Paul Geromini

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Saturday 20 December 2014

You Just Need One

Take a trip back with me to those halcyon days of 2002. Back when I was in 5th grade a game would come out that would set the template for an great number of copy cat titles. That game is Medal of Honor Allied Assault. Fear not though, this post is not about this game. It is a great game no doubt, with a number of high quality sequels (although the further out you get from the original the worse they get). No this post is really about the game's intro. Take a gander at it here. Did you catch the last line?

Can one man truly make a difference?

Normally we can all just roll our eyes at the omission of both genders, but that oversight is kind of a big deal here because I want to apply that question to this article. Our protagonist is Alayne Fleischmann, who was employed by JPMorgan Chase during the recent financial crisis. Her story is a good one so I suggest you read the whole article before continuing.

Having read that, let us take stock of the results:

  • Mrs. Fleischmann told people at JPMorgan what they were doing was fraud
  • JPMorgan laid her off.
  • JPMorgan paid the government 9 billion partially due to her testimony.
  • No executives were charged.

By some accounting, yes she did make a difference. JPMorgan was so afraid of her testimony that they worked very hard to pay off penalties so she could not testify. But I am going to postulate that no, she did not make a difference. Show me the executives who lost their jobs, show me that JPMorgan does business fundamentally differently, show me the laws that enforce greater oversight (counterpoint). Granted, It is a bit unfair to look at these complex organizations and judge their interactions to find a clear difference in operation. I get that, but I doubt it provides any solace to Mrs. Fleischmann, who lost her job, who dealt with the legal fallout for years, and who is unemployed according to Wikipedia. Show me she made a difference.

It is a shame right? She ought to have something to show for it, something should have changed? And here we arrive at the point: acting to your ideals is the only reward you deserve. It is great when things work out. Wrongs are righted, justice is delivered, lifetime movies are made, the works. Plenty of times though you act expecting the cherry and get the pit. You can be exiled from your country, you can be on the losing side, you can even die. The only reward these people deserve is the satisfaction of acting to their ideals. After that nothing else is guaranteed.

In a way it is depressing to think this, that you can do good and nothing can change. I would instead postulate a different analysis, that understanding this is the way of things is liberating. I do not need good things to happen, the universe does not owe me a reward for being on my best behavior. I just need to be true to myself and I can be content with the outcome.

This is why I am so happy people like Mrs. Fleischmann exist. She acted against her own financial interest knowing the outcome was in doubt because her morals were so strong, such a core part of her being that to not act would have changed her. It would have made her something she did not want to be.

She did make a difference, for herself. She was tested, her morality was tested, and she made a choice to be true to herself. You only need one person to do that.

Monday 24 November 2014

I Kill Animals For Sport and I Enjoy It

I love Inflammatory titles. I do not do this just to stir up some passion in you dear reader, instead I strive to get to the point as quick as I can. With this hobby of mine there can be no denying its aims. I go into the woods, I try and find small cat sized birds (pheasants), and I try and kill them with a gun. If you still do not believe me, and frankly it may be hard to blame you given the rest of the articles on this blog, here is some recent photographic evidence.

So why do I do this? You may be tempted into thinking I am a sadist. I am sure that would be the opinion of PETA. To be fair, It would be untruthful of me to say that I do not derive some base thrill in the act. Humans have been hunting animals to survive before we could yet form words. The need is now passed, but the instinct and feeling remains. This is not the reason though. A popular explanation is hunting is just another aspect of a nature lover. I too will confess to enjoying the forest scenery in spurts. It is generally too early or not light enough for me to fully enjoy it however. You would think an ex-boy scout would take more joy just being in the woods, but I have always been more at home in my home. How about enjoying the sport aspect? That thought is pretty close. There is a fair bit of competition between human and prey. Pheasants are pretty cunning animals. They hunker down until you are right on top of them and can move deceptively fast on the ground. Their speed through the air is nothing special, but given the chance, they can put much distance between themselves and you with wings alone. Even with all my technology and skill, my success rate this season is 0%, which is worse than seasons past, but not by much. This is not my main reason though. Consider a popular question poised when I tell people I hunt: "Do you eat what you get?"

Yes, emphatically yes, that is why I am getting up before dawn and walking around in the cold. Why I am covered in bright orange. Why I am wading through muddy field with tall grass. I am not looking for Pokemon, I am looking for meat. To put it simply, I eat the flesh of a once living creature. I have to be willing to do some of the dirty work myself. We live in an industrialized country with an efficient meat industry. All the blood work happens behind the scenes. All we get is a Styrofoam plate, some plastic, and a red hunk of organic material. We are so removed that it becomes easy to rationalize and forget that this was once a living creature. A creature with thoughts, however simple. One of those thoughts was survival, but we ignored that for our own gain. We are queens and kings of the food chain so we have that right, but as royalty we have a noblesse oblige and that is to not forget that we killed something to live. I must not forget that, but I have to be pragmatic. I cannot raise cows and chickens. The expense, the time, the skill, the first I care not for and the last two I lack. This is my own small recognition of what others do on my behalf.

Do not fool yourself into thinking you are some how lessened for not taking part in this little ritual of mine. For me, I must act to appreciate their sacrifice. Just appreciate that something died so you can live. Something to chew on.

Thursday 16 October 2014

An Example of Things Working Out

Have you ever had plans to meet someone and got there really early. Not like 10 or 30 minutes early, but an hour or two. Does not matter why, maybe you got the time wrong, or vastly over estimated how long it would take to get there. What would you do while you waited? Would you get a snack, try and find something to read, sit around aimlessly? Me, I like to walk around wherever I am. Maybe it is a big building with a lot of corridors. Perhaps it is a school ground with some forest paths. Regardless, it is time for an unplanned constitutional. Maybe I go left, maybe I go right. Perhaps I take this path, perhaps I take the other. I will not quote Frost at you, but you get the idea. Sometimes I see people, sometimes I do not, depends where I am. Not the point of the exercise. I am just burning time waiting. And yet, something else is at play here. The walk is time limited. You have an end time at which your wanderings must stop. What if that were not true, what if you just kept walking and saw everything you could? What would change? Maybe you would see something unexpected or maybe, low odds that it might be, you would change? This is a little story of how little things changed me.

