Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Only Geeks Will Find Gratification in Today's Post

It's consumed my life for the last six to nine months... upgrading to Exchange 2003 and Windows 2003 Server (from Exchange 5.5 and NT4). The shit I'm running is so old that Microsoft won't support it anymore. If the shit breaks, I'm on my own.

On any given day, I'm very busy... no time to research, no time for continuing education... only time to react to the problem of the day.

In any given month, getting money for infrastructure upgrades is like pulling teeth. It's more important for company's sales staff to attend teambuilding exercises, and for senior management to sponsor huge corporate golf outings than it is for me to maintain and upgrade my company's core infrastructure.

Despite this, I've managed to design and implement a Windows 2003 forest and Exchange 2003 server. Integrating five disparate Exchange Systems and seven Windows NT and 2000 domains into a single divisional system has consumed my life. When I'm motivated to do it, they won't give me the money. When management pushes the issue, I don't have the time...

Finally, today, I hit a minor yet significant milestone. I've integrated calendars between the two existing Exchange 2003 servers. It's minor because it's easy. It's significant because it's something that my golf-crazed senior managers have been pushing for. Next weekend I will be implementing the same thing, except between the aforementioned (and unsupported) Exchange 5.5 servers. If -- nay, when -- I pull this off, I'll be a hero (and will be sure to give credit to the rest of the staff). It should give me enough leverage to say, "Hey, you see this? It's nothing compared to the benefits of getting everyone off of NT and on to 2003.

A little gratification, and a little excitement. Please, let me bask in it for a moment or two before throwing corporate reality into the mix, by reminding me that once senior management is satisfied, they won't care about the rest and I'll be back where I started.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Gunman gives police slip before 7-hour 'stakeout'

Every now and again, fact is stranger -- and funnier -- than anything my imagination could come up with. This one's from Reuters...

ZURICH (Reuters) - Around 100 police officers staked out a suspected armed robber at a Zurich bank for nearly seven hours on Monday, only to find the man had already fled minutes after the alarm was raised, police said.

Police stormed the branch of Credit Suisse, opposite a police station, at around 1445 CET (1:45 p.m. British time), having tried for hours to establish contact with the assailant who was suspected of holding two employees hostage.

The drama was broadcast live on Swiss television, but it seemed the gunman had already given the slip.

"On the basis of current police information, it must be assumed that the suspect fled before the first police officers arrived on the scene," police said in a statement.

Local residents were told to remain indoors and a section of the suburb was cordoned off as police sought to bargain with the man after a third employee raised the alarm.

In fact, the employees, a male trainee and woman, had locked themselves in rooms the gunman could not enter and did not know he had already fled. They were found uninjured but traumatised by the stake-out.

Allow me to recap this for those of you who didn't read closely enough... Some guy robs a bank in Zurich, Switzerland -- and the bank is right across the street from the cop shop! (Talk about balls!)

The scared bank employees locked themselves in a room that the robber couldn't enter. Despite the fact that the bank is right across the street from the police station, the robber makes a clean getaway.The cops show up and stake the joint out for seven hours before figuring out that the guy had already left. (Did I mention that the cop shop is right across the street from the bank?)

The media thinks they're on to a great story... intrigue, suspense, guns, violence and cops... and they're there for seven hours too. (Did I mention that the guy had already left?)

After being told by their top-notch police force to stay indoors, and not wanting to miss out on the unfolding saga, Hagen and Heidi are glued to the television, waiting anxiously for the evening's reality TV to unfold.

Meanwhile, the perpetrator calmly walks to the corner market, grabs a bar of swiss chocolate, a six pack of Löwenbräu -- without anyone noticing that giant burlap sack of money -- then goes home to take a bath in the loot.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Has Twenty Years Passed So Quickly?

Twenty years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. It's hard to believe that twenty years has passed so quickly. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened, and though I can and do realize other events of my life are ancient history, that brief moment is seared into my memory and is as clear as if it happened only yesterday. Like the assasination of President Kennedy impacted and molded my parents' generation, Challenger's explosion molded and impacted mine.

It is only fitting that on this, the twentieth anniversary of their deaths that I reprint President Reagan's speech.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we've never lost an astronaut in flight; we've never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we've forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we're thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, 'Give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy.' They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them...

