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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Why Write a Blog -- why write anything at all?


     My official view count on blogspot recently exceeded 20,000 views. I am fairly certain that this is a low number. There are places where I post my blog that make their own copy and, thus, the official counter is not incremented. Twenty thousand is not really that amazing. There are people who are better well known, who work much harder at getting their blogs visible, who blog in association with a company or technology, and others in different circumstances who have view counts that make mine insignificant. But, it is significant to me.
     This total of 20,000 views is from a long history. I have been working on this set of blogs for almost 11 years and have written 115 blogs. They total around 100,000 words -- which is about the same as a couple of moderate-sized novels. A guesstimate is that it has taken about 450 hours or 11 full-time workweeks (or an average of one 40-hour week per year).
     Why put in this amount of effort? I have occasionally joked -- sometimes more than half seriously -- that I write because I am a masochist. I have gaps of weeks to a month or so when I just cannot get myself to go back to the keyboard. There are often few, or no, comments -- "what is the sound made by one hand clapping?". In some social media, it is not uncommon for people only to comment, or downvote, if they don't like it -- and generate only silence if they like it or are OK with it.
     I have even had one moderator of a social media site insist that blogs were the same as spam. Upon suggesting that she, or he, read it -- they, in proud fashion, insisted that "they didn't read spam". The reality that their arguments would apply equally to any posted article (Computerworld, Newsweek, Time, Washington Post, ...) made no impact on their worldview.
     The question as to "why bother" applies to most writers. The statistics of  about 10 years ago were that 90% of all writers do not, or cannot, make a living at writing. I suspect that the statistics have not changed much -- possibly it has even gotten worse as there are many more "markets" where a person can publicly write for free. I am sure that there do exist blog writers who make a living -- maybe in the same general percentage as other writers. Personally, I would have loved to have made reasonable money from my blogs -- but I haven't.
     When I wrote, and had published, my three technical books, I earned back my royalty advances which placed me in the top 20% of all non-fiction writers; I didn't earn very much past those advances. I may have earned a dollar an hour for those books (they are all long out of print). My initial fiction book has earned closer to a nickel an hour -- though I always have hopes that the right person will read it and it will take the world by storm (it has been well reviewed). I think that writers, in general, have to have an optimistic core or they just wouldn't write.
     So far, this blog has listed lots of reasons NOT to write. Don't expect (you are allowed to hope) to earn money writing. You are more likely to hear complaints than compliments. You may even have to justify your very existence in your writing.
     So, why write? I have been in the paid workforce for about 47 years -- working in the computer science arena for 40. During that period of time, I have read thousands of books, worked on hundreds of projects, interacted with thousands of people, worked in dozens of different roles and even in a dozen different fields (donut baker, programmer, wheat field tractor driver, company startup co-founder, small item construction field worker, manager, ...)
     In this, I am certainly not unique. There are many of you out there who have had as many experiences and some who have had more experiences or experiences that may be of more popular interest. A lot of you are like me -- wanting to share back with the community from which we learned and have gotten so much.
     But, I like to write and am pretty good with the written word. So, as I fill up with experiences I want to share them -- and I can best share them via the written word. So, I write. And, among other methods of publishing, I blog.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

You Can't Give If No One Will Receive : a closed cycle of sharing


     Most (but not all) of us were taught, as we were growing up, that it is good to give to others. Some societies include sayings such as "it is better to give than receive". The lesson sticks with people better, or worse, with a lot of the adhesive depending on what those who are close to us actually DO ("lip service" doesn't work well as an example).
     Giving has no expectations of return. I give you a gift -- you may, or may not, give me back a gift. And that's OK. I give you a gift and you give it to someone else, exchange it, or I find it in the trash can at some later date; once I have transferred something to you then it is yours. That's OK also.
     It's OK but it's not ideal. Ideally, you give someone something they want and like (perhaps even need) -- such that they will not WANT to discard it but will treasure it (or, in the case of something transient as in food or money, the memory of it) as a type of bond between the two of you. For this to happen, the act of giving can no longer be unilateral. There must be an active receiver in addition to the giver. I give, you receive. In the 1990s, a group called "The Boomers" had a song called "The Art of Living" which talked about this situation.