Back in University (sometimes it is fun to be pretentious) a few days before my first undergraduate class there was a club fair. A kind of menagerie where people convince you to join their clique. The school had a pretty clever play of only serving lunch that day next to the club fair. So I found myself eating some Aramark 'food' and poking around the tables. Nothing much of interest to me. I got hit up to join the Society of Black Engineers. Which got the academic intent right, but maybe missed some other clues. We live in a color blind society though so I cannot fault them. Things were pretty much a dud so I started to work my way back to my dorm. Oddly though, while I was making my exit, I spotted a friend from high school poking around a club table. This was surprising for two reasons:

1. This friend was a year older than I, yet remembered me.

2. I had no idea he went to this school.

It was a pleasant surprise, serendipitous for those of you studying for University Challenge. There was some minor talking had. It was a hot day. He was actually there to promote a club, The Society of Physics Students (presumably all college clubs are societies). Not that he was a major player in the organization. I suspect, like me, he was there for lunch and wanted to eat near some people he knew. Regardless, it was fun, speaking of things past and present. The club was running some simple experiments, playing with a spinning wheel to show angular momentum, physic things. They gave me the first meeting date, whatever, I did not really care.

A week goes by, turns out I do care. New school, new Paul. One of those points turned out to be true. So I am looking for the room, a little before the meeting time, and the thing about Umass Lowell is they named these two building next to each other Olsen and Olney. Incredibly easy to get missed up. So, expectedly, I go to the wrong room first. The tip off was it was an office, and the second clue was it was empty. I go to the other building and try the same room number over there. I give the door a tentative push, it is locked, key card reader outside. How could it be this room? Why would it be locked? At least the other one was open. So that was an anticlimax, but I know know the building names a little better. I am walking away with my back to the door when it opens which I was not expecting to happen.

"You looking for SPS?"



That is not the exact conversation, but it is the intent. I became an SPS member a handful of minutes later even though I was not studying physics nor taking a physics class. Then I made some new friends who would be one of the few constants for my next four years. The name of the club was SPS, but it was more of a social than academic organization. Very useful to know people who were more experienced than I in many fields. They kept me in the loop for things to do and kept me sane. I remember the dinners we would have. Hour long affairs, people coming and going. Leaving far after closing time. I never ate and talked so much in a cafeteria before. Six years on the contact has lessened with distance, but we still drop notes on occasion.

Now consider one point in this story. The locked door. What if I had not pushed it? No one would have know I was there, I would not have been in SPS, and my life would be lesser for it. Now how often does that 'what if' happen? I got lucky this time, but I am sure I missed the connection more often than not.

Just got to keep walking I guess.

Sunday 7 September 2014

Stop Confusing Intelligence and Experience

Has someone ever called you smart? I will brag a bit and say I have been called that a few times. The thing is, its just not true. It is not true because people are confusing intelligence with experience. Intelligence, as was once described to me, is the ability for a person to turn the abstract into the concrete. The more intelligent your are, the less information you need to solve a problem. An intelligent person can look at an issue and, with no prior experience in that domain, solve it. The smarter you are the less information you need and the quicker you are in solving an issue. To give a concrete example a smart person might not be able to start their car one day. Not knowing anything about cars, they start to investigate, beginning with the ignition all the way through until they find a problem. A experienced person recognizes a problem and solves it based on past experience. To use the same example their car will not start, but they recognize the symptoms. In the past they had a car that had a similar, but not exactly the same problem. They can rely on that past information and associate it with the problem at hand. In other words they know x, how does x relate to y?

In both cases the solution is the same which may lead some to think that these attributes (intelligence and experience) are interchangeable, but that is not the case. Intelligent people solve problems by there ability to quickly understand how systems works. Experienced people solve problems by using their past knowledge and experimenting off of what they know.

It is a nice compliment for sure, and it does wonders for my ego, but it will not be true for some time. It takes a while for me to study systems and understand how they work. My skill comes from my ability to remember how I solved past problems and relate them to the problem at hand. I have worked with truly frighteningly intelligent individuals. It is a disservice to their skill to place me amongst them. Many more years of service are required before I reach their level.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Impatience is the Mind Killer

I am not a patient man. It is one of the main reasons I went into software engineering. It is very quick to think of an idea and convert it to machine language. This desire to do things as quickly as possible has served me well in that past, but lately it has caused great harm. An example and then an explanation. I have been working on some systems at work that require a lot of tinkering with some of the special database sauce we use. An unfortunate side effect of this development is the need to constantly replace rpms (a kind of specialized automated zip file). I was having great difficulty getting the system updated with my changes so in my haste I just uninstalled all the rpms of a particular package so I could reinstall all my newly built ones. Of course what I should have noticed was I was uninstalling rpms that I had not built new versions of. There is a sudden clarity when your console stops accepting commands. In that brief window before you get told for certain that you lost your connection you curse the gods, which for me happen to be the trinity of Richard Stallman, Dennis Ritchie, and Ken Thompson. As you can surmise the system died a quick death. And since the issue I was working on was hardware dependent I had to develop on an actual blade instead of a virtual machine so I had no snapshots or backups to revert to. Thus the afternoon was lost to resuscitating the system via the HP ILO system and its fantastically poor console. It was a huge pain, a waste of time, and ultimately did no good to helping debug the problem. The solution it turns out was far more targeted, I just needed to update a few system files instead of blowing out all these rpms. So what is to be learned from this? Be patient and be sure of what you are doing before acting.

