2014-07-02

On Raymond Ramos

I want to talk about my friend Raymond Ramos.  My friend is dead.  He's been dead for nine years, and I still miss him.

One night while deployed to Iraq, I found myself "on duty".  At this particular instance, my duty was to inflate the ego of the CO and SgtMaj, and relay useful news to anyone who happened by the desk.  While armed.  In theory, if Al Qaeda came by, it was my job to kill them, but in reality there was no way for them to not have the jump on me, and the best that I could do is die a loud death.  Even in Iraq, Egos must be stroked.  And they were.

While I sat bored, uncomfortable, and awaiting zealous but non-specific rage (or a passing ego), someone who knew both of us told me that Ray had died.  My friend, who had been honorably discharged months earlier, had died in Alabama while traveling for a job interview.  My assistant took over the watch, as I walked away in tears.

He had made it through his enlistment.  He was supposed to have been safe.  That's probably what had hit me the hardest; "unsafe" was a deployment to a hotspot, or a mission.  "Unsafe" meant armed, briefed, and geared-up.  He was supposed to have been safe.  He made it through his enlistment intact.  Game over, you win, enter initials.

Nope.  See, "unsafe" is a sliding scale.  While I was on the far side of the scale (but not all the way over), in my mind, he was swaddled safe in civilian life.

While our CO was a raving asshole (which contrary to public image, is absolutely not normal), he did say exactly one useful thing when we landed in-theatre.  I don't recall exactly what he said, but what I absorbed is this: "Death can be a lightning strike on a clear day.  It can come at any time, from any direction.  When it's your time, there's nothing to do about it."

I'd absorbed this for myself, and my friends and colleagues in-theatre.  But Ray had been safe.

I never got an official story, but this is what I recall being told.  Ray had been driving for a job interview, and lost control of his car, went off the road, and was severely injured.  I seem to remember that he'd left messages for his girlfriend, but she didn't get them until he had died.  I wonder if he didn't have cell reception, and just left voice memos.  As I'd heard it, the last one (possibly the third), he was resigned to death, and said goodbye.

When a Marine departs a unit (whether a change of duty or when leaving service), it is customary - at least for those in good standing - to receive a plaque commemorating their service.  Naturally, the more rank that one has, the more extravagent the plaque.  Those who won't be missed get something generic, but a good plaque is apparent.  Ray was Corporal when he got out.  He may have picked up Sergeant right before he got out, but it would have been on his way out.

Normally there is a collection is taken from among everyone in a given unit for a given Marine's plaque.  You pay into each plaque as one of the best and most direct examples of "paying it forward" that there is in this world.  Plaques usually come from a local awards company (where you'd go have bowling trophies made), and the standard no-effort plaque has the Marine's name and dates with the unit, and the unit logo.  Perhaps a motivational phrase or a quote that the Marine was fond of saying.

Now, Ray wasn't what you could call a "Marine's Marine."  He wasn't "hard-core" or "gung-ho", or any of that bullshit.  You couldn't imagine him shouting "Let's take that fucking hill" outside of a joke.  In fact, Ray's demeanor could be said to piss some people off; Sergeants Major either loved him or hated him.  You could reliably predict how much a given Staff NCO would like him based on how comfortable they were with technology newer than, say, the typical ballpoint pen.  If they were the kind to send a "runner" than a email, they hated him; if they theoretically knew the difference between "Reply" and "Reply All", they probably loved him.  (NOTE: Senior Staff NCOs are very rarely more savvy than this.)

No, Ray was never going to win a "Marine / NCO of the Quarter" board.  He didn't really know Marine Corps history.  He knew the day-to-day customs & courtesy, but not much beyond that.  He shuffled when he walked, and never re-soled his boots, so much so that he and a few of our friends referred to them as his "Combat Slippers"; it didn't help that they weren't polished, and were only barely what you could describe as "black".  His uniform looked like it had once met an iron, but they weren't more than casual acquantences.  This was very foreign to me coming from an occupational field that was very starch-and-polish, as well as dirty-in-the-field; I was used to being one or the other.

