Archive for the ‘ Rants ’ Category

Maybe don’t spend 7 hours setting up a dev environment

Your first day on a new project is usually shot getting a dev environment setup. I’m usually lucky if the process only lasts one day. This is increasingly true as web development goes down the rabbit hole.

It makes me wonder if there is a better way. During a recent security audit, a very knowledgeable and unusually critical co-worker discovered that the company we were investigating used Vagrant as a way of packaging their dev environment. I remember this guy saying, “Vagrant is actually pretty cool” or something on Slack. I figured it was, indeed, pretty cool if he had complimented it.

After researching it today, it does look really useful. Basically it allows you to package a dev environment as a VM-turned-“Box” and then bring up that environment with one command. I think this would be especially useful for open source projects. These projects usually provide a lot of motivation to get started coding quickly, and they also don’t pay. So not wasting time setting up a dev environment is a good thing. I’m thinking that you replace a large chunk of this (admittedly very solid) installation documentation with a single Vagrant box download.

“But that’s a .NET project, not Linux” you ask. It looks like this is still possible, thanks to this awesome post from Matt Wrock. Visual Studio now (finally) comes with a free community edition, and you can get a free trial version of Windows Server 2012, good for 180 days and extendible if need be.

My idea is to make a Vagrant box available alongside project code in Git. Then developers can hopefully spend 7 minutes getting a dev environment setup instead of 7 hours. As an added bonus, Vagrant boxes can be pushed to Docker or even Azure, so if local development is not an option, you can just create a remote dev server to remote into.

Disclaimer: None of this has been tested yet. 😉

The Dangers of Digital Ephemera

westmyspace

I logged into Myspace recently. It had been years, but I still got my username and password on the first try. The site had completely changed, and although several of my photos were still there, I couldn’t find my old messages. In fact, I couldn’t even find the inbox link.

This was a sad event. Painful, in a nostalgic way. Not because I was expecting new messages from friends on a long forgotten social media site, but because I was on the hunt for old messages from my sister, who died six years ago. Previously I had searched Gmail for her various nicknames (including “sushi,” which brought up a ton of spam) but found nothing. I realized that we didn’t really communicate via email. Most of our letters back and forth were through Myspace. This was before Facebook got big, and besides, we both didn’t like Facebook that much.

When Myspace rebranded after losing the battle to the new generation of social media giants, they deleted all the old messages and posts. So those letters to and from my sister are gone forever. This is also true of my old love letters to my girlfriend. I didn’t bother to forward them from my college email account to Gmail.

The vast majority of people do not write letters anymore, nor do they print real photographs. Technology has made these things much easier, and we communicate more, but it comes with a hidden cost, or danger. All the important artifacts of our lives now exits as bits, hidden on servers owned by companies that are, in the big picture, tenuous. Myspace may have had a shorter shelf life than Facebook, but they both ultimately have a shelf life. Even the free service upon which I write this post, WordPress, may go under at some point.

Maybe free is the key word there. All of the services mentioned thus far are free, and when things are free, you can’t trust that they will be preserved. I have bit more faith in cloud storage, like Dropbox, since I actually pay for it. I guess one lesson I’ve learned from losing those Myspace messages is to back up your data. Even if I had to copy them as text, and even if they were stupid, silly, or banal, it would have been worth it.

Something doesn’t sit right with the transfer of our memories from physical materials to bits. I have a leather-bound book of photos, letters, and other ephemera from my grandfather. I open it up now and then and can actually touch the old, faded letters and hold the photos up to the light. I wonder what I will leave behind. A WordPress page with a “blog not found” message on it? A Facebook profile with the majority of friends deceased? We will have Facebook graveyards.

I think I’ll take my film camera out of its box, and start printing out some old emails.

Mia & Feline Kidney Disease

mia-cat-vermont

Mia, enjoying the outdoors in Vermont this summer

It just so happened that I caught Miley Cyrus’ performance on SNL last night, which focused expressly on mourning for her dead pets. While this was likely bizarre for most viewers, it was eerily poignant for my girlfriend and I. On Monday, we had to put down our cat, Mia, whom we had for 13 years. We hardly ever watch SNL, and definitely would not tune in especially for Miley, so it was a uncanny coincidence to say the least.

