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

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
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
  • 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
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
, 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.


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

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.

Philosophy Story

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
. 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

Just got to keep walking I guess.

Philosophy Words

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.

Engineering Philosophy

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.


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.

Convention Philosophy

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

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.

Engineering Philosophy

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

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.


Worry About Things In Your Control

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

“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?”

Engineering Philosophy

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.