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About 10 years ago, I was involved with something that completely accidentally suddenly turned into an unlicensed supper club. And demonstrated exactly why supper clubs strictly control their RSVPs and headcounts:

A dozen-ish of us started getting together weekly in a group geek house for a book and craft club. A friend of one of us liked to cook, and offered to cook dinner for us and our friends in exchange for we all throwing in cash for ingredients.

The next week, everyone brought all their SOs to share the dinner. The week after, also many of our other good friends.

Within a month, pretty much the whole larger circle of friends was coming.
A month later, the friends of friends, and the friends of friends of friends started showing up, because the word had gotten out that for about $5 cash you could get a large filling delicious home cooked dinner.

Came the day when the house was full of a couple of hundred people, most of them strangers to us, all of them demanding a meal.

That was the end of that.
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Long ago, almost two decades, which is a few eons in internet time, on discussion forums long since destroyed and passed away, I observed two different social justice zealots. This was before the term "social justice warrior" had been invented. (And as an aside, the term was invited and taken up by people who loudly described themselves as such. It was not, as they now claim, a term created as an insult by their "enemies".) Anyway...

There were these two social justice zealots. And each one claimed to be politically active in their local politics, each one of them working to undo a great racial injustice.

One of them, they were involved in a struggle to change the electoral rules in their city, to change it from at at-large vote for the entire city council, to instead divide the city up into districts, so that each geographic region of the city would have representation on the city council, as this was the way of racial justice, and any opposition to this could only come from wicked racists.

And the other one, they were involved in a struggle to change the electoral rules in their city, to change it from divided districts, one district per council member, to instead have an at-large vote for the members of the council, such that each ethnic group spread across the city could join in solidarity to back a candidate of their ethnicity, so that each ethnic group would have representation on the city council, as this was the way of racial justice, and any opposition to this could only come from wicked racists.

I was not the only person to notice this. However, despite some efforts, nobody was able to get the two of them to engage with each other.

I learned a number of important life lessons from watching this, all of them darkly hilarious.
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At one company I worked at, one of the problems it didn't have was IT.

When someone was hired, by the time they got to their new desk, there was a computer on it with the correct image on it, their desk phone worked, their email worked, the calendaring and scheduling worked, and all necessary passwords and ACLs were configured. The internal ethernet networks all worked, were fast, and were properly isolated from each other. The wall ports were all correctly labeled, and there where the right kinds of wall ports in each cubical and conference room. The presentation projectors and conference room speaker phones all worked. The printers all worked, printed cleanly, were kept stocked, and were consistently named. The internet connections were fast and well managed. Internal and external security incidents were quickly recognized and dealt with. Broken machines were immediately replaced with working and newly imaged replacements. If someone accidentally deleted a file, getting it back from backup typically took less than an hour. Software updates were announced ahead of time, and usually happened without issue.

The IT staff did not seem noticeably bitter, angry, harried, or otherwise suffering from the emotional costs traditionally endemic to that job role. In fact, they were almost invisible in their skill and competence.

So, of course, came the day when the senior executives said "the carpets are just naturally clean all the time, we don't need all these janitors!". IT was "reorganized" into a smaller staff of younger and much less experienced (and probably cheaper) people.

Of course, it all went to shit. New employees would go a week before they had machines, phones, passwords, and ACLs. Printers ran out of paper, projectors ran out of lightbulbs, servers ran out of storage, networks got misconfigured, and so forth. The total time lost and wasted across the whole company was most certainly greater than the savings of laying off the expensive and skilled IT staff.

This is not to say that the reorganized IT staff were stupid or lazy. They worked very hard and ran themselves ragged trying to keep up with the cycle of operations, while trying to skill themselves up in their "spare time" and with a slashed training budget.

The lessons I learned from this experience speak for themselves.

