Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sad Stories

Sometimes I keep links to stories that move me, but find it hard to work them into posts. Too serious to throw in with a bunch of links to space pictures or television trivia.

But this one really got to me, and I want other people to read it: "Laos had only two million people then. And we were later told that the U.S. and its allies dropped three million tons of bombs on us.."

"Eventually, nobody could survive here, anymore. Our houses were destroyed and our fields were full of unexploded substances. People were dying and so were the animals. We had to leave and so we decided to go to Vietnam, to search for refuge. But the journey was tremendously arduous. We were moving at night, carrying few possessions. During the day we were hiding from the enemy planes."
In this biggest covert operation in U.S. history, the main goal was to "prevent" pro-Vietnamese forces from gaining control over the area. But the entire operation seemed more like a game, overgrown boys allowed to play, unopposed, their war games, bombing an entire nation into the stone age for more than a decade. The result of that "game" was one of the most brutal genocides in the history of the 20th century.

Some of the most brutal bombing raids were done out of spite, with no planning. When U.S. bombers couldn't find their targets in Vietnam due to bad weather, they just dumped their load on the Laos countryside, as the airplanes couldn't land with the bombs on board.

More warcrimes: missing CIA prisoners.

From the Tribune -- `I have to make this right' "In 1997, June Siler named Robert Wilson as the man who attacked her. Today, she's convinced he's not and blames police for the mix-up."

You know what? That's enough sadness. The other stories I've got can wait for another time.


A happy ending: Victim recants; convict to go free: "A Chicago man who had been serving a 30-year prison sentence for a 1997 attempted murder will go free today, a month after the victim in the case told the Tribune that she no longer believed that Robert Wilson was the person who attacked her."

But it's still a sad story, even with the happy ending. 1997 to 2006 is a long time.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Poem

The Fire of Drift-wood
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


We sat within the farm-house old,
Whose windows, looking o'er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold,
An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,
When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,
That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
Or say it in too great excess.

The very tones in which we spake
Had something strange, I could but mark;
The leaves of memory seemed to make
A mournful rustling in the dark.

Oft died the words upon our lips,
As suddenly, from out the fire
Built of the wreck of stranded ships,
The flames would leap and then expire.

And, as their splendor flashed and failed,
We thought of wrecks upon the main,
Of ships dismasted, that were hailed
And sent no answer back again.

The windows, rattling in their frames,
The ocean, roaring up the beach,
The gusty blast, the bickering flames,
All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part
Of fancies floating through the brain,
The long-lost ventures of the heart,
That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!
They were indeed too much akin,
The drift-wood fire without that burned,
The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

Or if your mood in the mood for something less reflective and more ridiculous, take a look at these turkeys drawn by psych students. Their TA added an extra page to the exam when making copies -- it said "draw a turkey." via MeFi.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Human Infrastructure

One of the last things I can see myself doing with my life, below "astronaut" on the list of unlikely careers, is managing a software company. Yet for some reason I've been reading the archive of Joel on Software recently. I find myself nodding in agreement with his descriptions of managment techniques that don't work, including musings from his days in the Israeli army about military-style management and why it's necessary and why it doesn't work if your people can quit. (What does he say works? Trusting the people who take pride in what they do.) Mostly the guy is just a good writer, funny and insightful, one good point per entertaining essay.

Anyway, one essay in particular got me thinking. It's called The Development Abstraction Layer.

He starts off with the story of a talented programmer who saves up enough money to live for a year and then quits his job to write a piece of software better than anything else on the market: "Flawless, artistic, elegant, bug free." Then he sets up to take orders from customers.

Of course, no orders come. Why?

"He's pretty sure he knows. 'Marketing,' he says. Like many young technicians, he is apt to say things like, "Microsoft has worse products but better marketing."

When uttered by a software developer, the term "marketing" simply stands in for all that business stuff: everything they don't actually understand about creating software and selling it.

This, actually, is not really what "marketing" means. Actually Microsoft has pretty terrible marketing. Can you imagine those dinosaur ads actually making someone want to buy Microsoft Office?

The real reason, he says, is the lack of infrastructure to support the product. Not just marketing to make people want it, but sales, to make sure they can get it, and customer service, to make sure they can use it, and billing, to make sure they pay for it, "and public relations, and an office, and a network, and infrastructure, and air conditioning in the office," and "accounting, and a bunch of other support tasks."

But this isn't limited to software development:

The level a programmer works at (say, Emacs) is too abstract to support a business. Developers working at the developer abstraction layer need an implementation layer -- an organization that takes their code and turns it into products. Dolly Parton, working at the "singing a nice song" layer, needs a huge implementation layer too, to make the records and book the concert halls and take the tickets and set up the audio gear and promote the records and collect the royalties.

While I was thinking about that, I read Teresa Nielsen Hayden's latest post on book publishing. Teresa works for Tor, putting out mainly science fiction novels. She sometimes uses her blog to explain how book publishing works, and why nobody ever reads books that have been "self-published" by their authors. Why, in fact, self-publishing is a scam, even if the people who print your book offer to help you "market" it.

Huh, I thought, a publishing company is like a software company without any programmers! The whole company is "infrastructure." The product comes from somewhere else. And no matter how great that product is, "self publishing" almost never works.

