Monthly Archives: November 2012

On Boat Anchors and Bleeding Edges

As of late I have had more reason than usual to think about the technology culture of the modern workplace.  Technology marches ever onward and there seem to be two distinct camps when it comes to how we react to all the new whizzbang gadgets that arrive on the marketplace every single day.

New CircuitsIn one camp you have the Bleeding Edgers.  They want to adopt new technology just because it’s new and shiny and different.  The entry criteria for the attention of this crowd is merely that it exists and has a newer ship date than the previously newest thing.  Generally those with this brand of thinking work in technology at their jobs and they play with technology when they’re not.  The books on their bookshelf are tech.  Most of their everyday conversation is about tech.  They eat, drink and breath the newest technology and often their minds are guarded sanctuaries where no data shall pass excepting that it pertain to tech. Often these are terrifyingly intelligent people who can rattle off the detailed functional specifications for 47 microchips and push out code with almost mechanical efficiency. They operate in some unintelligible realm that makes the common man cower in response.

Old CircuitsIn the other camp you have the Boat Anchors. They’re bloody well stuck in whatever era they started working in and come hell or brimstone they shall not move from it. COBOL was good enough for them in 1989 and by God it’s good enough today. Why on EARTH would anyone want to use anything different? We already know this so why learn something new? It’s already working so just leave it alone.

In my professional life I’ve worked with both camps and I have to admit that they both exceed my ability for comprehension. The argument against the Boat Anchors is fairly simple. Change is inevitable and in the past several decades we’ve made revolutionary changes in the way code is structured to adapt to that change. Through good programming practices we can build code that will not only satisfy the needs of today but also make it easier to satisfy the needs of tomorrow. You cannot resist change forever so you’d better prepare for it when it eventually arrives.

The argument against the Bleeding Edge is more subtle. In the minds of many, new always equals better. Sometimes this is the case and sometimes it is anything but. Anyone who has done Palm OS programming knows that you can throw a lot of effort down a rabbit hole only to find that the rabbit is long since dead. Personally, I love new technology but I’m not nearly enough of a savant to say with any accuracy which one will still be around in a year. Therefore I don’t go chasing every rabbit. Once a technology has demonstrated stability, lasting power and usefulness then it’s ready to have my attention. Until then it’s just a museum curiosity.

To put it more broadly, my personal interest in technology is only as deep as its ability to help me solve some business problem or do so in a more efficient way. That’s it. If a new technology comes along that promises more flashy bells and whistles but has no impact on my ability to do my job then I really couldn’t begin to care. I’ll spare it the 10 minutes it takes to determine its functional value and then that’s it. In terms of technology I am a strict pragmatist. Show me the ROI or go away. In terms of technology, at least for me, sex does not sell.

I’m finding that increasingly this is a hard sell in the employment marketplace. My rather laid-back attitude tends to put me in the Boat Anchor bucket because my shelves are not filled with books on technology, I don’t memorize the specs for anything and my focus is on GETTING WORK DONE rather than on using the newest flashiest thing. I’m not a technophile. I’m a problem solver. If some piece of technology can help me solve a problem without causing more problems than it creates then great. If not, I’ll stick with my technology from three whole years ago and wait for the new tool to prove itself. In the end, it’s all about the economics of workplace. What gets the work done?  Not, what’s new and flashy and interesting?

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On Bubbles of Acquaintance and Fleeting Irritation

In 2009 I wrote a rather maudlin blog entry about my position in the world. On that sunny July day I felt as lonely and isolated as I had since I was a child. I was a fish in a bowl that sat ignored on the doorstep of humanity. It was as if the entire world was mocking me with its collective glee. To put it in the most cliche way possible, I felt like I didn’t have a friend in the world. Life rather sucked, to place description of that time-frame firmly in the vernacular.

Fast forward to the current day and the picture is different beyond any reasonable recognition. In ways that involve relating to other people, the world has turned, but for the life of me I can’t tell you with any accuracy WHY it has done so. For quite some time Laura has been gently teasing me about my lunch calendar. To be specific, the phrase, “you have lunch with other people more than anyone else I’ve ever known!” has been bandied about repeatedly. Given my rather fishbowl existence a few short years ago, this is a reasonably impressive turn of events. Today was a particularly impressive example of this odd change in circumstance.

