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isn't quite ashamed enough to present

jr conlin's ink stained banana

:: Lunatic Debate Club

There are some things that i’m willing to say are “non-controversial”.

i don’t believe that the following need to be discussed, in long form, where dissenting ideas need to be heard out.

  • Humans require oxygen.
  • The moon exists.
  • High voltage electricity does not taste like candy.

There are lots of other things that can be proven readily and also do not need to be discussed and rationalized to a dissenting party.

  • JFK, Elvis and Tupac are all dead.
  • The earth is an oblate sphere (“round” also works).
  • Millions, mostly Jews, were killed in the Holocaust of WWII.

It is quite safe to consider anyone who does not hold those facts as true as a lunatic, someone willfully disassociated from reality, and not really worth having a discussion with.

This is not to say that there are some facts that are worth discussion, or that there’s not nuance that can be argued. We can spend hours or days discussing the finer points of how to best reduce global CO2 and other heat trapping gasses. Likewise there are areas that i gleefully state i have no knowledge that i’m happy to learn about, such as the horsepower differences between a hemi vs standard piston v6. Gravity, while undeniable and present for a mighty long time, is still very much an unknown force.

One thing that’s been pretty <Insert multiple expletives here> settled, however, is that brains are brains. i can’t, with any certainty predict your level of musical talent, pool acumen, or skill at balancing dual carburetors by knowing your sex or race. i can’t tell how well you’d solve for X by knowing your nationality. There may be other factors that contribute to your level of skill, including your background or even the way your brain happens to be wired, but none of those hinge on the configuration of your core chromosomes.

And things get even worse when it comes to programming computers.

i have colleagues who have studied computer science for decades who learn new techniques from folks who just started coding a few years ago. Coding is collaborative. If it wasn’t, sites like github or StackOverflow wouldn’t exist. To deny or somehow refute that fact is equivalent to saying that California doesn’t exist.

So here’s one more irrefutable truth along the lines of “Glowing red iron should not be licked”:

  • Race, gender, national origin, sexual preference, language, hair and eye color, number of useful limbs or anything else does not make you a better or worse problem solver. Solving problems makes you a good problem solver.

Everyone has the potential to write code. Should they find it worth while, some will go on to become great coders, and should they have true talent, a very select few will go on to become legendary. They will come from all walks and a few rolls of life. i work on internal plumbing which has zero glory. i kid that i do the digital version of a Dirty Job. If it works, you’ll never know, but when it doesn’t, i will.

And let’s face it; most of us are not writing code that cures cancer or delivers clean drinking water to 60% of the planet. Most of us are writing glorified string manipulators or adding machines. We make electrons and silicon do neat party tricks that turn a profit for someone else. i welcome anyone willing to dive in and help, particularly someone who doesn’t look or think like me for the same reason that i don’t live on only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

So, welcome all you weirdos that want to learn and write code. The days can be long, frustrating, and deeply annoying, but the bursts of pride and accomplishment once things are working are phenomenal. If you love learning and teaching, you will absolutely love this industry. Everyone in the industry started by not knowing how to code and got better. Many have been in that position multiple times as new tech, languages, and designs were created. Find someone who understands that and is willing to help you get better. They had someone do it for them, this is how they can pay that back.

And if you find someone who doesn’t think you could ever do what they do?

Ignore them.

They’re lunatics.

:: Goin’ Solar

Recently, i had solar installed on my roof. It’s not a huge system, but it covers my average daily need of about 4KWh. It cost me about what a brand new economy car would have, and i understand that i’m in a fairly privileged position, both in the ability to have solar panels installed, and the ability to afford them.

The reason was pretty simple: my electric power rates had hiked up in the past few years and i expected to be at home a bit more. If i could reduce that cost down, there’s no reason i shouldn’t. There are other reasons i considered them, like the fact that i live in earthquake country and having panels means that i’d have some power available 1, and the panels would provide some shade to keep my metal roof from overheating2, but honestly, not forking over $100+ a month was really the major draw.

And, yeah, i get that i’m late to the game on this. i’m ok with that. Cutting edge tech on these sorts of things is foolish. You want something that’s had the kinks worked out and is reliable as hell for the 30+ years they’ll be running.

So, i find it kinda hilarious that there’s a growing backlash about roof top solar.

