the Ivy Meeropol documentary on HBO. Still quite a bit of denial in the family about Grandpa and Grandma's leisure time activities. The obligatory shot of Ivy looking at the electric chair (was that the real Sing Sing chair in the Newseum in Arlington?) reminded me of something Louis Nizer wrote in "The Implosion Conspiracy" that the decision was taken to execute Julie and Ethel in Sing Sing because there was no "federal execution chamber" in the New York district. An interesting comment, because if you take a look at the history of modern federal executions, all seem to have had state institutions hosting the festivities. The US Disciplinary Barracks had to improvise a gallows for the multiple hangings in the "A Martial Execution" case, and there seems to be some confusion as to whether some postwar military hangings were held at the USDB or at the nearby Kansas Penitentiary, where Perry and Dick took their last ride. Apparently an electric chair was installed at the USDB sometime in the 60's, but never used. One might potentially classify the old Washington DC city jail as a "federal" execution site, as the Operation Pastorius saboteurs rode the lightning there, and given the District's unique legal status, it might've indeed been operated by the Feds. Nowadays, the Feds arrange their festivities either at Terre Haute (can you imagine getting Martha to decorate that?) or will potentially continue to contract them out to the states in which the offenses occurred.

To quote my favorite philosopher, "Gruesome, isn't it?"

And now that the Olsen twins are of legal age we can thankfully look forward to a progressive lessening of news plants and commentary about them, and hopefully they will either start putting some media content out with substance or they will gracefully fade away. I suspect neither will happen.

Monday, June 14, 2004

 

Quota Is Filled, Commissar Is Thrilled

We have a 93% productivity bogie, meaning you had darned well be billing 1934.4 hours out of every 2080 hour work year,. Doing some math (we find that if a reasonably senior person takes all of his entitled time (four weeks vacation and ten holidays) he's automatically in the hole for 13 working days. A more junior person with 3 weeks' vacation is only in the hole for seven working days if he takes all of the time entitled to him. Now, we need to add in a reasonable amount of time for doing administrivia (assessments, mandatory meetings, and other assorted non-productive time wasters that give Junior Captains Of Industry ample opportunity to harrumph how well they can report on their minions), plus a few sick days (as no human can keep up this sort of pace and not have some bug take him down) and my average co-worker could find themselves something like 25 days in the hole toward their bogie.

And as Ivan Denisovich found, being sick is not necessarily an escape from work. You might not get sent to the Socialist Community Development that day, but damn sure the phone will ring one hour after your procedure (be it endoscopy, arthroscopy, angioplasty or childbirth) is over, with a question deemed vital by someone that could easily have been answered if they RTFM'd, listened to you in the first place, or just applied simple logical induction or deduction (or given the eighth and ninth layers of the OSI model, exegesis or eisegesis).

The scorecard for serious medical conditions incurred on projects that I'm aware of include two heart attacks (both fortunately non-fatal), four cases of pneumonia, three cases of serious gastrointestinal problems and innumerable sleep disorders.

The old joke about mothers-in-law not getting ulcers because they're carriers applies equally well to project managers. I suppose someone will eventually question the ultimate shareholder value (is that immanentizing the monetary eschaton?).

Today's turning out to be a real mofo....

Sunday, June 13, 2004

 

Ruminations

The New York Times' howler of the week: "2 Declarations by bin Laden May Be Used in Stewart Trial". They should've had the headline saying it's Lynne Stewart's trial, but the mental image of Osama opining on Martha's window treatments is just too comical not to relish (and yes I take a bit of schadenfreude every time a Sulzberger gaffe occurs).

I picked up an HP Deskjet 5850 printer for the family to share across their computers. It's a cool printer that has Ethernet and wireless access built in, no messy port sharing or USB switches. A bit slow, but good quality and fine for the family (I've got my own industrial-strength device that prints out the massive tomes I need to get out to the world). One tiny caveat that bit me was that I installed it on one of the computers here that runs Win2K Pro, and that has multiple user accounts for the kiddies. It worked fine when I was logged in as an administrator, but didn't work for the kids no matter how much I tweaked the security settings. It finally worked when I deleted the LPR port the installer created, and created a new one.

