Wednesday, December 17, 2014

This Christmas, be kind, not nice.

I am currently in that uncertain, awkward phase of getting to know A. After over a year of exchanging smiles, greetings and small talk when I ate lunch at her sushi place, after more than two months of negotiating schedules and postponing our first meeting three separate times, we finally got together for a coffee at Starbucks last Friday.

It's Christmastime, and I asked her to Starbucks to satisfy my curiosity about her life and background, so I brought a small gift for her to the meeting as a token of my appreciation for making time for me. It was a pen, special because it will write on almost anything in any position. I thought this would be useful to a waitress. Hers had a special finish. It came in a gift box. I gift-wrapped it and gave it to her at the close of our rendezvous at Starbucks.

We had a wonderful talk, three hours of mutual disclosure and sharing. She is from a foreign land, the only child of a single mother. English is a second language, she didn't study it seriously until she decided to immigrate to the United States. Hers is a fascinating story of courage, pluck, hard work and good fortune. I was happy to hear it.

I didn't ask her age, but I found out in our conversation that her mother is forty-five, nine years younger than I. Putting together various other chronologies from discussions of her education back home and time in the US, I would guess she is about twenty-five. We parted planning to see each other again. More discussion of our encounter belongs in another essay, this one is about the gift.

I had all but forgotten it last Tuesday when I texted her to wish her well on her winter holiday trip to California.

Me: Bon voyage! Have a good trip. Travel safe.

Oops, I should use better grammar. English is hard enough to learn without my bad examples.

A: Thank you Richard!)) I very like your present. Take care

I'm guessing the two parentheses were a mis-typed emoji.

Me: :-) Stay in touch.

Oh yeah, the present, cool that she likes it I thought to myself. I had almost forgotten about it. I got everything I wanted from it by just having a chance to give it to her. It was a bonus that she liked it. As with most of my immediate reactions in these situations, that was right on. It's a beautiful clear sunny day in my mind's train station, I have a nice seat on a comfortable bench.

Then the Doubt Express rolls in, bringing it's usual overcast skies and gloomy outlook.

So, I think to myself, she says "take care." Does that mean she's saying goodbye? She says she "very likes" the present, is that a way of pushing me away with feigned praise?

Wow, I then think to myself, that's a fucked-up notion. Why am I in this hand-basket and why is it getting warm? Why the doubt?

Because I do this. I push people away with fake praise and gratitude. I have no reason to think that A does this as well, I'm just reaching for messages from her because I'm in this early phase of getting to know her. I inadvertently reached into my own bag of dysfunction for a clue, temporarily mistaking my character flaws for insight into her possibly hidden motives.

I have no idea where our friendship is going. I don't even know that it's going anywhere. We had a nice talk. We both left wanting more. That's all I know. I've never been my age with friends her age. I don't have a script for this. I just liked her as a waitress and asked her to coffee. I hadn't thought about the next step because I wasn't sure we would get to this one.

Now that I am thinking about next steps, wondering what's going to happen now that we both seemed to have surprised ourselves with how much we enjoyed talking, I want some answers. Since I don't have a way to get any right now, I start making them up.

Being honest with myself about all this caused me to discover something new about what's wrong with white lies like "I LOVED your gift. It means so much to me" when the truth is otherwise. I've said things like this to people in the past just before I tossed their present in the re-gifting box while looking for something to give them in return, internally resolving to avoid them next Christmas.

I regard the white lie as the right thing to do since the sentiment I expressed spares the other person the possible embarrassment of knowing they failed to impress me with their gift, or worse, that I didn't want a gift from them in the first place. Besides, it was nice. It's always good to be nice, right?

It is the season for gift-giving, often to people we don't know well, often overlain with and obscured by the social norms of rank, privilege and authority. We give gifts to people whom we otherwise wouldn't spontaneously give a gift: bosses, employees, co-workers, distant relatives, in-laws, etc,.

We also buy bigger gifts for those people to whom we are accustomed to giving, perhaps after having saved money for it, or shopped extensively, or done some special research. With A, I also used Christmastime as an excuse to put a toe over a boundary between waitress and customer. This also happens.