     Many people are taught that they should give. Not a lot of people are taught that they need to receive -- and, certainly, not how they should receive. In the U.S., we have a lot of good givers (not always from as pure of motive as desired) but not a lot of good receivers.
     OK. We get lessons on how to be a good giver (not that everyone does such). Give without thought of return, including not having conditions attached to the gift. Give according to what is needed, or desired, rather than what one most wants to give. Give as you can -- but not more than what is comfortable such that you will resent it.
      What about that receiver side? There aren't many lessons on it. First thing is to recognize that receivers make givers possible. If you truly believe that giving is a good thing, then you need to learn how to be a good receiver. You don't need anything? Not even a compliment (which, if sincerely given, may be even better to receive than a material fortune)? Congratulations. Maybe you know someone else who does need what is being offered -- pass it along to that person, or group, giving credit to the person or group from whom it was originally given.
     You do need something? OK -- you have joined the ranks of the majority. If something is freely offered to you, the first thing is to NOT feel guilty for accepting it. You are providing an opportunity for them to give. But do be appreciative as they did not have to give. My relatives always told me to write a thank-you note but I still don't see any reason for such if you have already thanked them in person. But do thank them. What if you don't need it, want it, and don't know of anyone else who does need or want it? That is more awkward as they may have indeed felt that it was a generous offer on their part. Express appreciation and then suggest a more appropriate recipient. Let them know they have done something good and you want it to be used to the best extent possible.
     What if someone insists on "giving" you something even though you have insisted that you don't want it? Well, that is not really giving. I am not sure there is a specific word for it in English but it is more related to assault or forcing than giving. I cannot say what the "giver" feels under such circumstances but the one being forced to take something is not going to feel good about it. Of course, "receiving" something without a corresponding giver is just taking (perhaps stealing).
     Let's work towards the ideal of truly giving, with a full and joyous heart, and receiving, with appreciation and acknowledgement of self-worth. In a world where life is not often "fair", we can help to even things out.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Is "free" ever free? -- a matter of choice and perception


     "Buy One Get One Free!" This is a famous advertising slogan within the U.S. Often it is shortened to just BOGO. Do they really give you one "free"? Of course not -- try asking for just the free one. They will respond with a laugh if they are in a good mood. Financially, it means they are selling the product for half price (50% discount) but -- from a consumer/shelf rotation point of view -- it is not quite that. By requiring you to buy two in order to get the discount, they are also increasing their sales volume. This is the non-food version of supersizing -- the food version of which I expand upon in my blog on "supersizing".
     This advertising method is also used for other percentages and other quantities. Buy Two Get Three Free (60% discount with five products sold). No matter what the actual proportions, it is a method of advertising and tricking the brain into thinking that something is "free". Another variant is to have a "sale" offering 10 of product G at D% off. Or, in a specific example, if the article usually sells at $1 the offer is to sell 10 for $6. Sometimes, the advertising also says "must buy 10" -- sometimes it doesn't -- but, a lot of the time, people will still feel the urge to buy a full 10. (Read the entire sales quote including the smaller print.)
     Of course, this type of "free" doesn't have to be within the same merchandise. "Buy Product X and, for a limited time, we will toss in Item Y (which we haven't been able to sell on its own) FREE." This has the big advantage of reducing inventory on Item Y. This is not saying that Item Y is not a good item -- but it doesn't have the appeal necessary to sell it by itself at a good profit margin. Product X gets a boost in sales attractiveness without directly discounting its price.
     In the above cases, the primary economic advantage is selling more products. In the U.S., and in most of the larger countries, consumerism is a heavy factor in the economies of the country. From this orientation towards consumerism, many factors are emphasized within society. These include expanding feature sets, obsoleted -- and "new" future fashions, minimal useful worklife, and so on. In the past decade, a transition has started being made from physical to electronic products -- higher profit margins and less required capital with an ecological benefit. However, this causes labor redistribution and retraining ("no free lunch" -- see next paragraph).