The thing is, I used to get by wielding a giant hammer but I need to be more comfortable with the scalpel. If I had just taken the time, talked to people who knew the issue, and acted with a bit more foresight I could have saved myself much gnashing of teeth. I chose an engineering example as I tend to like thinking with that discrete mindset, but the lesson should be applied elsewhere. The problem with impatience is its side effect, anxiety. I have been kind of obsessed with grand schemes that can be rapidly achieved. Then, inevitably, when things begin to drag I grow agitated that my plans are not proceeding with the rapidity I prefer. Take my house hunt for example. Many dreams, little progress in resolving them. I could buy a house tomorrow, but, given the options available now, it would be a poor call. Rationality in conflict with impatience creating anxiety.

Not sure how to resolve the quandary. Engineering-wise the solution is simple: be more deliberate in action. I should work harder to understand the systems I work with and only make the smallest possible changes at a time. Personally though it gets harder to fix. If I do all I can to achieve something and yet it remains unachieved the only result can be frustration. The beauty of software is understandable systems where input produces expected output. When I expect the same from the world disappointment will abound. Impatience is just a byproduct of this unfortunate truth. It is as if I am desynced from reality, like we are running on separate clock cycles. I expect one speed of progress and get another. In time I hope to sync up, but until then I remain impatient.

Aside: I goggled this title before using it and seems I was not as clever as I thought. A regrettably common occurrence. I still like it though so I am going with it.

Saturday 23 August 2014

The Lazy Workaholic

I have a curious perversion of mine to speak about today. I call it lazy workaholism. What it basically boils down to is I do not like taking days off. Most people who say this are called workaholics. The definition of a workaholic (via Wikipedia) is: 'a person who is addicted to work.' That is not true in my case, I certainly like not working and on the whole, given the choice, would prefer to not work as opposed to work. Yet my actions are in conflict with this statement. I have almost three weeks of paid time off sitting waiting to be used and yet the longest vacation I have taken since starting was two days last July.

It is not like my job is even that important. There are plenty of people (who are more capable than me) of filling in for me while I take some time off, but I cannot break away. There are emails to answer, bugs to close, projects to finish for approaching deadlines. Oracle has no expectation that I never take time off, but I do. It is as if I fear the consequences of leaving for too long. That something will break that I am responsible for or that I will grow slovenly in the time off and dread going back. I like being in the groove, working everyday, following a pattern. It is breaking the pattern that I dread most. So I just keep working. Maybe I will want to stop someday.

Thursday 17 July 2014

The Best Endings Are Sad

Went to Connecticon last weekend and took this picture: ConnecticonFromStairs

I very rarely take photos, but I got a new camera so here was a good place to test it out. Turns out this is a pretty good spot to sit and watch. You can see the almost the entire floor from these stairs and during the middle of the day the place is packed with people. I really like watching people these days, especially at conventions. Not sure when this became a fancy of mine. I like compiling data and learning about things I do not know nor understand. In that sense observing people is just an extension of my desire to learn. Consider it my attempt to gain insight on how people other than myself interact. It is a bit more than that though, it is a little glimpse into the lives of others. It is watching how a person waves to someone they know, how they carry a backpack or purse, what they do with their hands. All these little micro-movements, these tiny gestures tell a lot about a person. Maybe they favor a particular leg or they add a little regal flourish when they go in for a handshake. It is the story of their life demonstrated through their physical actions. How a person acts tells so much about them and we constantly ignore it. The way a person moves is a story, a play, and from my perch on those stairs I can see so many stories in motion below me.

And yet, upon seeing so much I am saddened. Because this flicker of motion is all I will ever get to experience with most of the people here. I could spend all day meeting each person, or better yet, I could have a booth and a line for every congoer to go through (a congo line if you will). Even with all that I still could not meet everyone, not even a tenth. It is that realization that spreads like the night on a summer eve every convention Sunday. You are going to leave, waiting for your train, badge hidden away in a pocket somewhere when you remember what just happened. I had a chance to meet so many people and I met so few. So many people with shared interests and common ground. So many possible friends I failed to see to fruition. It is sad to think of what could have been. Yet consider the alternative. Consider leaving and not being sad. Not being sad because there was no one to meet, because there was no one worth it.

I consider myself an old hat with conventions at this point having been to so many. Each time I leave sad, but that is ok. The time I leave a convention not feeling sad, is the time I stop going to conventions.

Thursday 10 July 2014

The 24Hour Programmer Lifestyle

I was on Imgur today and saw the "we're hiring!" link in all red. Had to click it. Look at the position closest to my skill set here. Pretty standard, including this little blurb at the bottom:

if you're passionate about coding or design, then we bet you have lots of things that you've done in your spare time. Along with your resume, we'd like you to send us some samples. They can be personal projects you've whipped up during a lunch break, or a full-fledged application that you've created from scratch.

I am going to coin a phrase here and call this the '24 hour programmer'. The kind of gal or guy for whom coding is akin to speaking. They read technical journals for breakfast, listen to programming podcasts during their commute, work a full day banging out code, and then go home and work on their open source projects. I have had the pleasure of knowing some of these people and they are very good at what they do. This is not how I operate. I give my employer 8 hours (or so in either direction) and then I go home and do something else. I may on occasion drop some code outside of the office, but I have other non-technical interests. It may surprise my employer, but I do not think of code all my waking hours. I do other things, like build costumes, or play video games, or try and meet other people. It is a curious perversion of the tech sector that we expect engineers to always being engineering. Do we expect carpenters to always be building stuff? Is an artist somehow less dedicated if they occasion to not draw or paint one day? Maybe the peculiarities of the startup culture have somehow equated people who live code all the time as the ideal programmer. Everyone else who does not do the same must just not be into it. They probably just do it for the money. There is another word for this: elitism.

Employers, do not pigeonhole yourself looking for these people. Yes they probably make good employees and yes they might even be better, but you ignore all the other equally good employees who do not act like this. In any field you are going to have people who are solely focused and you will have others who who have many focuses. Staff your company with the best employees, not just the ones who live a certain lifestyle.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Worry About Things In Your Control

Marcus Aurelius is always good for some thoughtful quotations. I think this one is particularly important:

"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength."

