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On commitment, and new jobs

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Someone noticed my new job, and asked me the following on LinkedIn: “what advice would you be willing to share with a young person who is looking for Networking work experience while continuing to learn?”. This is a topic on which I have a bit to say, so here we go.

Job postings need to be viewed in much the same way that a bachelor’s degree needs to be viewed: a gating system designed to winnow out anyone who isn’t committed. This requires a little explanation, so bear with me. First, let’s start with something nearly everyone knows:

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree means different things to different groups. To many employers, it is a sign of a basic level of commitment. You were willing to invest the time and money into something, so you are worthy of consideration.

In most cases, the degree itself is meaningless. I can learn everything a bachelor’s degree in anything will teach me using free resources online, and have. Numerous times. I can – and do – go toe-to-toe with people who have doctorates in their field, let alone a simple bachelor’s degree, despite having none myself.

That’s because these degrees don’t indicate knowledge, or a level of achievement. They indicate commitment. A willingness to submit one’s self to a social structure that tightly constricts behaviour, scheduling, and ways of thinking.

A willingness to think and do as directed is incredibly valuable for a great many jobs – especially the tedious ones – and this is the primary reason why so many positions that used to be something you could obtain right of high school now require a bachelor’s degree. The knowledge imparted by the degree isn’t overly meaningful; most of what’s needed will be taught on the job.

But by restricting one’s hiring to people with degrees, the employer is engaging in risk management. “Do you have a bachelor’s degree or not” is a blunt instrument for narrowing candidates down, but with almost 8 billion of us on the planet, employers can afford to let otherwise qualified candidate be rejected.

What we need to bear in mind is that demanding a bachelor’s degree – and other gating mechanisms – (demanding 10 years’ experience in something that’s only existed for 5 years, impossible combinations of skills, etc.,) are all more “suggestions” than hard barriers. You need to bear in mind the purpose of these gating mechanisms: to determine commitment. There are other ways to demonstrate it, and if we understand why it’s demanded, we can understand how to cope with it.

Academia

Let’s examine academia. A person can be a perfectly good scientist without a doctorate. They can be a perfectly good scientist with a bachelor’s degree, or no degree at all. Despite this, bachelor’s students are treated as little better than slaves within academia, and even someone with a master’s degree isn’t quite entirely a person until they’ve finished their doctorate.

Competition in academia is fierce. This isn’t helped by hiring practices at universities that make employment there precarious. People in academia commit decades of their lives, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to their education, and they live with the constant threat of not having a stable income for decades. It’s insane.

The result of this insanity is that the gating mechanisms in place to determine one’s commitment are unusually intense. You have to show more than skill, or intelligence. More than simple, rational commitment. If you want tenure in academia today, as someone coming out of high school, and choosing that career track, you had better be prepared to demonstrate absolute devotion.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt if you regularly came up with patents that made your parent institution several times your annual salary in income.

The way around this gating mechanism in academia is to demonstrate unexpected excellence. Be the kid that creates a portable widget that detects cancer in 5 minutes or less, with a consumable component of no more than 2$ per test. Be the person who invents modern machine learning, and creates entire new branches of computer science.

You can do these things without a degree, but it takes more than just knowledge or skill, it takes incredible commitment. Demonstrate that adequately, and you get let into the academics’ most exclusive clubs, complete with honorary doctorates, and even those coveted tenured positions at research institutions.

Being accepted as an academic is about more than just getting a position that provides a paycheque. Acceptance is a group of people who have put decades of their lives into getting tenure saying “you are exceptional enough to deserve the same type of job that we fought, and bitten, and clawed for, and that we guard so very jealously”.

An extreme lack of non-precarious job availability makes for an extreme selection process, and the commitment that is required to be demonstrated in order to get around the “regular” process – getting a doctorate, and enduring decades of precarious work – is significant.

The private sector

The private sector is fundamentally the same as academia, but the pressures aren’t (yet) quite so great. Yes, there certainly are positions where the initial gating of applicants is starting to demand a master’s degree, or even doctorates, but there are still so many positions available, even at this level, that bypassing these requirements remains relatively simple.

Simply having the willingness to apply for positions that you do not qualify for (on paper at least) is itself a sign of commitment. We are trained out whole lives to take job requirements on job postings at face value. We are taught to respect potential employers, and to fear wasting their time. We are conditioned not to apply unless we believe wholeheartedly that we could knock that job out of the park.

The problem is, in the real world, nobody knows what they’re doing. The higher up the totem pole you get, the more it’s safe to assume that everyone around you suffers from imposter syndrome. We’re all just faking it, and it takes commitment to push that voice of self-doubt down, and take a chance on applying for a position we’re not qualified for on paper.

How you apply matters. Like it or not, the private sector still operates on the old boys’ network. Credentialism is a façade that corporations employ to placate advocacy-prone youth, who aren’t old enough to see the value of experience, and are at a disadvantage competing against those who have it. There will always be a tension between the utility of credentials, especially for youth, and the value of experience and networking. In many cases the real trick to getting will always be who you know, not what you know.

To be clear, I’m not implying any sort of conspiracy here. Nor is this a sexist plot by the patriarchy, a means to perpetuate racism, or old people clinging to their jobs at the expense of the youth. The real secret to private sector employment is that the “who” that you need to know needn’t be someone with a fancy title, or the ability to make hiring decisions.

A private sector employer doesn’t actually care about your credentials. What they care about is your knowledge, your skills, and your reliability. They want to know that if they dump a bunch of time and money into training you, that you’re not just going to disappear. They want to assign you a task, and have your effort generate more revenue than they pay you, all while having to manage you, or even think about you.

Demonstrating this with smaller employers usually requires nothing more than the ability to put on a false sense of confidence during an interview, explain why you are committed to the job, and won’t flake out on them. Demonstrating this with larger employers usually involves research.

The research entails finding people who already work for the target larger employer, befriending them, and convincing them to submit your name via the internal talent acquisition system. In midsized companies this might mean your friend mentioning your name to HR. In enterprises, this process is usually formalized; many organizations even offer bounties. Bring in someone they eventually hire, and you get a bonus.

The key here is that in advocating for you, these people are in effect putting their careers on the line. They’re “vouching for you”, in the mafia sense. Whether or not we admit this to ourselves as a society – and in many cases there are complicated laws which supposedly aim to eliminate this behaviour – this is exactly how most employment works. We still rely on trust. Sometimes that trust is something earned through an interview process. Often times the trust comes in an employer trusting the employee that’s vouching for someone.

If you convince someone to vouch for you, they’re essentially saying to their employer, “this person is committed enough to the job that you can – and should – look beyond the absurd credentials you’ve requested in the job posting”. The employer is seeking commitment from employees, and if they trust the person saying you’re committed – via reference or interview – then this is what gets you hired.

Putting aside any moral or ethical debates about how fair this is, look at what the reality of hiring tells you: the credentials requested by these employers _don’t matter_. They’re a demonstration of commitment, and nothing more. People can be – and are – quite capable, even without magic credentials.

For that matter, in today’s world, technology evolves so quickly that formal education and technical credentials can be rendered meaningless before someone has even completed them. Even governments around the world have started to change their hiring practices to recognize this.

Any means you can use to reasonably demonstrate your knowledge and commitment to an employer serves the same purpose as credentials. Credentials are just a shortcut, and a widely recognized imperfect one at that. Taking the time to grind up friendships, learn about the corporate culture, and find out how to “pitch yourself” at them is a demonstration of commitment. It’s showing you want that job, and that you view it as something other than an irrelevant, interchangeable source of income.

Parting thoughts

The question that triggered the above was “what advice would you be willing to share with a young person who is looking for Networking work experience while continuing to learn?”, and I think the word “Networking” in that question is superfluous. It doesn’t matter which employment path you’re taking. What matters is that you figure out how you’re going to prove to others that you’re committed to what you propose to do.

If your goal is networking, then learn networking. There are a squillion online courses, ranging from Lynda.com, to actual universities, to the online courseware of the various technology titans. Immerse yourself. Learn.

Get hands on experience by playing with networking virtual appliances. Learn to do neat networking things in Linux. You can get the hands-on experience in the comfort of your own home. Ain’t the internet great?

But getting the job is about more than that. Your best hope is through the community. Join local user groups. Join online communities. Get on Twitter. Spend time learning information security, because the future of IT is information security.

Make friends, and learn to influence people. It doesn’t take long. The community is full of mentors, and if you’re honest about your goals, you’ll find someone to help you.

Yes, the internet is dark, and full of monsters, but that’s merely a function of scale. Most people are actually kind, decent folks who genuinely want to help those around them. The fact that there are so many monsters on the internet is simply because there are 8 billion of us: give everyone a platform, and the loud ones crowd out the rest.

If you want a job in tech, they’re out there. But, like any job, to get anything beyond the most bare-bones minimum wage job, you need to demonstrate commitment. In today’s day and age that’s more than just a willingness to sacrifice your time.

