Viva Las Vegas

A few words about Las Vegas:

It’s a strange town.  There’s the sudden and overwhelming artificiality of The Strip, but if you go more than a quarter mile beyond it in any direction, you find yourself in the most banal and faceless suburb known to man.  It’s a rather strange contrast between the aggressively over the top, and the aggressively normal.

The tournament itself is the standard NFL fare.  It’s easy, drawn out schedule conceals the fact that the tournament is pretty poorly run.  I think it might be that they obsessively quadruple check everything, but somehow my tournament director’s mind rebels at any tournament that takes 3 hours to break from 30 students to 14.  That really shouldn’t be that difficult.  And I gather supplementals and consolations ran even more poorly; my student described EdComm quite colorfully as “a slowly moving pile of f#@%!!”; I hear the second round of Impromptu launched a good three hours late.

The awards ceremony was ridiculous on two fronts.  The first was the ridiculousness inherent in the thing; the first student to actually haul in a trophy for talking got it a good 75 minutes into the show.  We were treated to an, ahem, inspirational speech complete with movie music straight out of Dances with Wolves.  For unintentional comedy, that rivaled the infamous blessing by Sister Someone-or-other in Chicago CFLs 2006 and Ted Turner’s amazing drunken ramble at NFLs in 2002.   Both my own team and the Scarsdale contingent were doubled over.  I thought Vaughan was going to have an aneurysm.

I had proclaimed earlier in the week that Joe and I should maintain the life goal to someday get kicked out of an event for bad behavior.  We certainly did our best right then, but no one shushed us or asked us to leave.  They were probably cracking up too much.

I suppose a responsible coach might have shushed the kids up and made them struggle to compose themselves out of respect for the event and the sponsors thereof, but I actually won’t have anything to do with that.  The NFL disrespected its own event enough to let an hour and change go by patting itself on the back before recognizing actual students.  The NFL lets their sponsors and celebrities cross that magic line from supporting to dominating the actual event — I noticed, for example, that the humorous final panel didn’t have a single actual forensics coach on it.  It was mostly celebrities and sponsors.  Were I a coach of a HI finalist, I would have been ripshit.  As it was, I was still rather offended.  So as far as I was concerned, the NFL had the guy babbling up there, and so the NFL could take the consequences.

Then my team went on to clean up.  We had a semifinalist and three finalists, and the finalists each went on to win their events outright.  Apparently it’s some record to win three national championships — Storytelling, Editorial Commentary, and US Extemp — so that’s something.  It certainly meant a lot of effort shipping things home the day after the tournament.  A good problem to have, that.  And it was nice, in a way, since all four students were talented and deserving sorts who’d worked hard all year, and were smart and eager kids.  But still, it was a little surreal.

The story of the Storytelling is itself a story, which will be told later.  Charlie called me after he had heard the news — he was judging the Ed Comm final and was very offended I hadn’t told him which student was mine so he could automatically give him the worst rank.  He’d asked me to tell him results since he was wisely skipping awards, but in the hoopla and picture taking I had neglected to do so.  He found out anyway and called to issue congratulations.   He told me to play some money on #3 that weekend since the luck was apparently good.  I did, and it hit, which is a $1,050 payout.

I should listen to Charlie more often.

The kids shipped home I spent time doing Adult Things in Vegas, which translates into spending a ridiculous amount of money on food and laying by the pool and such.  Yesterday and today I’ve been feeling a little upset of the stomach, which is unfortunate, but it’s also slowed me down some.  I slept alot and now I’m waiting quietly in a Panera for my flight time.  I think I prefer the aggressively normal bits, banality and all, to the over the top bits.  I never did get the Camp gay merit badge.

The Night before Nationals

It’s the night before I depart for Vegas and the NFL Tournament. I have a sequence of horrible flights, but I can’t really complain too much since they’re a freebie from the airline. I also now am on some list of terrorists, so I can’t check in online anymore. A guy who’s never been out of North America and always travels with 5-15 adolescents, I guess, is highly suspicious; probably true, but not usually for carrying bombs. Pattern matching software is notorious for generating a huge number of false positives. Ah well, there’s a website where one can register one’s bafflement at this condition and see what happens. I bet I’ll get audited, though I’m sure the cavity search tomorrow will be gentle.

