Monday, April 27, 2009

The long awaited Part 2 in the Series: How Open Source Ruined My Life

After the government job that introduced me to Linux, I took a job with a consulting company in New Jersey. The salary was higher, but the cost of living was WAY higher, so the joke was on me. The company sent employees to bodyshop, seat-warmer jobs all around the country to support the elite group of 3 working on what was to become Sapphire/Web, a Java-based Application Server that had the first-mover advantage of getting a couple clients before the next wave came along and ate their lunch.

Mostly what I remember about my time there is roller-blading and watching the Rockford Files. I also remember some locals telling me to 'get my hocking playing ass the fuck out of here'.

The next gig involved testing embedded software for a medical device company in Indianapolis. We had to use those god-awful PCs with the abysmal Windows 3.x, but I had the sense to install Perl for a lot of my testing (to compare results to the expected results and so on and so forth). This was cool for a while, and I was surrounded by some smart and interesting people, but I was young and stupid and didn't know a good thing when I saw it. Also, with the dot-com boom heating up I felt like I had to get in on the web development game, and the opportunity came in the form of a job with some research scientists at a major pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis (the reader gets 3 guesses as to that company's name).

After an initial 2 week period of waiting for the corporate IT slugs to get their shit together enough to give us machines to work on (PCs again, f00k!) we hit the ground running. All the real work, fortunately, was to be done on UNIX machines, and an order was put in for us to get SGI workstations of our own. In the meantime, I figured out a way to get X Wndows running on my crappy PC, but before I knew it our O2s were in, and I was back in the high life again.

This job totally ruled at first, because we were working for and with very smart people on very cool stuff, and were pretty much set loose to use what we wanted to do things as we saw fit, but even early on I sensed something wasn't right.

There was an official corporate-sanctioned IT department that allegedly served our bosses, but I guess he got impatient with them and picked up some temp/consultant dudes to get his project rolling. This was all well and good, but the head of said department was Darth-Vaderesque in his enmity toward free and open software! A million years ago he had written software focused on his research domain (I think when he was a lowly grad student), and a few newsgroup searches revealed unhappy users wishing they could get a hold of the source so as to make necessary modifications to keep the software relevant to their field. Too bad for them, because dude didn't have time for coding, he was too busy playing the political game, and he for damn sure wasn't going to let anybody see or change his precious (although rapidly losing value) code.

Meanwhile I convinced my boss we needed a proper database b/c the text files of his hacked together version 1 just weren't going to cut it. He saw the light, but quickly got discouraged after we met with one of a thousand Oracle DBAs employed at this corporation. He (my boss) could see that the future involved many weeks, months, and perhaps years of waiting for the schema to be finalized, so he insisted on going back to text files. We (the team) saw the app hitting the ceiling really quickly, and the solution we came up with at the time (about 10 years ago) was to use MySQL (recently bought out by Oracle after first being bought by Sun).

Development barreled ahead. A clumsy assortment of HTML files assembled nightly by the monster batch script from hell were replaced by dynamically generated pages using Perl, the wonder language of the 90s. The researchers were pretty happy, but Darth and his gang, not so much.

Also around this time the company brought on a new CIO. He made his mark on the company by taking the Macs away from the Scientists and Programming types so he could 'standardize' on Windows (NT in this case: the NT stood for 'Nice Try'). This was a great way to make it look like he did something of value, when really all he was doing was pissing off all the people the company relied on to find new products so that the people on the business/marketing side (who loved them some Windows) could keep making money off the nerds' labor. Of course, this kind of thing was happening all over corporate America at the time, so he was not outstanding in his lameness, it was more the case that he was standing proudly atop the mountain of mediocrity!

