Netbook, Windows 7, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a HP Mini 1000 netbook.  I had a couple of intentions for this netbook.  Firstly, I wanted to use it for any personal network use wherever I went.  Rather than using my work PC for checking account balances, personal e-mail, and other non-work related network uses, I would use the netbook instead.  Second, I wanted a portable machine that I could do some light development on.  Nothing complicated mind you, but just the ability to open up a small project, hack some code, and check that it compiles.

After playing around with the netbook for a while, I can safely say that I am very happy with the decision to purchase it.  Netbooks are the latest consumer trend in computing, and there are a lot of models out there.  You'll find that they are all very, very similar.  The typical unit has two or three USB ports, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 512MB or 1GB or RAM, and a small solid state hard drive, or possibly a traditional magnetic drive.  Most come bundled with a simplified Linux operating system, or Windows XP for a slight price premium.  With so many vendors and so little to differentiate them it can be difficult to settle on one.  I chose the HP model mostly because the keyboard felt the most comfortable to type on.  Otherwise, there isn't much to differentiate it from the other $350 10" netbooks on the market.

I made some modifications to my netbook before even powering it on.  First, I upgraded the RAM to 2GB, which only cost $20.  Next, rather than use the provided Windows XP operating system I decided to load the beta of Windows 7 (with some help from my colleague Mike Hall who had done the exact same thing to his own netbook).  I loaded Visual Studio 2008, Google Chrome, and a handful of utilities that I like.  After install my 16GB SSD has about 1.5GB of remaining free space.  I put all of my code on the provided 2GB "HP Mini Drive", and I still have two USB ports and an SD Card slot to expand memory further, if necessary.

I'm very happy with Windows 7.  Even on the relatively weak processing power of the netbook it runs like a champ.  I definitely like it as a replacement for Windows XP.  Visual Studio runs well, if a bit sluggishly, and I am able to compile projects as I had hoped.

Still, this beta is eventually going to run out, and at that time I need to make a decision between paying for a license for Windows 7 (if it is available) or selecting some other operating system.  I could always revert to Windows XP, which came with the unit, at no cost.  Or I could try one of the linux variants on the market, also at no or little cost.  A friend of mine tipped me off to the Netbook Remix of Ubuntu.  Version 9.04 of the Linux OS just released, so I decided to download it and give it a try.  One of the nice features of this release is that you can try it by loading it on a USB stick as a "live" OS, which means you can run it without wiping out the OS already on the machine.

After playing with the netbook remix for a bit, I was impressed.  I'm not ready to swap out my Win7 install, but when the beta expires it will definitely be something I consider.  With MonoDevelop 2.0 and the Mono framework running I could probably still do some light C# work.  One feature of the OS that I really liked was how UI works to maximize screen real estate for the foreground application.  One of my frustrations with running Chrome (or any other browser) on Windows 7 is how much of my precious screen is taken up by title bars, menu bars, toolbars, bookmark bars, status bars, and task bars.  With limited vertical space, it leaves only just enough room for my active application.  This is exacerbated by sites like Google Reader that have a static header that cannot be minimized.

In summary, I'm very happy with the utility I am getting out of my netbook, and I think Windows 7 is a solid OS choice for the platform.  I'm impressed by what I see in Ubuntu Netbook Remix as well, and I may give it a try when my beta license expires.

Correlation vs. Causation

News media only makes money if your eyes are on their media.  As such, it is in the best interest of the news outlet to sensationalize their story in order to get the most eyes.  This can be tricky though, especially when it comes to blurring the line between causation and correlation.

Correlation and causation are both important terms in statistics, and it is easy to get them confused.  The difference is important though.  Correlation means that there is a statistically significant relationship between to observable phenomenon.  For instance, you may find that if you go to bed with your socks on, you have nightmares.  There is certainly a correlation between wearing socks and having nightmares, but are the socks actually causing the nightmares?  Possibly, but not definitely.  Once it can be found that wearing socks definitely causes nightmares, then you have causation.  Correlation doesn't automatically imply causation, it doesn't rule it out either.

This topic came to mind because I see articles in the news quite often that take statistical correlation as an opportunity to imply causation.  For instance, the recent Craiglist killer was said to have a problem with gambling and to be in debt.  There might be a correlation more killers have problems with gambling and debt?  Potentially.  But do gambling and carrying debt cause you to become a killer?  Probably not.  

Wikipedia has more extensive article on the topic that you can read here: It's a little dry, but I found it pretty interesting.

Arguing on the Internet

I need to learn to stop arguing with the internet.  Until I do, here is my retort to one such misleading message I couldn't leave alone.

Wouldn't that be great!  But wait, Snopes to the rescue!