What lessons that may have been learned by any of the other people involved, especially the executives who made these decisions, I cannot say.
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I was working on a highly constrained consumer electronics device, a little "satellite device" that spoke to the main device over a CATV RF coax cable and also received commands from an IR remote control. My code was failing in bizarre ways. I adopted an extremely paranoid defensive programming stance, filling my code with asserts and doing paranoid cross checking of all inputs. This didn't make the device work. Instead it consistently didn't work, instead of inconsistently, because the cross checks and asserts would usually (but not always) trip before it would crash. It also started to run out of memory because of the all the paranoia code I had added.

I asked for the source code for the driver for the IR receiver, and for the driver for the CATV RF digital transceiver, and for the peer code that was driving the cable digital that ran on the main device.

The driver for the CATF RF digital transceiver was handed to me the first time I asked. And by "handed to me" I mean that I was pointed to where it was sitting in the source repo.


The business partner / hardware supplier who was supplying the IR glue and drivers just , after giving me a runaround, finally just flat out refused, citing trade secrets, confidentiality, secret sauce, and similar bullshit.

So, I finally "stole" the source code with a disassembler. And found the sources of many of my problems. It was complete shit. "Unexpected" input from the silicon would cause wild random pointer writes. And random sunlight on the receiver optics would cause it. "Expected" input of undefined remote commands wasn't much better, generating and handing back blocks of garbage with incorrect block length headers.

I ended up writing, nearly from scratch, a replacement IR receiver driver.


The peer device driver code was written by a developer in a different group in my same company. I finally got the P4 ACLs to read it after loudly escalating, over the objections of it's developer and his group manager. It was also complete shit. I cannot even begin to remember everything that was wrong with it, but I not only figured out may of the sources of my own pain, I also found a significant source of crash and lockup bugs that afflicted the main device.

I was not allowed to rewrite the peer code, as it was not in my remit. However, I was able to sneak in and check in a large number of asserts, using the excuse that they were "inline documentation".


On, and the device driver for the CATF RF digital transceiver? The source code I got for the asking, without a fight? When I reviewed it was easy to understand, efficient, elegant, and as far as I could tell, bug free.


In the end, I made my part work. It just took over two months instead of the original guesstimate of less than two weeks. This caused a schedule slip in the release of the satellite box. Which would have been a more serious problem, except…


Except there was also major schedule slip for the main box. A significant reason for that slip was because the peer code that I had filled will asserts was now crashing with assertion failures instead of emitting garbage. I was lucky that I was not more officially "blamed" for that. The reason why I wasn't, was mainly because the people who understood what I did understood the problem, and the executives who didn't understand what the problem was were also too clueless to blame anyone, let alone me.


My lesson learned from this experience is: if someone is refusing to show the source to suspect driver code, citing trade secrets, confidentiality, secret sauce, partnership agreements, or similar excuses, it's not because they are protecting their magic. It's because they have screwed up, and they are trying to hide it.

A second rule of thumb I have is: source control systems that don't allow any developers to check out and review any arbitrary source code file are expressions of moral failure. It is unethical for an engineer, designer, or other technologist to ever sign off on a project that has been mutilated by such a broken tool.
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In the early 90s, I worked for a small company at which the president and one of the co-founders was high-caste Indian. While I was working there, he got married. All of the staff were invited to the reception.

So come the appointed day, I showed up at the venue. It was done up in lots of streamers of cloth of a lot of bright and heavy colors (not so much in the way of pastels or light florals). There were a lot of guests, an assortment of his business partners, and the Salt Lake area Indian expat scene.

And there was a MOUNTAIN of food. I mean it. Hundreds and hundreds of trays of food, on a huge table, on racks so they formed a rising wall of steaming options.

They all were fresh, they all were assorted shades of yellow and red, they all smelled delicious. And I had no idea what any of them were.

I took a plate, and worked my way down the side of the mountain of food, taking just a spoonful of each dish, until my plate was heaping full. By no means did I have a sample of everything.

