Definition of Futility

I’ve heard futility defined as “doing something that failed earlier in hopes that it will somehow succeed this time around.” However, this process seems to be standard operating procedure in the computer industry. Case in point: I was building a system for Sam, and I needed to install the drivers for the network card. I installed the drivers and rebooted… but for some reason we just couldn’t get on the network. I was baffled, until I looked at the hardware settings and realized that no, the network card still wasn’t installed. Disconcerting indeed! So drawing on my vast expertise as a Windows Network Engineer, I decided to… insert the floppy with the drivers and try the exact same thing again. And the funny thing is, it worked. I mean what was going on there? Were some of the driver files like, hiding? Did they need to cajoled or bribed or threatened into doing their job?

Frankly, I think Windows machines can’t be considered “technology” at all. Their behavior is too mystical and arbitrary. Is the Moon in the Seventh House? Then all is well. Is Jupiter aligned with Mars? Then it’s blue-of-death time, baby. Or maybe my conception of “technology” is out of whack? I like to think that machines should have predictable behavior, but maybe that’s too much to ask.

Anywaay… Sam’s machine is up and running, and Sarah’s is as well. And I only managed to short out one power supply in the process. So yay me! What else have I accomplished in the last few days… well, I’ve been mooching meals off of Mike, Sam, and Nancy.1 Hung out with the family a bit. Saw the new Harry Potter movie, which was entertaining. I think Mike summed it up when Hermione got petrified. “Shoot,” he said. “They’re screwed now — the most powerful wizard in the whole school is out of commission.”2

Aside from that, I’m just trying to keep busy. My poker buddies were unanimous in their advice — when you get laid off, you absolutely must not start sleeping in until noon. So I’ve been setting my alarm clock for 7am, and I’ve been shaving every day. And wearing dark socks with my dark shoes, and white socks with my sneakers. I even played tennis with Mike on Friday, and I have grandiose plans to start running in the mornings. The morning weather on Saturday was fantastic for running — cool and foggy but not freezing cold. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my sneakers that day. Bad luck… or subconscious sabotage? You be the judge.

1. I don’t feel too guilty about this, because Mike and Nancy are really just grateful that Sam has his own computer now and won’t be hogging theirs.

2. And sure enough, shortly thereafter Harry and Ron were surrounded by ravenous monsters and wishing that Hermione was there to save them.


Ordinarily I don’t talk much about work here. (I consider it unprofessional.) However, this particular news is worth a mention — I’ve been laid off at Sun. Or in company parliance, “RIFFed” (RIF = Reduction In Force).

I’m actually feeling pretty good about the whole thing. First, I’m young and resilient. I hate to say it, but I’m glad it was me and not some 48-year-old guy with a mortgage and kids in school.1 Second, none of this was a big surprise to me — my group got hit hard (as I figured), and they basically just kept core, veteran engineers (as I also figured). Third, the severance package and my savings will tide me over for a reasonable length of time.2 Finally, and most importantly, this is a good “kick in the seat” to go do something new and interesting. I think I need such kicks every once in a while — without them, I tend to get stuck in a rut.

Anyway, yesterday really wasn’t so bad. My director (who had to break the news to each of us) seemed like he was having a much worse day than anyone else. I was actually quite cheerful, and all my colleagues came by to chat and wish me good luck, which was nice. Well, okay, there was one low point. I was joking around with two longtime engineers, Carlos and Benoit, when a cute young systems engineer poked her head in my office. (She was attached to Benoit’s project, I think.) After a few minutes of banter, the conversation went like this:3

Cute Young SE: Wow, I’ve never seen such a neat, clean office.

Benoit: That’s our webmaster! He’s very neat and organized.4 Someday he’s going to make a great husband for someone.

Carlos: Husband?? No, he’s not ready to go out and get married… he should just go out and have fun!

Benoit: No, it’s time for him to find a nice girl and settle down.

[they argue]

Cute Young SE (noticing me rolling my eyes): C’mon, guys. You can’t just assume he’s interested in girls…

[Carlos and Benoit stop arguing. Cute Young SE turns bright red.]

Me: Well, I think we’ve now hit the high point of my day.

It’s hard enough to ask a cute girl out when you’re an unemployed loser, but when you’re an unemployed possibly gay loser, it’s pretty much a no-go.

1. Not that I think 48-year-olds with mortgages have more right to keep their job than a young punk such as myself. That line of thinking leads directly to the 1950s office (back when they paid unmarried men less than married men). It’s just that… I feel better about it being me rather than them, that’s all.

2. That is, if I can keep my insanely expensive appetites in check. No more Prada underwear, damnit.

3. Paraphrasing, of course.

4. Friends and family will guffaw at this. But actually my office was usually quite neat and organized, mostly because I didn’t keep a lot of stuff in it.


