Wanting Things To Work.

A Technology Society Ponders Bureaucracy
A wonderful metaphor of a frustrated technology society that keeps hitting it’s shin on bureaucracy. 

The fun part of this article is that you can replace “Trinidad and Tobago” with just about every country I have lived in or visited and have it be understood. It’s a global issue. 

It’s been a long week for me here in Trinidad and Tobago, yet along the way I met kindred spirits of all varieties.

When I went to one government office, I found that there were no numbers and that people were called as the security guard dictated. Fortunately, she dictated in a way that benefited me, but I do not know that it was fair.  I was done in record time, largely because of things I had done with the office in 2011 to turn the bureaucracy against itself in a loop, in a hope it would be fixed. It hasn’t been fixed, of course, but my prior work and explanation – and I daresay my sincerity – got me out of there in less than an hour.

The next day, I would take the form from that office to Yet Another Government Office after researching the appropriate website as to the requirements. I almost got it done that day – the office required 2 forms of ID, the website said ‘some form of ID’, and I was stalled for a day. The next day, I dutifully returned bearing two forms of ID and some other unrequired documentation to smooth things over. In less than an hour, a complicated process that stymies people for weeks was begun.

I know how those systems work and how they don’t. I have insight. And in both of those cases, I spoke with customer service representatives who were as frustrated with the process as I was and who made a crappy process work right. Whether it works out, I should know within a week.

That’s Not So Bad.

If this sounds like it was easy, it may seem that way on the surface – but it wasn’t as easy as it should be. It wasn’t as easy as it could be. Dealing with government offices, paying bills, visiting the bank – these things are unpredictable. People end up losing hours of work in government offices all over the country. The offices will argue that the people weren’t prepared, or didn’t listen, and some even treat them so. Some people are simply idiots – I found a few sitting around me here and there on their umpteenth time speaking with the same people over and over again but not actually listening.

There’s the way things probably should work, and then there’s the way things really work. It’s that thing that maybe should be called cognitive dissonance I am writing about.

The least stressful way of dealing with things is largely by understanding reality and dealing with it. And yet, decades of doing that here in Trinidad and Tobago have not given any improvement – I will argue that it enables it. I was heartened, though, that a new generation is entering these government offices and that they understand it – empathize – from their side of the desk as well. I thanked them for that.

We Want Things To Work.

We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, we can see things wrong faster than they can be fixed by the snaggle-toothed gears of bureaucracy. Many systems around the world are outdated by so much that it boggles the mind. For me at times, it’s a special kind of Hell where, as someone who has designed systems, I cringe inwardly even as I keep a smile on my face. Getting angry doesn’t make things better, allowing it to stay the same doesn’t make things better… but here and there some strategic poking might work.

Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can stand up to a system and stare it down with a smile. Most of us get frustrated, angry, depressed… either we are beaten, or we rage against the machine.

Neither works.

To fix the mechanisms of society, we need to not only understand how things work well beyond social-media (read: armchair) discussion, but be able to push things the way that we think they should go. A smile here, a joke there, standing up for yourself yet being flexible enough to get what you need out of the system.

That’s what made it a long week.

Those two offices alone, while I spent less than 2 hours altogether at them, required driving for 2 hours. It required researching things as best I could, it required roughly a decade’s worth of sorted documentation. It required patience that the world as it is pushed onto the shoulders of a once young and passionate man who raged against the machine… until he realized what he was doing wasn’t working.

Until he realized that he needed it to work now instead of when things were done ‘right’ at some point in an unforeseeable future.

Things get better, but it takes a moderate voice to make it happen. Yelling makes you hoarse and assures no one will listen to you. Allowing it to go on unchecked makes you an enabler. To affect change, a clear and human voice needs to be heard.

If only you could explain that to those that rage against the machine… or enable it by their silence.

And still, there’s that young man in me that wants to rage ineffectively against the machine.. which is why I wrote about it for me. Maybe you’ll benefit. 

Google, War and Ethics.

When 3,000 employees send an email to Google’s CEO about not wanting to be involved with warfare projects, it shows that there are at least 3,000 people who are willing to stand up for their own personal ethics.

It also means that in this day and age, Google employees are paid enough to have the privilege to do so.

Many people are forced to compromise their own ethics to pay the bills. At least some working for one company aren’t in such a boat, who are willing to speak up to their CEO.

Let’s see what happens.

Facebook, Google, et al: It’s Not The Data, It’s The Context.

ContextsDylan Curran recently published Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you – an article which should open the eyes of anyone who uses Facebook or Google.

