Sunday, October 22, 2006

Q: How do you get on the road to freedom?

A: Open a bakery.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I read spam. I don’t read all the spam that I get. There’s just too much of it, tens of hundreds of unsolicited invitations to buy Viagra and Cialis at a better price or meet willing singles in my area.

I don’t read these types of emails; don’t need any Viagra or Cialis I am proud to say and I am not in the mood to meet anybody—single, double or triple, thank you. I am very fussy about who I let into my life, as is my wife.

But there is one spam item that always grabs my attention. These emails have a subject that is along these line: Become a world renowned chef in no time at all.

I have a fantasy. It goes like this: One day I reach my limit. I can no longer tolerate the dynamics, waste and idiosyncrasies of Corporate America. So I just toss in the towel and go to culinary school. I learn to be a most excellent chef. I can walk into any kitchen, look in the most barren of refrigerators and produce a world class meal, practically out of nothing. I become capable of making something of value to others in a way that requires every morsel of my thinking and creativity, sort of like the reason that I got into software.

I become most well known for my pastries. I can make the most buttery croissant and an éclair to die for. I can make my little oven produce an angel food cake that is truly heavenly. Soon just by word of mouth alone news of my recently acquired skills reaches willing buyers from all walks of life. It doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time: first a cake order here and a pastry order there. Then two cakes a day, five cakes a day, ten cakes a day, all with pastry orders. After a while, I have so many cake and pastry orders I need to I rent oven space in a nearby bakery to meet demand. Soon I am up to thirty cakes a day, ten dozen croissants and five dozen assorted pastries.

I am wise. I save up my money. Soon I have saved six thousand dollars. I have enough to buy a used convection oven, a mixer, a refrigerator, a pastry table, a display case, a coffee grinder, a coffee maker and a point of purchase system. Also, there is enough left over to pay first month and last month on a small, 500 sq. ft. store front with parking in back. I am lucky. The area is well trafficked and the Board of Health is easy to get alone with.

Soon I am up to two hundred cakes a week, twenty dozen croissants a day and a twenty dozen assorted pastries. Also, I am selling a hundred cups of coffee a day at dollar gross profit per cup.

I need help. I hire burnt out, computer science refugees who want to learn the business. The helpers learn the business, after all they are really smart. And they are really ambitious. They too have dreams.

After a while I lend them money and support to move onto their own dreams. All I ask in return is 3% of the gross profits. They are so grateful that they report their income accurately regardless of the fact that, although we have been taking credit and debit cards for a while, fifty percent of the business is still based on cash transactions.

It’s twenty years later. We have a hundred units across the world. All are profitable. All still make the most buttery croissants, éclairs to die for and angel food cakes that is heavenly. We had an opportunity to get funding to grow to a thousand units world wide. We took a vote among all the dreamers. We decided that if we got to a thousand units, we would become that which we had escaped. We are all content with what we have.

After twenty five years I sell my five hundred square feet to a kid who tried to rob me five years ago on a Wednesday afternoon in broad daylight. He was no older than fifteen. He had never been to school. His family did not have a computer at home. The only way to go to school twenty five years from now is on the Internet. There are no more brick and mortar educational institutions, not even for the really rich. The business model is unprofitable.

Anyway, the kid walks in one day, pulls out a gun and demands money. I told him that we no longer use cash, that everything is done by plastic. He gets mad. I tell the kid that if I had cash, I would give it to him, “you’re one scary dude!”. I ask him if he’d like an éclair instead. The kid says that he has never had an éclair. I give him one. He likes it. He asks me how you make one.

I show him. It’s a total fluke. Most kids would have shot me or just eaten the éclair and left with no inkling of curiosity about the tradition and knowledge required to make such a delicacy. This kid is different. Five years later the kids knows everything that I know. He can make the most buttery of croissants, an éclair to die for and an angel food cake that is heavenly.

I am old and dying. I sell the business to the kid on terms that have two conditions: that he teaches someone else how to make the most buttery of croissants, éclairs to die for and angel food cake that is heavenly, and that he makes affordable monthly payments to me until my passing.

A few months later I die.

But the dream lives on.

And that’s why I read spam that tells me that I too can become a master chef.

PS: This is dedicated to my friend Wolfgang on the anniversary of the passing of his most beloved wife and my friend, Inga. May her beautiful soul rest in eternal peace.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Q: What do you call a Democrat with money?

A: A Republican.

Given that the 2006 election is but weeks away, allow me to share these thoughts.

First, the terms Liberal and Conservative have different meanings in different places. In the UK a person that has liberal political thinking is a person that champions the rights and wisdom of the individual. A person that supports conservative ideals is a person who thinks that the rights of the individual most be moderated with the welfare of the nation. Thus, the individual needs to be governed.

