Posted by: dballing | October 5, 2011

How I Got Where I Am, A Tribute To Steve

It’s 1981. ish. It’s kind of blurry now as I look back on it.

I’m in 5th grade. I still think that what’s passing for adult contemporary radio is cool, because my parents listen to it, and I’m not nearly hip enough to know that’s actually the kiss of death for coolness. I still spend a whole mess of time playing sports. I’ve got a pretty active circle of friends, and I’m not a social pariah at school. In short, I’m your typical early-80s 5th grader.

And then, for reasons that to this day I still don’t fully understand, I’m selected to be part of an experiment. Mrs. Miller has navigated some sort of grant- or aid-program and acquired a brand new Apple II computer. It’s sitting in one of the lower-grade classrooms, and she is the sole arbiter of who is permitted to touch this magical beast. There’s only two students who are allowed to touch it: her nephew [nepotism FTW!] and me.

To say that I was all over that like white on rice is an understatement that makes “epic proportions” seem small. The two of us are writing programs, playing games (Bobby Miller has apparently acquired an illicit copy of Castle Wolfenstein and we’ll play that from time to time when nobody’s looking).

The next year, the computer has moved to the library, and Bobby and I are put in charge of helping a bunch more, although still relatively few, of the students deemed “Gifted and Talented” by the school learn how to use the computer.  Tron has just come out, and I’m still young and naive enough not to realize that the fictionalized commands Flynn uses in the novelization don’t actually do shit, and I’m really disappointed when I type them into the Apple II when nobody’s around and find that precisely nothing has happened.

When I get to Junior High, I get my first taste of an actual “computer lab”. This is, apparently, what they’ve been prepping us for the past school-year and a half, to have a small core of students who really know what these things are and what to do with them. Over the next six years of Jr. and Sr. High School, it’s here that I’ll meet some of my life-long friends. It’s here that I’ll spend so much time that hanging out with my core “neighborhood friends” will basically go by the wayside, that I don’t really play sports much any more, and that I begin to show all the classic signs of becoming the social pariah that will later simply be called “Computer Geek”.

We can’t afford an Apple computer ourselves at home, so I end up buying a Commodore VIC-20 computer instead. It’s fun, and make no mistake, I have a lot of good times with that computer, and its various Commodore-made successors, but I still secretly wished I could have had an Apple.

It’s in high school that I start entering into computer-programming contests that the school used to run each year. I enter into it every single year (except the year I “went pro” because a computer store in Rhinebeck was having a similar contest the same day, but with cash prizes, baby!). And it’s in high school that I really decide, as any computer-oriented kid in the Hudson Valley in the 80s would, “I want to work for IBM some day,” not knowing that IBM’s own internal troubles are going to make that a pipe dream in about three more years.

When I get out of high-school, I go to college for computer science. But I’m a fuck-up, and basically get kicked out in a scene reminiscent of Animal House (“GPA… Zero. Point. Zero.”)  I then end up going through the usual post-high-school-no-college series of dead-end jobs until I finally end up working part-time for a tiny local Internet Service Provider. This was perfection – I got a free account since I worked there (and my day job wasn’t paying me enough to pay for one) and I got to really get back into computers “for a living”.

I got to enjoy the entire life-cycle of Apple computers, from hot upstart, to the time when I (and everyone else with any sense) abandoned them as completely uncool pieces of crap. Later, once Steve was back, I’d eventually become an “Apple bigot”, refusing to use any computer that didn’t have that familiar fruit-shaped logo on it, because I knew that (once again) it stood for quality hardware that was powerful, easy to use, and stable.

I would climb the entire ladder of IT management, starting off as a help-desk monkey, then working as a Perl programmer, web developer, Linux system administrator, all of which led me through varying levels of responsibility until I got to what I’ve spent the last six years doing, managing great teams of network and systems people at various organizations, a dream that started over thirty years ago.

A dream made possible by – heck, a dream carved out of whole cloth by – a pair of hippies in a garage who decided they should be aggressive about getting cheap Apple II computers into the hands of educators.

So, Steve… Thanks for giving this geeky kid a vision of what he wanted to do for a living, and providing the tools for thirty years (more or less) to help me do it.

