Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

I admit it: crab for Thanksgiving sounds pretty great!

Thanksgiving Alternatives

Amusingly written, and I thought it sounded tasty:
And if you’re going in with pork, you might as well go all in. The December issue of Food & Wine features a dish so trayf it could be served at the dinner reception for a Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran: bacon-crusted pork loin roast.
I actually like turkey. Go figure. Be he had me at bacon-crusted.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Racing Toward Extinction

I was terribly bored at lunch, so I was perusing the entertainment portion of the Sunday paper that was still sitting on the table. As I skimmed, I saw by chance a review of a new CD by Dido, and it wasn't the review per se that caught my eye, but the description of the industry approach to reviewers:
Because record companies no longer send out advance albums because they're convinced that all music critics moonlight as pirates with CD pressing plants in their backyards, we attempted to download the new Dido album from several rogue Web sites based in Russia, only to wind up with a desktop full of naughty videos (thanks for that!) and nasty viruses (not so much!).
Now, I know that the recording industry has been trying to kill online music for a long time, claiming that their old business model was the only one that would work. But now it appears they are trying to tick off all the reviewers who drove sales of their old model. Brilliant: Driving the reviewers to the pirates so they can hear the music they review!

They're doomed, and they don't even know why.

BTW, the review of the new Guns N' Roses CD on the same page was pretty funny. I suppose a review that starts out with "Axl Rose is an idiot." can't really end well for Rose.

It's a Nice Food Court, But Really...

I flew through Mexico City last summer, and had about a 4-hour layover in the airport, a part of which I spent in the food court, which was quite large and varied. But it never occurred to me to take up residence:
For reasons he can't explain, the Japanese man has been in Terminal 1 of the Benito Juarez International Airport since Sept. 2, surviving off donations from fast-food restaurants and passengers and sleeping in a chair.
Odd. Very odd. I've never been to Japan, but I can't imagine that life in the airport terminal is actually preferable to going home.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Memories of Past Geekdom

Oh, how old I feel!

A friend just pointed out that we're observing the 25th anniversary of the release of Turbo Pascal 1.0. I didn't actually buy it until it was at version 2.0 (for my CP/M system), but I used that (and succeeding versions) a lot.

Anyway, here is a blog post with reminiscences from Turbo Pascal's creator, Ander Hejlsberg. I had the good fortune to work with Anders and the Turbo Pascal team at Borland International back in the 1990s, on Turbo Pascal 6.0 onward through its migration to Windows and eventual morphing into the underpinnings of the fabulous product Delphi. As the technical writer for the TP team, I was told my job was to get inside Anders' brain and translate it for the rest of the world. That was a cool experience!

Anders may be the best programmer I've ever worked with; he's certainly the most proficient assembly-language programmer I've ever encountered. And he had a tremendous knack for knowing the right features to add to a product for the market.

Sadly, Anders went over to the dark side shortly after I left Borland (completely unrelated events!). He's done some amazing work on products there. Although his work is now in more customers' hands, he will probably never again have the same kind of influence over an entire generation of software developers that he had with Pascal and Delphi.

It's an amazing experience to be part of a team that works so well together on a product that is so important and influential. The Turbo Pascal team was tiny (about ten of us worked on TP 6, including doc, QA, and management), but always produced great stuff, usually on time, and was consistently profitable. I certainly owe most of my later success to the valuable lessons I learned while working at Borland.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Only a Miracle Can Save the Bears...

Indeed. This still brings tears to my eyes.

Yeah. I was there. Go Bears!!!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Speaking of Responsibility

First Mr. Greenspan discovers that there is greed messing up his perfect little free-market view of the economy. And now we're supposed to feel sorry for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who has to clean up this big ol' economic mess that has been foisted upon him.

From today's Washington Post:
In reflecting on his term, which comes to an end in January, Paulson said his biggest regret was not seeing the extent of the financial crisis as it developed. ... "We were always behind. We saw the problem, but it took us a while to see the severity of the problem," he said. "But even if we had been more clairvoyant, we wouldn't have been able to do much differently that what we have done."
Well, excuse me, but boo-hoo.

As Dean Baker points out:

The point is extremely simple. There was a huge housing bubble that should have been visible to any competent economic analyst. The bubble was fueled by an enormous chain of highly leveraged finance. (As head of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Paulson personally made hundreds of millions of dollars from this bubble.)

It was entirely predictable that the housing bubble would burst and that its collapse would have a huge impact on the financial system and the economy as a whole. There is zero excuse for Paulson being caught by surprise by a "storm" that he helped create.
Can't put it much more succinctly than that. Not only does Paulson personally and professionally bear responsibility for creating the situation in the first place, he has also been in a position to do something about it for some two-and-a-half years. Now we're supposed to believe this all came as a surprise to him?

Here's a hint, Henry: If you want to see where this economic crisis came from, or maybe see some of Mr. Greenspan's newly-discovered greed, just look in a mirror.

I am so ready for this pack of rats to be run out of town. Even if the next bunch is bad (and I don't see how they can be nearly as bad), it will at least be fresh rats. Oy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sad Passing

I was sad to read today of the passing of Pete Newell. Although the story mentions that he had cancer a few years ago, I don't know that it's accurate to say he died of it.

I know of Newell primarily because of his affiliation with my alma mater, where he was the most successful basketball coach in school history. But what really impresses me about Pete Newell is that he was known, loved, and respected by people in his field the world over.

