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isn't quite ashamed enough to present

jr conlin's ink stained banana

:: 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.

:: Tech Tips from My Family

i get it. i’m weird. i understand tech and how it is used and abused. i’m pretty much no longer “in touch” with the modern denizen of the digital frontier suburban sprawl complete with too many Starbucks, nothing but chain restaurants, and both a Walmart and Target across the street from each other. That digital domain.

i’m willing to believe that my long suffering wife, who’s been dealing with my special brand of paranoia for more than two decades, is also no longer “in touch”. She’s been corrupted and is no longer the perfect bellwether for the general population.

That’s why i appreciate watching my family over the holidays.

My father in law has multiple sheets of paper with various online accounts and one of three passwords scrawled on them. He carries those papers everywhere he brings his computer. Recently, he decided to create a document to hold the latest, corrected versions of his passwords.

Mind you, i showed him, repeatedly, how to get the browser to auto-complete passwords so he wouldn’t have to write those down. i showed him where he could go to see the list of all the accounts and passwords.

i printed out the password list, then secured the document with one of the three passwords he uses on all of those sites.

He couldn’t remember which one it was, so he was going to write it down.

i removed the password from the file.

He has horrible, albeit reasonably secure passwords. Telling him to use a password manager is useless. He doesn’t have the behaviors to even make that feasible, nor will he ever.

My sister-in-law pretty much lives on Facebook. i would be deeply astounded if she had any other app on her phone, including one to make calls or show the date. Facebook doesn’t need to create a phone, they already have millions of them.

These are people who don’t understand privacy or why it matters. They don’t understand security or even how to do it. i could tell my father in law that what he’s doing is the equivalent of putting a spare house key in a planter, but he does that too. i could tell my sister in law that facebook uses all of that information to sell her ads, if she didn’t talk about the great deals she got on stuff.

These are people who click and open anything that’s sent to them. They do all the stuff that gives me nightmares and see no problem. i’ve tried to talk to them earnestly and they, frankly, don’t care.

Kinda sad, but at this point, they’re not really welcome on my network. Much the same way that i think i might not be invited back if i used all the guest towels and flushed the entire roll of toilet paper in every bathroom. They get to use the “kiddie” network. The one that i put any untrusted device i don’t want getting access to my live network.

This is how an army of web cameras took out most of the internet. This is why there are vast botnets at the command of criminal organizations and why ransomware is a thing, and i harbor little if any hope that things will improve. We’re giving highly capable computers with open credentials to folks who proudly refuse to read the manual “quick start” guides.

The internet was built like how the freeway system was. There’s redundancy, and routing, but also there was a basic assumption that most folks would at least try to follow the rules. Yeah, that’s not happening. Instead we’ve wound up with something more akin to Mad Max where everyone is texting behind the wheel or fishing out a fry from the back seat.

And here i thought that political discussions were what would make me sad this year.

:: Full of Crap

It should be noted, to no one’s surprise and to the continually voiced proclamations of our elders, the world is full of crap.

There are precious few, truly, well made things, and most of those you are blissfully unaware of or barely ever willingly ever interact with. The things that are “not-crap” tend to include items like a light bulb in a Livermore fire station that has continued to burn for well over 100 years, or a dam created in the post-Depression era National Work Project years, which was completely overbuilt mostly because the goal was to get labor working, not save a few bucks.

Of course, “The more one understands something, the more one realizes how horribly broken that thing is” holds true and i’m gleefully unaware of how few lumens the light bulb casts or how little power the dam can generate.

That’s kind of my point, really. i’m also fully aware of my contributions to the huge amount of pervasive crap in the world.

At some point, societies innocence got the upper hand and we started believing that the people building our future were competent. They were the white coated geniuses who’s benevolence gifted us treasures from the future. Not only had they somehow crafted a bidet for our feline friends, but they allowed us to remotely monitor it through the interwebs and give Tiddles positive encouragement. What a wondrous future we live in!