You can obtain an arbitrary credential, thus demonstrating skill at rote memorization and your willingness to submit to seemingly arbitrary rules and rigid regulatory structures. You can demonstrate exceptional skill through invention or research excellence, or you can demonstrate a willingness to play the social game. Each takes commitment. And different people will find different paths easier. None is more valid than the other.

I wish I could say to today’s youth “it’s going to be okay, here’s a magic wand, there’s hope for an easy life”. But I can’t. That would be lying.

Today’s youth are going to have it hard. There are more of them than in my generation, and the accelerating pace of automation will mean that they have to face pressures to constantly adapt that I have not faced, and likely never will. They will have more careers than I will, just as I’ve already had more careers than my parents.

But there is hope. What drives employers to select employees is the same everywhere: employers seek commitment from their employees. Figure out how to demonstrate that, and you’re set yourself apart from the competition in the way that employers want,.

Obligatory new job post

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While by no means obligatory, it seems as though writing a new post after accepting a life-changing position with a new employer is the socially acceptable means of public broadcasting one’s excitement. This is that post for me.

Most people write their new job posts filled with carefully crafted optimistic phrases designed to express trepidation, subtly seek reassurance, and avoid alienating their new employer. Sometimes these blog posts are filled with details of how the new job will affect them, their family, or their dreams for the future. This isn’t that post for me.

This post is about saying all the things we’re taught not to say. To talk about the things we’re repeatedly told not to talk about. This post is about personal vulnerability. It’s about insecurity. It is also about shameless bragging and self-promotion. I am now a Director of Product Marketing at Juniper. Here is my horn. I am tooting it.

When I was approached about a position at Juniper Networks I thought I was being punked. Juniper is a huge company. They try to hire only the very best, and they have the money to be choosy about it. Juniper doesn’t have to compromise, so what could they possibly want with me?

I don’t have a bunch of letters after my name. I haven’t worked at a bunch of enterprises prior to taking on a position at a fortune 1000 with the word “director” in the title. I didn’t exploit access to some secret old boys’ network. There were no dark rites. The Old Ones were not summoned.

I went through the interview process. I was offered the position, and I accepted it. I packed my bags and headed to the mothership for orientation…and throughout the entire adventure, none of it seemed real.

Is this really happening?

Over and over, I asked myself one question: “is this really happening”? Some context is relevant, and if you’ll stick with me, I promise there’s a relevant story underneath all this navel gazing.

In my experience, one doesn’t get a position with a fancy title at a big company unless you have a fist full of credentials, or have spent a lifetime grinding experience from the low level positions, and making the contacts necessary to get promoted from the ranks. I have done neither, and yet here I am.

It is this gap between experience and reality that is at the root of that nagging question: “is this really happening”? After my first week of orientation at the mothership I do understand why I’m here, and why I have the job I have, but it is the journey towards that understanding that is relevant…and instructive.

Feeling like I don’t fit

I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Edmonton is a little scrap of nowhere surrounded by more nowhere in the middle of nowhere. Neither Edmonton nor Alberta are particularly well known as centers for technological or business innovation. Oh, some of our post-secondary institutions have made a bit of a name for themselves in primary research for nanotechnology and biotech, but if we’re being honest about things, Alberta is about primary resource production and extractions. Farms, forestry, mining, oil, and gas.

What’s important to understand here is that the city where I have lived all of my life does not have a culture where ideas are valued. We don’t so much bring new ideas to life as we do implement other people’s ideas. We don’t design the machine that dismantles a mountain to get at the precious bits inside, we are the ones who use it to do that dismantling.

Albertan culture values conformity, hard work, and the willingness to sacrifice work-life balance in a macho display of false unflappability. If your superpowers are the ablity to generate ideas, analyze large quantities of data, or think outside the box, then in Alberta you’re an outsider. You’re “the other”. Thinking, writing, and problem solving aren’t “real work”. Worse, they mean you are likely to think differently from the group, and where I grew up, different is very – very – bad.

Diversity exists

Fortunately for me, the whole world isn’t the bubble I grew up in. There are places out there where ideas are valued. Where being a big data engine in human form is not considered a flaw, but a superpower.

Through a series of unlikely events, I went from being a generic small business systems administrator, to someone who spend enough time talking to Silicon Valley types that I learned how that world worked. Drew Cullen, one of the principals behind Technology trade magazine The Register noticed me posting rather a lot on The Register’s forums. He plucked me from the muck, taught me how to tell stories, and told me that nobody says “whilst” anymore.

And while I owe almost everything I’ve become to Drew’s decision to drag me out of the bubble I grew up in, he’s totally wrong about the whilst thing. (Alternately: I’m bringing it back. Take your pick.)

Drew made me goodly learn the words making. Many others took a chance on me, and gave me other important opportunities to learn. Rich Pappas, in particular, became a mentor to me, teaching and guiding me. Far more importantly, he would regularly tell me ween I was full of [insert poop emjoi here].

I went from sysadmin to writer. From writer to independent analyst and marketing consultant. And from there to something with “director” in the title; a title that brings with it all those introspective questions that always end in “is this really happening”.

The truth is that I did not teleport into this position. I got here day by day, month by month, and year by year. I learned the ropes the hard way. I failed. I succeeded. And I became deeply, irretrievably embedded in a new culture: one where new ideas are cherished, where analytical abilities are prized, and where out-of-the-box thinking can earn you positions with fancy words in the title.

Insider, outsider, imposter, bingo!

I could write a lot here about the wild emotional swings between triumph, pride, and schadenfreude on the one side, and a deeply humbling sense of impostor syndrome on the other. Had you asked me what my “I’ve got a new job” blog post would be about a week ago, that’s what I would have chosen as a topic.

The thing of it is, my trip to the mothership has me realize that I’m not an imposter. I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve put in my time. From call centers and helpdesk positions, all the way through to writing whitepapers and ebooks tens of thousands of words long. I’ve learned the lingo, played with the bleeding edge emerging technologies, and held my own in discussions about data center design and marketing strategy with some of the best in the business.

I’m proud of that.  ANd just like anyone else who has managed to level up their career in a significant way, I want to strut and preen my feathers. In your face, everyone who’s ever bullied me! Have at you, I bite my thumb at thee, and something in Klingon.

My ego, whilst (have at you!) enjoying its moment in the sun, isn’t actually important. Being recognized for my talents feels good, but I am also painfully aware that I made a crazy amount of mistakes along the way.

That’s the interesting part of this all. I am not special, and yet I got to where I am. I was the bullied, not the bully, and yet I found a place where I belong. There is a niche where people who understand technology and can tell stories are considered valuable. A square hole for a square peg like me.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how much you doubt yourself, or how horrible people were to you because you didn’t fit in: there really is a place for everyone. Though, it can take an exhausting amount of work to find it.

Never underestimate your power to enable others

Drew and Rich may be the two people I call out as being primarily responsible for my personal success, but the reality is far more complicated than that. There have been dozens of people over the years who have been vital to my success.

Many of these individuals are people I have met through conferences, PR gigs by vendors, and at clients that have commissioned writing through my content marketing company, eGeek. The online systems administrations communities have also introduced me to many supportive individuals, with the VMware vExpert community in particular have introduced me to people I sincerely hope will remain lifelong friends.

The dozens of people responsible for my success have encouraged me. They have educated me. They have called me out on my errors, celebrated my successes, consoled me through my tragedies, and generally been decent human beings.

The support of others – their knowledge, their emotional backing, standing up for me when I was bullied, and kicking me when I myself wronged others – all of it made me who I am. Their support was more than kindness or emotional support; their skills complimented me by providing in my life what I could not.

None of us are islands. We are all interdependent on one another. As I mentor other tech nerds into becoming junior writers, I aim to bear my own journey in mind, and retain some semblance of humility. As I write this, I hope I inspire even one person to try mentoring others themselves.

TL;DR

With my new job, my life has changed, but it’s not that change – nor even anything about my life – that is what’s important. What’s important about this new job is that it symbolizes two things. It doesn’t matter how much we feel like a broken toy, there’s a place for everyone. But we don’t make it to where we belong alone, so if you can help others level up at any point in your journey, take the time to pay what others have done for you forward.

If the people around you tell you that you are strange and weird, and that you’re not going to amount to anything, then you’re surrounded by the wrong people. Good luck to you all.

On not dropping the PR and marketing ball

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As a tech journalist and as a commercial tech writer the bane of my professional existence is PR and marketing people who don’t know anything about the companies or products they are trying to promote. The very worst among offenders among them are simply applying “tickbox” marketing and PR; they go through whatever list they were given in school and figure selling tech is the same as selling apples.

Fortunately, not all PR and marketing people are like this.

I don’t have time to praise everyone in tech PR and marketing that are great at their job. There are a lot of you out there, and I love each and every one of you for it. There is, however one comparative anecdote I’d really like to share that should drive home the difference between someone who’s terrible at their job and someone who is truly amazing at it.

Dropping the ball

On the terrible at their job side we have an individual working for a hybrid-cloud-in-a-can company that doesn’t know what their own product does. The solution in question is an OpenStack-based hyperconverged appliance starting at four nodes that has some built-in options to interconnect with OpenStack-based service providers and/or a major public cloud provider.

