Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It gets better (geek version)

I recently learned of the tragic passing of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the cofounders of Diaspora, apparently by his own hand. The news really hit me hard for three reasons. First, I was really rooting for Diaspora to succeed. Facebook is evil (there, I said it) and something needs to come along and replace it. Second, it's just generally tragic when someone dies in their prime, and when it's someone as talented as Ilya was that makes it doubly tragic. He might have made the world a better place. Now we'll never know.

But the third and main reason the news really rocked me was my sense that this should and could have been prevented. I think one of the reasons that Ilya Zhitomirskiy is dead is that we have a culture that discourages seeking help for depression and other mental illness because of the stigma attached. If it becomes known that you've succumbed to feeling blue then in the cutthroat world of entrepreneurialism you are damaged goods. You can't hack it. And so young kids keep it bottled up inside. And sometimes they die.

That has to stop.

But, alas, it's a very thorny problem. Because people's reluctance to seek help is deeply rooted in cultural norms it's not just a matter of setting up a hotline, or putting up a blog post saying, "If you're feeling depressed, call." For one thing, depression can be a sign of an underlying mental illness that an untrained person might not be equipped to deal with. Suicidal depression is serious shit, and if you meddle without knowing what you're doing you can easily make things worse, to say nothing of creating serious problems for yourself. (As an obvious example, even just holding yourself out as someone to talk to is a Really Bad Idea. If someone calls and you're not available that could easily push them over the edge. Crisis hotlines have to be manned 24 by 7.)

One possibility is to follow the lead of the LGBT community and start an It Gets Better campaign for geeks. But that's problematic too because the stigma attached to depression is nowadays much more serious than that attached to homosexuality. On the other hand, the fact that depression, unlike homosexuality, actually is a mental disorder means that (again, unlike homosexuality) you can, if not cure it, at least ameliorate it, and that this is uncontroversially a good thing.

What if those of us who have faced suicidal depression and lived to tell the tale spoke up? Maybe if enough time has passed we can admit to it without having to risk ostracism. And maybe if we did it could save a life. That sounds to me like a risk worth taking. So here goes.

If you are a geek contemplating suicide, I say to you from personal experience that no matter how bleak things look right now, they will get better. I know this because I've been where you are. When I was in graduate school I was suicidally depressed. But I got past it, not because I'm any better at dealing with depression than the next person, but because I got help. In my case, help consisted of professional counseling.

I know what you're thinking: no therapist can possibly help you. You're so much smarter than any therapist. You've thought this through, and you haven't been able to figure out the answer, so a therapist won't be able to either.

You're wrong. Here's why. You're a geek, so you're used to thinking about every challenge as a problem with (at least potentially) a solution. Depression isn't like that. It's not a problem with a solution, it's something that happens to you that you need to learn how to manage. You can't fix depression any more than you can fix getting sleepy or having to go to the bathroom. What you can do is learn how to deal with it. And a good therapist can help you with that. It's not an easy process, but it's well worth the effort. You'll still get depressed, but it will hurt less.

Even if you're not willing to bear the pain for yourself, do it for others. Again, I know you feel alone and worthless and like nobody cares. You're wrong about that too. That's the depression talking. (One of the techniques for dealing with depression is to think of it as an external entity that causes you pain. If you had a knife stuck in your arm it would hurt. Depression is like having a knife stuck in your brain, except the knife isn't a physical thing so you can't just reach in and pull it out.) No matter what your circumstance, unless you're a psychopathic serial killer, somewhere out there is another human being whose life will be better if you're around. You may not have even met this person yet, but I promise you they are there. If you're not willing to stick around for yourself, do it for them.

Do it for Ilya.

Welcome new subscribers

My recent post on the Zynga Google chef kerfuffle got a lot of attention, and attracted a lot of new subscribers. Welcome! You'll find this blog is a little messy and disorganized. I've been writing Rondam Ramblings for over eight years now. I try very hard to post things that my readers will find worthwhile. And therein lies a problem, because I have no idea who most of you are, and unlike most other blogs that attract a following beyond the author's personal acquaintances, Rondam Ramblings has never really had a theme. In the past I've covered politics, religion, quantum mechanics, computer science, entrepreneurship, travel, homelessness, the meaning of life, and now I've even added cooking to the list.

