Silly Idea: Balanced Budget Tax

When I was in my teens and twenties, I was a Reagan Republican. I watched Family Ties and never understood that Alex P Keaton of Family Ties was meant to be a joke. I looked at certain things and said "Its simple and thus makes sense." and with the blinders of youth went my way. One of those things was that if you lowered taxes continuously eventually you would starve the Government beast and have a smaller government. Well 30 years later, we have found that when you untie spending from taxes.. "We the People" will just treat it like a Credit Card and spend spend spend because we are sure that we will somehow be richer in 2 weeks and be able to pay it all off.

I could blame Congress for this, but well Congress is just people that "We the People" have the responsibility of voting into and out of office and keeping track of what they do. And basically as long as they gave us stuff and billed us later we have been over-all happy with them. So anyway, as an experiment in a great line of experiments that the American democracy has had, I would say that "Starving the Beast" has been a flop. So its time to come up with something radical from the other side of the coin. If "we" will spend like crazy when Taxes are down.. then lets raise see about the other route. Thus a call for the Balanced Budget Tax:

All taxes are raised per year to make sure that the United States Budget is balanced, and any outstanding debt will paid off in no more than 20 years. Congress may not put off costs to future years but make sure that any program is paid for with current funds. (Basically treat the current debt as a traditional fixed rate mortgage that we will pay off in 20 years.)

I have the feeling that this might have a stronger incentive to get people to understand what is being spent and what for. If a super majority of people want more government programs it is paid for now versus future generations.

Yes this idea is too simple and would fall over badly in the real world... however this seems to be the year of silly idea.


When Designing Products for System Administrators

System administrators are a usually very grumpy lot. In the 22 years of being a system administrator of some sort or another, it has been a rare job where I have not been split between 4 tasks, 3 managers, and multiple goals. Most of the people I have known have rarely become system administrators by choice but have been thrust into it by some outside influence (oh the printer works when you jiggle it.. your now the sysadmin.) Usually time for training or learning new things is non-existant... managers (even those who were once techies) seem to have an idea that a System Administrator just needs to see a new box and will know everything about it like some evil wizard from old. It is a myth that many of us System Administrators or Bastard Operators try to keep up in some form because a) we either don't feel confident enough already but are good at faking it, or b) we already overworked and need as much alone time as possible to keep what hardware we have running.
These are things that I have found most developers of system administration tools and configurations don't get. Looking at some of the insane configuration tools from AIX SMIT to HPUX SAM, we end up with configuation tools that you require about 6 months of deep training to be able to get it to boot and stay up reasonably well. Yes it does inspire a certain kind of brand loyalty.. a sort of passive aggressive one that is also something BOFH's and SA's are known for. For my part I try to evaluate any tool or product by what I call the 2am pager incident:

Take a product and get it running. Then spend 24-48 hours awake working on some other hot project that has to be done by X. After you finally get to sleep, set up the pager to wake you at 2am. If you can rebuild, configure and get the product working by 6am it can be used in production. If it can't be it is too complex or unreliable to be useful in any server environment. I came up with this test after having this happen multiple times at both my first consulting job and then my first job at a startup. I would never deal with Digital OSF or HPUX again because of this complexity, but found Solaris 2.4 and Red Hat Linux 3 to be perfectly workable (AIX was just fun to have smitty run and fall over.. at 6 am its always funny).

The second test is to get the new administrator to get it working. Always give them a 24-48 hour deadline and then 'break' it just after it has been put up. If the new administrator can fix the system without having to call technical support its a good sign. On the other hand if the sysadmin quits or sets the box on fire... its probably not something you want in production.

