Let go of Windows XP, Office 2003, and Exchange 2003

The day has come. s the end of an era, one that many people do not want to let go. I can understand that.

I drove my last car, a Ford Focus 2000, until it died in the summer of 2010. I loved that car, and we seriously considered replacing the engine (which would have been a considerable chunk of money we didn’t have) so we could keep it. In the end, though, we had to take a long hard look between finances and our family requirements, and we moved on to a new vehicle. It was the requirements portion that was the key. It was certainly cheaper to fix the immediate problem – the blown engine – and we had friends who could do it for us professionally but inexpensively.

However, our kids were getting older. The four-door mini-sedan model wasn’t roomy enough for us and all of our stuff if we wanted to take a longer road trip like we’d been talking about. If we wanted to get a new sofa, we had to ask a friend with a truck. It would be nice, we thought, to have some additional carrying capacity for friends, family, groceries, and the occasional find from Craigslist. We’d been limiting our activities to those that were compatible with our car. With the new vehicle, we found we had far greater options.

On the road again
On the road again

 

Two years ago we took the entire family on a 2-week road trip across the United States, camping along the way. Last summer, we took our family down to Crater Lake, the California Redwoods, and the Oregon Coast. We’ve been to the Olympic Rain Forest. I’ve hauled Scouts and their gear home from Jamboree shakedowns. We’ve moved. We’ve hauled furniture. In short, we’ve found that our forced upgrade, although being more expensive in the long run, also gave us far more opportunity in the long run.

I know many of you like Windows XP. For some crazy reason, I know there are still quite a few of you out there who love Office 2003 and refused to let it go. I even still run across Exchange 2003 on a regular basis. I know that there is a certain mindset that says, “We paid for it, it’s not going to wear out, so we’re just going to keep using it.” Consider, if you will, the following points:

  • Software doesn’t wear out, per se, but it does age out. You have probably already seen this in action. It’s not limited to software – new cars get features the old cars don’t. However, when a part for an old car breaks down, it’s a relatively simple matter for a company to make replacement parts (either by reverse-engineering the original, or licensing it from the original car-maker). In the software world, there is a significant amount of work revolved in back-porting code from the new version and running it backwards several versions. There’s programming time, there’s testing time, and there’s support time. 10 years is more than just about any other software company out there (get any paid Linux support company to give you 10-year support for one up-front price). Microsoft is not trying to scam more money out of you. They want you to move on and stay relatively current with the rest of the world.
  • You are a safety hazard for others. There has been plenty written about the dangers of running XP past the end of life. There are some really good guides on how to mitigate the dangers. But make no mistake – you’re only mitigating them. And in a networked office or home, your risk is exposing other people to danger as well. Don’t be surprised in a couple of months, after one or two well-publicized large-scale malware breakouts targeting these ancient editions, that your business partners, ISP, and other vendors take strong steps to protect their networks by shutting down your access. When people won’t vaccinate and get sick, quarantine is a reasonable and natural response. If you don’t want to be the attack vector or the weakest link, get off your moral high ground and upgrade your systems.
  • This is why you can’t have nice things. Dude, you’re still running Windows XP. The best you have to look forward to is Internet Explorer 8, unless you download Firefox, Chrome, or some other browser. And even those guys are only going to put up with jumping through the hoops required to make XP work for so long. News flash: few software companies like supporting their applications on an operating system (or application platform) that itself is unsupported. You’re not going to find better anti-virus software for that ancient Exchange 2003 server. You’re going to be lucky to continue getting updates. And Office 2003 plug-ins and files? Over the next couple of years, you’re going to enjoy more and more cases of files that don’t work as planned with your old suite. Don’t even think about trying to install new software and applications on that old boat. You’ve picked your iceberg.

Look, I realize there are reasons why you’ve chosen to stay put. They make sense. They make financial sense. But Microsoft is not going to relent, and this choice is not going to go away, and it’s not going to get cheaper. Right now you still have a small window of time when you will have tools to help you get your data to a newer system. That opportunity is going away faster than you think. It will probably, if past experience serves, cost you more to upgrade at this time next year than it does now.

So do the right thing. Get moving. If you need help, you know where to find us. Don’t think about all the things the new stuff does that you don’t need; think about all the ways you could be making your life easier.

The iPhone Wars, Day 121

120 days later and I figured it was time for an update on the war.

First: I still hate this thing.

Somewhere along the way with one of the iOS updates, the battery life started going to crap, even when I’m barely using the device. When I use it as a personal hotspot, I can practically watch the battery meter race to zero.

I’ve nailed down what it is about the email client that I don’t like, and it’s the same thing I don’t like about many of the apps: the user interfaces are inconsistent and cramped. Navigating my way through a breadcrumb trail that is up near (but not quite) up at the top just feels clunky. This is where contrast with Windows Phone really, really hurts the iPhone in my experience; the Metro (I know, we’re not supposed to call it that anymore, but they can bite me) user interface principles are clean and clear. Trying to figure out simple tasks like how to get the iPhone to actually resync is more complex than necessary. Having the “new message” icon down on the bottom when the navigation is up top is stupid.

The one thing that impresses me consistently is even though the screen is small, the on-screen keyboard is really good at figuring out which letter I am trying to hit. On my Windows Phone I mistype things all the time. This rarely happens on the iPhone. Even though the on-screen keys are much smaller, the iPhone typing precision is much higher. Microsoft, take note – I’m tired of what feels like pressing on one key only to have another key grab the focus.

Even the few custom apps I do use on this iPhone fail to impress. Thanks to a lack of consistent design language, learning one doesn’t help me with the rest, and I have discovered that iPhone developers are just as bad as Windows Phone developers when it comes to inexplicable gaps in functionality.

I guess no one knows how to write good mobile software yet.

The iPhone Wars, Day 1

Part of the fun of settling into a new job is the new tools. In this trade, that’s the laptop and the cell phone. Now, I already have a perfectly good laptop and cell phone, so I probably could have just gone on using those, but where so much of what I do is from home, I find it important to have a clear break between personal business and work. Having separate devices helps me define that line.