Things gradually and slowly but surely slid downhill from there. Somebody caught wind that my boss was being a rascal and using us instead of the wonderful internal corporate IT resources, so I was thrown to the wind again. I ended up finding another job with the same company, but the stage was already set for more and more decrapitude as the result of a 'perfect shitstorm':
  • The Mac to Windows migration made all the scientists grumpy, so working for them sucked ass
  • The Mac to Windows migration made the 'senior' programmers grumpy, so working for them sucked ass
  • The imposition of standards from above enforced a 'not the best tool for the job, but the tool I told your sorry ass to use' policy
  • The dot-com explosion had the effect of 'bright flight' - all the bright people in corporate IT ran for the hills in search of millions, leaving the spiritually and mentally bereft behind.
It was a mess. Within 6 months I ran away screaming. Maybe a week or so before I left, a helpful Oompa Loompa from IT informed me that something I'd asked for whilst on the previous project (which by now seemed like a previous lifetime) would be ready REALLY SOON. Maybe he was joking. Maybe one day they did take care of my request, or perhaps their successors in India fielded the request. It didn't really matter anymore. But that's enough for now, and another installment will follow.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Now a moment of hero worship: Chuck D at Neal Marshall, Sat April 4 2009

On Sat. April 4, 2009 I had the opportunity to see one of the heroes of my college days (and today), Chuck D, founder of Hip-Hop legends Public Enemy, give a lecture at the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center Library on the IU campus. This event was somewhat under-publicized, and I was only lucky enough to hear about it thanks to some tweets from the Bloomington 'twitterati' on twitter the day before the event, specifically from deejayspikes and IUwebmonkey. Having mentioned it to a few friends since, they expressed regret at missing the chance to see Chuck's talk.

I met deejayspikes and another twitter friend, Allison, at the library shortly before the show began. I saw Chuck D and some of the event organizers outside, but left the man alone out of a mix of respect and shyness.

The talk kicked off with some rhymes by a student named Patrick. He was a white dude, and referred to himself as 'Hip Hop's Doogie Howser', and also had several other good lines, including:
you treat me like I fired God/hired Rod Blagojevich and gave him the job
He delivered two a capella rhymes, and then an event organizer introduced Chuck. He was dressed rather unassumingly, in a t-shirt with wings on the back, slightly baggy pants, and very white, new-looking shoes. He graciously gave props to Patrick in his famous baritone, and began by discussing the significance of the day, the 41st anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. I knew this was the case, but admittedly had been unsure until I remembered that the U2 song goes 'Early morning April 4/a shot rings out in the Memphis sky'. Chuck talked about being a child in the 60s, a time of much turmoil, with Vietnam and the assasinations of Malcolm X, Dr. King, and John and Robert Kennedy. History was a major topic of the lecture, as he covered the origin of the term 'Rhythm and Blues' (a more sensitive term than 'Race Music', which offended African Americans who had just come back from fighting in World War II and rightly demanded more respect than had been given them), and the history of black music in general, from the songs of the fields ('look out love music') to the evolution of hip hop from it's Jamaican dub and reggae origins.

Chuck stressed the importance of education and a disdain for anti-intellectualism and the 'dumbassification' of our culture. It's a message similar to the one Bill Cosby delivers, delivered in a different way. Chuck made an appeal to black students at IU: if you pay for a Hummer (he made the aside the 'the Hummer is a wack-ass car, I'm saying if you pay for an expensive car'), and you get a Hooptie, that is going to lead to frustration. So he emphasized the importance of making the most of their time at IU, getting the best GPA possible, learning as much as possible, and praising 'being a nerd about the stuff you like' something I, as a nerd, really liked hearing.

Chuck also covered the (welcome) dissolution of the record companies, saying that while record companies are dying, music itself is as strong as ever, with the internet giving the artist more power than ever to get their music out. He acknowledged that there may be a window that will close if for example Network Neutrality is over-ruled, and we find the free-flow of information we enjoy today restricted. Two phrases recurred like refrains: Chuck railed against 'the exploitation of scientists and artists' and being subjected to 'the radiation of a radio, TV, and movie nation'. During this discussion of artists and music, he gave a shout-out to deejayspikes, who he remembered as the DJ of Muncie's R.H.Y.T.H.M. Chuck has probably performed with a few thousand bands and artists, and met millions of people, but he remembered R.H.Y.T.H.M., and I thought that was really cool, and needless to say DJ Spikes dug getting a shout out from a hip hop legend (Chuck referred to him as an example of artists doing their own thing back before the Internet had made it easier, the D.I.Y. spirit one saw with punk and indie rock bands in the 80s and 90s and of course with hip hop crews).