This is long, so go ahead and delete it if you aren't interested in hearing things you don't already agree with.

The truth of global warming truly hit me on my trip to the Phillippine Islands.  On the front page of the paper was a story of how the newly elected leader of a Micronesian country was forced to make his top priority the full evacuation of his citizens.  The reason?  Global warming has caused sea levels to leave the highest point in his homeland only 20 feet above sea level.  In five years or less the entire country will be submerged and the population displaced.

This isn't a problem that only the Pacific islanders suffer either, although Hawaii is another good example of a location soon to be submerged beneath a combination of lava flows and sea water.  Beaches are eroding at the fastest rate ever.  New York is also battling rising sea waters.  International relations with Russia have been strained over the claim of the newly opened arctic shipping lane, created by the continuous degradation of our polar caps.

There are alternatives to "Drill Baby Drill" that will result in our independence from foreign oil.  Even better, they will move our country into an era of technological leadership in the world where we again create the products everyone wants and needs.  

Taking the hard protectionist list isn't a solution either.  Even if we determined to become independent of foreign oil, but failed to proliferate our technology abroad, we would still be in the same mess.  Consider Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRIC nations): fastest growing economies on earth, and fastest industrializing.  If every household in these nations had a car, even a modest 32 mpg car, our oil supplies would be sapped and our air unbreathable.  Don't think it is going to happen?  Indian conglomerate Tata has already produced a vehicle that costs less than $2,000 with the intention of getting the population on the road.

Returning to the thought of drilling, I have worse news.  Even if we were to start drilling EVERYWHERE we possibly could within the boundaries of the USA (and even extending our international waters) that oil won't be available for processing for a minimum of ten years.  This quote from regarding the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve sums it up nicely:

ANWR has the potential to reduce oil imports by 5% for 2 decades beginning in 2015. Other sources of oil within the U.S. will be depleting during that time. There is no realistic way to reduce dependence on imported oil if oil consumption continues at its present rate.

Further reading materials:

Book Review - Steven King's The Dark Tower

I've always enjoyed Steven King's works, and I've often been recommended the Dark Tower series. I decided to get the boxed set, convinced that I was going to enjoy the series so much I would want to go from book to book with no interruption. After reading the first book, The Gunslinger, I felt like perhaps I had made a mistake. The book was incredibly bleak and depressing, and I debated on whether I even wanted to finish it. Book two, The Drawing of the Three, was considerably more interesting. There was much better cohesion here. It was book three, The Wastelands, that hooked me. Now that I have completed the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, I am really absorbed in the story. The fourth book is definitely my favorite so far. If you haven't read the series, I definitely recommend toughing it out through the first two books. You'll be rewarded when you get to books three and four. Unfortunately, the boxed set only contains books 1-4, so now I'll need to hunt down copies of books five, six, and seven. This is probably a good thing, as I've found that taking a break from books in a series helps me to enjoy them even more when I return to them.

Death of an Office

On January 30th of this year I heard the words dreaded by many during these tough financial times: mass layoff. Our employer had called an all hands meeting for our office, which was not wholly unexpected as we were in the habit of holding all hands meetings on the last Friday of the month for company updates. This was different though, and it was obvious something was up because folks from the home office had flown in. The message was clear, direct, and immediate: the Indianapolis office was to be closed, and the meeting served as our mandatory sixty day notice.

I thought it might be useful to document what I observed during this sixty day period. Who knows, if your business is looking to perform a mass layoff or site closing, maybe you can get some use out of this.

The Indy office was composed of around 50 employees. There were training staff, inside sales, technical support, engineering and IT, product management, and manufacturing management. A severance package was offered to everyone at the site. The severance pay called for one week of pay for each completed year of service, with a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of ten weeks. They rounded down, so my three years and ten months of service called for three weeks of severance. Some people were offered an opportunity to move to the West coast to stay with the business, possibly in a new role. Some, especially those with daily contact with customers, were asked to go home immediately and issued a check for the full sixty days plus severance payment. One member of the staff sought and received permission to spin-off the product line into a new business. The engineering staff was asked to continue to come to work until a new job was found or the sixty days expired. The engineering staff would be paid for time at work, but once a new job was found, would be terminated at that time.

The reaction was grim. The following week most of the staff who were not asked to go home still came into work. Many of us made calls to recruiters we knew in the area and setup mini job fairs in the office. Our employer was very gracious in allowing recruiters to come on-site, as well as allowing folks to use their time and resources for seeking a new job. This only made sense: the company had no interest in the staff continuing to work on a product that they were abandoning, and it was not worth the effort to re-assign these folks as temporary help to on-going projects. At the end of the first week, most folks were sad due to the layoff, but upbeat about finding a new job. A couple had even found new work in that short time. The spinoff effort was taking shape, and the leader of that effort was hoping to receive good support from the staff before the end of the sixty days.