All this makes gift-giving/receiving a high-risk, high-reward endeavor this time of year. Messages are sent with gifts. Some are received clearly, some not, some are missed. Some people lie.

It's bad enough that I have this people-pleasing habit because it makes me a phony. I am pushing people away with niceness, I am deliberately misleading them about who I am. That's clear and easy to see.

It is not so easy to see that this habit of being nice causes me to miss genuine messages from others. I wonder if they are just being nice to me instead of being genuine. Are they re-gifting my bauble? Are they rolling their eyes at the prospect of now having to give something to me when they had no plans to do so?

Assume the simplest explanation about A's reaction is true--she really likes the pen. She liked it so much that telling me that was the first thing she said to me after opening it. How cool is that? I get the bonus gift of finding out I guessed right about someone I'm getting to know. She is happy to have it, she wants me to know that. Awesome.

Instead, because of my habit of phony niceness to others in the past, I hop aboard the doubt train going to Loser-ville. What if she's a liar like I am?

That's the real cost of being nice, and it's why I'm trying to stamp niceness out of my life permanently. I want to be kind. I don't want to be a people-pleaser. I want to be known as someone who is direct and transparent. I want to see the directness and transparency in people around me clearly.

So, in these last few days of shopping before Christmas think about kindness versus niceness. Kindness belongs in Christmas. Find your Tiny Tim, bring him a Christmas goose. Otherwise, take the risk of respecting your genuine gift list. Don't give gifts to be nice.

When you give to be nice you're actually taking Christmas away, keeping Bob Cratchit late on Christmas Eve to line your own pockets. Please don't.

This Christmas be kind, forget niceness.

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

On being in a high conference room next to Ground Zero.

Granite whispers low: "Money, wealth, fame, power here." What nine-eleven?

Monday, October 27, 2014

I heart the X40

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I have an IBM Thinkpad X40 that I first acquired in 2005 (but I believe it was actually sold to my employer in 2004). I used it at the bedside as a visiting hospice nurse, then when these machines were retired, I bought a few for myself from my employer because I like the physical design of the machine so much.

It has no internal removable disk drives, no floppy, no CD. These are housed in a removable docking base. It is the design grandfather of the current ultrabook (think MacBook Air) concept.

My MacBook Air (fall 2011 model) is lighter and thinner, but it is so because of hardware and technology that did not exist in 2004. The design concept is the same--clamshell, computer guts topped with keyboard on the bottom, a maxed-out edge-to-edge LCD for a lid. I also still like the X40's red nipple joystick (between G, H and above B on the keyboard) for mouse emulation, no trackpad.

I think the X40 (and X41) was the finest expression of the design concept by IBM. The X60 was too thick, heavy and hot, trackpads got in the way and added too much weight and space, and it just got worse from there. By the time I had another ThinkPad (Lenovo had taken over the business from IBM and) it was an X200 tablet, and that thing was a behemoth by comparison.

The X40 was made obsolete by a combination of the motherboard maxing-out at 1.5 GB of RAM and Windows XP bloating to the point where 1.5 GB just wasn't enough RAM to yield an acceptable user experience. I began installing Debian Linux on these machines in 2006 and they've since remained plenty fast to provide a mobile desktop even while staying current on the latest stable release of Debian (currently Wheezy, version 7.6).

Lately, the problem had been the disk drives in these machines. They were old and slow. Also, the batteries only last about 3 years, so I am on my third generation now. Luckily, there's enough of these machines in use that they still make new batteries.

I replaced the old hard disk in my X40 with an solid state disk and the difference in performance is remarkable. With the SSD, running Debian Linux 7.6 with the lightweight XCFE GUI environment, this machine rocks. It is fast, light, cool, and I get almost six hours of use from one battery recharge. The SSD draws much less power.

I feel like the x40 is kind of like the VW bus of laptops, something that future collectors will covet for actual use. Overlooked in it's day, people who understand the vision in it's design will appreciate it's timeless simplicity and practicality.

It is likely that if you put a slimmed-down, low resource intensive, installation of XP on this machine with an SSD it would do okay, except that XP would trash the drive because it isn't SSD aware.