And yes, Chuck talked about Flav! Of course he talked about Flav! He said essentially 'if you look at the structure of the black family, everybody's got somebody like Flav in the family' and said 'people asked what happened to Flav, I say what do you mean? That's Flav. He was that way from day one. Now, I never thought I'd see the day I'd see grown women on TV crying over him, but those women are more hung up on the drug of fame than anything to do with Flav.'

Obviously he said plenty more, and was funny and entertaining without backup music or dancers or lights. He displayed oratorial skills honed over years in both the rap and speaking circuit games. Afterwords he did a Q&A, and was asked about the Reverend Wright dust-up ('If you look at it, that guy was saying things a lot of people had been saying and thinking') and also about his more recent appearance on D.L. Hugley's show with Michael Steele. Chuck was asked why he didn't say more during the discussion, and he replied that as a general policy he doesn't want to be on a show that's just going to be black men yelling at each other. He said Michael Steele could put his foot in his mouth anyway without him participating in some sensationalist show of people screaming at each other for ratings (and he was right. See also: super-cool Obama in the debates with 'barely keeping a lid on it' McCain). Obama came up a couple of times. Chuck referred to him as 'possibly the greatest rapper ever. He has a great voice, great delivery, and he moves people. Have you ever seen an M.C. move so many people to tears with his words?'

After the lecture Chuck came over and shook DJ Spikes' hand and said 'hey how are you doing' and shook my hand, too. Afterwards he did a signing of his book, Fight The Power. I bought a copy as did Spikes, and I got to talk to Chuck for a couple minutes and do the gushing fan-boy thing, talking about how I was in college when 'It Takes a Nation of Millions...' came out and how much it rocked my world. Chuck was super-cool and friendly and altogether an awesome guy. I said it was great he was still getting the word out and he said 'I'm gonna keep getting out there getting the word out until they shut my ass up', which I thought was awesome. The man has plenty to say and says it with the skill of a legendary M.C.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

How Open Source Ruined My Life, Part I

My life came off the rails in my mid-20s, right on schedule. I was either evicted from or rejected the academic world, depending on how I'm feeling when I tell the story. I flamed out of the Ph.D. program (Mathematics) in I.U. - not too shabby a program to flame out of, really.

At this point I had an apartment in Bloomington, also known as the town where people with Master's Degrees wash dishes at the Waffle House (which is now, and always has been, and always will be hiring). I worked for a bit for the University, teaching 'JumpStart' classes (basic computer skills) and got to teach classes on Netscape before Netscape went public.

While being a perfectly reasonable job (which, as a side effect, actually taught me some teaching/presenting skills I sorely lacked in grad school and was never taught while there) it was part-time, so I needed a 'real' job. I found one at a Naval Base in Southern Indiana (I'm not making this up). It paid 20K/yr (I'm not making this up either). When I told my father about it, I thought he would disown me, he was so disappointed I would even consider taking such a shitty paying job. For whatever reason, I wanted to stay in Bloomington, and that overruled free market highest bidder considerations.

The less said about the job, the better. However I did have a grand awakening there in that we used Linux. A previous contractor had switched everybody from the horrendous version of Windows in use at the time to Linux, instead of doing what he was supposed to be doing. So we all got to have the UNIX environment I'd gotten used to (spoiled by) while in grad school. I used Emacs (written by the great Richard Stallman) as my editor while coding. We all had Netscape, too, and got to waste time on the Internet before everybody else did.

Linux made the job tolerable. Interesting, even. I was so inspired that during Christmas break that year (I took numerous days off) I installed Slackware Linux (3.0) on my own machine, which was running the slightly less horrific Windows 95.

I really can't overstate either how horrible Windows was back then, or how wonderful Linux was by comparison. Had I been forced to use Windows on the job, I would not have tolerated it at all. I might have been forced to go into another field instead of staying in the IT gutter back when I was younger and had less to lose. So this is one way open source ruined my life. But it's not the only way. More shortly.