Please keep in mind that this was circa-2004.  Google was around, but not in common use yet.  Technet and MSDN were around, but search sucked, and information was categorized.  (Which meant invariably that the taxonomy made sense, but not to you.)  There was no Stack Overflow.  While Windows XP/2003 were out, most of our domains were NT, groupware was Exchange 5.5, and workstations were either NT or 2000.  The only Unix was in the specialized Intelligence boxes, and I was probably one of 10 people on the base who'd even installed Linux.  This is what we had.

Ray and I were SysAdmins.  SysAdmins in the Marine Corps don't code.  Programmers code, and SysAdmins aren't Programmers.  Being a Programmer in the Marine Corps means that you will be spending 80% of your time working on the CO's Pet Project, which is usually some stupid website that nobody will really use and won't survive your departure.  The consequence of this is that the work that you should be doing falls to your compatriots, who are few in the first place, and already barely keeping things afloat.

But he had this insatiable curiosity, and this provided a great intellectual focus for him.  Unfortunately the big boss found out, and the next thing you knew, a Pandora's Box of pet projects exploded in our office.

So, one day Ray's hacking on something like a CMS for shit nobody cares about, or an in-browser chat client, and he's pondering.  Pondering hard.  "How can I....?"  I don'
t remember if he exclaimed "EUREEKA!", but it might as well have been.  Next comes "I KNOW!  I'LL DO IT WITH A COOKIE!"  This was the first time I'd seen demonstrated the pure joy that comes when a solution presents itself.

So, when it came time for him to leave, knowing that the unit would get him something generic, I took care of it.  I wanted him to have something special.

Ray loved him some Star Trek.  Original, Next Generation, whatever.  So, I went to a hobby shop, picked up a roughly 10" version of NCC-1701, assembed, painted, and decaled it.  I took it into the awards shop with an idea and a quote, and they said "no problem."

While the quote that Ray was most fond of was to reply to statements with "...But does that make it right?", what I had inscribed on his plaque was "I'll do it with a Cookie!"  

A going-away party in the Marine Corps can range from a don't-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-ass-on-the-way-out just about all the way through a weekend-long Roman orgy of an alcohol-and-grilling bender.  Most of the time, it's making sure that your immediate office and some unit friends have lunch before you leave.  Often it's with said Marine's car packed, and they're about to drive off base for the last time.

Ray's going-away party was a lunch at El Cerro Grande, the local Mexican establishment.  We had a pretty good turnout.  There were stories told, and a few last-minute items he'd forgotten.  After the food and nostalgia finished, and the awkward and anxious quiet settled, some of us gave mini-speeches.  MSgts Brown and Ayo said something, and they turned it over to me.  I said a few things, reflecting on our past few years.  Then I presented his plaque.

He cried and hugged me.  I cried.

This is how I remember my friend Ray.

Ray indirectly taught me much more important things than he directly taught me.  The most useful to my life and career is that being autodidactic is very useful.  Being able to state a problem, ask an actionable question, and research an answer is amazingly useful.  He also taught me that Programming is not (necessarily) evil, and formal training is not required to learn it.

Let us end with a toast.  "To Absent Friends..."

-Waldo



2014-02-18

Cooking for Geeks - A Review

It seems that most of the writing that I've been doing is reviews.  Fortunately I have plenty of articles to write in my head, but the times that I feel like writing are pretty inopportune (such as my commute.)

So, dear friend, we have another review of an O'Reilly book, and providing full disclosure, I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review...  All integrity accountability in-place, let us begin.

Chapter 1 opens with the headline "We geeks are fascinated by how things work, and most of us eat, too."  This book makes it very plain that it is a book for geeks (who want to learn more about the alchemy that is cooking), by geeks (who know some things about said alchemy).

While I already have a basic competency in the kitchen, there was a lot of value for me in this book, even beyond the underlying explanations of "how" and "why".