There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, 'He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.' Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sometimes the Local Geek Knows Better

Not too long ago, a friend of my wife's did a home video of her kids' performance in a musical. After videotaping the event, she sent the tape off to a professional company to have the show copied to a DVD. Within a matter of days, the company had returned the tape to our friend, claiming that the tape was damaged, so they couldn't transfer the contents to a DVD. As you can imagine, she was devastated. Not only was the video not copied to a DVD, but the original was unusable. Her once-in-a-lifetime memory was destroyed.

Enter me on my shiny segway. (Okay, I don't actually own a segway, but considering this is a technology story, it seems more appropriate for me to ride in on a shiny segway rather than a white stallion.) Figuring there was nothing to lose, I offered to look at the damaged tape and see if I could fix it. After looking at the tape for a few minutes, I figured out why the tape wasn't working and had the contents dumped to a DVD in no time. My wife and I will be giving the fixed tape and accompanying DVD to her friend this weekend as a birthday gift -- free of charge.

My point is this: Just because a company touts itself on the Internet as "professional" or "expert," that doesn't mean it's the case - especially if they claim to be a technology company. It's frequently more time and cost effective to ask a computer geek friend if they can do what you need done. This too can be a double-edged sword, considering that your local expert could be just as full of crap as the internet company you're dealing with. The difference is, you'll probably run into your neighborhood geek at the supermarket. If you send the work off to a fly-by-night "professional" you could be out more than just a little time and six pack.

Sometimes the local geek knows better. Just make sure that you don't wear out your welcome with him (or her). The first time or two may be a freebie, but you're better off if you offer some beer (or soft drink if they're not old enough) and pizza. After that, be willing to pay them some token amount ($20 to $50, depending on how much time they put into fixing the problem) on top of the beer and pizza. Once you call on them more than three or four times, you had better be prepared to offer them something close to the going rate, or you will quickly find them "too busy" to help you. You can only ask a friend for assistance so often without expecting to give them something substantial in return.

With that said, I've got to go. I just got a 9-1-1 call from another friend who needs assistance with her computer. Just remember... sometimes the local geek knows better. Don't be afraid to ask them for help, but make sure to not take advantage of them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What is Ray Nagin Thinking?

According to Brett Martel of the Associated Press, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin suggested Monday that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and other storms were a sign that "God is mad at America" and at black communities, too, for tearing themselves apart with violence and political infighting. Martel further quoted Nagin as saying "He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country." I'd really like to know what Ray Nagin is thinking. In fact, I wonder if we are even worshipping the same God.

Last I knew, God was loving and benevolent, not vengeful and angry. Yes, it's true that the Old Testament describes a God of vengeance and anger, but only if you don't play by His rules. Of course, this is the same Old Testament that allows for slavery, and required animal sacrifices. When Jesus Christ came to earth, He taught us that God is not vengeful, but kind and loving. And even the Old Testament teaches that God gave us free will.

Based on my understanding of God, He's taken a hands-off approach to the world. After Noah's flood, he made a pact with mankind to NOT do that type of thing again. But let's put God's covenant aside for a moment and approach this from a different angle. Who is Ray Nagin to assume that he has any sort of insight into the thoughts, motivations, ideas and actions of the Almighty? Considering that no man can ever possibly understand the immeasurable knowledge and workings of our Creator, isn't it incredibly arrogant for Nagin to think that he's got some special insight on God?

I mean come on, if God were to be angry with someone, I'd think that he'd be angry at corrupt politicians who invoke His name for the sake of getting their way. I'd think that he'd be angry at the false prophets like Pat Robertson who claim to know for sure that God is striking down America due to our damaged sense of morality. By the way, I say 'false prophets' because the Bible specifically says that if you are incorrect on a single prophesy, you are not a prophet of God. The Bible implies that if you 'reword' your prediction, or back down from it, you are not a prophet of God. Of course I can't know for sure if God is angry with them, because I am just wise enough to know that I cannot understand His thoughts or motives. I possess just enough intelligence to realize that it's foolish to assume that he experiences anger in our sense of the word.