Interesting comment I've seen in some .sigs out there
"Robert Tappan Morris, Jr., got six months in jail for crashing 10% of the computers that Bill Gates made $100 million crashing last weekend."
OK, OK, I'll admit to uttering more than a few oaths and evil incantations in Redmond's direction when things don't work right, but overall things have gotten quite a bit better with their stuff, and as long as you don't try anything along the lines of systems integration :-) you should be OK with your Microsoft server products. However, if you're still using IE as your browser, please read this, install Mozilla or Firefox, and call your guru in the morning.

Even though you did install a popup blocker, consider this - if you've got Flash, Shockwave or other "enriched media" handler installed ads can be pushed through that way bypassing your popup blocker. There are companies out there coming up with circumvention mechanisms as we speak. Anatomical differences aside, they should all get prostate trouble.

Somewhat short shrift today, as I'm going to the ball game. First time in years at the stadium (and I expect that it'll cost me a small fortune between the tickets, program, yearbook, hats, dirty water dogs and all the other accoutrements of a visit to a major league park).

Saturday, June 12, 2004

 

A Lexicon Of Terminology Used In Consulting

BOHICA - Bend over, here it comes again. Commonly used whenever some executive communication comes down about an "improvement" or change. At one time the root password on an NFS server at a Large Financial Institution

Subject Matter Expert - 1. Bullshit artist 2. The only person in the practice who actually knows how to do a specific job

Best Practices - What everybody else is doing.

Current Practices - A term that your risk managers will require you to use instead of Best Practices because of the potential for a lawsuit if something goes wrong.

Partner (verb) - A business arrangement where one party takes all the risk of something going wrong and absolutely no credit the project goes well

Partner (noun) - 1. A former Subject Matter Expert or someone who knew at one time how to solve major tactical and strategic business problems, and who is now caught up into the Esoteric Law as practiced by the company to the extent that most of their pronunciations are generalizations straight out of the Management Best Seller List. 2. A former Subject Matter Expert who knows how to walk the halls of his clients and pester people into buying services

Project Manager - Someone who knows absolutely nothing about how the project is actually supposed to be implemented, but waves his or her PMI certification proudly. Usually semi-competent in Microsoft Project

Project Plan - Fiction

Resource-Leveled Project Plan - Science Fiction

Deck - A Powerpoint presentation used to communicate critical issues or hard-sell pitches to people who do not want to see or talk to you

Spreadsheet - A tool used for everything but crunching numbers

Solution Set - A pathetic attempt to find some niche that no other partner can claim is in their bailiwick

Solution - A problem waiting to happen

Business Development Manager - Someone who gets carte blanche to do whatever he wants until he gets found out

Knowledge Management - Librarian

Dimension - Pigeonhole

Friday, June 11, 2004

 

Performance Assessments

In the "Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?" department, it's almost time for the first half of the year's performance assessments to be prepared. This basically consists of a consultant writing the same thing over in about 12 different variations to determine where you fit in various dimensions (technical knowledge, industry knowledge, knowledge management, etc). Our performance assessment process requires you to be graded not only on how well you did your job for the year, but how you've grown in your industry and technical knowledge (an interesting concept given that there are zero training dollars, have been for years, and at best you'll get a CBT that describes something that was functionally obsolete eight years ago as bleeding edge), how much of a team player you are, and how you've grown the business (in other words, have you sold at least $3M worth of new business, even though you're too damn busy trying to keep your project on an even keel for 55+ hours every week).

The opportunities for professional development are somewhat slim in my neck of the woods, as most clients are bloody reluctant to deploy anything other than the most proven technologies and prcesses, and you wouldn't be doing this stuff for them unless you were already a Subject Matter Expert (a most excellent weasel term which we shall examine in a forthcoming lexicon). You need to score points on your assessment by being innovative, something that risk managers are going to look very critically at on this sort of gig. To pastiche paraphrase Melville and Heller, "Call me Yossarian...."

The scoring system for these performance assessments is supposed to be a fully objective method of rating someone against their peers, which works great for a small heterogeneous population, but if you're comparing for example a J2EE developer against a firewall guru in a large group, the criteria gets pretty subjective quickly. Every performance assessment meeting I've ever been in has had various senior people championing their favorites, quickly turning the affair into something where the person with the loudest voice gets their pets the optimal score. The HR types of course contribute to this, demanding that there be a fixed distribution of people in each band (with of course the largest band getting ungotz, as we used to say in Bensonhurst). Publicly they pay lip service to the fairness of the process, but the HR types know darned well that their only purpose is to provide an illusion of control over your career destiny. We used to dread getting e-mails from a send-only box called "Focusing On Your Future", which was a great way of saying BOHICA.