Victor Frankl also has something to say:

"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

Popular quotes to be sure. I make no claim of originality in regards to them. I only want you to consider their meaning. Even separated by near to 1800 years they manage to express remarkably similar notions. What are they two writers saying? First consider some brief history. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor he ruled for almost 20 years. He oversaw numerous military campaign and dealt with all manners of politics, legal disputes, and the administration of running an empire. Victor Frankl was a neurologist, psychiatrist, and most famously a holocaust survivor. What do these two have in common, aside from being male?

They both experienced situations and events that they could not control. That is not unique to them alone though. That is the situation we all find ourselves in. Their experience however with lives so far out of their control gave them great insight. Yes, it is true, we who live lives where everything seems controllable also know this. We know, despite all our skill and power, we can be found powerless. But we must internalize that lesson, make it part of ourselves as Aurelius and Frankl have.

A personal example of how I have failed to learn their lesson. I am controlling and by extension obsessed with the idea of staticity. The idea that if I just work hard enough, try hard enough, act smart enough I can keep things the same. That I can keep doing the same things, having the same friends, going to the same places, experiencing the same moments. It is a tempting dream. Who wants to give up what they have at my age. I have money and I have friends, I have youth and I have time. Best of all though, I have the illusion that all these things are mine to control. That applying the proper forces, using the resources at my disposal I can have everything I want. And the absolute worst part about this, the most depraved conclusion, is that so far this has been mostly true. The exceptions though, the outliers, the systems and events that resist my control are nothing short of rage inducing. You can see the flaw here, childish in its simplicity, that this fantasy cannot be maintained and the more I try to do so the worse it gets. I cannot control everything. The more I realize this the more frustrated I become at the notion.

For me I have to learn what these two philosophers have to say. It is the only chance I have left at sanity. I bet you do too. I wager you worry about about something beyond your control. Health of friend? Politics? Sports? Stop deluding yourself into thinking you can control everything. You can control one thing: yourself. You can only influence everything else. Remember this the next time you become agitated or upset. Most likely what has happened is beyond your control. It is not your fault you only have control over yourself.

Let us close with Aurelius again:

"Is it not better to use what is in thy power like a free man than to desire in a slavish and abject way what is not in thy power?"

Thursday 26 June 2014

Technology is Hope

I recently saw this TED talk and it really crystallized why I love technology so much. Go ahead and watch the talk before you read this post, or not in which case I will sound far more original than I might otherwise be.

Have you watched it? Good.

The main thesis of Professor Herr's presentation is that people are not disabled, instead their technology is insufficient for their needs (14:25 in the video). This turns out to be an incredibly potent idea. Before disabilities like deafness, blindness, loss of limbs were permanent conditions. There were no solutions. Through time and effort humanity was able to build crutches or stop gaps. Hearing aids, peg legs, crude imitations of the organic components they were replacing. This was all that could be accomplished at the time and this is why we considered people disabled, because there was no way to fix what was broken with them. Their condition was permanent. Professor Herr shows us differently. By taking an incredibly hard problem (replicating a human leg) and applying his skill and that of his team they were able to produce a very close facsimile to a human leg. Is it a perfect replica no, but it is a start on a long journey. And unlike our legs, his team's work is constantly improving and will (I have no doubt) eventually surpass our own organic ones. This work proves that people are not broken we just have not developed the technology to fix them.

Why does this show how much I love technology? Because the root of Professor Herr's philosophy is ultimately the belief in a better world. Not just hope that things will get better, not just a faint hazy dream of an improved future, but a real steadfast unshakeable conviction that the world is becoming better through improvements in technology. And in true empirical fashion he asks us not to take that conviction on faith, but on the real concrete evidence he presents. Do not underestimate the power of this ideology. Embrace it and make it part of your identity. I do not just believe, but I know that humanity grows its knowledge daily, cultivated by the work of all of us to push ourselves and our technology inexorably forward.

When I say I love technology I really am just saying I love humanity's will to better themselves and our world. I love our intellectual strength that we wield Thor like to crush the problems of our ancestors. Can you imagine how things used to be? How our species used to be hobbled by inefficiencies, by disease, by the dark. Technology is that great shinning light in the distance illuminating the future for us.

We have not solved all our problems yet, but we can and we will. No gods will rescue us, our own will and might shall be our salvation.

Monday 23 June 2014

Die Happy Everyday

Every night I go to bed happy to die. And every new day I wake up happy to live one more. If you do not have that feeling something needs to change.

Let us break down these two points.

1. Happy to die

Near to oxymoronic, this should be the state you achieve every day. The objective of your day should be to justify, to yourself, your continued existence. Any day failing to accomplish this is a wasted day. Do not construe this command to mean that you must always be engaging in activities others have deemed worthwhile. Act as you see fit, as you are the only judge that matters. For example, I have spent many a day playing video games and watching tv. I could be learning some new technology or building something, but I did not feel like it that day. Other people might consider this a wasted day. Their opinion is irrelevant. I enjoyed that day; I thought that day was great. The point here is everyday should end with you being satisfied. Satisfied you set out to do something and accomplished it, satisfied that you enjoyed the day. Only the satisfied can ever be comfortable with death. This is not to say that you want to die. It is to say that if you do die, if today was your last day, that you go to your demise happy with all that you have done. A personal example of this: I am 23. I have lived a long life. Not by human standards, but by the standards of other animals. Consider an ant or a fly or a house cat. We must seem impossibly old to them. In the case of the insects whole generations are birthed and died before we could speak. Their lives flicker in and out unnoticed. I have seen a great many things, felt passion and fear, cried and laughed. I have spent many a day being enriched by my friends. I have built things, changed and altered the environment. I have lived a full life. Shorter than some, but no less rich in my estimation. Have I done and seen anything, no. Do I want to keep living, yes. Would I be sad to die, no.

