An Experiment In Scotch

I write to discover what I believe

Month: July 2009 (page 1 of 2)

The Best Sentence You'll Read For At Least Six Days

Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange.

Found in Sam Anderson’s review of William Vollman’s latest book, Imperial.

We're In The Very Best Hands

After solving all the nation’s really hard problems this morning, Democratic Senators lead by Chuck Schumer had plenty of time on their hands and decided to save the world from people who text while they drive. Thank God the economy, health care and world peace all got knocked out in that work session this morning.

Improving Podcasts Episode 4

Episode 4 is out and you can find all the gory details here. I’m involved again, marginally more than last time, so that alone should cause you to listen. Also, even if you don’t listen, please subscribe through iTunes. Help a brotha out, ya know?

Names Are Important

This article on the resulting change in a development shop after they adopted Agile popped up on Reddit today and the comments there got me to thinking again about the ramifications of changing the meaning of a term or phrase while still using the term or phrase to describe it.

Last week, we had an internal conversation regarding this Ron Jeffries’ post where he talks about the essence of Agile Software Development as he and others defined in the Agile Manifesto. Leaving aside the idea that the Agile Manifesto is a set of values and not dictates, one of my colleagues made a good point regarding how it was too late to discuss what Agile meant because the term Agile had been bastardized in so many ways as to be irrelevant, poetically paraphrased. A comment on the Reddit thread above made the same point, that in our industry, once you put a name on something, you have essentially relegated it to the dustbin of history because once something has a name, people can latch onto the name while changing the underlying structure of what the name stands for. Many people say that the beauty in agile is its flexibility but when something is so flexible as to have completely different meanings depending on how it is implemented, naming it loses all meaning.

The term agile should be be viewed as a descriptor of a philosophy of programming and not as a concrete implementation of how you develop software. Even Agile Software Development is philosophical in nature and aside from the main tenet of delivering usable, valuable software regularly, it is a term that should be used to light but not build your path. If your team writes a detailed specification at the beginning of a project and then iterates over that specification regularly delivering working, usable software, you are using agile philosophy even if very few agile coaches would teach that way. Having a philosophy guides your decisions but does not dictate your decisions. The failure to not clearly state this is one of the larger failings of the agile community.

Of course, by plastering a name onto something, you practically guarantee that someone will try to make money off of it, especially if it becomes a part of the software culture. However, it would be hard to make money being an agile coach if your coaching totally consisted of Yoda-like platitudes. “Deliver working software sprint 1 you will.” So the term agile became a description of directives and that’s when it started to significantly lose meaning. Saying you do agile software development now means you’re doing something that superficially looks like Scrum or Lean or XP but is so drastically different under the covers that the term “agile software development” has no meaning.

The best agile coaches understand this. They look at a process in a development cycle and try to decide if it fits into the philosophy of agile as opposed to the particular pragmatic implementation of agile that the team is working under. If it does, the process can be kept. If it does not, the process needs to be revamped or eliminated in favor of one that helps the team deliver software. Anything else violates the philosophy of agile software development.

Did You Mean Recursion?

For a monstrously large company, Google keeps its sense of humour.

Inflation and the Fed

During the current economic crisis, the Federal Reserve has increased its balance sheet significantly in order to increase the monetary liquidity in the economy. Many people assume they have done this by “printing money” which in theory increases the money supply held by the public and over the long term is inflationary. However, because the Fed did not want to increase the actual money supply held by the public, they went about increasing the liquidity of the system in a different manner, one that they are convinced will allow them to avoid unsustainable inflation in the future. Theoretically, this is true. However, in reality, it’s likely to be false for a reason I’ll get to in a minute.

First, we need to understand exactly how the Fed increased economic liquidity without increasing the money supply in public hands. James Hamilton gives us a very thorough explanation. I highly suggest you read the whole thing which is liable to lead you down a very deep rabbit hole but I’ll try to summarise to the best of my abilities. Normally, if the Fed wanted to increase liquidity, it doesn’t physically print money and start handing it out to the people on the front steps. Most large banks have an account with the Fed. To get money into the system, the Fed normally just adds an entry in one of these accounts as a sort of deposit. The bank now has more money than it did before. It can then use that money to pay off debt, to loan out to other banks or customers or ask for actual money. Typically they do the one of the first two and not the other. This may go on for several steps but eventually, someone wants the actual money and the original entry gets converted to cold hard cash.