This morning I kissed my delightful and beautiful fiancee goodbye in the morning. At lunch I met up with an old friend and just as we were pondering wrapping up another of my old friends walked in and joined us. Two hours or more of lunch later, I get in the car to go see a movie with someone else and I get a text from yet another person that I haven’t talked to in a decade. Clearly the fish is out of the bowl and gone are the days when I could tick off on my whiteboard the days that have passed since I spoke to another human being. My life is full of people and as happy as I am about that I cannot begin to tell you how or why it happened.

Switching gears dramatically, I move to today’s moment of irritation. Ages ago I did some free artistic work for a company where I worked. This was work that was clearly outside any reasonable expectation but I did it because I enjoyed it and I wanted to contribute to the company. Well, not long after that I was let go in a layoff. At the time I bent over backwards to be magnanimous about the whole thing and I remain so. Business is business, no reason for acrimony. However, I’ve started seeing my artwork popping up in various places and I must admit that it rather digs at my soul to see my work, which I provided in my own time and for free, used by the company that fired me. Logically, I realize that I offered myself up for free and that I have nobody to blame but myself, but it does rather irritate me and dissuades me rather strongly from ever taking such a gracious stance with my work in the future. Society does not respect generosity but instead merely takes advantage of it until it no longer has a need for it. Lesson learned.


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On 50 Years of James Bond

This past weekend Laura and I went to see this new James Bond movie, Skyfall. My overall impression was simply to say that it was amazingly Bondlike. To define this adjective, it had all those aspects one expects in a Bond movie:

* Gripping nail-biting action
* A God-like protagonist who can do no wrong and any wrong he might appear to be doing is just a ruse
* An iconic villain with some memorable personal trait
* Astonishingly good art direction, memorable visuals and epic, grand music
* A predictable and linear plot with about as much subtlety as a hammer to the forehead

On all these accounts Skyfall delivers marvelously. I’m no grand fan of this genre and can count the number of Bond films I’ve sat through in their entirety on one hand but this felt like a Bond film. Except for the modernity of the plot and the up to date effects, this was a film from the golden age of Bond.

All this compare and contrast, however, made me realize that I didn’t really understand with great clarity exactly what I was comparing this film to. It seemed clear to me that I was judging Skyfall based on the a rather generic view of the movies, not having sat through the previous 22. It felt like a Bond film but my perception of the question of “what is Bond?” was born more out of stereotype and generality than any direct experience. It is of just such realizations that obsessions are born so with dispatch I set forth to load up my Netflix queue with all the Bond movies in order. I will not insult the reader’s intelligence by saying that I will absolutely manage to follow through and watch every single film in their order of production but I will go so far as to say that I will watch the films until such time as I should become bored with the endeavor.

The first Bond movie, in 1962, was “Dr. No”. Watching this with fresh eyes, never having seen it before yesterday, I have to say that it doesn’t really seem very Bondlike at all. The Bond in “Dr. No” is clearly human. He’s fallible, prone to terrible error but still amazingly lucky. Having read at least a bit of the original Fleming I’d say that “Dr. No’s” Bond is reasonably true to Fleming’s version of him. He wins out in the end but one tends to attribute it more to luck than skill. Later Bond films are… well, how to put it. After “Dr. No”, Bond films are a genre all unto themselves. “Dr. No” is a 1960s movie that just happens to be about James Bond. The mold is not yet set. The model has not been established.

That said, the movie does have smatterings of what is to come. The opening title sequence, though rather weak by later standards, does have the artsy feel of a Bond flick. The opening sequence with the “Three Blind Mice” song and quick action crescendo works marvelously. Some amount of this is a reflection of what 60’s movies tended to be but Bond films carried much of this forward through the decades.

I look forward with some anticipation to the next 22 films.

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Of Spies, Guys and Dainty Pirates

Hard Drive Finger PrintAfter finishing with the scurvy pirates a few days ago I started Sulick’s new book on espionage in America. It seems promising. The introduction informs us that there was no established part of the U.S. Government responsible for counter-espionage until 1939. During times of war, a group of officials was cobbled together to catch spies but when hostilities ceased they were disbanded. This meant that every new outbreak caused the whole department to be recreated from scratch, a very inefficient process. The author goes on to point out that the U.S. has had a rather false sense of security from espionage because of the psychological protection of the yawning oceans that lie between us and our combatants. Add to that the unusual level of personal freedom we enjoy and you get a country very susceptible to spies.

