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We Do This Every Day

So it's been a while. In my defense, I have a good excuse (of which more later). I am returning from blog hiatus to grouse about something: I subscribe to Hacker News in Twitter and I'm happy to do so as I regularly find new packages and good advice in the stream. The price one pays for these tidbits is having to suffer through the worst examples of tech nerdism alive in the world today. Allow me, if you will, two examples:

Life on the Command Line

I'm forever trying to make myself more efficient through keyboard shortcuts, so I clicked right on this trap. After three or so sentences I recoiled in horror. Instead of being advice on how to use the command line, it's all about how the author hates graphical email clients, so he uses old-school Linux ones because they are far superior. I see two problems here.

  1. I do not claim Gmail is perfect, but it works damned well. Before it, I lived my professional life in Outlook. And that was fine too. I've used Thunderbird and had no major complaints. I've also used pine and mutt and written email by hand. Those are not superior ways of doing things. The specific mistake the author makes is in claiming terminal-based apps are superior because you get your email "faster" according to whatever observation-based metric he's made up. Email is a wonderful means of communication because it is asymmetric: you write to me when it's convenient for you and I read it when it's convenient for me. If you're sitting around hitting "Check for messages", you're doing it wrong.
  2. The more general mistake this type of nerd makes is that computer programs are an end to themselves. They are not. Carve it into your forehead backwards if need be, but unless you are currently taking Computer Science classes or writing a programming language, it is unlikely you are writing a program that doesn't have a purpose outside the confines of the machine it runs on. An email client isn't just for you, it's for everyone who needs to communicate with you. So I need you to be able to respond in nicely-formatted language that clearly indicates what you meant, not some plain text crud wrapped at 80 columns. And I need you to have an email client that can handle calendar events so I know if you're going to show up or not.
  3. My all-time, can't-be-beat favorite example of this kind of crawling up one's own ass comes from my all-time, can't-be-beat favorite co-worker. When we moved to .NET, everyone got a copy of Visual Studio. Now you can make a lot of complaints about a lot of Microsoft programs (and I can help if you want to set up regular meetings), but I am hard-pressed to complain about Visual Studio as a work environment for creating Microsoft-based code1. Not good enough for The Professor though. Too complicated. His idea was to write his code in Notepad and then run it through the raw compiler on the command line (sense a theme here?) and then hand it over to us. Technical types reading this will need no further info before they begin laughing; for anyone else in the audience, this is the equivalent of your new employer handing over a set of keys to a Rolls Royce by way of apology for the commute and you refusing them, saying you prefer to walk 5 hours each way and then to prove it, cutting off your own legs at the knee with a rusty hacksaw. One could write the code in Notepad if that made them happy. It does have the side effect of pissing off all your coworkers who have to clean up the mess though.

    The Big Re-Write

    I've lost the second link, but it was a story from some wet-behind-the-ears kid about "Why I rewrote my company's code base and you should too." I won't claim it couldn't be true; from the link I think he said he did it in three days, so it sounds a bit like someone saying they rebuilt their entire house from the studs and then finding out their house was a refrigerator box and is now pieces of the same box taped up in a slightly different configuration. It's perfectly possible it was a good idea. But if you're the sort of person who thinks they can discerns a trend line based on a single data point, maybe you shouldn't be handing out free advice. Especially when it's rather dangerous advice. It's such a bad idea, a mistake so many people have made, it has its own name ("Second system effect") and an entry on Wikipedia.

    I am regularly stunned by the number of people who think they have everything covered. As a kid, I always noticed the guys my Dad chose to hang around seemed impossibly competent2. Good with their hands, good with numbers, all-around friendly, you get the drift. The best description I can provide is one stolen from Neal Stephenson's Wired article about the laying of a trans-Pacific Intenret cable:

    "They tend to come from the US or the British Commonwealth countries but spend very little time living there. They are cheerful and outgoing, rudely humorous, and frequently have long-term marriages to adaptable wives. They tend to be absolutely straight shooters even when they are talking to a hacker tourist about whom they know nothing. Their openness would probably be career suicide in the atmosphere of Byzantine court-eunuch intrigue that is public life in the United States today. On the other hand, if I had an unlimited amount of money and woke up tomorrow morning with a burning desire to see a 2,000-hole golf course erected on the surface of Mars, I would probably call men like Daily and Wall, do a handshake deal with them, send them a blank check, and not worry about it."