It’s raining. It’s a beautiful rain; that cold humidity in the air making one unsure if it’s hot or cold or both at once. It’s thundering, and pouring, which is something of a summer ideal for me. Watching the rain fall in a warm summer night with little lights here and there under the leaves just fills me with a sense of normalcy. You see, I grew up in the shadow of a mountain that flung thunderstorms at us with clockwork regularity. We get far fewer down here in the coastal areas, and I miss them, so whenever one does come roaring through, it quiets and comforts.

I mention this because this last night and last two weeks have had a pace of normalcy about them that’s often missing from the forensics life. Tomorrow I’m headed to Vegas, but I’m also staying longer than the tournament, and explicitly going to have a good time. The presence of the national tournament is tangential at best. It helps that I’ve come to not care about the NFL and its Nationals one way or another. They make their tournament too big a deal, spend too much time backslapping coaches publicly, and it’s a little too much about sponsors; no sense of a balance there. Most of all, they run their organization entirely on the incorrect assumption that everyone sees it as the singular apotheosis of forensics, which prevents them from seeing, or at least acknowledging and correcting, certain problems.

The NFL for me is now eminently skippable, while once upon a time I saw it as a Big Freakin’ Deal. But at this point it’s hard for me to see anything in forensics as a Big Freakin’ Deal. I’ve run tournaments, I’ve had kids win them, I’ve had them lose, and I’ve not noticed much long term difference between, outside the fact that kids sometimes learn something. I also lose respect for tournaments each time I realize that education and competition are at cross currents. It irks me when I tell the kids to do things that I know risks them defeat. I won’t compromise on that, but it saddens me when I become aware of it. And it really kills me when the kids themselves — and every kid I’ve ever coached has done this — push back and do the lesser thing to win the tournament, and get a trophy in return for their integrity. Bad trade.

The NFL does that to my kids more often than most tournaments. I hear the collective voice of NFL judges pushing back at me through the students’ mouths a lot, despite the fact that we don’t even get ballots back and so we don’t actually know why NFL judges do what they do. The tournament overall has a distorting effect, and cheapens the education I feel I can present my students. So I go there tomorrow, but I try to leave no wake, make no waves, and remain as anonymous and concealed as I can. And hope to God nobody asks me to fix their !@$#%!@ website.

IT: Visionaries and futurists

The field of IT and system administration is infected by a lot of visionaries. It’s a relatively new field; by the most generous definition there have only been IT workers and sysadmins for 40 years. That makes computers and IT a sexy field that people who feel they’re so utterly brilliant that they can make livings predicting the future love to talk on and on about it.

There’s no shortage of visionary types. Lots of them end up in New York making and then losing piles of money. The financial markets are really nothing more than a huge gambling sport going on, in which every player thinks they understand the fiendishly complex game better than the other players. They’re right for a time and then tragically wrong. It’s no surprise they come to be wrong no matter how brilliant they are. After all, they’re making bets all over the place; one person is invested in Latin American mining interests, Chinese textiles, and European luxury goods. Another person might be in American software, Finnish timber, and Korean steel. How can anyone reasonably expect to understand all these industries well enough to even understand the present, never mind guess what’s going to happen?

They certainly don’t. So instead, financial analysts build models. They abstract out the way they expect a given industry works, and use that model to describe the characteristics of a company that should expect growth. They then use that model to try to find companies and investment opportunities that match those few magic qualities that make a sector successful, and bet their stakes — and other people’s money — on that. That’s all investing is; trying to distill what really matters in the face of the impossible task of fully understanding the wide world.

And it’s also why investing is perilous. Models are necessarily finite in their understanding; they only capture a subset of the data in an economy, and a subset of all possible conditions. They work for a time, if at all, but never forever. When the economy shifts underneath the model, the model’s assumptions might no longer be true, and investments made on it will turn out to be bad. If that happens to a particularly popular model, we have a Wall Street meltdown, where a whole lot of smart people look awfully stupid since they forgot at some point that their understanding of their own markets was extremely incomplete.

