Friday, May 23, 2008

My car gets 44 MPG. It's nothing special. A 4 door sedan with a 1.9 liter engine and a 5 speed manual. It was dirt cheap, all the more so because i bought it used.

But it could get 20% more, or 53 MPG if i put a turbocharger on it the engine it has. It could get 5% more than that, or 55 MPG (rounding) if i add a cruise control. It could get 5% more than that, or 58 MPG, if the bottom was smooth, rather than set up to induce turbulence. Bottom turbulence helps keep the car on the road at high speed, so put in a governor that caps speed to 90 MPH - which is more than fair. Then, replace the gas engine with a diesel, and get 15% more, or 67 MPG. And none of this is high tech, expensive or new. I'm with Carl Sagan, who in his 1981 Cosmos series asked why we don't have cars that get 70 MPG.

Then there's tech we don't use. The differential consumes 7-15% of your power just to let your car go around corners. An electric transmission (generator at the engine, electric motors near the wheels, should have a total loss of 6%. But, there'd be no engine drag (which is alot like braking - a waste), you'd get automatic like non-shifting - except that there'd really be no shifting - no jerks, and you'd get 4 wheel drive with zero economy penalty. You could also have two independent engines. Why is that good? Well, it only takes about 15 HP to cruise down the highway. A 300 HP engine is really poor at delivering 15 HP. So you put in a small engine for highway cruise, and a larger engine for pulling your boat. If an engine dies, the other will still get you home (remember, the little one will let you cruise down the highway). What's all this going to get you? More than 100 MPG. Oh, and since you've got electric, you can add batteries for regenerative braking, and put solar cells on top for another 10% boost when it's sunny - and it charges your batteries when you're parked. Some people might never have to fire up the diesels. We might even have to 'remove gas from our tanks' - in the form of electric energy transfer from the parked car. Your house could probably use it.

In the 70's, most of the problem was solved through improved economy, and much of that was the 55 MPH speed limit, which got us some 10 - 15%. Bush has said "There's no instant fix", but we could have new signs on our highways today.

While we're there, what about home heating? Houses get really poor gas mileage. Insulation already pays for itself in the near term. That's only going to increase. Why don't we have businesses that insulate your house, and get pay back from the improved economy?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Starship Sofa

Just listened to a short story, And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear, hosted on Starship Sofa. I've no idea how this mp3 got into my feed and therefore on my iPod.

It's a good story. I'm not going to give away the surprise ending. If i could figure out what the ending is, i wouldn't tell you. Not every story has to end with "...and they lived happily ever after...".

The intro can be safely ignored. He goes on for a bit about how he couldn't think of anything profound to say. Though he does introduce the author. I like his accent. It's not like mine. But he doesn't read the story. That's a relief. It's a pro reading all the way.

I'll probably add Starship Sofa to my feed. That'll put me years behind, i'm sure. but at least the episodes aren't two hours long like some napolean podcast that i'm still subscribed to. Isn't Napolean going to die soon? I don't know enough about history to know. Sigh. That's why it's in my feed. I really can't cope with 2 hour mp3's.

My commute has gone from an hour each way to twenty minutes. I did cut a few things from my feed. But the strange thing is that i seem to be getting through nearly as much as i used to. I'll have it on while cleaning the house, cooking, mowing the lawn (one of the mowers has no engine, and is therefore silent). All my really short feeds (half hour or less) get consumed right away. But i'm stuck on this 2 hour feed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Good news in politics

I'm not much into politics. But this post is clearly the best news i've heard in a long time. The idea that micro-payments as campaign contributions amounts to more money than corporate contributions can only be a good thing. Utube over traditional media can only be a good thing. Perhaps i should run for office.

Monday, May 19, 2008

IT Management

What is it that IT managers do? Do they manage any Information Technology? Well, no. What they manage is the people who actually work with Information Technology. Most IT managers do no technical work themselves. Most IT managers have never performed any technical work. For the most part, they are ignorant of the issues, except where they intersect with the management of people.

What if there is a problem, and the optimal solution depends on the details of the technology involved? This happens all the time. What happens? Well, that depends on a number of things. First, it depends on what, exactly, is meant by "optimal solution". The manager might want to optimize cost. It might be short term cost, or long term maintenance cost. It might even be long term maintenance responsiveness.

There are two approaches of interest. First, they might look to see what other people have done in similar situations, and do that. This has the advantage that if some upper management asks them, they can point to some precedent. However, the IT industry has been changing at a breakneck speed, and many of the experiments of others have not had the benefit of enough time to be completed. That means that no one knows if it was a good idea or not.