My current cell phone is a Nokia Lumia 1020 (Windows Phone 8), which I definitely enjoy. I haven’t had a good chance to take the camera for a full spin, but I’m looking forward to it. I’ve had a lot of PDAs and smart phones in my time: Palm Pilot, Handspring Visor, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, even an Android. The one I’ve never had, though, is an iPhone.

And it’s not that I hate Apple. My favorite past laptop was my MacBook Pro (Apple has ruined me for any other touchpad). Granted, I’m that weird bastard who loaded Vista SP1 into Boot Camp and hardly ever booted back into Mac OS X again, but ever since then I’ve usually had a spare Apple computer around the house, if only for Exchange interop testing. OS X is a good operating system, but it’s not my favorite, so my main device is always a Windows machine. My current favorite is my Surface Pro.

In all of that, though, I’ve never had an iOS device. Never an iPhone, never an iPad. Yesterday, that all changed.

I needed a business smart phone that runs a specific application, one that hasn’t yet been ported to Windows Phone. I’ve long been an advocate that “apps matter first; pick your OS and platform after you know what apps you need.” Here was my opportunity not to be a shining hypocrite! After discussion with Jeremy, I finally settled on a iPhone 5, as Android was going to be less suitable for reasons too boring to go into.

So now I have an iPhone, and I have just one question for you iPhone-lovers of the world: You really like this thing? Honest to goodness, no one is putting a gun to your head?

I can’t stand this bloody thing! First, it’s too damn small! I mean, yes, I like my smart phones somewhat large, but I have big hands and I have pockets. The iPhone 5 is a slim, flat little black carbon slab with no heft. I’ve taken to calling it the CSD – the Carbon Suppository of Death. Now, if it were just the form factor, I could get used to it, but there’s so much more that I can’t stand:

  • I didn’t realize how much I love the Windows Phone customizable menu until I wasn’t using it. I forget who once called the iPhone (and Android) menu “Program Manager Reborn” but it’s totally apt. Plus, all the chrome (even in iOS 7) just feels cluttered and junky now.
  • Speaking of cluttered, Apple sometimes takes the minimalist thing too far. One button is not enough. This, I think, Windows Phone nails perfectly. Android’s four buttons feel extraneous, but Apple’s “let there be one” approach feels like dogma that won’t bow to practicality.
  • The last time I used an iPod, it was still black & white. I can’t stand iTunes as a music manager, and I don’t like the device-side interface – so I won’t be putting any music on the CSD. No advantage there.
  • Likewise, you think I’m going to dink around with the camera on the CSD when I have the glorious Lumia camera to use? Get real, human.
  • The on-screen keyboard sucks. Part of this is because the device is so much smaller, but part of it is that Apple doesn’t seem to understand little touches that improve usability. On Windows and Android, when you touch the shift key, the case of the letters on the keys changes correspondingly; Apple is all, “LOL…NOPE!”
  • Even the Mail client irritates me, even though I haven’t managed to put my finger on exactly why yet.

So is there anything I like about the device? Sure! I’m not a total curmudgeon:

  • Build quality looks impressive. If the CSD wasn’t as flimsy as a communion wafer, I would be blown away by the feel of the device. It’s got good clean lines and understated elegance, like that suit from the expensive Saville Row tailors.
  • Power usage. The CSD goes through battery very slowly. Now part of that is because I’m not using it, but Apple has had time to optimize their game, and they do it very well indeed.
  • The simple little physical switch to put the CSD into silent mode. This is exactly the kind of physical control EVERY smart phone should have, just like every laptop should have a physical switch to disable the radios (not just a hotkey combination).

This is where I’m at, with a fistful of suck. Even an Android phone would be better than this. I’ve got no-one to blame but myself, and it’s not going to get any better. So look forward to more of these posts from time to time as I find yet another aspect of the CSD that drives me crazy.

“But Devin,” I hear some of you Apple-pandering do-gooders say, “You’re just not used to it yet. Give it time. You’ll grow to love it.”

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

Defending a Bad Decision

[cp_dropcaps]I[/cp_dropcaps]t’s already started.

A bit over 12 hours after MSL’s cowardly decision to announce the end of the MCM program (see my previous blog post), we’re already starting to see a reaction from Microsoft on the Labor Day holiday weekend.

SQL Server MVP Jen Stirrup created an impassioned “Save MCM” plea on the Microsoft Connect site this morning at 6:19. Now, 7.5 hours later, it already has almost 200 votes of support. More importantly, she’s already gotten a detailed response from Microsoft’s Tim Sneath:

Thank you for the passion and feedback. We’re reading your comments and take them seriously, and as the person ultimately responsible for the decision to retire the Masters program in its current form, I wanted to provide a little additional context.

Firstly, you should know that while I’ve been accused of many things in my career, I’m not a “bean counter”. I come from the community myself; I co-authored a book on SQL Server development, I have been certified myself for nearly twenty years, I’ve architected and implemented several large Microsoft technology deployments, my major was in computer science. I’m a developer first, a manager second.

Deciding to retire exams for the Masters program was a painful decision – one we did not make lightly or without many months of deliberation. You are the vanguard of the community. You have the most advanced skills and have demonstrated it through a grueling and intensive program. The certification is a clear marker of experience, knowledge and practical skills. In short, having the Masters credential is a huge accomplishment and nobody can take that away from the community. And of course, we’re not removing the credential itself, even though it’s true that we’re closing the program to new entrants at this time.

The truth is, for as successful as the program is for those who are in it, it reaches only a tiny proportion of the overall community. Only a few hundred people have attained the certification in the last few years, far fewer than we would have hoped. We wanted to create a certification that many would aspire to and that would be the ultimate peak of the Microsoft Certified program, but with only ~0.08% of all MCSE-certified individuals being in the program across all programs, it just hasn’t gained the traction we hoped for.

Sure, it loses us money (and not a small amount), but that’s not the point. We simply think we could do much more for the broader community at this level – that we could create something for many more to aspire to. We want it to be an elite community, certainly. But some of the non-technical barriers to entry run the risk of making it elitist for non-technical reasons. Having a program that costs candidates nearly $20,000 creates a non-technical barrier to entry. Having a program that is English-only and only offered in the USA creates a non-technical barrier to entry. Across all products, the Masters program certifies just a couple of hundred people each year, and yet the costs of running this program make it impossible to scale out any further. And many of the certifications currently offered are outdated – for example, SQL Server 2008 – yet we just can’t afford to fully update them.