While I have been using these tests for 10+ years now to good results, I have found that most senior sysadmins have similar rules (though the can you configure it after a quart of jagermeister is just too extreme for me). In the end they come down to the following:

  1. Assume that your customer is under-trained, tired, but does not want too much to get in their way of finding and fixing a problem.  Clippy should only be there if you can set him on fire at 6am. 
  2. Put configuration files in obvious places. Putting some configuration files in /etc and others in /var/lib/moo and some elsewhere is definitely a killer."
  3. Document what flags do. No one wants to find out right before the presentation that '--clean' cleans up bad data but '--clean --clean' reformats the whole Database.
  4. Make sure that commands are simple, easy to remember and
  5. "Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you're as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it?" - Brian W. Kernighan and P.J. Plauger, The Elements of Programming Style, Second Edition
  6. "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." -- Albert Einstein 
  7.  "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -- [possibly] Albert Einstein
So when creating things for an enterprise, cloud, cluster, or small business system... please try to remember that the person who is either going praise you OR send fecal matter in the mail to you is going to be tired, irritable, and overworked when the problem occurs. [Not that I think that fecal matter should be sent to developers.. I have just seen it happen before]


Things to Think About

Todays SANS newsletter had a quote from a poem that hung in Mother Theresa of Calcutta's childrens home. It is probably unknown how these words got from a 19 year old 1969 student leader to Mother Theresa.., but I think they have a resonant feeling towards Linux in general and Fedora in specific. [ I won't comment on some of the pretentiousness of the title or some of the wording.. I remember quite a bit of bluster I had when I was 19 years old.]

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

One of the things that happens over and over again in Fedora is things get built and then thrown away. We have changed scripts, we have changed backgrounds, programs that were here in FC-1 are gone.. and it can be quite frustrating. On the other hand, many times its the lessons learned and insights found that make later things better or just different.

[I keep saying this to myself as I go looking through the F-14 systemd and wondering why all the stuff I am used to is going out the door.]


Santa Fe Opera: The Magic Flute

We went on Tuesday to see the Santa Fe Opera's production of The Magic Flute which was very very nice. It was a special for kids so there were lots of young ladies in tiaras and various other groups (Big Brothers supposedly had a nice tail gate party before the opera got going).

It was the first Opera I have been physically to having grown up listening to the weekly Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts :). While this was billed as the final dress rehearsal, it still came across smashingly. I can see why the part of Queen of the Night is so demanding.. the famous aria where she is asking Pamina to kill Sarastro was breath-taking. The children found that Joshua Hopkins performance as Papageno was hilarious and while Charles Castronovo's Tamino was very strong, I heard many girls wonder if Papageno and Pamina were going to get together due to their time together in Act I. [Actually I think it had to do with the clothing choices for Pamina, but more on that later.]

The set design was really well done, it was a minimalist design which works well with the outdoor Santa Fe opera, and the kids were ooohing at how the set would have hidden doors in the walls, and would completely transform into the prison of Act II. For the most part, the children seemed enthralled except for the part of Act II where Tamino and Pamina join together to go through the trials of Fire and Water. Here the set was way too minimal using only color and the children were all quite fidgety around us as the two actors really tried to show they were undergoing great threats.. I think having some items appear out of the hidden doors looking like fire and waves would have made it a bit more real to them.

The costume design was interesting. The Queen of the Night and her ladies in waiting were very well done Elizabethan clothing. The court and followers of Sarastro were a more fitting 18th century Enlightened which fits their role. Sarastro's 'baddies' were goose-stepping uniformed thugs which the kids and audience immediately caught on. Papageno and Papagena were wearing more 20th century cloths that showed the more 'rural' nature that they were supposed to represent. Tamino wore an 18th century armour in the beginning which worked as he is sort of transformed from the Queen's court to Sarasotro's over time. However Pamina's costume had many of us guessing. It was more of a 1950's bobby sox and fit more with Papageno's clothing than anyone else on the stage. I believe it was what caused the confusion of some in the audience during intermission. [Actually that would be an interesting twisted opera rewrite... where Pamina ends up with Papageno and Papagena marries Tamino. However I believe that would be more like Gilbert and Sullivan.]

I wanted to say that the performances of Ekaterina Siurina, Andrea Silvestrelli, and all the others I have not mentioned were really good. I do not know if it is still fitting, but on the curtain call I really wanted to throw roses at the stage (though I would have missed and probably taken some poor violists eye.) The orchestra was splendid, and I hope to see them later in the season.

Anyway my non computer related post of the month.