fighting the lack of good ideas

the 48 laws of power by robert greene

Unlike my previous book reviews, I’ve decided to approach The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene in a slightly different manner.

Mr Greene’s collection of historical observations into a neatly-distilled, easily-readable format should make everyone who reads it want to put a copy on their desk – and reread [parts of] it frequently.

The format is highly engaging – and not presented in a manner which demands linear consumption: there are quotes in the margins, unusual font and layout choices for some parts of each chapter … in short, it reads the way a modern collection of fables (a la Aesop) might be published.

Drawing from historical narratives stretching more than 2 millenia, The 48 Laws of Power covers a variety of cultures, nations, and times – but displays those aspects of the powerful (and the power seeker) that drive and define the overwhelming vast majority of those who have held positions of power and influence for centuries.

why the electoral college matters

This year’s election results seem to – again – be confusing a LOT of people.

The incumbent presidential candidate, Mr Obama, won ~51% of the popular vote. His main opponent, Mr Romney, won ~48% of the  popular vote.

However, when you look at the electoral votes (the only ones that really matter), you see a different picture: 332 vs 206, which puts Mr Obama’s electoral victory at 61% of the Electoral College, and Mr Romney at 39%.

For some reason, and I have my personal theories on this, civics and American History is no longer actually taught in schools. No one today knows what the Connecticut Compromise was about. Let’s do a little history lesson to bring everyone up to speed.

In 1787 there was no “United States of America” – folks were still trying to figure out what to do with the nascent country that just won its independence from the British Empire. Virginia representatives proposed having a two-house structure for Congress (the Senate and House). However, they wanted both houses of Congress to be apportioned based on population – at the time, that would’ve meant a disproportionate level of influence from the more populous states over lower-populated ones (irony: New Jersey in 1787 was one of the smallest states by population while Virginia was one of the largest: NJ has almost a million more people today than does VA). For obvious reasons, the smaller states felt this was a Bad Idea™ – their voice would never be heard.

The Compromise brought the ideas that New Jersey wanted (a unicameral representation based on the concept of one vote per state) and the one Virginia was lobbying for (bicameral, but both houses based on population) into the system we have today: a bicameral Congress with one house based [loosely] on population*, and the second a flat number per state (ie, our House of Representatives and Senate).

With Congress out of the way, let’s look at how the President is actually elected. Article II of the Constitution covers this (along with Amendment 12). This is where things get interesting: to help mitigate the disproportionate effect of large states on small ones, each state votes for Electors who will then “really” vote later for the President (and Vice President).

Why is this important?

First, it is an evidence of the fact that we do not live in democracy – we live in a representative republic.

Second, it allows every state to have at least minimum voice in an election – which means that it views every state as important.

Third, it means that pure favoritism shouldn’t be the exclusive basis for why any given candidate becomes President. Being President isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest in the way a beauty pageant is, it is supposed to be a race to determine the best leader for the country (of course, “best” is subjective, and few actually seem to campaign because they want to ‘lead’ – they seem more to run for the thrill of being “in charge” .. but that’s another post entirely).

How are electors apportioned? Most states distribute electors in a winner-take-all form: if a candidate receives a simple majority of the popular vote in the state, they get all the electors of the state (eg a 51% win in CA gets all 55 electors even though 18.4 million of the state’s population of the state may disagree with the 18.6 that elected a given candidate). Hypothetically this shows that the States are joining together to vote for the President rather than merely the populace.

Not all states follow that model, however – Nebraska is a notable exception which awards Electors based on the vote percentages of its population.

Some argue that this system inherently creates “swing states” which lead to disproportionate campaign expenditures and focus instead of spending approximately-equal time in every state.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic system because pure democracies devolve into anarchy and/or split into multiple groups upon reaching a given size.

The Founders of our country were a lot smarter and forward-thinking than most are willing to give credit for. Were they perfect? No. Did they have flaws in the initial proposals? Absolutely. But this is one artifact of our founding that needs to stay.

*“The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand” – Article I, Section 2. If we followed this minimum today, we would have >10,000 representatives in Congress (2012 US population ~310,000,000)

thoughts on vilt

Over the years, I have taken (and given) a lot of training.

I’ve had self-paced tutorials (printed and electronic), in-person lectures, hand-on labs, small groups, formal classes, one-on-one tutoring, and virtual instructor led training (VILT).

I’ve seen two distinct types of VILT – good and bad. I have yet to see any “ok” training. It’s either great or horrid.

This week I took the VMware vSphere 5 Install, Configure, Manage (ICM) class to begin the preparation to become a VMware Certified Professional.