I think both Apple and Microsoft are floundering a bit with where to go "next" with laptops. Microsoft is pushing this laptop-tablet hybrid, and Apple is pushing the Air lighter, thinner and more powerful, but not much else. I wonder if they fear that a detachable keyboard on the Air would adversely influence iPad sales?

Consider the notion that there's no where to go. The X40 concept is as good as we can get while we are primarily relying upon a keyboard and mouse to interact with the machine.

Much in the same way, no one every really improved on the family mini-van concept after the VW Bus, they may be better expressions of the concept than that top-heavy tin-can on wheels that was the VW model in the 1960's, but the idea is the same. One might argue that SUV's are an improvement, but this is much more like the detachable keyboard being an improvement. It is still just an extension of the basic original idea.

Some designs are complete expressions. A fork is a fork. A bow and arrow is a bow and arrow, there's not a "better" way to do that, just more technologically advanced.

So, I'm happy with my souped-up X40, and I like the fact that the computer I most use for writing is an old relic, like an old IBM selectric typewriter. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. There's something reassuring about the fact that personal computers have matured to this stage. We know what works. That's a good thing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sayonara VMWare Hello VirtualBox

I recently migrated my Windows XP virtual machine from VMWare to VirtualBox. I did this because I got fed up with the latest VMWare Fusion (MacOSX product) "upgrade" to their bank accounts. I was perfectly happy with the product, or I thought so. All I wanted to do was continue using it while I upgraded the operating system for my Mac.

No such luck. My version of VMWare Fusion was not compatible with my new version of Mac OSX, the operating system for my MacBook Air. I had to pay up or get off the pot.

I decided to get off the pot.

I had some really good experience with VirtualBox on a Linux host. My mother relied upon a battered Windows VM, an installation that had persisted through three hardware changes without a re-install before I converted it to a VM in 2011 to give her a layer of protection for the malware infections she was having trouble with.

It worked, and it didn't. The host computer ran flawlessly, the VirtualBox VM degraded over time just as any Windows installation will. After many attempts to resolve some thorny USB bidi communication issues with the port emulator and a multifunction printer-fax-scanner-copier, it finally got to the point where the only real solution which would allow her to be independent of my participation in keeping her computer running would be to move her to a low-end Windows 7 business system and put her data (she's a lawyer) in the cloud.

In short, the problem wasn't really VirtualBox, it was Windows XP's handling of bidirectional messages over USB. She needed to go to Windows 7 anyway, particularly as county courts are finally dragging themselves into reliance on electronic filing of documents and are lining up to buy Microsofts's latest attempt to strong-arm a niche market. ActiveX "security" is popular with county governments.

The "upgrade" to Windows 7 was going to eliminate the access to legacy applications that had previously countermanded a re-install of Windows XP over three hardware changes. This was going to be the painful jump away from those legacy document creation apps that were paid for, permanently licensed, and just worked even though the companies that wrote them were long gone, or gobbled up by something like Lexis-Nexis.

But, I digress.

I moved her to the new box, shut down her limping Windows VM, put all her documents in Google Drive and regained possession of the FoxConn net-top I had loaned her in 2011 to host the VM. I have an SSD in that box, and it is still pretty snappy more than three years later and really a solid year or two out of it's life cycle. It's a AMD64 Dual core 1.6GHz CPU, and I dropped 4 GB of RAM in there (supports 8 GB).

But, I further digress.

I want Windows on my MacBook Air so I can use it for working in Microsoft-centric environments. I mainly just need to be able to use a terminal services client and Internet Explorer, but it's kind of a big deal. If this doesn't work I have to carry two laptops, and the second one (my corporate issue laptop) weighs three times as much as the first one (my personal MacBook Air).

I was tired of being VMWare's financial supplicant, particularly when the upgrades i was paying for added zero functionality for my situation. Oracle distributes a version of VirtualBox for MacOSX hosts, so I decided to give a migration from VMWare to VirtualBox a try.

It was surprisingly simple.

MacHeads: control-click the VMWare VM, choose expand package contents, copy this to your target directory for your new VirtualBox VM, profit.

Seriously. All you need to do then is create a new VM in the GUI, point the disk emulator to the root (the un-numbered one) .vmdk file, and fire that sucker up.