Part of the problem is that power companies built way the heck too much generation capacity. i can’t really fault them, Natural Gas is cheap thanks to the current glut, and not a lot of folks saw the residential solar panel growth happening the 10 or so years ago that these plants were authorized. Still, residential solar is a fraction of the power generated daily. It does, however, mean that the return on all those bright, shiny, and new power plants won’t be quite as great and it’ll take a few more years before they become profitable. Hooray! Power is a commodity and subject to supply and demand.

Which kinda leads to the next point. Residential power generation is kind of a fluke. Let’s ignore solar, and say that i’ve somehow created a tiny universe filled with residents who step on pedals in order to provide me Watts to spare. In the era before smart meters, i’d plug that in and the analog meter would literally run backwards. The power company would come by every month, read the meter, and wonder how to deal with consuming negative KWh. The simple solution, because not a lot of folks were creating tiny power-plant universes, was to just credit at the same rate they charged and move on. Some months i’d owe, others i’d collect as i fed the excess power back into the grid for my neighbors to use.

This is because the grid doesn’t really care where the power comes from, just that it’s there. It could come from coal plants, gas, wind-turbines, really anything that can send electrons along a path at the proper AC frequency.

So, i’m a little confused by articles like this which state:

Utilities argue that rules allowing private solar customers to sell excess power back to the grid at the retail price — a practice known as net metering — can be unfair to homeowners who do not want or cannot afford their own solar installations.

Uhm, what? They’re using power, from the grid. The same grid i’m feeding. They’re writing the same check, just that the power company is acting as a broker rather than the generator.

What’s more, i was required by the power company to install a “smart meter”. Meaning that unlike the analog predecessor, this sucker knows exactly when and how much i am either using or contributing. This means that i could be charged/credited fairly accurately, based off 15 minute increments over the course of the day. Since folks in my neighborhood have been told they’ll be hit with a $120 annual fine if they refuse getting smart meters, i’m guessing that it’s just a matter of time before even the most ardent folks concede and get one. So, yeah, the power company has/will have a stunningly accurate accounting of power patterns for this locale, minus some of the fun of long lines and massive substations.

So, you know what? i’m also 100% ok with not getting residential power prices for the power i’m generating. Yeah, it means that it’ll take longer before my system “pays for itself”, but as stated above, not really the goal. Plus, i know some folks with hilariously huge arrays on their roofs will be pissed, but just like the power company and their now less useful LP plants, Welcome to commodity based markets, bitches!


1So, yeah, fun fact. Solar needs to be able to sense the grid to operate. Otherwise they shut off because they don’t want to barbecue linesmen that might be working on the outage. You can solve that with a battery, but most of those are crap right now so not happening for a few years.

2It’s not a lot, but i’ll take what i can.

:: The Process of Process

For a while, there was a fad for software engineers to rebel against “Process”.

They hated the fact that there were rules and procedures for things and wanted the freedom to make code. They wanted to run free among the linkers and cuddle up to garbage collectors, i presume.

Yeah, i wasn’t one of those types.

You see, i also cook. i understand that a good meal generally doesn’t happen by wandering into the kitchen and seeing what happens. It involves thinking about what meals you’re going to eat up to a week ago when you’re making a grocery list. It involves setting up a clean workspace, making sure tools are ready, and performing the steps. Mind you, while there’s some “drudgery”, it’s not much, and hey, there’s meat, fire & knives, so that’s a bonus.

But yeah, one of the keys of good, actually fun, cooking is that “organization will set you free”. Having ingredients ready to go when you need them is amazing. Pinch dishes are cheap as hell and make your life so, so much better. (You can get dozens at the local Goodwill or Dollar Store for just a few bucks.)

So, yeah, it makes sense that you have some level of process for coding. You want to understand what you’re building, have the tools and tests set up, and then have check lists so you don’t forget something. Because if you don’t you ABSOLUTELY will forget something. Plus, having a checklist is one less thing to spend precious memory dealing with. Heck, pilots have lots of them, and frankly, they help them stay focused on, you know, flying.

Of course, no process is ever really finalized and all process is subject to review and updating. You should never have to fight a process, it should be smooth and nearly second nature. If a process doesn’t work, it should be changed.

Sorry, just spent some time creating some additional process in order to capture data that we were ignoring because we forgot to capture it.

