Saturday, July 09, 2011

A future of less?

Watching the final shuttle mission, I can't help but feel sad and a little worried. Will we have the courage to dream like this again as a species? Or, will we budget cut ourselves out of space forever?

The very last few seconds of the video has a very simple graph that shows worldwide annual military spending vs. space exploration spending. 2.1 Trillion vs. 38 Billion. I guess it's a matter of balance. I'm not sure we're very balanced, as a people, on the things that inspire and compel us to greatness anymore. I have hope, but I'm still a little worried about it, and still sad about where we are and where we appear to be heading.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Mastercard Parody

Whether you agree or not with what Wikileaks is doing, you have to admire their spunk (and irony) in this spoof 'commercial'.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

How software companies die

Although I'm not a big fan of Orson Scott Card as a person, I do like his stories and, in this case, his observations on programming -- what works and what doesn't.

This one nails it.

An essay by Orson Scott Card

The environment that nutures creative programmers kills management and marketing types - and vice versa. Programming is the Great Game. It consumes you, body and soul. When you're caught up in it, nothing else matters. When you emerge into daylight, you might well discover that you're a hundred pounds overweight, your underwear is older than the average first grader, and judging from the number of pizza boxes lying around, it must be spring already. But you don't care, because your program runs, and the code is fast and clever and tight. You won. You're aware that some people think you're a nerd. So what? They're not players. They've never jousted with Windows or gone hand to hand with DOS. To them C++ is a decent grade, almost a B - not a language. They barely exist. Like soldiers or artists, you don't care about the opinions of civilians. You're building something intricate and fine. They'll never understand it.

Here's the secret that every successful software company is based on: You can domesticate programmers the way beekeepers tame bees. You can't exactly communicate with them, but you can get them to swarm in one place and when they're not looking, you can carry off the honey. You keep these bees from stinging by paying them money. More money than they know what to do with. But that's less than you might think. You see, all these programmers keep hearing their parents' voices in their heads saying "When are you going to join the real world?" All you have to pay them is enough money that they can answer (also in their heads) "Geez, Dad, I'm making more than you." On average, this is cheap. And you get them to stay in the hive by giving them other coders to swarm with. The only person whose praise matters is another programmer. Less-talented programmers will idolize them; evenly matched ones will challenge and goad one another; and if you want to get a good swarm, you make sure that you have at least one certified genius coder that they can all look up to, even if he glances at other people's code only long enough to sneer at it. He's a Player, thinks the junior programmer. He looked at my code. That is enough. If a software company provides such a hive, the coders will give up sleep, love, health, and clean laundry, while the company keeps the bulk of the money.

Here's the problem that ends up killing company after company. All successful software companies had, as their dominant personality, a leader who nurtured programmers. But no company can keep such a leader forever. Either he cashes out, or he brings in management types who end up driving him out, or he changes and becomes a management type himself. One way or another, marketers get control. But...control of what? Instead of finding assembly lines of productive workers, they quickly discover that their product is produced by utterly unpredictable, uncooperative, disobedient, and worst of all, unattractive people who resist all attempts at management. Put them on a time clock, dress them in suits, and they become sullen and start sabotaging the product. Worst of all, you can sense that they are making fun of you with every word they say.

The shock is greater for the coder, though. He suddenly finds that alien creatures control his life. Meetings, Schedules, Reports. And now someone demands that he PLAN all his programming and then stick to the plan, never improving, never tweaking, and never, never touching some other team's code. The lousy young programmer who once worshiped him is now his tyrannical boss, a position he got because he played golf with some sphincter in a suit. The hive has been ruined. The best coders leave. And the marketers, comfortable now because they're surrounded by power neckties and they have things under control, are baffled that each new iteration of their software loses market share as the code bloats and the bugs proliferate. Got to get some better packaging. Yeah, that's it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Progressive Tax; a point of view.

Every so often you read a comment on a blog, news aggregator site or social networking site that makes you go.. yea... damn well said.

A fellow who goes by the handle CaspianX2 on Reddit did that today on the subject of why taxation should be progressive (i.e. the more your make, the more you should be taxed). I read it and thought to myself, yea, damn well said.

"Firstly, it's important to note that money is nothing more than a symbol, an idea. It might sound strange, but one dollar is not worth one dollar - that dollar bill you're holding is nothing more than a piece of paper, virtually worthless. It only has worth because we, as a people, give it worth. We say that that piece of paper is worth one "dollar", a universal unit in trade, to save us the hassle of bartering. The important part being, that piece of paper is nothing, other than what we as a society decide it will be, for the benefit of our society. That's how money works.

Secondly, and I know this sounds like double-speak, but one dollar does not equal a hundred cents. Mathematically, it absolutely is, but effectively, it couldn't be farther from the truth. Walk into a dollar store with a penny and try to buy 1/100th of a candy bar. Go into McDonald's with a dime and try to get 1/10th of one of their dollar menu items.