Some initial thoughts on this class:

(this class was excellent, btw – only matched by the HP Operations Orchestration 7.0 training I took 3.5 years ago shortly after the product had been renamed post-acquisition of Opsware by HP)
  • Our instructors, Steve & Rebecca, did a fantastic job both in playing off each other, alternating to keep the class interested, and presenting the material
  • Labs are always problematic – some folks are fast, others slow; some have issues, others none
    • Team / partner labs are even more problematic – making sure that both partners are learning in the process and neither is outstripping the other
  • Formal organization is good – ability to change based on class needs / interests is better
  • Engaging the class with humor, “relevant” Q&A, and other interaction is vital
  • Learning your [randomly-assigned] partner’s strengths, weaknesses, background, and expectations is important as early as possible

Other pros that should be taken and applied to all classes:

  • Clear learning objectives – stated and repeated throughout
  • Labs which directly connect with the lessons
  • Labs which logically build upon one another
  • Team labs that are still workable by an individual if there is no available partner
  • To the point slides and lectures
  • Few enough slides in each lecture to keep our attention
  • Few enough lectures between labs to be able to apply what we have just covered
  • Presenter/Lecturer/Teacher with appropriate knowledge of the material being presented
  • Remember what it’s like to not know the material

Cons from this class (which I think are true of all VILT classes):

  • Keeping attention on the lectures is entirely up to the student – it can be easy to get distracted, especially if taking the class from home (this also applied to telecommuting – a topic for another time)
  • Lab time is given on an as-needed basis … so once most of the class has gotten it done, a timer is set (eg 10 minutes)
    • For those in the class who finish rapidly, this can give a great opportunity to study, get work done, or goof off
    • For those having issues and/or who work more methodically etc, it can artificially limit their efforts
  • Because of the semi-random nature of lab length, some days can run long and others short

Characteristics of bad VILT classes I have attended:

  • Unclear objectives – if any
  • Overly-long presentations
  • Unrelated labs
  • Long separation from lecture to lab
  • Too much lab, too little lecture
  • Too much lecture, too little lab
  • Presenter with poor / non-existent knowledge of material (ie, read from slide only)
  • Broken labs (often related to poor product base, over-subscribed lab, etc)
  • Inflexibility with regards to lab and lecture start/end times


I really liked the vSphere ICM class – I learned a lot, and finally saw what I knew connected in an organized way that brought into focus my extant knowledge and helped me apply it in more useful ways in the future. Personally, I cannot recommend the trainers higher – Steve and Rebecca did a fantastic job, and I think we were fortunate to have good trainers: it made the material far more fun to learn, helped keep our focus, and made the whole week a positive experience.

Given the opportunity, I think all system administrators and system integrators should take a class like this one – even if virtualization is not in play: seeing the concepts, understanding the architecture, and learning how to design a virtualized environment will carry-over well to other arenas in the IT world.

My lab partner is a DBA for Yahoo – never saw virtualization before, hasn’t been a sysadmin, etc: but seeing how the environment works, how to build it, and how to apply architecture to systemic thinking helped open his eyes a bit to the world beyond data … and, I think, will make him a better DBA.

certifications and dependencies

Last week I participated in a beta class for HP’s new Cloud Service Automation 3.0 product release (ok, so it’s a prerelease, and “product” is a strong term). 3.0 is a full rewrite from 2.x, so there is no upgrade path. Also, not everything that “appears” to be in place OOB is actually working – and there is no way to grey-out options that are unavailable.

We were told this should be addressed in a patch sometime in the next 6 months. Yay us. Oh, and did I mention I’m involved in a project to implement this currently? Woot!

After taking this class, I found out that a prerequisite for the class is some Operations Orchestration training from HP – without which HP will not certify I took the class. Right. So, I have to take those classes via HP University over the next couple weeks so that by the time the CSA 3 class is “live” next month I can be officially-verified as having taken it.

And, if I’m going to take those classes, I might as well also go for the certification from HP to add to my CV 🙂

Also by about my birthday, I will be taking the VCP week-long class and test to learn and be certified on VMware’s vCenter, vSphere, and ESXi product lines from an architectural and implementation standpoint.

These next several weeks are going to be a blast 🙂

asking the wrong question

A recent question (“Is it possible to trace someone using Google during an online exam?“) on superuser had me thinking about asking the right question again.

I want to design an online exam for over 1000 students via around 50 computers right after the vacation ends. Now the problem is that I have heard that many students use Google on a different tab to find answers when no invigilator is around.

I want to know if there is a way to backtrace it after the exams via some kind of history or any other possible way.

Here, already, the premise is WRONG!!

The asker is a professor. Sadly, that means he’s likely even more skewed in his bias than most people (after all, he is an expert at his subject). He should have asked a more fundamental question, since he is asking for support, but he didn’t.