     "There is no such thing as a free lunch!" Absolutely true -- but it may be absorbed into another existing budget -- this can either be within a corporate advertising budget or within a system of taxation. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it can also apply to benefits in one area requiring extra effort or pain in another.
     My wife and I often get calls of the nature: "you are the winner of a free vacation to our wonderful resort in Paradise, Country X". We are of a certain age that is expected to be looking towards retirement. We "won" because they have determined (from extensive data mining and other methods) that we can potentially afford something and that we have a reasonable chance of actually buying it. They may have also researched a "soft touch" factor on us (how well do we resist sales techniques). At any rate, we are part of a group of "winners" and, statistically, they are likely to get more profit/sales out of the group than it will cost up-front to get us all to their resort and pay for the advertised benefits.
     This isn't saying anything bad about the resort -- it may be fantastic and it might even be something for which we might be grateful for the opportunity to purchase. But it is an example of how something "free" is incorporated into a larger budgetary item -- in this case, advertising.
     Tax budgets are another situation where "free" items are incorporated into the budget. In this case, since the taxation is mandatory, the items labeled "free" are usually called such by a group of people wanting some OTHER use of the money (they rarely want the money left with the people -- though that may be denied). So, "free" is bad and implies that it is an unearned "gift" from the taxpayers.
     Taxpayer revenue forms a budgetary pool just like the general revenue of a corporation. Within that budget, there are various allocations. Each allocated budget item is "free" from the point of view that it is paid for by the entire pool of taxpayers. On the other hand, NONE of the budget items is "free" because they are ALL paid for by the entire pool of taxpayers. Priorities are determined within the budget for items and there is considerable disagreement between groups of people as to what those priorities should be -- but the use of "free" to describe usage of the budget is a political term and not a financial one.
     So, is free truly never free? No -- not quite. Currently, people can still breathe without cost. Freedom to drink potable water is becoming a greater and greater struggle but it is still free in some places (in others, it requires community subsidization and allocation). There are places in the wild where (often against the rules) you may be able to eat wild vegetation, or hunt/trap animals, just because you are there. I am sure there are other examples that are outside of the general economy. But -- within the societal economy -- "free" means being paid for via some other person, agency or budget. Can you think of exceptions within economic society?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Foundations of History Tend to Shake: could the Holocaust fade away?


     The last of the surviving veterans of World War II are making their passage from this world. Also, the last of the survivors of the Holocaust. Together, this means that -- out of the many thousands of direct and indirect witnesses to the atrocities of the Holocaust -- very few remain and soon there will be none still alive.
     So, why does that make a difference? It is recorded in history and references are still taught and read. It happened, has been very well documented and proven, and is a tragedy from which we can learn for many years. Right?
     Alas, such is not necessarily the case. History is always in the process of being rewritten. Sometimes it is a result of more information coming to light -- excavations, first-hand documents, physical proofs and artifacts. Sometimes it is a matter of documents and artifacts being lost or deliberately destroyed or suppressed and then denied.
     At its best, history is a tiny slice of what has happened at a particular time. Choices are made as to what to include and what to omit.  History, or "His story", tends to focus on males throughout history -- such that women's accomplishments are forgotten, overlooked, or attributed to men associated with them. Histories are also "written by the winners" and the losers of wars and other confrontations often have their records destroyed or omitted -- certainly they are de-emphasized. Also, the history writers make choices from the materials available. Who, and what, is "important"? Do they talk about the war leader or do they talk about the woman organizing and leading the cooks to feed the army (or the family)? Is the life of the baker considered to be as important as the Duke? Do the details of the life of a peasant get equal emphasis to that of the local feudal lord? Even during peacetime, the accounts and records will be more in depth for those of the ruling segments.
     At its worst, history can become fantasies to support the current people in power. Perhaps out of shame, genocides, massacres, and evils done by humans to other humans (such as slavery) have a great tendency to be obscured or their realities warped. Some people try to "clean" history -- change the language used within books, change scenarios and such so that it meets present-day standards. That is also a method of falsifying history. A third category is to deliberately create fake documentation to support misinformation that the person, or group, would like to present as the truth.