I sat at one of the tables, was social with the other guests, and ate the food. It was delicious and filling, warm and spicy. And I still had not idea what most of it was.

After I was done, I went and found my host and his new wife, shook their hands, and left, for my next appointment that day.


Some weeks later, when he came back from his honeymoon, he stuck his head in my office.

"Mark, was there something wrong with the food?"

"No, it was amazing! Delicious. I had never had anything like it before."


Apparently, I had left during during the appetizers, and the main courses hadn't even been brought out yet.

!
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So an hour or so ago, I was sitting here at Center Camp Playa Info, uploading photos to Flickr, when this lovely young lady, wearing a bikini and a pair of boots, comes up to me.

She's lost, terrified, shivering, and more than a little chemically altered.

I helped her into the shirt and scarf she was carrying, that random passing burners had gifted her with, and got the start of her story out of her.

She's from San Francisco, here with her wife, who she got into an argument with, and her wife just got in their (fully packed) car, and drove off, presumably to go home.

She does have a camp she can crash with, but has no idea where it is, and doesn't know how to run the Playa Info computers.

So I put away my machine and stuff, get her to remember the camp name, and look it up. Camp Elsewhere, up at around 3:30 and H. That's a long walk from center. And since the Man has burned, the street signs have all been ripped off.

So I walk her to her friends' camp, listening to her, as she's so happy to no longer be so lost and alone.

Even though the street signs are gone, the layout and survey markers are still in place, and thus I was able to work out the street and avenue names, and keep us from getting lost .

Apparently she and her wife are an Oscar and Felix pair, and Felix came here to the playa and didn't care for it, doing things like trying to sweep out their tent each day. The whiteout and duststorms all day today where the last straw, and she wanted to leave early, before the Man burned, thus the argument.

Anyway, this girl is safe and warm for the moment, and now has a ride back to San Francisco.
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About ten years ago, I worked for a small company, that had issued pagers to all their staff. When several people, all wearing pagers, work around each other a lot, what usually would happen is everyone would set their pager to vibrate instead of ring, because otherwise when only one went off, everyone would reach for their own, not knowing who's had rung.

Anyway, one day, I was working from home, with my pager sitting on the desk next to the monitor, and my cat Birkenstock had gone to sleep on the desk, and for whatever reason, had curled up on/around the pager.

Yes, the obvious thing happened, and someone paged me.

...


After she calmed down, she glared annoyance at me for most of the rest of the day.
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Many years ago, I lived for a couple of winters in Alaska, doing work that had me outdoors quite often.

When I first arrived, in the middle of January, it was bitterly cold (so I thought), hovering around ten below in Anchorage. By the end of the next winter, I had experienced over fifty below zero.

While there, I asked a local, who had lived there many years, how they stayed warm in the winter. His answer is now a personal proverb of mine.

He said, We stay indoors!
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When I was attending university, one of the jobs I had was Research Assistant at the biostatistics department associated with the College of Medicine.

There I learned to operate statistics packages, such as SPSS, BMDP, and S+, under the direction of the statisticians.

We did the statistical analysis of things like drug effectiveness, radiation sensitivity, toxicology, epidemiology, and so forth. We also vetted the statistical models of proposed research projects, under the umbrella of the ethics boards and the research oversight committees. (But that's a different story.)

Anyway, one of our well-funded pay-the-bills study was to investigate a particular medical device, an ultrasound based scanner that the sponsor was hoping could be used for the early detection of malignant prostate cancer.

The datasets we analyzed came from the scanner, from interpreted micrographs of biopsies, and from physicians doing what was delicately referred to as "DRE", aka "Digital Rectal Exam".

One day, I was reading some of the research documentation, and found a clause in the physicians participation agreement that referred types of published analysis that would not be done with the datasets. There was the obvious stuff about personally identifying information, privacy of participants, and so forth.

And then there was a class of verboten disclosure that was described in complex terms, way over my head.