My point is this... no man can possibly even begin to comprehend the unfathomable nature of God, and anyone who claims to have such knowledge is full of crap. Is it possible that God is mad at us? Absolutely! But for someone to claim they know this for certain is arrogance at its finest. God says "No man knows." So if He says that no man knows, how is it that people like Pat Robertson and Ray Nagin know? Either God changed his mind and decided that we could know, God was wrong and we've been able to understand His motives all along, or these people are full of crap. I'd say the third possibility is the most likely.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Learn how to Play Guitar

I've been a music geek for as long as I can remember. I started playing trumpet in fourth or fifth grade, and played it until eleventh grade, when I switched to baritone. I can read music -- both bass and treble clef. I was in marching band, symphonic band and jazz band. I'm blessed with perfect pitch. I tried out for the Marine Corps band on both trumpet and baritone... two separate auditions, both of which I missed by one point. I did a basement band with some friends of mine in my mid-twenties. I was talented enough to do better, but not ambitious enough.

One of the things I've long wanted to do, but never gotten around to, is learning how to play guitar. I've had some books for about ten years. I learned how to play a couple of cords and a couple of songs, but put the guitar always down and forgot what I had learned. I can learn how to play a song's melody by ear, and have done so, but that's not the same as learning how to play the guitar. I've played bass guitar, but that's not the same, because you're generally playing one note on four strings, as opposed to playing more intricate music on a six-string. A couple of years back, my friend Greg left his guitar at my house, but I didn't do anything with it.

Finally, a few months back, my younger daughter asked for a guitar; her older sister bought a cheezy $20 Wal-Mart acoustic guitar as a birthday gift for her sissy. For Christmas, she asked for a better guitar. I got her lessons instead. The deal is that if she's disciplined enough to keep up with the lessons, and keep learning, I'll get her her own guitar. But in reality, it's me that got hooked. I've been playing every day since. So here I am, going on 40, and I'm finally realizing a goal that I've had for over ten years.

Learn how to play guitar.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Rich Get Richer… or… Am I a Malcontent?

Yesterday,I found out how much my pay raise was. I’m not going to say exactly how much of an increase I received, but I will say that it was what the company considered an “average” raise. The “average” employee, according to my company, rates a pay raise ranging from 1% to 4%. A sub-standard performer gets a zero percent raise, and an outstanding performer gets a respectable bump of 6% - 9%. Furthermore, the company says that a maximum of 20% of the employees in the pool can be “outstanding” performers. This means that 80% of the employees in my company received a raise from zero to four percent… except for the “highly compensated executives” who are probably on a different pay model.

Fast forward to today, where I ran across the rate of inflation for 2005 … for all of 2005, wholesale prices rose by 5.4 percent. That was the biggest increase since a 5.7 percent increase in 1990, and another year in which surging oil costs pushed inflation higher. However, core inflation, excluding energy and food, was up a more moderate 1.7 percent in 2005

What this means is that my merit increase didn’t even keep up with inflation; in the end I essentially took a net pay cut for the privilege of continuing to work for my employer. If I chose to not eat (or feed my family) or consume any energy – no gas for my car, no natural gas to heat my house, no electricity to light my home – I would get a raise. Apparently my company has determined that food, transportation to and from my job, electricity (which ironically enough allows me to work from home), and natural gas are not necessities. Statistically speaking, 80% of the people in my company are in the same boat.

I can’t speak with any certainty, but I suspect that many other employees working for many other companies are experiencing the same phenomenon. I wonder how long the workforce will continue taking this before Corporate America experiences another political upheaval from its work force. I wonder just how long we will allow the rich to keep getting richer… or maybe I’m just a malcontent who should shut up and go back to work.

Friday, January 13, 2006


My first hint that something was amiss came at 4:00 P.M. or so, when my older daughter called me at work and asked me if I would work late. My kids have occasionally had "meals" waiting for me when I'd get home from work, and I figured this was no different.

Though I didn't actually agree to work late, I stayed for an extra half hour, figuring that would be enough time for the kids to have whatever-they-were-doing ready by the time I got home. I was wrong.

When I got home, I was met with my younger daughter at the bottom of the stairs, and my older daughter hollering from the main floor "You can't come up here." So I stayed in the basement, where they had started playing Napoleon Dynamite on DVD to keep me occupied, asked them to bring me a beer, started a fire and kicked back to read a book while the movie played quietly in the background.