It’s a good article, and it shows how much data people give up freely – who doesn’t have a Gmail account or a Facebook page these days? – but it’s lacking something that most people miss, largely because they’re thinking of their own privacy or lack of it.

I requested my data from the sites – Facebook had 384 megabytes on me, and my Google Data I will get on April 7th since I opted for 50 gigabytes. All this data, though, is limited to what I have done.

It lacks the context. We are all single trees in the forest, and these companies aren’t so much in the habit of studying trees by themselves. They have the data of the forest of trees. That context, those interactions, you can’t really download. The algorithms they have derive data from what we hand over so willingly because it costs us nothing financially.

So, while they can give us our data, and some companies do, they can’t give us someone else’s data – so we only get the data on that single tree, ourselves. We learn only a small amount of what their algorithms have decided about us, and while Facebook has a way to see some of what their algorithms have decided about you, they are not compelled to tell you everything about your digital shadow. Your digital shadow has no rights, yet is used to judge you.

What’s your context? That’s the real question. It’s what they don’t show you, what they have decided about you from your habits, that they don’t truly share. That is, after all, their business.

Know that, be conscious of it… and don’t be an idiot online, no matter how smart you think you are. Everything you do is analyzed by an algorithm.

Portable MariaDB and Python (USB drive)

Schlüssel / Keys #apple #MacBook #MacBookPro #USB #Opener #Bottleopener #Prada #KeyringI’ve got a few projects rotating through the front burners, and one of them involves setting up a MariaDB instantiation on a USB key or drive or whatever you want to call it. And I want Python, at least for development. The nomenclature goes out the door when there’s more conflicted marketing than unconflicted engineering.

There’s some good stuff I found along the way that others might find useful. If you just want to get to the core of the solution, skip down to the ‘My Solution’ portion of this entry.

Stuff Found Along The Way.

I learned a few things along the way. For example, some people might be taken by this article on installing a web server on a USB key. Before you run off, you’ll might want to know about the Windows 10 Version of XAMPP available only on this German site (that I could find at the time of this writing).

A little rant here: Someone needs to do an AMP stack with Python. If I get bored enough and have enough time, maybe that will be something I fiddle with.

There is, of course, the ability to simply run a portable Linux install – I would historically go with Knoppix – but I opted out of doing that at this time because I just don’t want the overhead. No distro wars here, plenty of good distros here. In the end, when the time comes, I’ll research the new portable distros that have come out.

My Solution

It’s really simple. Just download MariaDB and drop the archive (zip, tar, whatever) onto your USB drive. Decompress it there. When you run it off the key, use the  “–no-defaults” option. If you’re running Windows, modify your shortcut with it.

“–no-defaults” keeps all paths relative. Bear that in mind if things get wonky. They haven’t for me, yet.

As far as Python,  WinPython is the answer for Windows. Runs right off the USB key. Read the documentation, someone wrote it for a reason.

Yeah, I know. Linux. Eventually, it will likely go that route, but for now it has to stay Windows 10 because of humans who use Windows 10.

Why I Never Cared About Certifications

fire (1)I have a special disdain for professional certifications in technology. Largely, they are indoctrinations designed to protect market-share.

An example that leaps to mind is a lukewarm intellect I encountered who – to his credit – worked really hard, and probably still is a certified Microsoft SQL Server guy. When a solution at the company we worked was best served by MySQL, he refused to touch it. It threatened him. He thought doing anything with MySQL would taint him. When it comes to professional certifications, he embodied what I’d seen over the span of two decades, where professional certifications were hammers and everything was a nail. Even zippers, which typically gives the result you would think.

I bring this up because, once again, I got a LinkedIn connection request from someone, I accepted, and they immediately started messaging me about ‘professional certifications’. I’m sort-of-kind-of-not-really-but-am retired. I didn’t want a professional certification when I was working – some employers did, but they learned to get along with me and not needing training papers laid out on the ground, as if I were a puppy.

There’s a little disdain in there.

When I started with technology, there weren’t certifications. You either knew things or you didn’t, you either learned things or you didn’t. I showed up for an interview at the first company I worked at in Texas dressed like a bad waiter.  With a briefcase, empty, but there for effect. My interviewer had ripped jeans. He asked me if I knew ‘C’ and ‘C++’. I said ‘yes’. I was hired. And I spent the weekend in the DeVry computer lab learning C and C++. Monday, I was coding for cash. It was 1989, I think.

