Sunday, September 25, 2005

Where is the line?

Bell curve on zero tolerance is undemocratic!

That's a mouthful isn’t it?

I put a marker in my blogger dashboard and the above was the sentence I used to remind myself what I wanted to talk about. And it is becoming increasingly obvious, as I am composing this, that I will issue more dissertations on Line Location.  

Anyway… I was waiting on another example of seemingly overbearing government action in day-to-day life in order to expound on zero tolerance.

The obvious example is the 100km/h speed limit on our major highways. It is an artificial guideline imposed on us, sometimes quite severely, in the name of safety. The interpretation is subject only to government whim and not much else. To wit, the 55mph limit imposed back in 1973 by some US states in response to the national gas crisis, to force fuel economy upon the populace. This limit stayed for decades afterwards because some idiot thought that this new limit yielded fewer accidents. Omigod: 55 SAVES LIVES!

That is right up until the enlightened realized that 65mph wasn’t the cause of any more accidents.  The real reason lives were saved was that people stayed home! I'd be willing to bet that the interstates which remain today at the 55mph limit are being abandoned in favour of the 65 highways, at least by those drivers who have a choice.  I know I do, and therefore bring my hard-earned abysmal Canadian dollar to the States that have the 65mph interstate highways.

The example I wish to harp on today is just as asinine, but closer to home. It's in Estonia! A good friend of mine is staying in Estonia for a while. One thing he noticed was the lack of jaywalking on otherwise completely deserted streets. Originally being from Toronto, and myself from Montreal, this is foreign concept to the both of us. Note that jaywalking is illegal in Estonia, as it is in Montreal, but I'm not sure about Toronto.

This is a beautiful example of a sound concept, badly applied as a law. Jaywalking under certain circumstances is somewhat dangerous, but then so is eating chicken. A law was then established to prohibit jaywalking with no provisions for any circumstances. By definition then, applying this law with zero tolerance makes police abusive, and the police has no choice in this matter because it's the law.  I’ll try to explain.

Some police officers can and will use better judgement and only issue tickets for jaywalking that is unsafe. This becomes untenable in the long-term: if someone is allowed jaywalking under safe circumstances, that same person may prove lack of judgement at a later time.

Do we regulate judgement? Yes we do, the existence of the jaywalking law proves it. Should we? Well that's a dogma-type question. More importantly: how is it done? It is done with the ever-popular-we-mean-business-politico-marketing-of zero tolerance, thereby making personal judgement an offence. In reality, this judgement can be explained in front of a judge after the fact. Too little, too late for most of us.

If the politicians don't decree a zero-tolerance initiative at least once in a while, then we have created another problem: uncertainty. How much tolerance is "some"? Experience will then dictate our conduct. For example, I've travelled most highways at around 115km/h with no ill effect, so to me 115km/h is a speed devoid of penalty, but this is not rule. I will jaywalk systematically in Montreal; waiting for a light will get one killed.

We can blame the drivers, and lose a 3000lb battle, or we can safely jaywalk.  This is, of course, incongruous with the law written, presumably, for our safety. The downside is that many people jaywalk in Montreal in a manner quite unsafe for themselves and put others at risk as well. So the police should ticket only unsafe jaywalking? Again, not a tenable solution.

We have recurring problems with this line of judgement. Even among cops, they won't agree with each other on what's unsafe jaywalking. Instead, they will be told to toe a party line, of which the public at large will often be unaware. By yet another means, the officer has been regulated and personal judgement taken away. This isn't inherently a bad thing; it's just messy for the rest of us who are not in the know.

I'm not talking about removing responsibility; I'm talking about the freedom to comply.  Luckily, or maybe not, some enlightened politicians will announce a zero-tolerance policy for a set time, in order to allow one the choice to comply without incurring penalty, nor ambiguity, allowing those of us who listen or read the news to dictate our own conduct.

It's still artificial though. And this is truly where society defeats itself...  I will jaywalk systematically, and hopefully safely, unless, and only unless, there is a push on for zero-tolerance.  And I am not alone.  So what has the law really accomplished?  If zero-tolerance is instituted permanently, then we have a grave problem, as the law, any law, was never written to tolerate zero-tolerance.  

Indicated speed in one’s car will be 100km/h.  You get clocked at 102, and are convicted of grave crimes against humanity with a fine imposed to pay for the government’s trouble of hauling your ass back in-line.  That’s zero-tolerance.  

Driving slower simply means we are hedging, in effect, not allowing us to reasonably attain the maximum allowable.  It’s worse with jaywalking.  Theoretically, you simply cannot dash across the neighbourhood street to go see your buddy, to say nothing of street hockey! Yet with zero-tolerance, these are banned as well.  No sane police officer would enforce this, but my point is made: laws are not written for zero-tolerance edicts.

I come back to my opening statement, the bell-curve: most of the data will be on either side of a mean (average):  in Montreal most people will be jaywalking relatively safely.  Imposing zero-tolerance brings most of this, if not the entire, bell curve under attack, because the zero-tolerance line is drawn afield of the average!  This is most undemocratic, by definition.  

The average in Estonia is no jaywalking at all: zero tolerance is then afoot of the bell curve, and de facto already accomplished. The bell curve is not under attack.  Democracy is theoretically preserved, at zero-tolerance or not, as a majority of people already comply, for various reasons which maybe discussed in another blog entry.

So where is the line?  To say it moves is wildly understating the problem.  To say it’s absolute, read zero-tolerance, is just plain stupid.

Now a last thought, let’s say for a minute, that jaywalking is a capital offence in Estonia…

Friday, September 23, 2005

Gubmint is watching

So I was going about my daily chores and turned on the TV for noise and distraction, I usually switch to the Space channel (select channel 27 on Videotron in Gatineau), but this time my curiosity was peaked. My ear caught something about the internet and somebody getting into trouble.

I immediately rushed to the TV set, with great chagrin at having to postpone my chores. And there in a french newscast was the story of some twit in Verdun harassing an American.

To start from the beginning of the story, a young man was at a friends place for fun and games and, as it turns out, to make use of chat-rooms on his buddy’s computer. Innocently enough, I suppose, the chat degenerated into a name-calling fest with an unknown person, somewhere in the United States. Buddy, wanting to get the last word in, threatened his interlocutor.

As if one couldn’t see this coming, our hero typed words to the effect that he was Bin Laden’s lieutenant and that he was going to bomb the nasty American at his house.

Chalk one up for double-whammy racism.
Chalk another one up for terminal stupidity.

The news then goes on to interview the hapless father of our hero’s friend, owner of the premises, and I suspect, the computer as well. Remember, this is not his fault, nor that of his progeny, unless you count the boy’s serious lack of judgement in his choice of friends.

The RCMP, and I suspect CSIS might have been around as well, shows up 12 hours later at the house containing the offending computer. By this time our hero is long gone, safely back at home. It was quite unclear, from the news report, as to whether any defence was put up, or if any effort was expended to find who had committed the actual crime. The father, indeed the entire family, is now blacklisted from going into the United States. I don’t know about Buddy.

There is no moral to this story. When you are born stupid, there’s just nothing you can do about it.

What surprises me is that it took 12 hours for the fuzz to show up. I somehow figured that Homeland Security would be quicker on the trigger. I also suppose that communications take a little bit longer than an email imparting upon the RCMP to do something about this idiot in Verdun.

I’m not overly into conspiracy theories, although I hold the opinion that the government is always watching, regardless of how free we think we are. Or worse, we are suckered into thinking we are free. And so we are, within certain unknown limits and unwritten guidelines, which we cannot change, and unless we have an insane amount of power we cannot influence.

I will not condone threats upon human life. It is illegal and rightly so.

My issue is with blacklisting someone who as not been proven guilty of anything, not in any court of law. Innocent until assumed guilty by some all-empowered government entity!