Posted by: dballing | September 11, 2011

10 Years Ago

10 years ago, I was waking up for an ordinary day. I’m an early riser. My typical day at this point is to wake up around 5:30a.m., turn on the TV to KRON, and listen to their early morning news while I slowly wake up in the other room checking my e-mail and surfing the web.

On September 11, 2001, I woke up a little later than normal. I turned on the TV, saw the comforting face of Matt Lauer and continued on to my office and stopped short in my tracks. Why was Matt Lauer live at 5:50am PT?

I went back to the living room, sat down, and proceeded to not leave that spot except to grab my laptop or go to the bathroom for a couple days.

I remember an e-mail later that morning from someone at Yahoo management that basically said “we’ve got no idea if Silicon Valley is any sort of target”, and they knew some people would be coming into the office and some people wouldn’t and basically if you wanted to stay home that’s fine, and if you wanted to work from home, that’d be great, but it was really like this crazily worded hall pass… We realize you’re not going to get shit done for the next day or two at least, but if you can tear yourself away from the news, there’s still a bunch of stuff that needs to get done around the company.

I remember getting out my rifle and ammo from the back of the closet, and not necessarily “camping out” with them, but they were moved to a location that’d be a whole lot easier to access if there was a whole “get out now!” situation going on. Because, quite simply, nobody knew what was coming next. Was this it? Or was this all the distraction, Act One in some sort of ugly three act play.

In hindsight, of course, why on earth would Silicon Valley be a target? I think it was just an excuse we all made for ourselves so that people could sit at home and stay with their families.

I remember some concern about the location of my cousin, who thankfully got out of the area just fine. I can’t remember now if she worked in WTC, or just nearby, or even if it was just the somewhat irrational fear that she might’ve somehow been nearby by accident. It all blurs together.  As a New Yorker, I consider myself strangely blessed that I didn’t actually know anyone personally that was lost that day (or at least, to this day, I’m not aware of anyone from my past that was working there that day). It seems that everyone I talk to knows someone, or in a couple cases, know dozens of people, that were there that day. So in some way, I’ll never really fully understand the pain and horror of the day.

I remember days later, that my proudest moment ever working at Yahoo was the night that there was a celebrity telethon for the first-responders and their families. Every network was airing it, and they were taking donations both over the phone and online. Every dot-com put aside their rivalries and came together to “find” servers we could spare throughout our organizations to turn them into donation-servers, as we all shared the workload of processing all those donations. As the telethon happened, competitive advantage was largely ignored. If CompanyX saw a way that CompanyY’s servers could perform a little better, and handle a few more donations, that information was shared freely between them. As server farms ran out of capacity, I remember top-level management at Yahoo talking to product managers from properties like Books, or Movies, or whatever, and saying “Can we steal some of your servers?” and the answer always being “yes”, and those servers being quickly rebuilt and repurposed to join the donation farm. It was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the Finest Hours for a dot-com era more famous for decadence and hypervaluations.

I remember when air travel resumed, I had tickets to a Megadeth concert in San Francisco, and the band was going to be able to get back into the states in time to make the gig come off as scheduled. I had this whole huge argument with myself, weighing the fact that this didn’t yet feel to me like the time to go to a concert and “have fun”, and yet if I didn’t, wasn’t I letting those bastards win? I was afraid I would feel “disrespectful” of the circumstances if I went, and instead I chose just to stay home. I couldn’t yet bring myself to just be randomly social.

9/11 would have lasting effects on my politics, I think though. For some people – ignorant people – it became about the vilification of the “other”. Brown skinned people who believed in some other form of god did this to us, and those folks had to pay, and that mindset definitely began to permeate some of the mainstream politics of the day, even if those espousing it might not actually admit it in public. For me, though, it became a focal point for change in our society that forced me to really examine things. Before that date, I was interested in politics, but I viewed it as largely a pendulum swinging back and forth from left to right and my goal was simply to try and keep dragging it towards the center. In the years that followed, the things our government did in response to the attacks really clarified for me my libertarianism far more than any Ayn Rand novel ever could have hoped to. What had always previously been this nebulous, soft, “I’m a centrist” mentality was really refined into my libertarian beliefs of today.