     A very active and well-known Anti-Semite wrote a "scholarly" book concerning his anti-semitism. At first reading, it looks very well-researched, objective, and persuasive. It is not until the "references" are further checked that the fabrication becomes clear. The references are "circular references". The references are to people and their works who then refer back to the author or to other people to whom he references. In other words, the work supports itself by having a group of people wanting to present a falsified world view support, and "authenticate", each other. There is no connection to real world events or first-hand accounts. It is all a built up fantasy that SOUNDS like it has a basis in fact.
     So, with history's inherent limitations and vulnerability to falsification, how CAN valid history be protected? To quote Pilate, from the book of John, "What is truth?"
     There isn't an easy answer. History can never present the full truth -- it is inherently limited by access to, and choices from, data. Constant vigilance is needed to prevent deliberate, unsubstantiated, changes to history and acceptance of falsified data. The primary defense that exists is a solid educational background for the general citizenry -- to allow them to judge, to research, and to understand (such as going deeply enough to locate circular references).

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Failure is not an option -- why not?


     "Failure is not an option" is a famous, and memorable, line from the movie "Apollo 13". I have a favorite shirt, slowly fading, with the line written upon it. Although the line exists within the movie, no one actually said it during the time of the Apollo 13 equipment failure. It is a summary/scriptline composed from a bunch of thoughts and explanations (post-event) from the NASA ground crew.
     Failure may not be an option -- but it does occur. In fact, it would be a rare occurrence, within a business environment, for failure analysis to not occur after an instance of a project or business failure. I am positive that, if I were to startup another business, I would make an entirely new set of mistakes.
     It is not currently popular, but failure analysis also is very useful within the non-business world. It is called "learning from history". It requires recording history as accurately as possible, studying that history, and analyzing what went well and what did not. (It is preferable if people choose to NOT repeat what did not go well.) All three of those steps are difficult but worthwhile.
     So, failure is certainly possible -- yet it still should not be considered an option. Within the world of computer programming, it might be considered to be the default condition. You keep planning for, and defining, all of the situations that you can think of -- and if none of those occur then it falls into the "default" case. It is the bottom basket into which all of the "not-planned-for" events fall.
     Failure occurs but it isn't planned for yet it can be (and, in business, often is) analyzed afterward. But is failure to be allowed? This often ends up being a Return On Investment (ROI) question. In the case of the human astronauts' lives in Apollo 13 there were severe limitations on materials and what could be done but, within those limitations, no effort was too much. In the case of human lives suddenly at risk because of accident or natural disaster, the cost is often analyzed only after the events have passed.
     In the case of the potential failure NOT involving human life, it is much easier to quantify the costs. These include the costs to avoid failure and the costs of having reached the point where one would call it failure (Edison once said "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.").
     It is most useful to determine first the value of success, then the odds of success, and then the amount of resources (time, money, energy) to be invested before purposefully stopping the effort. It could be argued that that would not be a failure because there is no way to know the final result if the effort continued. Yet it also would be difficult to call it a success. As the costs go up and the estimated value of success remains constant, it is a situation of "diminishing returns".
     In summary, failure is the final result when all of the plans for success have refused to come true. Failure, in itself, is not planned; it is not an option. The process of planning for failure makes it just one more planned result and if a planned result occurs then can it be failure?
I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. Thomas A. Edison
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/thomas_a_edison_132683
I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/thomas_a_edison_132683
I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/thomas_a_edison_13268

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Mortality: How can awareness change your life?


     No specific focus for this blog -- just lots on wandering (and wondering) thoughts. I have gone past the anniversary of 60 years of the earth moving around the sun. I occasionally talk to my children about preparing for my not being around anymore. They don't like this at all -- but it isn't something that will become easier with time and they need to deeply understand that they cannot stay reliant on their mother and myself -- that there is pressing need to be able to fly out of the nest.