This isn’t exactly rocket surgery anymore. At the end of 2017, there are a dozen cloud-in-a-can providers, many of which shift OpenStack based solutions. By now, anyone who knows anything about private cloud technology can tell you pretty much all you need to know about this product just by saying “OpenStack-based hyperconverged cloud-in-a-can”.

I published a blog on a tech news website that mentioned the vendor in question’s solution. It was a passing comment as an example of a vendor in the space who has done reasonably well and had a few big customer wins.

A marketing person for this company wrote me to ask that I make some changes to the article. They didn’t want me to mention that they were using hyperconvergence to lash the nodes together. “They’re not hyperconverged” sayeth the marketdroid (yes they are, BTW), they’re “multi-cloud” (that’s a huge stretch).

If that wasn’t enough, the marketing body had a list of things in the article they wanted clarified. From common acronyms to terms of the trade to idioms. There was even a discussion about how “snapshotting” isn’t a verb. (Terrifyingly, this is the second time in less than a month that this particular conversation has come up with supposed tech people who should know better.)

I was blown away. Not so much that a marketing person asked that I change an article to be more “on message” for their client – that’s sadly par for the course – but that someone working for a hyperconvergence-based cloud-in-a-can company doesn’t know that nerds use “snapshotting” as a verb.

Juggling with style

My salvation lies in the part where there are marketing people and then there are marketing people. The polar opposite of Marketing McDerpy up above is the incomparable Jane Rimmer.

Let’s consider a recent conversation I had in the vEpxert Slack. I was discussing with some vExperts how I’d like to do some testing on a node that a vendor is sending me for review. I was thinking about reaching out to a few VDI vendors so that I could use their software to push the node to its limits and include their software (and the results) in my review.

One of the vendors I mentioned directly was Liquidware Labs, who happen to be one of Jane’s clients. A couple of hours later I have email from Jane saying she saw my comment on Slack, and could she help.

I don’t know why I was so shocked by this. Jane’s not some fresh out of school marketing droid eager to sell clouds like they were apples. She’s so devoted to her craft that she herself is a vExpert.

Because of course she is. She’s Jane Rimmer. If tech marketing had a super hero, she’d be it.

The bottom line

Having marketing and PR people who care enough to learn about your product and the market in which you operate makes all the difference. It makes life less frustrating for the writers you interact with. It helps to build a community around your brand. More importantly, it helps everyone understand what it is you do and why organizations should give you money to do it.

The tech industry needs more technologically competent people like Jane Rimmer. The Tech industry needs a lot less buzzword bingo playing derpologists in senior marketing and PR positions.

It’s up to tech vendors to choose whom they’ll employ. And it’s up to us, as buyers of that tech to choose which vendors we support.

Striving for objectivity

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Being accused of being a shill for a company is pretty common for anyone who writes in tech these days.  Writers don’t even have to express an opinion to earn such epithets; simply reporting facts will earn spittle-flecked outrage if someone doesn’t like the facts presented.  Welcome to the internet era.

I am a writer.  I write for technology magazines, directly for vendors, and sometimes for other organizations themselves directly engaged with vendors.  One of the most frequent questions I get is how I maintain any sense of neutrality or objectivity with such an arrangement.

Five years ago I would have been terrified to write about any of this.  Content marketing was still something of a secret.  It was a badly kept secret that marketing types blogged about ceaselessly, but still largely a secret kept from readers.

Today, it’s the middle of 2017.  We are smack int he middle of the era of “fake news”.  There are powerful forces – billionaires and even the mechanisms of entire nations – devoted to destroying the credibility of journalists, analysts and new outlets everywhere.

How these news outlets survive matters.  How marketing works in the 21st century can’t be something we all pretend we don’t know.  Keeping schtum makes everything appear far more sinister than it really is.

Journalists, analysts and writers of all kinds need to get paid.  News organizations, magazines and everyone else who publishes content advertise in order to bring in money.  And yes, you guessed it, traditional display advertising isn’t bringing in the money it used to.

None of this means that writers, editors and publishers don’t value objectivity.  Many – and I personally hope it’s accurate to say most – of us think about bias, objectivity and neutrality a lot.  I know I certainly do.  So this brings us back to the original question: how does someone like me maintain any semblance of objectivity?

I am biased

I start by admitting I’m not objective.  Objectivity is an unattainable goal; all any of us can do is strive for objectivity and hope that.  This starts with understanding ourselves.

I have biases, just like anyone else.  I work hard on self-awareness to not only understand my biases, but get to the root the cause of them.  I am very much a champion of the end user and the small business.  I see “the little guy” as the one whose interests are never met and I tend to be pretty hard on vendors whose only interest is large enterprises.

Being aware of this, I can temper my own natural responses by getting better information from others who work in large environments, who don’t live daily with the budgetary constraints of small organizations and so forth.  For the most part, I know when my own idealism needs tempering.  That’s the start of writing in as objective a manner as possible.

Another part of objectivity is to put the time in to learn.  One reason that lobbying, for example, is so effective in today’s democracies – even when the politicians themselves are trying hard not to be corrupt – is that knowledge is power.

Knowledge isn’t merely power to those who have it.  Imparting knowledge is also a means of exercising power.  A politician drafting legislation can only consider the points of view to which they have been exposed.

The same is true for journalists.  If all we know about a given technology segment is a single vendor’s solution or approach, then we are unwittingly “captured” by that vendor.  To become more objective we need to understand the problem space we’re writing about as completely as possible.

The problem space

Talking about problem spaces in technology writing gets muddled.  Individual technologies can solve multiple problems, and many organizations have similar – but not identical – problems.  Consider, for example datacenter networking.

Ethernet is easily the dominant networking technology in today’s datacenters, though there is still plenty of Fibre Channel and Infiniband to be found.  This is a completely different problem space from WAN networking, where we might talk about SONET/SDH versus OTN.

Datacenter and WAN networking differ in more ways than the individual technologies used.  For example, they have completely different assumptions about link oversubscription.  The east-west versus north-south discussion is very different in both and discussions about asynchronous versus synchronous traffic delivery can quickly veer away from technical considerations and get deeply mired in some very heavy international political and economic considerations.

While datacenter networking and WAN networking are both networking, and both have a number of similar issues to address, they are completely different problem spaces.  This concept of a problem space is very important to any discussion about a writer’s attempt at objectivity.

Subject matter expertise

As a technology writer, even knowing enough about the topic to define the problem space as separate from the various adjacent ones puts you ahead of the pack.  You’re significantly less likely to be subject to bias due to a single vendor’s briefing, and you probably won’t do silly things like write scaremongering pieces about robot apocalypse just because Facebook’s chatbots invented their own language.

Many writers are assigned to a “beat”.  If you’re taking a skilled practitioner and teaching them to write, they come with pre-canned expertise on specific problem spaces.  A network engineer that can write in a coherent fashion becomes a pretty obvious choice to be assigned to the networking beat.

Coalface experience isn’t the only way to earn a reputation for objectivity on a given beat.  Many folks are old school journalists; they overcome the knowledge barrier through constant exposure to a single problem space, or to a set of intimately interlinked problem spaces.

I am more of an edge case.  I am a small business systems administrator.  By necessity, I learned a great deal about a great many problem spaces in IT.  I spent fifteen years as a generalist until, about five years ago, I had to make a choice between writing and full time systems administration.

In my case, the breadth of IT simply became too large for any one individual to learn it all, especially whilst actively putting out fires every day.  Being a generalist is something I enjoy.  I crave knowledge, so I decided to become a technology writer instead.

Most of the time, there is reasonable money to be made writing commercial content (blogs, whitepapers, etc).  It’s highly variable (2016 was an awful year), but in general a living can be made at it.

More importantly, a living can be made writing commercial content without having to write 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  In fact, one can usually get away with writing only about 10% of the work week.  The rest is spent – by me at least – learning.

I do briefings with vendors.  I test products in my lab.  I administer client networks; not because of the money they bring in (which isn’t much), but because they offer me legitimacy as a practitioner, and a place to hone my skills.

This puts me in a different position than many technology journalists.  Instead of being a practitioner who writes on the side, or a full time journalist dedicated to a specific beat I am closer to a professional student moonlighting as a tech writer.

Instead of waiting tables I write commercial content for vendors to pay the bills.  Instead of painting or sculpting as an art, I write opinion pieces and analyses for tech magazines.

And now you understand why I’m such a disappointment to my parents.

Thought leadership

Of course, knowledge’s power in helping the attempt at objectivity isn’t limited to subject matter expertise.  Understanding how the business side of things works is hugely important too.  Being someone who writes for technology magazines as well as directly for vendors makes this doubly important for me, because I am constantly on the razor’s edge of bias towards vendors I work closely with.

As discussed above, getting access to an audience in order to impart knowledge is a key part of getting whatever it is you want accomplished.  This isn’t only true when talking about politics or influencing journalists, its critical when we talk about marketing to end customers.

