Thursday, August 26, 2010

Manners, Planners, and Ball-Peen Hammers

I spent most of my 26 year career in computer programming (Good Heavens, has it been that long!?) as a defense contractor, and one of our most sacred precepts was to be, above all, polite to the customer, namely, the federal government.  I have had the opportunity to work with (in order), the war planners -- U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and civilian personnel -- at a joint command (U.S. Strategic Command), the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a Naval shipyard, before settling down as a database administrator for a municipality.  And I cannot recall once, ever, being intentionally rude to a customer.  Now, I'm sure it happened anyway -- rudeness, I mean.  When I was younger, and particularly when I was under pressure (which seemed like, well, all the time), it wouldn't take much to make my forehead sizzle and my blood pressure percolate.  I'm here to testify, the federal government is a very trying customer.  But I fought against my urges, and for the most part, I like to pretend that I succeeded -- with a spectacular failure here and there.  I was certainly held responsible for my lapses and made to feel ashamed of them, as I should have been.

Now, I'm on the other side of the customer-contractor relationship, and at some point during the intervening years, something changed.  Maybe it's my perspective.  Or maybe it's the incentives.  I don't know.  But I deal with contractors now on a regular basis, and I haven't noticed that they particularly value anymore the old injunction to be polite to the customer. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Yesterday, I was explaining to a project manager for one of our vendors that, no, we cannot grant system administrator privileges to a service login -- it's bad architecture for their application, and it's bad security practice for our organization.  So we did finally arrive at a compromise, after some degree of wailing and teeth-gnashing.  After that, though, I got involved in a different project and of course there were still some emails flying.  It wasn't clear to me that I was required to do anything more, but apparently,I was very much expected to create a service login and password and give it to the vendors.  Finally, I got an email from the vendor's project manager that said:  
"When are you going to give us a login/password?  We are patiently waiting."
Now, part of this is the problem of email: it's hard to email a tone of voice.  But I maintain that it is hard to misread that remark; it seems very sarcastic.  It's what my sixth-grade teacher would have said if I were in arrears on a homework problem.  It's what my Mom would have said if I were eight years old and holding up dinner by having to go wash my hands.

Bolstering this interpretation is that others in the office had already dealt with this particular project manager, and so there was already a reputation there for authoritarian rudeness.
It's like the customer-contractor relationship has been inverted.  The customer is always wrong -- or at least always the obstacle to success.

This is by no means the only example I can tell of contractor rudeness.  It seems to make little sense from an economic perspective, but that may not be the way things actually are.  If a contractor makes promises to a particular office and then has trouble meeting their stated goal, the IT shop is always first in the line-up, first in the dock, and first to the Guillotine as the "preventer of Information Technology."  Nine times out of ten, your organization will side with the vendor, who promises the moon, over IT's own gratification-denying m.o..  If IT is successfully portrayed to upper management as the buzz-killing culprit, we get upbraided and the contractor wins.

Security is one of the big issues.  In IT, nobody wants to talk about security issues.  They cost time.  They cost trouble.  They force a vendor to think very clearly about what he really needs, and most don't want to spend the resources to do that.  (I ought to know; I was a contractor; I understand deadlines.)  If granting sysadmin rights saves time, the vendor will insist you do that and may just go into a snit about it.  A month or so ago, with a different vendor, I was having a go-around with their rep and insisting that they plan on not having a sysadmin-login for the application.  The contractor wasn't rude at all, but he did shrug and insist confidently, "We've never had problems with security."
Which is beside the point, because security is not their problem; it's our problem.  If someone sneaks into the system and starts committing electronic vandalism, who risks getting fired?  The contractor?  Nope.  That would be, uh, someone else.

I think some people are nice by nature, and can't be any other way, even under pressure.  I've worked with a few people like this, and they are a joy to be around.  Some others are not nice by nature, and can't be any other way, no matter what the inducement.  I've worked with a few of those, too, and it makes you want to hit yourself on the head with a ball-peen hammer just to create a welcome distraction.  (And at times, I fear, I have been one of those.)  But I think most people are nice sometimes, and mean sometimes, but tend to respond to the incentives to be nicer than they might like to be, or would naturally tend to be.  It's why capitalists are nicer than communists.  It's why customers are generally more rude than vendors.  As a counterexample, it's why post office and DMV workers have a reputation for rudeness.  But not every customer-vendor dynamic is the same, and apparently, that's what I'm seeing.

I'm a thankful man, or like to pose as one.  I love my job, I love my work, and I love the economic rewards.  And in this day and age, I'm thankful to have it.  Surely I can find the grace to accept vendors no matter how much they may try one's patience.  I'm happy I didn't respond in kind to the project manager, and believe me, that's casting against type.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Configured Code of Society

(I have been debating the merits of gay marriage over at Vital Remants in the comments section, and at some point in the debate became amazed at the lack of respect for tradition in the arguments in favor.  It prompted the following paean to conservatism, slightly edited, from me.)