Granted, getting folks to follow process is harder.

:: Trade Secrets

i like to come into work early. Occasionally, this means that i’m here when trade folk are doing repairs or otherwise making the workplace ready. It’s nice because it offers less distraction for both parties, normally.

This morning an apprentice and journeyman were inspecting some work on a segment of HVAC, and it was eye opening. The apprentice had come in the day before and done some work on a pump that was making noise, and asked the journeyman to stop by and inspect the work. The journeyman spotted a few problems, fixed an issue, and discussed things.

All the while the apprentice peppered the journeyman with questions like:
“Ok, so how did you spot that problem?”
“Was there a specific tool that could be used?”
“How would i get that tool?”
“Are there techniques that i can learn to help me spot that sort of thing?”

The journeyman gave him the answers without judgement in clear, straight-forward words. He noted that the problem was due to a confusing bit of wiring that had two similar colored links, with very different usage and admitted that it was an easy mistake to make. He offered a way to test, but noted that sometimes, “you make that mistake, so you have to come back, just make sure you schedule a follow up”.

The apprentice knew he didn’t understand, the journeyman knew he needed to teach. Even the extra stories told were all about the problem. They wrapped things up in about 10 minutes and left.

What i just witnessed was a properly done peer review/post-mortem along with a mentor program, and it made me realize something.

Computer science people absolutely suck at this.

Granted, CS has yet to become a proper trade. There’s no history of the sort of on-site training that actual tradesfolk have. In most cases, no company that is hiring an HVAC engineer or plumber will force that individual to sign an NDA requiring that they not plumb a different building the same way that they plumbed that particular building, nor am i aware of any IP restrictions on wiring a workspace, but the fundamentals should be the same. Honestly, there’s little reason why your mentor should work at the same place as you, or just be a single person. Peer reviews aren’t a pain in the ass, they’re opportunities to learn and teach, in both directions.

If you’re not critically evaluating your skills and tools every opportunity, are you really as certain that you have the best? Be proud of what you create, but be prouder of who you’ve helped. Likewise, be open to learning at every opportunity. If i was a “typical” computer nerd, i would have slapped on my headphones, lit up the laptop and tuned out the “distraction” of two workers dealing with some other problem.

And i would have missed learning something important.

:: Less Moore’s

There’s a possibly unwritten rule that tech professionals should replace their gear about every two years.

Hard drives (the spinny kind) are really only good for about 5 years, then they start to fail for various reasons. That’s an average based on general use, and i’ve found it to be true. Newer, solid state drives, probably ought to be replaced more often, but it really depends on how much info you write to them.

Likewise thanks to Moore’s Law, CPUs and graphics cards tend to get faster and more efficient with time. Well, generally, at least.

My home workstation is a 4 core 2.5GHz box with 12GB of memory, about 3TB of storage and dual monitors. It’s about 6 years old, and runs off a 250W power supply.

Recently, i spec’d out a replacement machine (which generally involves replacing everything) for about $2500 which was a 4 core 3.0GHz box with 16GB of memory. i’d move most of the storage over.

i’m not sure it’s worth upgrading.

For a significant cost, i’ll see a performance enhancement of about 17%. i’ll also have a box that uses more electricity (since the newer CPU and graphics cards will draw a lot more watts than my current rig does).

Yeah, so i won’t be able to play the latest 4K rendered shooter in near photo-realistic chicken blasting detail. i also don’t need a car that can do 200MPh at the Nuremberg ring, either.

i’m not quite sure i know how to feel about this. i may swap out the graphics card in my box, but that will probably come with replacing the monitors with something better than the pair of 21″ 1900×1200 i’ve got now, that i still need glasses to read. There’s really no reason to change them out.

Granted, i run linux at home because that’s what i generally tend to work in, and support for the newest, most lunatic graphics cards tends to be… iffy… at best. i suppose it’s a lovely way to keep me from building some insane rig so i can play Beat Hazard Ultra, but that’s my call.

Am i getting old or has the return on Moore’s Law not really kept pace?

Sigh. i should know myself better by now. Just dropped a wad on a bunch of components for a new system. Expect ranty build screed in a week or so.
Blogs of note
personal Christopher Conlin USMC memoirs of hydrogen guy rhapsodic.org Henriette's Herbal Blog
geek ultramookie

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