That’s why we’re taking a pause from offering this program, and looking to see if there’s a better way to create a pinnacle, WITHOUT losing the technical rigor. We have some plans already, but it’s a little too early to share them at this stage. Over the next couple of months, we’d like to talk to many of you to help us evaluate our certifications and build something that will endure and be sustainable for many years to come.

We hate having to do this – causing upset amongst our most treasured community is far from ideal. But sometimes in order to build, you have to create space for new foundations. I personally have the highest respect for this community. I joined the learning team because I wanted to grow the impact and credibility of our certification programs. I know this decision hurts. Perhaps you think it is wrong-headed, but I wanted to at least explain some of the rationale. It comes from the desire to further invest in the IT Pro community, rather than the converse. It comes from the desire to align our programs with market demand, and to scale them in such a way that the market demand itself grows. It comes from the desire to be able to offer more benefits, not fewer. And over time I hope we’ll be able to demonstrate the positive sides of the changes we are going through as we plan a bright future for our certifications.

Thank you for listening… we appreciate you more than you know.

First, I want to thank Tim for taking the time to respond on a holiday Saturday. I have no reason to think ill of him or disbelieve him in any way. That said, it won’t keep me from respectfully calling bullshit. Not to the details of Tim’s response (such as they are) not to the tone of his message, but rather to the worldview that it comes from.

First, this is the way the decision should have been announced to begin with, not that ham-fisted, mealy-mouthed thinly-disguised “sod off” piece of tripe that poor Shelby Grieve sent late last night. This announcement should have been released by the person who made the decision, taking full accountability for it, in the light of day, not pawned off to an underlying who was allowed to sneak it out at midnight Friday on a three-day holiday weekend.

Second, despite Tim’s claims of being a developer first, manager second, I believe he’s failing to account for the seductive echo-chamber mentality that permeates management levels at Microsoft. The fatal weakness of making decision by metrics is choosing the wrong metrics. When the Exchange program started the Ranger program (what later morphed to become the first MCM certification), their goal wasn’t reach into the community. It was reducing CritSits on deployments. It was increasing the quality of deployments to reduce the amount of downtime suffered by customers. This is one of the reasons I have been vocal in the past that having MSL take on 100% responsibility for the MCM program was a mistake, because we slowly but surely began losing the close coupling with the product group. Is the MCM program a failure by those metrics? Does the number of MCMs per year matter more than the actual impact that MCMs are making to Microsoft’s customers? This is hard stuff. Maybe, just maybe, having more than a tenth of a percent of all MCPs achieve this certification is the right thing if you’re focusing on getting the right people to earn it.

Third, MSL has shown us in the recent past that it knows how to transition from one set of certifications to another. When the MCITP and MCTS certification were retired, there was a beautiful, coordinated wave of information that came out showing exactly what the roadmap was, why things were changing, and what the new path would look like for people. We knew what to expect from the change. Shelby’s announcement gave us no hint of anything coming in the future. It was an axe, not a roadmap. It left no way for people who had just signed up (and paid money for the course fees, airplane tickets, etc.) to reach out and get answers to their questions. As far as we know, there may not be any refunds in the offing. I think it’s a bit early to be talking about lawyers, but several of my fellow MCMs don’t. All of this unpleasantness could have been avoided by making this announcement with even a mustard seed of compassion and projection. Right now, we’re left with promises that something will come to replace MCM. Those promises are right up on my hearth along with the promises that we just got made in recent months about new exams, new testing centers, and all the other promises the MCM program has made. This one decision and badly wrought communication has destroyed credibility and trust.

Fourth, many of the concerns Tim mentioned have been brought up internally in the MCM program before. The MCMs I went through my rotation with had lots of wonderful suggestions on how to approach solutions to these problems. The MCMs in my community have continued to offer advice and feedback. Most of this feedback has gone nowhere. It seems that somebody in between the trainers and the face people that we MCMs interact with and the folks at Tim’s level have been gumming up the communication. Ask any good intelligence analyst – sometimes you need to see the raw data instead of just the carefully processed work from the people below you in the food chain. Somewhere in that mass of ideas are good suggestions that probably could have been made to work to break down some of those non-technical barriers long before now, if only they’d gotten to the right level of management where someone had the power to do something about it. Again, in a metrics-driven environment, data that doesn’t light up the chosen metrics usually gets ignored or thrown out. There’s little profit taking the risk of challenging assumptions. Combine that with a distinct “not invented here” syndrome, and it feels like MSL has had a consistent pattern of refusing to even try to solve problems. Other tech companies have Master-level exams that don’t suffer too badly from brain dumps and other cheating measures. Why can’t Microsoft follow what they are doing and improve incrementally from there? I believe it’s because it requires investing even more money and time into these solutions, something that won’t give back the appropriate blips on the metrics within a single financial year.

So while I appreciate the fact that Tim took the time to respond (and I will be emailing him to let him know the existence of this post), I don’t believe that the only option MSL had was to do things in this fashion. And right now, that’s the impression I believe that this response is going to generate among an already angry MCM community.

Ain’t Nobody [at Microsoft Learning] Got Time For That

If you track other people in the Microsoft Certified Master blogosphere you’ve probably already heard about the shot to the face the MCM/MCSM/MCA/MCSA program (which I will henceforth refer to just as MCM for simplicity) took last night: a late Friday night email announcing the cancellation of these programs.

"Wait for it...wait for it..."

“Wait for it…wait for it…”

I was helping a friend move at the time, so check the email on my phone, pondered it just long enough to get pissed off, and then put it away until I had time and energy to deal with it today.

This morning, a lot of my fellow members of the Microsoft IT Pro community are reacting publicly. This list includes Microsoft employees, MCM trainers, MCMs, and MCM candidates:

 Others have already made all of the comments I could think to make — the seemingly deliberately bad timing, the total disconnect of this announcement with recent actions and announcements regarding the MCM availability, the shock and anger, all of it.

