A Confederacy of Dunces

One style of fiction I most enjoy is what is known as alternate history or, if presented academically, counterfactual history. This genre asks what might have been if such-and-such had happened. Sometimes the counterfactual is presented as a more pleasant, net positive, outcome than what actually is, but more often than not as less desirable than the present. Or, as Pangloss so sagely put it, "all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds."

It's a genre with a long, storied tradition.

And some people have never heard of it before this week.

HBO announced the production of a new show, Confederate, whose not entirely novel premise is that the Confederate States of America still exists. The North did not win the War Between the States; the South did not lose. And slavery still exists. The uproar, as I understand it, has been outrage at HBO's conceit that they could make a show celebrating slavery when all know it is horribly wrong. No one has seen a script yet, much less filmed work, and the assumption is that the show glorifies slavery? Because any show with the Confederacy in it would obviously celebrate slavery? Or because slavery when depicted theatrically is always glamorous? Much as it was in Roots or Twelve Years a Slave, right? One can portray slavery without glamorizing it, after all. And it's not like slavery is dead even now.

Tonight I learned that Some Other People are in a similar snit over a planned series for Amazon called Black America, about a black nation, not unlike an Indian reservation, extracted from the United States after the Civil War. Haven't y'all heard of Liberia, the twitterati shriek, completely forgetting that Liberia is in Africa. Here's a map:

They seem to have confused the American Colonization Society with calls by the Nation of Islam for a separate country. One does begin to wonder why anyone pays attention to these sorts of tempests. Is their teapot so large as to scald us when it boils?

You know what kind of alternate history I'd like to watch? One where losers don't blame their mistakes on some other group of people. That would be a novelty.

liberty, rant, Work

Who Forged These Chains?

For someone who works with computers, I have very little respect for them. Perhaps that’s left over from a programming class where the teacher reminded us that the computer only does what we tell it to do. It’s mindless. Or more likely it has been experience reinforcing this: the computer program is only as good as its author, and I’ve seen so many that aren’t. What this results in, however, is prejudicial treatment of the machines. I simply assume that my experiences with them will be even worse than experiences with human, so I despise voice mail jail (Press 0 for an operator.), interactive voice response systems (Hi, Siri!), time-sheets, and resume sifting by keyword. This disrespect is misplaced; it’s no fault of the computer’s own that it is incompetent and hard to deal with. It’s the fault of those humans who designed it. But they are anonymous and the computer sits there, refusing to take what I give it until I alter my behavior to suit its inflexibility. I’m not the one wrong; it is. Why? Because I am not the computer’s accessory. It is doing a task for me. Why does it end up being the other way ’round?



This thing I started to write
I’ve lost it
I misplaced it somewhere
perhaps on a low shelf just out of sight

And when I find it again
I’ll remember what it was

Place, transportation, Work

Be Careful What You Wish For

Norway’s SlowTV film of the Bergen to Oslo railway is beautiful and deeply moving: nostalgic. Though I’ve never been to Norway, I’ve ridden trains. While I can count long train rides on my hands, my time commuting on MetroNorth Rail-Road, the New York City subway, and the London Underground are some of my favorite memories. I looked forward to riding the train. One year my commute passed through Penn Station. A ticket on the next train out of New York beckoned me to buy one and go.

I’ve started working with the movie in the background. The rhythmic rumble, the occasional announcements, are soothing. I tricked myself into thinking I’m working in the cafe car. Now and again I look up and out at the fjords.

One of the wonderful aspects of system administration, or DevOps as the kids call it these days, was that much of the work can be done anywhere there’s an Internet connection. This begins to pale as a wonderful aspect when anywhere is restricted to just another grey cubicle in a sea of grey cubicles, and pales to insignificance when anywhere becomes only your bedroom, and the few minutes you see other people is at the school bus stop. All of your friendships and conversations become virtual — which is just the thing you once desired so much. What offered the promise of working anywhere became working nowhere. Meanwhile, the world of IT operations long ago realized that if the work could be done from anywhere, then it could just as easily be done from India or Slovenia as from New Jersey, so while BigCo real estate operations were trying to lower costs by reducing the office footprint and exploring telecommuting, other folks at BigCo were looking at ways to get rid of people entirely, not by replacing by replacing them with machines (automating or optimizing processes), but with cheaper labor from elsewhere. Costs were reduced, one assumes, not through efficiency and gains in productivity, but through the illusion of arbitraging regional differences in the cost of labor.

