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.

Smartphone As Dashcam

Down The Road #Mojave #California #vanishingpoint #igersThis is not new. Plenty of people use their smartphones as dashcams, which I have now gotten into the habit of here in Trinidad and Tobago – mainly because there are a subset of drivers that take chances, and my vehicle has a pretty solid bull bar in front. For those that don’t, or think this is a new thing and want to save a few bucks rather than buy an imported dashcam… here you go.

In other words, I’m covering my posterior. Or what happens to the car in front of me’s posterior when they try to cut me off (most don’t when they see the bull bar), or when they suddenly hit their brakes, or when they swerve in front of me, or… you get the idea. Should anything happen, presto magico, I have actual video.

It also serves as a video blog (vlog) when I’m driving through my land; it gets uploaded to the cloud so I can note things that change in my absence, or document what is happening.

What You Need

A smartphone. I have a Huawei P10-Lite, something I’ll be doing a review on now that I have already beaten the snot out of, but any smartphone with video capability can do. This article mentions some dedicated dedicated apps for Android that I don’t use (I simply use the video), and it also mentions the smaller field of view – absolutely true – as well as wear on the smartphone.

Given smartphones are outdated pretty quickly anyway, I’m not worried about the latter, but you have been warned.

You’ll need a mount for the windshield. I have a pretty solid one since I’m offroad, and roads in Trinidad and Tobago are effectively routed around potholes.

You’ll want your air conditioning on to keep your phone from overheating.

That’s all you need, really – but it is a lot better to have external memory for your phone. My phone will take 256 Gig microSD, but I just picked up a 64 Gig microSD. You’ll want to change your default storage to the microSD, which you should find in your user’s manual that you threw away – but there are plenty of pages on the Internet that explain how to do it for your phone.

What to do

Plug your phone into the holder, and I suggest you charge it at the same time (common sense, really). Start recording video, drive around – and, regularly, back the videos up from your phone to a computer at home from which you can store it in the cloud or other storage options for as long as you want. Keep your phone memory as clear as you can – the less memory used on the phone, the better.