Our hero deserves whatever he gets, for sure. But there is something inherently wrong about spraying accountability left, right and centre. Should the father have kept an eye on his boy’s friend? Should he have locked down the computer with parental controls? Should he disconnect the internet as soon as a non-family member enters the house?

I think not.

During my teenage years I had the opportunity of working with a guy who was, of his own volition, a dedicated troublemaker. I could not verify the audacity nor veracity of his claims, but I had no reason to doubt him. He was definitely a violent sort and had the physical attributes to back up what he claimed. He went on to explain how he’d destroyed school property, breaking and entering and general theft, torched cars, raped girls and assaulted guys. The list goes on.

I asked him once if he was afraid of getting caught. He replied deadpan that he didn’t care because he was under aged and that his record would essentially be expunged of all wrong doings upon turning 18. My jaw dropped.

Regardless whether any of this was true or not, here I faced a teenager, completely out of any control that could possibly be exercised by any of society’s tools. And we as a society believe, even for a moment, that holding his father, or worse, his friend’s father responsible for his actions would yield any results whatsoever? Fuck and ½.

Maybe the government should be watching these individuals, but they aren’t. It is much easier to watch the general populace and keep the masses under control, for this is what the government truly fears. So what if a few bad apples spoil everything for the general populace, the government’s business case is quite clear. I’m not angry with this per se, simply dismayed.

Government systematically exercising unchecked power leads to revolution. Like car size, there is a limit that people will put up with. Abuse of powers, be it knee jerk lawmaking that is so rampant today, or unilateral decrees bypassing due process, see the blacklisting example above, have been steadily eroding our human rights.

I am worried about where all this is going. Any revolution is a very long ways out, because the typical Canadian doesn’t see, nor believe what I am claiming here. Maybe I am a bit of a conspiracy theorist; time will tell if I’m right.

Alternately, if the federal fuzz shows up at my door tomorrow morning, then I’ll know for sure...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

My bit about SUVs

We just love our SUVs, I should know, I own two and love them both!

There is much diatribe in the papers as to why this is.  There is much social commentary as to why this is and mostly why it shouldn’t be.  It’s all bullshit.

The simple truth is twofold: our beloved Canadian winter and our hated politicians.

I travelled to the United States on a regular basis in my old job, and often for vacation.  My interest in cars being legendary I was wont to check out the automotive scenery.  To my great surprise, many a vehicle in the U.S. is different and there are more models of each.  

For eons I thought the same cars and trucks were marketed throughout the Americas.  I was wrong, more to the point, there exists such a beast as a 2-wheel drive 4x4!  To wit, the Toyota 4Runner - read: “four” runner - can actually be purchased as a 2 wheel-rear-drive automobile in the U.S.  

Immediately I was thinking to myself, why in the name of many things holy, would anyone possibly want to buy a 4x4 in 2-wheel-drive format?  Then it occurred to me, as I was lounging about on the warm sand, at a warm beach, with warm wind blowing, that maybe it just doesn’t get all that cold down here.   Revelation #1: Not all places exist in 4 feet of snow for ½ a year at a time.  Location becomes important, indeed the question would then be: why would anyone by 4x4 where there is no snow.  NoA: off-road use notwithstanding in this discussion.

I thought it brilliant that a vehicle be adapted to its market locale, thus we explain the 4x4 in Canada. Snow.

The issue of size is almost religion, but I’ll take a swing at it anyway.  Some drivers like small cars for many factors, not the least of which being fear, and control.  Some drivers like bigger cars for many factors, not the least of which being fear, and comfortable ride.  
Some drivers will put up with being uncomfortable when driving, others will not.  One trades comfort for fuel economy for example, another will not.  Some people will want a manageable and small car size while others can manage bigger.  Those that drive mostly highway will want something heavy that doesn’t jump around in a crosswind. All this is hotly debated in newspapers where no one can agree.  Hmm, maybe this is why we have so many models of cars to choose from?

Winter will bring about heavy and bulky threads.  No matter who you are, in a smaller car, with a passenger in the front seat, the place becomes crowded.  Some smaller folk especially will find this to be a minor inconvenience, for other bigger people it’s downright unbearable.

The typical mid-range SUV is actually smaller than a mid-range car of the 1980s.  People haven’t physically changed, if anything obesity is spreading, but their cars have gotten ever smaller because of the green freak’s social pressure untoward the government.  What did we think was going to happen?  Back in 1973 during the first OPEC fuel crisis, people were compelled to move to smaller more fuel-efficient cars.  Most would put up with the lack of room because the pocket book was that much lighter, or simply stay home.

Revelation #2: There is a minimum amount of space that people on average are ready to put up with.  Right now, the vehicle type that has this minimum space, again on average, and looks good is the SUV and larger sedans like the Nissan Altima.  

None of the sedans come in 4x4 though, except maybe the new Ford 500.

The green freaks and those contemptible government representatives try to push cars like the Smart on us.  Fucking thing doesn’t even have enough room for a guitar in the back!  I’m willing to place even money that these will sell great during the summer but not at all during our winter months when people realize they can’t close the doors while wearing their Canuck –40deg fleece & down lined jackets.

Anyway, the real solution has never been a smaller car, nor has it been in public transit, by the way.

We have created a pattern of society that requires transportation.  We have two choices, either change society or adapt the transport.   We have too much invested in society it won’t change.  A debate could be had as to whether it even should be.

Changing transport is a simple matter however.  

Generations of inventors, engineers and the like have created plans, draughts and even prototypes for alternate transportation mediums.  Alternate power sources have captured recent interest.  Why haven’t these projects come to pass?

The fuel companies hold these plans secret.  They have bought and bribed these plans and prototypes out of public view.  What happened with all the new ideas out of the Worlds Fair in 1967?  If the auto companies had been able to invest in these alternate solutions back in 1973, during the fuel crisis, with government backing, imagine where we would be today.   Kyoto would still be a big town in Japan as opposed to a four-letter word of my vocabulary against activists.

Renewable-power, and properly sized, automobile would be common if we’d started on this 30 years ago.  That is thirty, count ‘em 30, years of research and development LOST! An SUV would be a laudable vehicle, with the added winter-borne safety of 4x4 instead of being much maligned by ignorants.

This may yet come to pass, as the opportunity is presenting itself again, but it won’t be without pain.  The fuel companies are not about to lose the revenue, not if they can help it.  Fuel prices will either soar to make one last play into their coffers, or they will reduce prices again to keep us pinned down with an untenable business case for renewable energized cars.

The government stands to lose billions in lost fuel taxes so they are in no hurry to curtail the use of fossil fuels.  They play a good game, as long as revenue doesn’t diminish, or until the revenue can be replaced.    This is really the essence of the problem:  the government is not forecasting and plying the future for our betterment, which they should be.  And worse, Kyoto will apply to, and hammer, only the consumer who will foot the bill yet again.

The only allies we have are the automobile companies, as they have proven in the past, will adapt or outright produce a vehicle as per the market demand.  Their problem remains in their biggest natural partner today being the fuel industry.

So what are we really demanding: a ban on the SUV or a renewable-energy-driven SUV?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

TV, Marsha and other freaks

I'm watching TV and that obnoxious woman's face appears: Martha, of course, she's hosting a new reality show, which is a knock off of another reality show, which is a spin off of another reality show. Sigh.

The commercial shows her saying: "My first rule of business is..." and I immediately think to myself: "don't get caught?" or "don't go to jail?" or “cover your ass better?” Of course by this point I've already reached for the remote to put the mute on her sorry ass.

That people seek whatever entertainment where they will has never bothered me. Even if my airwaves are cluttered with a bunch of nonsensical twit-level-stupidity broadcasts, it doesn't bother me. Usually they are more or less confined to their hour or drama, then decent programming returns. Except for hockey.

Not that I dislike hockey, I like it some, but I wish it could be scheduled every week, like clockwork, in it's own 2-hour slot. I was in seventh heaven last year while hockey was on strike. They wouldn't mess up my regular programming every second or third week. Unfortunately, a lot of shows came to an end, Jag and Tru Calling for example, and I was left with watching reruns, or excellent discontinued series on Space.