Instead of trying to catch a cheater, which is what his question is going for, he should have asked how to structure an exam for open-book responses – many/most of my instructors and professors at college had open-book, open-note tests: and those of us who either knew the material, or knew where to find it, did great. Everyone else? Not so much – they viewed “open-book” as “don’t study”. Personally, I loved open-book tests, because it meant the questions were going to be hard-but-answerable … if you knew where to find the answer.

Mr Professor: please just learn how to structure a good test, and not how to slap your students for doing what they’re going to do when they get to the “real world“.

nclb – you know, unless you’re in one of these 10 states…

Pick your slant report – Huffington Post or Fox News: it has been reported that President Obama’s administration will be issuing waivers to 10 states with regard to compliancy with No Child Left Behind (which, in my opinion, is one of the biggest debacles in public education ever).

If the point is to “leave no child behind”, why are waivers being granted over a decade later?

And why are there 28 more states who are planning to “seek flexibility” with regards to NCLB?

Seems like that’s MAJOR proof that it was distinctly NOT the best thing we could have done as a country to address education.

doing technical phone screens

Related to a previous post on career development, I thought it could be interesting to look at one approach to the technical screen that I have used over the past few years when interviewing candidates.

  1. for folks with no “real” experience yet, I ask them to rank themselves on a few key technologies on the “Google scale”
    • the range is 0..10 where a 0 is no knowledge, 1 is some, 10 is “you wrote the book”, 9 is you could’ve written the book, or you edited/contributed
    • on a few occasions, I have had folks ask to change their ranking from their initial [overconfident] statement to one that is much closer to inline with their true experience/comfort/knowledge level – and that’s OK in my book – honesty is always the best policy here
  2. a couple quick “about us” questions – open-ended inquiries that let the candidate tell me what they’ve done for work
    • this verifies their resume
    • gets them warmed-up for the rest of the call
    • allows the candidate to brag on something
  3. perhaps a couple quick probes to find out more about a specific experience
  4. a few basic / intermediate questions to assess candidate’s technical chops (ie, verify that their resume is accurate)
    • this goes along with my personal rule of “never put anything on a resume you don’t want to be asked about”
  5. open-ended, intentionally-vague questions to gauge problem solving ability, and methodologies
    • see how they go about refining the problem statement (if at all)
    • gauge estimation skills
    • gauge teamwork and delegation aptitude
  6. a few intermediate/advanced questions about an area they *don’t* know anything about – to gauge their response to unfamiliar/stressful situations
    • in my field in particular, it is impossible to know every new technology or even (probably) to be truly 100% aware of those that you do use every single day
  7. a few intermediate/advanced questions in their now-articulated fields of expertise (presuming I have any)
    • this verifies more of their stated (and unstated) job experience, and helps determine at what title/work level they should start
  8. lifestyle/workstyle questions
    • how much they enjoy travel
    • how they handle last-minute demands and “requests” by customers and management
  9. a few questions to gauge flexibility of response to changing requirements
    • for example, switching a project from being Solaris-based to Windows-based part way into implementation because a new CIO has come in, or new licensing is available, etc
  10. open time for them to ask me whatever they may wish to know that I can tell them
    • this usually ends-up being very short because the candidate was stressed-out over the interview, and can’t think of anything about the company they want to know on the spot

What I try to NEVER ask:

  • “trivia” questions – I bet there are C questions even K&R couldn’t answer 🙂
    • I guarantee I can ask you a question about your area of expertise you cannot answer…just like I guarantee you could do the same to me
    • since that is the case, trivia questions are pretty pointless, and more of an ego stroke to the asker than anything else
  • pointless “MindTrap“, lateral-thinking questions
    • riddles are fun – but only add to the stress of the interview (like “why are manhole covers round”)
  • pointless problem-solving and estimation problems
    • for example, “how would you move Mt Fuji”, or “how many gallons of water flow into New York Harbor from the Hudson River per hour”
    • estimation problems are wonderful tools and games to play, but not in an interview
  • illegal questions
    • sometimes they slip out, but it’s never intentional 🙂

I adjust my questioning to fit the situation, timing, and candidate responses – so it’s [somewhat] different every time.

When the interview is done, I write-up my evaluation of the candidate and send it on to the hiring manager. In line with Joel Spolsky‘s “Guerilla Guide to Interviewing“, I make sure to put my firm conclusion of Hire/No-Hire near the top, and again at the bottom – with my reasoning in between.

One thing I have noticed about almost every interview I have ever taken or given is that I end up learning something in the process – and not just about the candidate (or company). It’s important to listen to both how and the candidates responds to questions, and what they say.

So, if you ever get the chance to interview with me, you have an idea of how I’m going to run the show 🙂