Now, I had issues:
  • Windows couldn't find the VMWare mouse driver in Virtualbox by default. It is in the guest additions pack, and you have to do some CLI-Fu to extract it where the plug-and-play system can use it, but it's no big deal.
  • Similarly, Windows XP plug-n-play couldn't find the Network adapter driver from VMware, so I killed that one and installed a new one, telling windows it was a Intel Pro 1000 MT desktop adaptor after I went and tracked down that driver.
    • The Intel Pro 1000 MT is one of the options in VirtualBox, so it just works. I told the VM to install that port, rebooted, pointed plug-n-play where it needed to go, and voila'.
  • Windows needed re-activation (detecting a HAL-layer hardware change), but since I have a good license that was no big deal.
But thats it. Seriously. The MacBook Air has a 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5 and 4 GB of RAM. The Windows VM would take about 75 seconds to boot up under VMWare. It takes 30 seconds in VirtualBox. WTF? Cool.

Need to make a copy? Just rsync the directory. I moved that to a Linux host and it booted up without issues the very first time. I've never had that happen with a VMWare migration. There's always something.

So, VirtualBox is cool. If you're thinking about a move from VMWare, go for it. If you want to migrate a Windows XP system from bare metal to virtuality here are instructions for doing so.

It friggin works.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

This is me when I've "had it."

I am fed up with my habit of trying to be what others expect me to be.  If you sense anger in those words, it's there, but the target of my anger is the ineffective habits I have developed.  The people around me are just people, and while I am angry at some people too, I also see that this anger at individuals is mostly different permutations of this basic frustration.  I may have some information for those people, but little will be solved for me by providing it.  The problem isn't "out there."

I have gotten away from who I am, and what is important to me, in service to other people's agendas.  It's not their fault, I haven't been coerced, or deceived, or manipulated in some unusual way.  I've made bad choices.

I know that's vague, and it's vague because there's too much information to even know where to begin.  I am dissatisfied with my life.  I am not dissatisfied with other people.  I'm not even really dissatisfied with myself.  I am dissatisfied with the results of my actions.  I'm going to change what I've been doing.

For this audience, people who in some part know me online, I do want to announce the following:
  • I am removing the e-mail clients from my telephone.  From now on, e-mail will be the way to send me a message that I will read at my desk when I am ready to answer e-mail.  If you need to inform me of something urgent, use a voice call or a text message.
  • Facebook is a little problem for me the way that it is for a lot of people.  The use of emotionally-loaded words like "Friend" and "Like" as labels for making changes to a database record is emotionally confusing for me, even though I rationally know what is going on.  I'll be writing more about Facebook later, but please do not try to understand anything about our real relationship from our interaction, or lack of it, on Facebook.
  • If our friendship is mostly about me coming to see you, you're going to notice the biggest difference.  I have a number of friends who do make a reciprocal effort.  I'm going to be hanging out with them.  I know I'm part of the problem, you might not have had a chance to reciprocate because I haven't allowed it.  Now you have a chance.
  • If I've offended you and I have not apologized, I don't know that I've offended you.   I want to know.  Just tell me, I'll do the rest.
Thanks for reading this far.  I'll get through this, you will too.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why my email looks funny these days.


If you get an email from me, unless you are using a privacy-enabled e-mail client like Apple OSX's Mail app with the openGPG GPG tools plug-in plugged-in, or Mozilla Thunderbird with enigmail plugged-in, or K-9 for Android, et al., you may see some strange-looking text above and below what appears to be my message.

Relax, what it means is that it is more likely than usual that this e-mail actually came from my fingers.  I had to use an additional password, which is separate from any other password, just to sign it.

That one above came from my phone.  If I send from my MacBook Air, it might look like this one below:

Again, don't fret, this is just a different blurb of text that your e-mail program is currently not processing.  I hope in the near future that all e-mail programs will be able to just tell you what is going on, which is I used a system to increase the likelihood that e-mail people receive from my e-mail address actually came from me.

A working system on your end then checks that signature text against a database to see if it matches up (after processing with my public "key") with what I have said it should be, if it checks out, it will probably call this something like a "sender-verified" message.

