Stupid Phrase

I don’t know why, but a phrase popped into my head in the shower this morning and I can’t seem to get it out of my head. I’m sure you’ve heard it before as it’s fairly common, as phrases go. You may not have heard it in a movie or on TV; it’s a fairly dramatic sort of thing to say, so it seems unlikely that you’ve heard it come out of the mouth of anyone you actually know…or at least I can’t think of anyone I know who’s said it.

“What is it?” you ask.

Well, it generally goes as follows: “I’m only gonna say this once, <insert super-important thing here>.” That’s it.

I’m only gonna say this once.

Now, I understand what the phrase means. It typically preceeds something of particular importance, presumably in order to add a certain gravitas. “This thing I’m about to say is so important that I’m going to notify you as to the specific number of times I’m going to say it to make sure you’re listening before you lose your opportunity” is the general flavor.

…but if you really think about it, it just doesn’t make sense.

Here’s the thing: If what you have to say is so goddam important, why on earth only say it once? It’s completely counter-intuitive.What if the person who needs to hear it doesn’t hear you the first time? What if they sneeze or something? Once you’ve made a statement like “I’m only gonna say this once” you can’t very well go back on it; you’ll just look foolish, repeating yourself when you explicitly stated that you weren’t going to do so. And I’ve got a hunch that the type of person who would say “I’m only gonna say this once” isn’t the type of person who takes looking foolish lightly.

Why take that chance? Why not say it a couple of times – ya know, to reinforce it a bit? Perhaps write it down? Shit, maybe write it down a couple of times.

What I’d love to see is a movie scene in which one of these pompous one-time-only asshats, every word dropping from his lips never to be heard again for fear that it might seem less important, walks up to someone and utters this phrase. Dude proceeds to give his spiel – doesn’t really matter what it is – to a complete stranger. Suppose it’s something about missiles or action or something – fate-hanging-in-the-balance type shit. The stranger listens in perfect silence, waiting patiently until Dude’s lips stop moving. At that point, Stranger signs to him “Terribly sorry, I can’t understand you. I’m deaf and I never picked up the knack of lip-reading. Have a nice day.”

Hmmm…perhaps Stranger could preface it with “I’m only gonna sign this once…”

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Five Years Ago

There are a few things I’ve learned since I graduated college. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that I’ve learned more since I graduated than I did in my entire four years. It might even be possible to say that I’ve learned more in the last 10 years than I did in the entirety of my time at school (16 or so years at this point), but that’s a little hard to quantify. I mean, how do you compare “I learned how to wipe my own ass” with “I learned that mortgages are expensive as balls”?

Okay, so I probably knew how to wipe my own ass long before I was in the first grade. My point is that it seems like every 5-10 years or so I look back at my 5- or 10-years-younger self and say something like, “Man, what an idiot I was!” I’d like to try and recreate that here:

5 (looking back on 0):

Good Lord, what a no-walking, no-talking, shitting-all-over-myself baby I was back then!

10 (looking back on 5):

Man, I’ve come a long way. I mean, I could hardly even read!

15 (looking back on 10):

Are you kidding me, with the playing tag and watching cartoons? If only I would’ve found out about girls sooner…

20 (looking back on 15):

If only I would’ve found out about girls sooner…

25 (looking back on 20):

If only I would’ve found out about girls later…

30 (looking back on 25):

If only I would’ve found out about compound interest sooner…

Alright, I probably didn’t do this justice – a one-liner per five years is pretty thin – but this is really meant to be food for thought. What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time 5 years?

 


Surprises

[Disclaimer: I’m a little scattered – typical “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation” state – so this post may be a little disjointed.]

I was thinking today about things I’ve been surprised by recently:

It Rains Inside in Mexico

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration – maybe not everywhere in Mexico. The resort where we stayed in Cancun had a really impressive open entryway and skylights running the length of the hotel. (Note to self: Put more picture in posts. People like pictures.) This seemed pretty reasonable, given that someone told us they only got something like 30 days of rain a year in Cancun. Well…we happened to get 3-4 of those days. As it turns out nothing in that hotel was particularly water-tight, resulting in towels lying about on the tile for the majority of our stay. But hey, it was still 80 degrees, so no complaints.

AI Class

Turns out, there are some bits of Artificial Intelligence that are fairly tricky. Particularly if one hasn’t taken a statistics course in 10 or so years. And particularly if one is out of the country sans PC while the online courses are taking place, giving one a single day to watch all the video lectures, take all the quizzes, and complete the homework. It begs the question: Why on earth couldn’t they have done the easy unit on depth-first search while one was on vacation?

