Friday, May 30, 2008

Conference : People

Thanks to tamedblossom for the photo.

Maybe it's a function of them being Americans, but damnit if it wasn't quite a culture shock talking with random attendees. They all have that fire of ambition in them. All looking for the next startup, the next big deal. Even the average coder for a University Library, had a startup on the side. And here I was, just a 'regular' programmer, wanting to learn a technology for the company I was actually employed by.

I felt like I was a gentle cloud, drifting through, meeting large gas guzzling muscle cars, ON FIRE. Even the most average looking geek, if engaged, would start talking about the latest startup they were part of, and how they want to leverage their business to business synergies to create real value for the Web.

It was energizing, in a way. To be surrounded by so many blindingly bright people, all with a wealth of life experience, and a blazing future ahead of them. I just couldn't work up the passion to tell them how I hoped to make a user-friendly, stable system that was easy to maintain. To put it another way, I was Mary-Ann, surrounded by Gingers. To put it in a less creepy way, I was Toyota, surrounded by Ferraris, ON FIRE.


Thanks to Mathoov for the photo.

I've been of two minds about what to blog about. On one hand, I want to avoid talking about the mundanities of life. I don't want this to be another blog about the latest ham and rye sandwich or why cats are the best thing ever. On the other hand, life is a really easy way to get material, if you happen to have one that isn't heart crushingly boring. That's not to say we all live boring lives. No, it's just that from the Reader's perspective, it's nothing particularly interesting.

However, something happened this week that was slightly out of the ordinary. I was sent to a Google Tech Conference. Google I/O, is what it's called. If I start getting into details, the non-technical among you will likely be more bored from this blog than usual, so I'll venture into the rosy tinted world of analogy.

Programmers/Software Developers/Software Engineers/whatever the hell you want to call us, are really just builders. Think of us like construction workers; without the animal attraction and manly musk. We build Stuff. Google has made a bunch of interesting pieces to build stuff with. In the tech world, they are called components. By analogy, you can think of them as bricks. Some people try and offer bricks because they want to SELL them. Google just wants to GIVE bricks away.

Following this tortured analogy, the idea is that builders will make more interesting things, that'll get more people on the web, which is how Google make money. It's a very quixotic idea, and not one to make sense to the average person. But at the heart of the tech world is a spirit of sharing and caring and all that good stuff that you associate with the 60's. Except no one would ever want to give us free love, and our drug of choice is Starbucks.

So anyone who follows this Free Love kinda ideal that lies at the heart of software development, gets free geek Cred points. Techies think better of you, your company is 'cooler'. I'm sure there is a convoluted process by which this translates into the bottom line, but darned if I can find it.

So that's what I did for two days. Attend sessions about bricks. And ways to make cooler buildings.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The English : Humour

Thanks to TimoOK for the photo.

I've been meaning to do this for a while, a series of posts about the Brits, the English, those bloody Colonial Powermongers, whatever.

They're such an interesting group, they seem to possess the best and worst of so many things I hold dear. Maybe it's because they allow the latter that the former blooms, I don't know. Maybe it's because they've been around for so damn long. And really, British and Humour is such an inconceivably massive topic that it makes me faint just to consider it. But consider I must.

For one thing, engineers and science geeks (especially computer science) absolutely LOVE British humour. From Black Adder to Fawlty Towers to Red Dwarf to the venerable Pythons. A single quip from one of the more obscure episodes will leave the average geek howling the aisles for days. Days. It's the universal tie that binds all nerds. Certainly a theoretical astrophysicist, a perl hacker and a HAM radio operator have little in common (if they aren't, indeed, the same person), but throw them in a room and yell "NI!" and they'll be trading custom Texas Instrument Calculator programs before you can find all the anagrams in 'desultory'.

This might mean that British humour, or the best of it, is really for the bright. Or, alternatively, British humour is so odd and untoward that only people who do math for fun and use the phrase 'but recent literature suggests' would get it. Maybe both.

If one looks at it from a Art versus Popular debate, British humour is often considered on the side of 'Art', while everything else is vile and derivative; particularly American fare. While from the other side, British humour makes little sense and is best left to history like Churchill's dismal early military career.

A perfect illustration of this is when SNL hosted a small performance of the Dead Parrot sketch with John Cleese and Michael Palin. It's as venerated by comedy connoisseurs as "Who's on First". When SNL hosted it however, the American live audience just did not get it. Or it wasn't funny. But obviously it's respected well enough that a multi-million dollar show is willing to have the aging actors come over and do it. Obviously it Has Merit enough for people who MAKE that stuff for a living are willing to have the Pythons on.

And let's not forget that most of the Kings of humour writing (IMHO) are British. The ones I most respect and admire: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Oscar Wilde. British actors are almost legendary for their off-camera wit.

But there is a flip side. The Dark Side.The side that many will point to when they confess, after too many glasses of cheeky Bordeaux, that they just 'don't get it'. They'll point to Eddie Murphy or Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock and say, 'now THAT's funny' (as if humour was a mutually exclusive thing).

