26 December 2012

The charm of history and its enigmatic
lesson consist in the fact that, from
age to age, nothing changes and yet
everything is completely different. 
   —Aldous Huxley

I just read a report in the Motley Fool's website about the Netflix outage over the holidays. According to the report, the streaming video service had a catastrophic failure on Christmas Eve. At fault was Amazon's Web Services unit, which Netflix uses as the storage and delivery vehicle for its videos. The outage lasted more than seven hours and affected Netflix streaming video customers in North and South America.

Somebody should ask all the people who hoped to enjoy an evening of holiday movies with family and friends how much they enjoyed the change in their plans. Ask them while you're at it how they feel about centralized controls over their viewing options.

Thirty years ago, I worked for a software company that created a 4th generation relational database management system (RDBMS). Anyone who works with databases will tell you that they suck up resources like nobody's business. Once the data is loaded into the database, the sheer volume of information requires extraordinary amounts of storage. Back then, in the days before personal computers, the cost of storage was expensive, usually prohibitively so. The data center at our little company occupied 8,000 square feet of prime real estate. We filled the space with Prime, Data General, IBM, Honeywell, Harris and DEC mini-mainframes, system printers, switches, routers, miles of cables and wires, and banks of gigantic tape decks. The amount of heat such a collection generated was considerable, so there were matching Liebert cooling units stationed at either end of the center. The monthly utility bills were always thousands of dollars.

But somewhere along the line, a genius in IBM's accounting office concocted a great plan for reducing the cost of computing for their customers. Instead of sending equipment and support out to customer sites, why not have the customers subscribe to an offering that would give them equal access to the equipment and services they needed, without actually having to lease or own them? Think of the savings if customers didn't have to support a full data center -- no more expensive computer administrators required, no more expensive machines that needed arctic cooling and unending supplies of electricity, no more paying for idle time and unused CPU cycles -- truly, a CFO's wet dream. They called it "time-sharing."

IBM put together gigantic data centers and marketed them to small and medium-sized businesses all over the country. My company signed up; we had three big IBM minis in our data center. Our CEO was anxious to jump on board as fast as he could, anxious to begin realizing the promised savings. If the experience was as good as what they promised, he'd do the same for the other computers in our data center and shut our operation down.

Six months later, we all felt he'd jumped aboard the Titanic, just before it met up with the iceberg.

Transitioning the data from our data center to IBM's was a Sisyphean chore. After two full months of churning, in desperation, we made the decision to shut down the IBM computers in our data center and physically ship them to IBM, where their administrators could migrate the data from our machines to theirs.

Once the data was transferred, IBM sent trainers to our company to familiarize us with our new service. After a week, three senior programmers resigned, declaring they'd rather be unemployed than tethered to IBM's rigid, hide-bound practices. One thing I know for sure is that creative people hate being constrained, and at that time, IBM was all about operating procedures, rules, and limitations.

Then came the actual implementation. In order to use the IBM service, we discovered we weren't going to be able to access the services from our own offices. We had to travel to Needham, where IBM had created a "service center" in partnership with a local company only too glad to collect rent from them for the privilege of letting IBM's customers sit in assigned tiny cubicles for pre-specified times of day. We had to be verified as legitimate users, authenticated as having the right to access our own data, and monitored completely to ensure that we were performing actual company-sponsored work, rather than simply stealing IBM's vast computing resources.

The indignities didn't end there, however. We had to pay extra for hardcopy of what we were working on, but we couldn't have printouts unless they were pre-approved by both our company's management and IBM's data management administrators. Because our CEO was really focused on savings, he'd arranged for us to have "non-prime" hours. This meant we could have access to our data services between midnight and seven a.m.

I assure you, technical writers, release coordinators and support technicians do not appreciate being called to duty on the graveyard shift. We lost a bunch of them. Needless to say, our IBM-based customers weren't thrilled to learn that they couldn't get answers to questions or issues in anything approximating a timely fashion. We lost some of them, too.