Blizzcon

Not that Blizzcon took place – that happens every year – but what was announced at this year’s con. Specifically: The next expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Again, it’s no surprise that they’re releasing another expansion; I’ve come to expect that about once a year out of Bliz. I figured they’d probably tweak around with the talent trees and all of that stuff. Pretty much par for the course for an expansion that adds new levels. …but panda monks? Seriously? This one might be where I call it quits with WoW. I mean, I loved the movie…but…seriously?

Yes, that’s actually Donald Knuth

A buddy of mine sent me a link to a video of Randall Munroe speaking at Google in 2007. I hadn’t seen the video before and I love xkcd, so I figured I’d go ahead and check it out. Well, it just so happens that one of the Googlers had arranged for Donald Knuth – yes, the Donald Knuth – to be present at the talk. In fact, she went so far as to get hime to ask Munroe a question about a comic he had drawn about Knuth. It took me a minute to realize what was actually going on. I actually thought they were just kidding around – “ha ha, the guy who asked the question must be Donald Knuth.” Not kidding around…that is, in fact, him. In the flesh. Awesome.


The Bucket Problem – Part II

For the first part of this disussion, see The Bucket Problem – Part I.

So having multiple buckets fixes the problem beautifully…if  only problem you’re trying to solve is “Don’t Fuck Up Production”. (Incidentally, what I’ve described generally only mitigates this…but that’s a whole different discussion.) What if you have other goals? Like, say, not spending One Billion Dollars on replicating every server you build in every data center you manage in every country in which you have a presence? (Note: Seperate data centers actually is a form of the Bucket Problem, which should become apparent shortly).

Okay, so you start to delve into the problem a bit more thoroughly and say “Development will be set up thus and Production will be set up so“, and you feel totally satisfied that you’ve arranged it just perfectly – all of your resources are allocated in perfect harmony. …until they’re not. So you’ve got two buckets – dev and prod – and inevitably one of them fills up first. Now you’ve got to go to the people who write the checks for the equipment and say something like “We’re only using 70% of our capacity, but we’ve got to buy more.” Why? Because the resources in the particular bucket you need are used up, and you’ve set up your buckets such that Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet.

Think of this as the Shampoo/Conditioner problem, which is a form of the Bucket Problem stated thus: When you purchase two bottles of hair product – one of shampoo, one of conditioner – even if they are precisely the same size at purchase time, you will run out of one of the other (generally shampoo) significantly earlier than the other. The interesting thing about this particular problem is that it’s typically cyclical. Run out of shampoo? Buy just shampoo the next time you’re at the store. …then you run out of conditioner, since you only started out with a partial bottle to begin with. And so on.

Alternately, maybe you prefer to spend staff time playing the “Shell Game”, shuffling resources around between storage subsystems, networks, etc. to try to meet the requirements of this-or-that bucket. This could involve an arbitrary amount of difficulty, from just changing some configuration parameters to having to haul physical hardware to another data center. This problem is a little more like having multiple bank accounts, or perhaps a more-accessible way to state it is having one or more gift cards. I think everyone has had the following interaction with a cashier at least once: “Okay, so there’s $3.17 on this card, $7.49 on that one, put $20 of it on my Visa, and I’ll pay the rest in cash.” How fun is that?

There are a number of Bucket Problems and corrolaries I can come up with off the top of my head – multiple email addresses/address books (the particular email/contact information you’re looking for is never in the account where you’re looking), booze & mixers (you never run out of both at the same time), chips and salsa (classic problem!). I think you get the idea.

Note that most of the above examples involve exactly 2 buckets. As you might expect, this problem tends to get (exponentially?) worse as the number of buckets increases.

So, that’s a brief introduction to the Bucket Problem. Where have you seen this in your life?


The Bucket Problem – Part I

There is a problem that I like to think of as The Bucket Problem. I run into it perhaps most often at work, but the more I think about it I realize that this particular problem manifests itself in all different areas of life. It’s a pain in the ass, it takes up way more of my time than I feel it should, and I’d really like to be done with it once and for all.

So…what is it?

Well, The Bucket Problem can be stated (very) informally thus: Any time you split your resources into two (or more) buckets (“pools” or “piles”, if you prefer…I like “buckets”) you’ll wish you hadn’t. Even if you had very good reasons for doing so. In fact, even if you really had no choice other than to do so.