Every cat owner probably says this, but Mia was a special cat. She did all the good things and none of the bad: she greeted visitors by jumping on their laps (especially boys–she was a flirt), she would let us hold her like a baby without a fuss, and she never once scratched or swiped at anyone. She also had an amazing ability to seek you out and comfort you when you were feeling depressed.

So it was especially difficult when, two and a half years ago, she was diagnosed with kidney disease. Up until that point, she had been a normal, healthy cat, whose only major health problem was a result of a brawl with another cat in the alleys of Berkeley, CA. The vet said that, due to the state of her kidneys, she would live anywhere from a few weeks to maybe six months, and we were devastated. It’s amazing how it easy it is to take a healthy cat or dog for granted.

Mia’s daily treatment consisted of three pills as well as a subcutaneous injection of electrolyte-infused fluids. At first, it was daunting to think of doing this every day. I think most cats hate taking pills, and I can say without a doubt that they despise getting poked with needles. Mia quickly learned to run from the sound of the plastic needle cover cracking open, and we had to kind of pin her down to do the injection while she grabbed the edge of the couch like a rock climber.

Things got easier as the months went on, though. We learned better ways of giving her her pills, like diluting them in a touch of warm water and mixing them into her food. She also got used to the injections, and I think started to associate them with feeling better. It helped to wait until a calm time later in the night, when we were all in bed, and then poke her when she was relaxed. One guy we met who had a cat with kidney disease swore that putting on 90’s hip-hop and R&B helped the process. This was actually the only person we met who had cared for a cat with kidney disease, highlighting how it can be an isolating experience.

Mia continued on, living for the most part as her normal self, for nearly five times her original six month estimate. While this should give hope to owners who just received the diagnosis, it’s important to note a few things. We spent thousands of dollars on visits to the vet, medication, and supplies to make it possible for Mia to live over two years. We also both worked from home, which made it much easier to give her the attention she needed, especially when one person traveled. Our only trips together were to upstate New York and Vermont, where we could take Mia with us.

Orienting our life around Mia made it all of the more difficult when she died. Losing a pet is always a terrible experience, mostly because our relationship with pets is almost always all positive and filled with love, as opposed to human relationships, which are almost always more complicated and mixed. Since our daily routine and to extent careers were dictated by Mia’s condition, we have a big “now what” that we are dealing with after her death. It’s a bit like losing a child, having watched my mother go through that process.

I wanted to give a shout out to a few people who helped us along the way. The first is Tanya’s site dedicated to feline kidney disease, which is the best internet resource on FKD. It’s one of those awesome plain HTML sites with no gimmicks that the internet was created to support. The second is the Bidawee animal hospital here in NYC, who cared for Mia throughout her illness, and even sent us a condolence card filled with sincere messages from the staff. Finally, Doctor Foster and Smith is a great option for getting more affordable medical supplies and medications for cats and dogs.

For all those with a cat diagnosed with kidney disease: fear not, as with the right care, you will hopefully have your cat for as long as we had Mia!

Films of 1999: Nostalgia for Questioning the American Dream

It was 1999, I had just turned 17, and my friend Jake and I were driving back from watching Fight Club in the theaters. Jake jokingly hit the gas in his Mustang and took his hands off the wheel. Like Tyler Durden in the film, we were flirting with the idea of just “letting go.”

Fight Club, for all its hyper-masculinity and shots of Brad Pitt’s abs, turned out to be more than a joke for me. Its critique of consumption and the yuppie American lifestyle cut deep. Perhaps it was because I saw the film at a formative age, on the threshold of becoming an adult, but I moved forward into college and afterwards into my working life afraid and determined to not become Edward Norton’s character, trapped in an IKEA prison in some high-rise condominium. Much of my career–from working in independent publishing to living in Oakland* to working as a freelancer with one foot always outside of corporate IT departments–was driven by this fear of becoming just another soul lost in a vapid life of duvet covers.

The other week I noticed American Beauty pop-up on Netflix. After re-watching the film, I realized that it, too, was released in 1999 alongside another favorite of mine, Office Space. I had never put it together that these three films were released in the same year, and all three directly criticize the American dream of a salaried position and a comfortable, predictable life. All three films also tackle the concept of re-invention, whether it be into a construction worker, weed smoking fast food worker, or terrorist cell leader. The American dream was something to be avoided, and if you found yourself trapped in it, then it was time for a metamorphosis.