Needless to say, compensation was nominally tied to one's overall rating, which was an integer, and one's overall score (a real number). The unfair part of this is that despite putting in thousands of man-hours to get these assessments done and evaluated, there have been no positive compensation adjustments for three years. The funny thing about this is that so much money and effort is spent on this cost center which
* Takes valuable time away from clients
* Forces people to write their own assessments using loaded questions that give them ample opportunity to hang themselves
* Serves no purpose other than a full-employment act for HR professionals

Supposedly Jack Welch championed this method of performance assessment as a method of up-or-out. I hope he gets prostate trouble.



Thursday, June 10, 2004

 

Comcast Finally Gets It Right

They're blocking outbound TCP port 25. Hopefully this will lead to less spam in the inbox from their compromised users (and a special note to companies who sell retail PCs - for cryin' out loud, put a popup blocker into your disk images. Keep your lusers from getting into trouble in the first place....)

 

RIP Ray Charles

One of the true greats has passed. I had the privilege of seeing Ray in Las Vegas about 12 years ago, in the midst of all the phoniness and glitter hearing that honest music was awesome. Thanks, Brother Ray....

 

Guitars

Every once in a while I get a bout of G.A.S., (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome), which can only be cured by liberal (oh why did I have to use that word) application of something from Gibson, Fender, Rickenbacker, Gretsch, Martin or any of the other great marques in luthiery. My most recent acquisition was an Epiphone Firebird VII, which came from seeing too many pictures of Clapton circa Fresh Cream and Brian Jones ca. 1966. If you're into Firebirds, it's actually a great buy for the buck (under $500), and way ($1100) cheaper than the Gibson Firebird VII, the major difference being the tuners. The Gibson has the banjo-style tuners, and the Epi has regular Strat-like tuners, but truth be told, it's a bit more "normal" looking that the hidden banjo pegs. I suspect if I'm really going to get fussy about it, I could drop the banjo tuners in (they're up on eBay occasionally).

Generally Epiphone is a good bang for the buck, and their Elitist series have gotten rave reviews from my professional musician friends. I own two Epis, the Firebird and a standard Korea-made Casino. The Casino is a great buy at $600, but the Korean versions have a different headstock angle than the Elitist, and they tend to buzz with lighter gauge strings. I generally string my Casino with .11s or .12s to minimize the buzzes. My friend's Elitist has the correct vintage headstock angle and gets away with using .10s. The P-90s in the Casino scream nicely (although controlling feedback is a bit touchy with it, since it is completely hollow). The mini humbuckers in the Firebird nicely nail the "Fresh Cream" tone, but the acid test will come in a couple of weeks at my next gig when I can play it through a cranked amp.

Next toy on the list will ge a Gretsch Country Classic 1962-62. About 20 years ago, I played a genuine '63 Country Gentleman, and was fairly unimpressed. It had the tone of course, but it looked like it had been slapped together with little regard. It felt awkward to play, and I guessed that there was a reason George and Chet dropped them quickly. Fast forward to recently, and I tried one of the new Tennessean (OK, Tennessee Rose 1962-HT) reissues. Gretsch and Terada did a beautiful job on this, and it absolutely nails the "Beatles For Sale" tone. Eminently playable and Recommended by the Proprietor. Still on the lookout for a stocking dealer somewhere between Philly and Boston to try out the new Gent reissue (and yes I know "try Guitar Center or Sam Ash", I've already checked with both chains and it's "yes we can order it for you").

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

 

Multitasking is best reserved for operating systems

Unfortunately another short shrift day, as the Herr Kommandant at Colditz has deemed Wednesday to be a day of supplication to the Great Spirit of Meetings. There will be plenty of guest stars at today's festivities, including the Under Assistant Midwest Harrumpher, more project managers than should legally be allowed in a multi-story edifice, supporting PMO drones with checklists they're checking twice and a splendid time is guaranteed for all except yours truly, who actually has to try to get stuff accomplished.