One of the things that I appreciate most are the quick hacks to improve your life.  Probably my favorite is the Pizza Stone tip. The tip is to  keep your pizza stone in your oven; it will take longer for your oven to come up to temperature, but the stone will help to keep the temperature more even.

Probably the greatest value from this book is in technique.  Rather than just a list of steps, there is a lot of explaination of "how" to do something as well as "why".  Even though I have some experience cooking, I do appreciate that the assumption is that the reader is a thorough beginner.

All in all, I found this book to be pretty fun and very informative.  I've already recommended it to others, and do so without reservation.

The book's website is http://www.cookingforgeeks.com/, and it can be purchased from Amazon, or from the publisher here.

-Waldo



2014-01-27

On Hoodies

I have yet to find the perfect hoodie.  Unlike the perfect knife, I am surprised at this, because it doesn't seem like it should be that hard.

This may come as a surprise, but I've only recently come to appreciate Hoodies.  I can only think of one that I'd had during my youth that I didn't particularly care for, and didn't have any during my time in the Corps.

Perhaps they've only now come into my life because my office is in an unheated basement, or perhaps it's that my last few jobs have allowed for more casual attire.  In any case, as is natural for me, now that I've experienced a thing, I have opinions on the matter.

The most obvious is the question of Zippered or Pull-Over.  This one is actually pretty easy for me.  While I appreciate the decorability and unified front pocket of a pull-over, the flexibility of partial-openness (as well as lower static generation) make me a Zippered man.

The one Pull-Over hoodie that I have has one flaw that is unique to it's shape that causes me annoyance, and that is that the neck hole is too small.  I may have a large head and neck, but I'm surprised that the hole is as small as it is.  It's small enough that it's hard to pull my head through the hole, and the neck sits uncomfortably close on my neck.  I may need to go so far as to cut the neck to extend it, but then I'll have to do some sewing to keep it from ripping further.

So as far as Zippered Hoodies go, there is a feature that is unique to them that deserves attention when looking for the ideal hoodie.  The zipper border - the piping of the garment material outside of the zipper itself - should be large enough that it covers the zipper teeth when closed.  One of my hoodies, which I like despite it's two significant flaws, has an almost completely exposed zipper.  It doesn't bother me in the normal wearing of the thing, but I am incredibly aware of it when resting something on my chest or stomach, such as a tablet, laptop, or handheld game.  At times like this, I can feel the device scraping against the zipper, and it's all the more annoying because it seems like a completely unnecessary oversight.

Next are the features that are of crucial importance to me, but aren't specific to either style of hoodie.

The pockets should be large enough to fit my hands in to the wrist, and even better, fit a largeish handheld game system (Nintendo DS XL or 3DS XL) completely, parallel to the ground.  If the pockets aren't big enough to do that, they're too small.  Additionally, and have raised sides so that it's rare that anything (such as a DS XL) could fall out accidentally.  Surprisingly, I don't have any that fail at this.

The sleeves are something that I wouldn't have expected to be an item of consideration, but alas, here I am writing...  The material of the sleeve should have ample room for at least the average man.  My arms are not by any definition "large", but one of my hoodies has sleeves that only barely fit.  This is only compounded by the next feature of the sleeves: the cuffs.

The cuffs should be - I would have thought this would go without saying, but then again, here we are - *elastic*.  And not just a little elastic; I should be able to push them up to my elbow, and have them stay there.  I don't know when or why I started doing this, but when I'm doing work, if I'm wearing long sleeves, they're probably at least half-way up my forearm.  When I'm passively consuming information or media, they may be down to the wrists, but when I'm producing, my sleeves are probably up.  This is my own bias and habit, but it is still a thing for me:  Why someone would make comfort-wear without comfortable sleeves is completely beyond me.