This year I am well served with all the new TV shows firing up. Lest Fox delete most of their entries before Christmas, I'm watching just about everything that is new, in order to be left with something to watch when the new year rolls around and they cancel a solid half.

I am almost tempted to make guesses at which shows will stick and which won't. But I still cannot fathom the minds of those that decide it all: the dreaded Nielsen families! I have already said my piece on statistical analysis so I won't revisit. Suffice to say that cable networks, or more so, satellite and digital access have the capability to run metrics on what their subscribers watch and when. No hand-written survey bullshit, high-tech stuff would give the very results required. Hell they can even tell what you are recording.

What puzzles me most is why the network executives still get to manipulate what we watch. If it were straight up statistics, that would be one thing. But sometimes, really good shows go upon the chopping block. But sometimes they survive.

Alias for example, not a show I was watching when it first came out, the networks tried to kill it, several times. Yet, the fans followed the show all over the grid and the network was, in effect, forced to continue it. Anything that survived a Network onslaught deserves, at least, my respect. As an added bonus, a friend of mine told me that it was good. Now I watch.

How does a network kill a show? Simple really. They move it around the scheduling grid, from timeslot to timeslot, once or twice and that usually takes care of it. It’s low and deceitful and extremely effective. The big three will do this: ABC, NBC and CBS. It’s actually an excellent indicator that a network is going to cancel a show. Watch for it: a show that is good gets pulled out of primetime into Saturday or Sunday night, then dumped back to primetime will almost invariably be retired. At this very moment, they are trying to kill The West Wing. They have been trying to kill it since last March.

On a positive note, a cancelled show, assuming it fits their mission, will be picked up by Space who will run them forever because they are brilliant, and because the price is low since the shows are now persona-non-grata with the big networks.

If a network wants to keep a show, they’ll do exactly the opposite. They will literally weld the show to a timeslot and come hell or high water (ref. Rita) they will not move it. In some extreme cases, they’ll have the show twice in a two-week timeframe to make sure everyone saw it. Fox does this on a regular basis, but then they also have the nasty habit of nuking shows outright and will not even acknowledge that the show had actually existed.

This mirrors real life in many ways. You think you have a bead on things, ala Nielsen families, but then some mysterious force comes about to fuck up your life, ala network executives. It’s only mysterious until you figure out the ploy, or the reasons behind it.

Usually it’s a human component. The director has creative differences with the network. The actors or actresses are being too bitchy and get killed off. For example, an actor upon seeing that his show is making millions and millions more than originally thought possible, wanted to renegotiate a cut of this cake, knowing full well that his talent is a major contributing factor. Instead of caving, the network will simply move the show around a little and mess with the stats (see NT: A New Day, Shiny New Project), nuke the show and to hell with the actor.

Some might argue that the network takes all the risk with the investment, while this is true of investment money up front, if the show gets canned, the actors and crews are now out of work. Everyone shares in the risk, so it seems fair to me that everyone should also share in the success.

Now one would think the network would be interested in keeping a good and revenue-generating show and simply renegotiate with the actor. But it would set a dangerous precedent, whereby they open themselves up to future renegotiations into their bottom line. Might as well take a hit now, loose the show’s good revenue, but quash this uprising. Makes better sense now doesn’t it?

Many a show has gone down in flames because of this kind of thinking.

Executive stubbornness extends beyond TV series and into movies as well. Miramax, for instance, almost killed The Lord of the Rings, by demanding that a single movie be made instead of the two originally proposed by producer Peter Jackson. It’s a testament to New Line Cinema’s president that Lord of the Rings made it into three distinct movies, thereby bucking the trend of executive malfeasance.

I read a while back that someone was trying to implement a stock investment system for movies. I haven’t followed up on it. It would have allowed the public at large to invest in a potential movie production and reap the dividends if the movie made money. A similar system could be set up for TV shows. But then, we’d have to trust the networks not to screw us up. Yeah, and I trust network executives, any executives really, about as much as the government, which is, not at all.

So my relaxation at home is, yet again, dependant on far-away politics involving bean counters and executroids full of themselves.

I’m just hoping that the series I like best will stick around for a while.

As a lark, here is the list of all the shows we will try to watch in our household; some are returns, some are new, and several, if not most, will be dumped by yours truly. But let’s see in a few months how many are still available Canadian broadcasts:

Cold Case
Commander in Chief
Criminal Minds
CSI: Las Vegas
CSI: Miami
Ghost Whisperer
Hot Properties
Joan of Arcadia
Killer Instinct
King of the Hill
Las Vegas
Night Stalker
Prison Break
Shield (The)
Simpsons (The)
Sopranos (The)
Tru Calling – has been cancelled
Without a Trace
West Wing (The)

In italics: I will be chagrined if I miss this show.
In bold: I will be in physical pain if my wife misses this show.
Note on Charmed and Sopranos, I do not have HBO and the Canadian distributors seem allergic to slotting these 2 shows properly, otherwise, they’d become bold and italic respectively.

Friday, September 16, 2005

NT: A New Day, Shiny New Project

Part three, and last, of the saga of my career at Nortel.

My Director, we'll call him Wolfgang, approached me to head up the next generation of troubleshooting platform.

So far we had a problem reporting system or call request database. It was designed in the late 1980s and while still adequate for call reporting, it was cumbersome to use, thereby creating accuracy problems in generated reports.

There are three things that come to mind when I think back to this system, for one it lasted for over 10 years, which is to say rather astounding in the computer business. This is a testament to Wolfgang and Arthur who were both involved in the design and deployment of this system.

The other two observations are none too flattering for the company however. It was a well-known and established fact in the mid 1990s that some directors, and even some V.P.s would routinely massage the data coming from the call request system. In fact, the data was changed outright to suit the director's needs. This was possible because of shortcomings in the system itself whereby report generation was somewhat convoluted to do. As time went on, expertise was established and report generation became somewhat automated. Some directors and V.P.s who shall remain nameless, were then unable to conjure up data from their ass, or worse, from their bands 6 & 7.

And thirdly, by the end of the 1990s and early 2000, the bean counters had taken over. Business-case was the buzzword du jour and covered everything from equipping a floor with a water fountain to building a 17 million dollar laboratory, which would be dismantled 6 months after it went into service. This was seen as a new boon for the number freaks, yet a basic problem remained, the information going into the system was suspect in the first place!

As I mentioned before, the system was, by the end '90s, becoming too cumbersome for proper and accurate use. Indeed, so many hands trundled through with their own requirements thereby spoiling the system's overall effectiveness in order to secure the necessary metric for that month. This actually got so bad that a guidance team had to be set up, not to fix the problem, but rather to instruct all our engineers to ignore the last ten steps of closing a service request. I quote: "select Software and Miscellaneous as trouble codes and close the case."

The case system was due to be replaced in July 2001, if I remember correctly, with an off-the-shelf product, which wasn't off-the-shelf anymore since Nortel had bought the company. So finally we'd have a case management system as opposed to a call reporting system. This was the first step in the right direction.

I was in charge of the second step, which was to design and implement a knowledge management system which could tie in with the case management system. Immediately the scope of this project grew to encompass other teams, but more immediately, we were to satisfy our engineer's longstanding complaint of a platform that would be helpful and not a hindrance.

Being an engineer of this sort for over 6 years, I knew what was required, but the how was somewhat out of reach. As I said before, others had failed, through lack of available technology, and other still through lack of proper management. A two pronged approached was selected: technology and philosophy. I will expound on this in another blog, and stick with the career path here.

The approach was sound and it was endorsed. We got Vice Presidential approval, and two, count them, two director to back me up. I felt confident that I wouldn't be falling into the management trap as others had. That left the technology.