The only unique insight I seem to have to share is that this does *not* seem to be something that the product groups are on board with — it seems to be coming directly from Microsoft Learning and the higher-ups in that chain. Unfortunately, those of us who resisted and distrusted the move of MCM from being run by the product groups in partnership with MSL to the new regime of MSL owning all the MCM marbles (which inevitably led to less and less interaction with the actual product groups, with the predictable results) now seem to be vindicated.

I wish I’d been wrong. But even this move was called out by older and wiser heads than mine, and I discounted them at the time. Boy, was I wrong about that.

I’m really starting to think that as Microsoft retools itself to try to become a services and devices company, we’re going to see even more of these kind of measures (TechNet subs, MCM certs) that alienate the highly trained end of the IT Pro pool. After all, we’re the people who know how to design and implement on-premises solutions that you folks can run cheaper than Microsoft’s cloud offerings. Many of the competitors to Microsoft Consulting or to Microsoft hosted services had one or more MCMs on staff, and MCM training was a great viewpoint into how Office 365 was running their deployments. In essence, what had once been a valuable tool for helping sell Microsoft software licenses and reduce Microsoft support costs has now become, in the Cloud era, a way for competitors and customers to knowledgeably and authoritatively derail the Cloud business plans.

From that angle, these changes make a certain twisted sort of short-term sense — and with the focus on stock price and annual revenues, short-term sense is all corporate culture knows these days.

For what it’s worth, SQL Server MVP Jen Stirrup has started this Connect petition to try to save the MCM program. I wish him luck.

A Few Bullet Points on American Gun Culture

I’m a gun owner. I hold a concealed pistol license in the state of Washington and I own a pistol and a rifle, which I have taken reasonable and prudent steps to keep locked up and safe when they are not in use. Although I have not taken a formal gun safety class, I have had firearms training and have taken steps to ensure that my family is also provided with training. My kids have enjoyed the carefully supervised events when they have been taken shooting by myself and other qualified adults.

I’ve had some thoughts stirring around for a while on the topic of America and the 2nd Amendment, but it wasn’t until today I pulled them together enough to start the process of writing a blog post.

Note 1: I’m going to do my level best to be polite and respectful to all parties, regardless of their political position on this subject, and I request that all commenters do the same. People crossing the line of civility may get a warning or I may just delete their comment, depending on the severity.

The Ground Rules

Today, on Facebook, one my friends posted this picture:

Who knows more about the Constitution?Figure 1: Constitutional law qualifications
(can’t find the original source for this, if you know please let me know?)

As you can imagine, this prompted (as do almost all gun control threads on the Internet) a barrage of comments. Sadly, these types of discussions tend to quickly be dominated by one of two vocal extremes:

  • The gun enthusiast (pejoratively known as the “gun nut” or “right-wing whackjob”), who often gives the impression that she won’t be happy until she can personally and privately own any weapon system ever made, up to and including ICBMs, aircraft carriers, Abrams tanks, and F-22 Raptors. She is typically, but not always, aligned with the more extremely conservative side of the political spectrum
  • The gun worrier (pejoratively known as the “gun grabber” or “bleeding-heart liberal”), who commonly and frequently opines that mankind will know nothing but a wretched existence devoid of any light, joy, or hope until every last physical instance of, drawing of, reference to, or even the mental concept a of weapon is wiped from existence. He is typically, but not always, aligned with the more extremely liberal side of the spectrum.

Note 2: if you fit into one of these two extremes, I will give you good advice: stop reading now, and move on. You won’t like what I have to say; I refuse to validate your unreasonably narrow and exclusionary viewpoint. I won’t let other people call you names should you choose to ignore my advice and comment, but I will redact your extremist attempts to redirect a civil conversation into your own flavor of lunacy. Be warned – my blog, my rules. You want to post your own screed? Go burn your own storage and bandwidth to do it.

Almost immediately, a good point was made: while Obama’s credentials are accurately stated, this picture attempts to make a point through blatant use of stereotypes. We know nothing about the gentleman in the red box – he might also be an Ivy League Constitutional scholar, or a distinguished judge, or even a talented and knowledgeable amateur scholar. We don’t know and we’re not told. This is the good old “guilt by association” propaganda ploy – if you like big scary guns, you’re probably ignorant just based on your appearance. Not a great way for liberals to make a point.

At the same time, conservatives are guilty of blatantly false propaganda too:


Figure 2: One of these things is not like the other
(found on
rashmanly.com)

Really? A democratically elected (twice, now, even!) federal executive, in a country with some of the most extensive checks and balances, who for at least half of his time in office has had to deal with a Congress (you know the branch of the government that actually makes the laws) controlled by his political opponents, is magically a dictator on par with some of the worst tyrants of recorded history? Because his biggest political acts have been to try to keep our country from plunging into a hyper-inflationary depression, to make sure poor people have access to medical care, and to try to maybe do something to reduce the number of innocent people killed by guns in this country every year? Remember, this is the President who pissed off many in his party because he didn’t bother to dismantle many of the incentives put in place by his predecessor.

Note 3: Don’t even think of heading to the “Democrats just want to take away guns and Republicans are protecting gun rights.” Remember the assault rifle ban that expired in 2004? The one that was enacted in 1994, which would have been during the (Democratic) Clinton administration? The one that was lobbied for by Ronald Reagan?

Finding Middle Ground

Okay, now that I’ve unilaterally declared extremes off the table, let’s dig into the meat of the original graphic – which is the fact that Obama has a background in Constitutional law, so unlike many politicians and political wonks, he might actually have a more than passing familiarity with some of the issues involved.

Obama is using executive orders to make changes within the framework of existing law, as well as working to introduce legislation to accomplish additional goals such as reintroducing the expired assault rifle ban. Some of these changes are likely to be polarizing, but outside of the echo chambers and spin factories, there’s actually a large amount of support for many of these proposals – and this according to a poll of 945 gun owners conducted last July by Republican party pollster Frank Luntz, before the events of Newton. After Newton, support for stricter laws on the sale of firearms has increased overall, including increased support for passing new laws although support for renewal of the assault rifle ban is still just shy of a majority. Yet somehow, any discussion of changes provokes an immediate, hostile response.