So, why couldn't someone just copy that text and use it to spoof my messages?  Well, if you look closely at these two images, you will see that the validation text (the gibberish) is different.  That's because the text underneath changes with the text in the message, and with some other variables.  it is unique and will only verify this particular message correctly.

This is actually only half of the system.

If you have a GPG key published, and I have a copy, I can scramble the entire message using my private key and your public key.  That then means only you and I can read it (or more correctly, only someone with our independent passwords).  This means we can share private messages using separate passwords.  You use yours, I use mine.

I communicate with a small number of people this way, and our messages, while in transit, look like this:

Really just one short sentence.

This is only readable by myself and the person I sent it to.  The recipient has to be using a privacy-enabled e-mail client (and woefully few people do these days) or I'd send all of my e-mail this way.

Bottom-line:  the extra funny-looking text in my non-scrambled e-mail just means that it is highly likely I sent that message.  You can ignore it.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

35th High School class reunion checklist.

Tell a personal story to someone from your past which reveals that you actually have no idea who you are talking to.

Check.  Done.  And I'm not telling you any more of this story.  Suffice it to say the person in question was gracious, conceded that they did resemble the person to whom I thought I was speaking, and took it all in stride and with humor.

Reflect upon how poor a predictor of people lives you turned out to be.

Done.  Yep, I missed it in both directions.  People I thought were going to turn out to be people whom I would not enjoy later in life actually are quite delightful people, and people I thought were destined for rock-stardom are ordinary.  In other cases, there are still people I enjoyed in high school whom I continue to enjoy today.  I'm sure if I did some statistical testing on my predictions I'd find rolling dice to be just as accurate.   I hope I remember this lesson.

I spotted a couple of people at the door who were in that high school rock-star category.  They were chatting with each other, I knew they had remained friends, and stayed on the fringe of the crowd (which is not what they would have done in high school).  They seemed a little anxious and unsure of themselves.

I felt compassion for them.  I was moved to go over, say hello, and welcome them.  That is a huge change for me.  That never would have occurred to me in high school.  I doubt I would have even seen them enough as real people to recognize that they were nervous.  If I had, I certainly lacked the self-confidence and or self-esteem to do anything about it.

I was much more judgmental as a teen (and at the 20th reunion) than I am today.   This judgmental mind that divides people up into categories, applies labels and acts on assumptions cut me off from knowledge that I have access to now.  Seeing how people "turned out" in contrast to how I predicted they would be makes it really clear to me what the cost of this judgmental mind truly is.  That's a valuable illustration and I intend to learn from it.

Confirm (surprisingly widely-held) theories concerning sex between particular teachers and students.

I went to a Catholic high school administered by professional clergy.  The Catholic church carries all those stereotypes about illicit sex and abuse of authority for a reason.  There's not much else to say, I only have direct knowledge of one incident, but shared observations of developments in the intervening 35 years confirms other hunches, many of which I didn't realize were so widely shared.  It's probably overwhelming how widespread a problem this actually is.  

Get socially shunned in a thoroughly adolescent manner.

Yep, it happened.  It made me sad for that person, and not in a condescending manner.  I've been there, I've done that, and I've got the extremely overpriced t-shirt, too.  Life really is too short.

Move on.

I hung on to my high school social situation for a long time.  I no longer do.  I thought that was the case before this event, but it was nice to have it confirmed.  The people who showed up all had in common that they showed up.  These people both had the opportunity to be here and the generosity of heart to take the risk and go to the trouble so we could all have this unique experience.  I am deeply grateful for that.

There is something about all this that lives on in me, some part of who I am was deeply influenced by this experience I shared with this group of people at my high school in the mid-1970's.  We were a human tribe of about 150 people who moved in unison for a number of very highly influential years.  What happened, my success and losses, were very meaningful in my life for a long time, and not always in a good way.

But the fact that I was socially awkward, profoundly insecure and savagely critical in high school doesn't define my life any more, and it no longer defines my experience of these people whom I've know in varying measures for more than 35 years.   I knew that before this evening, but it was satisfying to see that in action.   With such long periods of time between meetings, some changes are easier to see this way.

I have become the person I want to be.  I hope others did too.