As time goes by and my readership gets more diverse it becomes harder and harder to figure out what to write about. My latest attempt over the past weekend was such a dismal flop that I actually deleted it (only the second time in eight years that I've done that). So please help me keep the quality of the content here high: if you see something you like (or something you don't) leave a comment or click on a reaction button. (If you click on the "bogus" button it would be really helpful if you could also leave a comment telling me why you thought it was bogus.) The satisfaction of having written something that someone finds worth reading is more than enough to keep me going, but it's also the only reward I get for the not-inconsiderable effort of writing. I don't charge and I don't serve ads. So I really appreciate feedback. Thanks.

BTW, I have a guest blogger, Don Geddis, who make occasional contributions here. If you see a post from him that you like please send some love his way as well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Among other things, I am thankful for all of you who subscribe to or otherwise follow this blog. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: there is no greater reward for a writer than to be read. I hope I can continue to make it worth your while. To all of you, I say thanks, and happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Coming apart at the seams

Here are two excerpts from today's news:

A police action intended to roust a few hundred protesters ... instead drew thousands of people into the streets on Saturday, where they battled riot police officers for hours...


Police used batons to try to push [the protestors] apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-​sprayed directly in the face, holding [the protestors] as they did so. When [the protestors] covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-​sprayed down their throats. Several of [the protestors] were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-​five minutes after being pepper-​sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

The remarkable and dismaying thing about these two excerpts is how seamlessly they flow together. You'd think they were both from the same news story, but they aren't. The first is news from Tahrir Square in Egypt (where I was walking around by myself just this past Tuesday) and the second is from U.C. Davis.

It is really starting to feel like the whole of human civilization is in danger of coming unraveled.

Here's more from the U.C. Davis story:

The man who pepper-sprayed the protesters in the video above is Lt. John Pike, of the UC Davis Police Department. If you'd like to let him know what you think of his actions, you can email him at japikeiii@ucdavis.edu; for what it's worth, his boss, UCD Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, told the Davis Enterprise that she's "very proud" of her officers. "I don't believe any of our officers were hurt," she says, "and I hope none of the students were injured."

Follow the link above to see the video. It's shocking.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Travelogue: Free Egypt

If you've ever wanted to visit Egypt but don't like to deal with throngs of tourists, now is your moment. The political uncertainty here scared most of the tourists away back in February, and they still have not returned. We've spent the last three days on a whirlwind tour of Luxor and Cairo with a few hundred of our closest friends, and as far as I could tell our group constituted 90% of the tourists in all of Egypt. We saw all of the major sights -- Luxor, Karnak, Valley of the Kings, the Pyramids, the Egyptian museum -- and didn't have to wait in a single line.

Other than the almost eerie emptiness at tourist destinations, the situation on the ground seems mostly normal despite the fact that the country has been under military rule for eight months. There are no soldiers on the streets, no tanks, no military checkpoints. (There are, however, occasional roadblocks set up by the locals, which narrow the road down to one lane and force cars traveling in opposite directions to alternate, which is annoying but not intimidating.)

Traffic in Cairo is completely insane, which I am given to understand is par for the course. It's a city of 20 million people without, as far as I can tell, a single functioning traffic light. It is the craziest, most chaotic traffic I have ever seen in my life. Cars, busses, scooters, and pedestrians intermingle freely with no apparent pattern. If there are rules of the road here beyond "biggest vehicle with the most aggressive driver wins" I have not been able to discern what they are. And yet it kinda sorta works. At one point it took our bus half an hour to go 300 yards around Tahrir Square to get to the Egyptian museum, but we did get there eventually, and without a single casualty. (The photo at the top of this post was taken out the bus window on that trip.)

Sadly, underlying the relatively quiet and orderly (by the standards of revolutions) political changes is an economic desperation of a sort I have never before experienced, and I've been to some pretty poor places. The flip side of all the excess capacity in the tourist sector is an army of street vendors, taxi drivers, boatmen, hoteliers and restaurateurs who have been abruptly cut off from their livelihoods. In a culture that even in the best of times does not shy away from, let us say, high-pressure sales tactics and haggling, the result is an army of underemployed service providers competing fiercely for the few customers that are left. So while you don't have to deal with lines, you do have to deal with a constant barrage of hello's and excuse-me's and please-look-at-my-shop's.