I'm talking of course, about the Benny Hills, and the sundry other programs that were never funny, never could be funny, but for some reason have inherent cultural cachet, so stay on the air and put the laugh tracks under duress to even so much as chortle. You've seen them perhaps, on some publically funded channel, right before the piercing expose on military funding and right before the driest newscast in the English speaking world. The colours are washed out. The lighting looks like it was done by an apoplectic chimpanzee with a detached retina; and beat after beat is filled with humour that is so obvious and low brow that you think it's high brow and spend the rest of the evening pretending like you're working on the New York Time crossword but in reality are trying to figure out what "that's a fanny I'd like to folly" really meant, in the subtext.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Thanks to adriansalamandre for the photo.

Seriousness -- that dour, I Do Not Find That Funny At All Sir air that overtakes everyone now and again -- is usually an indicator that it's time to get off the crazy train.

Now I know I make these largely baseless, ridiculous assertions (about protests, for example), but that's only because there is a kernel of truth in there somewhere.

Think of all the people you've talked to, who, in the middle of a charming conversation about the degrading power of the UN in inter-nation monetary disputes, erupt in a wild-eyed rant about the need for independent states to regulate their own water treatment? Or folks who have a list of foods they simply, absolutely, CANNOT eat. It might be red-meat, refined sugar, dairy products, dolphin whatever -- people get crazy about food. They'll get a closed look about them. Like it's their 10th birthday and you've just taken the last corner piece of their Dairy Queen ice cream cake. Mirth is gone. Any sort of mental pliability is out the window. Joviality taken behind the VW bus and given the what for.

They've become Serious. And not a good Serious, like, say, Charlie Rose or CSPAN. This is a Serious Because This Is Too Important To Ever Be Taken Lightly And Therefore That Much Easier For Me To Be Offended. That super touchy state equal parts high-mindedness and strident indignance. A state that, I'd argue, some people relish; actually, the sort of people who seem to get into that state quite often.

And we've all been That Person, who offends, who crosses some invisible yet PAINFULLY important line that must never ever be crossed, let alone discussed. There is just something that doesn't feel right about being in that position. One gets the impulse to just tell the offended party to lighten up just a scoch, breathe in, breathe out. But of course, it's far past responding with any levity.

Invariably, it's over things that demand unquestionable faith, like (oh, so many targets)... uh... let's say the raw food movement. I suppose it's the calcified pillars of dogma that have set in. Dogma doesn't play well with humour. Humour only plays well with (at its finest), truth; which is why satire works so well. Dogma tries to make a few bold sweeping assertions, then lead you down the garden path to an idling van with no windows.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you find yourself all Serious, without one iota of space available for a good guffaw or levity, then you might want to step away from the juicer, slide slowly from your Dianetics books, and maybe rethink what you're holding to so dear*.

*not to say there aren't things to be Serious about, but there are just a lot fewer of them than most people think.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Politically Correct

Thanks to jimfrazier for the photo.

It's the secret wish of every group, it seems, is to be the underdog. The brash, meat and potatos group. One that wouldn't upturn their nose to a bit of physical labour, maybe, or be up to date on the latest sports scores. The blue-collar mystique, as it were, or, as my nerd mind understand it, the Rebel Alliance syndrome.

It's a theme repeated in fiction, in movies, in epic poems of questionable worth. The underdogs are always the heroes. There is the great Empire that must fall, and the charmingly rag tag group of misfits, who by the skin of their teeth, pull through and saves the day.

For America, this is a story burned into its historical DNA. For others, well, it's just much easier to write conflict about a group facing mind-boggling odds, than say, about a now smug empire trying to squash a resistance group whilst still drunk from power.

Who's' the underdog in any story? The good guys. Who's the underdog in any perceived conflict for ideas? We are. We being the people talking at the moment.

Which is why I shouldn't find it too surprising if incredibly annoying when I hear the phrase, "Oh, it's politically incorrect to ....". As if there is a great behemoth of political correctness that imposes rules and regulations, things you can say and not, and that the speaker is part of a tight nit cadre who speak Truth to Power; where the fact is that 'political correctness' came about precisely because the dominant powers, the Powers That Be, more or less ran rough shod over the scrappy underdogs: ethnic minorities, LGBTII (I know I'm missing a letter in here somewhere), the disabled, etc.

Sure, you have your cases of PC gone awry. Where everything is so hyphenated that you get metacarpal tunnel syndrome hitting the - key more than a transcriptionist typing a PR release for albino Swahili-signing Maori who's second name rhymes with Jones, group.

There are groups, or, more precisely, people who wallow in the smug superiority of knowing the latest term for such and such a group. I can see how this can get on ones nerves. And for some reason, this annoyance translates into being the Oppressed, the Set Upon, the Lone Voice in the Darkness. Next thing you know, the annoyed person is using air quotes and saying, "Oh I guess that's not, 'politically correct'". They feel like they are sticking it to the man.

It doesn't, of course.

It means precisely the opposite; they're in the majority.

But then, listening to Darth Vader whine about those pesky Rebel scum wrecking his fully operational Death Star doesn't have the same indignant heft, I suppose.