Remember "Failure to plan is planning to fail"? I actually heard one major (read as incessant) harrumpher (who is competing for his Junior Captain Of Industry award) say in a meeting on Tuesday "You know, we really didn't anticipate how much the scope was going to change and just how much work may actually be out there". This is what is known in the trade as a Blinding Glimpse Of The Obvious.

The harrumphers want to take us out for dinner tonight as a "Team Building Exercise". Considering the state of corporate expense policies, I would imagine we'll get a place that's somewhere between Applebee's and Bennigan's in terms of menu and price. A minor corollary to The Proprietor's Law is "While it's good to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, watch your tail when going out with them, especially when alcohol is being served".

Thursday's going to be a real load of laughs too.

Wielding the leaden rapier briefly, this has to be one of the worst choices of a code name for software one could make in this "best shoring" climate.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

 

Methodologies Part 2

In Methodologies Part 1, we became acquainted with "Immanent", a methodology peddled by its creators as the solution to world hunger, halitosis, and screwed-up IT infrastructures. We left off with Immanent being replaced by Immanent Mark 2, which was a prettier, glossier version (just perfect for dropping graphics into Powerpoint), launching like the Spruce Goose. But what of the original? It seemed that there actually were some major sales of Immanent, including one to a Large Financial Institution that actually rebranded it as its own proprietary methodology. As to what they paid for the methodology, hard to say (I heard anywhere from mid six figures to low-to-mid seven figures). Did they get bang for the buck? Does Arafat write to the RIAA demanding reissues of the Barry Sisters?....

The first client I was aware of that bought Immanent was a very large, well-known and wealthy financial services company in the midst of a major transformation effort. Please bear with the obfuscation, as we have to protect the innocent. The transformation had a hard deadline, and other than being a lot of tedious work with a lot of iterations, was actually a fairly straightforward project that was easy to understand after a couple of days of ramp-up. My particular part of the project was a small but critical part, but luckily we had an excellent team leader who knew the business domain (he had just completed just such a transformation effort) who also could do more than his share of the techie work. The problem arose with the PMO. Other than being just another project with incessant meetings (which led to the development of The Proprietor's Law), they had mandated the use of Immanent, as they felt it would add the controls and process to the project that it would need to pass muster with all of the scrutiny that would be attached to it. The problem lay in Immanent being a fairly inaccessible method, with the examples provided being very simplistic and not really applicable to a situation such as this, where the project was a hybrid of every usual model of an IT program.

So, enter the Immanent consultants. Oh, we all had the little binder, and the CD, but as I said, most of what was on there was inaccessible or irrelevant. And in comes Mr. Immanent Consultant, quite the expert at harrumphing (Mel Brooks nailed it in the scene in Blazing Saddles where Governor LePetomaine demands a harrumph from the yes-man). And Mr. Immanent Consultant came in demanding to know where our project charter was. Our team leader asked me to put my stuff on hold for a day or two and cobble up a project charter, a pretty odd requirement, since the letter of engagement and contract specified just exactly what we were tasked with, why we were tasked, and all of the stuff that ordinarily goes into that sort of thing. To me, a project charter is something that someone kicking a project off needs to do, not just for one mere component of the project (some clarification may be in order here, as what we were doing was indeed a full-blown project and not just a phase. However, what we were doing was the technical part of one part of the overall program). Mr. Immanent Consultant haughtily ordained that we could not proceed without the Project Charter, and a fully Immanentized project plan, resources leveled of course (as anyone who uses Microsoft Project for anything non-trivial can tell you, if you don't level the resources your project will be calculated to end sometime around the time Star Trek takes place). Mr. Immanent Consultant rejected several versions of the project charter and plan, most of which were short, to the point, and reasonably lucid. We pointed out repeatedly to no avail that there was plenty of definition around of what we were supposed to do, and we were already doing it with a simple logical process that actually followed Good Current Practices (the weasel term we used to avoid "best practices" which our risk managers advised us to avoid like the plague).

We eventually did get Mr. Immanent Consultant off our case (he really isn't a bad guy, and he did give us certain insight into the Esoteric Law that is Immanent that helped with subsequent, ahem, efforts). There was a realization at higher levels that project charters and the Powerpoints didn't help the effort, and the real things like analysis, design and operational docs were more important in this crash program than the management-speak tomes which land with thuds. There was some "escalario", as Tom Lehrer would say, involved....