I think everyone who lived through that day is changed in some fashion. For some people, the change was a horrific one that the rest of us will never really fully comprehend, as they lost loved ones, or a friend, or even dozens of friends. I count myself lucky that the change it evoked in me is simply one of political clarity.

But the main thing is – as trite and jingoistic as it sounds – that we don’t ever allow ourselves to forget not just what happened, but also how we all responded – both good and bad – in the days, weeks, and months that followed. That is the true legacy of 9/11.

Posted by: dballing | August 2, 2011

Is Alan Chartock really T. Herman Zweibel in disguise?

I’ve always gotten a kick out of Alan Chartock, the president/CEO of our local NPR station based out of Albany. I don’t always agree with him (in fact, almost never) but he’s got a way of expressing himself that I find intriguing and intelligent, which is so often missing on both sides of modern debates.

That said, though, I saw this recent picture of him getting a surprise birthday cake:

and all I could think to myself was how much he looked, in that shot, like the fictional “Father of American Journalism”, T. Herman Zweibel, descendant of the founder of The Onion:

Alan, is there something you’d like to tell us about your relationship to the founder of The Onion?

Posted by: dballing | January 31, 2011

Soviet-Era Nuclear Target Map

Years ago, I was helping a friend do some wiring work at an office in CT, and one of the decorations they had in their office was this vintage map of the US that was labeled like “Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Soviet Nuclear Bomb Targets” (or something like that). My memory of it was that it looked quite official, probably something FEMA had printed up for emergency response personnel or something during the 60s.
However, I’ve never been able to actually find one for myself (and the company in question is long since gone, I’m sure, so going down that path seems like a waste of time). My google-fu on this topic just seems to be completely failing me.
Anyone ever seen something like this? I’d love to get one for my office…

Posted by: dballing | December 14, 2010

Awesome Customer Service

For as often as I slag companies on bad customer service, I want to give props where it is due.
I was visiting a data-center out here in Salt Lake City this week, and I noticed that Ogio, the company who makes my laptop case, was located directly behind them in the industrial park.
Now, this laptop case is phenomenal. I love its configuration, the pockets it has and where it has them, pretty much every damned thing about it. EXCEPT the strap that it came with. The shoulder strap has these clasps (for connecting to the bag) that are horrific. They’re essentially a pincer, with a grip on one side that, if you move it, “un-pinches” and releases the bag. Or, alternatively, if you’ve got a lot of stuff in your bag, the sheer weight of it can pull downward enough to force the pincers to move up-and-away against their springs, releasing the bag.
And any design which can “accidentally release your laptop bag with its laptop still inside when you least expect it” is horrible.
After it happened a couple times (specifically the time in Israel that left a massive dent in my MacBook Pro …. still a little annoyed by that, btw…), I ditched the shoulder strap, and just started hand-carrying my laptop everywhere – on my commute, on planes, across Europe, etc., etc… and I hated it. I tried other straps we had for different bags in the house, but they weren’t the right length, or width, or whatever, and it just didn’t work. I did some research, bought a NEW laptop case from a different manufacturer, and after a couple weeks, went right back to hand-carrying my laptop case around by the handle.
So I dropped by the Ogio corporate offices, to see if I could talk to a designer about the defect-in-design. I was told that the designers were all in a meeting for the day, but if I came back in a little bit, the woman in charge of warranty replacements would be back from lunch. So I came back. And as I explained the problem to the receptionist, who then relayed it back to the warranty-person, she immediately understood the problem and came up front with a replacement strap which had a different design for the clasps. She indicated that they were aware that there were problems with the old design, and this was the new design going forward.
And life was good.
The new strap works great, doesn’t suffer from the problems the old one did, and allowed me to immediately start using my messenger-bag-laptop-case as a messenger bag again.
Thanks Ogio! You guys rock!

