Tired of Helping

Last week, I returned to school for the final semester of my MBA. Not one hour into the new semester, I received a deluge of email from people I hadn’t talked to all summer (or rather, hadn’t talked to me all summer) – all of them seeking technical assistance of one type or another. I like to help, but this is ridiculous.

Throughout this program, I’ve spent a lot of my personal time helping people with their computers. I understand computers are hard for a lot of people, so I try to help them when I can. Unfortunately, people started taking this for granted. I provided help with viruses. I provided help with using software and the network. I gave away software people needed to get their work done. When people called after 11:00pm and I was already in bed, I still got up and helped them. One time, I gave almost the entire class a piece of software required to create PDFs because some professor decided that PDFs were the only format he’d accept for electronic submissions. I wasn’t even in the class. Afterwards, about six people (out of 90 who downloaded the software) thanked me.

I’m getting tired of being people’s backup plan, their excuse not to figure things out for themselves. I’m tired of people’s inability to plan, learn, or read instructions. Professors seem to encourage this behaviour as well: Don’t have the assignment done, despite the fact that it was assigned five weeks ago? No problem! They’ll just extend the deadline a week, thereby screwing anyone who bothered to plan ahead and get the paper done in time! Yeah, that kind of lesson will really serve these MBAs well once they get out in the real world.

This kind of thing is wearing me down not just in school, but everywhere. It’s beginning to feel like my ability to get organized, plan, and think ahead are liabilities. It seems at every turn I get punished for being better. Take the MBA Bursary fiasco, for example: Part of my $28K tuition went to paying for bursaries so a bunch of people who didn’t get their finances in order before entering the MBA could have it a little easier. Didn’t bother to figure out what you wanted to do in life? No problem! We’ll just ask people like Brendon who bothered to get their lives in order to do more, or pay more to make up for your lack of planning!

Let me be clear: I want to help. I’m ready to help anyone who’s down on their luck, has tried everything and is in genuine need. But I don’t want to be exploited.

R & R Weekend

There’s bad ways to start a long weekend, and then there’s good ways. Two concerts in two days, especially when the headliners are REM and Radiohead, is definitely one of the better ways to kick things off. Especially when they’re both outside, in general seating, under clear skies at Thunderbird Stadium.

We arrived at the REM concert early enough to catch the end of the Dandy Warhols‘ set, which, given the “wall of sound” thing they had going was probably worth missing. Wilco made up for it, with some nice tunes, well executed. Nice stuff to listen to while kicking back in the sun.

Finally, REM came on stage and took the stadium by storm. Stipe’s strong vocal performance, matched by his equally strong stage presence, reminded me why I loved this band, even if I hadn’t listened to them for a while. The band has apparently grown quite at home in Vancouver, spending 7 months out of the last 10 writing and recording in Yaletown. They had numerous shoutouts to members of the local community, including the Opus Hotel, the Wedgewood Hotel, and numerous others. Also featured: numerous new songs.

For the concert’s finale, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke joined REM on stage to accompany them for a supercharged rendition of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”. Yorke bounced around the stage like he was riding a pogo stick, an energy level which boded well for the Radiohead concert the next night.

The next night, Radiohead did not disappoint. The band made up for its less than energetic performance at the same time last year, kicking things up a notch from the start. Yorke seemed to have fun with the crowd, peering at them through the TV screens mounted on either side of the stage, making eyes at them throughout “You and Whose Army?” Another surreal moment: Canadian geese flying in formation over the stage, something everyone in the crowd appreciated, though I’m not sure the band understood why the crowd was cheering in the middle of a song for apparently no reason.

Final verdict: good concerts, lots of fun. And there’s still two more days!

People and Cars

A character in the popular 80’s film The Secret of My Success once said: “Something happens to a man when he puts on tie – it cuts off all the blood to his brain or something.” This soundbite collided with my neurons right about the time a guy in a BMW decided to weave his way through traffic without so much as a turn signal last week. If the blood really does stop flowing to the brain when a man puts on a tie, is the same true of anyone who gets behind the wheel of a luxury car?

Maybe it’s the sense of entitlement that a luxury car endows on the owner that convinces them that the rules don’t apply to them:

“Stop sign? Ha! Stop signs are for the proles! I’m behind the wheel of the epitomy of German-engineering – out of the way, peasants!”

God, how I loathe them.

