Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Thursday, June 04, 2009

My World, and Welcome To It

The History of My World, Part I
© 2009 Ross Williams

I don’t like to write about work, much. First, writing about work tends to remind me of work when the time I spend away from work is filled thinking about work, and I don’t like being reminded of work. Second, I’m reminded of work often enough whenever I hear any news about tinpot tyrants getting all bossy and petulant[1], not to mention whenever I catch wind of the millions upon millions of my fellow citizens who may be bang-up stock brokers, or CPAs, or financial analysts, or auto mechanics, or plumbers or whatever else they may be, who think that because they’ve got a sincere belief about how the US should be acting towards the rest of the world that they can do my job better than I can … that fifteen minutes of CNN-filtered information meets and exceeds nearly thirty years of experience and raw data.

Third, despite having done what I’m doing for most of thirty years and being fairly good at it, I don’t like my job; because of who I ultimately work for [DoD] being populated by, essentially, autocratic assholes, and the company I work for having a large number of its upper management-types being retired autocratic assholes, my capacity for autocratic assholery is very, very rapidly surpassed. It makes me grumpy rather quickly.

And fourth, others who have written about their own work – and were not polite and complimentary to their employer, and by name – have gotten into trouble over it. Seems many employers don’t like having their dirty laundry aired in public. It’s not so much that I blame them, but I view it sorta the same way I view any type of domestic squabble: if you don’t want the people you meet on the street calling you a wife-beater, then don’t let the cameras for Cops catch you slapping up the old lady; it’s not the camera’s fault.

If you don’t want negative things said about you, then don’t do the negative things that tend to get talked about in front of those liable to talk. A lot of problems can be solved, and future problems avoided, by being a decent company which does not try to pimp out its own employees. It’s not difficult.

Now, this all said, I’ll be as polite as I can be while still being honest and factually accurate. And I won’t name too many names.

I got into this field back when Carter was President. I joined the US Air Farce. This was the age when Reagan combined Carter’s unemployment rate with his prime rate and his inflation rate to create the Misery Index® Reagan used to get himself elected. I was being materially affected by each of the three rising rates.

I was out of high school and rapidly spending what little money I had on college tuition that my academic scholarship – which almost but didn’t quite pay for books – didn’t cover. I couldn’t get a job – Burger King, big whup; I even drove a cab for a day. Didn’t qualify for student loans. I needed both a job and a college degree, and found that the only place which would give me the first while providing the second was the military.

And the Air Farce was the one branch of the service where I, a skinny, geeky, nerdy intellectual, could be in the military without being shot at. Probably. That’s what I was all about … the not being shot at thing. The skinny, geeky, nerdy intellectual thing just sorta happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

Technically, I was “in computers” for the Air Farce; a programmer. But specifically, I was stationed at the organization which taught the theory of air war. While I was not in a class which taught the importance of barrel rolls in mach-I dogfights, or the benefits and drawbacks of saturation bombing versus precision bombing in gaining strategic control of a battle theater, I got basic familiarity with the theory of air war. And I collected my bachelors degree. “In computers”.[2]

Then, because the military was obviously not my ideal avocation, and because they weren’t going to promote me until well into a second enlistment [the Air Farce is popular among those not wanting to get shot at], I decided to stop playing the military game about halfway into my four year sentence, which got me yelled at quite a bit by officers I didn’t properly – like, at all – salute, or the haircuts I routine failed to get, the shaving I didn’t always do, the shoes I didn’t ever polish, yadda, blah blah. When the time came, I declined to take any promotion tests for the promotion I wasn’t going to get anyway.

Because I didn’t take their irrelevant tests, the Air Farce declared that I was ineligible for re-enlistment. They wanted to get rid of as many of us “ineligible” folks as they could to make room for a new batch of geeky intellectuals who don’t like being shot at and for whom they could pay tuition; they “separated” me early. Akin to a parole for good behavior; “early separation for coming to one’s senses”.

But still, I had familiarity with the computer side of military theory. Now what sort of jobs might that prepare me for … I wonder …

I got a job for a defense contractor working the semi-theoretical, but mostly practical command/control aspects of war planning. Over the years, this contractor’s contracts have changed, and in addition to war planning, I’ve also worked for war execution programs, and war sustainment systems as well. At this point, I know more about how the US plans, executes and sustains wars than 99.9% of those who comment upon our wars, and I can safely say, without fear of meaningful contradiction, that the quibbles and whiny complaints put up that 99.9% of our country’s public commentators – including a great many of those in the media and Congress – are so full of shit that they constitute an environmental hazard[3].