Perhaps most important, I respect that he was able to walk away from a wildly successful coaching career to become sort of a wandering teacher and ambassador for the game. His ability to serve as mentor to players and coaches and entire programs speaks volumes about the kind of man he was.

Pete Newell will be much missed, but his legacy will last a long, long time.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Terry Jones on the Economy and Responsibility

Ran into this column by Terry Jones (formerly of Monty Python) yesterday. Like all the Pythons, Jones is very well educated and quite thoughtful. I found his comments on Alan Greenspan quite refreshing; one rarely hears such forthright analysis in the U.S.

Greenspan apparently just discovered the concept of greed:

When a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recently asked Greenspan if he had discovered that his "view of the world" or his "ideology" about an unregulated financial market was "not right … was not working", Greenspan replied: "Absolutely! Precisely! … That's precisely the reason I was shocked …"

That would be the equivalent of my surgeon saying he'd suddenly realised that he ought to have been using anaesthetic all these years. "I wondered why my patients kept screaming and writhing around," he would have said.

Of course, Greenspan claims that the problem is not with financial instruments (such as "derivatives") themselves but with the fact that the dealers got too greedy. Those peddling derivatives, he suggested in a recent speech, were not as reliable as "the pharmacist who fills the prescription ordered by our physician".

So the chairman of the Federal Reserve – under the last four presidents – has been working on the premise that there are no greedy or unscrupulous people who would care to get mixed up in a market that was last valued at $531 trillion.

And Jones points out some of the issues with reliance on "experts" like Greenspan:

And yet one can't help feeling sorry for Greenspan. There is he is: 82 years of age, having to look back on a career that has been based on a totally false ideology, that has ended up by plunging the world's economy into chaos and that has caused the collapse of the system he dedicated his professional life to propagating. He must feel pretty choked.

Perhaps the only crumb of comfort he can take from it all is that he won't suffer any financial hardship as the result of his mistakes.
Indeed, one of the stunning aspects of modern society is that there seems to be no sense of responsibility or consequences. Experts and politicians advocate positions that turn out disastrously, yet we keep turning to those same people. Pundits, columnists, consultants all seem to live in a world where it doesn't actually matter how things turn out. They will still be invited back or hired by someone else.

Here's an odd notion: actions have consequences, but so do opinions. We need to hold people accountable for the ideas they advocate and the outcomes of policies. It strikes me that a big part of the problem is ideology trumping analysis. Greenspan got blindsided by his belief in free market economics as espoused by Milton Friedman. And people who wanted to believe that free markets worked were happy to have Greenspan confirm their conviction.

Lots more examples available, but you probably get the point. It's more important to examine the truth and consequences of ideas than it is to hang onto what seems comfortable.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My Mother's World

I voted for Barack Obama this morning.

No big surprise there for those who know me. But I lay awake this morning in the predawn hours thinking about the election and the many that have preceded it, and realized that this one really is something special.

For me, elections are all about my mom. Some of my earliest memories involve her taking me with her to vote. In our precinct, the polling place was almost always in the multipurpose room at the elementary school on our block. Later on, that would be my school, and I would use that room for lots of other things: glee club, band practice, concerts, talent shows, hot-dog lunches, tumbling class, rainy-day recess. Truly, it lived up to its name. But to me, the room always looked wrong without the red-, white-, and blue-striped voting booths around the sides.

I got it drilled into me very early that voting is not optional. Mom truly voted religiously. It's not like church where lots of people go only on the big holidays. If there was an election, even if it's "just" a runoff or a local primary or something small, you vote. And you don't just show up and cast a ballot, you learn the issues and cast an informed vote, even if that just meant you read the ballot pamphlet and recognized the arguments for or against a proposition and learned to recognize which supporters or opponents were out there grinding the same tired axes again.

But most of the time, we had a horse in the race. It might be a local bond measure or a slate of right-minded school board candidates or a proposition of local or statewide import, but there was pretty much always some cause we were either supporting or opposing. So election day wasn't just a one-day event. It was the culmination of a campaign that we had probably been involved in before it was even a campaign.

I learned early and personally of the dangers of single-issue politics. I recall vividly when a group won the majority on our local school board running on a platform of "neighborhood schools," which I now understand to have been a euphemism for segregation, couched in terms of not busing children to schools away from their homes. So they won, and they gutted the district's very successful integration program. Unfortunately, they had no particular interest or skill in actually running a school district, and the quality of education went down for all (but at least we didn't have to ride buses to our declining schools!).

And somewhere along the line, I realized that although there were ebbs and flows and issues that came and went, there are underlying themes to politics that transcend some of the apparent issues, and these core values are really the bedrock of my political beliefs.

Interestingly, both of my parents came from very conservative (in the old sense) backgrounds. But my mom came to realize that there were some social institutions that needed changing, and she was particularly moved by the civil rights movement. Her sense of fairness and equality was one of the things that came through loud and clear. I knew who Martin Luther King was and why he was important from a very early age.

So seeing Barack Obama on the threshold of the highest elected office in the land holds a particular poignancy for me. In so many ways, this represents the culmination of what my mother has worked very hard for most of her life and all of my life. So much has changed in her 80+ years, not all of it for the better, but I hope she takes particular satisfaction in today's election. I know I do.