Before the grand experiment ended, we'd said goodbye to several valuable long-time employees and a few disgruntled customers who headed off to our competitor (at that time, another little RDBMS company called Oracle). Our relationship with IBM was in snarling tatters, a situation made worse when we had to threaten them with legal action if they didn't transfer our data back onto our leased/owned machines and ship everything back to us.

We ended up right where we started, but poorer and a lot wiser. Our CEO admitted it was the worst tactical error he'd made in his then-lengthy career. He predicted that a time would come when people would recognize the limitations of centralized computing and demand full control over their data and resources. He said that nobody in his right mind would want mission-critical applications and data on remote servers where security and availability could not be guaranteed.

He predicted, rightly, the advent of personal computing.

But here we are, all these years later, and "time-sharing" has transformed into "the cloud." It's all tarted up with new terminology, but essentially it's the same as it ever was.

And now all the Netflix customers have gotten to experience the downside and the emptiness of the "uptime" promises first-hand. Welcome to the wonderland of cloud computing, folks.

Excuse me. I'm late for the only "time-share" I like, which is a seat in the theater where I'll watch a great film and not worry about whether it'll stop in the middle.

25 December 2012

One person's craziness is
another person's reality.
   - Tim Burton

Twenty years ago, a good friend of mine moved to Texas. She'd been hired by Compaq, then an independent, growing hardware manufacturer, to manage their booming training and technical support organization. She was a New Englander, through and through, and when she made the decision to accept Compaq's generous offer, I expressed my misgivings.

The people there are different from us, I said. I told her stories about my own experiences with them -- how blunt and crude some of them could be with outsiders, how unwelcoming to "northerners" as a whole, and how difficult it was to connect with them, just based on what happens if you open your mouth and a Texas twang doesn't come gushing forth. She'd made up her mind, she said; she intended to take the job, make the move to the Lone Star state and adapt to the new way of life. She assured me she could make a go of it, and she'd do whatever it took.

Several months after her move, I asked her how she felt about her decision.

"It's terrific," she said. "Everyone's been really nice, and I even go with them after work to target shooting practice." This, from a woman who hated guns, war and violence. I laughed, then asked when she'd joined the dark side.

"No, really, RB -- I go to the range every Friday after work with the women in my department. It's fun, and then after, we go out for pizza and beer."

"Did you buy a weapon?"

"No, I borrow a pistol from one of the girls -- she's got a few, so she lets me use one of hers. I just have to buy the ammo."

I felt giddy, in that way you can when the world rocks in its orbit. "And you think that shooting this pistol is a good time?" 

"Oh, yeah. I wear my goggles and earplugs, and I button up my shirt, all the way to my neck and at the wrists..."

"Wait. You button your shirt? What does that have to do with anything?"

"They have this law now. A couple years ago, some woman was at a mom-and-pop shooting range with an automatic weapon, and you know how they keep shooting as long as you've got the trigger pulled?" I didn't know, and encouraged her to continue the story. "Well, this woman was quite buxom, and the top two buttons of her shirt were open. She squeezed off a round and the shell flipped out backward and landed down the front of her shirt and into her bra."

"Oh, no." God forgive me, I started laughing.

She went on. "Well, you know, the shells are really hot, and this one was burning her pretty good. The problem was, she was still holding the gun, and she squeezed the trigger. She was jumping around trying to get the hot shell out of her bra, and she was firing all over the place."

"Was anyone hurt?"

"Oh, yeah. She killed the owner, and she wounded a bunch of people who were there. That's why they passed the law."

"What law?"

"That you have to button your shirt up to the neck and down to the wrists."

"Be careful, will you?"

After our conversation, I thought about what she'd told me. A non-pathological response to carnage on the order of what she'd described would be to shut down the shooting ranges and forbid ownership of the weapons that could fire even if you didn't plan on it. But Texas, being full of Texans, had a different response, which forever clarifies (for me, at least) the mindset of the people who live there. Instead of rational gun control that could prevent a massacre, they passed a law requiring women to button their shirts.

