Friday, December 31, 2004

Perspective Vortices

The events of the past few days have certainly put my little problems into some perspective. I'm going to do something I have never done before, and pass along a bit of an editorial comment by the CBC's Rex Murphy. I can't recall his exact words, but they were very close to this: just by being born in the West, we have each already won the only lottery that really matters, and we have had the benefit of those winnings from the first time we drew breath.

I have had to do things to survive that many of you would find distasteful or even morally repugnant. The last couple of months have certainly been no picnic. In the final analysis, though, I have been extremely lucky. I have some ability, yes, and that has lifted me to a level above tens, even hundreds of millions of people in the affluent West who will never know the chances I have been given simply by having a natural talent for mathematics. Yet even when I was working 56 back-breaking hours a week shining shoes for tips and could afford none of the trappings of our modern consumer society, when I would have thanked you for a one-hour-less-than-full-time job at a burger joint, I was still much better off than a significant portion of our little world's people. Even when I was homeless and had to stab that fellow to keep him from stealing my blanket and spare socks, I HAD a blanket and spare socks.

Most of the time, I am able to keep that sort of thing in mind. Whenever I've had more than I actually needed to get by, I've given to charities and individuals (a little more than ten percent of my gross income last year, for instance). While I can't fix the world all by myself, I have tried to look after a few of the less-fortunate people in it, both through blind giving to local and international organisations that do more than run trite commercials, and through actively involving myself in the lives of those people I think I can reach. Tikkun ha-olam, the Jews call it, and although I am not Jewish (except, perhaps, philosophically), I have tried to make it the central principle of my life since I regained my sobriety. (Those of you who have a mind to can probably blame Rabbi Michael Lerner for that.)

Sometimes, though, my own relatively petty problems can lead me away from that guiding principle. The past few weeks have been a great example. I was hungry, not starving; I was looking at the possibility of homelessness, but I still lived indoors. And I sincerely thank those among you who have offered support and encouragement -- but at the same time I'd like to tell you all to look elsewhere in the world for people who may not know much about Notes or programming in general, but who need your help far more than I ever have needed or will need it.

The Sumatran earthquake and tsunami has killed, or will kill, something in the neighborhood of a quarter-million people. Along with the initial impact of the waves, there will be as much or more devastation caused by exposure, starvation and disease, and that's if we in the West do all that we can right now, today, to mitigate the catastrophe. As bad that has been, though, we have the exact same things going on in the world every hour of every day. The difference is that this time the causal event took only a few seconds -- that's what made the news. We can all give till it hurts then wander off in a self-congratulatory stupor until the next newsworthy disaster.

Well, folks, there are more people homeless and starving, living in conditions that breed disease and death in this world than were affected by the waves. A very large number of them live only a few miles inland of the disaster, just out of reach of the aid that will be pouring in to the region. A few may be living closer to you -- so close you can't see them, except as a problem. When the tsumnami crisis is over and the nice, touristy coastal areas are rebuilt, please don't forget the rest of the world. Grab what pieces you can, and take them in for repairs. Please. I've seen what the Notes community can do for its own members -- imagine what it can do for the world.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Remember Me?

And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Stand to, and put up all your strength of arm and heart and brain,
And, like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise Again! Rise again,
Though your heart it be broken and your life about to end.
No matter what you've lost,
Be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!
Stan Rogers (the other one), The Mary Ellen Carter

I have recently and rightly been taken to task for my long absence here. It's not so much that I've given up on the blogging idea; I've just had my mind elsewhere lately. Yes, I've been seemingly active elsewhere on the web, but it only takes me about ten minutes to scan all of the other blogs I read, and throwing a short comment in takes just a few seconds. There have also been the developerWorks postings, but trust me, they don't occupy much of my time either.

I've been busy fighting with DXL, trying to keep my mind off of my non-Notes life. The DXL bit will appear in another posting — it's really pretty cool — but this bit's about the non-Notes life, such as it is.

One thing they don't tell you in the "So you've decided to become homeless..." pamphlet is that it will follow you for the rest of your life. I've been involved in a truly ridiculous situation of late, the upshot of which is that until yesterday I hadn't been paid yet by my new employer. At all. Ever.

