Friday, January 27, 2012

blah blah work blah blah awesome blah

My brain is completely full of my job right now. I think that makes me boring at parties--I just got back from one and I'm pretty sure I was boring people--but holy crap, it's just fascinating. I like Fridays because I get to have my one-on-ones with most of my team, who are all incredibly awesome, smart, nice people. They're a joy to just sit down and listen to and talk with, and then I get to find out how their week was with all the stuff I didn't see, and if there's anything I should look into, and if there's something that needs to change, maybe I can't do it immediately but so far I've figured out how to work on it and do it eventually. I get to listen and respond, and especially to do it one person at a time, which is the only way I can do it and have it not be draining.

Basically, it's the end of the week and I get to talk to nice people, one at a time. And barring emergencies, most people have given up on completing anything for the week. It's a good transition to the weekend.

...where my brain is still filled with work. Anna points out that this the first tech job that has fully engaged me in the time we've been together, and I'd say it's the first such period since 2006 or so. And I'm good at it. The job fits me in a way no job has in a long time. It's not just me: I've been told as much by people around me. It's not that I should have been a tech lead before; more that this is a confluence of me and a team and a company and projects to produce a situation where I'm the right choice to do the thing.

At least, we all think and hope so. I've never actually done this before. First time for everything!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

a quick meme before I rest

Pretty fried at the moment. I went to aikido last night! Then today I learned some tough lessons about when not to go to meetings, or when to leave once I'm there.

Meanwhile, J thinks this is beyond hilarious:

And it is, in fact, pretty wonderful.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

how much is $50?

J has been enjoying playing with the Scratch programming environment. There's a thinger you can buy that has light and sound sensors and a couple of controls, that integrates with Scratch, so for example you could trigger an animation by pressing the button or clapping. It's about $50 with shipping, and Anna and I were debating whether it was worthwhile.

We mentioned it to J one morning, saying that we were thinking about it, and he asked me if $50 was a lot of money.

Well. Isn't that a question? He's used to his parents not having much money, and Anna at least has always been very open with him about that. It's pretty obvious (so he and Anna have discussed it) that I make Silicon Valley Geek Money, based on the number of Shiny Things I have, or that we now live in this shiny apartment. We had plenty of everything growing up, but because my parents raised me right and I've spent time in the world actually learning what other humans' lives are like, I told him this:
Whether fifty dollars is a lot really depends on how much money you have. For some people, if they don't have fifty dollars, they can't buy food or put gas in the car. For others, maybe they need that money for the electric bill. For me, I'm very lucky, and fifty dollars is something I can easily afford, but it's enough to make me think carefully about whether I really want or need that thing.
Money is such a strange topic: how much of it we have, how much we want, what we use it for. It's a challenging thing to talk about, but unless you're going to be one of those people who makes millions of dollars and lives in a crappy apartment eating ramen, it's pointless to pretend the differences don't exist.

I think one of the most important things to convey to children when talking about money is how infuriatingly unfair and arbitrary it is. I think a lot about the habits of handling money that get passed down through generations: my brothers and I have varying financial situations, but we all share a view that money is something to be managed carefully, saved and invested if possible, and used judiciously to improve someone's life (ours or someone else's). We don't have what Anna calls the "poverty mindset," where money is something to be spent immediately, which is what happens when you're poor: you've always got a bill to pay or food to buy. People with that money habit will often carry it into a period of life when they actually have money that needs shepherding; I've had friends, who didn't even grow up particularly poor, smoke or spend their $90,000 salary and need to borrow $600 to make their $1200/month rent.

It's all such a crapshoot. My parents worked hard to give me opportunities, and I took them, and worked hard (eventually), and made my own, but ultimately what it all comes down to is that I have a gift for writing software instead of, say, novels or newspaper articles. It's not fair at all, but the best I can do is instead of pretending God just likes me better and everybody else is engaging in the "politics of envy," as Mitt Romney says, to acknowledge that most people are getting pretty well shafted, and direct my donations and my votes toward leveling the field.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

commence ass-kicking

Well, sort of. I'm starting to acquire competence at my job, though, and that's always a nice feeling. I'm at my strongest either when dealing with people relationships, or working on broad systems-design questions. As the head of the video encoding team at an online video streaming company, though, we're highly visible and there are always salesguys and customers and partners who would all like to talk to me. It's a little awkward because I don't know much about video encoding, and I haven't spent these past months up to my elbows in the lower-level code.