And that’s how I worked over the years. I rode the waves of technology – leaving one engineering position in a multinational corporation to get into the Internet related technologies, working the ‘back end’ before we called it a back-end. From there, I rode waves – Content Management Systems, handwriting recognition, analyzing terabytes of data, and so on and so forth – moving on to the next interesting thing that was coming by long before they installed the bureaucracies of certifications. And when they started with the certifications, I moved on to something else. I even found myself writing guides – well received guides – for the certification site, “CramSession.com”, back in the day.

Don’t use the toilet at an interview unless you can demonstrate you’re certified on that. A note from your parents is not a certification, that’s just a reference.

So, I watch people who go out and get these certifications – a magical checklist of a roadmap that someone spread out ahead of them so that they could suckle their way up the food chain – or so they said. But when a company needed someone to get something working fast, as one former Director told me, I was the ‘team’ that came through, got results, and did things no one else could.

It’s what I do. I solve problems, not chase papers.

I still am. It’s who I had to be. It’s the unrestrained magic that Generation X had when we started that I managed to hold onto throughout. We grew up watching college dropouts begin to run the world. Bill Gates, The Woz (you might have heard of his partner, Steve Jobs). They thumbed their noses at the world and changed it… and promptly, with help from their peers and underlings, laid the foundation for something that they would have thumbed their noses at when they were kids. Full circle, like so many other things in life.

So do me a favor. Spare me the certification spam. I’ve written better documentation myself, and I have references.

Kthxbai.

Running The Biostar Racing P1

b20160823I had a problem. In my apartment here in South Oropouche, I had the need for a sort of media PC in the living room.

Sometimes I want to kick back and write on my old Chromebook while watching Netflix or a streaming news/space service on YouTube. Sometimes I want to write from my dining table – really, a patio table I have indoors because I like it. Sometimes, I want to listen to music while I’m working out in the living room. Sometimes, I want to have multimedia ability in the living room when I have visitors who aren’t in the bedroom (can I write that publicly?).

I’m in Trinidad and Tobago, so options are limited as far as what I can find locally. When I visited Pricesmart, I saw a Lenovo ‘Yoga Pad’ I almost got until I tried the keyboard (ugh!) and thought through what I actually wanted. They had a Haier Mini-PC that looked promising, but there were no boxes and a web search on my phone only showed a link to The Wizz whose site was down for maintenance.

I visited an Apple reseller and stared at the old and somewhat disappointing specs of the Apple Mini, which has become the one thing that Apple doesn’t seem to want to advance. And for the cost? Oh, Apple, your systems are so pretty, and OS-X is nice, but my word, your prices suck. Apple lovers, sorry, I see how you like spending your money but I can buy a lot of beer with the difference in price.

So I ended up at The Wizz in San Fernando, mainly to chase down the Haier and see what it looked like outside of a Pricesmart display that managed to tell everyone nothing. A gentleman helped me out, and dutifully trotted out the competition. That competition included the Biostar Racing P1, which I ended up with, as well as it’s little sibling, an Android version.

I’ll commend The Wizz here – over the years, on the rare occasions when I visited them, they have always been good – even over a decade ago when they were in some ways competition (I had a brief flirtation with wholesaling with one of their competitors). This was, hands down, my best experience with them. I picked up a keyboard, mouse and modest monitor for the system.

I got home. That’s when the troubles began.

Setting Up The Biostar Racing P1.

The box says that it’s Windows 10 compatible – and I mistakenly thought it actually came with Windows 10 on it. No such luck. Instead, it came with a CD for a system that – oh, this has got to take the cake – doesn’t have an optical drive. In fact, it’s so small, an optical drive couldn’t fit in it. So why on Earth would Biostar do this?

The documentation that comes with the system, a folded sheet of color printing, looks informative at a glance until you try to use it – they believe you know more than you do – and it’s actually not much better than their FAQ on installing Windows 10 on the Biostar Racing P1, dancing between informative and ‘WTF?’. It’s then I realized that my other systems also lacked optical drives – who uses those anymore? So here, I have a CD with no way to use it and cagey documentation on how to use the CD.

So I went with Linux. Lubuntu, Kubuntu – I went through quite a few distros in the course of an hour, using Rufus as noted in the FAQ, and every time there was no love for the AP6255 Wifi on the system. Oh, and the sound didn’t work. 3 hours in, I found myself scanning through kernel logs and considering hacking through all of it when I realized:

(1) I’m tired.
(2) I did not buy the machine to be a project, I bought it to be an appliance.
(3) I wasn’t committed to any course of action, I was committed to getting the results I wanted.