That of course would increase the money supply held by the public. The Fed did two different things to increase the liquidity without increasing the money supply. First, it asked the Treasury to borrow a bunch of money by selling T-Bills to banks. Those banks paid for the T-Bills by asking the Fed to transfer money from the accounts at the Fed to accounts at the Treasury. The Treasury then just sits on the money and you have no increase in money supply held by the public.

The second way the Fed increased liquidity was by changing the terms of the accounts they held with the banks. In the past, if the Fed added an entry to a bank’s account, the bank would put that money to use, typically by lending it out overnight. They did this because the Fed did not pay interest on any money that sat in the account overnight and the bank could get interest in the overnight lending trade. However, during this crisis, the overnight lending trade came to be viewed as suspect by most banks because they didn’t know what banks were solvent and what banks weren’t. So they weren’t inclined to lend that money out and the Fed helped them out by starting to pay interest on accounts. Now, the banks could just leave the money sitting there and still make money. This situation allowed the Fed to essentially borrow directly from the public because they can increase account balances without having to worry about money getting into the system.

Of course, all of this is still inflationary because money is essentially being created out of thin air. Plenty of people worry about this and Ben Bernake wants people to know that they have a plan for getting out of the situation once the economy turns around which he detailed in the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed linked above. He argues that the Fed can just increase the interest rates it pays on the accounts banks hold with it once the economy turns around. By increasing the interest rates, it can ensure that banks will continue holding money with the Fed instead of loaning it out to the public.

This is where theory is going to meet reality in what is liable to be a very ugly street fight. Increasing interest rates sounds real easy but in fact, is a highly political process, one that Alan Greenspan failed at spectacularly in 2002-2003 when the economy was coming out of recession. Increasing interest rates naturally inhibits growth because it is more expensive to borrow money to fund expansion. Imagine a scenario where we start to come out of the worst recession we’ve seen since WWII. Unemployment is starting to level out, probably around 11% or so. Spending is starting to increase somewhat. If suddenly growth starts to shoot up a little, banks will be inclined to lend that money that the Fed gave them out. If at this point, the Fed raises interest rates, it takes a huge political risk in that it may nip the growth in the bud and return us to a recession. Can you imagine the political fallout from a move like that? The electorate would scream bloody murder and whoever was in charge at the Fed would be the scapegoat. In reality, the interest rates probably wouldn’t get raised at all and once the banks started lending that money out, we’d see a highly inflationary environment.

Because the plan the Fed has is in effect a political plan and not a monetary plan, it is likely to be a broken plan from the outset. The US economy is headed towards a precipice with a tiny tightrope to the other side, on one side of the rope is long term stagnation and on the other a hyper-inflationary scenario that turns us into Argentina or worse, Zimbabwe. I highly doubt that we will have the ability to walk the tightrope between the two and will likely end up in the second situation because it will be an easier political decision to make. This is the problem that comes up when you have highly technical people in control of what is essentially a political problem. In theory, their reasoning goes, we can fix this, no problem. In reality, it’s never that easy.

Windows Dialog Estimation


Insider Trading Suit Against Mark Cuban Dismissed

A judge threw out the SEC’s case against Mark Cuban today related to his sale of stock in I initially wrote about it here pointing out the possibility that this case was political payback. You have to think it might have been since I’d imagine the SEC doesn’t normally bring a case against someone unless they have a very strong one.


Required background here.

Then compare this to this and you start to see why some days I wake up and have trouble finding any hope for our country. Maybe that’s hyperbole but we seem to have lost our way with regards to our heroes. God, I must be getting old.

Hey you kids, get the hell off my lawn.

Improving Podcasts

Improving Enterprises has started a bi-weekly podcast series on a variety of topics. Your humble blogger was included in episode 3 in which he mumbles something about human testers at around 10:20 and then equates Test Driven Development to Color-By-Numbers later in the show. You should listen to it but mostly for the other intelligent people on the podcast and not for me. The episode is “Throw Away Your Unit Tests”. It has to be good with a controversial topic like that.

While you’re there, subscribe using iTunes. It will really help us out.

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