But it doesn't end there. The instant you display even the tiniest bit of interest, they will latch on to you and not let go until they have extracted as much money from you as they possibly can. Americans by nature don't like to be rude. The Egyptians have figured this out, and have developed a vast array of finely honed techniques to make it impossible to extricate yourself from them in any other way. I've travelled to a lot of places and seen a lot of high-pressure sales tactics, but the Egyptians have truly become the masters of the game.

But the most amazing thing about Egypt is not the history or the quiet revolution or the chaos on the roads or the street hustlers. It is something I suspect many visitors don't notice, and which Egyptians don't draw attention to: this is probably one of the poorest countries we've been to, one in the midst of political and economic turmoil of the highest order, and yet we have not seen a single beggar. Not one.

If by some bizarre chance anyone from Egypt is reading this, I have a message for you on behalf of my fellow tourists: we get it. You are facing some really tough challenges, and we understand that whether your children eat tonight depends on whether you manage to sell us a trinket for a dollar. We respect that your response to these challenges is entrepreneurial. We respect that you are trying to free yourselves from a dictatorship and establish democracy against some pretty tough odds. And we want to help. We really do.

At the same time, you have to understand that while we want to help, that is, at least for most of us, not our primary purpose for coming to your country. We're here to see the sights, to learn, and to have fun. Being overrun by street vendors at every turn is not fun. Being hustled is no fun. And having to say no is also no fun. In fact, it's painful, because we really want to help. But we can't be your saviors. At the end of the day, you're going to have to put your country back together yourselves. And after seeing what your ancestors accomplished 4000 years ago there is no doubt in my mind that you can do it.

If you are Egyptian and you are a street vendor or you know a street vendor I have a suggestion: set up your table and put up a sign that reads: "Hello, my name is Ibrahim. I am selling this merchandise so that I don't have to beg to feed my family. Please take a look, and if you like something, buy it. I promise to charge you a fair price, and not to hassle you if you decide to pass." Then follow through on that promise. I predict that you will do a better business than your competitors with that approach. Surely it's worth a try? Who knows, you might even start a revolution.

My fellow travelers and I will be rooting for you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In defense of the Google chef

I'm on the road with very limited internet connectivity so I can't do the homework I normally would before posting this, so it's possible that what I'm about to say is based on unreliable reporting. There is a lot of grumbling in the blogosphere in the last day or two about reports that Zynga is using strong-arm tactics to claw back employee stock options. Zynga's argument is that they don't want people who joined the company early to get disproportionately large rewards compared to someone who joined the company later but contributed more. CNET reports, citing the WSJ:

Zynga executives were especially concerned with not creating a "Google chef" scenario.

That reference relates to Google's 2004 IPO when one of the company's chefs, who was hired in the firm's early days, walked away with $20 million worth of stock after the shares went public.

This really bothers me. It presumes that a chef cannot be a significant contributor to the success of a company. As someone who was there in Google's early days I can tell you from firsthand experience that this is not true. If someone at Zynga actually did say this on the record, they owe Charlie Ayers an apology.

Working at a startup is hard. The hours are long, the stress can be brutal, and there is no guarantee of success. In fact, the odds for a raw startup (which is what Google was when Charlie joined) are very much against you. I have no idea what Google's deal with Charlie was, but typically you take a pay cut for a shot at the brass ring. Charlie didn't make $20M for cooking, he made $20M for taking the risk that the company he was joining would fail and that he could end up five years older, unemployed, and with nothing to show for his trouble.

But it is not Zynga's failure to grasp this basic fact of startup economics that bothers me, it is their singling out of Charlie in particular because he's a chef. As someone who was there in the early days I can tell you that Charlie Ayers contributed more to Google's success that I did, and I was a senior software engineer.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that people get hungry, and when they do their productivity drops. As a company you have three options: make your employees deal with it themselves (bring sack lunches or go out), provide some basic but uninspiring food (stock the break room with snacks, have the odd pizza delivered), or you can, as Google did, provide them with really good food.

The latter option costs more, but it pays dividends. When the best restaurant in town is the company cafeteria it liberates your employees from having to worry about where their next meal is coming from (literally) and lets them focus on their work. For software engineering in particular, where getting into an uninterrupted mental "flow" is crucial to productivity, free quality food is a huge lever.