It’s also inevitable to see someone trot out the argument that since cars kill far more people, we need to regulate cars. Um, hello? We do. Car manufacturers have to regularly participate in studies and make changes to cars to reduce the deaths because of cars, and over the decades, it’s worked. We do the same thing for other forms of violence — we study it, and we make intelligent changes to reduce the impact. But the current climate and talking points (such as the historically inaccurate charge that gun control led to the Holocaust) have kept us in a virtual standstill on dealing with gun violence of any type.

Thanks to a careful and prolonged lobbyist and political spending campaign by the NRA and the gun manufacturers, we don’t even have credible research that would tell us why American gun deaths are so much higher than comparable nations. Let me be clear; the NRA does a lot of good, but they are a human institution and over the past couple of decades, they’ve transformed themselves from a simple society to promote scientific rifle shooting to a lobbyist organization. At times, I think this dichotomy can at times drive the NRA leadership out of sync with their members’ concerns and lead them to try to drive policy and dictate their members beliefs rather then represent them.

At this point, I think its obvious that some sort of changes need to be made. The USA has a gun homicide rate that is 4.5 times higher (or more) than other G-8 countries. When confronted with these facts, many people respond with talking points about how countries that have enacted gun control laws see a rise in crimes such as violent assault (Australia is a frequently featured talking point). However true these points may be, I can’t help but think that’s an invalid comparison. If I were to be the victim of a crime, I think I would rather be injured rather than outright killed. I would rather that my stuff got stolen than lose my wife or one of my kids. But overall, the crime rate in the US is dropping.

Like many Americans, I’m in favor of extending background checks and doing more to ensure that people with a history of violent mental illness and misdemeanor violence have reduced access to guns. Without comprehensive studies, I’m not convinced that renewing the assault rifle ban will actually help anything (are extended magazines actually useful in genuine self-defense scenarios, or would regular magazines do the trick?) But there’s a number of potential steps I’ve thought of that I’ve seen no discussion on:

  • I’m disturbed by the fact that when I take a free CPR or First Aid class, I have more stringent requirements than I do for my CPL. When I get CPR training I have to demonstrate that I am up-to date in my training and technique and recertify every year or two at the most; when I applied for my concealed pistol license, all I had to do was not currently be a felon and I get a five year license. Different states have different requirements; maybe it’s time to get a more consistent framework in place that requires more frequent check-ins and more frequent training?
  • While we’re talking about training, let’s hit another popular talking point: that armed private citizens are likely to stop mass shootings. While there are incidents of gun owners (typically store clerks) stopping an attempted robbery, the private citizens that have stopped instances of mass shootings all turn out to be private or off-duty security personnel who have substantially higher levels of firearms training than the average citizen (such as the Clackamas Mall shooting in Portland, OR).
  • One of the claimed benefits of having less restrictive firearms statutes is crime reduction. More armed citizens, it is said, equals lower crime. However, in order to have this kind of deterrent effect, don’t the criminals have to either know that people are carrying, or at least have a reasonable suspicion that people are carrying? Concealed carry would seem to be counter-productive; open carry would actually allow criminals to know what they’re about to get into. Is American culture ready for open carry? Again, this is an area we’d need more research on.
  • What about on-site gun safe inspections as part of the permit approval process? If one of the big concerns is people getting inappropriate access to guns, we should be making sure they’re being appropriate stored and locked away.

There’s a horrible patchwork of laws in place and there are some loopholes that should be closed, as long as we can do so without heading down the path of a guns registry. Come on, yes there are some screwballs who want to take all guns away, just as there are some screwballs who think that they should be able to own fully operable RPGs and tanks and fighter jets. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, although not in the same part of the middle, but we can’t even have a realistic, reasoned discussion on this because the people who benefit financially from the status quo make sure we can’t.

At this point in time, we can’t have a meaningful conversation on what the “well-regulated” clause in the 2nd Amendment is supposed to mean. All of our other liberties have been slowly and carefully re-interpreted over time – sometimes overly so, usually with corrections in the long run — as the times changed and as the nation changed and (yes) as we saw the fruits of some of the Founders’ mistakes. They were human; of course they made mistakes. They knew they would make mistakes and that we would have to adjust for situations they could never have foreseen. And yet, a strict reading of the 2nd Amendment is somehow off the table for even reasonable discussion? Why must we hew strictly to the Founding Fathers’ intentions in this one area when we willingly ignore them in other areas? (Check out what they had to say about professional politicians, lobbyists, and a two-party system.)

So, yes, sometimes it takes a Constitutional scholar to understand not only the original context of our Constitution, but also remember that the Founding Fathers always intended this Constitution to grow and live and adapt as our country did. It’s time for us to open the doors to a reasoned discussion on all areas of the 2nd Amendment, including the precise definition of which weapons it makes sense to allow citizens to have and what sorts of controls might be prudent to put in place to balance the right to self-defense with the reasonable safety of those around us.

Autism Is Not The New Cool

Pardon, y’all. It’s been a while since I’ve been here <peers at the dust>. I’ve had the best of intentions, but sadly, my bogging client of choice (Windows Live Writer) doesn’t auto-translate those into actual written blog posts yet. Maybe in the next version. <sigh>

I can hear some of you (both of you still reading, thank you loyal fans) asking what finally brought me back, and I have to say it’s a rant. A rant about autism (and Asperger’s, and the rest of the spectrum), how it is perceived, and how trendy equals insensitive. You have been warned.

Hip To Be Square

After karate class tonight on the drive home, Steph was reading through Facebook (something I do but occasionally these days, having overdosed myself on social media some time ago) and came across the following comment on a mutual friend’s post:

image

Yes, that really does say that stupid thing

For some reason, this really punched my buttons. I don’t know much about the person who posted it. I don’t know if they’re a fellow spectrum traveller or not. I don’t know how many close friends or family members they have who have autism. To a certain extent, it really doesn’t matter, because this comment is a textbook illustration of a fallacy that I’m seeing more and more:

If geeks are cool, and a lot of geeks are autistic, they must be cool because they are autistic.

This is a fallacy because it is the living embodiment of failure to grasp proper logic and set theory. This growing "Autism Is The New Cool" meme (AITNC for those of us who adore our acronyms), for lack of a better word, is reaching stupid proportions.