One needn’t lie to customers in order to sell one’s products, and doing so is almost always a terrible plan.  Telling the truth is far easier in the long run, and more importantly it is usually all that’s required to sell one’s product.  If your product solves a real world need then defining that problem space and demonstrating that your product answers the problems of that problem space is more than enough to keep you in shoes.

This is increasingly the province of thought leadership, which is a specific subset of content marketing.  The short version of thought leadership is that it involves getting subject matter experts – the more well-known and well respected, the better – to write about the problem space in question.

Thought leadership drives market education.  Once the potential customer base is educated about the problem space vendors can move on to the product differentiation stage which is more about sales and less about marketing.

In tech, marketing educates, sales differentiates.

Editorial versus commercial content

Commercial content isn’t limited to writing content directly for vendors. Thought leadership programs can be (and are) run through tech magazines themselves, but there is nowhere near the level of deep process engagement provided by a commercial content writer directly contracted to the vendor.

Going through the internal sales processes of the technology magazines, with their highly firewalled editorial/commercial divide, is the only way vendor can get any sort of content posted to their sites.  Vendors regularly try to bribe writers directly, but we are both ethically and contractually obligated not to do this.  (Additional reading: my page on the Editorial Firewall.)

What’s important to note, however, is that pursuing engagements with the tech magazines directly doesn’t present the vendor with much say over the content.  Let’s look at a generic version of how this works in practice, with the understand that the exact details vary from publishing house to publishing house and that this doesn’t represent any particular organization’s individual approach.

1) Vendor engages with publisher’s sales team and asks for a thought leadership program

2) Publisher tells editor “we are looking for 6 pieces based broadly on topic Y”

3) Editor creates and returns a list of topic ideas, or asks a subject matter expert writer to do so

4) Topics are selected and then writers for each topic are assigned by the editor

5) Writers do research, write whatever they want on the topic and hand it in

Right about here individual publications start to diverge widely.  Some magazines don’t allow vendors to reject articles, others do.

If an article is rejected okay, then the publisher will (usually) pay the writer anyways and a new writer will be selected to write a replacement piece, though some publishers will instead choose to arrange a briefing with the writer so that the writer can correct any misunderstandings they have.

Generally, rewrites because the writer is “off message” but factually correct aren’t allowed.

It is useful to call out the importance of the editor here.  Editors I have worked with are grumpy, distrustful of commercial content in general and paranoid about objectivity.  They don’t get paid to make vendors happy, they get paid to the readership happy.

Also, if something ends up being factually incorrect, they’re the ones who have to spend days in meetings with the lawyers.  Editors don’t care about your marketing message, and that’s a truly excellent thing for everyone involved.

Some examples

Another constraint on thought leadership through tech magazines is that tech magazines don’t allow blatantly commercial content to be placed directly into published content.  Some examples are helpful here:

A thought leadership content run could, for example, contain 6 pieces on why 100 gigabit Ethernet is important to practitioners and businesses alike.  Here is what a sample thought leadership run might look like:

1) Converged Ethernet: what it is and why you care?

2) Now that NVMe is a thing, networking is a hard bottleneck for virtualized systems

3) An analysis of network utilization rates in the modern datacenter

4) Advantages of hyperconvergence and why 10GbE is no longer enough

5) Poll + analysis of results: Who is deploying 100GbE, where and why?

6) 100GbE cabling: it’s not as scary as you think

At most publishers, none of these articles would mention the commissioning vendor unless the writer had a really good reason to include them.  Examples of a good reason would be that the writer is doing a comparative analysis of the whole of the problem space, or the only vendor in the problem space at the moment is the commissioning vendor.

As a general rule, editors will not allow the commissioned thought leadership pieces contain a discussion of how the vendor solves the problems inherent to the problem space in question.  There is some fudge factor allowed: a general discussion of how the problems could be solved would be allowed.  Specific looks at how a specific vendor solves a problem would not be.

Where this might get confusing for some is that it isn’t unusual for subject matter experts to write deep dives into a particular vendor’s approach to a technology, but when they do so it is not usually part of any paid program.  It’s because the writer, on their own initiative, decided to do so as a regular piece of editorial content, and they’ll usually have a good reason for it.  For example, because a given vendor solves a problem in a particularly interesting way.

Sticking to our networking theme, one might have run across a number of editorial pieces on how the use of RDMA in networking and specifically how Microsoft implemented it.  The press this implementation received was because Microsoft’s market share at the time was overwhelming, RDMA was relatively new, the numbers achieved were impressive and the numbers without RDMA were significantly less so.  Microsoft didn’t have to pay people to write about the awesomeness of their specific RDMA implementation: the tech press did it with minimal prompting.

Product differentiation isn’t news.  It’s not analysis.  It’s not education.  It’s not even opinion.  Product differentiation is pure sales.  It gives editors gas, and rightly so.

Advertising

This doesn’t mean that tech magazines don’t do vendor awareness or placement.  Some tech magazines might run display advertising along with the thought leadership pieces.  They may run blatant content marketing, but with a “sponsored content” warning on it.

Some publishers even offer the ability to bundle up editorially published thought leadership pieces along with some connective text into an ebook that the vendor can distribute, adding an “insert” at the end that contains a much more sales focused “here is how our products solve all the problems outlined in the ebook”.  Note that the insert would never be circulated by the tech magazine as editorial content and would be called out explicitly as sponsored content in the ebook version.  That editorial firewall thing again.

Many tech magazines offer “lead gen” programs in one form or another.  These are attached to webinars, newsletters/e-mail blasts, surveys or other forms of mixed media engagement.  People who sign up for these events get their information given to the vendor, and the vendor’s sales teams follow up.  This is more typical when the driving force is not market education (marketing) but product differentiation (sales).

Even here, however, tech magazines can separate editorial content from commercial content.  For example, the vendor might get the contact info of everyone signing up for a webinar, but may not have control over the content in the webinar.  The content may be left to a “panel of experts” recruited by the tech magazine.  Similarly, while surveys may net leads for the vendor, the analysis based on the survey results may be completely under editorial control, and the vendor may not get much (if any) input into that.

Vendor involvement in these forms of advertising is much clearer than vendor involvement in thought leadership programs, which is probably why there is so much FUD surrounding thought leadership.  Thought leadership can be – and is – done badly, or even deceitfully by unethical publications.  Fortunately, in tech at least, most of the magazines seem to be utterly paranoid about strict editorial firewalls, as do a great many of the writers and the blogging community at large.

The utility of content marketing

Thought leadership, both as seen in tech magazines and when the content is written for and distributed by vendors, is usually about market education.  It works on the assumption that one’s product is good enough that anyone who fully understands the problems they are facing and the potential solutions will leap at the chance to buy the vendor’s product.

Readers get utility from this sort of writing because they get to “peek around the corner”.  It’s great to be able to get a look at problems experienced by enough organizations that startups are beginning to appear and larger vendors are taking note – before they impact you.  Today, for example, 100GbE is only just starting to take off, and there is lots of room to write some articles about the triggers for considering 100GbE, and the real world considerations of deploying it in established datacenters.

Direct engagement with tech magazines are something of a gamble for vendors, but they usually pay off.  If the editor approves the piece, and it is factually correct, the writer gets paid no matter what the piece says.  The writer’s duty is to the truth, not to the vendor.

For many vendors looking to engage in content marketing this isn’t a particularly big issue.  They want thought leadership specifically because defining the problem space is the hardest part of marketing.  It requires subject matter experts, preferably those who have experience as practitioners, and who can write about a topic in an engaging manner.

This then is how and why I make money.  I get paid not to bamboozle or to shill, not to obfuscate or confuse.  I get paid to learn, and to pass that knowledge on to others.  Not all vendors think this is valuable, but even those vendors who prefer more classical approaches to marketing help me get paid.

We are all lucky – writers, vendors and especially readers – that there are still magazines and news outlets for every aspect of life that put the time and effort into establishing and maintaining an editorial firewall.  The more that “alternate facts” are the norm (in marketing, and society in general), the higher the value ascribed to the truth, and our first duty must always be to the truth.

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  • Published: Oct 5th, 2016
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The secret antagonist in Luke Cage

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Like many of you, I’ve just finished watching Luke Cage.  Personally, I consider it some of the best television every made.  The characters are compelling, the plot was decent, the acting was beyond great and the show was littered with subtle attention to detail that made it memorable.  Unfortunately, Luke Cage also revealed something truly terrible about humanity.

[SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers about season 1 of Luke Cage]

Unlike many other shows, Luke Cage doesn’t have a single, central villain.  The show instead centers around three primary antagonists: Cottonmouth, Diamondback and Black Mariah.  There is also a fourth (meta)antagonist is who makes everything truly horrible.

Cottonmouth, who is cousin to Black Mariah is a pretty straight forward gangster.  He is simultaneously repulsively amoral and oddly sympathetic.  Like The Operative in Serenity, he is aware that he is a monster.  Moreover, in rare moments of seemingly earnest introspection he seems to genuinely be interested in using the power and wealth he obtains to make his scrap of nowhere a better place.