On the one hand, I (like most people in the white-collar world) work for an employer who pays exclusively through direct deposit to a bank account. I have such an account, of course — that's how my former employer paid as well. However, the company contracted to do the payroll requires a void cheque in order to begin payment. As luck would have it, my chequebook, which has been otherwise unused lo these many years, was one of those items that are inevitably misplaced in every move. It would seem a simple thing either to get new cheques or, failing that, to open another bank account, right? Not if your name sets off bells and sirens in the credit system, it isn't.

It's not that I have debt owing or anything, I just haven't had any bills to pay that weren't cash on the barrel head for the last dozen or so years, and cash businesses don't make positive reports to credit bureaus. (Or, often, to the revenuers either.) I have essentially been living off-paper for more than a decade without knowing it. Couple that with the anti-laundering measures that have been introduced into the banking system over the same decade or so, and any odd requests come up "potentially criminal". Apparently, requesting cheques from a city in a different province from your home bank branch (which is still in Toronto for the moment) with near-zero balances in all of one's accounts is an "odd request". No cheques for you! Next!

For the benefit of my American readers, I should point out that the banking system in Canada is quite a bit different from the system in the States. Here, the system consists principally of five chartered banks: TD Canada Trust; BMO Bank of Montreal; RBC (The Royal Bank of Canada); The Bank of Nova Scotia (ScotiaBank); and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) along with a few large regional players. All of these institutions are huge (think Citibank), and you can't just go down the street to the Second National Bank of Fourth Street if you don't like the service at the Fourth Street Commercial Bank.

The one constant across all bureaucracies is that policy and procedure take precedence over common sense. I earn a pretty decent salary in modern Canadian terms, am single, debt-free and live in cheap, though comfortable accommodations selected specifically to allow me to save a whole whack of money in the too-few years I have left before I'll have to consider retirement. And here I was, reduced to eating plain white rice for more than two weeks (I knew there was a reason I always buy the feed-an-army-sized bag), looking at January's rent due-date, and seriously wondering what a Montreal winter outdoors might be like. Surreal. And not something I wanted to spend a lot of time dwelling upon.

Almost everyone has had some sort of financial fright at some point in their life. Going through the big one a second time gives me, I think, the right to assert that the fear of the unknown doesn't begin to compare to the fear of the known. Yes, I was scared. And angry. I've worked my buttocks off (figuratively — I have actually accumulated surplus pew-padding in the physical sense) to move from homeless disposable humanity through skilled shoe-shine boy to relatively well-respected Notes developer, and it all seemed to be coming to naught in a huge hurry and for no good reason. I tried to write about it, but the level of venom in what I was writing was beyond the pale. (A pale, by the way, is one of those sharpened-log, overgrown picket fence deals you see around forts in Western movies, or, rather, the mediaeval version of it. That which was beyond the pale was out of the Lord's protection, lawless and wild.) Angry as I was, even I could see that my anger had displaced reason completely. The recent little incident (hereinafter referred to as The Incident) in the Notes blogging community wouldn't have been noticed at all had I published, and I would have committed social and professional suicide.

It seems that some sort of resolution has been reached, though. And my bank was kind enough to let me take 25% of my earnings — I still have to wait until January 4 for "clearance" (on a certified corporate cheque?). It's a bit late for Christmas, but the new year should be a happier one. Perhaps with that load lifted, you may see a bit more output here.

If only I had listened to the other Stan.

Speaking of the other Stan....

A number of bloggers, including Volker, Ned and Rocky have recently mentioned Google's new Suggestion service. I tried my name, just to see what would come up. Although I saw myself cited and published in a whole bunch of places I wasn't aware of (mostly repostings and translations of comments I've made in the developerWorks fora by people who've mistaken me for an expert, several in commercial newsletters and not-so-free Domino advice sites that really ought to pay for what they take — or at least ask permission), the search was much as I expected. There are just under a hundred thousand results pointing to this Stan Rogers either directly or obliquely; the remaining 1.2 million or so refer to a folk singer who died tragically and far too young in an airplane fire at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 1983.