Venn We Dance

Now listen up, because if you’d paid attention in Algebra the first time, I wouldn’t have to be telling you this shit now.

What we are talking about here are properties that people have: the property of being cool, the property of being a geek, and the property of being on the autism spectrum. These are not variables that we can just slam together in a transitive[1] orgy of equation signs, as much as someone might like to be able to write on a whiteboard that A=B=C.

image

You get to stay after class and wipe down the whiteboard

Instead, we need to head over to set theory, which is where we look at groupings (or "sets") of objects, where said sets are organized by a shared trait. Such as being a geek, or being cool, or being on the autism spectrum. We represent these sets by drawing circles. Then we can make useful and interesting (and sometimes even more occasionally related to real life) observations by seeing where these sets overlap and what that tells us. This is a Venn diagram, and it helps us immediately destroy AITNC, because it reminds us that people (the members of the sets) are not single-value variables like A and B and C and the rest of their letter trash, but complex people who are not in any way entirely equal. This is my AITNC mega-buster Venn diagram, whipped up on this evening when I had lots of better stuff to do, just for your edification:

image

Filling in the missing names is left as an exercise for the reader[2]

Note that there are plenty of places where there is no overlap. Note that there are four separate regions where there are overlap. I can think of people who are examples of each of those areas, but I’m not enough of a dick to tell you who they are.

The Big Boy/Girl Panties Are Right Over There

I have, I shit you not, had parents ask me how to get their kid diagnosed with Asperger’s so they can "give him an extra educational advantage" (or some such nonsense). Yeah, I know. Fucked up, right?

I’m no child psychology professional, but I know spoiled, overly sugared kids when I see them. You want your kid to get an extra educational advantage? Don’t let the little bastards play video games and watch TV when they get home from school. Make them do homework and chores. Stop buying them everything they want and make them earn a meager amount of money and prioritize they things they really want from passing whims. Spend time with them and find out what they’re learning. Teach them about things you’re doing, which means you might want to put down the remote and pick up some more books or spend time outdoors or in your shop. Take the time to buy and prepare healthy food instead of boxed-up pre-digested pap. Teach them how to cook and clean, while you’re at it. Get involved with what they’re doing at school and be ruthlessly nosy about their grades and progress. Limit their after-school activities so they have time to study. Make and enforce a reasonable bedtime. In short, be a fucking parent. Stick with that for a year, and I guarantee your kids will have an educational advantage that you can’t believe.

NoYouCannotHaveAPony

Unless you want it in kebabs for dinner

Once you’ve done that for a few years and your kids have adjusted to having the meanest parents on the block like mine have, then you can worry about whether your precious little shit belongs on the autism spectrum, or has ADHD, or whatever other crutch diagnosis you think you need to compensate for being a mere gamete donor instead of a real parent.

People Are Strange (When You’re A Stranger)

I’m not going to sing a litany of woes about how tough it is being Asperger’s. I have fought most of my adult life to keep this thing from defining who I am. Devin != autism, not by a long shot. It’s one of a large number of properties about me, and it’s a mere footnote at that. I refuse to self-identify as an "Aspie" because I see that many of them (not all, but a significant fraction of them) use it as a Get Out Of Life Free card. "Oh, boohoo, I can’t make friends. Boohoo, I can’t have a relationship. Boohoo, my boss doesn’t understand me." I’ll grant it makes things difficult at times, but you know what? I look at so-called "neurotypical" people and they seem to have rough patches too. Life isn’t perfect for anyone. I don’t know how much harder my life is because of Asperger’s, and you don’t either. Anyone who claims to know is full of shit. At best, they’re making wild-ass guesses.

I choose not to play "what-if" games, because there is always something you think of after the fact. This wiring malfunction in my brain does not define or control me unless I choose to let it. The only reason its effects dominated my life through my early adulthood is that I didn’t know. Once I knew…well, I went all G. I. Joe[3] on its ass.

You know what really sucks? That my wife and kids have to be hyper-vigilant about what food they eat because their bodies are attacking their own auto-immune systems. I can tell you exactly how much of a crimp that’s put into their enjoyment of life. One thoughtless dweeb in a restaurant kitchen who doesn’t properly wash bread crumbs off a counter, or clean off that dollop of butter on the knife, can make them miserable for a week. That’s a pretty raw deal, friends. Asperger’s has nothing on that. Try traveling or going out to a restaurant with friends. The number of things you can eat with one of the 8 major food allergies quickly limits your options. Enjoy two of them (like my family) and you can start counting your dining options on one hand.

So if you’re one of those assholes who thinks autism is cool or glamorous, get a life. Seriously. Be thankful for what you have. And recognize that people are cool not because of their afflictions but because they are cool people.

 

[1] You’ll probably have forgotten in five minutes, but transitive means if one thing is equal to a second thing, and a third thing is also equal to the second thing, then the first and third things are equal too. This only usually works in math and quantum mechanics, because how often are two things actually equal in the real world?

[2] Extra credit if you noticed that I really did match the color coding between the two diagrams.Without thinking.

[3] "Knowing is half the battle."

Self-imposed silence

I really hate that there are things I want — nay, need — to write about right this minute and I can’t because it would be revealing too much about sensitive stuff that isn’t my place to talk about.

What good is a personal blog if you can’t use it to rant and kvetch and cry and work out dealing with the bumps the Universe throws your way?

A few thoughts on email

Email clients need to be more intelligent. For example, I can appreciate the Request Read Receipt feature that Outlook/Exchange and other email systems offer; it makes sense in a corporate environment, or when sending correspondence with business partners. However, all bets are off once you starting emailing the Internet in general. Why, oh why, do Outlook and Exchange continue to be so clueless about these wonderful things we call mailing lists?

It wouldn’t be very hard at all for Outlook to notice when a message I’ve received comes from a real mailing list; they have all sorts of wonderful headers (at least, they do if they’re compliant with RFCs) that easily distinguish them. It should then automatically change its behavior in several key ways:

  1. Stop sending read receipt requests to that address. It’s really bloody annoying to be reading along a mailing list and suddenly get the read receipt request dialog in my face, and all it does is make me think that the sender is an idiot.
  2. Stop sending OOF (out of office/out of facility) messages to that address. That looks even dumber.
  3. Offer to automatically create a new folder and rule to manage future messages from this list.