At one point I even changed contractors entirely, but the second contractor dorked up their contract and lost it, then laid off half the staff [I told them and told them, but did they listen?] and that forced me into a temporary idle hiatus broken by consulting at a hospital, where I did such a good job automating their perpetually 5-months-behind budget process that they learned within days of month-end that they didn’t have enough money to employ consultants. E.g., me. I was thanked for saving them time, and shown the door thus saving them money.

By that time, though, the competitor to the defense contractor who had dorked up the contract was hiring people to work on the new contract, and I went to a third defense contractor only to learn that they were dorking it up even worse [they didn’t listen to me, either], and I ended up leaving to go back to the first place that hired me after the Air Farce.[4]

The preceding three paragraphs are not exactly a résumé-worthy rendition of the post-military portion of thirty years’ work – it’s not as self-promotional as it should be, and it’s way too vague – but it is nonetheless accurate.

What else is accurate is that I’ve seen, in those thirty years, one cure-all program after another claiming itself to be all the military [or its contractors] needs to do in order to ensure code that works, analysis that makes sense, and contracts that succeed. These notions leave the faint aroma of Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment on the air in much the same way that a skunk leaves putrid on same.

In any event, I’ve endured a dozen or more of these technological patent medicines, each hawked from the back ends of ass-drawn wagons. “Trade publications”, they call them today. Of this dozen or more, there were only a few real biggies that I’ll mention.

The first was while I was still in the Air Farce, coding happily[5] away for the war theory folks. It was called Top-Down Structured Programming. TDSP according to the abecedists so prevalent in the military. My upcoming criticism of the thing is not to say, nor even to suggest, that structure of any kind – top-down, or bottom-up, or even side to side – is not desirable in coding, but it is to say, explicitly, that the military’s way of implementing technological theories is heavy-handed, absolutist, and not amenable to reasonable qualification.

In a nutshell, TDSP was a command from On High to rid all code in the USAF of every goto statement. Not reduce goto statements as commercial data systems were doing, but eliminate them. Why? Because too many goto statements in computer programs made those programs difficult for others to modify later[6] when it was found the code didn’t work right, or when the requirements changed.

This makes as much sense as declaring that a driver may only drive on his side of the road. We all know – those of us who drive – that it is highly recommended to drive on our own side of the road virtually always, but if we’ve been paying attention we know very well that driving on our side of the road is not, and cannot be, an absolute requirement. It would lead to irretrievable traffic jams and accidents. What happens when a dead deer is lying in the road, in our lane? We wait for any oncoming traffic to pass and when it’s clear we pull into the other traffic lane and go around the deer. This is Driver’s Ed 101.

Want to know what happens when the military imposes traffic law the way they imposed TDSP? You turn off the engine, sit in your car … in the road … and wait for the god damned carcass to get scavenged by crows and turn into dust. Only then may you proceed, because you may never, ever, ever use the other traffic lane – a “go-around” as it were. Thus sayeth the regulations, … and you cannot disobey regulations without risking disciplinary action. Doesn’t matter if the regulation is stupid or not. That’s the way the military works.

Needless to say, without goto statements [or other such syntactic equivalent] a programmer cannot perform exception-processing[7] without standing on his head and flipping an endless series of inefficient and contrived back somersaults. It is bad coding technique – not to mention bad traffic law – to absolutely disqualify any maneuver at your disposal simply because of fashion or fiat. And the best part of military dictates such as these is that they’re both fashion and fiat: the choice to implement the policy is often because the guy in charge got a wild hair across his ass, and he imposes his wild ass hair absolutely.

The military’s faddish devotion to Top-Down Structured Programming ended quietly and disgracefully in the mid-1980s only to be replaced by their faddish and irrational devotion to the cure-all/do-all computer language known as Ada.[8]

Different computer languages were built to be good at doing different things. Fortran was built to be good at number-crunching. COBOL was built to be good at formatting business reports [before the invention of spreadsheets]. Basic was built to be good at teaching youngsters to talk to computers. C was built to be good at allowing geeks to wander around inside computers without having to use assembler to do it.

Ada was designed to be good at everything. Hence – as anyone with even the slightest cynicism can guess – it was good at nothing. Therefore – as anyone with any familiarity with the perverse priorities of the military mind can speculate – the military loved it.