I've been listening to Stan quite a bit lately. Not for any particular reason; I'm just in a period where homey, honest music is what suits my tastes best. There's a bit of being at home in folk music, at least for me. I come from a family that sang the old songs around the kitchen table whenever there was anyone over for company. I don't know how well the "kitchen party" translates into your culture(s), but it is, or rather, was, a way of life in a large part of Canada. It's probably a Celtic thing, since it applies to the Normans and Bretons of Northern Ontario, Quebec and l'Acadie as much as it does to the Scots of Nova Scotia, the Irish of Newfoundland and the Welsh, Cornish and Geordie of any mining town. It's sad to see all of that being wiped away by cable TV, the internet and Nintendo. Not to mention the modern insistance that the kitchen and dining room be separate places in the house.

(When I buy a house, the first thing I plan to do is renovate to make the kitchen the communal area it ought to be. I don't care what it does to the property value; there are other values more important in life. The chef in me still wants a kitchen full of toys, but if it doesn't have a big ol' table, enough chairs and rickety old stools to seat half the town and direct access from the back door, it ain't a proper kitchen. Oh, and the company that comes in the front door is not the same bunch as the friends who come in the back. That may be small-town of me, but that's the way I've always felt. Where I grew up, salesmen, strangers, and maybe the boss came through the front door. The people you wanted to see knew that the welcome mat and the kitchen were around back.)

I really can't imagine a life without music. Not as background radiation, but as something that I actively listen to and participate in. Nor can I imagine knowing a little of what life was like for people in times gone by without having their songs to tell me who they were, what they did, and what they felt. You can't know the old colliery if you can't feel the grit on your skin or the black in your lungs; you'll never know the old fishing grounds if all you know are pleasure craft and modern trawlers. Somehow, the old songs make me feel like I've had a taste of the real thing. Stan was only twelve years older than me, and a young 34 when he was taken from us, but there was something undefinably ancient in his words. It was as though he had lived through the times he sang about, the days of wind and sail. Even his modern "moment in a life" songs had an air of poignant reflection you wouldn't expect to find in someone so young.

I've actually met people who don't sing. Ever. I know young people who don't know a single non-national-anthem song all the way through. There's something horribly wrong with that. You would think, no matter what your opinion of modern popular music (whenever modern happens to be), that there must be at least one song that resonates with every one of us. A lyric with special meaning, or a melody that pulls at the heart in just the right way. Something.

I freely admit to being a child of the sixties. I lived through the height of folk music's popularity, and I heard a lot of music that went out of its way to be meaningful. (Some of that meaning was so forced as to be cheesy, but at least people were trying.) So did a lot of people who see music as background noise to keep the quiet at bay. It wasn't what was on the radio that made the difference for me, it was what was in the kitchen.

By the way, if we ever get together, you and I, feel free to ask me to sing a few of Stan's songs. For many of you, it's the only way you'd ever be able to tell your friends that you actually heard Stan Rogers himself sing "Barrett's Privateers" or "The Mary Ellen Carter" live — maybe even in your kitchen.

The Devil is in the details

I absolutely hate about fifty percent of my job. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to do anything else at this point in life, but there's a big part of the job that gets on my nerves. Give me a non-trivial problem to solve, and I can come up with a solution that would knock a lot of socks off. Tell me what an application has to do, and I can come up with what is usually a decent, often best-case architecture in next to no time, and get from there to solid code in a flash.

Just don't ask me to create a compelling UI, at least not for the Notes client. No, let's make that anywhere -- the few really nice web UIs I've ever designed were probably accidents. I shouldn't be trusted with fonts, tables and colours on a computer.

I'm not artistically challenged. Give me a canvas, oils and brushes and I'll paint you something you'd want to hang. Hell, I'll paint you something you'd want to buy. Give me some fine parchment or the rags to make some real paper, a collection of cured quills and reeds, a knife and some inks and I can show you what calligraphy can be. I just can't translate any of that to the computer. I can't do it in an illustration or paint package, and I certainly can't do it with declarative statements, at least not without far too many hours of trial and error. Now, if you can show me what it's supposed to look like, spec the colours, etc., I can get from your picture to a working version quickly and painlessly. That's mechanical. It's the creative aspect I can't do if there's a machine between me and the work.

I would love to find myself in a place where I could just throw the UI to a designer. I've heard that HTML support in Notes 7 is supposed to be a huge improvement over what's in Notes 6 (that's apparently a last-minute decision, if I read people like Debbie Branco correctly, so it probably won't be true in current betas). I wonder if it will have progressed to the point that a simple code monkey like me can delegate the artsy bits to people who are actually good at that sort of thing.