Religious warfare is a schoolyard brawl compared to technology, especially when the people making the technology decisions don't know their ass from a chip. Add to this that even computer people, who are generally in the know, can seldom agree amongst themselves! I am reminded of my own aversion to Macs - Macintosh computers - which prompted me to write on the whiteboard in my office "I don't do Macs". I would slap my board with vehemence whenever a user came by to ask me a Mac question. So I was certainly part of the problem.

But I was going to try not to be, or so I thought.

I had been building alliances, and by the same token requirements for a wide spectrum of engineers, both in fibre and telephony. It came to pass that the major business units, i.e. the ones racking in the most cash with the biggest support organization were in-line and on board. Our mission statement and more importantly the vision of the basic design were again endorsed, but this time, by 2 whole business units, and the third was in-line but unwilling to move until it had been implemented, tested and running. In essence, they agreed and supported us, but would not partake in the trials, and minimally in requirements. This was standard practice in Wireless - cellular - in that they were so closely tied with telephony that they got all the telephony benefits without having to invest any effort nor any money.

Our vision was brilliant. The alliances were solid. Technology was happening, albeit slowly, but it was coming along. Life was good.

Then Philby III happened (not his real name).

Enterprise was the 4th business unit at Nortel at the time. And they were the people that had tried and failed. Of course, they now claimed to know all about everything and had the solution to solve world hunger, boil the ocean.

If this was going to cut my time-to-market for my people, by all the gods, I would get on-board in a heartbeat! Our first contacts were very good. This lot seemed to have learned well from their mistakes and the post mortem was logical. But for some reason, they refused to change their technology solution. It became painfully obvious why, but we found out far too late.

So we traveled the same path for a while, until over the space of a few months, we got railroaded into an IT gambit. The engineer representatives from Enterprise were not from there. Their managers were from IT and the chief designer was a contractor. And where the fuck was the Enterprise representative?

By the time I found him, the boss of Enterprise, he had all but disavowed everything and anything to do with their old knowledge management system. He had been in the middle of it when it all failed, and he certainly didn't agree with the logical-but-oh-so-flawed post-mortem. Also, just as an added bonus, he completely rejected the technology as well, setting blame upon it as well.

This didn't come as a shock, because by this time I already knew the enterprise people or in reality: their pimps, were going off in a direction ill-suited for my engineers. Given my background in Management Information Systems - also I have a bachelor degree - I already knew why the underlying technology would fail to provide the necessary infrastructure for our vision.

Nevertheless, I still attempted to rally everyone to a move ahead with his project. My only requirement from the other business units was to use Oracle as their basic database platform, and to let me know what system they'd use so I could interface with them when the time came. The choice for Oracle was simple; it was the same database as the newly-to-be-introduced case management system in July, making things much easier in the short and long term both!

This is where it got ugly. The IT gambit was to ensure everyone across the entire company was not only using the same technology, but also that IT should be doing the training, and such training would be in something called Solution Centred Support. The problem was that none of the 3 business units were interested in SCS. We didn't want a solution centre we already had that! If we had wanted solutions, all we had to do was to search our archaic case system and voîlà! We needed a knowledge capture and repository system.

This was never properly understood. It was to be my greatest mistake to try and explain the difference. My mission became to take these two diverging philosophies to all pertinent managers show them both, tell them why I like mine better, and then let them choose.

Philby's mission was to do some influence peddling at the vice-president level. He wanted his tool in there so bad it wasn't funny. Also, every single comparative report I'd make, he'd send out another, which was 1/2 truths, some outright lies and some statements of which he had no possible idea.

Since I'm writing this story, it's somewhat obvious that I could be prone to exaggerate. What's more: I am not exaggerating at all, I don't need to. Philby became so insanely unbelievable and rabid that my entire management structure knew he was off his rocker. All the people I'd had alliances with in both the other business units knew he was lying. And my own team was dismayed at the falsehoods this boy generated. They were on the ground floor and knew exactly what was what with both the technology and the people intended to use it.

Unfortunately for me, the only person who could potentially reel in Philby was the boss of Enterprise, who knew about every shortcoming...

and he had just left Nortel.

A decision point had been reached by March 2001. Either we adopted one or the other philosophy and toolset or we'd miss our deadline. The stakes were high in my book. On the one hand, we handed the keys over to IT, or on the other we kept control of our own destiny, as would each business unit.

The IT choice would guarantee failure down the road simply because it was a system our engineers didn't want nor asked for. Rule #1 in the Designer's Handbook: what do your users want? Rule #2: see rule #1. The IT choice cleverly avoided both. If we ploughed ahead with our own choice of philosophy and toolset, we'd guarantee a modicum of success with our engineers.

The battle was protracted and ran through April, lies on the one side, warnings on the other. Then May 10th happened. A decision had been rendered and it was not in our favour. Of course I went to see my boss, we’ll call him Alexander, that he may right this wrong.

I truly loved this man. He had a nice way about him, and he was a friend to Carmine, my other most favourite of bosses. Also he struck me as being honest and straightforward and certainly trying his best at all times. A man I respected. And I say this with all the years of respect and admiration I owe him: the motherfucker handled me!

We wrote a short email together outlining the difficulties and impossibilities of the choice handed down. We captured the essence of the issues in some 15 to 20 lines of text. Then he said: "OK, we have everything?" I replied that we'd covered the essential points. Then he said just as deadpan: "OK, I won't send it just yet, let me think about the wording some more." I left.

He never sent it.

If he had, I might have survived. As it was, this was the last nail in the coffin that would spell the end of my motivation for my career. So I got patronized, lost my motivation and then I burned out. I had to take a couple of weeks vacation, of which I was sure I was not going to return. But I did. I came back determined to make an honest go of it. It wasn't the solution I wanted, but it sure as hell wasn't going to be my fault if it failed. This is a laudable sentiment to have, but not one that can be sustained for years in the face of what you know, in your gut, will fail.

Nevertheless I was giving it my all. Training went ahead with vigour, as did the vast amounts of bonus money to encourage people to enter their case information. We did our utmost to whip up enthusiasm with the new program and succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. This was even better than the move I’d done in back 1994. This was a business victory and was celebrated as such.

In truth though, my entire team new we'd missed our chance. I got good reviews for my own evaluation until June. It was again time to move on, but I didn't see it. My work wasn't finished, at least not to my satisfaction. Also, we had a 1/2 system. Phase 2 needed to be implemented and soon!

By September, my role had changed somewhat and I was definitely keeping steady though, but I saw little point in going out of my way to get more things done. Alexander noticed and gave me a bad evaluation for that quarter. Then he presented me with an opportunity, and that I should get back to him by the end of October. Little did I know this was a test, an ultimatum. We did not speak again until November, so I failed his test. By this time I had become persona non-grata in his staff meetings. This was my fault since, although I was paying attention, I'd play chess on my palm-pilot during the meetings, although no one ever said anything, I can only assume Alexander knew anyway. I never held him a grudge for this though.

November was a make or break statement. He'd seen me slipping and didn't know what to do about it. Eventually he recommended the Nortel nurse check me out. In January I was officially diagnosed as a burn-out case: severe depression, medium intensity. Looking back, it's actually a miracle that I remember any of this.

I went on sick leave for a few months. I wanted to get better and come back as soon as possible. I was not realizing the extent of the damage. And massive damage there was.

I came back part time at first, in my new role as liaison with the American technical services team. I was also on the Employee Satisfaction team, and was re-supplying the newly formed tuck shop, to raise party funds and for employee recognition. The company was hurting pretty badly at this time because of their stock crash and allusions of impropriety had already begun.

Summer came and so did the end of my sick leave. I had to return full time by July or I was no longer covered by the insurance, unless I went on to long-term disability. I didn't think my depression wasn't debilitating enough to warrant long-term leave, I was wrong, almost dead wrong. I refused to believe that I might have been a case for long-term leave. The falling asleep all over the place should have been an indicator. But I was, and I quote myself: “I'm tough god damn it and I'm going to make it back to my former glory, so help me.”