In the US, well… I have no idea what the terms Liberal and Conservative mean. Ten years ago I would have said that a Liberal thinks that the state has a certain obligation to insure the wellbeing of the governed and a Conservative supports the notion that government has marginal responsibility for the citizen; that the individual is quite capable of taking care of him and herself. Government should concern itself with keeping a good standing army, a decent interstate highway system and making sure the banking system is not a house of cards.

Second, I used to think that the Democratic Party was the party whose fundamental political affiliation was with working stiffs and that the Republican Party had the interests of Big Business at heart.

Now I think that both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have the interests of Big Business as its first concern. The working stiff, the man and woman who can plan to spend fifty to sixty years of his and her life doing that thing called a “job” has absolutely no political party to look out for his or her interests.

Like it or not, one of the pillars of the Industrial Age is what I call the Fundamental Covenant between Big Business and the Working Class. It goes like this: Give me, Big Business, all of your adult life working in my factories and offices making stuff that may or may not be of interest to you. Get up every morning and work eight to twelve hours a day, five to six days a week, in conditions that may or may not be interesting, meaningful, and healthy to your body and sensibilities and in return I will pay you a decent enough wage so that you, your wife and your kids can live in a sort of nice place, have enough food to eat and movies to go to. And since you will make enough money so only one adult, most likely the guy, will have to work, the other adult, most likely the woman will have the time to make really, really good things to eat. So, at least your dinner won’t be boring. Also, your kids will get to go to good enough schools, the cops won’t be too corrupt and if there is a war, those who live through it will get to go to college on the government’s dime. By the way, if there is war, everybody goes. Only the really rich kids get to stay home.

Also, when you retire, you’ll get a pension with enough to get you through to old age. You won’t get a hip replacement, bone marrow transplant or cataract surgery because we don’t know how to do that stuff. But, don’t worry about polio or smallpox. We've got that covered.

But that was then and this is now.

Now to be thought of as working class is shameful. It’s all Big Business. We live in a time where every house is a castle and nobody has enough money to pay for them and all the other stuff they don’t really need. So the only recourse is to borrow, which Big Business really likes because all the banks are really big. Most savings and loans were wiped out in the late 80s during the Silverado Scandal.

Now The Covenant looks something like this: We, Big Business will pay you some money, maybe a lot of money if we like you. By the way, we are under absolutely no obligation to do anything for you in the way of long term employment. As a matter of fact, if we can find a place where we can get the work done cheaper, we will. But don’t worry. You’ll get twenty six weeks of unemployment, if you are eligible.

Don’t forget that unemployment payments are not tax free. Everybody pays tax all the time, unless you're us, that is. However, not everybody is entitled to the stuff you get taxed for. In fact, most of the money that we get from Federal tax collection will go to pay for defense, military contractors and to pay down debt for those things we, erh.. I mean the Government bought but couldn’t pay for. Yeah, Social Security and Medicare get a lot too. Why do you think we want to get it into our hands?

The good news is that if there is a war, your kids won’t have to go. But if you can’t make enough to get them into college or provide them with any sense of security about their future welfare, they are welcome to join up and we’ll, oops, I mean the Government will give them money toward college when they get out, if they get out.

In terms of pension, put some money in a 401K. However, if it goes south, don’t blame us. You’re in charge of your money. But, on the other hand, if you need major, life sustaining surgery, you can get it. All you need to do is pay for it. If you’re old enough for Medicare, you’re in. If you have a job that provides health insurance you’re in (for as long as you're on the payroll). If you’re on your own, well you’re on your own. You figure it out.

And so on.....

P.J. O’Rourke had a great saying when considering De Toqueville’s observation on American democracy: “We’ve voted ourselves rich.”

Me, I’d rather be working class. The food’s better. The sex is better. The music’s better. The only thing I wish was that there was a political party that had the real interests of working class Americans at heart. And, it ain't about keeping prayer in the classroom. It's about keeping food on the table and books in the library.

So think about that the next time you’re about to vote.

PS: The government still seems to be good at keeping a standing army. But the highways suck and the banking system is a house of cards. Also, the important elections are rigged. Have been for a while.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Q: What’s the best day of the week?

A: Monday

Know how I know if my life is going in a good direction? The way I tell is if there is no better day of the week for me than Monday. If I find myself sitting around Sunday night having angst about what the next day will bring, something’s wrong.

Looking forward to Monday is where it’s at. Most people look forward to Friday. When Friday comes they dress up the way they really want to, not in some outfit that embraces conformity and gives the impression, maybe deception of professional competency. I mean, is a pair of Dockers, a Ralph Lauren shirt and penny loafers supposed to make you better at what you do? Does a suit and tie make you tops in your field?

Come to think of it, what does a person dressed up in Dockers, a Ralph Laurent shirt and penny loafers do anyway? We know what a person dressed up in a white lab coat and stethoscope does. We know what a guy dressed up in a blue shirt, blue pants, black shoes with utility belt and a side arm does. We know what a person dressed up in a wet suit and scuba tank does. But, what does a guy in a suit do? Lawyer? Banker? Insurance broker? Lobbyist? Venture Capitalist? Big Six Consultant? Guy going for a job interview as a an Assistant Manager at Starbuck’s?

