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Passion Or Vocation? August 5, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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In a recent issue of Technology & Invention magazine, Mara Vatz wrote about discovering her grandfather’s engineering textbooks from the 1930s.  Herself a recent engineering graduate, she was struck by the difference between those old books and those she recently used.  Her grandfather’s books were filled with the passion of engineering, of being consumed with the excitement of building and creating, of bending the natural world to the will of man for the betterment of society.

Her books, in contrast, were dry and methodical.  They taught engineering as a sequence of steps that could be applied to solve a problem.  They presented engineering as a vocation, just a job, just some rote sequence of steps far removed from the real world of problems to be solved.  The contrast made her sad, longing for a time when her chosen profession seemed more alive to its practitioners.

I have the same worry for the world of IT.  At the risk of cementing my geezer status, I learned computing in a time when everyone wrote assembly code.  I punched cards and booted machines by toggling switches on the front panel.  I learned how to build computers from the transistors up, wire-wrapping individual logic gates to decode address lines.  It was fascinating, consuming, and instilled a passion for technology that I carry with me even today.

Are we instilling the same passion today?  Or has computing become a vocation, a series of steps that you use to solve the problem at hand?  I am certainly not advocating a return to assembly code, but I want to make sure that our newest computing professionals have that same gleam in their eye as I did so many years ago.  The layers of abstraction we’ve built in our systems enable us to create systems that were inconceivable back then, but those same layers remove us from the nuts and bolts of computing.  As those nuts and bolts fade away, our true understanding of computers fades.

Some of today’s IT people have that passion.  You can see it in your best people, the ones who dig in and never let go of a issue, who wake up at 3 AM with the answer to a problem, who run into the office with the next great idea.  But does everyone have that passion?  And if they don’t, should they?

I want everyone to have that passion.  Passion is infectious, and passionate people in IT create passionate people outside of IT.  If people didn’t find that passion in school, we need to pass it to them ourselves.

Much is made of leadership and mentoring, teaching important skills to our teams.  Beyond leadership skills, we need to convey the passion of our field to our people.  We have to constantly demonstrate our love of this stuff, the wonder of a problem solved, the satisfaction of a user helped.  If we aren’t going to get excited about a new tool, and our people don’t get excited, how will we engage our users?

My passion is for computing, of course, but this applies to every discipline.  Do you have a true passion for what you do?  Do you demonstrate it every day?  Do you infect your people with that passion and enable them to carry it to others?  Or is your job just a vocation? If so, I’ll bet your people feel exactly the same way.

Good And Evil May 15, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews.
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1 comment so far

The stakes were high for the 1892 World’s Fair.  Dubbed the Colombian Exposition, the fair was intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world. Coming on the heels of the spectacular World Exposition in Paris in 1889, symbolized by the new Eiffel Tower, chances were not good that the Colombian Exposition could never, ever top what the French had pulled off.

Nonetheless, various US cities fought fiercely to host the event.  After much politicking, Chicago won the rights to the fair in 1890, tasked to create an entire global event in less than two years.  Other cities, most notably New York, were sure that Chicago would fail miserably, embarrassing the US in the eyes of the world.

The citizens of Chicago proved them wrong.  Their herculean efforts to create the 1892 World’s Fair are chronicled in Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. His scrupulously researched book provides a glorious view not only into the vast project of the fair, but of daily life in 1890s Chicago.  For those of us who manage large projects, there is definite sympathy for the team of architects and engineers who struggled against all odds to deliver, on time, the greatest fair in history, ultimately topping the French and cementing the US position in the eyes of the world.

Beyond the appeal to project managers, any fan of history will relish the endless number of things that originated with the 1892 fair.  Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat cereal, AC power, and the Ferris Wheel? All debuted at the fair.  A young draftsmen dismissed by the architects for refusing to adhere to their designs? That would be Frank Lloyd Wright.  A carpenter who helped create the fantasy structures of the fair who later regaled his children, Roy and Walt, with tales of the project?  That would be Roy and Walt Disney; each stroll down Main Street in DisneyWorld today is an echo of the same walk down the Midway of Chicago in 1892.