Another thing that the manager can do is ask their senior development staff. This is, unfortunately, quite rare. So, despite having the experts at their finger tips, IT managers rarely make use of it. Why don't they ask? Well, for one, it seems that managers think that developers are interested in optimizing for something that is different than what managers are interested in optimizing. Perhaps managers think that developers are lazy. They'd expect that developers would be looking for the easiest solution. However, the easiest solution is the one that takes the least time. That means it's also the cheapest. After all, didn't Einstein prove that time equals money? This idea that management and developers have the same goals seems lost.

An unfortunate side effect of this state of affairs is that developers often end up implementing the mistakes of the managers. Repeatedly. This aggravates the developers, who are master craftspersons. It is really annoying when you are implementing the same mistakes again and again. Alienating your staff is never a good thing. More on that in another post.

If management of Information Technology is not what an IT manager does, then what does is an IT Manager good at doing? They keep track of things. They measure things. They document processes. Mind that they have no idea what math is about, much less IT. So, it's a good bet that they'll measure the wrong things, and do it inefficiently. IT managers are also good at telling other people what to do. It's their job. So, naturally, they'll tell their developers to do the measurements. It might be to track when they got to work, when they went home, how much time was spent on each task (for billing purposes, or if there's only one client, there's some fallback explanation). And the developers must write up the reports too. A line like this may be used in explanation. Remember, if you don't measure your performance, you can't tell if you're improving. It's sounds good, even if it's not true. But more on that in another post.

My point here is that the management overhead is often placed on the developer, which can only slow her down. Management is overhead. More overhead is not a good thing. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

What about process documentation? Managers do this also. If you'd written a perfect process, you'd never change it, right? But managers still have this skill, and will, from time to time, tinker with the processes. As time goes on these processes have a tendency to become more complicated. They have to be able to handle more of the day to day issues that come up. And, there's the inevitable bandwagon to jump on every so often. Does the senior staff get involved in these changes? No so much. But the thing that really gauls developers is that despite all the hours tracked, when some process is clearly changed for the worse, IT managers will breathlessly claim that the new process is oh so much more efficient. This is part of what makes developers think that IT managers don't actually understand arithmetic. Are you an IT manager? You should be able to do this in your head. What's three quarters of two thirds?

OK, that was a cheap shot, as most people don't get it right. That doesn't mean they shouldn't. The correct answer is one half. In word problems, "of" means multiply. One half of a dozen eggs is six. So three times two is divided by four times three. That's six divided by twelve, which reduces. For the record, this is taught in 5th grade, when you're about ten or eleven.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Shadow IT vs Silo IT

IT departments in larger companies seem to have a mandate to find and stamp out Shadow IT whereever it can find it. First, a bit about Shadow IT. Imagine that your department actually does something for the company. Let's say that it's at headquarters, and manages sales. Let's say that there is a sales force spread across the country, and this department is responsible for getting the most from it. One thing it might attempt is to track how each sales person, each small group of sales people, and each region are doing. The idea is that a group manager writes up sales data for each sales person in the group. The data is tagged with what the group is and what the region is. Then, the data will be analysed back at the headquarters.

Doing this analysis by hand is going to be time consuming (expensive, remember, Einstein proved that time = money), tedious (which was never stops businesses) and error prone. So you hire a programmer, and tell them what you want. She says, we need a way for the managers to enter the data. We'll write a web application where they'll enter the data, and it will get stored back here in a database. There's no budget of any kind, so she finds a PC that's so old, slow and has so little memory that no one wants it. She loads Linux on it, installs an Apache web server, and a Postgres database server and configures them. Then she writes a form, and a Perl script that takes form data and stuffs it into the database. She announces that it's in production, send this URL by email to the managers, and let them at it. And despite using a four year old PC instead of a quarter million dollar server, the application is responsive and reliable.

Soon, data is coming in. By then, she's written a quick report that adds up sales by group and region for each month, in a table. The analysts say it's great. For one thing, they're no longer swamped in paper. While our intrepid programmer adds logins and real security, someone gets the idea that there should be a report that graphs the groups and regions over time so that one can pick out which ones are doing better and which ones are doing worse. She grabs some graphing routines from CPAN and puts something up.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, corporate says that having a server sit under someone's desk is bad. For one thing, there's no backup. She counters that she does have backup. There's a second PC with Linux, and it gets a copy of the primary's data every night. They also complain that Perl isn't supported, that Java is the corporate standard. Further, they say that they can save money by having the server administrated by the Unix group, the database administrated by the database group, the web server administrated by the Web group, security managed by the network security group.

Two years later, the application is rewritten in Java, it's hosted in the server room, and it follows all the company rules. Everything's great, right? Except that the original developer has been spending the past two years bringing the offshore people up to speed on the app, instead of adding the new features that the customer now knows they want, and the app still doesn't do everything that the original did, and it cost a million dollars, and nothing was saved, because the original developer is still on the payroll.