Providing quality food to an ever-growing roster of hungry engineers is not an easy task. Charlie and his staff worked harder on a light day than I ever did (or probably ever will). If you doubt me, take a job in a restaurant kitchen some time. Not only that, but the stakes are higher than most people realize. Feeding a few hundred people in a professional setting is not just taking the process of preparing a home-cooked meal and multiplying. If a software engineer screws up, the site goes down. But if a chef screws up, people get sick. In extreme cases, they die.

If I were to point out that no one ever got sick from eating Charlie's food most people would consider than to be damning with faint praise, but that is just a testament to how well Charlie did his job. Not only did he keep us well feed and free from salmonella, he inspired us. When I said that the best restaurant in town was Google's cafeteria that was no exaggeration. Charlies food was outstanding, day in and day out. (It still is. If you're in the Bay Area, do yourself a favor and have a meal at his restaurant.)

But Charlie's contribution to Google's early success went even well beyond that. Charlie was a friend and a cheerleader. Everyone at Google got to know him because everyone went through the lunch line, and Charlie was always there making sure everything was ship-shape. And Charlie got to know us, got to know our individual tastes and preferences, and bent over backwards to accommodate them, but never at the cost of compromising on his principles of making his offerings healthy and sustainable, principles he still adheres to. Being fed by Charlie was a privilege. It was inspiring. It was cool. It kept us going.

Don't tell me Charlie deserved his payday any less than the rest of us.

[UPDATE:] Found a link to the WSJ article that isn't behind a paywall. Just to be clear, I am not taking a position on Zynga's policy. I think renegotiating the compensation of underperforming employees could be a defensible practice (albeit fraught with all manner of peril). What I take issue with is citing Charlie in defense of such a policy. Here's the relevant passage:

Built into that arrangement [stock options] is the chance that ... some very early employees will end up with bigger windfalls than latecomers who contribute more to the company. Many in Silicon Valley cite an early-hired Google Inc. cook whose stock was worth $20 million after the firm's 2004 IPO.

Zynga attempted to avoid such pitfalls. In meetings last year, Zynga executives said they didn't want a "Google chef" situation, said a person with knowledge of the discussions.

So apparently it's not just Zynga casting Charlie as the poster child for the early employee who got more than he deserved. I do not doubt that some early employees end up not pulling their weight. But Charlie Ayers was not one of them.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Google ate my email address

Just now I did a routine Google search whose top result ended up being a thread on Google Groups. To my shock, when I tried to click on this link, Groups would not let me view the thread. Instead, I saw this message:

Update Email Address

You've changed the email addresses associated with your Google Account since the last time you visited Google Groups.
You need you to decide what to do with your subscriptions on your old email address.

Removed Addresses: ron [at] flownet [dot] com
Edit your Google Account Addresses
You can choose to re-add these addresses to this Google Account from the Google Account page.

Trick is, I hadn't made any changes to my account. Worrying that I'd been hacked, I started checking out all my settings but nothing seemed amiss. OK, no problem, I thought, I'll just add the flownet email back into my account. But when I tried that, I got this message:

There's already a Google Account associated with this email address. Please sign in; or, if you forgot your password, reset it now

Well, that's strange. Yes, there is an account associated with that address, but it's *my* account! Well, maybe this is just some kind of transient weirdness that will go away if I log out and log back in again. I tried that, and got this:

Your account has changed

This account has an alternate email address, ron@flownet.com. This address is no longer available because an organization has reserved this flownet.comemail address.

You are now signed in with your primary address. Except for the removal of the alternate email address, nothing has changed.

WTF?!? This address is not longer available? Because some (unnamed) organization has reserved it? How is that possible? I've owned the flownet.com domain since 1993. How can someone reserve a flownet.com address without my knowledge or approval?

This is a serious problem, because I am signed up to a ton of Groups under my flownet email. Until this gets sorted out I am completely cut off from all of these lists (including, ironically, a list of ex-Googlers who might be able to help me solve this problem).

I have been digging around trying to figure out what happened and how I can fix it for the better part of an hour now with no success. As best I can determine, it has something to do with Google plus (one of the help pages I landed on says, "If you signed up for Google+, your Accounts settings page might have been updated.") and the fact that I use Postini (now owned by Google) for spam filtering on flownet.com. (Since flownet.com is one of the older domains on the Internet it gets boatloads of spam.)