Who didn’t love it were those who actually had to use it. And most resisted. Not because they didn’t know the language – they [which included me] were all given extensive training in Ada. It’s because using Ada to accomplish even a simple programming task is straight out of a Rube Goldberg[9] wet dream. Using Ada to write a complex programming task was virtually impossible, and is what ultimately cost Ada its lofty position as DoD’s Chosen Language: none of the systems selected for re-engineering could be completed; they all ran out of disk space.

Ada was rendered irrelevant by more than a decade of rampant non-use.

No sooner had Ada been diagnosed as dead a decade after the fact that the military caught wind of the notion of quality, and Total Quality Management was born. In other places this concept is known as a “quality circle”[10]. In any event, the idea originated in Japan, in their vertically-integrated manufacturing industries. The core element in this corporate philosophy is that the bottom-rung riveter on the shop floor with the high school equivalency diploma can halt a manufacturing production line at any moment if he sees something wrong with the thing being manufactured. His quibble will immediately be elevated to the cabal of multi-degreed engineers who designed the thing. The engineers will then redesign the thing, and keep redesigning the thing, until the weenie with the GED is satisfied.

And this may work wonders in Japan, where personal honor is a cultural trait, and disemboweling yourself for embarrassing your family during a game of Pictionary is a weekly event. The Japanese weenie with the GED won’t stop production lines unless something is actually wrong. But this is America, where honor has long been sold to Reality TV, and embarrassing yourself with scandal leads to Oprah and book deals and producing the movie of your own life which is broadcast on Lifetime Network.[11] Every self-obsessed retard – which is to say half of us – would stop the production line for no other reason than to bring attention to ourselves.

Not only was this implemented in America, but it was implemented in the American military.

Think about that for a second. …and a second is all you should need.

The low-level grunt gets to push the ‘off’ button on a project. How many buck privates sitting up to their ‘nads in murky foxhole water haven’t wanted to push the ‘off’ button on the offensive that would get them shot at and possibly killed? …besides all of them?

With TQM, they can do it.

No, General, I’m not satisfied that you’ve thought your battle plan through thoroughly. See, I’m being put in mortal danger, here, and until you revise your plan to where I’ll be as safe and comfy as if I were playing ‘Mortal Kombat’ on my Playstation, I’m afraid I’ll just have to say no.”

Oh, but see, the guys in charge of the military had already thought of that. For being dim-witted, they’re very good at protecting their power. Commanders who issued the orders being quibble-dicked had the authority, under TQM, to determine which quibbles against their orders were going to be allowed to actually stop those orders from being carried out.

It shouldn’t be too hard to guess what happened. Every quibble was immediately denied, and anyone who quibbled more than once – if my experience was anything to go by – was reprimanded for being insubordinate. Quibbling stopped almost as soon as it started … with few notable exceptions.

TQM died its ignominious death at just about the same time as the vertically-integrated Japanese economy tanked … seems their rate of “honorable’ disembowelments dropped like a stone. And, perhaps not surprisingly or coincidentally, Reality TV is a major industry in Japan today. I have no clue if they have their own version of Oprah Winfrey yet.

No sooner had TQM stopped twitching than it was replaced by CMM. This is the abecedism[12] for a meaningless group of words which were jammed together by a similarly meaningless group of PhDs at Carnegie-Mellon University: Capability Maturity Model. These eggheads asked the rhetorical and axiomatic question: “How can we tell when software works?” and rather than accept the self-evident answer – the computer does something more than blink blandly back at them – they devised a byzantine, not to mention ontological, manner of determining, by use of documentary “artifacts”, that something they could hold in their hands or run on their computers actually existed independently of holding it or running the program.

If the tree falls in the forest and someone is there to hear it, it only makes a sound – under CMM – if there is a paper trail describing the event.

A million angels could be dancing on the head of a pin, but unless they signed in and the sign-in sheet is filed away in a manila folder in a filing cabinet somewhere, the angels are all wallflowers and the hoe down never occurred.

The eggheads at Carnegie-Mellon sold this paradigm to the US Military for several million dollars, plus annual consulting fees with a few commas in the price. But it’s the $250 toilet seat that always gets the headlines. …which says more about the headline writers and the public who reads the headlines than it does anything else.

The most recent $250 toilet seat to come down the pike is called Security+. Identity theft and phishing scams and malware are all bad things, and the military, understandably, wants its computers to have no part of any of them. I don’t blame them.