Not quite 60 days after my short-term sick leave ended, I got laid off. I could have sued their asses clear into the next decade, but I didn't want to. I was going to quit within the year anyway, so they did me a favour. Plus I got an excellent 12-year-employment package! I got laid off the same day as a good friend of mine, who'd been my employee for about 4 years, but that's another story.

Philby was laid off six months before I was, and went to work for the solution-centred-support company. It was rumoured, while still at Nortel, that he got some IPO stock options from that company and a return on each license he got Nortel to buy, which was in the vicinity of 6.5 million U.S. dollars. I was never able to acquire documents to prove it though.

And the project? Well, phase 2 never happened, which was critical for the engineers and eventually even the primary tool all went to shit and had to be replaced and revamped. A friend of mine still working at Nortel, declared it a failure about a year later.

The cost? Both my health and my 7 million dollar project... shot.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

NT: A New Day, Different Job

I started an overview of my career moves at Northern Telecom (see N.T. in the title?), in A New Day, A New Job. I was about to continue when I thought of all the wonderful stories in my CTS days, which I immediately wrote up in My Time In CTS, simply as a change of pace.

Now back to the career path: comes 1995 and I feel as though I'm facing a dead-end. Local systems groups are frowned upon as I.T. - information technology - groups are making a vice-president directed play to gain control of all things computerized. It seems to matter not at all that such an approach invariably hampers a business unit. I'm all for company-wide efforts being handled by I.T. but local concerns are always ignored. The bigger the IT group, the more ignoring occurs. This is fact, everlasting truth and holy writ.

I should know, I did my own share of ignoring, and I was local! At least my users could come and state their claim at my desk if something was important enough. On any given day, I would have a line-up at my doorway, otherwise, I'd ever be trying to keep the big machinery running as a whole. More on this in another blog entry.

Being that the push was on and that I was feeling increasingly unappreciated, I decided to take heed of opportunities outside my directorship. I was torn with leaving my teammates, but there was nothing I could do for them any more than I could for me.

Off to Fibre I go. Here I met Monk and was reacquainted with Carmine. I'd been in an adjacent cubicle - what passed as office space at Nortel - with Carmine during my CTS days, and got to know him a little bit. A pleasant fellow, a little intense but mostly laid back, and Montréal Italian at that, so I immediately felt kinship as a fellow Montréalais. I'm not Italian, nor do I have any in my ancestry, but I had a lot of Italian friends in both high school and then CEGEP who were from Anjou and Laval. Adding Montréal-Nord, these were the Italian districts in the greater Montréal area.

Carmine would turn out to be a fantastic manager and coach in the years ahead. If anything, he would be the only consistent person in my management structure. I reported to him until the dark days and beyond.

I began my time in Fibre, as a fresh new Band-6 Team Leader. As it turned out, I got a promotion about a year later, as per the observations of my Manager in the U.K. Small consolation but I was finally vindicated for that cluster-fuck of moving a few years before.

At that point, the world was shiny and new and I was feeling hopeful again. A lot of my bitterness at getting screwed by that gutless twit, Calvin, has been washed away. I was acquiring more responsibility as I was managing more people. I came to work in the morning for them! It was great feeling, as opposed to leading lambs to slaughter as per my previous position. I tried to always remain careful in my evaluations of my flock and to give them proper due, Carmine had a solid process whereby checks and balances were tightly controlled. I'm not saying we didn't make mistakes, I'm sure we did. But I wasn't going to leave any of my guys twisting in the wind. Not if I could help it.

I had a great team in Fibre. Monk had put together a good assortment of people. He had a real knack for identifying good talent. Once again, the divergence between the members of the team was wild, but good people to the last. It's only when I started doing my own hiring that things turned to shit. It turns out that I'm a good judge of character, but not during an interview. Lesson learned; this became excruciatingly clear and I stopped doing any hiring.

Our mission was similar to CTS in that when an emergency arose we would get called, so again I was part of a pager carrying team, on a 7/24 basis, and still on the front lines. At this time, I had been carrying a pager non-stop for over 6 years. When I finally got rid of it 4 years later I had to buy a watch!

Another year went by and I moved to another, related, group. Still in customer service, this team was closer to design and much greater expertise within the product. These men that I was managing had vast and far-reaching experience. Luck of the draw had me managing my old manager, Monk! This was a product support team and not an emergency team, although we were still on-call 7/24 as the expertise reference.

I would have words with design, brand management, other customer service guys. This team was a focal point for the product subset we were supporting, and truth be told, I was having a really good time. My people were great, by and large the people in all the teams I was dealing with were great as well. I wish to keep the guilty anonymous, but by the same token I must keep the great ones anonymous too. (Maybe I'll hire a lawyer soon and then I'll go to town on my thanks and my condemnations, both. Please send money now. )

One observation I came across in my dealings with multiple groups, in the vein of prejudice no less, personalities are different. Everyone is different. Of course. It became somewhat of a joke that one could easily identify which group someone was working for, by his or her personality traits. It became such a science that we would extrapolate to the cars in the parking lot. The buildings containing the designers would have very specific cars parked outside: Civic (lots and lots), Corollas and Tercels, older Accords and Camrys. Then the buildings containing customer service or brand-management would have: GMC pickups, F-150s, Ford Explorers, Jeeps YJ and Cherokees, Porsches, Audis, 4-Runners, Firebirds & Camaros, Mustangs, Bonnevilles, Eagle Talons among other assorted makes and models, and a contingent of motorcycles.

It wasn't a question of money either, as design was typically paid 10% to 50% higher wages than their customer service counterparts. This actually led to a minor revolt of which I was caught in the middle. The level of expertise we would bring to the game was on par and on occasion surpassed our design friends as we acquired the field experience on top of participating in the design process. A small remuneration differential was expected, but 50% was certainly out to lunch. My team was especially critical since the sheer amount of network knowledge required to do our troubleshooting could not even be bought off the street at the time. No one in this team had less than 4 years direct experience in networking of some sort, some as much as 15.

As the scope for the product support team was raised, so we had to import some newer talent. It came as a shock and delight to me, that my old fibre emergency team was slowly migrating with me. I guess I wasn't a bad manager if these guys, that had been working for me for 2 years, wanted to follow me over.

Regardless of my new found appreciation, things in my personal life weren't going so well. (Please note the correct use of the word regardless, and not that calamity "irregardless".) Another blog of course, but suffice to say that my recurring depression was taking more and more of a toll. At least work was going reasonably well, other than the standard stresses.

I was approached to pilot an intelligence project, whereby engineer's knowledge and experience could be captured into a type of white-board database. On the face of it, everything in my career had led me to this point. My background in computer sciences and management information systems, my time in support, even and maybe especially, my management and troubleshooting skills were all going to be assets to build the single-most important troubleshooting system that Nortel would have at it's disposal.

Few companies had successfully done this, the reason two-fold: lack of management commitment and lack of, or worse wrong, technology. But the Web being the buzzword du jour, a world of possibilities was open for business. In true design fashion, requirements were collected and analysed, a direction and mission were set and we were off. The phrase "boil the ocean" often came to mind, not so much in reference to global warming, but rather expounding the difficulties we would face. I was up for the challenge though. This was too important to leave undirected and it's exactly what had been lacking in serious troubleshooting tools for customer service.

I had built a small tool of this type for my personal use years before. It was simple yet effective and contained the sum of my repeated knowledge over years of troubleshooting. I knew what I was shooting for. It was new, it was exciting, and by all the gods it would make one hell of a difference!

Fibre: also known as optical; glass fiber and light technology able to carry ludicrously vast amounts of digital data over equally ludicrous distances.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

NT: My time in CTS

As the title suggests, I'd like to relate a few stories from my time in Crisis Tech Services. As usual, names of places and people have been changed. All the stories are absolutely true.