Cleaning my library, I ran across an N-scale model railroad that I’ve carried with me from house to house. If memory serves, it last ran in Loveland, Ohio. I may have been 12. Our youngest, 8, put it together last year, but couldn’t resolve an electrical problem, so it went back in the box. He likes to build with Legos, so this Christmas I gave him a Lego train. We need more track.

I stopped working in New York for moments with my children. Our first child would be asleep by the time I got home, and not yet awake when I left. Taking employment nearby meant I could see my family for breakfast and dinner, and sometimes lunch. There was a trade-off, of course: no more trains, for one.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own atmosphere, its own odor. A new cat came to live with us last year and the adjustment has been, shall we say, complex. So I am in the process of ripping out all the wall-to-wall carpeting and replacing it with something urine-proof. In the meantime, I’m sleeping in the library. There is something so cozy to be surrounded by one’s books. Sometimes I lie awake just staring at all the friends I’ve made and places I’ve been.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own character, its own people. This place here has cats and on occasion small children. One of my first employments was as a clerk at a Standard Drug in Richmond, Virginia. There were just a handful of us on staff: the pharmacist and his assistant, the store manager, another clerk, and me. I did not deal much with the pharmacists other than to pass prescriptions to them, so I only have a faint impression of them. The manager was in his 40s, perhaps older, with glasses, a scraggly beard, and bad teeth: probably a lot like how I look now, except for the teeth. The other clerk spent his days stoned. That summer my brother and I lived with Grandmother; we were expected home for dinner by 5:30. Dinner was always at 5:30. I would walk down the road to the Henrico Public Library branch, if books were needed, then make it back to Grandmother’s for dinner. Late nights I spent with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Turner Classic Movies. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I made real friends at work, or was even interested in doing so. And then I found peculiar characters, colleagues, kindred spirits, and friends.

Working from a coffee shop is a great way to observe a bunch of characters while you work, if you pick the right shop. But you can get trapped just watching everything transient. Much better is the cafe car on a long-distance train or the counter at an all-night diner. People seeking people come and sit there, often drinking, sometimes working, sometimes holding forth, sometimes playing cards.

It is easier to build team spirit on a virtual team than to address alienation. We coalesce around our shared goals, tasks, and complaints quite easily. Interpersonal problems do arise, if not everyone is working at their best, which can require a chat, perhaps the resetting of expectations, but my experience has been that the team wants to work as a team: no one wants to let another down, and quite willingly picks up work that another has dropped. They almost have a common enemy in their employer — not in the competition as one might expect — which is not for the best, but suffices.

Where did we get this idea of work-life balance, that work and life were separate? Did we not realize that by putting work in opposition to life that we’ve aligned it with death? Or was that an intentional recognition that in some respects our way of working is not living, but a kind of zombie existence?

We forget sometimes that a lot of life is constructed around us by society, and when we’re cut off we do not know how to build it back. One of my great failures as a manager was [name redacted], who was a very talented employee, supremely dedicated to his work — until one day it all went to hell. No one else worked near him, or talked to him on a regular basis, so no one knew what was happening until he just stopped. He gave up fighting. As Peter Gibbons puts it in Office Space, “I’m just not gonna go.” The bullshit defeated him. Like the rest of us, he’d been working essentially by himself from home for some time.

I haven’t figured out how to fix this, yet. But it seems to me that the key might be have meaningful work in the first place; nip this problem in the bud.


It’s a Grand Old Flag

I do not think I come from unique circumstances, nor that I am exceptionally gifted an observer, but I continue to be astonished at the number of people I know who do not understand what it is that President Trump is doing or how it can happen here. The common explanation for this is that Some People have been living in a bubble, but that’s not entirely correct. There is indeed proximity bias, but there have also been perversions of the available data which are only visible if you read the footnotes. The unemployment rate is the best example: it’s low — only if neither those people who are no longer looking for work, nor those who are imprisoned and have no choice about the work they do, are counted. Makes things look rosy, yes?

The rosiness is not evenly distributed.