Finally, the hood.  It should go without saying that the main job of a hoodie is to be a sweatshirt, but with-a-hood.  So, you could reasonably be expected that a sweatshirt pattern and material with a decently-sized hood would be pretty easy to come up with.  Alas, here I am...  A hood should be much larger than the head wearing it.  In my opinion, I should be able to pull my hood up, with my head all the way to the back of it, and it should come down to just over my eyes, and be loose around the sides of my head.  What we're talking about is the Sith-look.  Unfortunately, most of my hoodies' hoods barely come up to frame my face.  That makes me sad.  They had one job to do that made them different from a sweatshirt, and they failed.

Most of my hoodies actually fail at the hood.  In fact, the features that I've complained about in each of the last several sections all refer to the same hoodie.  Amazingly, it isn't my worst hoodie.  Due to an absolutely awesome hood, I love that one, but it's a strange love; it's a love of the best of mediocrity.  If I could find a hoodie that was good at all of these, I'd buy 10 of them and probably give most of the rest away.

2014-01-14

On Cultural Norms and Perception

At both my last gig and the current one, coffee was available via a Keurig.

At the previous gig, it was declared that you should remove your used cup when your brew was done, and if the reservoir was empty, you were to fill it.  There were some people who seldom (if ever) did this, and there was much snark and gnashing of teeth.

At the current gig, we do the opposite: When you open the cup holder, you will have to remove the previous person's cup, and if the water is empty, you will have to fill the reservoir.  You do these things because you are incentivized to do so, as either condition is a barrier to you getting your drink.  As a result, there is no grousing or emotion aside from perhaps being briefly delayed.

In the former, a lazy person has caused you more work.  In the latter, the worst-case is that you lose a trivial lottery.

I think the second way is better.

2013-12-01

The Macintosh Terminal Pocket Guide - A Review

The Macintosh Terminal Pocket Guide - A Review

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this ebook in exchange for a review.

The "Macintosh Terminal Pocket Guide" by Daniel J. Barrett (published by O'Reilly Media) is a handy quick-reference for leveraging the power of the terminal to use your Mac more efficiently. This book is especially helpful for guiding you through the use of commands that are built-in with your Mac, which may vary from other Unix-like distributions that you may be more familiar with (such as Linux.)

As is typical for an O'Reilly Pocket Guide, the book is pretty terse, and it is not all-inclusive.  It does briefly describe each command that it covers, but most entries are between a couple of paragraphs and a couple of pages. It varies depending on the complexity of each command, but most commands include a small bit of descriptive text (typically 1-3 paragraphs), a handful of the most-common options, and some examples.  Typical use-cases are covered, but due to space constraints, they really are limited to the most common options; A book this size could probably be taken up solely by covering the options for `ssh`, `grep`, `tar`, and `ls`.  (In fact, there is a Definitive Guide for SSH, and a Pocket Reference for `grep`.)

This book is not set up to be a friendly introduction to those who are completely new to the Terminal. However, if you are comfortable with the terminal and could use a handy quick-reference, this is a fine tool to work more efficiently with your Mac.

The book can be purchased here.

-Waldo

2013-01-10

On the "Skills Shortage"


Companies: You cannot complain of a "Skills Shortage" if you expect the moon and sky for "skills requirements" (esp. if you refuse to accept anything but a full match), are hiring for one person to fill the workload of three people, and pay below-market value.

There wouldn't be a skills shortage if you were willing to A) pay a decent wage for what you're asking for (if you must have a perfect fit), B) plan to hire someone "close enough" (especially with cross-compatible skills) , and/or C) provide training.

(Hint: if any of the people related to the hiring process mention recession or unemployment as reasons that people should be willing to accept lower pay, right there is where you're hurting yourself, and are part of the problem.  If you do hire someone, they will leave you as soon as a reasonable offer comes.)

2012-08-10

"On Crap Detection" By Howard Rheingold (O'Reilly Media)


I found a video series titled "Crap Detection 101: How to Distinguish Good and Bad Information Online" by Howard Rheingold (available from Oreilly Media), and was instantly intrigued.  When the opportunity came up to see it free as part of the Blogger Review Program, I felt that it would be a good choice.