Basically, the less money you have, the less effectively you can use it, and this scales all the way up. If you make enough money to afford a car, you don't have to go to the shitty grocery store across the street, and can head to one with better prices that's out of walking distance. If you make more, you might be able to afford a Costco membership, and buy your groceries in bulk sizes, which is a lot cheaper. And maybe you can trade in that shitty used car that was all you could afford before for something that gets more MPG and doesn't require costly repairs every six months. And instead of buying a cheap pair of sneakers you'll have to replace in a half a year, you might be able to buy yourself a decent pair of shoes that'll last you a few years. In many cases, you end up paying less in the long-run by paying more in the short-run.

So having more money means you can use it more effectively, giving you more bang for your buck. But it also gives you more opportunity, and not just opportunity to lead a better life, but more opportunity for upward-mobility.

Think of the costs associated with getting a job. To work in fast food, you presumably need some clean clothes, maybe a bus pass. To be able to shop around for a better employer, you'll need decent, reliable transportation. To get a better job, you might need better clothes, a cell phone, a computer with an internet connection... and moving up the scale, you need a college education... and for that, you're looking at tuition, books, and the costs associated with spending the amount of time it takes to get through college without a well-paying job.

If you can barely afford the clothes on your back, you'll be lucky to be earning minimum wage... and maybe after a few years of scrimping and saving, you'll be able to get a car, and have some slightly better options. If you have a decent income, you have a much better opportunity to get a college degree in a high-paying field, or work your way up the corporate ladder.

That's not even getting into the facets of your life that indirectly affect your job opportunities. If you're wealthier, you have better legal options, which means that you're less likely to be convicted or spend time in prison, even for committing the exact same crime as a poor person. You have better medical coverage, which means less time spent having to call in sick to work, and being more fit also makes you a more appealing job candidate. There are even some ties between level of income and access to a nutritional diet - low-income folks generally eat shittier food because they can't afford to buy healthier food.

This isn't a fluke. It's how money works - the more of it there is, the more powerful a force it is, even proportionally, and the easier it is to get more of it.

However, there's another side to this too. The more money you have, the more expendable any portion of it becomes, even proportionally-speaking. Let's look at three guys, Allen, Billy, and Charlie. Allen makes $20K a year, Bill makes $200K a year, and Charlie makes $2 Million a year. Each is taxed at 10% of their income... but as need to happen sometimes, the taxes need to go up. Let's say they double, so it's 20% now - the same for all three, right? Hell, it's harder on the richer, because they're paying more money than the poor guy! But in actuality, it's the poor guy who's sacrificing the most because of this, because so little of his income is expendable. Now Allen needs to decide between paying the rent and paying for food. Bill needs to hold off on that family vacation to Europe he's been planning. And Charlie... well, Charlie will gripe about the number in his bank account being less than he'd like, and then he'll go and buy his twelfth Ferrari anyway.

Remember how I said "money only has worth because we, as a people, give it worth, for the benefit of our society". That money you supposedly "own" isn't even really property, it's an idea used to facilitate the operation of a healthy society, and it does so by making an easy, simple conversion of property into a common exchange value. But since its very nature is uneven and broken, it needs to be addressed as such. And since a 10% tax hike on someone earning $20K is not the same as a 10% tax hike on someone earning $2 Million, for the many reasons I've just stated, we have progressive taxation, where the wealthier you are, the greater a portion of your income you contribute in taxes.

To take this to an extreme, if there was an across-the-board tax of 50%, with wages in America what they are now, the wealthy would still be living comfortably, the middle class would be scraping by... and the poor would starve to death. Treating everyone the same is not fair.

Republicans and those aligned with them like to paint this in a way that's essentially "ganging up on the rich people", "punishing" them for "success". However, if you treat everyone the same, make everyone pay a flat tax rate, then you are punishing the poor, who are less able to afford it. And it's easy to point at the numbers and turn them into a picture that shows the terrible burden the wealthy have to pay thanks to progressive taxation... but the truth of it is, the reality those numbers translate into is one where the wealthy can afford to contribute more, without any noticeable change to their lifestyle, and it's not just because they have more to give, it's because the fact that they have more makes them less dependent on it, better-able to acquire more of it, and less affected by its loss (again, even by proportion).

That is why any reasonable capitalist society taxes the rich progressively more than the poor. It's not to "punish" anyone for success, it's because the nature of money makes it far more invaluable by proportion to the poor than it is to the rich."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The New York Times Paywall

$420 a year.

That's what the New York Times thinks digital access to their newspaper is worth.

I would have had no problem paying for the NYT if it was reasonable. $5, maybe, $10 a month. But $15-$35 a month?

$15 mo for standard website and 'smartphone' access.

$20 mo for standard website and tablet access.