Excuse me. I need to buy some button futures for the coming apocalypse.

20 December 2012

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
   - from The Hollow Men, by T.S. Eliot

My sister called me this morning. She was brimming with good humor, laughing over a news item she'd recently read that she wanted to share with me. When she finished her story and I offered appreciative laughter over the punchline, she added, "Oh, and I wanted to talk with you one last time before the world ends."

She and I have had several conversations over the past couple of years about the "Mayan Calendar" prophecy -- you know, the one where the ancient Mayans supposedly knew when the last moment of earth was going to arrive, and in their infinite wisdom decided to not waste the carver's time in recording anything beyond that fateful date -- but she's never given me any indication before today that she might have been seriously believing the world was about to wink out of existence. Incredulous, I asked, "You believe this?"

"No," she answered. "I think it's ridiculous. People have lost their minds. You won't see me building a survival pod under my house. Forget about the 25% of us who are supposed to be insane -- I think the number's closer to 80%."

We talked a bit about the various doomsday preppers and the wingnuts who are running around panicked today, and surmised how stupid they're going to feel when they wake up the day after tomorrow and realize they were mistaken. I told her I would be very interested to see if there is a spike in consumer lending, based on the wrong-headed notion that the loans wouldn't need repayment. And I asked her if she planned to celebrate the holiday tonight, or were they going to wait until after the end of the world.

She said, "Oh, we'll just wait until after the world ends. Much less hassle, that way." She added, "Besides, he's still on the river. Will be, until Sunday." The "he" she mentioned is my brother-in-law.

Great. So the world's ending, and she won't even get a decent kiss goodbye.

After the call, I sat thinking. I've got a miserable cold, replete with cough, fever and bone-breaking muscle aches. My husband has one, too. We've taken up residence in separate bedrooms so as to not pass the colds back and forth, or keep one another awake with the all-night coughing and hacking. Neither of us feels like eating or cooking. We look like hell and sound like it, too. 

I'd like to think that if the world's about to end, I'd be able to muster up a better front for facing it, and that we'd at least go hand-in-hand together, as we have traveled most of our lives. So tonight, no matter what else, I'm sleeping in our bed, spooned up against the beating heart of the man I have loved these many years.

The conversation also raised a question. If this really was the world's last day, what should I be doing, and who do I need to see? I came to the conclusion that I'm doing the right thing by writing now; that those who I hold in my heart know they are there; that in not losing my hope that I will awaken the day after tomorrow, I am remaining fully human.

Excuse me. I have to tidy my house before the apocalypse hits it.


18 December 2012

The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, 
millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, 
carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, 
in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can 
be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.  
     – Gary Wills, from “Our Moloch”

I think that gun control matters. The issue has become vastly complex and vexing because of individual interpretations of what constitutes “civil liberty” and a personal reading of the 2nd Amendment.

The 2nd Amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That’s all. No qualifiers, no conditions, no explanations other than what is offered in the single sentence.

I would point out that the first four words, “A well regulated Militia,” are the most overlooked words in the Amendment, and the last four words, “shall not be infringed,” are the most cited. The argument is that in order to meet the necessary level of security in a free State, there must be a well regulated Militia, and for it to properly function, the people must be allowed to keep and bear Arms. The conclusion is that in order to sustain the necessary security for the free State, the government may not infringe upon this right of the people to keep and bear Arms.

I keep going back to the first four words. Where is the “well regulated Militia” referenced in the amendment? At the time the Amendment was passed (1791), the USA did not have a standing military, the way we now do — if invaders showed up on our shores, the only way to protect ourselves was for every able-bodied, trained person to take up Arms and join the fight to defend our freedom. The colonists thought of themselves as primarily peace-loving, and made the conscious choice to not fund a standing army in times of peace. Now, however, we can scarcely imagine not having a standing army, navy, air force, and marines, along with whatever special forces and weapon-bearing alphabet-soup agencies we can underwrite.