Jimmy Carter hit the nail directly on the head with his “Crisis of Confidence” malaise speech: there’s a deficit of meaning.

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our Nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else—public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Donald Trump (or Steve Bannon) provided an easy answer, one which is very appealing to a lot of people. It seems to solve so much.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance [emphasis mine] to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The Bible tells us, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”

The world was not an easy place before Trump, except for a lot of Americans. It was not a safe place, except for a lot of Americans. Obama was not Flash Gordon, nor was Bush, nor Clinton, nor Bush, nor Reagan, nor Carter, nor Ford, nor Nixon, nor Johnson, nor Kennedy, nor Eisenhower, nor Truman.

This particular problem has been brewing for some time, and the solution is not in who is President.


Evolution in Action: Civilization Edition

The land disappears beneath the sea at high tide in places where it hadn’t until recently — places such as Hampton Roads and Norfolk, Virginia, which is somewhat important to the U.S. Navy.

And yet, paying attention to the battlefield is apparently not as important as just blowing things up. Last year, Ken Buck (R-CO) offered an amendment to H.R.5293 — Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2017, to prohibit expending any funds on adapting to changes in the environment.

“When we distract our military with a radical climate change agenda, we detract from their main purpose of defending America from enemies like ISIS,” Congressman Ken Buck stated. “This amendment refocuses the military on our real enemies.”

Because doing something would only be a distraction? I suppose flood walls will come from another part of the operating budget. Next we won’t even be considering implications or planning to adapt. At least there’s been an independent risk assessment.

This year looks to be even more exciting for risk mitigation, with a President and his appointees who think that the evidence of their senses is a hoax. That’s already had a chilling effect: CDC pre-emptively cancelled a conference on the subject. Not to worry: Mar-a-Lago will be OK.

It’s rather extraordinary how short-sighted some people can be. Whether or not the gradual increase in sea level is the result of a global increase in temperatures triggered by the Industrial Age or not, the sea is rising. A hopeful attitude in response to any change is to say that we’ll adapt; it won’t be so bad. Well, sure, if we don’t refuse to adapt.


My Fellow Americans

I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.

Given the vitriol of the campaign, Donald Trump’s victory speech sounds normal, the same as any other president-elect’s gracious magnamity.


Define “American.”

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

Many of us here in America have been talking past each other for decades, and don’t seem to realize that. Some do. Most use what we consider terms of opprobrium in an argument, attempting to persuade another to our view of correctness, not understanding that others don’t attach the same connotations to the terms. Each argument disintegrates into preaching to the choir rather than attempting to persuade another. Then, if such difference of opinion is pointed out, one insists no true American could hold such views. We have shared values, after all. That may well be, but those shared values are to some degree wishful thinking. Perhaps instead we share only fear and enemies. Enemies are certainly more concrete than values.

It would not do to assume that we agree what “American” is. And if you think that idea is absurd, you need to get out more.

General, Work

What Are You Here For?

I have, since I found out about it, wanted to go to space.

I remember, vividly, watching Star Trek in color in the basement of a friend who had television and shag carpet. I was young: older than five and younger than eight.

(I remember, vividly, watching all of Star Trek in one weekend at St. John’s. But that’s another story.)

I consumed all of the LIFE Science Library and every mention of space in the National Geographic.

I devoured all stories of the stars I could find, all of which made it seem possible. I despaired when Skylab crashed in the Australian desert. I gobbled up the news that NASA would launch a space shuttle. We were on our way again!

Or not.

Still, the first job I wanted — and failed to apply for — was an internship with NASA at Wallops Island, Virginia. That was the first time I decided I wasn’t good enough; I hadn’t enough experience. I was too young.

Yesterday, Elon Musk announced the plans his company SpaceX has to develop an infrastructure to get one million people to Mars, with first launch in 2022.

I’m so excited! I want to be part of this! Why do all the open positions at the company have to be in California?!

Now I’m too old.

Go West, Young Man! Ad astra per aspera.

family, learning

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stamford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.


On Trusting How We Count the Votes

There’s some discussion in the news that the Russians might be influencing the results of the U.S. presidential election by hacking the machines various jurisdictions use to register voters, as well as those that count the votes.