As it happened, a helpful cousin lent me a portable optical drive – so I (mistakenly) thought I’d install Windows from it. No joy – there is no Windows on that CD, I found, only drivers (not for Linux). At that point I realized I actually had to install Windows – I was tired – so I went to Microsoft and downloaded the ISO for Rufus to install via USB – that download took all night. I attempted to purchase a Windows 10 License, having figured out that it was necessary, but Microsoft gave me no joy. Amazon.com did. I punched in the product key during the installation on the Biostar Racing P1, and after an hour or so I used the borrowed optical drive to install the drivers.

It works, but honestly, this was annoying for me. Sure, I could have hacked through, sure, I could have done other things, but the documentation sucks and is a little misleading in my opinion. So, what do you need to know?

It’s a pain to get running, largely because no OS is pre-installed (to keep the price down, probably) and because the driver media is in a form that doesn’t come with the machine. You quite literally need another working machine to set the Biostar Racing P1 up, and if you don’t have an optical drive, you’ll have to navigate to Biostar to download the drivers, put them on a USB key, and hope you manage that without problems.

Now, using it once it’s all set up with Windows 10? Not bad. In fact, I wrote this entire entry using the system. Do I like it? Now that the annoyance of setting it up has passed, yes.

Would I suggest buying it for the casual user? Not unless you have a portable optical drive and access to a Windows 10 ISO as well as license. The lack of those two things is infuriating. It could easily be resolved by Biostar if they chose to install the OS at the factory – and honestly, they could toss a Linux distro on it themselves and save everyone some heartache. And money.

We don’t think the world is getting better. This is why we’re not sure.

Banksy in Boston: Overview of the NO LOITRIN piece on Essex St in Central Square, CambridgeI came across Max Roser’s (Programme Director, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford) post on the World Economic Forum through social media, and I didn’t have the time to address some of the issues I saw when I posted it. There is something that had struck me as viscerally wrong about it.

Now I know. In the broad strokes, the data points are cherry picked. When we look at how the world has improved based on static measures, we all should know that yes, the world has gotten better. That’s not why we don’t think it is.  It’s because the measures themselves haven’t improved. I’ll make my points quickly as related to his points.

Poverty

Globally, we have less people starving per capita. There’s no debate there. Where the debate should be is whether this should be a part of the debate. Population growth around the world varies; a nation with lower standards of living tends to have higher population growth while a nation with higher standards of living tends to have lower population growth.

So, if we look at the shell game of poverty, overall the number is decreasing. But is the standard of living? Are people moving forward without people being left behind? Is the number of people we’re leaving behind increasing or decreasing?

We hear more often than not about the ‘erosion of the middle class’. Where did they all go?

These are questions that we want to know the answers to; we know poverty is decreasing, but if our goal is constant improvement, shouldn’t our measure of how we’re doing improve as well? Or are we comparing poverty now with the cave people of a few thousand years ago? No, but metaphorically, the idea of comparing poverty across a few hundred years is a frequent optimistic perspective presented when the masses get a bit disturbed.

Literacy

Just by social media we know more people are attempting to communicate – some literacy is involved, but I daresay that there is some functional illiteracy out there that has snuck past testing that is supposed to demonstrate literacy.

I had a real world example today. A friend of mine’s granddaughter needed a reference on a form since the form she had filled out was outdated. He told me he needed me to sign it. I looked the old form over and told him I didn’t need to sign it, that she already had references on the old form, and all she needed to do was transfer them to the new form. No signatures required.

An hour later, while I was writing this, he stopped by and told me the new form needed my signature. It did not need my signature. I didn’t need to sign anything. Functionally, that’s a form of illiteracy.  Functional literacy was defined by UNESCO in 1960 – 58 years ago – as:

“using these skills in ways that contribute to socio-economic development, to developing the capacity for social awareness and critical reflection as a basis for personal and social change”

Not knowing the difference between putting your contact information on a form or signing a form is one example. So how are we measuring literacy?

By the numbers reported of those that can read by passing certain tests that, if you ever spend time on social networks, you need to question. Nevermind reading comprehension.

So, while the numbers of those that are reported as literate can be shown to have gone up – from students to teachers to administrators to nations, who wants to give worse reports? The incentive for true reporting is simply not there. How many college professors lose their hair dealing with freshmen?

Has functional literacy gone up? With increased bureaucracy over the decades, as well as technology, what is the new literacy? No one really knows. It’s sort of like the difference between pornography and art; we know it when we see it.