I asked one of the researchers about it, and so she smiled, and then sketched out an analysis for me to run, and then to bring her a printout when it was done.


A short while later, I handed it to her, and she interpreted it to me.

On average, the DRE turned out to be almost a waste of time. And what was worse, for a small but significant number of physicians, they were literally worse than random, at a statistically significant level. That is, if they just reversed all of their diagnosises, they would have done a better job.

It was an amazing and important finding. And it was forbidden by the physican participation agreement for us to officially discover or publish.

The researcher took the printout, and dropped it into the garbage. And we went back to work.
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When my family lived in North Carolina, we supplemented the heating of our house by burning wood. It was from this I learned the basics of chainsaw (stay away from the men running the saws), the basics of hauling wood (it's heavy and fills your arms with splinters when carried), and the basics of hand splitting..

Towards this purpose, we acquired a splitting block, a cut round of very twisted very knotty North Carolina Oak, almost 3 feet in diameter and about 2 feet long. A lot of pieces of wood were split on it, mostly by my father, but a significant amount by me.

When we moved to Utah, the splitting block came with. And we continued to supplement the heat in the house by burning wood. (Later, the stove was converted to coal, and now it burns compressed wood pellets, as my parents no longer have kids at home to split wood or fetch coal).


One evening, in my early to mid teens, I was angry and grumpy about something that I am sure that I thought was Very Important at the time, as teenage boys often are, and I was sent out back to split wood.

By this time the splitting block had been used well and hard. It's working face beaten into a impenetrable rubbery solid pulp of oak fiber. You could hit it with the sharpest hatchet, and blade would just bounce.

I started splitting, setting each log up on the block, then swinging the splitting maul around and over, to catch the top of the log as it fell. Whack. Whack. Whack.

I continued getting angrier and grumpier, about whatever slight had been handed me, and I kept on lifting and splitting. Whack. Whack. Whack.

And then it happened.

I set a log, and started swinging the maul, and the Stars Aligned. I could feel all my muscles and joints line up perfectly. The heavy handle and lump of steel felt weighless. The swing was perfect. No, really, it was perfect.

Like the absolutely perfect strike in at the moment of climax in a martial arts movie.

The maul went thru the log like it wasn't there. It split cleanly, it's two halves flying apart. And my body stayed in perfect motion, and the edge kept decending...

The maul cleanly went right through the impenetrable mush on the top of the block. It slid smoothly into the cross-joined fibers of mess of knots in that old piece of century oak. The handle twisted back and forth in my perfectly placed hands, as the head of the maul danced between the seperating knots.

With a loud boom, the block blew apart, into three pieces.

Finally the maul stopped, it's head buried deep in the dirt.


I stopped, blinking. Amazed. Dumbstruck.


My body had never done anything like that before. And for as long as it's made of mere wet meat, it probably never will again.
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In the mid-90s I was working for a very small business network troubleshooting company, that was owned by my cousin Clark and his friend. We all were at a nice business lunch to celebrate getting a big client. We went to a steakhouse I hadn't been to before, and the special of the day was New York Steak.

What was brought out to me was the steak, a bare baked potato, and a tray of sauces and spices for the potato. I proceeded to load up my potato, especially from a bowl of what I thought was sour cream.

And then I took a big bite.

I didn't know that New York Steak was traditionally smeared with ...

... horseradish sauce.


Horseradish was never my favorite thing, but after that experience, the only thing that I find it palatable in, and only in very small quantities, is sashimi.
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A year or so after I was first hired at my previous employer, Digeo, I was involved in an internal project that involved putting together a very important presentation that had to be just right. (I forget today exactly what the project was, or who the audience was to be. Paul Allen, probably, given that he owned us, and every idea had to either come from him or be approved by him.)

Anyway, there were a dozen and a half stakeholders. And there was the PowerPoint file that people would make their own revisions to and then email to everyone else. (It had to be an annoying load on the Exchange server.) Around and around it would go, multiple untracked revisions of it. Very quickly more time was spent trying to keep the PowerPoint complete and coherent than was actually spent making progress on the project itself.