Monday, June 07, 2004

 

Trading Floors

The New York Times opined yesterday on the recently surfaced Enron tapes. The Times commented on the traders' vocabulary, which I found hilarious. Having spent much time on trading floors at Large Broker-Dealers and Large Investment Banks, there's nothing on those tapes I haven't heard before. Trading floors are very wild and wooly places loaded with volatile folk who have to make split-second decisions (literally - a Large Information Provider told me recently that the average number of market ticks ranges anywhere from 25K to 40K per second and seeing 100K ticks per second is very foreseeable in the near future. Very good for program trading, not so good for long-term prospects for human traders). I don't particularly see the relevance of the traders' vocabularies, since apparently they don't use such language where the Times editorial writers reside on the Upper West Side. Cynical bastards, most assuredly. But rather than focus on the symptom, perhaps do something useful. Turn William Safire loose on the tapes, and get his surely interesting take on the action.

Funny enough, even Safire gets stumped on occasion:
He (referring to William F. Buckley)'s made those of us in the word trade stretch. "There is pleasure in even a little progress," he said in tribute to the conservative thinker James Burnham, "even among those of us taught, at our mother's knee, not to seek to immanentize the eschaton."

Eschatology is the study of ultimate destiny, the purpose of life reckoned at the last accounting. The eschaton is its Greek root: the last thing, the divinely ordained climax of history, with its present sense of a final judgment that should inform our lives. That's the easy part.

But immanentize? The Latin immanere, "to remain in," leads us to immanent, "inherent, intrinsic," with a special philosophical sense of "confined to the mind." It's not a word I would use, because inherent does the job and immanent is too easily confused with imminent, "about to take place," with a connotation of danger.

So I admitted defeat and called Buckley.

"The source of immanentize the eschaton is the 1952 New Science of Politics, by Eric Voegelin," he explained. "It's a warning against taking ultimate reality and treating it pantheistically, rather than as an objective philosophical phenomenon." The conservative pioneer added: "It was turned into a bumper sticker by the Young Americans for Freedom. Delicious, don't you think?"


Oh yeah, all copyrights in the above indented text belong to their respective holders, and I'm only quoting for informational purposes.

One thing about trading floors is that these guys are operating under monstrous exposure. A conservative estimate of downtime for a trading floor is $6M/hour, and if they miss deadlines, such as the FedWire closing, they've got some pretty heavy regulatory risk coming at them. Having been on most of them in my neck of the woods, I understand the culture pretty well, and was entirely unshocked by what I read. Liar's Poker is a great introduction to the culture on the floors, but until you've actually built one and gotten them running, you never quite understand. Traders like to reach out and grab their support staff by the neck, which beautifully contradicts the centralized support model where a help desk in Ohio (or Bangalore for that matter) will look at a problem and eventually a technician will fix it. Even with a Sev 1 (meaning the organization is losing money like a bandit), remote support for these things doesn't work all that well, and the poor Level 1 guy taking the call and entering the ticket into Remedy might not have a clue what Bloomberg is.

I well remember a honcho in a Large Investment Bank screaming "Why the fuck am I paying Park Avenue rents for IT people?". It would've been pointless to remind him that if they were in Jersey City, for example, and someone needed to reach out and touch something (reboot a router or CSU/DSU for example) that resource would've spent the better part of an hour, if not longer, getting to Park Avenue to flip a switch. There's your six million bucks, and who knows what if it was at the end of the day and you couldn't meet the Fed closing.

Lots of ammo here. Needs to be dispensed wisely.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

 

D-Day, Browser Hijackers and The Bad Guys

Sixty years ago today the forces of good invaded Festung Europa to rid the world of monstrous evil. Think of those good men who gave everything to make sure people could live in freedom. Read Winston Churchill's "The Second World War" if you need a reminder. At the least, please read this tale of bravery and fortitude.

What the heck is the motivation for browser hijackers? The obvious reply is that by forcing people to certain sites they will drive up advertising rates and generate click-through money from people who are too passive or dumb to do anything about their completely screwed up computers. This of course puts the entire advertising industry under scrutiny :-), however, the simple fact is that, like spam, most people will ignore random ads shoved into their faces because of the sheer irritation factor. You did install AdAware or Spybot S&D, didn't you? The problem we're facing here though is that the writers of browser hijackers have gotten quite nasty and tricky in their code, using heavy crypto, and making devious use of extremely low-level Windows functions to keep their crap on your systems.