Oh, and email users who set “request read receipt” as their default? Should. Be. Shot. 

A letter to my bank

Dear Big-Ass Bank,


Many years ago, we switched our accounts to you from one of your competitors because they had crappy customer service and you did not. In fact, your customer service rocked our socks off. Sadly, it has become clear that you’re more interested in trying to grab customers from other banks than you are in retaining your existing customers. In fact, you are consistently engaging in extremely short-sighted “cost-cutting” practices while other banks are rejecting those same practices because they lose customers.


As an example, your phone menus. I should not have to be the Amazing Kreskin to figure out how to get to live human with my question that does not fit into any of your carefully thought-out categories. I can accept having to type in my account number before I get to that live human, but what the fuck is this “Telephone Access Code” you’re now requesting? How come I didn’t get a nifty brochure in the mail telling me all about it and how it would help keep my personal information safe from big bad identity thieves? Please don’t expect me to believe that you care about the environment, because you don’t hesitate to send me all sorts of paper and brochures about other items.


And since I’ve brought up identity theft, I have to say that while I appreciate the thoughtful tips you printed on the back of the paper that my new debit card came with, I feel compelled to point out that it does no fucking good when you insist on using Social Security numbers as default settings for access codes, PINs, and pretty much any other type of verification question you think up. Come on, seriously people — the SSN is one of the main targets for identity theft precisely because you idiots (and your fellow idiots in the financial verticals) insist on misuing the SSN as identification. Have you ever even looked at a SSN card? It says right on there in big fat type that the SSN is not to be used for identification purposes.


No, I don’t care if everybody else does it. No, I especially don’t care if it’s convenient. I’m the customer here, not you; your convenience is second to my security. By misusing the SSN this way, you and other banks (and the credit agencies, and insurance companies, and pretty much everyone else who feels obliged to collect my personal data) have guaranteed that bad people want to steal that number — it’s the key that makes comprehensive identity theft even possible. Congratulations, you scallawags — you’ve made it more convenient for the bad guys to get to my financial data than you have for me.


Thanks for nothing, bank. Please be assured that we will be looking over our options. It’s clearly time for us to part ways; this relationship is no longer working for us. And yes, it’s totally you — not us.


Sincerely,


Devin L. Ganger
 

A letter to IT marketing people

Dear IT Marketing people;

You are required to immediately cease and desist from using the phrase “perfect storm” (example: “the current regulatory environment creates a perfect storm for compliance vendors”) in any subsequent communications or materials. You may be under the delusion that it shows that you are hip and trendy, but all it really does is let us know that you have nothing substantive to say and merely rely on stealing the latest buzzwords to try to tell us about your boring, unoriginal product.

Here’s a suggestion: stop your frantic efforts to stay on top of the latest chic IT lingo. Instead, devote a mere 10% of that time (yes, that’s one-tenth, for the four of you who understand fractions) to actually coming up with something original to say about your product or service.

You will get extra bonus points (and probably higher sales) if you can do so in simple language: “If you buy our product and use it correctly, your CEO has a smaller chance of going to jail” is much more clear and persuasive than just about anything else you can say, except for possibly, “If you buy our product and fifteen years’ worth of consulting services to go with it, you will be 500% more attractive to members of the appropriate gender and orientation.”

You can really increase sales by being honest about your product, but that’s an advanced topic for another time.

Thanks in advance for your kind attention. Please close your mouth and wipe the drool from your chin; it’s unbecoming.

Sincerely not living in 2000,

Devin

How not to do customer service

Apple sells gift cards that can be redeemed online or in their physical stores. So far, so good.


Apple sells gift certificates for iTunes — both phsycial and email versions. So far, so good.


A friend got me a $50 Apple Gift Card for Christmas. So far, awesome.


Apple won’t allow my to use my Gift Card to buy songs off iTunes. Annoying. 


Apple won’t allow me to use my Gift Card to buy the email iTunes Gift Certificate (which I would receive immediately, and be able to use to buy the $50 worth of songs I’ve got saved in my iTunes cart, that I was planning on being able to listen to on the plane tomorrow).


Bastards.


Thinking about it, the reason behind it is probably either a) fraud prevention or b) the result of some legal settlement/contract along the way…but either way, it’s incredibly crappy that I have credit with Apple, want to make a purchase, and can’t through no fault of my own.


Apple, you suck. Fix this, because it makes iTunes and the Apple Music Store far less convenient. I don’t really care what the underlying problem is; you’re a smart company. Fix it and get out of the way of me spending money at your store.



 

Spoiler ettiquette reminder

This isn’t aimed at anyone in particular whose blog I read, or who I know reads this blog, but more of a general comment prompted by the reaction of a friend who just received a huge Battlestar Galactica season 3 (the current season) spoiler on Digg:


If you’re talking about the current season of a TV show, or a recent book or movie, do NOT reveal plot points without providing adequate warning. Doing so can result in innocent readers having their enjoyment of said plot point diminished thanks to your moment of thoughtlessness.


I myself can be very easygoing about receiving spoilers — for most shows, movies, and books I just don’t care. (Harry Potter, for example, although I definitely in the minority on that one.) BSG, however, I care about. If I were my friend, I’d be livid right now.


If God is just, there is a special eternity of torment reserved for habitual spoilers.


 

Stop doing that to the language!

Words mean things.


If I have one word such as “request” that functions both as a noun and a verb, and I have another word such as “ask” that is a synonym for it as a verb, that does not mean that “ask” is a synonym for “request” when used as a noun. “Ask” is not a noun, dammit. How lazy does one have to be to think that trying to drop two syllables off “customer requests” is a good idea?


Attention, marketing departments: verbal abominations such as “customer asks” (meaning things that your customers have requested in your product) are sufficient grounds for summary execution. Use of these phrases is your voluntary indication that you are a waste of biomass and must be immediately recycled.

People Whose Asses I Need to Kick #3: Geek Flamewar Zealots

“My computer can beat up your computer.” What a load of horse hockey.