The first comes to mind, in the spirit of Vikings and Misspeak, was my first or second time at bat. I'd been with the company no more than 3 months at this point. My English is very fluent but also very street. The switch - technical jargon for telephone central office - was still alive, but feeling none too worthy of keeping up the good fight. The first step, since it was available to me, was to make a backup copy of the data and operating system configuration. The technique is really to dump data to tape, or disk. In my work environment we called it something a little different, which, honestly, I'd never thought twice about.

With a calm and collected voice, I explain the procedure of producing a backup tape and with great alacrity I explain that this action is called "taking a dump".

And so began my career in emergency recovery.

Calm and collected was the defacto tactic by which we would talk to anyone on-site. It showed a measure of concern but at the same time it allowed us to maintain composure in the face of whatever happened at the far end. One such time had three of us working on a call. Usually only one was called out, but my friend received the page while another teammate and me were at his place, so we figured we'd help.

The telephone office which had failed was somewhere in the boonies, as they so often were. It was 10 or 11 pm local time. The technician calling in was very drunk, this in itself was not overly unusual at that time of night, but he was more interested in telling us stories than working on the issue at hand. He asked us all sorts of question from where we were located through to what kind of cars we drove. Our answers were short, his replies were not. Upon my teammates answer that he drove an Acura Integra, our man on site launched into a story of his brother in law driving such an auto, right under a moose crossing the highway. The car sustained little damage as the moose was that tall that the car passed almost complety underneath and between it's legs. Our good training took over, that we remained impassive in our voices, while our sides were splitting.

Some events were more of the ludicrous, although understandable. Working a broken component issue in northern Ontario, the technician on site had to retrieve a spare from the cabinet. Expecting the cabinet to be in the next room, I simply asked how long he would be gone. "About 1/2 hour" he answered, "I have to take the canoe across to the other office". Canoe?!@? As anyone in the computer field can attest, vast amounts of humidity and computer parts just don't mix well, and this replacement was about to take a 15 minute ride in a canoe!

Ghosts and other gremlins were often at work. These were the most interesting, albeit frustrating, problems by far. A telephone office in northern Quebec had recurring grounding problems since it's initial installation, power converters would fail on a regular basis. During the installation period, everything worked perfectly, but shortly after the installers left, the office would reboot for no obvious reason. I wasn't around at the time, but I was assured that all tests revealed nothing. As soon as a technician would show up on-site, all problems were miraculously cured. The grounding rod - a chunk of heavy duty steel or copper driven into the ground behind the building - was actually sitting in a hole. Said hole would dry up and the grounding would become faulty. But when a technician would arrive on site after several hours of travel, he would relieve himself into the hole behind the building, as there are not toilet facilities at these un-manned offices. In doing so, the grounding rod would become wet enough to re-establish good electrical conduit. Simply put: pissing on the rod fixed the problem.

I was very involved with another grounding problem. Or so we thought. Every night at around the same time, this older telephone office, which had no history of failure whatsoever, would suddenly reboot with every single eletrical diagnostic lighting up like a Christmas tree. The scraping of a chair on the floor would generate enough static electricity to send the machine into a frenzy. After a day or two of this, we prohibited anyone from even going into the office, but to no avail. It was significant that the problems would start at roughly the same time every day. What had changed? Was there something new in the environment? Indeed, there was a radio station going up soon and the broadcast technicians were running tests every night. We felt a little wary of this event and wondered how a radio station, operating on completely different electrical principles would damage the telephone central. The news came down from one of the irate telephone technicians that the telephone company had agreed to let the radio company use the microwave tower.

A little information is in order: a microwave dish is line-of-sight and it's tower is usually 10 or 20 feet above the telephone office, it is low wattage and is also pointed in one specific direction. This is for long-distance where wires would be too costly to install. A radio tower is hundreds of feet high, broadcasting in every available direction at extremely high wattage with radiated power reaching up to 200kilo-watts.

So here we had some 50k watt broadcast radiating the office, not 20 feet away! To give a mental picture, it's as if 40 or so microwave ovens with the doors open, were blasting away at the building. An honest mistake. We eventually calculated that more than a 10k watt broadcast was the max a telephone office would take. Eventually a proper radio tower was installed and all was well. In the meantime, the radio station was enjoined to conduct their tests at less than 5k watts.

Speaking of cooking things: an office that would experience a revolution at 4pm in the afternoon, but only on sunny days and then only after a tech had been on site for a few days. I cannot remember how long it took us to solve this one. The sun would come streaming into the building through a curtained window, but a technician had gone to site and pulled the curtains to see better, then left without thinking of the curtain since it was night time. This eventually allowed the 4pm sun to cook the machine enough to overheat one of the computer controllers.

These are very robust machines, military grade in fact, but direct sunlight just isn't good. Nor is ignorance. One of my teammates worked on a very small switch in the Great White North (tm), it had maybe 20 or 30 phone lines in all, but it kept getting overloaded. This is completely unheard of. This damned thing was designed to easily handle 10,000 lines! Ignorance being bliss, this new fangled telephone thingy was a mystery to the local populace who would call each other up and leave the phone off the hook. When Joe wanted to talk to Fred, he'd lean out his window and shout: Fred pick up your phone! The overload? If Sam wanted to talk to Joe, he was shit out of luck, since line was always busy!

On subject matter expertise, or lack thereof, and I say this with the utmost respect, I once had to talk the building janitor into emergency recovery of a switch. He was the only one available to work with me since all the technicians were 4 hours away in the next closest town. This man knew nothing of telephone office operations, and I do mean nothing. Nevertheless, he tried his best, was resolute and steadfast. Arguably the most dedicated person I ever worked with. It took us about 20 minutes to find the modem - flat little black or gray box - by which I'd be able to log into the phone office and begin troubleshooting. By god, he found the modem, reset it and then rebooted the telephone office. This was a very relieved man when I told him the phones were working again.

Sometimes the phones are down for so long that some people start to notice. At about 8pm one evening, I get paged by the Chief of a rather large telephone office nearby. I immediately recognized it as being the second biggest office of this type in North America. This means a lot of people are without phone service. It was going to take us several hours to recover this bastard no matter how creative I got. About an hour into the call, I hear some heated discussion in the background. Apparently, the police was outside, along with a mess of reporters. This was a little surprising to me since the location of telephone offices are not usually public knowledge. The chief of the C.O. - central office - was livid, as if his telephone switch having crashed wasn't enough, I could hear him yelling in the distance: "I swear if anybody opens that fucking door, I'm going to fucking kill him." O...kayyy. Keep composure.

C.O. people get upset. It happens. It's also somewhat related to the clients being served. I got my ass chewed out one day for not having the correct documentation on hand. Remember, this was in 1990-91, some 15 years ago now. The web was still text based and on-line documentation was barely an itch in somebody's shorts. The term Web had not yet been coined in the general populace. The word Nuclear on the other hand was very well known. A brand new feature card was available, so new in fact that I did not have the documentation covering it. This new card allowed for some PBX - private branch exchange - also known as business lines, to be installed on a regular phone line.

This was a single card failure, and was not normally handled by my Team, but as would happen every Friday, the Field Service Engineers in Toronto would sluff the call off to CTS when 4pm rolled around. This occurred often enough that the person on-call on a Friday would systematically not make any kind of plans for 4pm. This annoyed the shit out of us, but it was difficult to prove and Toronto being the larger F.S.E. organization in Canada, they certainly had the power to make life more miserable for us. There is no love lost between me and a couple of cretins in Toronto at that time. The situation thankfully got better over the years as those bad seeds left.

Back to the single card failure, I began by asking the basic questions for my troubleshooting and realized this was single line, single customer and clearly not of my purview. Not to be deterred, I asked who the customer was, that this was so important to solve. The answer: the local nuclear power plant. Re-establishing communications with a nuclear plant seemed important enough for me to keep working the issue.