    I've worked as a programmer for over a decade and I've worked with perhaps two people like that. Which feels about right to me— I've worked with a lot of programmers and a lot of good programmers, but people who you'd bet your life on— those should be rare. If they're not, you're awfully careless with your life. My frustration with this comes from our new venture3, Rivermill at Dover Landing. Just about every single vendor in the wedding industry thinks they are one of these people; some old ballplayer in Ken Burns' Baseball was quoted as saying "We do this every day" and I can't think of a better label for the condition. Some of them clearly are. But they're easily-identifiable behind the scenes, if not via their common competentness then through the higher price on their invoices. The trick is, if you're not behind the scenes, they'd be hard to spot, because you can't be casual in this business. This is someone's goddamn wedding day. I know you and I do this every weekend, but you still need to stand at attention and look like you're about to break into a sweat.

    We had a pair of wedding "planners" who apparently worked together so there was always someone to explain why the other wasn't doing anything. We spent the better part of a week making these mopes look good because we don't have a choice: if any vendor screws up, it reflects badly on us. And even if the client understands, random guests can't tell things were off-schedule or messed up because of a vendor. So in the midst of us hurrying around to paint over their mistakes, in walks the mother-of-the-bride and she's freaking out. Which is entirely expected and entirely understandable: you're throwing probably the most important party of your life except you aren't exactly in charge: if it were your party, you'd know implicitly where you want the tables to be, what color linens should be where or what the first dance song is. Since it's not your party, you need to have that all written down beforehand, assuming you think to ask. Alternatively, you could hire a wedding planner. So she's freaking out and trying to get some answers out of the planners. Their answer? "Relax, have a drink. It will all be fine." These vendors "do this every day". The problem is, they all have their own internal definition of what "this" entails and you only find out after the fact.

    [1] I'm not claiming it works well for anything else. I don't write anything but C#/ VB.NET (God help me) in it. But before you complain, go try Eclipse.
    [2] Compare and contrast with the men who we knew by happenstance: my Dad once spent 5 minutes trying to help our neighbor get his lawn mower started because it never even occurred to my Dad someone would begin yanking on the pull start of an engine before checking to see if there was a single drop of oil in it.
    [3] Which has basically sucked up all my nights and weekends and thus all of my blog-writing free time. Or at least that's my excuse.

Any Interest in the 700-page Abridged Version?


Me: We've still got the frying pan to clean.
Michelle: I always forget that.
Me: I know, it's on my list of complaints about you.
Michelle (unimpressed): Really?
Me: See chapter 3, "Domestic Disappointments".


True Love: A Play in One Act


A nice April night, game is in the middle innings, Kevin Youkilis coming up to bat.

Michelle: After this at bat, I'm going to the bathroom, no matter what Youk does.
Me: What if he cries out your name?
Michelle (pensively): I'm still going to the bathroom


My Name is Crew

I am posting this because I need to keep track of these things. Dreamt last night Michelle and I put on a community event centered around the retirement of some guy that had been a social worker all his life. After the dance crew came off the stage, there was a PowerPoint presentation of his life that I put together (each slide featured an allegorical photo of a raven) and a country music song. All I remember is:

My name is Crew
My name is Crew
Saving kids is kinda what I do
[a capella]Leading them away from a path of self-destruction . . .

And so on. The ravens were a result of watching a David Attenborough documentary last night and Michelle points out "kinda what I do" is a phrase that Bill Burr repeated in the stand-up show we watched again last night. So that explains a bit of it, but I still don't get where these dreams with original music come from. I must be choking off my creative brain during waking hours. Earlier this week I'd dreamt my friend had walked into a convenience store and declaimed a filthy sonnet in perfect ABAB rhyme scheme explaining why he needed to buy the New York Times Sunday Magazine and not the whole paper.


Xmas Flick Tradition Continues for Hicks in Stix

I bought myself a couple of early Xmas/ Birthday presents this week, Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's. I bought those two old weepers in order to maintain the family tradition (my mother's) of watching at least TBoSM every Christmas. It won't be the same without her (and I'll probably fall apart when that dumb little kid calls Bing "faddah"), but it'll be something.

