Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Law of Requisite Parsimony

At some leadership class, I learned "The Law of Requisite Parsimony."  Despite its having a ridiculous name, it's a fun and useful thing to remember:

The human brain can only keep track of 7 things, plus or minus 2.

Oh, how true.  (Digits of pi, 41 in my case, don't count.  That was just a bored day in high school physics.)  Which is why I must admit to the masses that I have begun to write down some hints to the passwords required on work systems.  This was a big source of frustration for me at work last Friday.

In any working environment, you're going to have a few different systems that you interact with.  For me, as a contractor, it's a lot: there's this client's system; there's that client's system; there's the "mother ship" encryption scheme ... I counted, and I interact with no fewer than 7 different systems on a daily basis.

Each requires its own password.  Some can have no greater than 8 characters.  Some can have no fewer than 9 characters.  They all must be changed quarterly, biannually, or annually.

I have no hope of keeping them straight; the Law of Requisite Parsimony is hopelessly broken.  In each system's attempt to be as secure as possible, they have put me in the untenable position of keeping each system's requirements' separate and up to date.  The best I can do is write reminders to myself -- hints and suggestions, not the actual passwords -- but I can't wait for the day of biometric scanners becoming more ubiquitous.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Time of Crisis

The Deepwater Horizon oil well continues to spew crude oil into the Caribbean at a rate of 210,000 gallons per day.  Initial attempts at using undersea robots and capping the well were all unsuccessful.  Clearly, this is a very, very difficult technical problem located 100 miles offshore and about 1 mile below ground.

In a mighty need to appear relevant and action-oriented, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing today, grilling the BP America Chairman, the CEO of Transocean, and a senior executive at Halliburton.  NPR has a good wrapup of today's testimony, for more details.

(the above image is taken from the webcast; I assume that material is public domain and nobody will complain about copyright issues.  If I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments.)

Come on, Congress.  Really?

Here's my beef: This is a waste of resources at this time.  Testimony before Congress is not taken lightly by anyone.  I've helped prepare Congressional testimony for two different jobs now (on much lower-profile issues than this), and there is a small team of people spending the better part of a week scrutinizing every word, every phrase, every nuance of testimony.  There is A LOT of time sunk into preparing for these events, and I can only imagine that it's been a similar story for the executives who gave today's testimony.  But these folks have better things to do with their time.  Even though only a few dozen people will probably ever watch the whole hearing (it can be found here; and I haven't watched all 218 minutes of it), a few Senators got to Look Tough and grill the executives for a while on what they knew and when they knew it.  A particularly juicy -- and at this point irrelevant -- exchange starts at 184:45.  Watch thru 187:00.

Now don't get me wrong -- there is plenty of blame to be placed here, either on the manufacturer of the blowout preventer, or the operating company who had shoddy work practices, or the owner of the operation who's ultimately responsible for it all.  But now is not the time to be hauling these folks in front of Congress while 210,000 gallons of oil continue to spew into the ocean every day.

Is diverting these senior executives from their day jobs really the most helpful thing Congress can do right now?  I don't think so.  It would seem to me that lending Army Corps of Engineers, available Navy and Coast Guard vessels, and oil booms and oil dispersants to the problem would be a better use of resources.  And we'll do the finger pointing and blaming AFTER the leak is stopped.

The lawyers need not worry.  Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed; some enterprising group has even taken out the domain name and populated it.

My heart goes out to the engineers, scientists, boat operators, and trade craft who continue to diligently (and un-gloriously) work nights and weekends, desperately trying to solve this fiendish problem.  I'm pulling for you guys.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Just because we have gigabytes (and even terabytes) of storage available on our modern computers, it's no reason that programs need to use all that space up.

Take, for example, the venerable Adobe Reader program, designed to be the One PDF Reader To Rule Them All, be it for Windows, Mac, Linux, or whatever operating system you're running.

On its website, Adobe describes the Reader program as follows:

Adobe Reader is the global standard for viewing PDF files. It is the only PDF viewer that can open and interact with all PDF documents. Use Adobe Reader to view, search, digitally sign, verify, print, and collaborate on PDF files.

But, mind you, this is just the reader, not the full blown development program.  Because of a somewhat-fancy pdf file I needed to read, I had to download the latest version of Adobe's Acrobat Reader.  This is what the install screen presented me with:

Are you kidding me?  Nearly 300 MB so I can read a pdf file?  I posit that the "Portable" in "Portable Document Format" is a misnomer if the reader program requires 300MB to install.  The installer download alone was 50MB -- suppose I don't have access to a high speed internet connection?

And so it goes; the inexorable climb towards ever bigger and more complex software, providing more and more opportunities for nasty viruses and other bad things to be inserted into the programs.  The installer for Microsoft Office 2010 is 600MB; the whole suite of programs is 3.5 GB.

Whatever happened to elegance and simplicity?  I remember the old days of the Mac classic, where the operating system and all your applications and files would fit neatly on an 800K floppy.  The first shipping version of Adobe Photoshop fit on an 800K floppy.

The risk, as I suggested above, is that it creates many unknown trap doors for people to take advantage of and cause unintended consequences.  I wish Adobe, Microsoft, and the other software giants out there would realize the utility and need for fast-and-light access to their wares.