     Not that I plan to die tomorrow. Who does? (Well, some souls do have a more precise knowledge to encourage preparation.) The general societal culture in the United States is one of avoidance of death -- the attempt to live forever (preferably looking like one did at age 21) seems to be in many of the increasing number of sales brochures that arrive in my mailbox (electronic or physical).
     Various strategies for immortality have been attempted over the centuries. Presently, cryogenic preservation and digital simulation/storage are among the more active avenues being attempted (none have been proven to work so far).
     There is no reason that a person should NOT attempt to be the healthiest (mentally and physically) possible while they are loping around this world -- as long as they aren't spending most of their time and thoughts on doing that instead of actually living their lives. Or, as I like to put it, "worrying about things is often worse for your health than the things you worry about".
     Robert A. Heinlein's story "Lifeline" dealt with the idea that a machine could be developed that can tell you when the lifeline is to be cut -- the day that you would die. Of course, this was not good for the insurance companies. It did not end well, of course, but the sealed envelope the inventor left ... well just read the story.
     I don't think I would like to know just what day my story ends. But I like to think that I do use my awareness of my mortality to live my life as best as I can. I have lost my fear of saying "I love you" to people as I am much more afraid that I might leave without letting them know. I try to keep my "things in order" so that my wife will know where all the accounts are if I'm not around and can pay the bills and make use of the money we have saved.
     However, I do NOT have my study or house in as tidy of shape as I used to have it. As Bill Murray says in "Meatballs" -- It Just Doesn't Matter. Oh, I'll fight the fight against entropy when I can -- or when it becomes important to my wife -- but I no longer consider it to be a major sin.
     I have a general (and, possibly, more conscious than many) daily awareness of my life's eventual end but I don't update my obituary each day. I know that STATISTICALLY I have quite a few more years in me as my ancestors who died "natural" deaths tended to live quite a while. So, it only affects me in a mild (and, hopefully, positive) way.
     One way that my own attitude affects me, however, is that of being more aware of OTHER people's mortality and a wondering of how their circumstances change their lives. If a person lives in a country at war, or with a large degree of terrorism and destruction on a daily basis, how does this change how they deal with life on a daily basis? If, because of skin color, ethnicity, or religion, they know that others may irrationally murder them as they walk down the street how does that change their attitude toward life each day? Do they embrace life and speak loudly and laugh as much as they can and generally live each day to the full? Or do they move from one shadow to the next hoping to increase their chances of making it to the next day? Or perhaps it is a mixture of all -- changing from day to day and person to person.
     There is, of course, the other end of the spectrum -- being so scared of one's eventual mortality that paranoia, selfishness, and self-isolation become daily crutches. As Frank Herbert says in Dune -- "fear is the mind killer" and death certainly qualifies for fear for many. For some, it reaches a degree of fear that they forget to actually enjoy what they can while they are still alive. I don't know but I would suspect that people who live in a higher-than-average dangerous situation learn to suppress reasonable fear because, realistically, there is little they can do.
     How does the reality of death affect you? Is it a subject to avoid? A matter-of-fact reality? Can a person really prepare for the unknown? Is awareness a potential blessing or a curse?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Drug addictions: Not so much a matter of what but why


     Due to the "opioid epidemic" in the U.S., there has been an increase in studies and general research about addiction. I have a fairly high level of scepticism about individual studies (as per another blog) but that doesn't mean they have no uses and cannot be treated as a group for some type of insight.
     One anomaly that has been known for a long time is that people in severe pain only rarely get addicted to painkillers -- even the "heavy" painkillers such as heroin or other "opioids". The few that have gotten addicted seem to have had caregivers who did not decrease the medication when the pain decreased (and, even then, most did not remain dependent once their pain was overcome). It is the same medicine as that which might be used by a street "junky" -- but one is addicted and the other is not.
     The reality is that there are different types of addictions. There is the physical addiction which directly affects the mind and body and which carries with it the potentially lethal side-effects from overdose and withdrawal. This is often the primary aspect that is discussed -- and is how various addictive substances are listed in severity. With some drugs, it is possible to become physically addicted with the very first usage of the drug -- others take longer and have a constant increasing dosage requirement. No matter how quickly physical addiction takes place or how difficult (and, possibly, dangerous) withdrawal is -- there are beginnings and endings to physical addiction.