2. Happy to live one more

The new day is a gift you give to yourself. It is the blank page, the block of clay, the empty canvas. You do not have to fill it, that is not the point. The mere fact that you have a chance to. Have an opportunity to create something, be it your work, your passion, or something else. This is the happiness of waking up. When you sleep you die. When you wake you are reborn. This day may be your last, but at least you have something. One more chance to live. Too often we think in terms of months or years. We allow the days to slide on inexorably in the hope of a better future. You can make that better future today, right now, the moment you wake up. You need only recognize the potential of a new day.

Not all days are like this. I have had far too many where I went to bed depressed having wasted the day. Plenty of times where I woke up and was immediately crushed by stress and wanted nothing more to lay down and rot. But if we let our worst moments define ourselves we could never accomplish great things.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Edge of the Fire

A quick parable today. Imagine a fire pit at night. Close to the fire it is hot, smoky even. You get a limited view, but it is great if you like it scalding hot. Back up a bit and you are in the sweet spot, a foot or two away. Warm and comfortable with an excellent view of the flames licking the logs. Go out a few more feet from there and it gets precipitously colder and darker. This is the edge of the fire. Close enough to occasionally get some benefit of the burning wood, but never enough to be satisfied. Beyond is darkness. You can see the fire, but the warm feeling is lost.

The fire pit is analogous to the stages of life. Being close to the fire is like childhood. Intense and emotional. It is easy to get hurt, and hard to see with all the smoke, but exhilarating to be so close to something so energetic. The sweet spot is young adolescence (teenager). A little more wisdom has taught you to sit back a bit to get the whole view allowing you to enjoy the fire from a distance. Then again the fire is not really why you are there, it is the other people around the fire that brought you to the pit. The edge of the fire is the intermediary stage from adolescence to adulthood. You can still see and feel the fire, but the feeling is different, more distant. It is not so much that the fire is less interesting from here, but you have new goals. You could return to the fire, what you know, or you could venture out beyond the fire into the darkness. The darkness is adulthood because you can never quite see far enough to tell where you are going. Yet you still ventured out, there must be something worth looking for in the dark.

What I am (poorly) getting at here is when all you ever know is one thing or one lifestyle (in my parable, sitting around the fire) it can be very difficult to move beyond that comfort zone (the darkness around the fire). This is the area just on the edge of the fire where you have to make a conscious choice to leave the fire pit. This choice does not have subjectively better options. Plenty of people stick with what they know and live fine adult lives. Plenty of other people commit fully and venture out into the night. You can even live in the middle ground (with me!) and skirt around the edges enjoying the old and the new. This parable does not exist to make you unsatisfied with your choice, but to inform you that you have made one. More than that, that you actively continue to make a choice on how to lead your life.

Friday 6 June 2014

In Time All Will Be Lost

You will lose everything you love. Your parents, extended family, and siblings will all die. Your friends and significant others will die. The house you live in will decay, the art you make will fade, the words you write will be lost, the pictures and film you record will go missing. Everything you know will become unknown and everything you hold dear will be destroyed. Given a long enough time span all will be lost.

This is not something to fret or worry about though. This is something to be celebrated! The knowledge of eventual demise is a gift because it gives meaning to everything in life. Consider a personal example. A few Connecticons ago (the long distant memory that is 2012) I was standing outside watching everyone mill about. It was late (around 1AM) on a Saturday and the Convention hall had closed up, but no one wanted to leave quite yet. There was a group of people near the doorway dancing to some techno beats. I was standing with a couple friends idly chatting. People would come by, take pictures of my friend's cosplay. Others would walk by resplendent in their various costumes just meandering around. It was a hot day, but the night was pleasant enough, not chill enough to need a jacket, but cool enough to be comfortable. Want to see what this looked like? Here is a picture I took that night on my phone 's terrible camera.


What makes this moment important? Its uniqueness. All these different people and disparate groups had come together to create this one particular moment in time. Conventions like this happen all the time, but never with this exact mix of people, with these exact conditions. This moment in time is unique and of value because it can never be replicated. Each person in this photo made a choice to spend a finite resource (time) on this event. They might have done this only thinking of themselves, but they gave me that gift of their time. For a fleeting wonderful movement they let me enjoy their company. It was only one moment, but it was enough. You remember the bible story about the lady who gave two pennies? That is the same thing that is at play here. If you have an infinite amount of something then giving it to others has little meaning because you never suffer a loss. The meaning is in the loss. The willingness in people to spend some resource of limited quantity for the benefit of others. Only things which are finite can have value.

Everyone in this photo will die. These buildings will become rubble, Given enough time even the planet this photo was taken on will be destroyed. But that is ok, I am fine with that, because I got to experience this one moment. I know that all this destruction will come to pass and I chose to spend the finite amount time of time I have to experience something. It is this experience that occurs everyday. The time you spend with friends, or the time you spend creatively. You know these moments are limited, you know all your work is futile, but you do it anyway, not to fool yourself into thinking it can never end, but because it will end, it must end.

You can only ever love something that ends.

Thursday 29 May 2014

Digital Legos

Sometimes I get anxious, antsy. Spend too long in meetings or clearing out emails.Sometimes I just want to code. It is akin to an addiction. Do it too much and you overdose and your quality suffers. Do it too little and you go into withdrawal, just begging to get that next hit.

Consider this metaphor. In Homeworld the various races travel around space by means of hyperspace jumping. For all races except one this is just another form of faster than light travel. For the outlier race, the Bentusi, it is different. For them Hyperspace travel is an experience, a reason to live. By their own account, "hyperspace sings in our ears". So to is coding to the programmer. To live is to program. You cannot separate the two.

What breeds this addiction? This affliction differs from person to person, but for me it has always been to play. Code is just another toy for me, like legos or Lincoln logs. It is about challenging yourself to make interesting unique work with the pieces you have. I have a bunch of loops and conditional statements and variables how can I make a list of unordered numbers become ordered? How can I make it run fast? How can I make it use space efficiently? You do not need any special education, all you need is the will to learn. You can do that right now. Do not even leave this blog page. Go ahead and pop open the web developer tools (Ctrl+Shift+K for Firefox, F12 for Chrome and IE. Press Ctrl + 2 after opening up the development tools in IE to get the console). Play with some javascript right now by typing at the prompt the following and hitting enter:

alert("Hello World")

This creates a simple popup with "Hello World" displayed. Neat huh, not very flash but you just did something. Try something else, type this and hit enter:

confirm("See Some Buttons?")