The more conspiracy-theory minded amongst us (sometimes it is OK to be a bit paranoid) might see this somewhat differently. Think about it, these browser hijackers suck system resources out of your computer, and point your computer to view sites they want you to see (be it through redirectors or the simple expedient of a hosts file). In a crisis situation, a lot of folks will try to get their information through the Internet. Can you imagine the potential for a distributed denial of service attack here, or disinformation? It boggles the mind. One thing I noticed doing nslookups on some of the bad guys was that a few were located in Russia. The prospect of a marriage of convenience between certain factions who can't get over the fact that they lost the Cold War and certain other baddies floating around out there isn't out of the question.

Marriages of convenience of this sort aren't unknown, as it's well-known that certain Teutonic types, fearing a professional appointment with Master Sgt. John Woods or Albert Pierrepont, fled to sunnier climes where their views on certain matters received (and still do, if one checks the best seller lists in those countries) a warm welcome. It's not inconceivable that some of the money those types stole went into funding the quote unquote liberation movements (as the UN so loves to call them, a plague on all their houses) that are giving us a lot of trouble today.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

 

RIP Ronald Reagan

Let me add my humble condolences for this great man. Alevasholem.

 

Stochastic Observations Du Jour

For about two years, my personal e-mail was completely spam-free, thanks to careful control of where I announced it. Starting back around February, spam started pouring in, undoubtedly as a result of someone who had my address being infected by a harvester, or from some missive that went far beyond its original intended distribution and was picked up by a no-goodnik. My ISP implemented a spam filter, which up until fairly recently required me to log into their web interface to check a spam folder on the server. Well-intentioned, but a bit of a pain in the neck, as it occasionally flagged friends and wanted e-mails, such as eBay transaction notices. They've fixed this by moving to Spam Assassin, and it's at least allowed me to maintain a whitelist. But being faintly curious about the sources of spam, as well as wanting to have some degree of control, has gotten me to front-end my preferred MUA with Mail Washer Pro (well worth the money, IMHO), and to be an active SpamCop reporter (I have little patience to sit and de-obfuscate the URLs in spam, and manually do all the lookups). Some random stats that may be of interest:
* About 29% of my inbound e-mail is spam
* About 45% of my spam is flagged by an RBL (real-time blackhole list, maintained by a bunch of Good Guys who try to hunt down these vermin)
* About 25% is identified by Mail Washer's First Alert service, although a lot of these are also caught by RBLs
* About 15% is picked up by the Bayesian filter in Mailwasher
* The remainder is picked up by a "Not To Me" filter
* Most of the senders are in China or Korea, but an increasing percentage are on broadband connections in the US or Canada.
* About half of the ISPs refuse SpamCop reports in munged form, or altogether
* De-obfuscating the links and looking up the networks responsible for hosting the spammers' sites, I find that hinet dot net and telemar dot net dot br host a majority of the links I receive from these lice. These chowderheads are in Taiwan and Brazil respectively.

You know, why would it be so awful for ISPs to do two simple things, those being blocking TCP port 25 from their consumer connections to anywhere other than their own SMTP servers, and to implement a quota on those SMTP servers, say 50 or 100 outbound messages in any 24 hour period unless pre-authorized? I don't imagine it would be terribly difficult to hack qmail or sendmail to implement same....


Taking a 180, the great Mark Steyn decided to deconstruct the current production of Fiddler On The Roof, and as always is incisive and entertaining. I happen to fall into the third critical position Mark mentions, perhaps vehemently so. Other than naming burial societies, my family and their friends showed little nostalgia for for the shtetl and the old country, preferring to look forward. The music did get heavy airplay (or whatever you would call it) on those ghastly wood cabinet "hi-fis" in the living room, and heaven forbid that we kids would touch the hi-fi with our music (I remember my father giving me quite a look once when I snuck the 45 of "Hang On Sloopy" on the turntable reserved for "La Boheme" and other "good music"). As there were always tons of weddings and bar mitzvahs to go to, we could always count on a fair portion of the soundtrack being played by the band at these shindigs (invariably, the band was composed of music teachers from the New York City public schools moonlighting for the extra bread). And if you vacationed at a resort in the Catskills, it would be blared incessantly, or you could count on the entertainment (think Steve and Eydie) to throw it into their set.