Again, like The Operative, Cottonmouth seems cognizant of the fact that he will not be welcome in any “better place” he creates.  He is aware that his methods are amoral, unethical and unwelcome.  Unlike The Operative, however, Cottonmouth has a desire for personal wealth, power and “respect”, which undermine his noble goals and make him vulnerable to an obsession with Luke Cage that ultimately destroys him.

If Cottonmouth is a villain that seems reasonably typical, he’s also easily the most complex.  The writing and the acting both cause Cottonmouth to strain against the tropes that bound the character and there are real moments of insight into the complexity of human thought and motivation.

The other two of the show’s villains are straight up tropes.  Diamondback is the completely unhinged psychopath with daddy issues hellbent on murdering Luke Cage.  Black Mariah is Lady MacBeth.

The fourth antagonist

Diamondback cooks up a special bullet called the Judas which is designed specifically to kill enhanced individuals like Luke Cage.  When two of the bullets fail to kill Cage, he and Black Mariah cook up a scheme to sell a slightly toned down version of the bullets to the New York Police Department (NYPD) and have them mow Cage in their stead.

This makes perfect sense for the characters: above all, Diamondback wants Cage destroyed.  Black Mariah wants ever more political power: selling these weapons will provide both funding and a political feather in her cap.  This reveals to us the fourth antagonist: the human race itself.

The secret to the Judas bullets is that they are made from Chitauri metal.  The Chitauri are the aliens who invaded Earth and attacked New York in The Avengers.

To me, this represents the existential horror of the show.  Judas bullets are manufactured from scavenged Chitauri metal for the sole purpose of killing the very people that saved the Earth from that invasion.

That’s horrible in and of itself, however, the various politicians fall all over themselves to buy the things, and there are police officers who simply cannot wait to use them.  To the point that when a police officer is begged by one character to save Luke Cage by using the Judas bullets on Diamondback (who was very close to killing Cage), the police officer, with a cold and menacing sneer, replies simply “no”.

Perhaps what bothers me most is not even the eagerness of a scared public to design weapons to kill their saviours.  I do understand that the public is being depicted as feeling powerless in a world that now contains enhanced individuals.

What shocks and appalls me are the reactions of real world viewers of Luke Cage to this phenomenon.  many have said to me they felt the villains of the show were weak, or mundane.  That the plot was too simple.  They never even considered the idea that the real villain was our own collective willingness to bend our ethics to breaking out of nothing more than irrational fear.

Real world viewers of Luke Cage, by and large, don’t seem to have stopped to consider the cold calculation of Black Mariah’s promotion and sale of the Judas Bullets, nor that her use of existential fear of enhanced individuals is far more damaging with much longer term repercussions than the violence and bullying of Cottonmouth and Diamondback.

The fact we are so inured to that sort of fearmongering that we barely even notice it is shameful.  That we no longer see see xenophobia and those who whip it up as “compelling” shows the true horror of Luke Cage: we ourselves are the true villains of the piece.

On Left LIbertarianism

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Recently, I self identified as a left libertarian.  I have been asked what a “left libertarian” is.  This is a frequent question by those who associate libertarianism with social conservatism and the right of the single-axis political spectrum.

The following is my personal take on politics, the concepts of libertarianism and essentially “who I am”.  Please understand that others will, of course, define terms differently, depending on how it suits their worldview.  (Words appear to have no absolute meanings in the age of the internet.)

The political spectrum as I understand it

To be able to understand what I mean when I say left libertarianism, some background and terminology need to take place.  The political spectrum is really broken down into three axes.  Social (progressive <-> conservative), economic (laissez faire <-> planned) and intervention (libertarian <-> authoritarian).

Social progressives believe that everyone is equal and we should not be allowed to group people and then discriminate against them.  Discrimination can be in the form of organization, economic isolation, refusal of service or physical or psychological harm.  I am strongly socially progressive, as are most left libertarians.

Social regressives believe that some people are worth more than others and/or that we should have the right to group people and then discriminate against them.  This is a strongly authoritarian view on both the left and the right.  They differ mainly on who they’d like to be the outgroup.

Authoritarians – whether left or right – believe that state power should be used to enforce moral beliefs.  This ties in closely with social regression.  Outlaw abortions, outlaw homosexuality, so on and so forth.  The authoritarian left, for example, typically has strong moral beliefs regarding things like GMOs, nuclear power and so forth.

Looks like you've had a little too much to think

Libertarians – whether left or right – believe that the state should interfere in the life of the individual as little as humanly possible.  Libertarians believe that, by and large, people should be allowed to do whatever they want to do

Left libertarians and right libertarians tend to split predominantly upon along economic grounds.  Both groups believe strongly in market economies, but left libertarians believe in regulated markets for some verticals, with state control of certain key industries.  Most right libertarians believe very hard core in Randian laissez faire economics.

Three views of libertarianism

Personally, I view the difference as that between those who believe in evidence-based legislation and regulation and those who believe in an ideologically “pure” form of capitalism that is for all intents and purposes a religion.

There is another form of so-called “right libertarian” that isn’t libertarian at all.  These false right libertarians are actually nothing more than hypocritical authoritarian bigots using the term “libertarian” to refer to freedom only for the group with which they self-identify.

These false right libertarians are violently against anyone interfering in their lives or telling them what to do, but demand the “right” to dictate what others may/may not do.  The classic example is the individual who protests the building of a mosque but rallies to demand Christian prayers be said every day in school.  Or the individual who protests against public social services for children but demands women not have the right to an abortion.

Believing in “one rule for us, another for them” isn’t libertarianism.  It is bigotry and authoritarianism.

My own beliefs

As a left libertarian I believe that some services are “natural monopolies” that can only be provided either by the state, or by the free market in the context of a heavily regulated environment.  These would include things like national defense, fire protection, education, utilities (power/heat/telecommunications) food (see: lethal pet food, poisoned baby food, etc), parks and recreation, social security/basic income and health care.

We pay taxes and we receive these services.  We also pay taxes to ensure oversight and regulation in areas commerce where industry has proven they are willing to overlook externalities in their business model.  These include things like environmental regulation.  (Not poisoning our drinking water is usually good, and not something industry has a history of giving fvcks about.)

Here is the field in which I grow my fvucks. Look upon it and see that it is barren

In essence, the “left” part of left libertarianism means that I understand important concepts like The Prisoner’s Dilemma, The Tragedy Of The Commons and that both corporations and individuals are not rational actors in an economic sense.  (The myth of “enlightened self interest” is just that.)

Thus the existence of a social contract whereby we voluntarily surrender part of our individual freedom – in the form of taxes – in order to receive a greater benefit collectively than we could ever achieve through individual irrational investment and uncoordinated selfishness.  (My hobby: getting a bunch of left libertarians together so we can all argue about what parts of that social contract are required.)

What sets me (and other left libertarians) apart from other “leftists” is that I emphatically and overwhelmingly believe that, where not absolutely necessary for the state to intervene, the state should keep its nose out of all of our business.  I don’t believe the state should be used to force others to comply with a particular group’s moral beliefs.  Regardless of the group.

Let’s look at some examples.

The war on drugs: taken in moderation, many – if not most – illicit substances have benefits for the majority of people.  The problem, however, is that they can do very bad things to a minority.  Education – not prohibition – is the answer here.  Portugal has proven this.  America’s prison system has shown what happens under the prohibition model.

Censorship: this is a complicated topic.  For the most part, I believe in freedom of speech.  The big exception is incitement of violence.  At some point speech does become a very real and present threat to public safety and action should be taken.  In accordance with my libertarian view speech should be pretty extreme before the state steps in to censor it.  Extreme enough that even in nations of a billion people (such as India) they can be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Insurance: Insurance is an example not a lot of people think about when talking about libertarianism, but it serves as a great example of where different interpretations can and do clash.  For the right libertarian the ideological purity of unregulated capitalism holds primacy, so they would allow insurance companies to discriminate based on gender, etc.  As a left libertarian, I believe that equality holds primacy and thus accept regulation of the insurance industry to ensure everyone is treated equally.

Spying: I believe governments shouldn’t spy on their people.  Nor on the civilian population of allies.  Too often has this sort of power been used not to protect against existential threats such as terrorism, but to seek out political dissidents and silence them.  The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  That vigilance is not the burden of the state, seeking to protect its own power, but the burden of the individual to protect against the undue expansion and misuse of state power.

Removing planks from the house of privacy to build the fence of false security

I could go on for quite some time, but I think you get the drift.

Thoughts on localism

Government encroachment on individuals is arguably more impactful the smaller you go.  The condo board has a greater chance of interfering in your daily life than the federal government.  Similarly, the condo board is far more likely to be interested in what you, personally, are up to than would be your federal government.

Here – as with anywhere else – the discussion is one of balance between the common good and the rights of the individual.

For example, it is rational and supported by evidence that laws exist requiring individuals and corporations to shovel any public sidewalks on their property within X hours of a snowfall.  This is a clear health and safety issue.  Left unchecked, unshoveled walks become icy and dangerous.

Part of the social contract is that we give up our “right” to be lazy douchecanoes and shovel our walks for the common good.  There are other possible ways this social contract could be handled.  Taxes for shoveling could be levied communally and all public walks be handled by the municipality.