If anyone reading this can get the word to Google that they've screwed this up I'm sure many people would be very grateful. I can't be the only one having this problem.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Travelogue: The Grand Canyon of Jerusalem

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but there are some pictures that can't be fully appreciated without a few words of explanation. This is one of them:

What you are looking at is an aqueduct carved into granite bedrock by Herod the Great around 20 BC. But that is not the impressive part. The Mediterranean is lousy with aqueducts. To understand the significance of this one we have to start with the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount is an enormous plaza, about 37 acres in all. Normally when you build a plaza you find a more-or-less flat space and pave it. But Jerusalem is built on rolling hills. It has no flat spaces to speak of, so Herod made one by leveling the top of one of the hills. This in itself was no mean feat because the hills are made of granite. But the mount extends well beyond the boundaries of the flattened hill top. To create the extra area, Herod built enormous stone walls and filled in the voids between the inner part of the walls and the hill. (The Mount is so vast, in fact, that it actually covers two hills, not one. The second one is Mount Moriah where tradition has it that Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God, and Mohammed ascended into heaven to receive the Holy Q'uran. The tippy top of Mount Moriah just barely juts out of the top of the Temple Mount where it is covered by the Dome of the Rock. Alas the Dome is nowadays closed to non-Muslims, but if you convert to Islam you can go inside and see it.)

The Temple Mount would be an audacious feat of engineering even by modern standards. In its day it was bordering on the miraculous. Alas, its glory was short-lived. In 70 AD the Romans squished a Jewish rebellion and in retaliation destroyed the Temple. They tried to destroy the Temple Mount as well, but it proved to be quite literally rock-solid. Since then, 2000 years of weathering, earthquakes, and neglect (in the Byzantine era the Mount was used as the city dump) have left it largely intact.

But not untouched. In the intervening 2000 years the city of Jerusalem literally grew up around it. New buildings were built on top of the ruins of old ones, and the street level rose to the point where today it is nearly level with the top of the Mount. The southern and eastern walls are still visible today, but the western wall is almost entirely buried underneath 2000 years of construction and brick-a-brack. (There is no northern wall because that part of the Mount sits on the bedrock left behind after the hill was leveled.)

After Israel gained control of the Temple Mount in 1967 it opened the area to archaeological research. One of the excavations is called the Kotel Tunnel ("kotel" is the Hebrew word for "wall") and it is pretty much what the name says: a tunnel that runs the entire length of the western wall, a few dozen to a few hundred feet below the current street level.

As you walk north along the tunnel, the bedrock beneath gradually rises up to meet you. Herod, being somewhat anal-retentive about architecture and not content to leave well enough alone, had the bedrock chiseled away so that it looked like a continuation of the wall. This boundary between the actual wall and the faux wall carved into the bedrock is one of the many archaeological wonders that have been unearthed in this excavation.

So you're walking along north along this tunnel. The Wall is to your right. At some point it transitions almost imperceptibly from stone wall to carved bedrock. And then you get to the base of the northern end of the Temple Mount, what started out as the interior of a granite hilltop, a sight that until a few years ago, human eyes had not beheld for some 2000 years, give or take. You are standing on what 2000 years ago was street level (and indeed, you are standing on the original paving stones), but is now a few hundred feet underground.

And in front of you is the aqueduct, carved by human hands out of solid granite over 2000 years ago, now completely covered by the city several hundred feet above your head. It's a serious Indiana-Jones moment.

To say that my mind was blown would be quite the understatement. If you are ever in Jerusalem, the Kotel Tunnel is a sight not to be missed (unless you suffer from claustrophobia). Tours are by appointment only. There isn't much room in there, and some parts of the tunnel are so narrow that traffic can only flow one way at a time so they have to limit the number of people. But it's mostly surprisingly roomy in there. In many places, you are walking through the interiors of old buildings that were later converted to basement water cisterns as the city grew above them. So if you don't mind the odd tight squeeze and low ceiling I cannot recommend it too highly.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Travelogue: The Roma in Rhodes

Met this kid on the island of Rhodes:

He is a Roma, commonly known as gypsies. He posed for me for a euro.

The picture I didn't get (and I'm still kicking myself) was of his younger sister, who I'm guessing was about three. We found her in a similar circumstance: on the street, cradling a tiny accordion in her lap, playing with the coins in the bowl in front of her as if they were toys (which to her they probably were). It was such a heartbreaking sight that it didn't even occur to me to take her picture until we'd gone well past her. When I finally came to my senses and returned to the spot, her older brother had taken over on accordion detail.