Bad enough, but the show was completely killed for me when it was done in a junior high school in Brooklyn. The average observer will note that there are tons of amateur productions of this show, most of which are done by schools, but this one was in such a completely absurd time and place, that it is worthy of an Absurdity Award. The production was done in the school district in Brooklyn that caused the 1968 teacher's strike, right after the teacher's strike. The majority of the cast was black. The kids played it straight, and did a fine job with the show. It was quite controversial, though - 60 Minutes did a segment on it, and Howard Enders produced an hour-long documentary that aired on ABC. The absurdity factor was way up there, as the proto-Sharptons were causing trouble for the whole thing during the run-up, and the whole thing was being held up by pundits and a very left-wing teacher I later dubbed "Rosa Luxemburg" as an example of "the way things should be". After being a peripheral observer to the situation and overloading on it, all I can say is "Oy".

Friday, June 04, 2004

 

Von chaos kommt ordnung

Way back in the 70s and 80s, I relished reading Byte every month. In many ways the highlight of the month was reading noted science fiction author Jerry Pournelle's column, which always had tales of big S-100 bus systems, a powerful box for p-System Pascal (all whimsically named), the superiority of Modula-2, and a host of other opinions that invariably inspired passionate reader response. I had read several of Dr. Pournelle's books and enjoyed them, and his monthly viewpoint, even if I virulently disagreed with it, was at least a reasoned view of the state of non-glass house computing at the time. Dr. Pournelle did champion Borland's Turbo Pascal in the beginning, probably the first really cost-effective and useful compiler for micros out there (anyone remember things like Digital Research compilers? Yikes.....) that I think was a great boost to the community that eventually became the open source movement. Sadly, Byte faded away with a whimper, and I didn't get my monthly fix of Dr. Pournelle's column, sort of a delightful irritant. I met the good Doctor at Comdex once, at the famed chili cook-off, and exchanged pleasantries, the sort of insubstantial encounter that persons of some renown probably encounter several times daily.

A couple of years back I discovered that the good Doctor had taken up blogging, and had resumed his column in the online edition of Byte. I'm somewhat loath to spring for a subscription to Byte's online service, in that I spend entirely enough time digesting IT-related content in print and online, and while its viewpoints may be interesting, I can access true thought leadership in the subject area through other avenues. The blog is somewhat in the style of the Chaos Manor column (I must admit to loving the name "Chaos Manor", as it aptly describes my humble home), but less wordsmithed and more interactive, with a lively reader mail section.

That site hasn't been shy about expressing its opinions on many defense and political issues, as it's entitled to. The problem I've been having with the site lately is that it has been expressing something akin to a Pat Buchanan-esque commentary on certain parts of the Middle East (in Mr. Buchanan's case, the operative phrases are "Si ca marche comme un canard" and "Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres"). Some examples of the recent discourse may be found here and here.

Dr. Pournelle is quite vociferous in his denial of any intent, and in all likelihood is relatively free of prejudice, but it is apparent that he loathes neoconservatives (which as I understand his history is a somewhat amusing concept), is quite opinionated, and given his curmudgeonly nature may use a broadaxe in a daybook setting rather than a rapier. One thing that Dr. Pournelle likely has not had however, is any sort of substantive interaction with the unfortunates who still bear "Himmler's Autograph" tatooed on their arms (I suspect quite the opposite, as Dr. Pournelle is well-known in defense circles and may have had at least passing acquaintance with persons covered by Operation Paperclip). Those who have tend to view discourse of this nature in somewhat of a different light. Dr. Pournelle's correspondents sometimes add to the fire, with more ominous rhetoric (although trolling may indeed be the cause of same).

I suppose I'll keep reading his site, as there's frequently worthy commentary and correspondence. I do view it somewhat differently, though, given the tone of some of what's been said there.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

 

Short Shrift

And once again the black hole consumes the day. Already spent two hours on conference calls, and have two hours more for this afternoon. 50% of quote unquote normal billable hours spent on meetings rather than real work. High stress level in the conf calls. A win-win situation for gastroenterologists and the telcos.