What is irrational and not backed by evidence is a social policy of leaving the walks unshoveled, or leaving it up to the individual to shovel “if they feel like it”.  Such a social policy would also be highly discriminatory.  While young, wealthy and able-bodied individuals might be able to afford the right clothing and tools to safely navigate a city of unshoveled walks, a significant percentage of the population could not.

Thus a minor surrender of individual liberty (a requirement to shovel walks or the paying of taxes to have them shoveled) results in greater liberty for the majority and prevents an unacceptable instance of “one rule for us, another rule for them”.

A converse example is that of condo board regulations against air conditioners.  Most cities have laws about volume levels emanating from individual properties.  X decibels until 11pm, for example, and then Y decibels until 8am.  Assuming that these laws were implemented as the result of a rational and evidence-based approach then condo boards should have no call to ban air conditioners that do not breach these laws as there is no evidence to support a rational appeal for restricting the individual for the common good.

Despite this, almost all condo boards claim the right to control the installation of air conditioners.  Some will allow you your air conditioner if you “get permission”.  The granting of this permission is all to often arbitrary and rational for denial or acceptance unevenly applied.  This is abuse of power.

Some condo boards will simply allow no air conditioners at all, though not because of noise regulation; they instead use aesthetics as a rationale.

All of these condo board examples are what I would consider unacceptable infringements upon individual liberty, despite the fact that they are occurring from the most local source of extra-household authority I can think of.  Locality doesn’t guarantee fairness, justice, equality or even that the individual has an equal (or any) say.

The condo board example was picked deliberately because it is a controversial edge case.  When we buy a condo we are presumed to be fully aware of the rules.  If the rules are put in place we are presumed to have a say in the creation of those rules.

Anyone who has bought into a condo and lived with the arbitrary rulemaking and enforcement typical of such entities will know that both full initial disclosure on purchase and ability to affect the creation/enforcement of rules are actually rarely true.

The very personal scope of impact combined with the statistical likelihood of both mild corruption and a lack of any effective oversight make condo boards a great place to stop and ponder about the level of regulatory intervention in the lives of individuals that is acceptable.

Skeptical child smoking a pipe.

As you might expect, a narrative that points out the susceptibility of local regulatory bodies to overreach doesn’t play well with the false “right libertarians” who are actually bigoted authoritarians.   These frequently champion localism blindly specifically because it allows the creation of enclaves of exclusion.

False right libertarians view keeping outgroups away from them and the places they want to be as an important part of their personal liberty and thus typically demand the ability to discriminate and restrict others based upon local legislation.

The localism issue is also a point of contention for true right libertarians.  They are typically very much against government interference in the life of the individual.  Yet part of what they view as the rights of the individual is the right to voluntarily form groups, cliques and so forth that decide what the rules of everyday life are going to be.

Unfortunately, in reality, we don’t all get to choice which groups we’re part of and thus the rules to which we are subject.  This is what causes me depart from the own-group-centric view of right libertarians.

The right to choose

As a left libertarian, I am sympathetic to the right libertarian viewpoint, but also bear in mind the rights of those who don’t get to choose.

The false right libertarian concerns himself with the idea that your right to swing ends at the tip of his nose.

The true right libertarian believes that not only does your right to swing ends at the tip of his nose, but that his right to swing ends at the tip of your nose.

The left libertarian believes that not only are our rights to swing bounded by the tips of one another’s noses, but also concerns himself with the fact most of us don’t have a say in the rules, regulations and laws under which we live.

As this discussion is about my own beliefs, I will use myself as an example.  I am a Canadian.  I did not choose to be a Canadian.  My nationality, citizenship, all of its attendant laws, social contracts, international perceptions and more were thrust upon me.

I was born in the city of Edmonton, Alberta, and I have never been in a position where I could live anywhere else.  I have never had the money to move.  If I wanted a job (generally considered requisite to reliably obtain shelter and food so as to survive our winters) I had to get an education, and ultimately a car.  This required crushing debt that I am still paying.

I did not vote for the people who created Canada’s constitution, nor the overwhelming majority of our laws.  I had no say in the creation of the regulations and so forth that govern much of my life.

If I do not obey these laws, then I will be fined or even ordered to jail.  If I don’t pay the fines or I refuse to voluntarily go to jail then people with guns will give me a choice: go to jail or die.  I live under laws imposed upon me under threat of death.

What is important to remember is that those who come after me will also live under laws imposed upon them under threat of death.  Laws that my decisions will affect.  Whether those decisions be action (such as voting, protesting, agitating, etc) or apathy, my choices have played will play a role in creating or affirming laws.  Or, through apathy, simply not altering the extant.

The importance of apathy cannot be overstated.  I firmly believe that – politically, at least – silence is consent.  Choosing not to speak out when confronted with the unethical, corrupt, egregious or atrocious is to condone those acts.  The future is shaped at least in part through our acts of will.

Homer fiddling on an ipad while the plant melts down

Currently, this idea of the rule of law is the most stable society we know of, so it is unlikely to change any time in the next several generations.  While it is easy to chafe at the restrictions imposed by this societal structure, we also bear the burden of responsibility for shaping the regulatory environment of the future.

I thusly concern myself with electing people who will agitate for the lowest possible number of laws.  I strive for laws that will intrude as little as possible into our lives while still bearing in mind that those laws impact not only myself and people “like me”, but everyone to whom they apply.

We will never make perfect laws.  We will never find the perfect balance.  We can never perfectly predict the future.  The best we can do is use a strongly rational and evidence-based approach and hope that we get it right most of the time.  Science, logic, evidence and compassion are the best tools we currently have at our disposal.

Equality and evidence then are key.  For myself to feel that laws are just, but also so that the legacy I am creating is fair, just and honest.  Freedom for me and for thee; today and forever more.

That is what it means – to me at least – to be a left libertarian.

On Canada’s future

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Canada is considering replacing it’s current First Past The Post electoral system with some form of proportional representation. The topic is, to say the least, controversial. I have some thoughts.

Political Background

A consultation process has been put together to provide a recommendation to the current Liberal government who will then either choose to implement that recommendation, or not. The Conservative party is agitating for a referendum before a proportional representation system is put into place. The Liberals are unwilling to commit to a referendum.

If proportional representation is passed the Conservative party – but not necessarily conservatives – lose out.  A referendum on the topic is the last ditch hope of the Conservatives to preserve the First Past The Post system, and they will do anything to avoid any form of proportional representation.

Traditionally I have been a very strong believer in referendums. I certainly wanted them for a lot of the legislation the Harper government forced upon us, however, the Conservatives were vociferously and vehemently against referendums whilst in power.  Now a referendum is their best change to obtain and retain power in the future.

This, right here, is the crux of the whole debate. The electoral system we choose determines who gets into power.

If the politics of 21st century Western nations can be said to be have a single shining thread it is one of stark – and increasingly violent – partisan polarization. Once a party gets power compromise is verboten, and those who voted for other parties simply do not get representation.

It is easy to look to the United States’ gridlocked congress and see any number of politicians acting like spoilt children. Tantrums occur regularly and threats of “shutting down the government” through inaction are the new normal.

The political equivalent of holding one’s breath until they pass out, however, is not a uniquely American approach to governance. The iron fist and the terrible twos are political duopoly of the now in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, the Netherlands, etc. Pull on that thread and you can unravel the tapestry of any Western nation.

Cons

Moving away from First Past The Post potentially changes which groups of individuals receive how much representation dramatically. Canada’s current system massively over-represents people in rural areas.

Around 20% of Canadians live in rural areas. Around 45% of Canadians live in urban agglomerations of more than 1 million people. That leaves 35%-ish of people in urban areas of less than 1 million people.

Between 25% and 30% of the Canadian population is estimated to so hard core a Conservative voter that, if you painted a pig blue and ran it in the election they’d vote it in to office. This statistic is actually really consistent across most western nations, with the exception of the US and Australia.

By and large rural voters vote Conservative. More to the point, most of them form the hard core of the conservative base: staunch and intractable social conservatives. Let’s call a spade a spade and say that the % of non-conservative rural voters is functionally a rounding error and that 20% of that 25%-30% of hard core conservative voters is rural.

The percentage of intractable core Conservative voters among individuals in urban agglomerations has been estimated at less than 5% of the urban agglomeration population, and that’s pretty much all in Calgary. We’ll call that 2.5% of the total Canadian population.

That leaves between 2.5% and 7.5% of the Canadian population who live in urban areas of less than 1 million people as the unmovable block of Conservative voters. In other words, the more rural you get, the more Conservative you get. Common knowledge, perhaps, but the statistics matter in this debate.

In today’s First Past The Post system 39% of the votes, if they’re the right votes, will get you 55% of the seats and 100% of the power.

If proportional representation of a % of the vote = % of the seats = % of the power system is adopted, then the Conservative party can no longer be assured of 100% of the power by moving towards the center only enough to convince 9% of Canadians that they’re the party likely to do the least amount of damage.