$35 a month for 'all access' (website, smartphone, tablet).

This is just baffling to me.

Why so much money? Are they removing ALL advertising from it? (because, at those prices, they damn well better).

Why the 'level's' that vary based on what device you're using to access what is, effectively, text and some reasonably good photography and some quite weak video?

I mean, come on NYT... I really expected something from you that made more sense.

This won't happen overnight, but, I believe they just went from being a national (even global) influencer, to be just another regional newspaper.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

On being Anonymous

I've noticed a trend of late that people in cars with blacked out windows, where you can't really make out the person behind the wheel, tend to be some of the more aggressive drivers around me on the road. They cut you off, change lanes without signaling and, in general are more selfish and less concerned about people around them. I have to think that those blacked out windows, giving those drivers a degree of anonymity, have something to do with the behavior.

If we're not known, somehow, we become a bit less accountable and a little less careful about others around us.

If you know you can do something without anyone knowing it was you, would you do the same thing as you would if everyone knew it was you?

Think about that. I'm pretty sure most humans know exactly what I'm talking about.

I've seen similar behaviors in the online worlds where people can be whoever they want to be. You can see it in sties like 4Chan where everyone is anonymous and some of the things that go on there are undoubtedly entertaining, even hilarious, but also downright evil.

I worked for a large computer company some time ago that had a large companywide intranet that many of the engeineering staff would use to try things out on. One engineer wrote a program that had two fields in it. One field was a scrolling window of text posted, real time, as people typed it into the second field: A small 200 character text field at the bottom. It was totally anonymous (the people entering text were not tracked in any way). Some of the things that came across that program were priceless and it lent itself to endless entertainment, right up until someone posted the married VP of HR was screwing his admin.

There were thousands of people using this program so there was literally no way to figure out who put up this particular post, but you can bet that this Cupertino based company (known for being highly innovative) shut it down and actively went after the engineer who wrote it (and, his manager, who happened to be me at the time).

Was this the right thing to do? I don't really know. I guess you could say: Is Twitter 'right'. It's essentially the same thing but on a global scale.

I'm not saying anonymity is bad. It can be very useful in doing good. The group Anonymous actively went after the Church of Scientology and exposed much of their more questionable practices. They made a point of bringing attention to the financial institutions that said they wouldn't allow monies to be sent to Wikileaks (but had no problem handling finances for the Klu Klux Klan).

I know of a group of people that, by necessity, anonymously ran an underground pirate radio station because they couldn't get a license, wanted to create a locally focused community media resource and were effectively hunted down by a federal agency (the FCC) to stop putting out signal equal in power to a 100watt light bulb. The only thing that protected them was being anonymous.

And there are many larger examples such as the people behind the organization of the uprising in Egypt, or the people that give information to wistleblowers like Wikileaks and news organizations.

But I wonder if it doesn't make for a less civil and a little more chaotic world.

Actually, I think I do know the answer to that: Yes. It does.

It's not really a good thing, and, it's not really a bad thing.

It's a little like a gun. It can be used for good like protection, deterrence or survival in a post-apocalyptic zombie filled world. Or,it can be used to attempt the assassination of a congresswomen.

It depends on who's hands it's in and what inclination those hands have.

Hopefully, it's more often for doing good than doing evil.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Aggregator, Curator, Editor.. it's all the same thing

The NYT wrote an article on Oprah's new network OWN (Oprha Winfrey Network.. surprise) talking about how it's a 'curator' of content.

This got me to thinking about a conversation I had with the managing editor of the Washington Post newspaper back in the early 90's. He said:

"People read our newspaper because of what we don't print".

That's right.

The Washington Post was providing editorial perspective to content. They filtered. They provided context. They aggregated a mass of content, filtered out the chaf, collected it together (curated) and presented the package to a willing to pay for it audience.

That's 1/2 of where the media world is heading.

The other 1/2 is actually kind of new. It's powered more by technology than media and it's that oh so often used word: social . This is also called 'social networking' and used to be called 'community'. It's also been around forever. The draw of your friends providing guidance to what media you consume by recommending TV shows, movies, books and magazines, or driving you through social obligation to play games like World of Warcraft, or Farmville, that's just community turbocharged by technology.

So, it really just comes down to two things driving all this media (and really, consumption in general) stuff:

Editorial Perspective and Community.

I know this seems overly simplistic, but we tend to complicate things far more than needed in todays tech world. My take is to focus primarily on those two things, take the time too figure out what area of all the complexity that underlies them to make them better you should scope in on, and you'll likely come up with something very successful.

Will Oprah's OWN network succeed? Well, does it have an editorial perspective and does it draw on community?

I know one thing; if she's selling stock in OWN, I'd buy it.

An excellent read from an ex-evangelical.

  As you know, I once was an evangelical megachurch pastor and my pastoral career stretched over many years. Eventually, I could no longer t...