Espionage during the Revolutionary War was rife because, honestly, not everybody agreed with the idea of revolt in the first place. The first convicted spy against the U.S. was Dr. Benjamin Church, a well respected physician and member of the inner circle of the revolutionaries. Even as a surgeon his earnings were a paltry $4 a day but no one found it surprising when he suddenly started living a lavish lifestyle well above his means. He was considered above suspicion until a coded letter to his handlers was intercepted (he had entrusted it to one of his mistresses for delivery) and decoded. When confronted he claimed to be just pulling the legs of the British but was still found guilty. Unfortunately for the revolutionaries there was no law for espionage so there was some legal problem with what exactly to DO with the guy. He was eventually imprisoned and sent to the West Indies.

In the fictional realm, I highly recommend Bernay’s The Man on the Third Floor. Our protagonist is a gay book editor in the 1930s with a wife and family. His male lover lives on the third floor and acts as chauffeur. I think I need say no more.

Finally, a short dangling participle from the land of Pringle’s Pirates. In 1720 a group of pirates was captured, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging (and maybe some drawing and quartering after that). Two of the pirates stepped forward and declared that they could not be executed with the phrase: “We plead our bellies!” Pregnant women could not be executed and Anne Bonny and Mary Read had lived among the pirates and some of the pirate’s kind attentions had taken root. There is some speculation that the entire story may be apocryphal but also a fair amount that it is true and that the women were smuggled aboard as “wives” for two of the male pirates. Unfortunately, privacy is pretty hard to come by on a pirate ship. Once the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, the cat was shared amongst the crew.

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On Turning 40

Passage of Time

Passage of Time

A little over a week ago I passed the ripe old age of forty years of age.  In honor of the non-event I have a few observations to make which I will enumerate below.

  • On my fortieth birthday, people that I like, who I can honestly call friends, showed up to have dinner with me as arranged by my fiancee without my knowledge.  If I look back on my life five years ago… ten years ago… twenty years ago… I would have considered this impossible.  I am not, traditionally, a person who has been able to accumulate connections with other people.  I’ve desperately WANTED to do so but somehow lacked the ability.  I like people but in the past they have always gravitated away from me.  For the first time ever, I don’t feel completely alone in the world.
  • On my fortieth birthday, all the people that I’m related to completely failed to so much as speak to me.  My mother, who long ago asked me to leave her alone, didn’t say a word.  My father, who is busy in his own world, didn’t whisper a syllable.  It goes without saying that all the people to whom they are connected were similarly silent.  When it comes to family it would seem I am utterly disconnected.  I’m not sure I understand why exactly but it is clearly so.  Every time someone uses the phrase, “he has a face that only a mother could love” part of me thinks quietly that my face is worse even than that since my mother refuses even to speak to me.
  • On my fortieth birthday, I realize that my life has passed any conception that I would have had of it when I was young.  I remember as a teenager thinking about the transit of Venus in 2012.  To me, that was an event inconceivably far in the future.  As of my 40th birthday, I have passed that milestone.  There was nothing beyond it.  With the passage of 2012 we enter truly the undiscovered country.
  • On my fortieth birthday, I may remember my age without counting.  In every year before this one when someone has asked me how old I am it required an exercise in mathematics to determine the answer.  Now at 40 I think that I might just be able to remember.

The world today is much different than it was in 1972 or 1982 or 1992.  I believe personally that it’s better with easy passing decade and I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years have in store for us.


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What I Learned More or Less Today -or- Of Obsessions Run their Course

One thing that the “What I learned today” feature has taught me in its all of two days in existence is that there’s a lot of random rot out there in the literary realm that doesn’t add a single blasted thing to my “what I learned” list and really, isn’t at all enjoyable.  Over the past few months I’ve been very much in the mode of consuming every book that I could get my hands on.  As a consequence I’ve finished quite a few books that really didn’t deserve my attention past the 10th page.  So the upshot of this…. a few simple rules:

1.  Taken at random, 90% of books are not worth reading.  Don’t hesitate to pass over obvious garbage.

2.  If a book feels like a vacuous incoherent mess after 10 pages, it’s going to be a vacuous incoherent mess even after 400.  So put it down and move along to something else.

3.  A truly good book is good all the way through.  The number of “diamonds in the rough” is vanishingly small so if a book looks like a stinker at first then it probably is.

4.  There is a practical infinity of great literature to choose from.  Given that the amount of reading time is finite, it is therefore illogical to spend any unnecessary time on anything but quality writing.

And with those four simple realizations, which I’ve made a dozen times in my life but never properly codified, I’ve thrown out a fair number of books in my “to be read” queue.  More importantly, I’ve given myself permission to judge a book by its cover plus 10 pages.