Why did the rewrite, with 30 developers take so long? For one, they had to use the Silo IT development model. What's Silo IT?

Corporate management has labeled the department model Shadow IT. It's a negative name. It casts the endeavor as murky, hard to follow, uncontrollable, and underhanded. So, it's only fair that the popular alternative also has a negative name. Silo IT refers to this idea that under the idea that pooled resources are efficient resources, the endeavor is split up into areas of responsibility. Typically, this is systems administration, web administration, database administration, network administration, architechture, web framework, mentors and application developers. Each of these groups forms their own sub-department.

If a developer wants to create an application, it needs to follow the rules laid down by architects, and it needs to fit in with the framework. Now, there's a considerable amount of information to go through, and typically there are documents, hundreds or thousands of pages of documents, that one needs to go through to absorb it. No problem - there are mentors that can help, right? Wrong. The mentor's job is to make sure that the rules are followed. The developer gets the application to work, then submits the code to the mentor, who comments one sections that don't follow the rules. It's like an exam. Mentors never consult with the developers to get them going. Their job is to slow the deployment process down by several days while they review the code.

What does the developer do while waiting? Well, perhaps they have another application to work on. If they do, they'll generally find the going slow and error prone, because each shift in focus takes several hours for their brains to catch up. So, as often as not, they do nothing.

So, let's say that the developer needs a new table in the database. They submit a ticket, and it enters the database administrator's queue. In ten days, an administrator takes the ticket out of the queue and creates the table. The developer then tests it to make sure it's what they needed, then submits a ticket to get the change made to the test servers. Another ten days. Then ten more days to get the change into production. Mind you, new tables can have no negative impact on production, so it could have been there at the start. And in Shadow IT, that's what happens. Except that it doesn't take thirty days. It takes maybe half an hour in Shadow IT. It's not hard to see where this is going. The developers are easily thirty times more productive in a Shadow IT organization than in a Silo IT system. So, it's not that the Shadow IT developer is brilliant, she just doesn't have the same ball and chain attached to her ankle while she swims the English Channel.

So what if you can't find a developer who knows how to install and administrate Linux, Apache, Postgres, and knows a web aware language? Well, according to Fred Brooks, the department should build a surgical team. Maybe it takes two or three people. But since they are a single team, they can still be responsive. In particular, the database administrator can spend time learning the current applications, and tune both the database and the queries to the real needs.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

IT Management Introduction

This blog hasn't enjoyed the content flood for a bit. Part of that is changes in life style, including a new job. But part was just that the river of ideas had run dry. I've been thinking about IT (Information Technology) management ideas for a bit. In particular, why is it that the best book on the subject to date, The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks, is so studiously ignored by the industry. Are IT managers all ignorant? It seems hard to imagine. But there are millions of people who claim to have seen UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) or even claim to have been abducted by aliens. Could there really be that much of a shared mass hallucination?

I sat down and brain stormed for just a few minutes, and came up with over 100 topics that could each rate an essay. This would be entry zero. In the back of my head, i've wanted to start a podcast for software that is easily consumable, for example, in your car on the way to work. No pictures. No code snippets. Ten to fifteen minutes each. This series may turn into that podcast. Who knows?

In prepartation for this first article, i read one on It's 20 things, each can be done in 20 minutes (6 hrs 40 minutes in all) to improve as a CIO. It highlights one of the reasons i think a blog like mine is better than I don't advertise. I have no incentive to hype anything. I have no incentive to conform.

Some of it is common sense. Try short meetings. Encourage staff training. Check your competitor's SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) 10-K reports. Check your own 10-K report. Introspection, including "is this a good job". Get input from users. Get input from senior staff. Get input from junior staff. Talk to people you wouldn't normally talk to. Talk to your vendors. Talk to your customers. Talk with the universe. Go for a walk. The iPhone as a user interface example. Encourage company encryption, especially for laptops. Very little of this is of earth shattering importance.

But some of it is just odd. Have an email free day. What? Email is a tool. It's queue'd communications. You don't have to have a popup tell you that new email has arrived. If it does, you don't have to stop what you're doing to handle it. Don't send me email to invite me to a meeting in twenty minutes. It's very unlikely i'll read it. This is misuse of email. Email has these properties: It's pretty quick to send an informal note. It's potentially imortal, the last copy of this message may never be deleted. Content can be used for reference - it's searchable as long as the content is plain text. And, it's queued. The reader will eventually see it. I don't need an email free day. I'm not addicted to it. I will consider email as an alternative to a meeting. But i'll also consider walking to someone's desk unannounced as an alternative. I don't want some CIO telling me not to use email once a week. It'd be just as silly to ask everyone to hop on one foot one day a week.