This creates a similar popup but with an 'Ok' and 'Cancel' button. Are you feeling it yet? Play with some math, go ahead and add some numbers at the prompt:

3 + 3

It adds them for you and shows the result. You can multiply and divide and all sorts of fun math stuff. Remember my example of turning unordered lists into ordered lists. That is a solved problem for us. Look at this:


What do you get? The numbers come back in sorted order. Try putting some words in there and see what happens:

["bear", "cat", "chair", "apple"].sort()

Was that fun for you? It is not everyone's jam, but I live for this. I live for the thrill of trying to solve problems and build things with all these digital parts. Its exploration, its discovery, its adventure. For some people it is just a way to get around, but for others it can be a real journey.

Friday 23 May 2014

A One Man Show

Paul, why are you single?

This question has been posed to me a few times. It takes a couple forms. There is the aggressive one I choose to lead off this piece. Sometimes if I am lucky I might get the more euphemistic, "why have you not met someone?". However, the worst is when the question becomes a statement, "you will one day." These thoughts are disappointing to me. I am not mad that people ask. I am always willing to share my poorly thought out philosophies. This blog is digital evidence of that truth. I am frustrated that after so long it seems people remain unwilling to accept that I just want to be a one man show. Yes, truly I live a pityingly misunderstood life. It is not my place nor desire to tell you what should be meaningful in your life. Do not construe this post as a criticism of your philosophies or actions. Consider it a statement or explanation of my beliefs so that you might better understand my thoughts.


Some words must be spent to provide the reasoning by which I approach this question.

1. We must not allow ourselves to be swayed by emotion. Only consider what can be proved. While it is true I can articulate my current emotional state I have found it very difficult to show cause and effect between an action or event and an emotional response. The only success I have found in describing this relationship (an action creating an emotion) is for the basest of emotions such as sadness or anger. I have not been able to quantify some of my more complex feelings. Given that there are some instances where I cannot tell how an action will make me feel, I must treat my emotions as untrustworthy. To put it plainly, since we cannot base our actions on nondeterministic systems we must discard such untrustworthy mechanisms. Consider only the systems that produce consistent results.

2. I can only act upon my own experiences. I have never been in a relationship therefore it is difficult to judge the actual value or mechanics of one. I must act as if I know all that I need, because I have no other information. Relying on other people's experiences can be flawed as other people are not me and therefore do not share my thinking process.

Goal Based Reasoning

What is the goal of a relationship? If you enter a relationship (dating) it must have a defined end objective. For most that would be marriage or at least long term cohabitation. The period of dating in this case can be seen as an evaluation by both parties as to the relative qualities of the opposite partner(s). Qualities here will be defined as the character, ideals, goals, etc that a person holds as important. The process of dating exposes these qualities and the involved parties determine what parts they are willing to accept and what parts they are not willing to accept. If the parties involved determine they have enough qualities in agreement a marriage is produced. Therefore to date is to consider the other partner(s) for marriage.

I do not want to marry, so I do not want to date, so I am single. Why do I not want to marry?

1. A marriage is static. Consider this popular notion of love locks. The lock symbols an unbreakable vow. A perpetual commitment. I am unwilling to make such a commitment. I have made many bad decisions because of my unwillingness (stubbornness) to change. I will not subscribe to any agreement that could never change. Paradoxical yes, but that is the state I find myself in.

2. A marriage is continued social contact. I do not do well when I am in constant contact with people. Regardless of relationship after about two weeks of close contact I find myself unable to stand others. I have not found an exception to this rule.

3. A marriage is complete and total trust. To accept the contract of marriage is to accept the parties involved have complete trust in each other. This is an obligation I cannot meet. I trust people to the point where failure of that trust can do me a minor amount of harm. After that point I have never gone further.

4. A marriage is ownership and control. Remember the lock example? Marriage is a lock in that it implies ownership of the parties to each other. Locks are used to protect owned things. How many times have you heard the phrase "they belong to each other?" It implies deep devotion, but it represents ownership. Ownership manifests itself in the form of control. A partner(s) being able to exert some degree of influence over the actions of another. This is not the ideal state of existence. I do not wish to be controlled, even in the smallest degree, nor do I wish to have or exert control over another.

I will ignore an explanation of possible benefits as the negatives I have presented, in my determination, are greater than any possible benefit. Now, let us consider the outlying case: a person pursing a relationship with a goal other than marriage. This case is also important to consider as it too has suggested as a possible course of action for me. Two questions to guide our analysis: What are the possible benefits of this agreement? Why are these benefits not sufficient to convince me? People pursing this type of commitment are looking for continued, long term, emotional/physical connection with a partner(s). I said I would ignore arguments based on emotion, but this pervasive theory must be addressed. I do not see any downside to this arrangement (as long as we apply the above boundaries to it), but I have no need for it. People have often attempted to justify my need for such things by asserting that an arrangement of this type will satisfy some nebulous emotional state such as desire, love, companionship, etc. I do not see the benefits of such things. I am aware of no emotional deficiencies in my character and thus have no need to seek out ways to address the lack. Put simply, I have not felt the need for such things nor do I desire to alter my current state. It is true that some people find comfort in such pairings (grouping), but I do not think I would have the same result.

Let us summarize. I have no need to pursue the goal of marriage/long term commitment because the end result (the goal) is of no value to me.

How afraid are you?