Posted by: dballing | December 6, 2010

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

I started to think the other day, about some of my favorite movies and television shows, and I started to find a pattern, let’s see if you can spot it:

  • Battlestar Galactica
  • The Walking Dead
  • The Postman
  • Jericho
  • Jeremiah
  • Dark Angel
  • Mad Max, et al
  • 28 Days Later
  • Survivors
  • Red Dawn
  • Tomorrow, When The War Began

The pattern that emerged was that they all dealt with some form of “post-apocalyptic” society. The “rules and order of law” have broken down, the government as we know it has basically ceased to exist and function, and a new society is forced to build itself out of the ashes/rubble/etc.
I started to wonder why that was, and it was then that it hit me. There’s a small part of me that thinks the only way we’re going to break free from the shackles of the left and the right to unify on a centrist-libertarian middle-ground is if the entire society is forced into some sort of reboot.
Now, I’m not saying “yeah, let’s go start the Zombiepocalypse so that the libertarian ideals can rule the earth”. However, I’m pragmatic enough to see that the DNC and the GOP have been in power long enough to rig the game so that they can ensure that nobody else really gets a shot at even coming in second place, or if they do, it’s in a manner carefully coordinated by them so that the “damage” to their two-party agenda is relatively minor. Pretty much the only way their chokehold on American politics could be broken is if a couple zombies started biting the wrist of the choke-holders.
I know, I know, it’s weird. But then again, I read about Burbclaves in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and I think to myself “I want to live in a future of Burbclaves!”

Posted by: dballing | November 19, 2010

I Declare A Fatwa On Dunkin’ Donuts

It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced this level of abysmal Customer Service.

D loves her morning coffee. But, sometimes, she wants coffee and a breakfast wrap, or a bagel, or donuts, or something. At which point, we usually pile into the car and run over to the Dunkin’ Donuts.

Neither of us is a huge “cream cheese” fan for morning bagels, so we usually order our bagels with butter. The problem is that the last four or five times we’ve brought the bagels home, we’d discover – ta-DA! – cream cheese. And since I absolutely despise cream cheese on bagels, that generally means I go without (since, on a work-from-home day, I’ve already lost enough time on a breakfast run that I can’t really justify going out and getting something else).

So this morning, when we went through the drive-thru at the Dunkin’ on Ulster Avenue in Kingston, we were very specific. Here’s how the order process went:

  • Plain Bagel, Toasted, with Butter
  • 2 Old Fashioned Donuts
  • Everything Bagel, Toasted, with Butter
  • Gingerbread Donut
  • Large French Vanilla Coffee, Regular

And, then, at the end of all that, the following missive: “PLEASE make sure the bagels have butter. Every time we order bagels with butter, we get home to find they have cream cheese on them.” The disembodied voice on the other end of the speaker says “sure, no problem.”

We pull around. I have to repeat to them the quantity and type of donuts, because apparently that got lost in translation somewhere. They give me a total, and we pay. I get my receipt, and a bag with the bagels. On the receipt, one of the bagels is listed as “PLAIN CC”.

Me: Both of those bagels have butter?
DD Cashier #1: Yes.
Me: Because this receipt says that one of them has CC.
DD Cashier #2: One butter, one cream cheese.
Me: No, both butter, just as I requested.
DD Cashier #1: Can I see that?
(we pass back to her the bag with the receipt with the bagels. She goes off and appears to check something. She comes back a minute later, handing me the bag back)
DD Cashier #1: OK, it’s all right.
(I pass the bag to D in the passenger seat, asking her “check it over.” She discovers her everything-bagel is, lo and behold, with cream cheese)
Me: (passing the everything bagel back) That certainly looks like cream cheese, not butter.
DD Cashier #1: What’s it supposed to be?
Me: BUTTER!
(she takes the bagel and walks away. There appears to be some discussion out of sight about what’s going on)
DD Cashier #2: The manager is getting you a refund. The problem is when you order a Combo 3, it defaults to Cream Cheese unless you say otherwise.
Me: I didn’t order a “Combo 3″. I ordered a bagel with butter, and another bagel with butter.
DD Cashier #2: I know, but just in the future, if you’re ordering a Combo 3.
Me: But I don’t. And I didn’t.
(she wanders off)
DD Manager: (handing me like 60¢ or something) Here’s your change. So you know, a Combo 3 –
Me (and D, almost in sync, shouting almost the same thing nearly at the top of our lungs now): STOP. I didn’t order a combo 3. I ordered a “bagel with butter”. And every time I order a “bagel with butter” you guys want to give me friggin’ cream cheese, and I hate cream cheese.
DD Manager: Well, it should all be fine in the future.
Me: Well, look, you guys haven’t gotten it right the last five times we’ve ordered it, and no matter how many times I said “butter” this time around you still couldn’t sort it out. So the problem is in here (making gestures towards the Dunkin’ Donuts building), and not in here (making gestures towards the car). So you’ll forgive me for doubting your guys’ ability to get it right.
(DD Manager walks away)
(we wait)
DD Manager: (looking back) Do you need something?
Me: The other bagel?
DD Manager: what other bagel?
Me: The everything bagel with butter that we sent back because it was wrong?
(some shuffling out of sight, and the Manager comes back with a bag, which I hand to D, again imploring her to check it. While this is happening, the car behind us pulls around and leaves. I don’t blame her, it’s been about 10 minutes we’ve been sitting here by now).
D: It’s butter.
Me: Great, we’re outta here.