Health

Germ theory is the basis of the postulation here – something come up with in the latter half of the 19th century. We’re in the 21st century; we’ve made leaps and bounds since germ theory that have been put into practice – open heart surgery, as an example, has come a long way in the last few decades. Granted, it could not have happened without germ theory, but if we’re comparing how well we’ve done since germ theory a lot of other things should be spoken of.

Yet there is at least the allegation that big pharmaceutical companies overcharge – Brazil even went rogue with HIV medications because of it. Borders between nations become more permeable when there is a noticeable price difference in medications, where the medications flow to places of higher costs. The United States is no different here; people get medications from Mexico and Canada as examples. How much? I’m pretty sure we don’t have the data for it; black markets don’t publish their data.

Access to healthcare? In the U.S. alone, this has been one of the most sharply debated topics in the last decade.

So yes, gene theory has brought us a lot of good, but what have we done since? With an increased population – remember population growth? – partly because of our advances in medicine, I’d think we’d get some better points than just gene theory.

Yet I can see why no one wants to talk about how health insurance has helped people. After all, it was only about a century ago that doctors were paid in livestock. Gene theory, apparently, gave doctors much more.

Freedom

Oh, freedom. How do we define it? Is the person who works three jobs to pay the bills, ‘free’? Fortunately, no solid points were made in this section because it’s all pretty ambiguous. One has to wonder why it’s even in there.

Population

Our population is increasing! Yes, we know that. We’re painfully aware of it, and I am not certain that it’s an indicator of things being better. It could mean that a lot of people in nations with lower standards of living might simply be unable to watch the television that they want because of content distribution rights or lack of internet access.

As I pointed out in the section related to poverty – population growth is a factor that is not spoken of enough. You can check out all manner of statistics in the United Nations World Population Prospects 2017.

Education

We live in an era where there is cultural value placed on academic degrees; they were incentivized by salaries – at least at some point – and now the value of them is publicly questioned. Getting in debt for a college education and then being unable to get a job to repay that debt is a reality in the world. Yet we say that education is increased.

Formal education. But how has formal education changed? Aside from changing and adding some subjects, adding a lot of administration, education itself has not changed – and more than once we’ve seen education standards dropped so that more people pass. We don’t talk about that.

So while more people may suffer a formal education by 2100, can we honestly say that they have been educated better than now? Than 10 years ago? We’re talking about quantities when we should also be dealing in quality.

Why Do We Not Know That The World Is Changed?

We know that the world has changed – in our little pockets of what we read and see in the media, social or otherwise, and the reinforced perspectives we get from them. People share things without reading them, without rigorous thought (education? literacy?).

The world has gotten much better since we were cave dwelling mammals, though there is at least a sense of wonder when I consider that: Did we leave the caves because of the population boom caused by fire? Cave real estate maybe got so expensive that finally – probably a guy named Bill or Steve – said, “screw this, I’ll make my own cave!”. And so to this day, we live in variations of the cave, usually made by someone else. With fire. And cooling.

And yet, how have we really improved? The same country that has children eating tide pods also had an immigrant send an electric car to Mars while at least one person on the Tesla waiting list got upset (if they didn’t, I wonder if they should own one?). We have advances in medicine that should have us discussing contraception, even of the immaculate variety, and technology is giving us sex robots that – fortunately, so far – don’t distribute little humans like sexually transmitted diseases, or like Oprah. Look under your seat! There’s one for you!

We have advanced so far in technology that our education, our literacy and lack of it, has become more pronounced as we reinvent Babel despite people speaking the same language. We have people who are so angry that they’re either a mass shooter or a terrorist (but never both). We have archaic systems of governance that cannot shift as fast as the public can become less accurately informed.

The world has gotten better in some ways, yes, but it has become worse because people who never would have known each other 100 years ago now see each other’s posts quickly, algorithmically, based on what someone in a code cave thought was the best solution… so far.

We really don’t know whether things are getting better or worse. We only know within our own contexts and what we are told, and what we are told we too rarely question because our education systems teach us to accept what we are told rather than challenge it.

Challenge it. Challenge everything.  Things will not get better otherwise, and if people actually challenge things more, people won’t feel the need to write posts about ‘how much better things are’, a Hallmark card from the World Economic Forum to the ailing masses who aren’t seeing the improvements promised, with the dreams of yesteryear either dashed or worse, undreamed.

I, for one, do not wish any carcinogens blown up my posterior, no matter how fancy the pipe.