What would i add? Well, maybe not in 20 minute increments, but i'll start tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Tiny digital picture frame

I picked up a Coby DP-151 "keychain" digital picture frame. As there's no cover, expect the keychain to scratch it up. I removed it, which can be done non-destructively. I can just imagine what keys would do to it. Or the inside of a purse. They come in more than one color - mine is blue.

It has a 128x128 pixel display (16 kilopixels - 1/64 megapixels). That's not alot. It's got an internal battery, and it is charged up when you plug it into USB. When you plug it in, it asks you if you want to charge the battery, or upload photos to it. When you charge it, it displays the charge state of the battery in the lower left. It also displays whatever you have it display during charge. It has a clock, and you can optionally have it display in the lower right corner. In slide show mode, it has a bunch of different fades from one image to the next.

It can have up to 60 pictures on it. It displays the picture number in red as 17/29 in the upper right corner. That means number 17 of 29 total images. You can't turn this feature off. The pictures you upload to it are exactly 128x128. You can't have a larger image. There's no pan and zoom. You must use the supplied software to upload pictures to it. It supports Windows and Mac OS. The device does not mount as a generic USB drive, so Linux users are SOL. Of course, a Linux box can be used as a charger. I don't run Wine, so i haven't tested to see if the supplied software can be made to work or not. For me, this is a deal breaker. I only run Linux at home. But for others, it's also less than optimal. It means you have to install software if you want to upload. That means you're less likely to want to upload any images while visiting a friend, for example. The upload software comes on one of those mini CDs. I'd never used one before. But there was no problem loading it.

You must plug the unit into USB before you launch the photo upload software. If it doesn't find it, it complains and exits. You can browse images that are on your hard disk. If your image is square, it scales it to 128x128 for upload. If it isn't, it scales the short dimension to 128 and grabs a center square. But you can slide a square selection tool over the image. However, i ran into a bug where you couldn't select one end of the rectangle, and though you got a square image, you didn't quite get the bit of it that you wanted. It shows that you can get one side, but it doesn't actually give it to you. This is under Windows. You also can't select a smaller square from the middle of the image - like just someone's face. You could do that in some other application, save a square image, and get what you want. The 128x128 image area is quite limited, and it's highly likely that you'll want to do something like that for many images.

The physical shape has another limitation. Let's say you want to set up a slide show. Change the picture every 60 seconds (it's settable in 5 second increments from 5 to 60). Put the thing on your desk, so it loops through all 60 of your images in an hour. Pretty cool, right? Except that you can't stand it on your desk. The rounded edges prevent this. Perhaps you could mount it on some Silly Putty or something. Or, you can make a stand by folding some stiff cardboard in half and cutting out a diagonal rest. Be creative.

There are two tiny screws on the back, but it seems likely that the rechargable battery inside is not replacable. Think of the whole thing as disposable. Mine was $20, delivered.

Little tiny pictures. What would you use it for? You might put a few family photo album like things on it. Show off your baby pictures or something. Don't have a baby? You were likely a baby at one time... show those off. Probably the last time you were cute when naked. The device is really, really portable. Small enough to get lost in a shirt pocket.

One might ask, since i only run Linux, why would i buy such a thing? It's a gift. I'm pretty sure the recipient doesn't read my blogs. I still get the odd comment, so i guess at least some people still read it.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Gas Mower

I mowed the grass today. Well, most of it anyway.   Uhm, some of it. I did this one patch.

In any case, i'd really been dragging all day. I didn't get nearly enough sleep. That's because i kept waking up all night. I stayed up too late. Working on a big, important project. Goofing off.

But I really did mow my lawn. Now, my lawnmower is a bit underpowered. It's a push-reel mower. There's no engine. I'd bought it to get some exercise.   to save gasoline.   so i could listen to podcasts as a backup for my powered mower that actually fits in my garage. And despite having the gas mower still, i still use the push-reel mower because then i can get some exercise.   save gasoline.   listen to podcasts. mow the lawn until my primary gas mower is repaired. And, i went all last season without getting the gas mower repaired because i can't get the parts   i can't afford a new mower i'm lazy. The fact is, the gas mower uses one gallon of gas a year, which i can afford even if gas triples, and i have the parts. Worse, the push-reel mower was more expensive than a new gas mower. Really.

But the interesting thing today is that after two hours   an hour   a half hour of mowing and listening to podcasts, i feel much, much better. More awake. Less awful. Just from mowing the lawn. Just as i'd predicted. Just as i've known from experience for years. Would i do it again? You bet!   Sure If i have to.