Little did I know that I'd be couped up in the den until my wife got home, two and a half hours later. As expected, the kids fixed us dinner... An appetizer of pistachios, A main course of homemade rice soup, made with chicken broth and carrots, and a double dessert of gingerbread cookies and a loose interpretation of rocky road... a kid's interpretation of the perfect meal.

During our meal we were treated to a fashion show and lip synching, put on by the girls, and it was fun. My younger daughter also played the guitar and improvised some lyrics... I think the highlight was when she sang about how "My sister gives me the blues, but she always wears clean shoes." The Mrs. and I both burst out laughing, which of course made the kid very pleased with herself.

I really get a kick out of when the girls do these little meals and/or shows for me. It lets them use their imagination and creativity, and keeps them from rotting their brains in front of the TV. At the same time though, past experience has told me that these meals and shows usually mean a lot of extra clean-up work for the adults. This time was no exception.

At times like these, I look forward to the prospect of my kids having kids, so they can experience the fun-stration (combination of fun and frustration) of these shows. I don't enjoy the cleanup afterwards, but I do enjoy the effort, creativity and watching the kids ham it up for us.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Plain Spoken

For my entire adult life, I’ve been plain-spoken. Never one to mince words, I call it like I see it. When people ask my thoughts or opinions, they can trust that I will provide my complete, honest point of view. I have long known that my blunt honesty is a double-edged sword. In the end, people understand my position, but along the way, feelings occasionally get hurt.

By reading written language, hearing subtle verbal cues, or observing non-verbal behavior, I can usually tell when people are uncomfortable with my cut-to-the-chase style of communication; and I fully understand that such discomfort reduces the overall efficiency of communication. Once people become uneasy in their interactions with others, they tend to become defensive and worry more about protecting themselves than truly communicating. As a result, when I observe distress in my conversations, I tend to temporarily stop trying to make my point… mainly by closing my mouth and listening for a bit. Usually this alleviates the discomfort. Once they’ve regained their equilibrium, we are again free to discuss the matter at hand.

In circumstances where the other person is particularly sensitive, I utilize as much diplomacy as I can muster, but based on my nature, I find this difficult. I have a solid command of the English language, and am good at reading people, but employing tact is foreign to my nature. I understand the social necessity of delicate communication, but have a difficult time implementing that knowledge. Being an analytical individual by nature, I prefer efficiency, productivity and facts. Additionally, I pride myself on having a broad range of knowledge and experience. When people try to argue against what I know to be factually correct or highly efficient, I sometimes become uncomfortable with the conversation, which puts me on the defensive. When this happens, my primary nature takes over, making it increasingly difficult for me to maintain diplomacy. I don’t get angry, and I don’t lose my cool, but I do lose a measure of my tact.

As a blunt individual, I naturally appreciate direct, cut-to-the-chase communication, as opposed to delicate beating around the bush. When people dance around the issue while talking to me, I tend to grow impatient and try to get to the heart of the discussion. I’m a person of few words (despite the length of this article), and superfluous vociferation strictly for the purpose of diplomacy goes against my nature of efficiency.

As a man who had a broad understanding of many learning disciplines (and a deep understanding of one or two disciplines), I also tend to feel disrespected when someone tries to tell me I’m wrong when I know for an indisputable fact that I’m right. Don’t misunderstand this, in the occasions where I’m wrong, I have no issue with admitting to my mistakes, learning from them and moving on. That’s a large part of learning. What really chaps my hide is when some blow-hard who thinks they know more than they actually do tries to tell me I’m wrong about something in my own field of expertise.

The worst possible way to undermine my attempts at tact and diplomacy is to try to tactfully tell me that I’m wrong, when I know for a fact that I’m absolutely, irrefutably correct. When that happens, I end up shutting off my emotions and bluntly discuss from a strictly intellectual standpoint. By this point, tact is out the window, and it quickly becomes incredibly difficult to regain a diplomatic demeanor.

