Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bookcase Blogging: ISS Designs

My wife and I have a decent size library; not huge, but big enough that it requires a little planning to find a place for it. We'd been housing it in cheap Ikea bookcases which, while definitely functional, weren't really all that aesthetically pleasing. So we decided to ditch the bookcases when we moved to our new digs in Tacoma and get something a little nicer.

Oh... the horror... the horror...

Does nobody read anymore? We went to far too many furniture stores in our search for bookcases which were both interesting to look at and could hold a lot of books. There was nothing... absolutely nothing... to be had. When the store had bookshelves at all they were either ugly as sin, too small to be useful or, as was often the case, both. We'd ask a clerk what they had in the way of bookshelves and they'd show us a faux Colonial/Victorian/Country French monstrosity that looked like it was designed to showcase someone's collection of Precious Moments figurines. Bleh, and double bleh.

Eventually we gave up on traditional furniture altogether and started going to design stores, hoping that we'd be rescued by the reasonably-priced genius of a Johnson or Svenson. Europe had the goods alright; the look of the P&P 900 system availabe from ligne roset was absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, what was also stunning was the price. The unit we saw in-store, which wouldn't even have been big enough to hold all of our books, cost $12,000 or so. Where I come from we call that a "non-starter".

After the design stores failed to pan out we even went so far as to look into getting some bookcases custom built. It turns out that there are actually a fair number of places that do that sort of thing. Unfortunately they all seem to be carpentry shops without a whole lot of imagination. They generally seem to turn out a quality product, but its not terribly exciting to look at. And expensive... not as bad as the P&P 900 in terms of price, but expensive enough that the proposition of custom bookcases began to seem doubtful.

Finally, after much sturm und drang, we found ISS Designs. Hallelujah! Here was a company that made a modular, extensible shelving system that was well-suited to holding books and looked interesting to boot. Even better, they were based in California, so there'd be no need to translate our emails into Italian. We decided to give them a try and see what happened.

I have to say that I'm immensely pleased with the entire process of working with ISS Designs. We sketched out what we wanted on paper and submitted a scan of the sketch via email to their sales department. Not long after that I began an email exchange with John Clark, the sales manager for ISS. After several iterations they came up with a design which met our needs and vision; they even custom cut some shelves to our measure. Once installed the system looked, as promised, quite slick and provided us with ample storage space.

The only challenge was the installation; its definitely not for the faint of heart. I'm fairly accomplished as far as do-it-yourself projects are concerned; I've hung cabinets, installed and rewired chandeliers, etc. I didn't find the installation all that difficult in terms of the skills and equipment required, but it took a lot of patience. Because the system is based on free-standing compression poles and infinitely adjustable shelving brackets (which are, by the way, super clever/cool) you spend a lot of time with your carpenter's level making sure that things are aligned correctly. In addition to the level I recommend a good drill (or electric screwdriver) for driving the 1-gazillion tiny screws that fasten the shelves to the brackets. You'll probably also need drill bits and anchors for the (optional, but highly recommended IMHO) attachment of the poles to the ceiling.

So I definitely recommend the ISS product line for anyone who's looking for a stylish and not-too-terribly-expensive way of storing their library.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Short Note On Rhetoric

In response to pieces I've written about atheism and morality, mostly notably here and here, commenters have responded with the equivalent of "well, yeah, but the other guy is just as bad/worse".

Such observations may be perfectly correct but are still irrelevant. If I argue that atheistic systems are logically indefensible it doesn't make any difference at all what the other guy is doing. We're not trying to be better than the other guy; you can be better than the other guy and still be awful to your fellow humans. Rather, the point is to define an absolute standard of good and then try to live up to that standard.

You think atheists are morally superior to theists? Then don't waste my time with school-yard logic. Instead, show me that I'm wrong and that its possible to build a coherent, defensible, atheistic moral framework.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"The Prisoner's Dilemma" and Civil Disobediance

I was at the farmers market in Olympia, WA last weekend where I had the opportunity to witness a stand off between the (presumably local) police department and a bunch of anti-war protesters. Some branch of the military, probably the army given the proximity of McChored AFB, was trying to bring in equipment from Iraq using the Port of Olympia; the demonstrators were intending to blockade the road to prevent trucks from entering and leaving. As near as I can tell the protest rapidly degenerated into lots of standing around interrupted by occasional bouts of tear gas.

As a casual bystander what really struck me about the tableau was that everyone looked like they were braced for conflict. The police were wearing riot gear and the protesters had tear gas countermeasures (goggles and masks for the most part). Which got me to wondering as to how much of what followed was self-fulfilling prophecy: people expected trouble and so trouble they got.

I realized that I was viewing a real-life version of The Prisoner's Dilemma. Both the protesters and the police would probably benefit from de-escalation; if the police didn't expect that they'd have to gas people and protesters didn't expect to be gassed then there'd probably be less gassing all around. But its not rational for either party to make the first move in that direction; to do so would be to expose themselves to profitless risk. Instead the rational approach dictates getting a leg up on your adversary, either by more aggressive protesting or more aggressive policing. But that path leads to nothing excepting more bashing of heads and smashing of windows; I think we can all agree that civil disobedience needn't degenerate to that.