Those of us in the trade have been warning about this for years, most notably Freedom to Tinker — several researchers at Princeton University — and consider the introduction of digital voting machines an over-reaction to the brouhaha preceeding Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000). There was no reason for Bush v. Gore, and there was no reason to “upgrade” the voting systems. There was only impatience. But what do we plebeians know?

Anyhoo, the computers eventually settled upon by many jurisdictions don’t have any means of verifying that the votes cast are the votes counted, which is the basic problem here. If one can’t tell that the vote has changed, how can one trust the results?

One can’t.

Which is what makes this particular threat interesting.

If one cannot trust the result because one cannot trust the process, then one need only cast doubt upon the process in order to make the result untrustworthy. In short, it’s not necessary for the Russians to have actually hacked the voting machines. It’s only necessary for people to think that it’s possible that the Russians might have hacked the voting machines.

Luckily there’s an easy fix for this problem: use paper and count the votes by hand.

But you’ll have to be patient.

economics, law, politics

Transitioning to a Post-Westphalia World

What prevents the signatories of the TPP or TTIP, and their ilk, from just saying no when the investor-state dispute settlement provisions don’t go the way they’d want? That is, if the state still has a monopoly on the use of force, can’t they just kill the investors?

Or, to put it another way, isn’t binding arbitration only binding if one feels bound by it?

Take some time to read this overview of the system [full series] from Buzzfeed for more detail.



Certain things aren’t talked about — or at least are avoided because they are uncomfortable to talk about — in polite society; that is, beyond our immediate circle of intimates: politics, religion, race, gender, sex, salary, feelings, whether or not I’m happy at work and seeking other employment. The strange personalized anonymity of the Internet changed this a bit. We put on masks and play roles with more ease, swapping one identity for another as circumstances dictate, or in a search for ourselves.

Sam Altman of YCombinator asked for applicants for a research fellowship at YC Research to study the effects of a basic income. I applied.

I applied, even though I have no work experience in the field, because I want to do this work, and because of this statement in the posting: as always we’re more interested in someone’s potential than his or her past.

That friendly statement was important. One of my foibles is that I remove myself from consideration for a lot of work that I would like to do because I don’t meet, or think I don’t meet, the specified requirements for the position. And even if I do apply, I find it difficult to sell myself, even though I feel confident that I could do any work required, because there’s that learning curve that experience and training do help overcome. More importantly, perhaps, why should someone have faith that I can do the work if I haven’t done the work before? What intangible assets are they willing to buy when they expressed a preference for certain tangible assets, such as a college degree or certification in the field? Why should I be considered for CIO, for example, if I do not have an MBA and have not supervised a large number of people in addition to a large number of computers?

The last position that I applied for before this was also one for which I was nominally unqualified. While a position in IT it involved Microsoft products, which I have studiously avoided for well over ten years. I applied at the behest of a friend, who thought I would be a great fit for his team because I had the soft skills he wanted: specifically, he wanted someone who could step in for him as Director of IT Operations if he were hit by a bus. His boss, the VP of Technology, however, wanted certification and experience with the products the company used. Or, as he put it, he wanted someone who could hit the ground running. I applied despite this, because I agreed with my friend, and because the salary would have been three times what I’m currently making, and one does need to pay for one’s children somehow. As expected, the VP followed his preferences, and did not accept our argument that general practical experience combined with the ability to learn quickly and solve problems were more important than specific experience with a given product. Basically, the two of them were hiring for different positions. I wonder how they’re doing these days.

I’ve found, in my professional experience, that certifications are relatively meaningless. Rare has it been that the nominally qualified candidate has met my performance expectations. Usually it has been the opposite. But if certifications are worthless, how then does someone know whether you are good, if you can do the work they want you to do? The evidence of the work done, or, loosely, experience. Which is the difficulty if one is entering a field for the first time, whether as a recent graduate or someone seeking a mid-life career change; we are all neophytes.

In the past I’ve leaned on learning things quickly, or at least more quickly than others, to make up for a lack of direct experience. But I don’t know how to sell that. Doesn’t everyone claim that they can communicate well, that they learn quickly, that they can solve problems, even if not as well as AlphaGo? Does one simply assert that something is true, and let the buyer learn from their disappointment or delight?