Then I thought about reality shows like "American Idol" and "American Inventor." The prize on those shows is, basically, an infrastructure.

Even the military works this way. Joel Spolsky says "It is not a coincidence that the Roman army had a ratio of four servants for every soldier. This was not decadence. Modern armies probably run 7:1"

All of this has opened my eyes a little. First of all, I am not going to think of "efficiency" in the same way anymore. When I hear that big charities spend 80% of their donation income on administration, I am not going to be appalled. Every effective organization spends 80% of its income on administration, according to Joel. An efficient organization is one in which the infrastructure works invisibly.

Secondly, I am going to try to be more respectful of the people who actually do all of this infrastructure work. I'm guilty of complaining bitterly about "bureaucracy." Of losing my cool with customer service people. Of noticing only when the secretaries and payroll people at my university do things wrong, and not all of the times they do things right. Of not appreciating that their job is both hard and vital. The lesson here is that the infrastructure is in some ways more important than the product. A bad product with a good infrastructure may succeed, but a good product with a bad infrastructure will not.

I know I have a tendency to forget this. Which is one of several reasons why, though I notice bad managment all the time, I wouldn't make a good manager either.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Small Blue Marble

Human civilization is a very new and very small and very fleeting thing in the universe. To help keep things in perspective:

Pictures of a near neighbor which is only 764 times larger than Earth (in volume.)

Two men who have gone farther from Earth than any others in human history, except a few of their friends who took the same trip. How far? About 1.2 "light seconds". (A light second is the distance light travels in one second.) Doesn't sound so far when you remember that the sun is eight light-minutes away, and the nearest of the stars, four light-years.

The Chicago Tribune has a little more with these two.

A bunch of people who are trying to do other things unique in human history... (involving pizza, and tea parties, and rattlesnakes, and Michael Jackson.)

There's a movie doing the festival circuit called Ever Since the World Ended.

After civilization ends, how will you be able to navigate?

A new group is taking votes on The Seven Wonders of the Modern World All man made, as were the originals. Six of the original seven are gone. The Great Pyramids remain, and I voted for them, along with the Great Wall of China, the Easter Island Heads, Petra, Stonehenge, the Colosseum in Rome, and the Acropolis.

Physics for Future Presidents tells world leaders what they need to know about "nukes" and radioactivity and the technologies that come from quantum mechanics...

Nasa shows us a movie of the Earth shrinking in the rear view mirror as one of their probes leaves for another planet.

Pictures of the shuttle lifting off from a unique point of view although probably not the ISS according to the MeFi thread that followed...

And finally, to provide a little perspective for US readers: how the rest of the world reacted to our recent elections.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why I'm not Voting Straight-Ticket Democrat

Some of my favorite bloggers (Jim McDonald at Making Light and John Scalzi and Chad Orzel, who links to the other two) are urging people to vote straight ticket democratic, in an attempt to cause a shake-up in the Republican party, which is desperately in need of new leadership.

I share their aims but I'm not going along with their program. Because as one commenter at Making Light said, they don't live in Chicago.

Chicago shows what happens when the Democrats start taking your vote for granted. Specifically, in this race, we've got an incumbent governor who is under federal investigation for giving state business to certain companies in return for millions of dollars in kickbacks, and hiring unqualified people for state jobs either in return for campaign contributions or simply to build a network of cronies. Not to mention the fact that his policy decisions on things like toll roads and pensions have been plain stupid. And we've got a candidate for county board president who is the son of the man who won the Democratic primary. Two weeks before John Stroger won, he suffered a stroke. His family covered up the seriousness of the stroke until after the election, allowing voters to think he would recover enough to take office. They revealed his true condition at the last possible minute for changing names on the November ballot, and then arranged to get Todd Stroger's name put on instead. They have the clout to put names on the Democratic ticket at will because John Stroger has for so long been a very important cog in the Democratic machine in Cook county. I have no doubt that the kickbacks and hiring scandals and cronyism are even worse at the county level than at the state level, and that the Stroger family is a part of them.

So I'm not voting for either of them. But not only am I not voting for them, I am voting for their Republican opponents, both of whom are running on platforms of reform.

See, I have this theory about how the two party system works. It's based on the idea that the most important function of democracy is to allow the people to throw out a bad government without a revolution. To me this seems very difficult to do in a multi-party system. Either you've got three or more parties in a winner take all election, which means that a minority is enough to elect a generally unpopular person (ie, Ralph Nader helps get Bush elected) or you've got a proportional representation system, where, even if the bad government leaders lose their majority, they can keep part of their power by joining a "coalition."

By contrast, in a two party system it is possible to vote against someone, not merely for someone. And that's what I'm going to do. I'm a big fan of checks and balances, and two equally powerful parties act as checks on each other, ideally. I want to keep them roughly equally powerful. And they're not, around here -- I think that's the root of the problem.

Which is not to say that there are only two points of view on every issue. Just that, in the US, I think the multiple perspectives should be hashed out within the parties. The long list of candidates with the spectrum of ideas should appear on the primary ballot. And the elections which actually choose someone for office should be (and are) run-offs between the winners from the two long lists.

That's my philosophy. I like the two party system because I believe of all systems it makes it easiest to "throw the bastards out." So I'm voting to restore the balance of power in Illinois, and throw some bastards out.

But at the national level -- straight Democrat.