Technological futurists tend to be equally flawed, but they have the advantage that no one seems to care when they’re wrong, and keep buying their books anyway. It helps when you don’t have a billion dollar bet riding on your prophecy, I suppose. But lately Nick Carr has been the worst of the bunch; a deanship of the analysts that Rob Enderle ceded when he hitched his wagon to Microsoft and Microsoft turned out not to be the leader of anything anymore.

Carr is fond of telling us that IT is dead, and that computing power will become yet another utility; a power outlet, a hot water pipe, or the like; you plug in anything into any power outlet in America and the expected thing happens. There’s nothing that differentiates one type of power from another, one company from another, besides cost. And then power becomes a platform for other innovations, but it’s nothing that anyone should do on their own.

Carr makes the link that computing equals power, and then leaps further to say that a company can get no competitive advantage by innovating in IT, just like companies no longer have their own water turbines and gasoline powered generators. Any IT innovation is just going to be copied by your competitors and turn out to be null anyway.  That means everyone has the same IT, and therefore it’s commodity; you can’t compete better with better electricity, and so you can’t compete better with better IT.  So by all means, outsource whenever you can and concentrate on your “core” business, whatever that means, and wait for the day when email and computing power is standard and is in the “cloud.” This magical “cloud” will take over and rule all.

When people ask me what the computing cloud means, I never have an answer, because I have no friggin’ clue. I think it means he assumes Google is going to do all the programming for me. That would be nice, but I doubt it.

First, Carr’s hypothesis assumes an equal level of competence among company managements. Anyone who’s ever had a boss can tell you otherwise on that one. It also assumes equal talent among workers; also untrue.

Finally but most critically, Carr’s leading “insight” rests on a flawed assumption of what IT does. A lot of people see me and my compatriots as the tenders of the sacred shrine of the machine room; we know the rituals and incantations to Keep The Damn Things Running, and we should be measured in how well we do so. Lots of sysadmins see their role like that too. If that were the entirety of it, then yes, we could be outsourced I suppose to wherever you please, and computing would become a utility.

But keeping the damn things running is truly only the prerequisite to what we really do. My company, like most these days, is about knowing things. Knowledge gets turned into value and that gets turned into profit. These days, also, companies have much more data than fits inside people; so they’re in databases too vast to understand. They need to be processed and abstracted to derive the value. That’s what computing power does; processes data into knowable bits of things, taking the conditions of the world and trying to turn them into insight. You don’t truly know how to use a computer’s potential until you know how to program it.

The sysadmin is the gatekeeper. Our job is to funnel the business’s need to understand and use the data it already has, together with its need to keep it safe from disaster, secure from attack, and available on demand, into actual technology that can do these functions. Can that really be outsourced into an appliance? I doubt it; it’s a custom application. One type of database will not suit the needs of everyone, even within a narrow market. One type of communications medium may be perfect in one place and horrid in another. Everyone uses email, in a standard way, but no one does real business computing in a standard way, since there’s no abstraction that makes it general for all purposes.

Software programming is hard. It’s very abstract and fiendishly difficult to manage shifting requirements and changing ideas of what it should do. It’s hard because it’s an attempt to translate human desires — grey, ambiguous, difficult to communicate — into the concrete thought structures of software. Things that are that difficult and that intricate — and that tied and tailored to specific needs — are not easily made into commodities. Commodity implies one size fits all, but in this case, the detailed complexity of many problems demands one-off solutions.

As long as one-off solutions are necessary — as long as the nature of what I do changes dramatically whenever I take a new job, even if the description matches exactly the previous job’s — then there’s no opportunity for commodity economics. Indeed, people taking Carr’s advice and relying on “the cloud” will find that information — their most important resource these days — will be hard to find and harder to access.

And it’s no mystery to see how this happens. Carr’s a writer, not a sysadmin, and not an IT worker. He studies the problem but he doesn’t live it, just like a financial analyst on Wall St. He comes up with a model and applies it to the real problem, and generates headlines by making counter-intuitive pronouncements that you can get something that’s always been difficult — computing — for no effort and investment. He himself probably uses entirely commodity applications; can survive solely on a diet of Google mail and word processors and the like. But understanding doesn’t come from that; understanding comes from integrating details together; things that sound right can often be proven wrong when they come into contact with reality.

