Freedom Day

April 29, 2007

In the spirit of our rather eclectic series on random holidays, my email reminds me that this past Friday, April 27, was Freedom Day in South Africa. Alas, my favorite South African is away on holiday in Greece, and thus unable to give us a timely culture and history lesson, but I figured I’d pass on her wish that we all take a moment to celebrate the end of apartheid, and more generally, to celebrate the magnificence of the great variety of cultures that make up our world.

To help us get in the mood, here’s a happy picture of a giant, dancing Nelson Mandela, and his South African flag-painted cow.

Dancing Mandela

How come it’s called tourist season if we’re not allowed to shoot them?

April 27, 2007

It’s that time of year again. It started last month, actually, in an unholy convergence that happens every spring. Two misery inducing seasons start when those pretty pink cherry blossoms pop out all over the tidal basin– allergies, and tourists.

It’s summer and many people are planning their vacations and many of you will be heading towards our nation’s capital.

To make your trip more enjoyable (to me) I’ve decided to write up some tips, maxims, and pleas…

First off, and this is true when vacationing in any city, it’s easy to forget that everyone around you isn’t also on vacation. We aren’t looking at the sights and enjoying the day. We’re late for meetings. We’re remembering to buy milk on the way home. We’re stressed out because we’re understaffed and running late and haven’t called our mothers in awhile and you’re standing there, blocking the sidewalk so you can take a picture of your two-year-old in front of something we walk by everyday. Heck, you’re taking a picture of your two-year-old standing in front of my place of employment, blocking the entrance. Please, enjoy yourself, but don’t unintentionally rub the fact that you’re on vacation and we’re not in our faces. It makes us cranky.

Here are some more DC-specific things:

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Ethics of Mental Health (and Telepathy)

April 27, 2007

Every once in a while I dream the core of the story and feel a desperate compulsion to flesh it out over a day or two. To the best of my knowledge, they’re not existing stories. A few years ago (during the trip to Maine right after Ellie got out of college, in 2002) the story in question had to do with a society of telepaths who were trying to keep themselves under wraps. A trio of young telepaths new to the society had different ideas. Each believed firmly that they should be using their gifts to aid mankind, and over the course of the first part of the story took over the society and announced themselves to the world.

Each of the three had very different ideas about what should be done with their telepathy, however. The youngest believed that telepathy was mankind’s evolution so that it could freely edit itself. She set herself up like something out of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Would you like a new personality trait? Would you like to delete an old one? Would you like self-discipline to improve yourself? Would you like to be more affable and less shy around strangers? In retrospect I think this particular character and philosophy represented my concerns about the then developing pharmaceutical industry and its immortality in a pill advertisements.

What do people think? Is this really ethical? People are signing themselves up, not their children or minors. No custom-made external validation kids for the upper-classes, but a kind of Gattacca rebirth once you’re an adult (and can obviously afford the not inconsiderable fees). I personally lean towards no. Even if you’re signing yourself up for this treatment, and not someone else, it feels like trading in your true self for a prepackaged manufactured self, but I could understand arguments to the contrary. 

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An Inhumane Interface

April 26, 2007

Snake? Snake? SNAAAAAAAAKE!Our computers are inhumane. When they don’t work right, they can set us back days or weeks, cause frustration and anger, and even lose or destroy irreplaceable information. Even when they work properly, though, they don’t work well.

People just don’t naturally think in terms of programs (or even, for the Apple folks, documents). One task can easily span multiple documents and programs. Unfortunately, computers don’t work that way. Instead, they try to force you to think the way they work, which just causes the kind of grief we’re all familiar with.

If I’m writing an article and need to do some simple math (maybe I need to figure out how many pages my 1500 word article will be), I have to open up another program, wait for it to load and get the answer before I return to my original document. That kind of thing is a concentration-killer and is probably one reason why so many people are now multi-taskers. We have to be because that’s how computers allow us to perform tasks.

So what’s the alternative? Well, wouldn’t it be better if you could just type out a mathematical equation, select it, and tell the computer to find the answer? That way, you don’t have to switch contexts (concentration killer!), switch keyboard commands (why doesn’t ctrl-A work now?), or worry about which application has focus (oops, copied my document instead of the answer).

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Choice is a choice, but is it a good one?

April 26, 2007

I ran across an article about the allure of the Microsoft approach to selecting software on slashdot yesterday. For those of you not in the field of software development, the approach is simple. Microsoft is of the opinion that you should buy your operating system, your server software, your database solution, your development tools, your content management system, and even the syntax of your programming language all of the plug-ins, extensions, and updates to them, from Microsoft. It is obvious what the advantage is to Microsoft, but how does taking this approach help me, as a developer?

The author of the blog post is James Turner, who is an open-source developer, working in a particular sub-specialty of the field very similar to the one I work in. The argument that he makes in his blog entry is simple. It says that while the open source community has a lot of interesting solutions to offer, this is often the problem. The large number of choices that the open source community has to offer makes it difficult to make the decisions necessary to get the job done.

So what’s good about a monoculture, and why does Microsoft win so often when people make a decision about platforms? Largely because what the open source community sees as a strength, people trying to get a job done in the real world see as a weakness. We celebrate the diversity of choices available to solve a problem and call it freedom. IT managers and CIOs look at it and call it chaos, confusion and uncertainty.