Under proportional representation if the conservatives what iron glove-levels of absolute power they will have to adopt more moderate views, and that risks severely alienating their socially conservative base. The conservative party is not monolithic. It has split before (remember the Reform party) and it threatens to do so again on a regular basis. (See: Conservatives and Wild Rose in Alberta.)

Why proportional representation?

Dispensing with political correctness (personal blogs are great that way), the reason that proportional representation is required is that the 20% of the population not living in cities don’t get to wield so much power that get to dictate what the 80% of women who live in cities can do with their bodies. I’m sorry if that’s a little forward, but after so much theoretical talk, a practical example is required.

By the same token, I’m pretty sure city folk have no business telling rural folk they can’t own guns.  Tyranny of the majority is no more acceptable than tyranny of the minority.  The balancing act is what we call politics.

Done right, proportional representation has a very beneficial side effect: it forces compromise. Ruling unopposed with an iron fist requires actually convincing the majority of a nation to elect you. In a Westminster-based multi-party parliamentary democracy that’s not exactly easy, and good luck to you with that in Canada.

Change happens slower, but to be perfectly blunt about it, that’s fine. The irresponsible overgrown children we keep electing to misgovern us end up having a significant portion of their lawmaking undone by the courts anyways, making the heedless rush to foist unconstitutional social change pointless expensive anyways.

Taking the extra time to make sure that laws will pass legal muster and don’t alienate over half the nation is a good thing, and something we are only likely to get from an electoral system that makes minority governments the likely outcome.

Why not proportional representation?

The biggest reason not to desire proportional representation is that huge chunks of Canada have almost nobody in them. What about those ridings up north with less than 100,000 people that get their own Minister of Parliament? Do their voices disappear?

Rural voters also deserve to be heard. You or I may disagree greatly with their views, but they are human beings and they deserve a voice in their government. Their beliefs deserve to be considered, and their struggles, failures, problems and triumphs all deserve just as much airtime in parliament as that of any other Canadian.

Cross purposes

The problem nobody wants to talk about is that minority groups aren’t represented by today’s system. When was the last time parliament really gave a bent damn about what happens in the Territories?

How many Canadians know about the horrors our government visited upon indigenous peoples through the Residential Schools system? Did you know that the last Residential School didn’t close until 1996>? Or that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement wasn’t agreed to until 2005 and that our government didn’t apologize until 2008?

Okay, so it’s easy to point at indigenous peoples and say they’re marginalized. A whole lot of Canadians really don’t care about that, hence why they’re marginalized. But the system not serving minorities hasn’t exactly been doing wonders for the white rural voters either!

The whole reason that the Reform party came into existence – and why it keeps threatening to re-emerge – is that rural voters regularly feel they aren’t adequately represented by the Conservative party. And the truth of it is, they’re right!

25%-30% of the population being hard-core social conservative is between 14% and 9% shy of actually being able to form a majority government under First Past the Post and pass whatever laws you want. They don’t get to run things unless they convince others to vote with them.

Those 25%-30% of hard-line conservatives, however, by dint of refusing to ever vote for anyone except the most conservative party don’t actually matter. The only people that matter to whichever Conservative party happens to be dominant is the 9%-14% of voters necessary to gain power. The 25%-30% can be functionally ignored because they aren’t going anywhere.

These are some uncomfortable truths, by the are the real power dynamics that underpin our current electoral system. Having a few MPs for the territories doesn’t get those people representation. They’ve been ignored for ages and will continue to be unless something changes. Similarly, rural voters will continue to be taken for granted unless something changes.

That something is proportional representation.

Minorities represent!

In a proportional representation system minorities become kingmakers. Many on both sides view this as a bad thing; who wants those holding a political view in extreme opposition to theirs to be a “kingmaker”? In truth, however, this isn’t a bad thing.

There are a couple of ways minorities hold power in proportional representation. The first is minority governments. Minority governments don’t have enough votes to make law. Thus they have to find allies in independent members of parliament or with other parties. These alliances can change on an issue-to-issue or topic-to-topic basis.

Coalitions are another way this can work. In a coalition two or more parties agree at the formation of the legislature that they will hammer out a mutual agenda and govern as one. This usually leads to “horse trading”, where party platform items are negotiated amongst the parties in the coalition until an agreed upon set of laws for the term is reached.

Like any good compromise, both minority governments and coalitions result in combinations of laws that nobody really likes, but everyone can live with.

Ultimately, that’s politics. Canada is never going to be a socially conservative unrestricted free market paradise. It isn’t going to be a libertarian utopia or a socialist heaven either. Canada will always be a set of compromises made by the people who live – and lived – within her borders in the hopes that we can all live decent lives and not kill each other over ideological divisions.

Mixed Member Proportional

Some argue that Canada should adopt a Mixed Member Proportional solution which would, in essence, layer a number of new parliamentarians over the existing system. This would allow for individual ridings to elect a member based on a First Past The Post system and one or more representatives from a larger constituency.

In theory this allows small ridings to be represented by someone who, in theory, represents their local needs, cares about the same things they care about and will vote on their behalf. By adding a number of new representatives in much larger proportional constituencies votes from any one region could theoretically look more like the actual vote distribution.

This won’t work.

First off, Mixed Member Proportional will merely increase the number of representatives without really addressing anyone’s concerns. Amidst the much larger parliament those small local voices will be signal lost in the noise.

More the point, Mixed Member Proportional ignores the fact that, without parliamentary reforms that remove the right of party leaders to force MPs to vote along party lines, local MPs are useless. On the rare occasion they dissent against their party they get kicked out and their riding gerrymandered so that they won’t get re-elected.

Speaking of gerrymandering…it’s a huge problem, and it underlies why most of Canada is clamoring for proportional representation anyways. Gerrymandering is about changing the size and shape of ridings in order to change which party the members of that constituency will vote. Once difficult, in today’s era of Big Data analytics gerrymandering to get exactly the result you want is absurdly easy.

Today it is used to make sure that you can get elected with only that 39% of the right voices by the Conservatives, and to try to stretch that number out a bit by everyone else. It is frequently scrutinized and you can only tweak the numbers so much before people scream.

Under Mixed Member Proportional, however, all the focus will be on the proportional representatives, leaving the local ridings to get twisted into bizarre and non-representative configurations largely without notice. A minor concern compared to the rest, but a real one nonetheless.

Single Transferrable Vote

This brings us to Single Transferrable Vote. For reasons that would make this already lengthy blog far too long to read many of the existing Single Transferrable Vote systems are dumb and Canada should not adopt them.

Keeping things short, Canada should probably be looking at adopting a Single Transferrable Vote system with constituency sizes that are between 7 and 9 members. This lowers the threshold of votes for a party to elect a member in that constituency and gives small parties – or independents – a better chance of being elected.

Along with this, Canada should probably adopt an open list Single Transferrable Vote system. The reason is simple: open list gives voters more say in the individual MPs that get elected. Closed list leaves that up the party entirely, and local is complicated enough to make my head hurt something fierce.

Canada has a unique opportunity here to learn from the lessons of other nations. We have the option to choose the shape of our future in a very real, very tangible way.

An open list Single Transferrable Vote proportional representation system has the best chance of ensuring that every Canadian – especially the currently underrepresented, underserved and simply taken-for-granted minorities – have a say.

Yes, it will require that Canadians work together to build the future of our nation such that it benefits all of us instead of taking turns trying to thwart the “other side” like petty children. But isn’t that what being Canadian is about?

So let’s do this Canada. For you. For me. For all of us, wherever we live. It’s time to leave the electoral system of the 18th century in the past where it belongs and forge a new system to meet the needs of the 21st. A Canadian system.

Faith is the enemy of success

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I realize this is highly impolitic to say, in tech it is a really bad idea to be one of those people who allow their faith to guide their every decision.  Believe whatever you want, but the idea that things will work out “just because”, or because a given group/individual/organization was traditionally (or is currently) dominant is patently absurd.

Faith in this context doesn’t mean simply belief in a deity of some variety.  People – especially in tech – become irrationally attached to corporations.  Especially if employed by them.  This attachment becomes faith, as strong as any religious devotion, and just as irrationally immune to logic or evidence.

Just because Microsoft, for example, traditionally dominated the endpoint market doesn’t mean they will forever.  Indeed, by most calculations Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) have a much higher share of the endpoint market than Microsoft.

In response, Redmondian faithful limit the discussion to only talk about traditional desktops and notebooks, because limiting it to that subset of endpoint means that they can continue to believe they are dominant.  They then use their “dominance” to justify all sorts of upsetting things, ranging from compromising the integrity of the Windows Update mechanism (including the Security Updates portion!) to removing the right to control updates, to obscene VDI licensing.

That this fanboyism persists beyond the corporate borders is even more alarming.  It affects customers, partners, ecosystem developers and, sadly even journalists and analysts.  (In my personal opinion this would include Ed Bott as regards Microsoft and Gartner as regards, for example, NetApp.)

I submit to all present that VMware is purposefully fostering this level of Blind Faith.  They are actively attempting to build it not only amongst the customer base – as would be expected from any current competent marketing outfit – but that they are working exceptionally hard to create such an environment amongst their own staff.