So we're faced with these questions:

  1. What is "appropriate" civil disobedience?
  2. How should the authorities respond to such situations?
  3. How do we get there from here?

To answer the above: I have an admittedly limited (and perhaps romanticized) perspective on the issue, but wasn't there a period in US history when this sort of thing was dealt with more peaceably? Protesters sat and sang Kumbayah and were hauled off without too much manhandling by police who didn't feel the need to don helmets, vests, and truncheons. It'd be interesting to try to figure out how we got to this point but, as with any conflict, I suspect there'd be a lot of finger-pointing and not a whole lot of concrete answers. It's best perhaps to figure out whether there's some intervention which can interrupt the process.

The thought that immediately comes to mind is mediation by a neutral third party, but its unclear whether there's anyone who meets that description. Who would command the respect of both the police and protesters to the degree where ey could convince them to risk de-escalation? Therein lies the rub... I got nothing...

More On The MBA Sausage Factory

As I've mentioned before, I recently enrolled in an evenings-and-weekends MBA program focusing on technology management. One of the outstanding questions which remains to be answered is whether this is an actual academic program or just a really high-end diploma mill. The program recently had its welcome reception; based on my experience there I'm not impressed. If the reception was representative of what I can expect from the rest of the program then I fear that I'm in for a couple of years of hell.

Why would I put myself through that? Let me explain my motivations for attending this program, just so you know where I'm coming from. I'm an engineer, a fairly senior one, but not particularly a technophile. Unlike some of my colleagues I don't have a server room in my house; I work enough with computers during the day, why would I want to go home and work on them some more? At any rate, I'm looking to get out of the field and into a position that doesn't require plugging things into other things so much. I fear that I've hit a plateau of sorts and won't be able to progress without having someone stamp "MBA" on my resumé. As long as I'm putting in the time I'd like to get a useful education in the bargain, but I'm more interested in the letters. So that's where I stand, which will hopefully make the remainder of my writing on the subject more intelligible.

As I said, so far I'm not really impressed. One of the indignities of the particular program in which I've enrolled is that you get assigned to a small group that going to be with you for the duration of your tenure. Ostensibly the ability to rub along with a bunch of other people and get work done is a prime requirement for being successful in business, but I remain skeptical of the concept as a whole. I've worked in such environments before and thus feel qualified to make the following observations:

  • Getting along with others is something you learn in kindergarten. If you haven't picked it up by now you're pretty much screwed.
  • Successful teams are as much a matter of personal chemistry as anything else.
  • Group work allows the dull and lazy to take advantage of the non-dull and non-lazy.
I generally think that people should rise and fall on their own merits. One of the benefits of my current position is that I work autonomously; everyone knows who's responsible for my success and whose fault it is when things get fucked up. But the whole "small group" thing seems to be the trend in business schools these days, so I'm just going to have to suck it up.

But there's still the issue of personal chemistry (or lack thereof). I had to fill out a brief, online questionnaire about work habits/style which was then used as the basis for assigning me to a group. As far as I'm concerned that particular process was an abject failure. I've got exactly 0 chemistry with most of the people in my group. I mean, they seem reasonably intelligent, but they're sort of a dull grey; trying to engage them in conversation was painful, awkward, and futile. I'm obviously a biased observer and, being a computer guy, subject to all sorts of speculation about my own interpersonal skills. But my wife, who's quite the social butterfly, felt the same way; there really wasn't much intellectual curiosity on display.

That's going to be a problem if its endemic across the entire program. It's not important to me that people understand the difference between "modern" and "Modern", but they should at least be interested in the distinction. But I'm also becoming slightly concerned about the general rigor of the program. We received our "stats for business types" textbook at the reception and its not particularly challenging. There's a section on using the Intarweb for research, which definitely doesn't belong in a stats text, and it looks like linear regression is the most advanced topic covered. Which would all be fine and dandy if they just wanted us to have the text as a reference, but they're going to be holding a 2- or 3-day class on the subject. It's a little distressing that they don't expect people to have at least a minimal grasp of stats before entering the program.

Anyway, more to come. I'm going to go to the stats thing so I look like a team player; updates as events warrant.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Bank of America Is Pissing Me Off

I do some of my banking at Bank of America. Don't ask me why, its complicated, just accept that I've got to use their services. And now they're starting to piss me off. You want to know why? Turns out that when you make a large deposit they hold most of it for 3 weeks. 3... fucking... weeks.

Re-fricking-diculous. They're holding on to my money and I've got to pay my fricking bills. Meanwhile they're making money on the float. 3... weeks... of float. I hope they don't treat their small business customers like this.

Don't bank with BofA if you can avoid it. They're pure evil. I hear they eat babies.

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