I mean jeepers, Friday is so much the Gateway to Meaningful Existence that somebody actually made a serious buck with a restaurant chain celebrating the meaning of the day.

But, I digress like an entitled teenager who's all pissed off about actually having to get up in the morning in order to be at work on time.

It makes me sad to no end to think of a culture full of people checking out of their lives from Monday to Friday, going through the motions of participation and interest on a work week basis when in fact, the only thing that really matters is what happens on Saturday and Sunday, 5 paid holidays, and two weeks of paid vacation, expanded to three weeks after five years of service. It makes me much sadder if I happen to be one of those people.

Sadly for most of my life I’ve enjoyed Monday about as much as I’ve enjoyed deep scale teeth cleansing. I’ve been one of those people more often than not. Yet somehow I’ve come to understand that no matter how high paying the job is, if the work is meaningless, the money won’t make Sunday night any better. There really is more to life than waiting for the 401k to get to point where one can actually live off the interest, if indeed that time will ever come. Somehow when I am in an “oh shit, it’s Monday” mode, I get the sense that something is passing me by.

But there have been a lot of times in my life when Monday morning was better than a good time under the covers on Saturday night. I experienced great Mondays during college, (NOT during high school) and during those periods in life when the Universe was benevolent enough to arrange my time on the planet to be in an “I do not have a job, I am doing stuff that has more meaning than Webster’s Dictionary and I am making enough money” lifestyle.

But that was then and this is now.

From where I sit today is the only day that really matters. So, I am going to make some lemons out of lemonade. To celebrate Mondays I am adding two new products to the Coding Slave line of apparel. These additions are T-Shirts. One says the following:

“My life is so good that Monday is the best day of the week.”

The other says:

“Having a job is a highly overrated activity for people in my line of work.”

Write is you want to order some. Makes the perfect Christmas gift for the person who has everything.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Q: Build it or buy it?

A: Depends how good you are.

When asked to solve a problem, just about every software developer in the known world will create a solution, maybe one that is cost effective and fast to deliver, maybe one that is expensive as all hell and prone to more missed dates than Windows Vista. On the other hand, ask a business manager to solve a problem, he or she will hit Google, find a purchase to meet the need, and if The Budget allows, cut a purchase order.

Engineers want to make stuff. Business managers want to make money. That’s the way it is in our well ordered Universe.

Up until today I was in the “buy” camp, which is pretty funny given that when push comes to shove I define myself as a software developer. I mean, the consolidation of the software development industry into low cost, off shore coding centers in India, China and Eastern Europe has made it almost impractical to do any sort of profitable commercial development for the general market. If you do want to make a custom solution, most times it pays to buy some off the shelf components and just stitch them into your code. Or you can forget stitching anything together. Just use one of the big ass portal products such as Microsoft’s SharePoint, the open source DotNetNuke, Joomla for PHP, or WebSphere’s Web Portal and configure it to be the app that you want.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love building software, in fact I love building anything. I am a builder sort of guy by nature. But, I can see the handwriting on the wall. Making software is hard and expensive. Most custom software projects that start never see the light of day, let alone become a reliable mainstay of the organization that plunked down the bundle of money required to get it out the door. If some company has the brains, tenacity and deep pockets that are required to actually make commercial software that works, well far be it from me to let my ego get in the way. I’d just rather buy something that I know works and learn how to use it. I mean if, I really gotta code, I can just make something and post it on SourceForge or space that I rent from GoDaddy.

As I said, my brain says buy while my heart says build. Then I read this month’s issue of Wired. It seems that Google is building a Big Ass Data Center out in Oregon. The company is building in Oregon because there is plenty of cheap power to be had coming off of the waters of the Columbia River as it roars through the turbines of the Dalles Dam. The undertaking is stupendous. We’re talking about tens of thousands of servers under one roof chugging away as one big, RAM based collective intelligence processing millions of queries a second worldwide. This is not an undertaking for amateurs. We’re talking a data center that will consume as much power as Las Vegas.

They’re building it! Not buying it from Verison or ATT.

But, then again, Google has been building it’s infrastructure from the get go. The company figured out a while ago that it could take some off the shelf processors, power supplies, RAM and hard drives and turn them into world class server farms doing things that used to be the province of mainframes and supercomputers. Google builds because the company has the competence to build. In fact, I believe that any organization will build if it has the competence to build. But, when the competence is gone, what’s left?

So now the question I have to ask myself is this: If Google has the competence to build big stuff, what’s stopping the rest of us who are just trying to build the small stuff? We just can’t seem to be able to ship. Granted, component based software is the way to go. No sense reinventing the faucet every time we need to build a bathroom. But jeepers, some days it seems as if we can’t even build the sink.

So, if you can’t build, you buy. And, if you can buy…. well, you sell.

Maybe that’s why there seems to be so many mortgage brokers around.