A co-worker who is nearly ten years my junior was recently having some issues with hardware, and I sent him the infamous beat-down clip from Office Space. He sent back some lols and then asked “if that was from a TV show.” I was surprised that he had never seen the cult favorite, although less so since he grew up in Iraq and Turkey. Nevertheless, it brought to mind the fact that people that are a bit younger than I am, true millennials you could say, were less effected by the three films than I was. This makes sense, since seeing these films at say, the age of 12 instead of 17, would make a huge difference. Could you really have been expected to understand the pitfalls of the American dream in the sixth grade? Confirming this theory, I have some friends and acquaintances who are in this younger age bracket that appear to have less issues with taking a typical “corporate” job or, in general, conspicuous consumption. Perhaps this be a defining line between those who, like myself, are on the border between Gen X and Gen Y, and those who are true Gen Ys/millenials.

But is this defining line really just the timing of three major Hollywood releases that took a critical glance at America? Probably not. I think they play a role, but what we really might be talking about here is pre 9/11 versus post. When I started thinking, “well what happened to that critical spirit present in these films,” the memory of waking up in an oddly quiet dorm my freshman year and walking out of my room to see people gathered around small TVs, some crying, flashed into my mind. 9/11 really did change everything. Suddenly we didn’t have time to question the vapidness of our lives–we had a new everpresent boogeyman to contend with. Things became more serious, and American life was re-affirmed in a sense. It’s interesting to try and envision where we would be had we sat, for the next 15 years, contemplating whether or not we really needed another duvet cover.

 

* This was the Oakland, CA of 8 years ago, which was a less typical city for recent college graduate to begin their career. Rougher and cheaper, West Oakland seemed like the place where Edward Norton’s character found the dilapidated house there he lived in after his condo imploded. Oakland has since changed with influx of people priced out of San Francisco due to the tech boom.

Book Covers: Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

Working for a company that provides a particular product/service will often make that product/service less enjoyable. This was the case for me with the exterior of books. My first job out of college was in publishing, and my main task was to write the ‘descriptive copy’ for the back of books. This was enjoyable work in many ways, but it also made back-cover copy appear all the more garish, with its ability to say very little and its abundance of em dashes. Of course, maybe that’s just how I was writing at the time. Maybe that’s how I still write (winky face).  Also, during this period I sat in far too many ‘sales conferences,’ listening to debates on often trivial aspects of cover designs.

Now I no longer work in publishing, so I can appreciate a good book cover without all of that insecure self-reflection and work association. Today I found an old worn copy of Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar in a coffee shop. A previous owner had underlined, annotated, and outlined its labyrinthian plot. They had also written some poems in the back; one in particular talked about excitement for what the night might bring alongside fear that it will be boring and lonely. There were grease stains on pages, and overall it was a platonic well-worn book. Sadly,  it had the odd job of an ornament for what looked like overpriced men’s toiletry bags.

The cover is what prompted me to pick it up and to go out and purchase a copy. I didn’t end up asking if the book was on sale at the coffee shop given its liminal adornment status. However, when I found the book at a book store, it had a different cover. I don’t really like the new cover.

old cover:

old hopscotch cover

 

new cover:

new hopscotch cover

A Different Perspective on the STEM vs Humanities Debate

The New York Times has been stirring up controversy (and page views no doubt) with several articles and op-eds declaring the death of the humanities at American universities, due to recent studies showing declining rates of students graduating with humanities majors. This is, humorously enough, after they published dozens of articles detailing the trials and tribulations that humanities majors faced in the job market, all causing caustic debates between commenters decrying the ‘fools’ that studied things like English, history, and philosophy and those willing to defend such foolish fields.

I’ve often thought that pitting STEM subjects against the humanities was simply a result of emotional reactions to a floundering economy from those on both sides. Humanities majors graduate from the ivory tower and find themselves in the ‘real world,’ controlled more often than not by people who studied business (a topic I’ll tend to later). Dispirited by unemployment, they have trouble looking at the gifts that their humanities education offer. STEM graduates also have some difficulty finding employment, highlighted in this article from the Atlantic, and they must feel a bit cheated after being told that the future of the American economy rested on them. They even had official sanction from Obama and George W.