I must regrettably consider that my reasoning has been unduly influenced by my fear of the unknown or by some other deficit of character (stubbornness, jealousy, arrogance, your choice). I admit to trying and failing a number of times to fulfill my purely rational ideals. This contradiction may be occurring here and may be contributing to my reticence. How can I tell if this happening or not? The first prerequisite of my reasoning is the belief that I can successfully divorce my rational thoughts from my emotional thoughts. If I have failed at this goal my reasoning is wrong (partially or fully). Therefore, I must investigate my feelings regarding the matter to discern if they have affected my reasoning.

1. Am I angry at rejection and seek an alternative explanation? Hard to judge if I have actually been rejected multiple times or just assumed the worst end result. My ability to gauge intent in others is poor.

2. Am I too stubborn/arrogant to change and try such things? This is definitely possible. I have acted irrationally before because I was unwilling to compromise.

3. Am I jealous of others? Also possible, but I think less likely. Past experience indicates I care very little about what others have. Perhaps this is an exception?

4. Am I afraid? This explanation is the most likely case. In the past I have definitely been adversely affected by fear.

Not much of a conclusion to be drawn here, more of a halfhearted shrug. I have had great difficulty in understanding my emotional system which is why I try so hard to divorce myself from emotions when it comes to decision making. I can only say for certain I may not have been successful in this regard.

Tempted Yet?

I have already wasted far too much of your time on this drivel, but consider one last point. Despite all this I still confess a certain temptation. I know and have proved to myself that such fancies can only result in disaster, but perhaps I am mistaken. Am I really willing to sacrifice such experiences? For now, yes.

Thursday 22 May 2014

My Responsibility Toward Others

I try to not make declarative statements about how you should or should not act. Instead, I can tell you how I act (or try to act) and you can evaluate and decide for yourself how worthwhile the positions I take are. What follows is not exactly my guiding principles (rules) towards personal interactions, but more like points on a graph that form a line that roughly correlates to how I approach things.

1. Always tell the truth

When you talk to someone they expect and deserve the truth. Not a convenient half truth, or a palatable partial truth, but the whole unadulterated truth. Why do they expect the truth, because talking is a verbal swapping of truths. Have you ever asked a question of a person and wanted a lie? The whole point of communication is accurate transfer of correct information. It is of no value to receive information that is incorrect. Let us consider a possible interaction where I lie.

Coworker 1: Paul can you explain to me how this widget works? Paul: Yes it works like this, BLAH BLAH BLAH.

From the outside it looks truthful and it helps me preserve face for the moment, but there is no good long term benefit. The result of this interaction for coworker 1 is they go back to her/his desk, they try to use the widget, and things do not work out. Coworker 1 has gained nothing from the interaction, starts to question my knowledge/skill, and now must now go find someone or something else to get the information she or he needs. What is the result for me? I have mislead someone who needs help and I have robbed myself of the excitement of not knowing. Why did I do this? To save face, an endeavor that failed moments later once my advice was tested. The whole concept of saving face was worthless to begin with since the last thing anyone cares about is me.

This is not an excuse to discharge your decorum. You can be gentle with your truth, but it must be the truth.

2. Never leave anything on the table

Consider how easy it could be for you to die. Perhaps you get in a car crash on your commute. Maybe you have a heart attack in the middle of the night. You could electrocute yourself with a toaster during breakfast. As easy as it is for you to die, so it is too for the people you know to die. Anytime you part you could never see that person again. Given a long enough time scale this will eventually become true. It is for this reason you must never leave something unsaid or unresolved, because you may never get another chance. I call this leaving things on the table. You have, through inaction, left some aspect of your friendship/relationship unresolved: a debt, a argument, unexpressed gratitude or feeling. Each time I say goodbye I ask myself, "have I left something on the table". It is a reminder to never forget our mortality and the morality of others.

3. It is your fault if someone does not understand you

I would say about 50% of the time I try and explain something to someone I fail. I have a whole section of memory dedicated to the puzzled faced, the confused look. It is tempting to place the blame on the person I am explaining something to. It certainly would absolve me of wrongdoing, but how is this helpful? The matter is left unresolved, the person left uneducated. It is your job to spread knowledge. It is for this reason that anytime you try and explain something to someone and fail the fault is yours alone. When you finish explaining something say this phrase: "does that make sense?". If the answer is anything other than a clear "yes" then try again. Use more general terms, use a simpler metaphor, explain less in one shot.

4. No one owes you anything

It would be nice to always be told the truth, to always be respected, to always be valued, but by default these intangibles are not owed to you. The only respect given to you is that which is accorded by the law. The rest you pay for by keeping your word, being reasonable, being honest. Everything you have must be earned. Consider this quote from a book I once claimed to have read, The Bell Jar:

If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.

With this philosophy, if someone lets you down, mistreats you, does not help you when you are in need, no worries you never expected it to be any other way. This seems, initially, to be incredibly negative. It assumes the worst in people. This is a charge I will not dispute. I posit the benefit from this philosophy is in the moments when your expectation is refuted. It is the time when you expect nothing, but are given everything. It is the experience of having your wallet returned when you lost it, the relief of someone helping you carry a heavy load, the welcome advice to resolve a problem. When you expect nothing / are owed nothing every time you are proved wrong becomes a gift.

5. Never waste a person's time

Time is a finite resource to a person. Never waste it. If they do not care about what you have to say, best to not say it. If you do speak, get to the point. If you told them you would be there at 5:00PM, be there at 4:50PM so they do not have to waste time waiting on you. Give reasonable estimates of how long a task will take. Apologize if the task takes longer even if it is not your fault. Any interaction with others uses a person's time. Make them feel it was worth it.