Alright, moving on, I have a few notes from the past several days on a couple of topics.  Pirates…. yes, an increasingly complex subject and since I started taking notes half way through the Pringle book on pirates it’s hard to say much of anything without giving a fair amount of background.  In the effort to make sense, I give you background.

The primary problem with defining piracy is that it is very easily confused with the concept of a privateer.  When this trade started in the 1500s, countries hired sailors to set out on the high seas and pillage the shipping of other countries.  For example, England might issue a charter to a ship that they were to pillage the ocean-going trade of every country except England.  In essence, they were hired pirates.  So the difference between a privateer (a hired pirate) and a real pirate is justifiably rather sketchy.  Remember, this is in a time when communication doesn’t exactly travel at light speed (no pun intended).  It’s also worth noting that justice itself is rather impaired since the government and judicial systems (by today’s standards) were absurdly corrupt.  What you end up with is a vast ocean teeming with scalawags, some of whom under the hire of some legitimate ruler, some who might THINK they’re under the hire of some legitimate ruler and some who are just doing their own thing.  A right and true mess one must admit especially when you consider that a privateer hired by one country will be considered a pirate by any other country.

Starting in the late 1600s piracy saw its peak and decline.  In 1696 England issued the Navigation Acts which said, in a nutshell, that the American colonies could only ship goods using British shipping and only buy and sell goods in British markets.  This, as you might imagine caused quite an economic uproar.  The tiny country of England couldn’t possibly consume the output of the entire eastern seaboard of America.  So, skirting these laws, the nascent colonies turned to piratical shipping to get their goods to market.

When this practice began to impact the pocketbooks of English industry, for the first time really in history, England began to take notice of piracy and make an effort to stamp it out militarily.  Early in 1700 a few successful military raids were made to combat piracy and the whole practice began to subside quickly.  At their hearts pirates were only really interested in easy spoils.  When the risks for the practice began to increase, they quickly slunk into the woodwork.  It didn’t hurt that the British navy paid their sailors better wages during this time.  As always, the skilled labor goes where the money is.

Changing topics violently, I also made a bit of headway in the “Super Brain” book.  While this book needs a LOT of help in the realm of a title, it nonetheless has some good points to make about how our brains work and how we can get them to work for us rather than against us.  Early on it is still in the mode of dispelling myths about how the brain operates.  In accordance to popular belief, one brain cell dies every second.  Contrary to popular belief one brain cell is also born every second.  One point it makes about our failing memories as we grow older is that memory is closely tied to emotion.  If, as we age, we become more and more nonplussed about what’s going on around us, then from a chemical standpoint our brains are of course not going to remember.  So it encourages us not only to learn but to be damned excited about it if we want to retain what we just stuffed into our heads.

And with that tidbit we close.  I must admit that I cannot help but feel that with the last few entries this blog has become absurdly random.  Of course, in a way, that is what the Tattered Thread is all about.  Any outside reader would be hard pressed to figure out what exactly the thread is connecting any topic from one day to the next.  Such is my journey through life.  I’m rather randomly interested in … well, just about everything.  I’m not sure if that makes for a good blog or a bad one but here it is for better or for worse.


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What I Learned Today – 11/12/12 (of history, history and fake History)

Today didn’t yield a great deal of new information; a sad testament to my poor choice in reading material it seems.  Ah well, there is always tomorrow.

1.  The first demonstration of a moving television picture in 1925 featured a ventriloquist dummy with the nickname ‘Stooky Bill’.  The attempt required such bright lights that to use a human model would have been…. well, rather unfortunate for the model.

2.  The most notable quote for the day comes from a lecture by James Froude in 1864.  This seems to be sum up very well not only our view of history but also of current events as we enter this ever more divisive time: “It often seems to me as if History was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.”

3.  I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a brief moment on the history of piracy.  I’ve been reading the last week or so reading Patrick Pringle’s seminal work on the topic.  I won’t attempt to encapsulate its entire contents here (though I may bother to do so in a later post) but it is clear that everything we thought we knew about pirates is utterly wrong.  Those romantic, bloodthirsty buccaneers of the movies simply do not exist.  Nobody walked the plank.  With few exceptions there is no buried treasure.  The cruel, despotic captains of the high seas dispensing bloody justice were, in fact, much less bloody than the authorities who dispensed justice on land.  As a case in point, Captain Kidd, rather than being one of the most notorious pirates of all times was, in fact, just a sea captain who got railroaded by a rather corrupt legal system.  I could go on endlessly but suffice to say for now that fiction far outstrips fact when it comes to adventures on the bounding main.




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