I submit that we ought to be looking at the intent, and legislating accordingly. If the people are to keep and bear Arms as a “well regulated Militia,” then by all means, let’s invest in the regulating and training that goes with it, and get rid of the standing forces. We don’t need them if we can call on all citizens to take up their Arms and go into battle. On the other hand, if we think we need those standing armies, then why do the citizens need to keep and bear arms, if they aren’t a “well regulated Militia?”

I don't think we can have it both ways. Do you?

Excuse me. I have to write notes of condolence to the families of the 26 people who were mowed down in the Sandy Hook, Connecticut elementary school.


17 December 2012

Our Moloch

The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, 
millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, 
carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, 
in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can 
be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence. 
     – Gary Wills, from “Our Moloch”

My husband, who has a history of heart problems, called my cell phone last month and left a message while I was having coffee with an old friend. "I don't know when you're planning to be home, but when you come up the street, don't be worried. There may be police cars and fire trucks in front of the house, but it's okay. They're not here because of me, they're here to help Jane (names are all changed)." Jane, my neighbor down the street, is a good friend.

I drove home faster than usual, my stomach in a knot. When I arrived, the street was normal, the driveway empty. I rushed inside, and found my husband sitting in the kitchen. I asked what happened.

He told me that Jane had arrived an hour earlier, breathless and shaking, having run from her house all the way up the hill to ours, hoping she'd be safer with us than at home.

Two months earlier, her 28-year-old son Joey moved back into her home until he could find a place of his own. Joey has a history of mental illness, a diagnosis of adolescent-onset paranoid schizophrenia. Joey does not hold jobs for very long, and hates his medication as it stifles his "creative edge." Jane wasn't happy about Joey's return home, but she didn't want him wandering the streets homeless.

On the day in question, she'd been talking with Joey about his apparent lack of a plan to find work and she questioned him about whether or not he was taking his meds.

His fury was instantaneous. He destroyed the kitchen cabinets and drawers and threw all the contents around the room, all the while screaming that he "could kill her."

She backed away through the dining room, toward the front door, Joey following and gesticulating wildly.

Jane managed to get outside. Joey, taller, faster, younger and stronger, caught her by the back of her shirt, ripping it at the shoulder. He held fast and tried to drag her back into the house. Jane dropped to the pavement and went limp before he could haul her back inside. He'd screamed, "I'll kill you with this cup!" and hurled a heavy ceramic mug he'd been holding at her head as she lay on the ground. It narrowly missed her and shattered. He ran back into the house, presumably to get another, more effective weapon.

As soon as he was out of sight, she'd jumped up and ran, terrified, to my house, where my husband was home to help. He'd brought her inside, calmed her and called the police.

Armed, wary, the police team made its way down the block. One officer returned to report that they'd found Joey sitting on the family room sofa, watching television, perfectly calm. The officer said that everything in the kitchen was "orderly," and the only sign of a disturbance was a single kitchen cabinet with its door missing. The police called the hospital and had an ambulance take Joey away. The officer asked Jane to sign a complaint, which she did without hesitation. Jerry, her husband, arrived shortly after this to go with her to the hospital.

Joey spent a week in a psychiatric care facility, went back on his meds, and was released after the psychologists determined he wasn't a threat. Jane and Jerry paid for a housekeeping hotel room until they could find an apartment they could afford for Joey. I gave Jane a key to my house; we now have a "safe phrase" between us so that if she ever says it, I'll know to get immediate help. The restraining order is still in place. It makes Jane and Jerry feel safer.

Joey could be living next door to me, to you, to any of us. On a good day and in the current state of affairs, Joey wouldn't have any trouble buying a gun. Maybe even an assault-style weapon.

There are eight elementary schools in our town. Do the math.

I came home at the end of all this drama. I am thankful I missed it, and I'm thankful that my neighbors didn't have any guns in their house, or the story might have ended in a very different way.

Excuse me. I have to write a letter to my Congressman, asking her to support a ban on the sale of assault-caliber weapons to private citizens. I urge you to do the same.