Thursday, March 30, 2006

Four Things

A friend of mine tagged me with this meme via e-mail, but i decided to post my responses here also.

Four jobs I have had in my life:
  1. Crop inspector (no, seriously)
  2. Golf-ball retriever (from ponds, to resell)
  3. Lab assistant
  4. Computer geek
Four movies I would watch over and over:
  1. The Third Man
  2. Blade Runner
  3. Singing in the Rain
  4. Any of the LotR trilogy
Four places where I have lived:
  1. Woodburn, Indiana
  2. Buckeye, Arizona
  3. Tucson, Arizona
  4. San Diego, California
Four TV shows I watch:
  1. Lost
  2. My Name is Earl
  3. Avatar: The Last Airbender
  4. The Office
Four places I have been on vacation:
  1. Italy
  2. Hawaii
  3. Kings Canyon
  4. The Philippines
Four websites i visit daily:
Four of my favorite foods:
  1. That rigatoni thing my wife makes
  2. Salmon picatta
  3. Dark chocolate
  4. Panang curry with duck
Four places I would rather be right now:
  1. At home
  2. Running, anywhere.
  3. London
  4. Santiago, Chile (never been there, but i'd like to go)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Boston Bib Number

I got my Boston race information packet today. I was relieved to find that my bib number is in the first 10000, so i get to go off in the first wave. This is the first year that Boston is instituting a two-wave start (one at noon, the second at 12:30) to alleviate the crowds in the neighborhoods of Hopkington where the race begins. I was resigned to being in the second wave, but i'm pretty happy to be in the first group. I know that it'll take a while to get across the start in any case-- so my gun time will be much slower than my net time-- but at least i won't be as impatient in the starting area.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The War in Iraq

After 3 years, the war in Iraq still confuses me. I continue to believe that we shouldn't have gone to war, that the evidence for WMD in the country is dubious, that the pre-war intelligence was intentionally exaggerated, and that the connection between Iraq and 9/11 is non-existent. But i'm willing to believe Iraq was a potential laboratory for weapons development; in fact i bought into that argument until the UN weapons inspectors failed to find any evidence. And even though there was no relationship between the opportunistic and essentially secular regime of Saddam and the Islamic radicals who constitute our obstensible enemy, there's little doubt that he was a pyschopath who could have evolved into the Arabic world's version of Hitler.

Today you can hear reports that Iraq is on or past the brink of civil war while at the same time hearing that democratic government is beginning to take hold. I think that both are possibly true and that both are possibly false. Mostly i think that neither is really a situation that we can make sense of given our (or at least my) frames of reference. In our relatively prosperous and stable society, the institutions of democratic government function with frustrating uncertainty, and even with those institutions our country has managed to reach civil war. But i don't think the history of the US Civil War can teach us much about the deep-seeded cultural and religious differences that prevail in the middle East. So i don't think either democracy or civil war are touchstones that we can use to identify the situation in Iraq, though the latter fits better on top of chaos.

My only moral absolute in life is that i'd do anything to make a safe future for my kids. If i thought that waging war against Iraq would accomplish that, i'd be all for it. I'd enlist. But it won't, and every time i hear about needing another X billions of dollars for the war or about the nuclear ambitions of Iran or about the further erosion of our civil liberties in the name of the war on terror, i sense that we're heading toward a future that will make me long for the days of the cold war. It seems not only likely, but inevitable, that we will see more terrorist attacks in the future on US soil, maybe even nuclear attacks; that in the wake of those attacks our people will be willing to make more concessions to government surveillance; and that our economic growth will be inhibited by the dollars we'll have to spend controlling our borders and battling our nebulous enemy. If this is the outcome of protecting our interests, then i would hate to see the alternative.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Runners Are So Bad-Ass

I thought this was really cool:

Basically a story about a runner chasing down a thief. Funny.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

My First Ultra

More proof that i'm teetering on the edge of sanity: i ran my first ultra-marathon today, the Lake Hodges 50k. Granted, it was only 50k (about 31 miles), but it was also raining and occasionally hailing, and since it had rained for a few days prior the whole course was mud. Here's a picture i took of today's weather. That white stuff is hail:

The course was brutal. It consisted of two roughly 16 mile out/backs, in the middle of which was a 3 mile loop of up and down single track. There were two stream crossings with water that came about half the way up my calf. It took me over 5 hours to finish. I didn't push too hard since i have to run Boston next month, but it was still pretty grueling.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

How Do You Make Complex Things?