We're actually getting started on our re-architecture! We did the first tiny chunk last week, and next week, while we'll be a bit slower from ramping up a new team member, we'll start on the heavy lifting. We hired an encoding expert, too, and we're all really excited to have someone on board who really knows video deep-down: it's only been a couple weeks without Abhik, but we're feeling the absence of that expertise.

I think I'm doing well, considering my first management job is for a team:
  • with 5 (very smart, very kind) people.
  • incredibly visible to customers and the rest of the company.
  • completely and conspicuously critical to the company's success.
  • specializing in something I know very little about.
  • a complete mess in technical and process terms.
All told that actually seems like sort of a silly job to take. I do like doing difficult things, though, and beyond that, it feels like a Right Livelihood thing to do. I feel like I can bring my training and practice to this position where people are actually paying quite a lot of attention to what I say and do. I feel like I can be patient, compassionate, firm, and mostly calm--I've been getting Pretty Excited lately on a few different issues--and that I can meet people where they are and respond directly to their needs. It's the way I try to teach, but that's because that's the way I try to be: I had to adjust to my students in Chile the same way I adjust to very strange people talking to me on the street. We all want to feel heard, and I'm good at listening.

I'll be happy when I've stopped going to meetings and I spend time coding again, but so far, it's been a good choice.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

reading the classics

I started reading William F. Buckley's God and Man At Yale. It's good, in its way: an articulate, seminal, whining bitchfest about how Yale doesn't do enough to promote Christianity among its students. That was 1951, and it's impossible to imagine they do any more of it now: the trends Buckley moans about have long since taken over the entire Western world.

Those trends are easily grouped into the word "liberalism," although since conservatives have managed to redefine liberalism to mean "health care for poor people" while simultaneously turning it into a slur, we should maybe find some other words. "Secularism" is okay, although I would go with "secularization"; "postmodernism," "relativism," and "postcolonialism" all start to point us in the right direction. Maybe we could go with "peaceful globalization," because what Buckley complains about is the dilution of absolute truths in the interests of every living together peaceably. We can look at a couple of quotes to start.
In point of fact, the argument I shall advance does not even require that free enterprise and Christianity be "good," but merely that the educational overseers of a private university should consider them to be good. [Foreword]
That just pushes the argument off a level: why is it so important that the overseers should think so? He is a devout, uncompromising Christian, so he takes the promotion of Christianity to be an inherent good. Who could possibly argue with that? Well, even in 1951, it turns out, the faculty of Yale could, and did. He makes an airtight case that many of them were inappropriate assholes about it, but mostly he documents how the faculty's religious faith ranges from lukewarm down to antipathetic.
There is surely not a department at Yale that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths. The acceptance of these notions, which emerge in courses in history and economics, in sociology and political science, in pyschology and literature, makes impossible any intelligible conception of an omnipotent, purposeful, and benign Supreme Being who has laid down immutable laws, endowed his creatures with inalienable rights, and posited unchangeable rules of human conduct. [p. 26]
This sort of relativism is in part the on-the-ground outcome of the postmodernists' incomprehensible masturbatory babbling, but it's also the result of thinking for a few days and realizing that there's no logical reason to consider your own cultural and religious viewpoint privileged over anyone else's. If you grew up in the West, there are billions of people in Africa and Asia who see things way, way, way differently. It's good and appropriate to make value judgements--I make lots--but you need a better reason than "it's always been this way."

(Interesting side note: what had Buckley learned about "inalienable rights" by 1986, at age 61? He advocated tattooing AIDS carriers. It seems he did eventually stop being a white supremacist, sort of, but I'm very excited to read more of his stuff.)