As I said earlier, I understand society’s need for diplomacy, but our drive for a soft approach has gotten entirely out of hand, and based on my experience, it’s completely hypocritical. As a network engineer, I have to handle co-workers who are irritated over such-and-such not working as they expect on a daily basis. When they call, they’re upset, stressed and sometimes angry that things aren’t working correctly. Much of the time, they speak to me with a tone of voice that implies the problems they’re experiencing are my personal fault. In return, because they’re my customers, I am expected to quietly take this abuse, and diplomatically help them solve the problem. In most cases, the root of the problem is more due to their lack of knowledge, something they did, or due to something completely out of my control. The overwhelming majority of the time, I can keep my cool, maintain a respectable level of diplomacy, and still fix the problem in an expedient manner.

Occasionally though, I resort to my innate, curt method of communication. When this happens, my customers are less than 100% satisfied. Despite the fact that they’re abusive to me, regardless of the fact that I’ve rectified their problem, they’re dissatisfied because I failed to kiss their ass. This is what I think I hate most about the politically correct movement. Somehow people think that decency and common courtesy applies to everyone except them. It’s perfectly acceptable for them to interact with me in a downright abusive manner, but if I fail to smile and fix their problem while I’m being verbally accosted, it’s somehow totally unacceptable. I am never rude. I don’t tell people to shut up, I don’t raise my voice, and I don’t become sarcastic or snide.

Overall, I think diplomacy is a highly over-rated commodity in today’s society, and the straight talker is under-rated. Admittedly, I’m a little biased in this view, but years’ worth of observation has convinced me that society is not benefiting by our obsession with kid-gloves interaction. There are many casualties in the sensitivity-run-amok culture of today…

“The Golden Rule” has gone out the window. I was raised to treat others as I’d like to be treated. I want to be treated with respect, but not at the expense of someone else being able to be honest with me… not if others feel like they can’t tell me what they’re really thinking and feeling. And if someone treats me in an abusive manner, they should not have the right to expect me to continue treating them as if they’re God’s gift to society. As it is, many people seem to believe that they can act like complete asses, while simultaneously expecting others to treat them like royalty. This serves no purpose other than alienating people from their fellow man.

Truth is also a casualty of today’s kid-gloves mentality. I’ve heard people say that “Diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to Hell, and having them look forward to the trip.” Well, last I heard, Hell is a bad, bad place. If I tell someone to go there, that’s bad enough. But if they look forward to the trip, get there, and find out things really suck, aren’t they going to be doubly pissed at me? After all, they looked forward to something that I knew would suck. It seems obvious to me that they’d not only be pissed at me for giving them unrealistic expectations, they’ll also be upset about the fact that I wasn’t completely truthful with them.

If tact and diplomacy hasn’t lowered society’s sense of personal expectations and raised our sense of entitlement, I don’t know what has. Has anyone heard the latest term for failure?!? Today’s PC movement is calling it deferred success. What a crock! Let’s picture this… There’s a baseball game on. One team obviously wins the game, and the game is over. Did the other team experience deferred success? I don’t think so. Once the game is over, the losing team cannot possibly win the game.

If I have to spend my time, knowledge and energy worrying about how I’m going to say something, then I am saying it less efficiently in every possible way to interpret efficiency. By focusing on how I will phrase something, I am diverting at least a portion of my energy from the message to the “spin.” And if it’s something very bad – usually the case, because negatives generally require more diplomacy than positives – it dilutes the ramifications. Additionally, when people try to approach something with me in a tactful manner, my internal alarms go off, and I know that it’s nothing good. That puts people on the defensive, making it harder yet to communicate efficiently.

If I see something that’s really, really bad and tell someone else it’s “not good,” there’s a lot of room for interpretation. It could be neutral, a little uncomfortable, catastrophic, or anywhere other than not good. Though tone of voice usually indicates that “not good” is less than good, “not good,” while more diplomatic, is less succinct and accurate than “crappy.” As a result, diplomacy decreases the likelihood that we can fully understand and appreciate alternative points of view.

I’ve spent a lot of time ranting about being plain-spoken vs. being tactful and raging against society’s need to become ever-more diplomatic. But I want to clarify that I don’t see tact and diplomacy as completely evil. Like just about anything else in life, there is a time and a place for a soft touch. All I am trying to say is that subtlety and savoire-faire have become too pervasive in our society. It’s time to re-learn to speak our minds.