Posted by: bkivey | 11 January 2015

Failure Is Now An Option

A couple of months ago I bought a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and recently finished it. Lost Moon (Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger, Houghton Mifflin, 1994) is the story of Apollo 13, and the basis for the 1995 movie. Shannon Lucid took the movie to the Mir space station as part of her personal effects, which may seem like watching a plane crash movie on a flight, but is in fact anything but. Apollo 13 is one of the most inspiring events in modern history, and stands tall in the pantheon of human achievement. Shit got real, real fast. A veritable army of the best engineers and technicians on the planet worked around the clock to ensure that three men riding barely – capable machinery didn’t die a cold, lonely death.

Watching the movie, you might notice (beyond the incredible Oscar-winning sound) that all of the NASA personnel are white guys. The only minorities are press, and women are either press or wives. True, the movie is set in 1970, and as Walter Cronkite might say ‘That’s the way it was”. But America in 1970 was also a place that hadn’t yet succumbed to the tyranny of the mediocrity.

Uniformly white and male NASA personnel may have been at the time, but they also knew that they had been selected on the merits. If you were manning a console in Mission Control, it was because you were really good at your job. There was no toxic doubt that you were a social promotion. My experience is that knowing that you have a job based on your performance makes you want to work harder, as any slacking may well lead to the next person up getting the call. If you’re not a member of a protected class, there’s no protection in skin color or gender.

America doesn’t currently have a manned space program, so the question is hypothetical, but could the success of 1970 be replicated today?

I’m not sure.

I am reasonably sure that the tech staff at NASA is just as capable as their counterparts some 45 years ago, but would they have the same attitude; that nothing short of success was acceptable? I have real doubts about that. In modern Western society, failure is not only an option, but almost a badge of honor. People have been brainwashed into believing that failure comes not from personal shortcomings, but as a result of outside forces beyond their control.

Let’s imagine Mission Control in 2015. Tragedy befalls the International Space Station and the crew is in mortal danger. Maybe the crew is saved, maybe not. But if the crew is lost, questions that were unthinkable in 1970 would have to be asked:

  • Were the folks manning the consoles chosen on the merits, or were political factors in play?
  • Is NASA truly success oriented, or is trying really (or even fairly) hard good enough?
  • If equipment had to be fabricated, or machinery used in ways for which it wasn’t designed, would people care more about mission success, or the political and legal consequences?
  • Were success achieved, would the chattering classes care more about the achievement, or whether Mission Control was ‘diverse’ enough?

The success of any enterprise, whether nation or business or individual achievement requires the acknowledgement that failure can occur. But for the successful, it’s not an option. Fear of, or at least aversion to, failure drives people to accomplish great things. When people are shielded from failure, they become complacent and lose the will to succeed, becoming a civilization little different than the Eloi.

A New Computer

A couple of months ago I moved, and my new place has Wi-Fi, so I could ditch the cable modem. However, my old laptop isn’t wireless capable, so it was choice of buying a Wi-Fi card, or a new computer. All things considered, the new machine was the better choice, and the fact that the company would buy the computer helped.

Early last year I bought a new desktop. The small shop I bought the machine from migrated my files, loaded Windows XP, tested it, and sent me out the door. After customizing the machine, I was able to operate in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed the last several years.

For just under $400 I got a laptop that has all the power and memory I need, but there were a few surprises.

  • No DVD drive. What?! Another $40.
  • No mouse. Ring up another $30 for a decent wireless mouse.
  • Windows 8. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, and I knew that most people (read: don’t work for Microsoft) don’t like it. It’s maybe not as bad as some make it out to be, but it’s far from intuitive, and some operations that are easily accomplished with XP are a chore to figure out. But the biggest surprise was
  • No application suite. Every single computer I’ve ever bought since the Commodore 64 has come with some version of MS Office. The application suite is what makes a computer useful. One doesn’t buy a car and then pay extra for the transmission.

I was, and am, really unhappy about this. The business model now is apparently to sell a machine for a little cheaper than otherwise, and then have the consumer pay $100 for a MS Office personal license. If you want a business or professional license, it will have to be renewed on a regular basis. I call bullshit.

A tech person told me this has been going on the last five or six years. So now you get a decent machine, but no way to use it. As bought, I could use the computer to access the internet, and use the bloatware apps with which Windows 8 is filled. Actually using the machine productively requires shelling out nearly half again the purchase price in I/O devices and software, or using open source software (my choice).

This business model has opened up a cottage industry for folks who will install an XP emulator and remove the bloatware, usually for around $50. Good for them, but for folks like me who just want to use the machine, not so great.



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