But what of the evil?  With the fair as a backdrop, the most prolific serial killer in US history preyed on visitors to Chicago.  H. H. Holmes came up with a clever idea: he built a hotel near the fair, offering rooms to the many young women who came to Chicago seeking a career amid the excitement of the fair.  Charming and charismatic, Holmes wooed these arrivals to the city, who seemed to disappear at an alarming rate.

The hotel occupied the top floor of his building, with his personal residence and shops on the floors below.  Few knew that the basement included a 3000° kiln and airtight rooms outfitted with gas jets. Holmes was a busy man; estimates of his handiwork range from 25 to 200 victims.

Erik Larson does a marvelous job of weaving these two stories together, contrasting the lofty aspirations of the White City of the fair with the dark evil lurking literally next door.  The technology and social structure of the Gilded Age that made the fair a success also allowed Holmes to operate with impunity.  Larson brings an immediacy to the book that makes it difficult to put down; his almost off-hand recounting of the present-day echoes of the fair is a delight.

This book is worth your time, if only to provide parallel views into worlds we will never inhabit: the fantasy of the fair, Chicago society in 1892, and the mind of a psychopathic killer.  Both are fascinating and in their own ways remind us that things, good or bad, are never really what they seem.

Print, Slowly March 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I recently wrote about the demise of print media, lamenting the loss of PC Magazine as they shifted to an online-only distribution model. I received a lot of sympathetic email from people who also liked printed magazines. We all agreed that the world really needs printed media.

With such a fan base, why do print magazines make it so hard to subscribe to them? Subscribing to a magazine is, by far, the longest and most tedious process on the web.

With PC Magazine gone, I had a slot available in my reading hierarchy. In my world, you must always read the more transient items ahead of the less transient. Thus, you should read any available newspapers first, followed by any available magazines, and then any books you have on hand. I find that bringing rigid rules and structure to a relaxing pastime like reading makes it that much more compatible with a compulsive lifestyle.

I decided to replace PC Magazine with Wired. I had abandoned Wired years ago, when its propensity for ransom-note typography and “we’re too avant-garde for you” layout made the magazine illegible. Nonetheless, I had recently picked up an issue while traveling and found it much improved. At $1 an issue, a subscription was hard to resist.

I went to the Wired website and ordered the magazine. That was six weeks ago. I still haven’t received my first issue! In a time when second-day delivery is considered to be the slow, economical choice, taking six weeks to get anything is incomprehensible. I can go online and order a custom-made dress shirt and get it sooner! Why can’t I get a magazine in a few days?

I know why: my subscription was processed by some aggregating service center in Iowa and dropped into the Wired subscriber database. I’ll get a magazine when the next issue is mailed. This is the model the magazine industry has used for about 100 years. They’ll continue to use it until the last issue is sent to the last subscriber, about ten years from now.

Here’s a bold, out of the box idea: print a few extra copies of the magazine and keep them in Iowa. When my subscription arrives, send me a copy of the current issue right away. Even if I’ve already read it, the quicker response will earn you brownie points. You could even start my subscription with the next issue and spot me the current issue in the interest of (gasp) good customer service.

Will this happen? I doubt it. I fear that the print industry has all but given up. Their only focus is on making some sort of transition to online delivery that can still pay the bills. Rather than finding a way to make print work with a receptive audience using modern technologies, they are chasing the trailing edge of digital technologies with clumsy efforts at blogs and such.

It’s sad to realize that we live at the end of an era: 550 years of printing, drawing to a close.  We’re witnesses to history, but will be left with no way to permanently write it down.

Social Media Killed The Internet February 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
Tags: , , , ,

In the beginning, the internet was about sharing and collaboration.  Before the web existed (imagine that!) people used the internet to share and refine ideas, collect information, and make it easy to learn about new things.  The interfaces were primitive by modern standards, but the information flowed and great ideas were born.

The early internet was organized by topic.  That is, there tended to be one place you could go to find out everything about that one topic.  If you were interested in a particular subject, you could find a mailing list or a Usenet newsgroup devoted to just that topic.  Everyone that shared your interest came to the same place; anything important regarding that topic generally found its way to that spot.