And so we have spec work and trials — or, online portfolios and blogs.


In which apathy sets in

Huh? Apparently the school budget was up for approval on Tuesday. I didn’t notice.

This is the first year since I became a property owner that I’ve not paid attention to the various shenanigans that attend the school budget process in New York. I think this means that my attempt to ignore those things whose outcome I have little probability of affecting is working. Maybe next year I’ll add Federal surveillance policy to that list.


The school board had already decided to close the Arthur S. May Elementary School building instead of altering it for ADA compliance. In my opinion, this is a grave error — location is the only thing that matters in real estate. The location of the Arlington Middle School next to a major highway and a dilapidated K-Mart is part of the urban removal tragedy of Poughkeepsie, though there are a handful of homes nearby.

The district may be able to find someone to rent Arthur S. May; it’s got a great location.

What this does mean, however, is that I’m still really glad that I have four children and so can calculate my property tax as tuition per child.

(Tuition will be $2750 for the coming school year.)

economics, Place

Cul de sac

I have to say that I was way ahead of the prediction curve on this, partly through desire and partly because it’s pretty fucking obvious just from looking at commute times that the ever-expanding suburb is an evolutionary dead-end. It will become a city or the people will move out. The people moving out is happening faster.

I’d been remarking on this verbally since at least 2001, but wrote it down in 2006. Meanwhile, I listened to my wife’s heart’s desire and bought this house instead.*

However, one must note that a finer analysis of the data needs to be done to see if there’s a comparable shuffle along the suburban-exurban-rural gradient toward locally urban areas, not just the larger cities. I suspect there is.

So, you ask, where do I recommend anyone buy in Dutchess County? Well, first I recommend you buy *my* house, but if you’re not that kind of buyer, look at the following, depending on where you work.

  • Beacon, city of
  • Poughkeepsie, city of
  • Pawling, village of
  • Rhinebeck/Rhinecliff, villages of
  • Millbrook, village of
  • Millerton, village of

There are other rather compact villages, but they don’t offer the amenities of those. You’ll have to travel a bit to find some items, or have them shipped to you. But if you don’t mind, try in no particular order

  • Amenia
  • Dover Plains
  • Tivoli
  • Red Hook
  • Staatsburg
  • Hyde Park

Unfortunately, new housing stock is still being built in wide-open green spaces, and turnover in the smaller villages is slight. Best bets are Beacon and Poughkeepsie. Not only are there more properties for sale in those cities, but the prices there are lower due to racial and wealth discrimination, and “concerns” about the school systems.

Continue reading

law, Work

Sorry. Procedures.

I’m reading an excellent book right now that’s discussing how we surrender our judgment to detailed rules and procedures: The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, by Philip K. Howard.

These problems plague any large organization, not just government.

An example from today: One of the applications I support needs to increase storage by 26 GB (spread across 8 filesystems on 3 hosts). (IBM doubled the size of some software.)

The Company funds increases of up to 10% of the existing filesystem from the operations budget, but requires a special project and dedicated budget line for anything over that. The needed increase is greater than 10% of the size of the existing filesystems.

So, I could increase the 3 TB filesystem by 307 GB, but not the 3 GB filesystem by 3 GB?

Kinda funny what happens when people don’t understand percentages, isn’t it?

economics, politics, rant

Against Full-Day Kindergarten

The Common Core State Standards website asks,

Q: Why do we need educational standards?

A: We need standards to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

Let’s assume for a moment that that is the goal of primary and secondary education. (Let’s also ignore the missing hyphen between post and secondary.) Will full-day Kindergarten help in achieving this goal?


Why not?

Because extreme differences in academic ability collapse by the fourth grade. All of us, including children, learn at different rates. In general, those differences disappear on average by the time we are about ten years old, or fourth grade. I understand the difficulty of scientific experiments on humans, but we do what we can; and what we can do shows that there’s no evidence that learning a subject earlier makes a difference.

So, what exactly is the point of full-day Kindergarten?


You Missed a Spot

In housework, as in any field primarily concerned with the reduction of chaos, the work itself is not noticed; only the failures are.

Take a few moments today to thank your spouse, your domestic help, your secretary, your department of public works, your firefighter, your sysadmin for keeping chaos at bay.