In some cases, I wonder if the cars themselves are actually engineered to encourage this behaviour – is the turn signal level in a BMW Z4 located somewhere really inconvenient? In the glove compartment? Under the seat? In the trunk? Or did ze krafty Germans eliminate it altogether in the name of efficiency and some extra legroom?

I originally suspected the root cause was that people driving these cars felt they were somehow better than everyone else on the road. But even if that were the original cause, given the plethora of overpriced “luxury” cars on the road in Vancouver that can no longer be the reason. One of first things Ashley noticed when she moved here was the number of high-end cars, and how every car, even the non-luxury cars, were immaculately groomed. And she’s from New York – you know, the place with all the guys in suits and ties that eat currency for breakfast (little know fact: greenbacks are a surprising source of dietary fibre). So if every Thomas, Richard, and Harold in Vancouver can afford to buy (or, shudder, rent) a BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, or even Hummer, what is the source of this behaviour?

Fear not, for I have a theory…people are idiots.

Now, before you retort with “No, you’re wrong Brendon! People are rational and thoughtful beings!”, hear me out. It was only when I observed a pedestrian step into a crosswalk, looking in the opposite direction from traffic flow, traffic, I might add, that was flowing through a green light perpendicular to the pedestrian’s route, that the truth became evident. I realized that in my previous observations the luxury cars were a red herring, a distraction that prevented me from seeing the underlying cause of bad driving: people. People talking on their cell phones. People checking their makeup. People who can’t see over the steering wheel. People who were too busy trying to look cool to notice the traffic backup, only to end up in the middle of the intersection when the light changed – yeah, people are looking at you, buddy, but not for the reasons you think.

The solution is simple: get rid of the idiotic people. So the next time a pedestrian wades into rush hour traffic without the benefit of a crosswalk light, do Mr. Darwin a favour and turn that bozo into a car bra. Only you can stop idiocy.

Are We Adults Yet?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it feels like being an adult. It crept up on me so stealthily, I had hardly noticed until a newscaster last week mentioned how “an adult male” had been apprehended doing something or other. And that the man was twenty-three. Twenty-three? Uh-oh, I thought, did I become an adult somewhere and not notice? I sure don’t feel like an adult.

(I can already hear my friends in the web’s version of the cheap seats yelling “and you sure don’t act like one either!”)

Remember elementary school? I remember the heady days in grade two at St. Mary’s Elementary, watching in awe as the grade sevens filed into the gym for an assembly. They were tall. Their voices sounded deep. They got to site on benches instead of the gym floor. And I didn’t have proof, but I was pretty sure they had hair in places I didn’t. They were adults as far as I was concerned.

On arriving in the seventh grade, I was disappointed to learn that, contrary to my earlier belief, I was not an adult. Sure I was tall, but dammit, my knees hurt from growing. My voice was deeper, but had the unfortunate tendency to switch octaves more often than Coldplay‘s frontman, Chris Martin. Those benches hurt my ass and lower back. I had confirmed that seventh graders had hair in weird places, but I sure as hell couldn’t grow a beard if my life depended on it. Sigh. Not an adult yet.

I turned my gaze forward another five years, to the grade twelve students at the local high school. They had cars. They got to pick their own classes. And I didn’t have proof, but I was pretty sure they had done some of the things described in my sex education class.

Five years later and again I experienced disappointment. Sure, I thought with pre-nest-departure artificial bravado, I could drive – but nowhere was worth driving in this hick town. My classes were alright, but not especially useful in the enabling-a-six-figure-salary-and-Porsche-in-the-driveway department. And, confirming my fears, I was definitely falling behind: not only could I still not grow a beard, but I had definitely missed having any of that casual teenage sex my seventh grade sex education class had warned me against. Sigh. Not an adult yet.

And so it the pattern repeated: university? Sigh. Not an adult yet. An employee in the workforce? Nope. Sigh. Not an adult yet. Then I turned around one day, 28, still only shaving once a week to hear some newscaster call a twenty-three year old an adult. What the hell.

Adult? I sure don’t feel like one. Will I ever?

Celebration Parts I & II

When is a party not a party? When it’s run by the government! Or, in this case, not by government but by a not-for-profit that definitely smells like a government initiative. Such was the case this fine holiday weekend, when the smoldering crater of apathy that was Celebrate BC wheezed into action at the Plaza of Nations. It sounds like a neat idea – celebrate BC’s “culture, food and cuisine, entertainment, products, business, industry and tourism” – unfortunately, a lot of those elements were either missing or in short supply.