Earlier, I mentioned microwaves: as anyone with a TV-LOOK system knows, the dish has to be pointed in a particular direction and be clear of obstacles between your dish and the broadcasting dish across town. In telephony, microwaves are often used to cover great distances where overhead or underground wires would be prohibitively expensive. If the distance is great enough, the curvature of the earth starts being a problem and taller towers are needed. One such site in the great plains of Labrador had tall towers, but not tall enough. Twice a year for about a week, all long-distance to or from this telephone central would simply not exist. Then the problem would sort itself out. The line of sight between the two microwave dishes came within a few feet of the ground, and every year, twice a year, for about a week, moose migration would cut the beam.

And then people look at me funny when I tell them I actually closed a customer service request with the cause being sun-spots.

: Central Office, esp. building(s) containing telephony equipment.
C.T.S. : Crisis Technical Service, also a mess of other names over the years.

F.S.E : Field Service Engineers
Office : ref C.O.
PBX : private branch exchange, private multi-line business installations hosted by the local phone company, but with private business-specific phone numbers with operator facilities, etc.
Skivvies : Quebec F.S.E. name for an installation tool, that had the guys in the U.S. just about pissing themselves laughing.
Switch : the actual computer which processes the telephone calls, in the C.O.
Telephone central : ref. C.O.
Telephony: the science of all things related to telephones.

Note of Author: C.O., switch, office, central were terms often used interchangeably unless technical correctness was required.

Friday, September 09, 2005

NT: A New Day, A New Job

This is the first in what will probably be a mini-series of blogs, mostly about my time at Nortel. Names have been changed to protect the guilty. These will be darker than some of my other blog entries. You have been warned.

Back in 1989, I graduated from UQAM - Université du Québec à Montréal in Computer Sciences & Administration. The last semester was especially difficult. I had an interview during that summer that panned out very nicely indeed, so it was hard to concentrate on my studies since I already had a job lined up.

The eighties in general had been a problem socially. The recession and the political unrest only contributed to produce loom and gloom. Myself, along with many of my classmates were less than hopeful about our future. Computers was the place to be apparently, but the old guard was slow in picking up the pace. Machinery was still expensive, the recession might have something to do with this.

When I go my job at Nortel, I was ecstatic and jumping for joy, against hope I actually had something lined up. A job! ANY job, in my field! Woohoo!

Little did I know.

I had been told that the Technical Crisis Service was a pressure cooker. I took this in stride and bode to do well. This was a front-line support group for telephone offices. If an office went "tits-up" to quote the phrase, we would be called in to get it back on-line. This was a 5-minute standby, usually one week at a time, on call 24 hours a day.

The stress of carrying a pager wasn't that bad. You had to be armed with enough knowledge, and a decent dose of arrogance to do this job. You had to convince yourself that whatever the problem was, you'd be able to solve it. In fact, there were a great many things way beyond your competence, but if you stopped to think about how inadequate you really were, you'd forever live in fear and potentially you could lock up when the call came in.

Many claimed this was just a job, and not to take it personally, but always present was the spectre of catastrophe. Note that when the phones are down no one can reach the police, fire service, hospital nor ambulance service. With a simple call to your pager, you are now the only thing standing between several thousand people and utter mayhem.

Don't take it personally indeed.

No one ever talked about this aspect of the job. A tough shell allowed you to keep going. As time passed your knowledge replaced the arrogance with actual superiority and not so much the impression of superiority. At this point, you were ready to move on. I'd had a good time with my teammates and a couple of brilliant managers. It was with ready but heavy heart that I moved on after 2 years.

I came upon another on-call job, supporting the infrastructure to these men and women of Crisis Services. I was in systems support. Arguably, this was the best time I'd have at Nortel. The guys I was working with were all very good. All of them, including me, had strong personalities, all very different. I still wonder to this day how we all got along, yet it seemed to work really well. I guess we all did different jobs, so we were never in each other's way. One was a quiet know-it-all, one was a quiet bulldozer, one was sex-obsessed flamboyant youngster, one was a spirited and direct, I was the one deemed, and I quote: "abrasive".

My manager of the time, we'll call him Arthur, was caring, knowledgeable and understanding. He had somewhat of a flash temper when it came to incompetence, but always encouraged us to try our best. If a mistake was made it was summarily corrected and we moved on. This man had wisdom which he readily imparted. I grew by leaps and bounds in this environment, truth be told, I was always working on the "abrasive" bit, but I'm not sure I ever got the hang of it despite Arthur's best efforts.

I was with him for 2 years and became team-leader and chief systems-administrator. As with all systems groups, we were acutely understaffed and very definitely unappreciated, but all this mattered not, since we had a tight-knit team who pulled together well. Enjoyable to work in and the job satisfaction was clearly present. This was a beautiful example of being loaded to the gunwales but enjoying your work, simply because of the people you work with, and especially in this case working for Arthur.

Upon the 2 year mark, Arthur was removed to work in CTS, and a new manager was installed, and a new team-leader was named in my stead. I was relegated to my previous post. I liked my team-leader enough; but the new manager, Calvin, and I didn't seem to hit it off. Even to this day, the reasons for this are completely unknown to me. I think in a sense, Calvin was afraid of me, but I didn't know why. Still don't.

During this time I planned and effected a move of all equipment and workstations to a new locale we were moving to. I had exactly one weekend in which to do this, as the CTS team needed to be back on-line on the Monday morning. After months of planning the move was done and absolutely all the equipment and workstations were back on-line come the Monday morning. I was a huge job.

This was my proudest moment. I had done something that wildly exceed my comfort zone and my experience level, and delivered a 100% working environment on time. I was on a high. I was motivated, I loved my job, I had done something outstanding for my fellow co-workers, CTS was back on-line. I loved life. As anyone can tell, I have very fond memories of this time.

Then Calvin presented my case at the annual review board. Apparently, not only did I not warrant a promotion, nor raise, but all this work was simply what was expected of someone at my level (band-5). I find it somewhat humorous that the next move about a year and a half later was planned and effected by Calvin who was 2 levels above mine (band-7).

I came to the conclusion that I was clearly unappreciated, but by whom? Nevertheless, I remained steadfast, although some bitterness had set in that I was never able to shake off completely. It seemed that Calvin was a spineless jellyfish and that everyone, not just me, was feeling the pain of his incompetence. Everyone in the team got lousy reviews that year. It begs the question as to how everyone in a team goes to the dogs, when just the previous year the same people were matching and some exceeding expectations.

During the following year there were many shuffles in the organisation. I reprised my role as de-facto team-leader without the recognition of management of course, but the people in my team needed someone to look up to, to rally them. I may have needed this as much as they did. Given the damage that Calvin had done, morale was not good. Abysmal even. We did get a new manager in the shuffle. He was an old hand who'd been around the block a few times. This was a welcome and sorely needed change.

I was sent to the UK in 1995, in order to train their systems support team. My assignment was for 3 months. The team over there was nothing short of brilliant. Their team leader was a man wise beyond his years and had a knack for leading and rallying people. Equal balance of encouragement and political savvy he was an inspiration to me, and I suspect to many others in the UK office as well. We spent hours discussing business, office psychology and organisational behaviour. This was not a good time in my life, but work-wise, I would not trade it for the world.

Upon my return, I carried a letter from the UK managers to present at my annual review. In a nutshell, they were singularly unimpressed that I was still a band-5 (tech engineer). Not only should I have obtained a promotion years before, but they would actually consider me as a band-7 (manager) candidate.

My current management could no longer argue the point. This was finally enough to secure a band-6 (team-leader) position.

It dawned on me at the time that maybe my abrasivness had not totally been eradicated and that my past was haunting me. A change of organisation was in order.

Nortel Bands: promotion and salary system
Shortly after I began at Nortel in 1990, the band system was implemented, it was updated once and then changed completely before I left, but at the time, as I remember:
Band-4 : Technical new hire
Band-5 : Technical engineer (not to be confused with P.Eng. - unrelated)
Band-6 : Team-Leader
Band-7 : D-Level or people-manager
Band-8 : C-Level (sometimes manager)
Director and beyond weren't referenced as "bands"

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Habitual Fear

If we go by the principle that fear is that which we do not understand, then we should be afraid of a great many things. In a sense we are. The theory does hold water, but we must factor in experience lived as children.