The (classic?) example that I’m thinking of: the splitting of resources between development environments and production environments – dev “buckets” and prod “buckets”. Now, if you’re not a technology person then this bears some amount of explanation. I’ll stick to Internet services, because presumably if you’re reading this you have some grasp of them – at the very least, you know they exist.

You have a service – say, WordPress – which you host at wordpress.com. End users of this service have all the usual expectations for this service – it has to be up all the time, it has to be easy to use, it has to have this-or-that feature, etc. As a guy on the systems side of the house, the first of those criteria is really the critical one. It can’t go down. Ever. (Or, if you prefer, it can’t go down unexpectedly.) That is what Production means. It is a “product” in the sense that you are making it available to customers (whether they’re directly paying for it or not), and where the Internet is concerned it’s simply unacceptable for that product to be unavailable.

…but in order to remain relevant and continue to be a great product (or to become a great product if it’s not to begin with) work probably has to be done on it over time. Code has to be written and modified as a part of the natural course of things. Now, you don’t want to do this work on the version of the service that’s running in production – I mean, what if you fuck it up? So where do you do it? Development, of course. It’s easy, right: We just split things into Development and Production buckets and put in place some kind of a promotion-to-production process/policy. Hell, maybe we even do QA! <gasp> We could even set up another bucket just for QA. Problem solved. Right?

[This discussion is continued at The Bucket Problem – Part II]

[I didn’t mean to digress this deeply into dev vs. prod, but I think it will end up being valuable in the end. Bonus points if you can see where I’m headed with this. (Oh…and I welcome comments, but no fair giving it away if you work with me!)]


This Space Reserved

Coffee: check.

Cookies: check.

Ommwriter: check.

Some days, inspiration just doesn’t come. I do have an idea for this space – one that’s already partially-written, in fact – but I’ve got to admit I’m not 100% comfortable posting it just yet. I think I’ve also already got “one foot on the beach”, as it were – vacation next week! – so I’m having a little trouble thinking about much of anything but wrapping things up at work and getting packed. (Incidentally, I doubt very much that I’ll be writing anything at all while I’m in Cancun.)
So…I reserve the right to post something in this space at a later date.

[I know, I know, it’s a cop-out. I’ll try and make it up, though. :-)]


Minimalism

Minimalism.

[Note: There is a certain appeal to just leaving the post at that, but the word counter is staring me in the face…]

It’s something I’ve always wanted to give a shot. Examples of people doing so abound on The Interwebs.

There’s Allmylifeforsale:

“…an online project that explored our relationship to the objects around us, their role in the concept of identity, as well as the emerging commercial systems of the Internet.”

So Dude sold all of his stuff – pretty crazy, eh? Well, check out Mark Boyle, who actually wrote a book about living on $0 a year. …and then you have Graham Hill, who talks about “Less stuff, more happiness.” Okay, so that last guy is kind of a smarmy designer prick who apparently has the money to throw at making a 420 sq. ft. place into a sexy Condo From the Future, but in general there seems to really be something to this “Less is More” concept.

So I’ve read all kinds of articles and watched talks and all of that, but I’m not really sure how I’d get started actually doing it.

For one thing, most of the guys who live this kind of lifestyle (and I’ve only ever seen guys talking about this kind of thing) are single. I’m pretty sure I could get rid of quite a bit of my stuff fairly easily; on the short list would be all the crap in the basement and at least 90% of the books I own. However, I’m positive that saying, “Babe, I’m gonna get rid of all my shit and all of your shit” wouldn’t go over so well.

I also don’t think any of these guys have pets. Having, say, a goldfish doesn’t really increase your “stuff footprint” much. You need a bowl, a place to put it, and mebbe a little canister of fish food. Having a dog, on the other hand, is fairly “stuff intensive”; giant bag of food, dishes, leashes, chew toys, little doggie clothes. (Yes, we occassionally dress our dog…and he likes it, so stop looking at me that way.)

Oh, and do any of these guys celebrate holidays? I mean, where on earth does Mr. Star Trek Apartment store his Christmas ornaments. Hmmm…actually, now that I think of it, if I were living alone I probably wouldn’t have any Christmas crap to store. Nothing against putting up a Christmas tree, I just doubt that I’d actually do it if it were just me.

Maybe some day we’ll move to a smaller place and that will be the catalyst for getting rid of all my crap. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll end up packing it all up and lugging it from place to place every time I move. Or maybe it’s time to go ahead and start throwing things out, giving things away, putting things up for sale on craigslist.

meh…I’ll start tomorrow…