Food? Well, sure, you could spring $25 for the wine and cheese tasting, or $20 for the fresh food tasting – but how many people could you reasonable expect would do that? Not exactly a family friendly thing, now is it? Wouldn’t it have made sense to have a farmer’s market with local produce on display and for sale? How about a cooking demo or two by some of the local chefs? For those who couldn’t attend the existing “BC” food events, the food fare was limited to some decidedly non-BC food fare: burgers, hot dogs and the like. Go BC cuisine!

Industry had an equally poor showing – none of the companies in attendance were what I would consider “showcase” quality. Where were the big companies, the BC guys who made it on the world stage? Other than a few small players, the industry, business, technology, and tourism segments were poorly represented at the event. And where were the local craftsmen and the artisans?

Though culture had a better showing, with the main stage featuring local performance groups, the big main events were big dollar concerts. The culture beyond the main stage was thin on the ground, expanding the definition of culture to include local sports teams. In fact, local sports teams seemed to make up the majority of the “culture” booths.

Sad. Truly sad. Further confirmation of my earlier sentiments on BC pride.

Meanwhile, across town a real party swung into action on Sunday with the Vancouver Pride 2003 parade in the West End. Pretty impressive for a community that just earned the scorn of the Pope. The antithesis of Celebrate BC, the parade lasted an exhausting two hours and featured not only businesses and local organizations from the gay community, but a significant number of local political leaders. Heck, they even got Hedy Fry to wear a costume straight out of Rio de Janeiro.

The message is clear: if you want to celebrate, find some organizers who actually know the meaning of the term “celebration” and the lyrics to boot.

Cue The Violins

There I was, sitting through a mandatory pre-movie advertisement marathon, wishing a plague upon the house of the advertising executive who came up with that “innovation” (“Hey, they’re here anyway, why not show’em some more ads!?”), when I saw an advertisement for this website. Yes, the great battle for the hearts and minds of audiences in the battle against piracy has finally begun in earnest, and Hollywood is pulling out all its dramatic tricks.

In the ad, we see a lowly set painter explaining his job, what he loves about doing it, and why piracy is a threat to his livelihood. Hmm, plausible. Except, when you really think about it, the set painter is one of hundreds of people involved in movies that are way down the totem pole – are they really the ones who are taking a big hit when a movie is ripped off? I’m guessing the lead actor, pulling $20 million, the studios, and the merchandisers are probably the real ones taking the big hit. Note to Jack Valenti & Company: boo-freaking-hoo.

The launch of this campaign coincided with a similar action this week by the RIAA, who issued some 911 subpoenas recently to ISPs of suspected file-sharers. Besides the occasional embarrassing screw-up, the motive behind the RIAA’s actions is also starting to seem a little suspect:

“Verizon, which has fought the RIAA over the subpoenas with continued legal appeals, said it received at least 150 subpoenas during the last two weeks.
There were no subpoenas on file sent to AOL Time Warner Inc., the nation’s largest Internet provider and also parent company of Warner Music Group. Earthlink Inc., another of the largest Internet providers, said it has received only three new subpoenas.”

What is the likelihood that there isn’t a single AOL user running Kazaa? Can you say “zero”? Hmm, dirty games at the RIAA? Say it ain’t so!

The big point that both of these actions are missing is really quite simple: you’re going to lose. Why? Because you’re too slow to stop the technology – you had your chance, you dragged your heels, and now the cat is out of the bag. Heck, some of the major players in the RIAA are electronics manufacturers who are building technology to make it easier to enjoy stolen music and videos!

There’s one other reason that the genie won’t go back in the bottle: the tech-heads creating the digital rights technology are usually the same guys that are ripping off the most music. Even they don’t believe technological countermeasures will succeed – one IBM researcher I talked to at the Financial Cryptography 2000 conference noted: “On the record, SDMI will be the greatest anti-piracy technology ever invented – off the record, it’s a piece of crap, and will probably never see the light of day.” Chances are, as these guys create the technology, their close buddy is working on a way around it.