As we pulled away, I declared Dunkin’ Donuts “dead to me.” It’s worth noting that the last fast-food joint I declared a dead-to-me fatwa on, the Boston Market, closed its doors a couple months later. That’s the kind of trendsetter I am. When I stop going places, those places go out of business.

So I’m lookin’ at you Dunkin’ Donuts. You’d better educate your staff not to change the customers’ orders into unwanted combos that actually mess up the order, and to tell your managers not to berate their customers for “ordering things wrong”, when they’re not actually doing so, or it’ll be your undoing.

Posted by: dballing | January 2, 2010

The Kindle

So, this week, I did something I’d been reluctantly avoiding for a while: I bought a Kindle.
I’m still somewhat “anti-Kindle”, even after its purchase. Is it a cool device? Absolutely. At a purely “geek/technical” level, it’s a great little device.
My beef with the Kindle has always been that my grandfather bestowed his genetic makeup on me when it comes to a love of the printed word. I remember thumbing throw walls of books that he had taken great care of his entire life… borrowing books that clearly had been in “The Library of John F. Balling” (as the embossed title page would tell you) for decades. There was a shared bond, that my hands were turning those pages just as my father’s might have, and my grandfather’s before that.
And a Kindle is completely incapable of that sort of history.
D told me, when we discussed it, that we could always buy (again) the dead-trees version of a book if it was “worthy of permanence”, but by the same token, there were books in my grandfather’s collection that I remember reading that weren’t, necessarily, “life-changing permanent-collection” books, but were just common paperbacks.
But, I try to keep an open mind (no, really, I do, I’m just not always successful!), and recently had a couple bucks to spare and decided to take a chance, and see if I liked it. Easing my mind was the realization that I could treat the Kindle like a USB drive on my Mac and rip the DRM’ed books off of the unit, and stash them somewhere else (in case Amazon decides to delete them from peoples’ units, or in case the technology sucks, etc., etc. By having copies of them at least, I can always break the DRM later (using the DMCA’s interoperability exception as the legal basis), so there’s more of a feeling of “ownership” than of being some crummy “licensee” (even if the Kindle terms and conditions are clear that it’s the latter… at the end of the day, the reality is much more important than the legalities on something like that).
So, … any suggestions of good books to download to my Kindle? :-)