After getting bored sitting in a meeting that consisted mainly of people complaining that their own Very Important Input wasn't showing up on the slides on display, I broke in and suggested that the presentation files be checked into revision control. At the time, we had MS VSS installed on every Windows machine.

The argument stopped dead, assorted executives and marketing people looked at me with confusion in their eyes. None of the other tech people said a word. Then one of the executive/marketing people said, with scorn dripping from the words.

"Version control is for the developers!"

And they went back to arguing, and the harried sucker project lead went back to collecting changes via email. I don't think the persentation was ever complete and correct. And if the project actually got approved, I don't remember which one it was.
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Today's story, like yesterday's, didn't happen to me, but was told to me by the people it happened to. Also, like yesterday's, it doesn't exactly paint "people" in a good light. This story is very important to me, and help crystalize a lot of my opinions.




Once upon a time, in a land north of where most of you live, there was a family that owned a piece of land. When they first bought it, many years before, it wasn't worth very much. It was completely unimproved and undeveloped. No utilities reached it. Nothing grew on it except trees and moss. There were no roads to it, no trails over it, no buildings on it.

This family was not "rich". They didn't have trust fund, or a well paying job. At the beginning of this story, all they owned was a truck, a camper, their clothes, and this piece of land, which as I had said, wasn't worth much and so hadn't cost much.

Over the passing decades, they built and expanded and rebuilt a house, in which they made a home for themselves and later for their children as well. They built other structures. An outhouse, and later, a septic tank and field. They built sheds, and planted gardens, in soil that they created themselves (the native soil, while rich, needed to be heavily conditioned before it would grow anything other than the trees and moss I mentioned before). They planted fruit trees. They started raising a few goats and chickens.

They brought in the utilities. Telephone and electricity. Which they had to pay dearly for. (Utility companies make people in far rural areas pay to extend the lines, and it's very expensive.)

Eventually, they got neighbors. Which was fine, for the most part. It was good to have other people close by, to talk to, and other kids for their kids to play with and grow up with.

Some of their neighbors asked if it was ok if they cut across their property to get to get to an expanse of public land, which had a river on it, so as to go hunting, and camping, and fishing, and boating. Now, there were other ways to get to that public land and river, official roads, official rights of ways, and so forth, but cutting across this piece of private property was quicker and more convenient. And the people, not seeing any harm, and desiring to be good members of their "community", gave their assent.

All was well for a couple of years, and then the neighbors they first gave the assent to, each in turn, moved elsewhere.

More people moved in, and more homes were built (tapping into the utility extentions that these people had first paid to have installed), and more and more people were taking the "shortcut". A path was being worn across the grass, which they had had to plant and coax into growing. The trees along the path were being damaged. People's pets were romping in the garden, the fruit trees were being injured, the gates to the goats were being opened. Litter was being strewn. People started riding ATVs along the path at ungodly hours of the night.

They put up signs asking people to please not damage the land. Please stay on the path. It didn't help.

Finally, they put up "no trespassing" signs. People tore down the signs. And then, they put them up again, and built a wall, and a fence, and stood guard on their own property, and started calling the police.

And they were sued, by their "neighbors". (Yes, those ARE "sneer quotes".)

And they lost.

Not only did they have to let people tramp across their land, not only did they not have any effective recourse when people vandalized and damaged in their passing, they were required to improve the trail.

This is about the time I was told this story by the property owners.

The last time I spoke with them, they were preparing to improve the trail again, under the cloud of another lawsuit, this time under the umbrella of the ADA. Apparently some of the trespassers wish to be able to cross this rough woody terrain, in wheelchairs.

All because someone was willing to be "good neighbors".
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Today's story is not about me, it's about a guy I knew from college.