The next generation of technologies will be no different – the only hope for the RIAA and MPAA is legal pursuit. If the technology community is really smart, they’ll devise technologies that perform the same functions, but operate within the law. How? How about:

  • Digital License Exchange Technology: What we need is a technology that will allow users to do with digital copies what they currently can do with physical media. Say I have a copy of “Hootie and the Blowfish” to which I never listen. You, on the other hand, are a huge Hootie fan, with no cash to buy any of their records. With a system to allow users to list licenses they hold, you could “check out” my license for the “Hootie and the Blowfish” songs you downloaded either from me, or through Kazaa, listen to your heart’s desire, and then “check in” the license once you’re done. Seems to me this would be all nice and legal, provided that nobody circumvented a digital copyright protection technology in the process.
  • Finely Segmented and Shared Content: Systems like Freenet use schemes such as RAID-5 to segment data across multiple drives (or peers in the case of file-sharing systems) to ensure data redundancy. Usually data is split over three to five different peers. But why stop there? Why not split the content into very small pieces, excerpts, if you will, that are protected by fair use provisions of copyright law? It’s not illegal to share a 6-second excerpt of a song or movie, is it?

All of these legal and technological cat-and-mouse games avoid an even simpler solution: create content for which people are willing to pay. I went to see the Cirque du Soleil last weekend, and Phish the weekend before. Incredible shows – I’d buy their CDs or movies without a second thought given to pirating them. Why? Because they’re unique, they’re doing something interesting. The movie and record industry has morphed into a giant cookie cutter, modifying the recipe slightly from time to time, but never so much as to invent something completely original.

The sooner the entertainment industries remember their original purpose, i.e.: to entertain, and move to develop true artists for the long-term benefit, the sooner the problem of piracy will go away. People want something new, something that makes them feel that child-like sense of wonder at what they’re seeing. And frankly, the latest incarnation of tired stories starring the flavour-of-the-week actress/singer/clothes-designer just ain’t cutting it with the audiences these days.

New Layout

At Boris‘ request, I thought I’d post a quick entry on the new site layout I put live yesterday. Why a new layout? Why the hell not?

My site through the agesWell, to be honest, that’s not the only reason. I was getting tired of the old layout – it’s been relatively unchanged since 2001 – and wanted something new. So, ta-da, here it is. The content itself is unchanged, due to the wonder that is “separating presentation from content” achieved using SSI and various templates. I actually wanted to take it a step further and redo the templates to use CSS, but damned if CSS just doesn’t play well with others. The main change is that the site takes up all available screen real estate, as opposed to only occupying a fixed width strip down the center.

I usually redesign my site once a year, just to keep it a little interesting, change things around, and otherwise waste a bunch of time. Websites: a blackhole for your spare time. That’s catchy. I should really trademark that.

There, happy Boris? Comment away!

BC Tech For Sale?

In an earlier topic I posed the question “who are the giants in BC”, seeking to prompt whatever readership I might have to help identify the important figures in BC. As I pointed out in that topic, I believe British Columbians don’t celebrate our leaders, don’t take pride in what we are capable of accomplishing. In a similar vein, I want to consider the recent acquisitions of BC corporations.

Last week, Intel decided to acquire the gaggle of PMC Sierra emigrants that formed West Bay Semiconductors in 1999. In a similar move, Business Objects splurged and purchased local reporting software success Crystal Decisions. Great, right? Some home town entrepreneurs strike it big, and somewhere a venture capitalist gets both his wings and a liquidation event. Everybody wins.

But consider a similar story: in mid-2000, Intel acquired local communications software developer Trillium Digital Systems. Trillium, a leader in producing standards-compliant communications protocol software, developed software required to implement the hardware backend driving today’s modern telcos. Trillium was especially popular in its industry, due primarily to its support for a variety of hardware platforms. However, after the acquisition Trillium became an Intel-only shop, shedding bales of valuable intellectual property in the process, to please its new corporate sugar daddy. But when the hard times hit, Intel sold Trillium to Continuous Computing Corporation for a conveniently undisclosed sum.

What’s sad about the Trillium story is that an otherwise healthy company chose to be acquired, and then driven into the ground by a foreign parent company. On the one hand, it was probably a good strategy for Intel – after all, they managed to eliminate support for their competitors’ products. But on the other hand, it really sucked for the large numbers of local engineers and software developers that lost their jobs, and the local companies that benefited indirectly from Trillium’s past level of performance.

The question is this: do British Columbian companies look to sell out too fast, rather than try to become the world leader in their industry? Do we talk a good game about building world-class companies, but lose our nerve when presented with a cheque? Will I be here lamenting the decline of West Bay and Crystal Decisions in a year or two?