I’ve long been tired of the whole PC vs. Mac vs. Intel vs. AMD vs. RISC vs. Windows vs. UNIX vs. Linux rat race, and was finally motivated to sum my precise feelings yesterday when commenting on a friend’s computer plans:


Computers are tools, not religious icons or penis extensions. Pragmatism should be the first, best factor in picking the right hardware and software for your needs.


The reality of the matter is a dirty secret that, deep down inside, all computer geeks know and few want to admit: all hardware sucks and all software sucks.


How can they not? They are produced by human effort and design processes, which involve the fine art of — say it with me now — compromise. No design team has an unlimited budget, infinite time, mastery of all physical processes, or the ability to make up their own requirements. The history of computing is replete with the corpses of elegantly engineered designs that proved to be too costly to mass-produce or that failed to meet the real-world needs of the customers expected to buy them.


We live in a physical universe ruled by the Satrap of Entropy and his lieutenant Murphy. Instead of wasting a lot of time heating the atmosphere and murdering electrons with endless flamewars, people need to chill out and find the flavor of suckage they can live with.


So take a stand against computer zealots everywhere. The next time you see a wrinkled lip or furrowed brow being unshipped for the opening salvos of a rant, take pre-emptive action. The only answer to “My computer can beat up your computer” is, in the end, “My sledge hammer doesn’t give a shit.”


WHAM!

People Whose Asses I Need to Kick #2: Followers of natal horological astrology

I think Robert Heinlein said it best in “The Happy Days Ahead”, an essy from his 1980 collection Expanded Universe:


Baseline: fifty-odd years ago astrology was commonly regarded as a ridiculous former
supersition, one all but a tiny minority had outgrown. It is now the orthodoxy of many, possibly
a majority. This pathological change parallels the decay of public education.
….Today natal horological astrology is so widely accepted that those who believe in it take it
for granted that anyone they meet believes in it, too — if you don’t, you’re some sort of nut….
I don’t know the percentage of True Believers but it is high enough that newspaper editors will
omit any feature or secondary news rather than leave out the daily horoscope.

Heinlein may have been a opinionated old fart, but he usually put a lot of thought into his opinions, and he draws a completely valid distinction between what he called natal horological astrology and the type of astrology that was the historical precursor for modern astronomy. The former is the belief that “the exact time, date, latitude, and longitude of your birth and the pattern of the Sun, Moon, and planets with respect to the Zodiac at that exact time all constitute a factor affecting your life comparable in importance to your genetic inheritance and your rearing and education”, while the latter was a branch of descriptive astronomy that could make repeatable and accurate predictions about the positions of planets, stars, the sun and moon, and related phenomenon such as eclipses. Granted, many ancient astrologers probably traded on their scientific knowledge to enhance their own status as counselors, but the art of astrology was initially founded on some extremely impressive math skills.


So what draws my ire today? This story in which a Russian astrologer is suing NASA for $300 million because they crashed a probe into the Tempel 1 comet:


“It is obvious that elements of the comet’s orbit, and correspondingly the ephemeris,
will change after the explosion, which interferes with my astrology work and distorts
my horoscope,” Izvestia daily quoted astrologist Marina Bai as saying in legal
documents submitted before Monday’s collision.

Well, guess what, lady? Your precious ephemeris is a load of bunk to begin with. While astrology may be based on some live genius-level mathematics, the whole system depends on mankind’s collective knowledge of the Solar System to begin with. The modern system of 12 signs of the zodiac, based on constellations in the ecliptic of the Solar System, only stablized around the 1930s (and oddly enough, there are actually 14 constellations in the ecliptic, not 12, and they are not even close to being distributed perfectly in 30 degree arcs). We know about a lot more asteroids, comets, and even planets nowadays than we did; astrologers have had to take all of these changes into account. The fact that we discovered existing celestial bodies means that all previous astrological charts were bunk. Since we still don’t have an accurate catalog of all bodies in the Solar System, future discoveries are guaranteed to continue to invalidate current astrological charts. So your stupid-ass lawsuit is a waste of time and money. I hope the courts laugh her out of the building. Sadly, however, I fear that NASA will have to waste time and money fighting this idiocy.

Introducing a new category: People Whose Asses I Need to Kick

This will be a category I visit every now and then. Think of it as a running list of things of such excruciating stupidity that the people who do them need to get their asses kicked. It won’t name specific names, unless I think that would be more funny than otherwise.


To start off…


People who put ATA/EIDE peripherals in a system and mix manual jumpering with Cable Select on the same bus.


Most PCs (practically all workstation-class) these days use EIDE/ATA drives. The IDE specification permits exactly two devices per IDE bus, a master and a slave. These designation helps the IDE controller and the devices figure out priority when both devices are trying to move data across the bus. In order to declare a hard drive, CD/DVD-ROM, or other ATA-compatible peripheral as either master or slave you have to move a small plastic jumper to bridge a set of pins. Which pair of pins you bridge tells the drive which position it is.


Some bright soul figured out that with a slight modification of the IDE cable, and with the appropriate smarts on the drives, you can use a method called Cable Select. Cable Select (a separate pin setting on compatible devices, which is pretty much anything IDE/ATA these days) tells the device that it is master if plugged into one position on the cable and slave if plugged into the other position. It’s fairly nice, since you set all your devices for CS and you never have to worry about conflicts.


You never want to mix the two methods. If you’re using CS, it needs to be used for both devices on the chain; otherwise, bad things happen. For example, two hard drives on the same chain, one as master and the other as CS, might cause severe speed slowdowns on the master drive and prevent the OS from ever seeing the CS-enabled drive.


If you are a person who has configured a computer like this, this is stupid. If you’ve done this to someone else’s system, then I will have to kick your ass, because it will one day be me (or someone like me) who has to fix it and explain to them just how stupid you were.


Don’t be that person.

WTF, mate?

I don’t get this. I post pictures of myself and get feedback — one half-assed crack, at that. I post about the bloggers opposing Alberto Gonzales and nothing.


WTF, mate?* Is this thing on? Hello?


* “WTF, mate?” is a quote from the hysterically funny and definitely raunchy Flash animation “The End of the World”. Not kid-safe, probably not work-safe. You’ve been warned.