My current project is an abject lesson in the axiom "Failure to plan is planning to fail". The entire groundwork that was supposed to give the baseline is incomplete, incorrect or invalid. A bunch of project planners running around like decapitated poultry pointing fingers at each other and trying to find the people who actually have a clue how things work makes much ammunition for later entries. The only sad part is that since these entries require a touch of wordsmithing to make sure the guilty aren't easily identifiable, I've got to tell these stories during a quieter time when I can actually single task.

On that note, I shall disappear back into the lair, and prepare my headache for later.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

 

Meetings

The Proprietor's Law - An organization or project's effectiveness is inversely proportional to the number of conference calls and meetings held and mandated.

The great black hole of meetings and conference calls has consumed this day. I figure I spend on average about 25-30% of my time every week on these. The interesting, if one could call it that, thing about them is that usually they fall roughly into the format of Superbowl Sunday, the pre-pre-game show, the pre-game show, the game itself, and then the post-mortem. Usually one is required to repeat one's status at each of these meetings, and the usual question asked is why there is little progress reported. This of course excludes time needed to prepare status reports, presentations and the like.

I have a little axiom in that any project that requires resources to work much over 45 hours a week is a poorly planned and managed project. Similarly, people doing this sort of work are generally big boys and girls that can be trusted to communicate something proactively, clearly and effectively, and making them do it repeatedly as a result of overactive management is a waste of precious project dollars. But then again, most deliverables land with a big thud, and get gracefully filed away.

Just as a sidenote, I recommend playing Bullshit Bingo during meetings to keep one's sanity. For those unfamiliar with it, basically just create a bingo card, but instead of numbers, put management buzzwords or phrases into the boxes. Examples include "At the end of the day", "Let's take that offline", "Value added", and the current favorite "Running out of runway". When you get five in a row, shout "Bullshit!" (usually only a good idea if you're on mute or no one is mentioning Bangalore) or if less brave, mutter "Bingo".

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

 

Methodologies Part 1

In the perpetual quest to add value and differentiate themselves from other firms covering the same beat, the Powerpoint artists will trot out the dreaded methodology. Most methodologies proffered by consultants are fungible commodities, basically convering Scope, Analyze, Design, Build and Implement phases using varying terminologies, frequently swapping the scope and analysis phases in the sequence (no doubt to make sure the hooks are planted), and always with a liberal amount of risk management activities that seem to cover everything other than the risk to the client.Not that there isn't some good stuff in these methodologies, but frequently the real world aspects of the project will supersede the pedantic approach ordained. Most people tasked with large or high-visibility projects are pragmatic folk who know what's needed to accomplish the overall goal, but when the higher-ups ordain the methodology, all hell breaks loose.

Let us consider the history of a methodology peddled for years. To protect the innocent, I'll give it the pseudonym of Immanent (Sidebar - I don't mean the word "imminent", meaning impending. "Immanent" means "inherent" or "intrinsic". Readers of bumper stickers and William F. Buckley will recognize this setup). It was considered an important rite of passage upon joining the firm to become conversant in Immanent. The most respected consultants would be seen with the little binder containing Immanent visible from their open briefcases. There was only one teeny problem in that Immanent looked like it would work well for a complete "green field" project, but using any of its various approaches (which in graphic form bore a suspicious resemblance to either a board game or lower digestive anatomy) would quickly run afoul of little things like production and regulatory requirements for any sort of project that needed to integrate with real running systems and processes.

Of course, the continuous mantra was to "Immanentize" (told you it was a belabored setup!) any projects that we were associated with. Regardless of whether it was an assessment, infrastructure deployment, or other project that was fairly irrelevant to the methodology, if the person whose P&L the project resided on demanded that the project be "Immanentized", you had darned well better Immanntize the project plan, even if it made absolutely no sense. Given that most project plans were filled with lots of marginal activities and tasks to puff them up to the point of being a step-by-step checklist, the net result was projects that bordered on incoherent.

An additional wrinkle came along where Immanent was sunsetted into a product I'll call "Immanent Mark 2" as a result of corporate machinations and realignments that I'll go into in another thread. Immanent Mark 2 actually had the Immanent content in it, but it was well hidden and the implication was that it was deprecated in favor of Mark 2, with even less versimilitude. To the best of my knowledge, Immanent was sold to a number of customers (and therein lies the next installment), but Immanent Mark 2 was a relative flop, but we still had to Immanentize even if the relevance was nil.

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