Now we come to the "peaceful globalization" part. Buckley is railing against Yale's default extracurricular Christian organization, Dwight Hall. The rantiest paragraph is a good one, so permit me an extended passage.
Dwight Hall's magazine, Et Veritas, has no clear-cut editorial brief for Christianity. In fact, membership on its staff requires no profession of faith in even the most attenuated dogmas of Christianity. The November 1949 issue of Et Veritas, did, it is true, contain some sort of a statement of faith by the editors, who "choose the Christian" philosophy, but as a "personal conviction rather than an editorial policy." Later they reminded their readers that they do not forsake their "conviction that the Christian philosophy is the most adequate, the most pervasive, the most conducive to understanding" (italics in the original). Such a utilitarian conception of Christianity, coupled with this brand of self-effacement and steadfast refusal to proclaim Christianity as the true religion (which is what all genuine Christian leaders proclaim it to be, thus committing themselves logically to the proposition that other religions are untrue) is a sample of the adulteration of religion to the point that it becomes nothing more than the basis for "my most favorite way of living." The instincts are fine, and a good life is inevitable for such persons, but so long as what they profess can be subscribed to wholeheartedly by an atheist, we have not, really, got religion at all.
There we have it: "thus committing themselves logically to the proposition that other religions are untrue." It's a great idea! Yes! Live with integrity! Screw all those milquetoast pansies acknowledging the validity of other viewpoints!

It turns out that telling your neighbors their entire worldview is wrong and they're going to burn in eternal hellfire when they die makes for a rocky relationship here, now, in this world, together. This was already making coexistence difficult hundreds of years ago, and if you want to avoid war, it's completely untenable in an age of jet travel and email. We can't pretend that the world's 1.5 billion Muslims are all deluded sinners who have rejected Christ. It turns out the vast majority of them are quite nice, and their world has its own wisdom, bound up in and growing out of its usually problematic texts.

The problem is that every religion insists it's The One True Way, and most of them follow this line of reasoning:
  1. We're the One True Way.
  2. We've given Those People a chance to accept the One True Way.
  3. Because it's the One True Way, they must be deciding to reject it.
  4. Because they're rejecting the Ultimate Good, they must be evil.
  5. Because they're evil, we can oppress and/or kill them and it's totally okay.
I mean, everyone fights evil, right? Fighting evil is always the right thing. Unfortunately the world is a complicated place, and there are actually tight limits on we can label absolutely "good" and "evil" without destroying ourselves. Unless we want to just fight everybody, which is basically what Bush II tried. It plays well into Christianity's in-built sense of persecution, undimmed by millennia of dominance: the world is a broken, corrupt thing, and you must fight it, with faith.

We water down our absolutes so we can live together in peace, maybe at a cost to our sense of identity. I practice Buddhism, which is essentially the practice of learning to see that our identity was never really solid to begin with, so there's nothing we need to hold onto. I don't have a good general solution, except to note that I fall very much on the side of "whatever it takes to keep us from killing each other." Not everyone shares that choice.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The work changes I've been alluding to are now official: I'm taking over the video transcoding team that I've been working closely with for the past many months. It's 4 people, highly visible to customers, the former tech lead is leaving the company entirely, I don't know anything about video transcoding, and I've never run a team before. No pressure.

The first few weeks have been...not a sustainable way of working. Two days last week I had four and a half hours straight of meetings, which is way, way over my limit, especially when a big chunk involves video encoding questions way out of my expertise. Monday was more meetings, but today I did carve out a few hours to write some code, and I plan to be pretty firm about getting that, because otherwise the job won't be any fun.

Everyone at work is very kind and congratulatory, but they don't know--and don't absorb very quickly--the enormity of the task I've taken on. I'm not sure I understand it, and I've spent months cataloging and organizing and developing a direction to go in. It's a big mess: I was all excited to get some re-architecture work done, but when we scheduled this 2-week "sprint", the amount of time for re-architecture work was about 1/2 of one person's time (which can easily be eaten up by customer or production issues). But, we have talented people and we work well together, and we've got the organization behind us, so...we'll get things to a better place. Slowly, so far.