Posted by: dballing | December 27, 2009

How To Destroy An Entire Industry – The Healthcare Edition

So this is something I’ve been wondering if my “progressive” healthcare-reform-loving friends would be able to answer: What are you going to do when the healthcare reform bill destroys the healthcare industry? And it will, and it’s not hard to sort out how… Here’s how it works:
The healthcare reform package bills, currently awaiting conference committee, both include provisions which require insurance companies to take on high-risk customers, and customers with pre-existing conditions. In other words, customers who will cost the insurance companies billions of dollars in outflow, but only generate minimal income (in relation to their expenses anyway).
Now, anyone can see that this situation isn’t tenable for the insurance companies, taken by itself. If I can force any company to sell things to customers, at a loss that’s measured in several orders of magnitude, per customer, then even a child can understand how they’ll go broke. (To demonstrate with a child, have a child buy a bunch of toys at $10 each and then be forced to sell those toys to “kids who really need toys” at $1 each. Require that the kid go buy more toys when they run out, and keep selling toys to any other kid who asks to buy one… they’ll understand it really quick).
Now, the healthcare reform bills’ answer to this dilemma is to force everyone to get healthcare coverage from some provider, regardless of how little you might need it.
There’s an absolutely sick number of young adults who, every day, have done the math to realize that their healthcare expenses, per annum, cost FAR less than their healthcare PREMIUMS would cost, and so they ride the “risk train” and pay as they go for services they need. (Some of these folks will hedge their bets by buying less-expensive healthcare insurance with high deductibles just in case something million-dollars-heinous happens in their lives).
With those folks, who will generate far more income than outflow on the insurance-providers’ books, the insurance companies will in effect subsidize the losses they are forced to take on the aforementioned high-risk customers.
But, you see, here’s the trick, and the part where “progressives” miss the boat. Congress’ ability to write laws is based on the Constitution, and the powers enumerated to it in that document. In the absence of a specific grant of power, their authority falls to the Interstate Commerce Clause, a wholly overused bit of legal art which says that Congress has the right to regulate commerce between the states.
However, refusing to participate in commerce (e.g., refusing to buy insurance) isn’t something that Congress can regulate. If you were participating in some sort of interstate commerce, then certainly Congress would be within its legal jurisdiction, but there’s nothing in the Constitution which says that they can force you to participate in commerce, which will then be regulated.
So, as soon as something passes which requires John Doe #s 1…500 to participate in commerce they don’t want to, you will see it go to the courts. And the Courts, having more than a First Grade understanding of ConLaw, will throw out the part requiring people to buy insurance, because it doesn’t have a constitutional leg to stand on.
But the trick is — the part of the law requiring insurance companies to cover people, since they are interstate entities for the most part, will stick. The insurance companies will be forced to carry people who will cost them far more than they bring in, and they won’t have the people who bring in far more than they cost to cover the losses. They’ll eventually start to go belly-up, and you’ll have a crisis far worse than the banking crisis ever looked.
So, my questions for my Democrat friends are:
(a) How do you intend to get around the clear-cut Constitutionality issue, and
(b) What do you intend to do for healthcare when there’s nobody left around to cover you at all?

Posted by: dballing | June 23, 2009

Fear Itself

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

K, Men In Black

CNN is running a story, or rather a fear-mongering piece of tripe, about how “people on the terrorist watchlist are managing to buy guns and nobody’s stopping them.”
Now, there’s two things wrong with the story. The first is the premise itself is flawed, and the second is how blatantly slanted the story is.
On the first part… we live in a nation of laws and principles, and one of those principles is “innocent until proven guilty.” When someone is convicted of a crime, they give up some of their rights, but if they’re just suspected of a crime, well, they get to keep on walking and talking and going about their business. That’s how it’s supposed to work in a free society.
Also, seriously, the “Terrorist Watch List”?!?!? THAT’s what we should be using to stop people buying firearms? The list that everyone knows is flawed? The list that is no more complicated than “your first and last name”, so if you happen to have a common Arab name, you are going to be shit-outta-luck because there’s undoubtedly some terrorist who’s used your name as an alias? The list that has banned freakin’ Congressmen from flying? The one that has banned 6-month-old children from flying? THIS is the list we want to use to curtail peoples’ rights?
Seriously, I don’t fuckin’ think so.
And, of course, to the second part – the thinly veiled agenda of the article itself. When I was taking Journalism classes, we were taught some of the “basics” of Journalism. The most important parts of the story, the things you want your reader to take away from the article, you put in the first paragraphs. Many readers won’t read whole stories, so you put the things you, as a writer or as a news agency, think the reader should care about in the top paragraphs, and put the rest, in descending order of importance, down through the article.
The “least important” aspects of the CNN article? The failings in the watch-list, how ineffective it is at even identifying terrorists, the fact that using it would be so overbroad as to be unconstitutional, etc.
Not mentioned at all in the article is the most crucial (because, as Journalism rules go, the least important things to the agency are the things that get cut for space), and that is “what it means to be a terrorist”. In the world of terrorism defined by the United States Department of Defense? PROTEST is a form of “low-level terrorism”. So, technically, as far as the DoD is concerned, if you protest — if you exercise your Constitutional right to freedom of speech, or to petition your elected government for redress — you are classified as a “low-level terrorist”, and thus are eligible to have your right to own a gun infringed upon.
In Soviet Russia, terrorism defines you….

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