At no time did anyone ask, about how this device is secured, if it’s properly constructed, or who would pay for the post encounter kitty therapy session. All of these are important questions that need to be asked by someone other than the claims adjuster or investigating police officer. Yet, we don’t. We welcome things like “In-Car Internet” without wondering who’s holding the information about our travel and usage. We welcome open microphones into our homes because they give us the weather report, as well as constantly listen to conversations and audio (including frequencies we may not be able to hear).

New technology is massively complicated in ways that we can’t quite wrap our heads around, and that includes the folks making it up. It’s possible to have a full computer, running a very real operating system on something as small as a stack of quarters. This means that if there’s a way to get in, an attacker has unlimited ability to modify or control that device. Likewise, “Unintended Use” is a very, very real thing. Something crafted for the most innocent of reasons could be used for some of the most nefarious, because folks who created it simply don’t think evil enough.

It’s a bit like having a front door that has a combination lock, only the lock works off of only the final rotation of the dial, or used a key, but only one of the tumblers was active. Chances are pretty darn good you’d never bother to check. Heck, your lock could well be doing this right now and you’d be none the wiser.

So, what do you do? i’m not suggesting we all become neo-amish and post things to the barn wall, but maybe we ought to be a bit more reluctant to believe that digital utopia awaits the next pre-order.

Honestly, on this side of the digital fence, i’d love to proclaim the upcoming year “Digital Infrastructure Year”. Where we, as an industry, stop creating stuff and actually spend a year shoring up critical elements. Granted, it’ll be hard to sell that to the folks who have money to pay for things, but sometimes you gotta pay your taxes. We spend time closing some of the massive holes that let things like the recent DDoS attacks happen, or beefing up crypto so that communication and storage are actually secure, or any of the thousands of bugs and issues that folks have been told to ignore.

Yeah, i know, i know. It’s a lovely idea, but turns out, it’s full of crap too.

:: Don’t Craft Solutions, Solve Problems

Back in the last millennium, when i was in college, i had a systems architecture prof that established my love of simplicity. He would frequently state the title of this post to the class, and we, young formulating minds would have only the barest inkling of what the hell he was talking about.

He had another statement that he made the very first day of class “There will be some day when you walk in on a workplace that does business with shoeboxes full of index cards. You’ll do your analysis and discover that for that business, the best method is to use shoeboxes full of index cards. Walk away.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement. Yes, there may be more efficient methods from an objective point of view, but that’s missing the subjective point that if it’s not what the customer wants, they’re not going to use it.

That gets me back to the “Don’t craft solutions” bit. Basically, don’t become focused on the solution. It may technically solve a customer’s problem, but it may be more complicated, or require more time, or not quite work with all the bits that the customer didn’t talk about or think was necessary. You’d think that would be common knowledge, but it’s not.

It’s surprisingly seductive to become enthralled with what you believe to be the solution. Often, these solutions are so wondrous, that the folks crafting them never bothered to actually talk to the people having the problem. Hacker News is full of folks who have these kinds of solutions, and the rich history of failed startups they created. Heck, spend some time in the medical or manufacturing industry and you’ll see dozens of these “crafted solutions”. Any time you’re wondering why you have to give your information to someone multiple times within minutes, you’re experiencing one “crafted solution” after another.

And the poor soul on the other side is just as annoyed as you are about it, and you’re pride and joy of digital craftsmanship is going into the can as soon as possible.

So, yeah, solve problems. Understand the actual flow and requirements of a customer. Spend time talking to the folks who will be using your system and understand what they need and how they are planning on using it. Yes, it takes time. It means crafting those ancient relics called “requirements”. It also means that it may be weeks or months before you can start the fun of actually building something. Yes, there’s the possibility that someone else may craft a solution, but you’ll be able to point out how it’s deficient.

And, yeah, maybe they’ll actually use your system and wonder why they ever used shoeboxes before.

Blogs of note
personal Christopher Conlin USMC memoirs of hydrogen guy rhapsodic.org Henriette's Herbal Blog
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