As is my custom, I was taking a walk around the Sun campus after lunch, when I saw something scurrying across my path. At first I thought it was a scorpion, but then I remembered that I wasn’t in Palm Springs, so I looked a little closer. It was a five-inch long reddish-brown… lobster. (Ha, M’ris — I bet that on your list of things to be concerned about when living in California, you never even thought about the vicious and poisonous California Land Lobster! Grrrr! Rrrarrgh!) Now I suppose that it could have been some kind of crayfish. However, I’ve seen crayfish in Maryland and they were much smaller and grayer. So therefore, logic dictates that it must be a poisonous mutant California Land Lobster, evolved specifically to prey on unwary computer engineers. Be warned!

Speaking of evolution, NPR’s Science Friday last show was on the debate in Ohio on whether to teach “Intelligent Design” in high school classrooms. The Intelligent Design advocate was quite slippery, and managed to get avuncular host Ira Flatow very angry indeed. Poor Ira pressed the guy for an answer to the question, “Where are the testable predictions that ID makes?” and basically got nowhere. (Which is not surprising, because ID’s approach to answering outstanding questions in biology is to say, “Because God said so.”)

This is not to say that ID isn’t much more clever than the previous strategy (straight-up anti-Darwinism). Intelligent Design at least couches itself in a veneer of scientific language, and its advocates don’t have to admit to believing in the concept of 10,000-year-old Earth and other such nonsense. ID advocates smartly play to popular opinion and our innate American sense of “fairness” and “equality”. Why not teach both? That sounds fair, doesn’t it? This is what 3 out of 5 Ohioans think, anyway. 1 In a sense, Intelligent Design has… evolved from its predecessor.

The funny thing is that a couple of days before this, NPR News had an interview with a teenage Eagle Scout named Darrell Lambert who is getting kicked out of Scouting because he’s an atheist. The interviewer asked Lambert how he had come to hold his beliefs. Lambert recounted his interest in science at school, closing with simply, “I’m an atheist. I believe in evolution.” You could almost hear the shrug.

Now isn’t it interesting that this bright, forthright young man has associated atheism and evolution? Certainly one can believe in the theory of evolution and still be religious — in fact, during the Science Friday show, a Catholic priest called up and made this very point.2 But for decades, this idea has been anaethma to the Christian Right. Isn’t it ironic that by railing away at “Darwinism” for so many years, the fundamentalists have convinced a number of scientifically-literate people to conclude that they can’t be religious and scientific at the same time? Well, no… actually it’s just depressing.

1. Too bad science isn’t a democracy.

2. For that matter, so has the Pope. See the Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution (October 22, 1996).


This year I decided to keep my birthday low-key.

Oh sure, it would have been fun to throw yet another orgiastic, decadent, cocaine-fuelled party that would have put Studio 54 in its heyday to shame. But at some point, you have to look back on the trail of broken hearts, the trashed hotel room suites, the days-long drug-induced blackouts, and the five illegitimate children scattered around the Western hemisphere (with a sixth on the way) and say damnit, enough is enough!

So low-key it was. I even tried to discourage gifts. “I’m only accepting socks this year,” I said. I thought that was pretty clever, but I failed to scare off Shauna, who went right out and got me some really nice socks. They’re black, non-dressy, and very comfortable — neither scratchy nor sweat-inducing. And of course, my teenaged sister Sarah rebelled immediately. “You sound just like Dad!” she said, exasperated. Sarah got me six wine glasses, which is excellent, because now I don’t have to serve wine to my guests in coffee mugs. The House of Goer is class all the way, baby! Finally, Mom got me Joe Clark’s Building Accessible Websites. I’ve already read most of it, and let me tell you, it is a fabulous book, probably up there with Chuck Musciano and Bill Kennedy’s opus. Maybe better.

I like Clark’s book for two reasons. First, he is pleasantly direct:

If you use the HTML Tidy authoring tool-cum-validator from the W3C, you’ll be stuck with error messages for every layout table you write that lacks a summary attribute, whose majesty will be fully revealed in mere moments. If that happens to you, adding summary="" to your table is legal and will shut the validator up.

Second, there are numerous myths in the web design community regarding web accessibility, and Clark wastes no time in puncturing them. For example, it seems that the difference between Clark and those who blithely advise that “table-based layouts are useless for blind people using screen readers,” is that Clark actually seems to have tried using screen readers. (And surprise! they handle most table-based layouts just fine.)

Of course that particular myth never made much sense anyway. After all, it’s almost impossible to find a major commercial site that doesn’t use table-based layouts. So what kind of silly software company would try selling a “voice browser” that chokes on nearly every single commercial site on the web? I think the reason this myth is so popular is because of its “clubbability”. If you’re having an argument with someone over whether to use a CSS-based layout over a table-based layout, the screen reader myth is great for clubbing your opponent over the head. “Your table-based layout will make it impossible for those poor, poor blind people to read your website! You must hate blind people! Jerk!”

As Grandma Harman used to say, “whether you’re wrong or right, it’s always useful to hold the moral high ground.” Well, okay, actually she said, “Never draw to an inside straight” — advice I have foolishly ignored for years.

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