By and large children are fearless, the younger the child, the more fearless. That is, until our environment teaches us to be. Falling down our first set of stairs for instance. Climbing headlong clear over the sofa. Sticking a screwdriver in the wall plug behind the TV in order to fix the TV. All these experiences, added to those lived by others, parents, friends, etc. make an impact on us.

When we grow older, things we don't understand will trigger an already established response of curiosity all the way through to unabated fear. Depends on the thing, of course, and our own history with something similar. If it's a formula akin to something we've already experienced, we will carry over the wariness we've developped. If it is completely new, two things may happen: one, we will unconsciously try to make an association with something already familiar, and two, we will make the wrong assumption!

The first step will either produce or alleviate fear, because something familiar does not remove the fear per se. There is a much debated discrepancy that exists between irrational and healthy fear. Healthy fear is using a branch shredder. It should be treated with respect and a given dose of healthy fear will ensure this.

The irrational fear is a pet peeve of mine, which brings us to the second point: wrong association.
For instance, many are afraid of guns. This is the epitomy of irrational. The healthy fear is having the firearm turn against us, like the branch shredder, it has the potential of causing bodily harm even death. This is a correct and valid association to make.

As with the branch shredder, the gun actually needs an operator. As opposed to the shredder, it needs an active operator. If you see even a picture of a shredder, or a farm combine, or a set of steak knives in the Sears catalogue, you don't have an instant revulsion to it, as so many would the firearm. The actual undebatable fact is that gun itself is a chunk of engineered metal, much as the other 3 examples. Glimpse the irrational yet?

This symbolism is powerful and can be a very useful tool, as we see the police whipping themselves up into a frenzy at the mere mention of a firearm. This is a healthy use of the lousy association. It is a reasonable assumption for them to make in order to somewhat guarantee their survival. The imponderable, however, always remains the sorry sod that has control of the firerarm and not the firearm itself, focusing on the firearm is simply expedient.

I don't want to dwell on the firearm issue, this will be in another blog.

The symbolism can also be destructive. In my last blog Lying, Fear and Light I wrote of my own problems with the basement for instance. It is healthy to be a little wary of my basement, but certainly complete idiocy to assume that monsters are the problem. Yet for years, terror ruled my actions.

How many more misguided symbolisms am I putting up with? Hard to tell. I solved a few that I was aware of. Rushing water, for instance stemmed from a vicious tumble I took at the beach when I was little. A wave surprised me and had me ass over end for what seemed an eternity. My fear of heights probably stems from my being a fraction of a second away from taking a dive down a 3 story set of ceramic stairs as my mom grabbed me. Her fear probably compound into me, but I don't know for sure. I may never know. It is gut wrenching though, so I know all about irrational fear and how uncontrollable it is. Now you know why it's a pet peeve.

There are many fears that are easily identifiable that simple dissociation would resolve. Often we don't take the time to reason it out, it's more expedient just to sit and be afraid. It avoids us from having to make an effort, or take a decision, or get out of our own way. I believe this to be the real source of the phrase "crippling fear".

Fight or flight is often used when discribing a natural instinctive reaction to danger. There is another: lock up. There have been numerous writings on this. One I found interesting had a person studying the floor map of his hotel to get out, during a fire alarm. His reaction was one of auditive cue turning into a visual response. This, in effect, locked him up. He survived because someone grabbed him and brought him to safety.

Logic so often goes out the window as soon as a frightful stimulus is imposed. This is why I believe irrate mothers are among the most dangerous of social vehicles. Their whole reason for being is to ward off dangers for their youngsters, and are therefore conditioned be afraid on their behalf. They do this for so long it becomes an ingrained habit. Is logic going to condition their behaviour? Not a snowball's chance in hell. This is reasonnable and has been effective for survival for centuries, if not more, albeit frustrating for the rest of us.

Like any habit, it is interesting to note that fear built up over some years will fundamentally change our beliefs. Not necessarily for the good, I might add. Compound irrational associations over just a few generations and you get shit like, well, racism for one.

As with any habit, a long hard look should be taken as to whether it is misguided; I started out by saying that we are afraid of what we don't understand. Now, given our habits, I also submit that we don't understand that of which we are afraid: we are afraid, by habit! Now doesn't that really suck?

But then, we can do something about it: we can change our habits.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lying, Fear and Light

I did not write a blog this last friday. I could say it was because of the long weekend, and was taking a day off, but that would be lying. And I don't lie. Well, not usually.

Long ago I gave up lying, it was just too damned much work, trying to remember every little thing in order not to trip myself up. It strikes me today as being a very wise thing to do at a tender age of about 13. But, until that time, I was pretty good at it.

Lying may have been a defense mechanism for my stealing, which I don't do anymore either... it caused lying you see, and this simply would not do. I suppose that around the same time I also decided I would no longer be scared. I was certainly refered to as a "fraidy-cat". I was afraid, among other things, of the basement, the dark, rushing water, monsters, heights, oops, I'm still afraid of heights.

Trying to think back, it's not really suprising that everything scared me, since I was raised on a TV diet of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Invaders, Lost in Space among many other monster ridden series. Maybe there is a relationship with my being afraid of heights and the oh-so-many dives the Coyote took off oh-so-many-more cliffs... on the other hand, I am not, nor have I ever been afraid of fast moving ground-locked birds. Go figure.

So one day, I got so very fed up of being terrorized by the basement. The sheer sight of it would creep into my heart and grab me like the demon in The Exorcist. I noticed something a while back with my younger niece, she was 6 at the time. She wanted to go see the basement, as any sane non-parent would say: "no, it's dangerous"... then I thought, g-damned, that's probably the same shit I heard from my own family as a youngster.

Taking the situation in hand, I thought it necessary to demystify the place instead and brought her downstairs to view the unholy mess. The danger, of course, being paint cans balancing precariously upon cans of white fuel, upon motocycle batteries, upon ... well... you get the picture. On second thought, maybe it really is a dangerous place, not so much for the monsters. She was happy to see what was what, and I was happy to avoid much future heartache for the little one.

One must wonder how many of these silly and innocent events mold one's future fears quite unconsciously.

My decision to stop being afraid was a turning point. I'd rush downstairs before I'd have time to think about my fear. I would amble in the dark, moving by feel against the walls, just out of general principle. I'd sit by the water at the falls in Chambly where I used to live and let the roar of the rapids rock me gently. I began to identify sounds faster and faster, bumps in the night, until I had catalogued everything or had a pretty good idea what the sound was and where it came from. I'd play games: ever trying to detect new sounds!

Then a funny thing happened: I was no longer afraid. I'm not saying I had nerves of steel, far from it but I was no longer jumpy. Most of my fears had been vanquished and with them, the fear of being found out. How could I be found-out if I had not lied about it!

Some of my 'ttude comes form this of course. What's the relationship with lying then? Why did I even start in the first place? I don't know, but the two are related: not being afraid of being scolded, for example, allowed me to be honest, which to my great delight was a lot easier than lying. Furthermore, being honest not only brought about serenity on my part but also respect and a most amazing thing: trust, from others. I don't remember ever getting spanked after this, proof that telling the truth is less painful!

Truly a turning point.

Often we lie to our-own-selves about a great many things. A lot of us in therapy have precisely this issue: we lie to ourselves, furthermore we punish ourselves for it. The other problem we face is that we often don't know what we are afraid of. Some of us may never know. It never registers that being honest with one's self may yield trust and confidence and serenity, and it'll elude us until something clicks. Like the basement scenario, the fear is often lost in space and time until we come face-to-face with an example to light the way.

Mind you, I am still afraid of heights. I'd love to light up that one.