Expertise comes from the bottom up; knowing which factors lay in wait to trip up a big plan with a small snag, and being able to recognize a brilliant synthesis of a thousand details. In a way, if Carr were really analyzing, he never would have come up with his model and thesis; the data and analysis needed to provide a more complete vision of the IT industry would have been sufficiently difficult to assemble on computers that he might have recognized the role IT workers play in making that process easier.

So no, IT isn’t going away, nor should you want it. IT cuts can sometimes look good on paper, but the inefficiency drag that results in the rest of your business can easily set in and make your business sluggish, unresponsive and unaware even of what’s going on inside it, never mind in your market as a whole. The more expert your IT folks are in both technology but also your business itself, the more agile things will be. But if that bridge between technology and the business is never built, and you assume it’s just a commodity to understand your data, well, things will likely go very poorly.

I do this too much

I had a sure sign today that I have too many responsibilities in forensics. The Nassau Inn emailed me asking me after the standard details for the Princeton tournament; when were the tournament dates, how many rooms in the block, etc. These are all issues that I do provide advice on for any of my tournaments.

The trouble is, Princeton is not my tournament. They did ask me last year, but I had to say no, because I was already bringing kids to GMU. Then, at Columbia, Admiral Menick tries to talk me into adding Princeton, mostly because he likes the restaurants there. And now I’m running the tournament by acclamation of the bloody hotels; how they knew who I am is beyond me. I’m not sure exactly how I got appointed the chairman of the northeastern collective tab room. I suppose, in a volunteer-driven world, you just need to start doing a job, and sooner or later it acquires official weight.

But thankfully, it’s not much of a problem to foist that one off on actual Princetonians. The summer is a nice time; I don’t do much tournament management, apart from calming down an occasional Yalish panic attack. The Yalies sometimes fail to understand that the likelihood no one is coming to their tournament is lessened with every immediately sold out hotel block we acquire. But anyway, during the summer, I actually get to build curriculum for my camp, which then also informs the curriculum for the coming year at South. I’m also chairing the NCFL Extemp committee, trying to tackle issues there about moving the questions themselves forward, along with the Computers in Prep Question. I still think computers in prep is a huge Pandora’s box, but for now the power requirements of 210 separate laptops in prep put the idea out of practical reach anyhow. But it’s nice to think sometimes about this actual activity, and the reasons why I do it. I like nicely run tournaments so I run them, but at the end of the day, it’s the coaching that keeps me doing this.

And I try as much as possible not to touch much code, apart from a few weekends here and there when the mood strikes me. I do want to pre-empt the Admiral’s inevitable bitching about how housing requests work in my software, to save my poor bug tracking system from being overwhelmed by his love notes in early November. I’m sure he’ll come up with lots of….suggestions, anyway. But I want to at least make him work for it.

But beyond the summer, I’m also trying to build the tournaments in such a way that I’m not needed. There’s a common method to them, and the only thing I provide is a veto threat that sticks. The average college tournament is a collection of people who want to do the right thing — run a good solid tournament that the kids enjoy and learn from — and others. There’s the Profiteer, who spends a lot of time dreaming up concessions schemes that never pan out; the Lazy, who just wants the thing to go away; the Self Important Twit, who wants titles and recognition for being a marvelous forensics oracle despite not actually contributing to the success of the tournament.

My real role is to be outside of their internal team politics. As such, I can mercilessly crush the bad ideas from the Useless People, and be sure as much as I can that the Good People stick around in the tournament management. I’ve whittled down the other jobs I do as much as I can, and mostly focus on that. After all, if the principle motivations behind a tournament are sound, the rest falls into place with minimal, fact-based guidance. And if I finally do have that much-delayed nervous breakdown, at least then the details won’t all get lost.

The trick will be when I can “run” a tournament according to this regular method without actually going to it. Once I get that right, maybe I’ll run Princeton. However, I also hear tell of a Florida invitational tournament in need of a tabber that weekend, and if that proves true, it’ll be hard to convince me that the first weekend of December shouldn’t be spent in southern Florida. And gosh, the preparation is bound to be so intensive I’ll just have to come down a good week before….I’m easily bribed by beaches.