Not sure I was able to capture everything here. I have other thoughts, but they are too nebulous to commit to yet. Perhaps there will be a follow up post.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Why I Love Documentation

Documentation is an extension of the engineering process not an afterthought or a separate process. When I say documentation, I am referring to the text you produce that gives an overview of how a project was done (architected) and, in some cases, how to go about using something. I am not talking about inline documentation like code comments. When you document a project you are seeking to answer two questions:

  1. Do I understand what I just did enough to explain it?
  2. Upon review, can I improve what I just did?

The first question challenges you to actually explain what you just did. If you were explaining a feature you wrote you would talk about how all the moving parts fit together. To put it a little more concretely you explain how certain classes/objects interact with other classes/objects, how you went about segregating your work, what design patterns you did, how data flows from one form to another. This is what people care about, because here you describe how to actually use what you did. I am a huge fan of providing concrete, full code examples of how something works. If you want to know how something works, the best way to learn is to look at the code. This is extremely easy when the person who wrote it provides a concise detailed walkthrough. A good example of this would be the JDeveloper ADF tutorial docs. Clear incremental examples walking through how to do something complicated. If you can answer this question you prove to yourself you fully understand what you just did. If you cannot answer this question you will pay for it in the future, either in your inability to help others use what you have written or the difficulty you face fixing a bug/adding a feature. Use documentation to ensure you know what you are doing.

The second question is a byproduct of the first. While working through what you just did you are also evaluating how well you actually did something. This is akin to editing a completed work. I can only speak of my own experience, but I have two working modes: producing and editing. When I produce I have a limited view as I seek to solve small discrete problems one at a time. How do I process this bean, where can I get this data, what SQL command returns the proper set of data. It is only when I pull back out to editing mode that I can take a broad view and see how my work integrates into other pieces. Why have I not condensed all these similar business class function into one call, why did I use a array in this data structure when a hash map offers a quicker lookup time. When you are immersed in work it can be very easy to lose the larger picture of what you are accomplishing. Only by reviewing what you have done can you pull back and evaluate your creation.

This philosophy does not just apply to code. One of the guiding principles of this blog is a venue for me to document my past project thoughts, like I have done with my helmet thus far. I have found that the mere act of organizing the fractured thoughts into ordered structured sentences can I better understand what I just did. It allows me to understand the process I followed and determine ways I can improve it. And that is the key to why I love documentation. Documentation is self directed learning. This is your craft, it is worthless to practice a craft without the desire for constant improvement. Use documentation as a means towards constantly improving your craft.

For a more detailed, programmer centered overview, check out Yevgeniy Brikman's post on the subject.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Your Responsibility as an Engineer/Doer of Things

Have you ever looked over your job responsibilities? Here is an example listing of some responsibilities of a software engineering position:


  • Application design from concept through development and implementation
  • Provide technical leadership and guidance to your team members
  • Establish a solid project framework and excellent development processes
  • Consistently deliver quality software and services
  • Work with internal and external teams to co-ordinate parallel development efforts into single releases

Lot of stuff in there, but if you filter out all the buzz words and business speak you really only have one responsibility, the most important rule for any project: GET THINGS DONE. This may seem obvious, but it is so easy to get bogged down in the implementation of something that you lose sight of this goal. Look at some important coding practices:

  • Code makes sense to people reading it after you (consistent style, clear function/variable names, obvious segregation of tasks).
  • Code is free of extraneous variables, function calls, bad comments.
  • Your algorithms are as time and space efficient as can be.

But what is that list missing:

  • Code must work.

It does not matter how efficient, clean, nice your code is. If your code does not work you fail, do not pass go, do not collect $200, go to jail. Sure, try and follow all these goals while you are working. In fact a good engineer would actively be following them all the time. But, that said we live in world with time tables and deadlines. No one and I mean absolutely no one cares about anything else if your code does not work when they need it to. It is the same concept when working on building something physical. Stop getting held up on getting things perfect, do the best you can in a reasonable amount of time and move on. Perfection is for finished working things, not for projects in progress.

Saturday 17 May 2014

I Want Criticism Not Compliments

The best gifts are useful gifts. One Christmas I got socks which I was a little miffed about until it turned out I actually needed socks. Many times I have been given compliments like a gift. What use is a compliment? There is a quick rush of happiness, a little smug satisfaction, a tiny increase in your sense of self worth. But how can you make use of a compliment? What information does a compliment contain to better yourself with? The last thing I need is more air to inflate my ego. I want criticism. I can take criticism and use it to better myself or the project I am working on. Criticism has a use and a purpose where a compliment does not.

Confessions of a Hopeless Egoist

You may have noticed the name of this blog, and perhaps even the domain it is registered under. Why did I use my own name? I could have named this blog something more informative, perhaps Grammar Challenged Musings or Poorly Conceived Ideas. At least then you might have had a better idea what the content I would be writing about would be. But no, I used my own name. Is this perhaps merely a dearth of creativity on my end? Did I just run out of ideas? Not at all. I am just hopeless infatuated with myself. So much so that I have to name my blog after me. To do anything else would not be in my nature, despite the pretense I had of using another name*. The phrase for this is not good, or if you are less charitable, not healthy.

It is not just the use of my name for this blog, here is a quick listing of some other failures associated with my rampant egoism:

  1. Failure to listen to others.
  2. Preoccupation with my station.
  3. Obsession with status (salary, possessions, intelligence, etc).

I should really read my own blog posts, that would help. So what am I doing to resolve this.

1. Actually listen to people instead of daydreaming while you wait your turn to talk. People other than myself have interesting things to say oddly enough and perhaps I can even learn from them.

2. Never talk about money. The chance to brag and boast is just too great. I am not even that wealthy, but I just cannot help myself so the best bet is to eliminate temptation.

3. Never miss a chance to self-deprecate. I like to think this is a daily chance for me to remind myself of how badly my skill is at some tasks.

4. Speak honestly and openly. If I can just say the truth I can tamper down some of my outrageous beliefs. This blog is that in practice.

5. Internalize and use often the phrases "I do not know" and "that is my fault". The mere act of saying you do not know something or that something you did was your fault helps, for me at least, accept it.

So with the confession done hopefully I learned something.

* For historical reference here are some blog names I was considering:
  1. Eye On the Clock
  2. Both Eyes on the Clock
  3. The Unobserved Garden
  4. Things Unobserved
  5. Undiscovered Countries

Reading these again, some of them are pretty awful.

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