In reading this opinion, I was reminded of a conversation I had over dinner this weekend. One of the people I was eating with brought up a book they’d read, in which the author talked about how it is that people find happiness. Parts of that conversation seemed applicable to the concept of software monocultures. The point that struck me as most applicable was the one that talked about salad dressing.

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World Book Day, Belatedly

April 26, 2007

Shoot! I got distracted and forgot to note that Monday, April 23, was UNESCO’s World Book Day. Though the poster we got about it at work only talks about the need to “Celebrate the importance of books and reading in our lives,” I now note that the official website makes it out to be “World Book and Copyright Day,” with the explanatory supporting tagline of:

By celebrating this Day throughout the world, UNESCO seeks to promote reading, publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright.

Which, I suppose, lends weight to their argument that they are supporting both books and authors.

In any case, the celebration apparently began in Catalonia, Spain, “where on 23 April, Saint George’s Day, a rose is traditionally given as a gift for each book sold.” Alas, my bookstore neglected to send out roses in each of its orders for the day, but I’m sure we enjoyed reading something during the day in any case. Did you?

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Toyota’s Japanese-y Corporate Culture

April 25, 2007

Yesterday on Marketplace, they were of course doing a story on the big news that Toyota is now actually America’s biggest auto manufacturer, causing GM to fall from its 70-year reign at the top. The beginning of the story struck me as quite interesting:

JEFF TYLER: Being number one in sales usually earns a company some bragging rights. But Toyota is having none of it.

SONA ILIFFE-MOON: It’s really not part of our DNA. Over here at Toyota, we believe in kaizen — it’s the Japanese term for continuous improvement.

That’s Toyota spokesperson Sona Iliffe-Moon, who downplays the company’s achievement.

ILIFFE-MOON: Ranking isn’t really important to our customers. So we aren’t focused on our ranking. But rather, fulfilling our customers’ needs.

This bit of cultural contrast intrigued me, so I looked up kaizen. According to Wikipedia, which does indeed link the concept directly to Toyota:

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You mean freedom of religion is for everyone?

April 24, 2007

This is perhaps the most awesome piece of legal news I’ve heard in a while. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State have finally settled their case against the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs:

Bush Administration Agrees To Approve Wiccan Pentacle For Veteran Memorials

For those that missed where this all started, the Washington Post covered the story last July:

At the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in the small town of Fernley, Nev., there is a wall of brass plaques for local heroes. But one space is blank. There is no memorial for Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart.

That’s because Stewart was a Wiccan, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has refused to allow a symbol of the Wicca religion — a five-pointed star within a circle, called a pentacle — to be inscribed on U.S. military memorials or grave markers.

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Indulgence, Responsibility, and Audience

April 23, 2007

What is it about the presence of other people, about having an audience, that gives us permission to indulge ourselves? Is it simply that somewhat illicit indulgences are more fun when shared with someone else? Is it that we crave outside permission, so we can point to someone else and say, “But they said it was okay, too!”? Is it a self-preservation mechanism, trying to save us from ourselves by only allowing indulgence on special occasions?

I ask because I now have Häagen-Dazs ice cream in my freezer, and it would never have ended up there if I hadn’t been grocery shopping with company over the weekend. I have hot fudge to go on top of it, too. I’m amused by the way the mere presence of another person has changed my own actions. For me, I think part of it is the thrill of convincing someone else to be complicit, in gaining a “partner in crime,” in creating a brief sort of naughty bond of conspiracy against the societal idea of what’s good for us. I mean, we spend our entire childhoods trying to convince other people, in this case, our parents or other adults, to give us things we want. Didn’t there end up being some satisfaction gained from simply the act of convincing the other person to your point of view, aside from getting whatever it is you were arguing for? Doesn’t there still?

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Escalation is not better than resolution

April 21, 2007

Last month, I wrote a post about my thoughts on viral marketing, and outlined some rules that I felt the companies engaging in the practice would be well advised to follow. As part of that post, I also gave an illustrative example in the form of the recent debacle in Boston. In that incident, Turner Broadcasting hired a marketing company which installed a series of battery-operated signs throughout the city to promote their late-night cartoon show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The Boston Police Department, for its own part, decided that they were bombs. Parts of the city were shut down for hours, and one of the signs, which closely resembled a child’s Lite-Brite toy, was destroyed in a controlled detonation.

In my previous post, I took Turner Broadcasting to task for not following my very first rule: Know your audience. Clearly, the concept of leaving electronic devices without explanation, attached to major pieces of civic infrastructure in this day and age is asking for trouble. The ads might have been effective at reaching their intended audience (though the show’s ratings don’t seem to reflect any positive effect), but it neglected the important point that lots of other people, who had never heard of the show and likely wouldn’t watch it if they had, would also see the devices. I said that I found the resulting panic to be absurd, but nevertheless, it was predictable.

At least one person, in the comments on that earlier post felt that I was unfairly taking sides against Turner. Allow me, at this time, to reverse that trend. Regardless of any lack of foresight on the part of Turner Broadcasting (and there was plenty), the City of Boston should be ashamed of itself. This is not actually due to their handling of the incident at the time, which was reactionary and overblown, but nevertheless directed in the interests of public safety. Instead, my switch to outright condemnation results from their handling of several related issues in the aftermath.

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