Concerns about such things as hospital visitation rights are red herrings. The real goal of gay rights activists is for official and public recognition of gay marriage as normal, wholesome and mainstream. If the little solvable problems were all solved, that wouldn't end the crusade. They want the marriage certificate. Today, many have embraced the notion of justice in the form of gay marriage. A couple of generations ago, gays were persecuted, often even by Christians. Who knows where it will be in a couple more generations? Justice that depends on man's good opinion is here today and gone tomorrow. Some scoff at the Bible as the single standard, but the truth is that there are Biblical principles for treating women and slaves well. The word of God has a way of working itself into men's consciences and causing sin to come to a head.

Today, many have embraced the notion of justice in the form of gay marriage. The claim is that rationality demands it, an odd position for anyone to hold who doesn't believe in God. Anyhow, interesting that rationality has been taking it on the chin even in the halls of philosophical academia for more than a century. That's what happens when God is rejected as the explanation. Philosophers have tried for centuries to derive reason and morality starting with man as the foundation, and mostly have wound up eschewing reason altogether. I believe in a God that created reason and morals. Good luck finding an eternal principle based on personal opinion.

Unfortunately, gay rights aren't analogous to women and slaves. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that being a woman or a slave is a moral failing -- unlike homosexuality, for which such indications are emphatically present. If you believe in Paul's authority as an apostle of Christ, you are compelled to take seriously his condemnations of immorality. (If you think he only picks on homosexuality, though, think again.)
In a democratic republic such as ours, the rights of Christians and non-Christians are, or should be, equally important. Slowly but surely, the legal barriers to the gay lifestyle have all but disappeared. Christians can no longer require gays to live in a manner that they approve of. But that's not what this issue is about. The issue is about requiring society as a whole, including Christians, to grant approval to gay relationships. Approval is a different thing than tolerance, and that's where the line is drawn.
Why can't gays just be happy with Christian tolerance? I know the answer. Liberals love to destroy institutions. They live for it. Marriage is just another notch in the holster. Some institutions have needed to come down and come down hard, no question. In case of slavery or Jim Crow, break glass and use liberals liberally. But not all institutions are bad, and many of them are essential to society in ways we can't begin to quantify.
I've met a few liberal computer programmers in my line of work, but most of the ones I have worked with are conservative. In fact, being a programmer myself, it makes me wonder how anyone can be a programmer and not be a conservative. Programming teaches you a lot about life by rubbing your nose in a number of important concepts. The limits of human reason. The fragility of complex systems. The difference between desirable and possible. You can change one line of code and have it break the entire system in unpredictable ways. The scary part is that no one person understands all there is to know about these systems. A lot of what passes for knowledge is wishful thinking. I see this every day.
Society is a complex system, too. We conservatives have our problems. We can be callous, for starters. But if there was one thing I would change about liberals, it's their willingness to breeze into the configured code of society and start hacking on it without a care in the world. Hope and change and all that. The change lives on when the hope is long gone. Liberals need to appreciate what we already have accomplished and to realize and respect how fragile the system is, and what they risk when they figure wrongly.
(Vital Remnants is a blog run by Martin Cothran, a philosopher and author of textbooks about logic.  He appears to be a Catholic -- are all Thomists Catholic?  He runs a hospitable blog and loves to discuss many of the ideas I think are important.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to Lose Wealth

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit posted the following link today:
"IS THERE A HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE? Irate law school grads say they were misled about job prospects. 'As they enter the worst job market in decades, many young would-be lawyers are turning on their alma maters, blaming their quandary on high tuitions, lax accreditation standards and misleading job placement figures.'"
If you boil economics down to a tar-like fundamental substance, it amounts to this:  wealth is a function of knowledge.  Also, I suspect, vice versa.  If so, it follows that any economic policy or circumstance that decreases wealth also decreases the value of knowledge, which will eventually result in the loss of that knowledge.

In a thriving economy, there are lots of transactions.  Purchases.  Sales.  New businesses.  Mergers.  Acquisitions.  Plenty of opportunity for members of a fallen race to mix and mingle.  Therefore, plenty of opportunity for people to, well, screw each other over.  Hence, the law, and hence, lawyers.  The busier we depraved little capitalists get, the more we need lawyers to help us sort things out when the participants in a transaction quit singing, "Happy Days Are Here Again!" and start singing "Where Is the Love?"

And the converse:  the weaker the economy, the fewer the transactions, and hence the less demand there is for lawyers.

I understand why the law grads are irate.  But good luck suing the school.  They teach law, remember?

A year ago, in what I hope is one of my most tedious posts, I wrote the following:
"Economic woes tend to strike us at a primal level. The knowledge we have fought to acquire over the course of a lifetime has meant much to us in our struggle to distance ourselves from the desperate poverty that has dogged humankind throughout history. Within a few short months, a lousy job market can render such knowledge as worthless as a politician's promise. If the insurance companies go under, there will be no need for the actuary. If the software firms go out of business, there will be no role for the programmer -- or the DBA. We fear that we may need to acquire the knowledge of subsistence -- to learn how to grow vegetables and raise chickens in our backyards to feed ourselves -- and find ourselves at the bottom rather than the top of the knowledge ladder, worse off than the dirt farmers and food-gatherers who have been doing just that all along."
Thomas Sowell says the United States is headed for collapse.  When that happens, everything I know about administering databases will be worth very little, and so will the knowledge possessed even by the most seasoned lawyer about how to write a superb legal brief.  We'll both be studying how to keep the caterpillars off of our tomatoes and the neighbors out of our chicken hutch.