This is a problem.

Staff who are blindly loyal to their organization contribute to corporate hubris.  They are incapable of objectively analysing competitors for threats.  They are also trapped in a logic loop where customer needs equate to the product sold, and nothing more.

For many, the foundation of this loop is that customers continue to buy the product(s) in question.  Sales are taken as validation that all is well and that nothing needs to change.  The concept of “they aren’t customers, they’re hostages” is heresy and can’t seem to be considered directly by the mind of the faithful.

For VMware the result is a company where the majority of their staff are simply unable to conceive that their private/hybrid cloud software is wholly inadequate, both in functionality and in pricing.   The minority that speak up are considered trouble makers.  They are either disciplined or subjected to intense peer pressure to keep quiet.

The same holds true for VSAN.  Dogma says it is adequately priced, superior to all opponents and required no major evolution.  Any new functionality that is added – to VSAN, the cloud suite or anything else – is not due to need, desire or requirement.  It is a “gift” to the customer base, developers and ecosystem partners from VMware.

And if those groups aren’t adequately grateful, VMware will retaliate.

We can change names and products and have this conversation about many organizations.  Oracle comes immediately to mind, and is certainly worse about corporate hubris than VMware.  (Though the argument about who is worse, Oracle or Microsoft, could go on for ages.)

Roadmaps can and do exist at these organizations.  They may even address some or all of the concerns that customers or analysts have.  Unfortunately, once a corporation has reached an adequate level of hubris those roadmaps tend to be too little, too late.

Microsoft, for example, is kicking VMware’s ass at private and hybrid cloud ease of use.  The Azure stack should be viewed by VMware as a screaming klaxon of emergency WTF, but it is functionally ignored at all decision-making levels of the organization.  VMware has their nearly impossible to install, configure, administer and use vRealize suite and since that is seeing horrible uptake, clearly the market for private/hybrid clouds is limited.

Boy are they in for a rude awakening!

Similarly, there are still companies out there – from startups to VMware itself – selling (and pricing) hyperconvergence as though it were a product.  It’s not.  It’s a feature.  And all those many and myriad companies that can’t wrap their minds around it are going to get wrecked in very short order.

The examples are many.  The companies and products and failures I can pick on are many.  But it keeps circling back to one thing:

Faith.

The instant you rely on faith to justify your belief in your company’s inevitable and unending dominance you’re done.  You don’t serve your company because you have lost your objectivity and are thus blind to threats.  When the majority of a company – or even just the majority of charismatic influencers who can bring social pressure to bear – at a company relies on faith the whole of the organization’s fate is sealed.

Leave faith behind when attempting analysis.  Of your own company.  Of your competition.  Of anyone.  If you don’t, you may find that the company to which you’ve dedicated your faith is just another name on the list of “might have beens” that litter the history of tech.

Mindspiders

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We – the collective noun in this case being a vaguely accusatory finger pointed at citizens of the “western world” – are really very bad at talking about mental health issues.  We either come up with slang terms that succumb rapidly to the euphemism treadmill or we misuse clinical terminology that is itself constantly changing in meaning.

What do we mean when we say we are depressed?  Are we talking about an occasional bout of sadness, malaise, or lack of motivation?  Something deeper and more lingering?  Or the clinical view that some part of our brain’s activity is on the less active side of the bell curve?

And what about anxiety?  Anxiety is so complex and interwoven into other mental health issues that I am almost certain nobody experiences it the same or has quite the same triggers.

How many people equate the word schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder?  How many people know that this got renamed to “dissociative identity disorder”?  How many people are aware of the theory of serotonin in creating a “spectrum” of disorders that have the Autism Spectrum Disorders (autism, ADHD, OCD, Depression, Aspergers and so forth) on the one end and Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders (dissociative identity disorder, borderline personality disorder, psychosis, etc) on the other?  Or the fact that quite a few prominent researchers disagree with the link between the two groups of issues?

Mental health issues are huge, complex, difficult to understand and constantly changing.  Is it any wonder we’re bad at talking about it?

Despite all of this, precision isn’t always necessary when talking about mental health issues. A huge amount of what needs to be said or understood is simply that there is a problem, the individual involved is aware of it and that they either do or do not need help.

Please do not use, machine is filled WITH BEES

Please do not use, machine is filled WITH BEES. (Image stolen from http://syntactician.tumblr.com/post/57788867672/filled-with-vs-full-of)

The specific details of what is wrong on that day might not be known to the sufferer.  Or be something that they can easily describe.  I, personally, am someone who primarily engages in non-linguistic cognition, so converting my internal issues into something that is exacting and precise isn’t always possible for me.  And I’m a writer by trade.

That said, we do need to talk about these issues, and I think abandoning the pretense of precision for a more effective metaphorical approach can and does help in the majority of circumstances.  TO this end, I have created the term “mind spiders”.  (Though this rapidly got concatenated to Mindspiders, capitalised by users to indicate that it is a proper noun…and somehow made all the more terrifying in the process.) Other insects – bees seem like a good choice to some folks – seem to work just as well.  (Personally I like spiders, but I that only adds to the meta of the term Mindspiders and ohlookarabbithole…)

The mental image of a person’s head being filled with spiders does a marvelous job of conveying what many mental health issues feel like, as well as give us many lovely ways to expand upon the terminology to explain what is going on without requiring precision.

If I say “the Mindspiders are unusually active today” you get my drift without a lot of further discussion required.  I’m having a bad day due to an unspecified mental health issue.  If I say “sorry, I’m taking a few minutes out to placate the Mindspiders” you can fairly easily grok that I’m doing something necessary to achieve a more positive state of mental health.

This is an effective form of communication, even if it does inevitably lend itself to some silliness.  In practice, I’ve found that it enabled communication about mental health issues, especially amongst individuals who still have a number of social stigmas and taboos about mental health to work through.

It is important to think not just about what we are attempting to communicate, but how we choose to do it.  We are human.  We aren’t Vulcans or robots.  Sometimes indirection and metaphor make difficult topics easier.

So good luck out there, and don’t let the Mindspiders bite.  Or, if they do, bite the little buggers right back.

On the why of social media

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As I write this blog post, I am a little inebriated.  There is some madness to the method and some method to the madness.  The alcohol occurred as a byproduct of a fairly irrelevant social obligation to a friend, but a long (and probably irritating) rambling conversation with my wife triggered something of a revelation about internet usage for me.

I have a theory about the popularity of social media amongst adults: we use it because we want to talk about the things we think about and care about.  But we want to do so without irritating or offending the people in our real world lives that we care about.

One great example from my own life: I sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about my high school and college years.  Days of youth and experimentation, drunkenness and wild drama llamas.

I really want to talk to about many of these events and people with others, because I am still to this day fascinated by many of them.  They are sociological puzzles, and my mind likes puzzles.  Why did this person behave like this?  How did they (or didn’t they) change with time?  How did this event 15 years ago contribute to who this person is today?

My wife doesn’t care.  And, to be fair, why should she?  She’s as fascinated by intellectual puzzles as the next nerd…but these people mean nothing to her.  They are a dizzying array of names and places and events all wrapped up in drunken memory, nostalgia and might-have-beens.

So, I want to discuss my thoughts, and ponder the imponderables, and think on how these people were reflections of the society of the time, their parents, their schooling and so forth.  It fascinates me.  But I don’t want to bore my wife to tears.

So I write a blog.  I talk on a forum.  I fire off only vaguely comprehensible missiles on social media.  I suspect – though I have little proof other than some intellectual puzzle solving – that this is ultimately why so many of us “waste time” on these mediums, too.

We want to be wanted.  We want to talk to others who think like us, and nerd like us and care about what we care about.  We want our past to mean something and our future to hold hope and promise.  And as much as we love, respect and admire our friends, family and loved ones…few of us ever find that perfect combination of individuals in our real lives that share an interest in all of the bizarre aspects of our personality.

Social media is the 21st century equivalent of howling our loneliness at the moon and seeking relevance in the tedium of our existence.  It is a lifetime of missed opportunity, sexual frustration, confusion, misunderstanding, screw-ups, mistakes, successes and triumphs.  It is our emotions of the moment mixed with curiosity and the desire for validation.  It is a social lubricant even if the only we’re trying to disinhibit is our own selves; to allow ourselves to think the thoughts that bother and fascinate us.

We like to think that as adults we are so much more put together than we were when we were kids.  But somewhere deep inside us there is a scared, confused teenager trying to figure out what to do with everything from impulses and instincts to thoughts about hypocrisy and questioning authority.

We turn to the internet as a place that seemingly has no consequence…even if we know better.  The people we talk to are avatars.  Names, but not faces.  They come and they go; if we offend one group, there are a billion more to choose from.

Being an adult is about having learned what not to say and to whom we must not say things.  Social media is the pressure valve; the outlet for all that we suppress.  That’s why we love it.  That’s why we hate it.  That’s why we’re ashamed of it.  And that’s why we can’t give it up.

 

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