Back when, he was your typical shy geek. He liked girls, a lot. But didn't have the confidence, nor the "signalling", and they didn't like him.

He went to work in Silicon Valley just before the dot.com boom. And he hit the options lottery in a successful startup. He hit it out of the park, so to speak. Fully post-economic. Probably 8 digits post-economic.

Suddenly, when before he couldn't get a girl to look at him without sneering, now girls, often the same girls, were coming out of the woodwork to be with him. And it wasn't because he was any better looking, either.

Fortunately for him, he saw what was happening, and didn't get caught by a gold digger. He left Silicon Valley, moved to a flyover state, bought a nice snug little condo, starting going by his middle name, and tells people that he "consults". He tells nobody there how well off he is.

Wise man.
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Back when I was in college, I didn't date much or many. But I did go out a couple of times with a girl who was extremely smart, a bit disorganzied, and very much a "bad girl" by the standards of the environment (which wasn't much, given that this was the University of Utah).

Anyway, one night, for whatever reason, the conversation got onto recreational drugs. And she confessed she had done coke. But only once.

I noted the emphasis on the word "once" when she said it, and asked her about that.

And her explaination was that after having done coke only once, she knew that she was not able to do coke only twice.
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In the past few weeks, I've had about three different "Mark's Stories" come to mind, but forgot them when it came time to post them... Ah, I just remembered one. Will post it now.
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About five or so years ago, I was at Logan airport in Boston, after visiting friends there, about to fly back home to Seattle. I was standing at one of the big windows at the pax terminal, just waiting and passing the time.

And I was dressed as I often am, in a long black duster that comes past my knees, and a broad-brimmed black hat. At the time, I was wearing my beard on my cheeks, instead of just the goatee I have right now.

Anyway, as I was standing and musing, a hand touched me on the shoulder, and someone asked me a question in Hebrew.

I turned around, and the person who had touched me blinked, backed up, and apologized. I was amused.

He was wearing the clothes and had the hairstyle of an orthodox Jew. From the rear, he had assumed that I was one as well.
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A decade and change ago, when I was an undergrad student, I walked in one day to the university bookstore, went up to the information desk, and talked to the clerk there, and had a conversation that went something like this:

Mark: There is this book, that I wanted... but I forgot what it was.
Clerk: I've got it right here. (hands me the book)
Mark: Thank you. I'll pay for it now. (hands her my credit card)
Clerk: Thanks! (runs the card, prints the receipt, etc) There you go!
Mark: Thanks!


There was a guy nearby who watched and overheard this transaction, who looked really really confused.

What he didn't know, was that the clerk was my sister, [livejournal.com profile] wyckhurst, and we had talked about that book the night before.

Sadly, I don't remember which book it was...
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It's been almost five months since my last story. Another one occured to me this evening.

About 15 years ago, when I was in school, it came time for finals. In one particular class (it was a PE class in Yoga, but that's not relevant to the story), the prof and the TA (a lovely girl) were proctering it, not unusual.

While I was taking the test, I heard the door to the room open, and I turned to see who was coming in. It was the TA.

Wait.

I turned and looked towards the front of the room, and there was the teacher and the TA, confering. I look back, and there is the TA again, leaning against the wall, watching us.


It turns out that "the TA" was a pair of identical twins. They had been taking turns TAing the class. The prof knew about them, but nobody felt the need to tell the students.
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About 5 or so years ago, when my sister [livejournal.com profile] jatg lived in Seattle as well, one evening we went out to eat together at a Mexican restaurant.

Now, it just so happens that Jett speaks Spanish pretty well.

And it seemed to be a pretty authentic family-owned Mexican place.

So, we decide what we want to eat, and our waitress, a lovely Latina girl, in her early 20s, comes to our table to take our order. And Jett rapid-fire places our order in Spanish.

The girl blinks at us for a moment, and then says, in a completely normal American English accent, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Spanish. Grandpa and grandma do."


I love this country. :)

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Mark Atwood

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