But as we recall, the manner by which the military imposes its policies is heavy-handed, absolutist and not amenable to reasonable qualification. Network security is – rationally – a matter for computer network weenies, the comm guys, to deal with. The folks who deal with actual traffic into and out of the military’s computer systems have the knowledge, expertise and – critically – job description to do that function. “Need to know” and “access” are critical pieces of security, particularly in the military, and despite the infomercial sales pitches being lobbed around, security of this type is not, and cannot be, “everyone’s job”. Security+, therefore, to the degree it actually addresses network security, is pertinent only to those who work with network security.

But the military is requiring Security+ training for everyone who uses military computers.

Which is sorta like requiring automotive engineering training for everyone who drives a car. Or nuclear engineering training for anyone who turns on a light switch when the electricity comes from a nuclear power plant.

This is, suffice it to say, a waste of time. Because time is money it is also a waste of that as well. Perhaps the most ironic part of the Security+ sales pitch is that it helps an organization identify costly computer scams before they happen.

Here, though, the military is a step ahead of the curve: it’s not their money this time. They didn’t pay for this heavy-handed policy like they paid Carnegie-Mellon for CMM, or whomever for TQM, or the salaries of their own compu-wonks who created Ada; they are, instead, requiring every contractor to pay for it themselves – as a contract requirement – by whichever means that contractor deems appropriate[13].

New contracts are being written that require the contractor to provide something of value – the time and effort of the contractor’s employees – to the contracting agency in return for … nothing. Or in return for winning the contract, which is much the same thing, legally. In other parts of the world this is called a kickback, and if the governor of Illinois does it, it gets followed by federal indictments of the governor[14], everyone who looks like him[15], and the horses at least one of them rode in on[16]. Not to mention the permanent stains it leaves on the Senate appointment filling Barama’s seat.

But the US Military isn’t the governor of Illinois and his bionic hair; it is instead an arm of the federal government, and so all bets are off. Federal laws, as we should all be aware by now, are meant for other people to follow. The government itself is exempt.

It’s good to be the king.


[1] http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,522103,00.html
[2] I had enough credits for two degrees, actually, the second being History. But on the enlisted pay scale, and with a pregnant wife, and only enough cash to apply to just one department for the necessary certifications to get a sheepskin, I weighed the benefits and drawbacks of a BS in CompSci versus a BS in History, and determined that I’d rather be a computer geek than the night manager of Denny’s.
[3] This explains why I find it so annoying when people on the street start to lecture me, even if they aren’t specifically talking to me, on US foreign affairs and the military portion of the subject: they are almost never more than coincidentally correct about more than one or two details, and they always insist upon creating vast oceans of false “fact” derived from those one or two points or, more commonly, from the non-facts they invented on the spot, by which they seek to explain why up is down, black is white, and 2+2=5. Don’t quit your day jobs, bozos.
[4] This place doesn’t listen to me nearly as much as they should, for what it’s worth.
[5] Or not so happily. I spent nearly three years counting down the days I had left in the mind-numbing hell that was – and is – military service to anyone with an IQ above day-old buttered toast.
[6] See “spaghetti code”
[7] “exception processing” is the computer lingo for the method we are trained to use on the road in Driver’s Ed and every road safety class ever constructed. Without roadway exception processing we would be compelled to back up in our lane to the last intersection and seek a detour – or come to a dead stop – every time we encountered a dead deer, a pothole, a blinky-light barricade, a construction flagman, et cetera ahead of us. Imagine the mess we’d have. That was similar to the mess the military created for itself with the idiotic “no goto” edict.
[8] In a piece of writing started while in the Air Farce, and owing much inspiration to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, I defined an elephant to be a mouse designed by a government committee. Ada is C designed by same.
[9] http://www.rubegoldberg.com/
[10] quality circle jerk, in some quarters.
[11] Starring, in my case, Hugh Laurie.
[12] An acronym must be pronounceable as a word, like scuba – self-contained underwater breathing apparatus; an acronym which cannot be pronounced is an abecedism. Not that I’m pedantic, or anything.
[13] You may refer, here, back to the paragraph at the front of this essay in which I talk about an employer pimping out its own employees, and how that negative action tends to get talked about negatively by those negatively affected.
[14] Rod Blagojevich
[15] His brother, Rob
[16] Was Rod’s horse-faced wife, Patty, indicted? I honestly forget.