     So, there is no physical addiction before the drug is tried and physical addiction is fairly short-lived (assuming the person does live through the withdrawal). Why do they start? Why do they resume? The Alcoholics Anonymous groups talk about one day at a time -- recognizing that each day they do not resume is another day without alcohol. Other physically addictive drugs also tend to be resumed. Why, if the physical addiction can be removed?
     One study among a number of recent studies got a mouse (or rat, I cannot remember) addicted to some substance. They then (without having it go through a withdrawal process) placed it in an environment where it could go and have more of the drug OR go to a different room where it could have access to play activities with a number of other mice. The mouse chose the community playground.
     There are, thus, three phases of addiction -- becoming addicted, physically addicted, and potential relapse to addiction. The middle phase is the most physically dangerous but it is bounded. Pre-addiction is almost completely a social or emotional attitude -- the answer to "why?". The last phase, potential relapse, can be framed more from the question "why not?.
     Three of the potential components of why a person starts with an addictive substance includes behavior of their social group (family and peers), feelings of loneliness and/or hopelessness and/or some other situation earnestly desired to be escaped, and plain old curiosity (although their choice of substance is often socially constrained).
     Social (and, related, income) group is highly related to the type of substance used. In other words, what is popular and what is easily available? The drug of choice, and form, also depends on income levels. Low-cost alcohol for low-income and imported beer, wine, and liquor for higher-income. Tobacco use has decreased from about half of the U.S. population to less than 20% but the distribution is not even -- it is more likely of a choice for those who make less money and have lower amounts of education. In the case of the "opioids", it can depend on the vector of access. If it is prescribed, then certain drugs will be used. If purchased on the street, other drugs are more likely. In some cases, such as with refined sugar or some common household spices, it will meet the dictionary definition of a drug, but it is not considered as such by the general population.
     In all cases, continued use is dependent on finding a degree of pleasure from the experience. Generally, this is involved with dopamine in the brain. Different drugs work differently. Some increase dopamine, some prolong the interaction, and other interactions exist. Heroin is considered to be a highly addictive substance because the effect is so quick.
     At some point, a crossover takes place where the avoidance of withdrawal takes precedence over the attraction of the experience. This is the point that is more often called addiction. It continues, and may intensify, until there is an internal, or external, decision to stop or the person dies. This is not meant to imply that all addictive drugs are fatal though most are harmful to the body with extended use. A person can smoke for a normal lifespan -- it being very dependent on the individual's genetic history. On the other hand, a heroin addiction is not likely to be survived for a long time.
      It is a peculiar side-effect of messing with dopamine actions in the brain that it can also cause memory responses. You can reach the point of hating what you are doing while addicted and yet, after not that long, the memory of hatred fades and the dependency comes to the forefront once again.
     If quitting the addiction was done for an internal reason then the person has taken a strong step towards staying non-addicted. If the decision was imposed externally, then a number of factors are likely to be involved that will make it even more difficult to stay non-addicted. The internal decision has already wrestled with various pro- and con- factors. An external decision avoided such.
     We are now at the "why not" stage. As mentioned before, memories of the negative parts of the addiction are not likely to be very strong. Therefore decisions have to be made based on other factors. If the original attraction was to avoid feelings of hopelessness, is there now more reason to hope? If the original attraction was to avoid feelings of loss, do you now have other, healthier, ways of coping with those feelings? Even with the faded memories, hopefully curiosity is no longer a factor but you may still be surrounded by others who are still involved with the drug. In the case of legal drugs, they may even still be in the process of being advertised. (Note that, often, the primary difference between a drug being legal or illegal is political.) Basically, if the purpose of taking the drug was to avoid something and that something still exists, a return to the road of apparent (not actual) escape can be very, very tempting -- perhaps overwhelming.
     You have out a weighing scale and one side says "become readdicted" and the other side says "stay non-addicted". An outside observer may say "no problem -- it is obvious". It is not always so easy to the person who has passed through the gauntlet.