Lots of people think about software architecture and systems design and system validation and software economics, etc. Research has been done on the group dynamics of engineering and there's an abundance of project management books. And complex systems do get built: bridges, airplanes, phone switching software. But i'm still convinced it's an order of magnitude harder than it should be.

The problem is human beings. Not that i'm all that crazy about Syknet either, but while you could at least imagine a technique for describing and optimizing the relationships between correctly specified subsystems, you can't do it with people. Even describing inter-human relationships in a statistical way is not particularly useful, because average behavior can't be applied to a single situation in a meaningful way (if i know that 50% of all projects fail, then i know that my project has a 50% chance of failing, that's true; but in practice you almost always have a better sense at the outset of what your chances of success are).

Probably the best statement of the problem is Mark Pilgrim's "Morons and Assholes" post. In it he argues that all developers are either morons or assholes. However, most readers miss the point that a comfortable mix of assholes and morons is the best case scenario. Not infrequently, projects get too many morons or too many assholes, or at least one particulary strident sociopath (Pilgrim's term for morons who become assholes). Two sociopaths can destroy a project before it even gets started. The chance of any given person being a sociopath i'd estimate at about 10%.

If all workers were equal and you graphed productivity vs. number of people you'd get a curve that increases less and less rapidly up to about 6 people, then levels off, then starts to asymptotically drop back to 0. So 2 people do slightly less than 2x as much work, while 5 people do maybe 3x as much work, and 20 people do nothing useful. The traditional approach to address this problem is to create a management hierarchy so that the pool of people is divided into either functional or project groups (or both in the dreaded "matrix") with one person in the group designated as the main intergroup communicator.

The opposite extreme in my view would be to create an environment where systems emerge that address specific needs because there is a market for it. Groups will naturally optimize to the right size because the best, most timely solution wins. Communication between groups becomes less of an issue because the solution of group A either meets the needs of group B and so succeeds, or it doesn't and fails. The main problem with this evolutionary/market process is that it requires a fair number of participants and enough capital to get all of the variations to a point sufficient to be evaluated. It's not quite as farfetched as it sounds though. Think of the way that large companies tend to often buy companies that address their business needs rather than trying to compete with them.

My opinion is that complex systems in the future will more frequently get built according to the second model and its inevitable refinements. Much of the Internet itself and software surrounding it have has some of this flavor. I think the reason for this is the lower barrier to entry. It requires much less capital to start an interesting Internet service than it does to develop a useful aircraft component. I assume this to be because of the commodity pricing of computer hardware, the availability of nearly-free software, and the standards that prevail in the Internet world, both by committee and de facto.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My Wife's Tattoo

This is a picture of my wife's new tattoo:

It's just a design, not a picture of anything in particular; though it has a kind of Rorschach-like effect in that most people think it looks like something. She's been wanting to get a tattoo for a while now, and for whatever reason her 41st birthday seemed to be the occasion.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My Calf Hurts

I have this. It sucks. I can't run without discomfort, and i've been doing bike rides lately to keep in shape. I actually ran 20 miles last Saturday, but it hurt. The worst part is that it seems to be really slow to heal. It'll feel OK for a couple of days, and then i'll try to run on it or do martial arts and it'll pop again.

The only good thing i can say about this is that it's made me appreciate how much i need to run. I really miss being able to go out and run pain-free for an hour or so whenever i want. It's not the exercise per se, because biking doesn't give me the same sense. Running, because it's not equipment intensive and doesn't require any special facilities, is about freedom. Without it i feel limited.