Phresh Phish

What are the ingredients to an excellent weekend? Take one road trip, a couple of friends, several thousand nomadic strangers, a cult band, and a break-taking venue in the desert, and bingo! You’ve got what Ashley, Angie I did for the last three days: a road trip to the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington to see Phish on their first tour since returning from hiatus.

Located in George, Washington (yes, you read that right), the Gorge Amphitheatre is positioned on cliffs above the Columbia River, presenting a spectacular view to concert attendees. When we arrived on Friday afternoon, it was beastly hot, a condition that continued through Saturday, which demanded the majority of our time was spent seeking shade and hydrating ourselves. But it was well worth it for two reasons: the northern lights, and Phish!

As the sun set on Friday night, the majority of people around us had their attention focused on the John Mayer/Counting Crows concert in the Gorge. We, however, noticed a slight greenish haze forming in the opposite direction that grew stronger until streaks of vertical curtains of light became visible once the sun has set completely. Given that Phish would be playing by itself the following evening, I suppose this experience counted as the opening act.

At the Phish concert the next evening, spirits were high and the weary Gorge campers were ready to have some fun. In a “Dead Poets Society” moment, someone in the audience discovered that the flour tortillas being sold by the concession were amazingly aerodynamic, Overlooking the Gorge as Phish jam onespecially in the presence of the wind blasting the amphitheatre from the ravine. Before the concert even began, tortilla UFOs streaked across the concert audience, sometimes making it almost the entire way across the amphitheatre in brave defiance of the laws of baking and gravity.

The concert itself was usual Phish fare, with numerous jams on songs old and new. It appeared that the band was a little out of practice at some points during the concert – though the cruised through some songs in perfect form, they seemed lost in others, wandering to a finish without really coming together. In particular, we noticed that Trey and Page seemed to stepping on each other’s toes a little when it came to solos. Weird.

The final song in the encore, the reprise of “Tweezer”, was really neat. All through the concert, people had been tossing around glow sticks and glow stick bracelets, having previously exhausted their stockpile of tortillas. As the song approached the finish, glow sticks were being thrown forward towards the stage, bouncing over the crowd with a life of their own. By the end, the mosh pit right in front of the stage looked like it was bubbling with glow sticks, as the song came to a close. A perfectly surreal finish to the concert.

How to Eat

I was talking with Joseph Yang the other day about what I eat – he noted that I don’t eat a lot, though I do intake a fair amount of junk food. It got me thinking about one of the major life skills that we’re never really taught: how to eat properly.

Sure, our parents are supposed to teach us “how to eat right”, but that’s easier said than done. When you’re a kid, it’s hard not to eat right (of course, your experience may vary with your parentage). You’re not actually involved in the process of deciding a menu, shopping for the food, and preparing it. You just eat. Even the gross stuff is still easy to eat when it’s already prepared for you.

Once you’re out on your own, it’s an entirely different story. What did I eat in university? Hmm. Wow, I’m totally blanking. I know I ate perogies. And meat, there was some meat (possibly hamburgers?) in there somewhere. And pasta, the old standBy. I seem to recall bacon, but the only real image I’m getting is of a puddle of grease in a pan, and that could have been left by the hamburgers. Thinking back on it now, it’s amazing I lived this long once I left home. As students, we all heard horror stories of foreign graduate students dying from malnutrition because all they ate was Ramen noodles, in an attempt to save money. Were we doing any better than the guy with the chopsticks, face down in his bowl in a dorm room somewhere?

Probably not.

The sum total of my culinary training is as follows: boil water, insert (eggs) or (pasta) or (soup mix), wait ten minutes, eat. Even “home economics” in junior high didn’t prepare me. Pita pizza pockets? Why bother learning how to make those yourself, when science and the microwave provided the same feast, ready to nuke? I wasn’t even out of junior high and already my cooking skills were obsolete.

Half the time, we’re just too tired to plan, tired to shop, tired to cook. What would really improve the situation would be a tool that allowed people to plan their meals, providing recipes and generating grocery lists and meal plans with a few clicks of a button. Or better yet, a site that you can tell what you have in your larder, and it will tell you how to make something with the ingredients you already have at hand.

Then again, I guess there are limits to what such a system could do: I doubt it could help you make a meal entirely out of condiments.