The Usenet newsgroup hierarchy was the pinnacle of this structure.  Endlessly tweaked and debated, wrapped in a community-designed change protocol, the newsgroup structure neatly found a home for everything, like a Dewey decimal system for the internet.  Interested in movies? Go to the rec.arts.movies group.  Some obscure operating system? You’ll find it in the comp.os tree.  On and on, every conceivable topic was parked somewhere.

If multiple sources arose (a competing mailing list, or a similar newsgroup) they were quickly merged and consolidated.  Gateways existed to route messages between groups and lists; the Usenet social order realigned errant groups with great fervor.  The focus was on accurate, consolidated information.  Who provided that data, while interesting, was of secondary importance.

As the web evolved, this topic-centric model evolved with it.  People developed pages that became reference points for specific topics, and everyone linked to those pages.  I developed a page on creating transparent GIF images that still circulates today, although rehosted on other sites.  The Internet Movie Database (which I also had a role in creating) supplanted the rec.arts.movies group.

With the advent of social networking on the web, the internet is being reorganized by person, instead of by topic.  Now, people develop a central repository about themselves and what they know (or don’t, which is the real problem).  It is easy to learn everything about a person, and much more difficult to learn about a single topic.  For example, my recent cell phone acquisition caused me to search the web for everything I could find about a Samsung Epix phone.  Long ago, there would have been a newsgroup called comp.phones.samsung.epix that provided everything I needed to know.  Now, there are dozens of blogs that contain conflicting or incomplete information.  Collating these sites and finding what I need is much more difficult, if not impossible.

This person-centric view eliminates the most important part of the old model: peer review.  Before, a single errant posting would be immediately corrected by the collective audience, and the data that remained was usually detailed and accurate.  With the experts now isolated on their own islands of information, this review and collaboration has diappeared.  Except for concerted efforts like Wikipedia, we’ve lost the essence of the original internet: a collectively managed shared information resource.  The new individually managed information resources are far less useful.

The ego-centric internet is just a reflection of the ego-centric, celebrity-driven world that we live in.  We’ve lost something as a result, I think.  But somewhere, Andy Warhol is smiling.

The Demise of Print Media February 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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As a long-time subscriber of PC Magazine, I was distressed to discover that, as of their February 2009 issue, they were abandoning their print edition and moving to an all-digital online publication model.  I’m the first to admit that it seems a bit odd to complain about an all-digital magazine in an online blog, but hear me out.

I’m all for nifty modern conveniences like computers and electricity, but paper provides a delightfully tangible user experience.  The feel of the paper, the sound of the pages, the weight of the magazine, even the smell of the ink: all contribute to the complete sensory experience that is reading.  While you can shift the glyphs to a screen of some sort, you cannot replicate the complete feel of reading.  As more and more publications move to electronic distribution, these non-visual components of reading will just disappear.

I like to read magazines cover-to-cover.  I don’t jump to articles, I get there in time, working through the magazine page by page.  You never know what you’ll find as you read your way to the main body of a magazine. A well-edited magazine places all sorts of interesting tidbits in your way, rewarding your sequential trek through the pages.  Letters, reviews, product announcements, and the like decorate the linear path through a magazine.  Digital magazines have no such meander available to you; you are expected to click (and click and click and click) to go directly to the stuff that interests you.  You may find what you want, but you often miss what you need.

Just as important, magazines go everywhere.  Planes and trains, cars and boats: you can read them anywhere.  When I backpack, I stick a magazine in my pack, to be read by headlamp in my tent after everyone else has gone to sleep.  It’s tough to get a connection in the woods; indeed, the whole point of the trip is to get disconnected.  I don’t want to drag a “reading device” with me on these trips; I just want to bring paper covered with words.  Plus, you can start fires with a magazine in a pinch.  Its name to contrary, no one is going to be burning a Kindle any time soon.

Finally, there is my visual impairment.  I suffer from a vision condition called “getting old.”  Teeny letters on teeny screens were much easier to deal with ten years ago.  Now, by the time the font is big enough to be seen, I can only fit a handful of words on the display.  Constant scrolling is the true enemy of comprehension.

So farewell, PC Magazine.  You shall be missed.  I hope PC World can stick it out a bit longer, but I am not banking on it.  I’ll hang on to my anachronistic role as long as I can: an agent of digital change clinging to ancient media.