The reality of the unemployment situation could actually be harsher, hidden behind this emotional debate. STEM and humanities graduates both receive gifts from their educations. The former have skills, the latter have context. To succeed today in America, you probably need both.

One of the greatest gifts from an undergraduate education in the humanities is the ability to make sense of complexity. Studying humanities trains students to take complexity, identify the key actors/players, research the necessary topics, and draw coherent logical conclusions in the form of essays and theses. There are many ways graduates can apply this same process of analyzing complexity to jobs in business, engineering, and just about any other industry.

From my observation, this analytical ability is exactly what is missing from many of those who studied STEM subjects. They are often highly skilled and perform well within their areas of expertise, but they have trouble seeing how their work fits into a larger perspective. This is especially true with engineers and software developers.

This is not to say that humanities majors can waltz into these industries and succeed on the basis of their analytical abilities. They need to acquire the skills that they lack, which often means taking any position they can to gain skills in the workplace and/or self-study. What a lot of humanities majors probably don’t realize–which is where they are missing their ‘gift’–is that it is in certain ways easier to teach oneself how to code, for example, than it is to teach oneself how to analyze complexity and see things from a larger perspective in businesses and organizations.

A final component to this debate is the rise of business majors and MBAs. This article in the NY Times puts the dwindling humanities graduates into perspective, highlighting that it’s less about professors political agendas, as David Brooks argued, and more about gender. Women moved away from the humanities and went towards business degrees. I think the increasing power of women in business is a great thing and that ultimately they are more suited for business management positions than men, but that is the topic of another post. Gender aside, these stats show the flood of business majors entering the job market.

Business majors no doubt do well securing jobs in business after college. This is pretty logical. Obviously those that go into fields like accounting, sales, and marketing can utilize the skills they learned in college to advance the economy. However, given the previous arguments about the STEM and humanities degrees, I’ve often been left wondering what exactly business majors learned in college. I often see individuals with business degrees sitting in management roles within departments like operations and IT. It’s clear to me that those who combine STEM skills with humanities perspective are better suited for these roles.

Ultimately, I think the humanities vs STEM battle is detrimental to progress. Globalization and outsourcing have permanently changed the U.S. economy, sending technical and manufacturing jobs overseas and steering the country towards a ‘service economy.’ However, we still need advances in science and engineering, and in particular innovation within technology. The humanities and STEM will drive this. Business has it’s role too, but to quote Steve Jobs, “it’s not rocket science.”

Sandy: Thoughts, Tips, Rants

I’ve read The Road, and I’ve read part of The Weather of the Future. I’ve pondered peak oil, climate change and overpopulation. I’ve remained on what I feel is the realistic side of the debate on the future of humanity. But it wasn’t until Thursday night, when I walked through a pitch black neighborhood and entered my almost abandoned building to spend the fourth night in a row locked in a cold apartment without electricity, heat and cell service, that I realized how much the future is going to suck, especially if we are in denial and ill-prepared.

Things got real Monday night, after I spent the day reading the pre-Sandy media hype and snarky comments on Gawker. High tide was hitting and the wind was picking up, knocking things off the fire escape and slamming phone wires into the windows. I saw a few tweets about Alphabet City being underwater, and I clicked through to a photo which I assumed was a fake, like others I had seen a year before with Irene. Then I started to see some more, together with sincere pleas that the images were not fake. The water was already up to people’s chests only three avenues away. I started to freak out a little bit. I walked downstairs and looked out the front door, and fortunately there was no water on 1st Ave. My super, a longtime New Yorker, explained that the area down by 14th and Avenue C was low-lying, and the water would have to flood countless basements and sub-basements before it made it here. “If there’s water in this building, we’re all in deep shit,” he said as I walked back upstairs. The water never entered my building, but it did destroy other buildings and entire communities elsewhere.

The following day the power was still out. I walked over to Avenue C to check out the damage. There were cars strewn everywhere, some crushed with huge pieces of driftwood, or maybe more accurately pieces of piers. Building were flooded out. Down by the river, my normal running path, flanked by public green spaces, was completely destroyed. The East River still looked swollen and hungover and angry.