The short version:

If you are a cynic and/or have been on the net for any significant amount of time, this series probably isn't for you.  If you have children, it's a good idea to watch this so you can frame how you want to talk to them.  If you know older (non-web-savvy) people getting on the net, perhaps for the first time, buy this for them.

The main points that I boiled this down to are:

  • Be aware of Bias
  • Look into the source
  • Wikipedia is a place to begin research, not end it.  (See previous)
Accounting for my personal biases, and assuming the intended audience, I give it a 4/5.


The Long Version:

This video series by Howard Rheingold (UC Berkeley and Stanford University lecturer) addresses the basics of protecting yourself from misinformation and fraud while going about your daily online life.  Broken up into 11 videos (including a short intro and conclusion video), this series is probably short enough for someone new to the material to take in all in one shot.  Personally, being a cynic and long-time internet user, I found it to be slow and fairly basic.  However, I am not his target audience.

Mr. Rheingold addresses his target audience as pretty much everyone who is encountering the internet for the first time.  That is tricky, however, because even my four-year-old son has used the internet.  A few years ago, my In-laws decided to get off of WebTV, and I was to be the instrument of their transition.  (No, I didn't have a choice.)  Had this video existed at the time, I would have purchased it for them without hesitation.  I had given them a brief list of warnings ("No Nigerian prince is going to ask you for help with a financial transaction" and "Don't click on links in emails that claim to be from your bank, even if it looks real"), but I think that the presentation of this material was better.

Being a parent of youngin's, I think that they're going to grow up with a strong sense of cynicism.  This video series may help inform you about topics to bring up, but anyone younger than middle-aged will not be able to sit through the video.  The tone is conversational, and the pacing is fine, but Mr. Rheingold is just not a good fit for a younger audience.

The production and presentation of the video gives me mixed feelings.  The video looks great.  But it looks to be done in Mr. Rheingold's home office, which I find I have mixed feelings about.  It's certainly better than the blank light-beige conference-room wall common to most informational videos, but the posters and monitors in the background are distracting.  Rheingold is joined by Mark Brokering of Safari Books Online, who asks leading questions on each topic.  Rheingold's sound level is fine, but Brokering's is often a little too low.  My final criticism on the presentation is that Rheingold references his laptop, especially when demonstrating a site.  When he does this, it seems to distract him, and he forgets what he was saying.

I think that this series covers very well the idea of "Being aware of Bias".  In fact, I think that it is mentioned in every section.  There is an excellent example early-on regarding Martin Luther King, and he covers ways to begin looking into the people presenting information to you.

Later on, he touches on some sources to leverage to investigate urban legends, hoaxes, etc, which I think is especially helpful to the target audience.

I especially appreciate that he addresses Moral Panics ("Protect the Children!"), and by pointing out that censorship is against the founding ideas behind the internet, and that censorship would destroy it.

I think that two topics that really deserved treatment were neglected (or under-served).  The first is Privacy Settings.  I think that making people aware that there are different levels of visibility to the internet (especially when using social media sites/apps), is of crucial difference.  To this day, I see faux-pas on Facebook where an uncomfortable topic is posted on someone's Facebook Wall instead of in a private message or chat.  (Personally, I don't like Facebook having that information at all, but sometimes it can't be avoided.)

The other topic, somewhat related, is Over-Sharing.  My sister is 10 years younger than I, and when she first set up her Facebook account, her information was widely-viewable, and she'd posted her phone number, mailing address, and talked freely about her comings-and-goings.  It took yelling at her a few times before she finally fixed some of the issues, but at least some of those were taken down.

In Conclusion:

All in all, this series is a great resource for older Net-Newbies, and a decent starting-place for parents.  But if you've been on the net for some time, it's probably not for you.  All in all, I give it a 4/5 stars (attempting to account for my biases.)

-Waldo