I would tell you neither movie is an Oscar winner, but Going My Way took home 7 (!), including Best Picture. Cinema has come a long way in the interim: there's more dramatic tension reading the phone book ("Will the Zs really make it at the end?"). The movies exist as frames for musical numbers, a bit of feel-good holiday cheer and not much else. All the same, I will assert (based on nothing more than hope) there are worse ways to spend 2 hours in front of the TV at Christmas.

I've seen both enough they run together, so much so I was surprised to see Barry Fitzgerald isn't in the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's. It's a solo tour de force for Bing Crosby's Super Priest, who could kick the ass out of Ayn Rand's Architect and bed any woman he wanted, except he's so cool he's into the absitence thing decades before it became cool. The film overcomes two glaring issues:

  1. Allowing Bing Crosby anywhere near other people's children
  2. Employing Ingrid Bergman's nun as an educator, given the church could theoretically reassign her to a high school class full of pubescent males

Aside #1

To emphasize what an issue #2 is, I present a full list of all the women in the world my father ever suggested were attractive

  1. My mother (1,000,006 times)
  2. Ingrid Bergman (1 time)

. . . to get you to a conclusion that might as well appear in the opening credits. SPOILER ALERT: The school is saved! Like any holiday movie, it's not about the story but about the season and some feeling of continuity in life. Much as I'm making fun of the film, it'll be a mess 'round here when they get to singing "The Bells of St. Mary's": the last time we heard it, it was being sung by the girls' choir from St. Mary's Bay View at the funeral.

Like any good Spoil Yourself purchase on Amazon, I wound up with more than just what I set out to buy, adding a 3rd movie we used to watch together, The Grapes of Wrath after running across a post on the New York Times,

It was the kind of movie we'd watch if it was on TV on a Sunday afternoon when there was ironing to be done. The populism and underdog-nature of the story appealed to my mom, but we knew what really got her was the mom. She saw her own mother in her and, of course, I see mine (don't think the "Oh, Tom!" doesn't catch my ear). The final, famous scene ("Where ever there's a fight . . . ") always resonates. When I was young, close to my parents and just wanting to stay home, egotism made it easy to see myself as Heroic Tom Joad, leaving family and friends, purposely striding out the door to make the world A Better Place. Now that the roles are reversed, that I'm home and my mom is gone forever, the scene reminds me she's not exactly gone. She might not show up if you're getting trounced by a cop, but she's there in my relationship with Michelle, she's there in anything I do just for someone else, she's there in just about anything I do right. The idea that time is a coping mechanism, a way of perceiving ourselves in the physical world, it'd be nice to think you could step outside, take a hard right and see everyone that's left behind.

Aside #2

After a dozen viewings of Going My Way (and having seen The Quiet Man), it was disconcerting to run across Barry Fitzgerald as a bad guy in The Sea Wolf. I conveniently came across it one Saturday night on PBS and watched because Jack London's book had just been assigned in class. It was even worse than the time I saw Harry Morgan as a low-down, dirty ranchhand in Bend of the River; at least by that point I knew he was the kind of guy that would push his wife down a flight of stairs.

You can spare me the emails, I'm well aware (old movie on PBS + in high school + Saturday night) = LOSER.

Dearest Gmail,

If you continue to swallow important information from clients inside your fancy "- Show Quoted Text -" block, we aren't going to be friends much longer. I love how you overcome my scatterbrained nature, but when you cost me money that means I can pay for something else to watch over my shoulder.

Celtics Win + I Am An Idiot

But you knew that. One of the nice things about the Internet is the rise of what Charlie Stross calls the "lifelog", a searchable list of everything you ever thought and did, a permanent Friend Feed. I mention this because I was so damned right about the Celtics trade for Kevin Garnett.

"Weird, I don't really like it from the Celtics' perspective . . . Can't see the Celtics signing anyone for about 10 years . . . I'm done with Danny Ainge. This off-season has made it clear the Celtics' interest is in competing for entertainment dollars, not championships."

Stunningly, this isn't the dumbest thing I've ever said on Sportsfilter. That would be this:

"Roberts has a .335 career OBP; he's a leadoff hitter like Tony Womack's a leadoff hitter. I'm not down on the guy before he's played an inning, but no one needs a pinch runner."

Painfully Delicious

Quicktime 1.0 Development team channels Michael Jackson.

Put Me in the 80%

Where do I sign up for local weather alerts?

New Gnarls Barkley

Two videos, second one is just ?uestlove doing his best teenage girl on MySpace act while the song plays. Not that I'd know, but the album might be on Soulseek