The next three days were filled with pilgrimages up to the powered side of Manhattan for hot meals and recharging of devices. Once you past 40th street on the east side, you entered the land of the living, where people shopped and tourists stood outside of Rockefeller Center, seemingly unaware that there were families and elderly people without electricity, water and heat 5 minutes south. At a crowded Pain de Quotidien, we met a weary looking family of five from the Lower East Side, who didn’t have running water. They had filled their bathtub before the storm so that they could flush the toilet, but were running out of that as well. Meanwhile, a wealthy looking mother and daughter clad in fancy sweatsuits entered a nail shop. And this was only the juxtaposition within Manhattan–communities in other boroughs were dealing with complete devastation and lack of food and water.

Nights were basically like camping in cold weather without the beauty and fresh air. Based off my experience, here are some important things to have around for these situations. This is assuming, like us, you still have running water and gas.

  1. Lighter
  2. Batteries
  3. Lantern
  4. Headlamps
  5. Candles
  6. Battery powered AM/FM radio
  7. Food that doesn’t perish
  8. Food for the furry ones

Finding a battery powered radio was way harder than I ever imagined. I went to five shops in midtown before I found one. At one of the shops, the owner told me to “just get the radio on my iPhone,” which made me laugh. Also, if I may allow myself to digress again, here is the best way (in my opinion) to take a warm “shower” without hot water.

  1. Fill a large pot half-way with water, and boil it
  2. Fill up a kettle entirely and boil it as well
  3. Locate a medium sized tupperware bowl
  4. One the water is boiled, bring the pot and kettle into the bathroom (carefully!)
  5. Place the pot in the shower and fill up the rest with the cold shower water, testing to make sure it doesn’t get to cold
  6. Rinse with the hot water using the tupperware bowl as a “scoop device,” the lather up
  7. Rinse again (duh)
  8. Fill up the pot with the kettle and add cold shower water if you need more water

Unsurprisingly, it’s really depressing walking from a place with electricity and heat to a place without. Doing that for a number of days in a row made me understand a tiny bit how people around the world oppressed because of ethnic or political reasons might feel. It also made me reflect on how depressed the people of Staten Island, Rockaway, Jersey Shore, and other places destroyed by the storm might feel. If I was whining about not having electricity and heat, what if you don’t have a house! In short, it was the first time I felt true empathy and emotion when I watched victims of a natural disaster on TV.

One really important point to make is that it’s really problematic if cell service goes down. I was shocked that service was completely dead for five days in the East Village. It’s nerve-wracking staying in a completely dark apartment building with no way to call out whatsoever. This is a real problem, especially given my previous post about Verizon pushing customers towards cell and VoIP and away from landlines. I also was angry to hear Bloomberg talk about how successful the 911 service had been through the storm and aftermath. That’s because no one can call 911.

In general, this Sandy experience was a solidifying of all of my very theoretical thoughts on climate change and other 21st century concerns. It’s one thing to argue in Congress or on Facebook about whether or not climate change is happening, but it’s another to see your city flood and lock yourself in an apartment with a lantern each night. I saw some conservative troll remark in a comments section that this was “the first hurricane to hit NYC in 50 years and was produced by climate change…then what produced the hurricane 50 years ago??” What’s missing is that hurricane Irene came through last year. To have two storms like this back-to-back points in the direction of changing weather patterns.

Lorenz Attractor

I’ve been thinking a lot about Edward Lorenz this week, a meteorologist and pioneer of chaos theory. In James Gleick’s excellent book Chaos, he recounts how Lorenz, through his experiments with modeled weather patterns, discovered what is known as the Butterfly Effect–essentially that very small changes to initial conditions can result in wild results. Climate and weather is a great example of a complex system, and it seems logical that small changes to initial variables such as air and water temperatures can result in not only storms like Sandy, but even more colossal and damaging “superstorms.” Whether or not the rise in temperatures is due to natural causes or human interference will continue to be debated for a long time. However, what should not be debated is that temperatures are rising, and that we need to take precautionary steps to combat changing weather patterns in major coastal cities like NYC. And since it’s also logical (and agreed upon by scientists) that pumping CO into the atmosphere contributes to warming conditions, then maybe we should take steps to curb that as well.