Week two was a different story. In week two the recruiting activity slowed way down, and people found themselves sitting at their desk just waiting for the phone to ring. Some had simply stopped coming into the office, and others only arrived for a few hours to put in some face time. I tried to keep my days full through calls to recruiters, interviews, and exercising my network of contacts. At the end of the week I checked the source control server to see what kind of activity there had been during the week: zero commits. Nothing was getting done. To compound things, at the end of week two the local employment office arrived to provide a two day seminar. It was late, out of touch with our staff, and provided a message that boiled down to, "This is a terrible time to be looking for a job". Those left in the office were demoralized. In addition, a handful of folks that were associated with the spinoff effort were busy excitedly discussing that effort and making the moves necessary to help it be a success. This was happening in front of a lot of people that were not part of that effort, and it only served to further dishearten them. One other factor that was irritating the engineers: why were they not going to be compensated for the full sixty days when others were guaranteed that pay? Some folks were asked to leave and given the full pay for sixty days, but an engineer who found a job would not receive the same benefit. The argument was that by allowing engineers to continue to come to the office and receive the benefit of the mini job fairs and career services that this offset the benefit of a cash payout. Some found it extremely unfair, and it caused tension.

Week three was more of the downhill slide. Only a handful of people were coming to the office. The recruiting rush was over, and no one but those involved in the spinoff were interested in working on the product. Some of the engineers who had found new work were hoping to quietly disappear and "double-dip" their income for the remainder of the sixty days. I had received my first offer at this point, and decided to just be honest. The offical policy was reiterated that I should either not start on the new position until after March 31st (the end of the 60 days) or start earlier and submit my resignation. I turned down that offer, so it wasn't an issue, but another engineer in the same position accepted his. He did not want to resign, but the forms were drawn up for him anyway. Towards the end of the week the press releases regarding the spinoff were starting to trickle out. One press release noted the spinoff date as March 16th. That got folks thinking that the original closing date of March 31st might not be good anymore.

By the end of the first month, the general consensus among the few folks still coming to the office was that the office should close early. For those seeking a job, coming to the office was providing no real benefit. An inventory audit had been performed. Some of the equipment had been boxed up for use by the spinoff, some sold off at a discount, and a bit was still in use. All of the personality and life of the office was gone as everyone had taken their knick-knacks and personal items home. The office was like a mortally wounded animal looking for a comfortable place to lie down and die. I made a count around lunch time that Friday, and there were 11 people in the building.

Week five was more of the same. In the middle of week six the announcement was made that the office would be closing two weeks early. A rep from the home office arrived to answer any final questions. We turned in our badges and keys and said goodbye to our office, our employer, and our technology for good.

If you are a business that is facing a site closure, I have some advice for you. Based on my experience with this layoff, I recommend the following:
  • Act quickly, and decisively
One thing I appreciated about this layoff was that there was no period of waffling, trying to decide how to approach the layoff (as either an across the board RIF, site closure, furlough, or something else). The decision was made and put into action quickly and effectively.
  • Don't make different conditions for different groups
Giving some folks the full sixty days pay plus severance and forcing others to come to work to receive pay caused a lot of unnecessary strife. If you are going to send people home, send them all home. If you are going to ask people to stay, ask them all to stay. It is understandable that some folks, such as the facilities and IT folks, will need to be incentivized to stay at the office to manage the transition, but don't create unnecessary differences in how people are let go.
  • Close quickly
I did appreciate the opportunity to visit with recruiters the first two weeks after the announcement, but I think that could have been handled in such a way that all employees were sent home immediately. Aside from time spent with recruiters, nothing was getting done in the office, and there was really no need for the majority of people to be there. It only provided the opportunity for already edgy people to feed off of the negativity of others. That isn't good for anybody. If you are going to perform a mass layoff, get those affected out of the office ASAP.
  • Expect nothing
This goes for both the employer and the employee. For the employer, don't delude yourself into thinking that the people you just let go are going to continue working on anything. For the employee, beware of thinking that the employer owes you anything.
  • Don't burn bridges
The easy thing to do for the employer or the employee would be to make some statement to the effect of, "I didn't need them anyway". Worse, for the layoff victim, it would be tempting to jump on some social media service like facebook or twitter and start bashing the employer. Don't do it. It might make you feel better for a few minutes, but you might not ever be able to take those words back, and you never know how that can come back to bite you.

So what happened to me? Fortunately, I found a great job with a new employer in such time that I never had an interruption in pay. It wasn't how I wanted to start my year, but I must say that I think everything has worked out fairly well in my case.

Jade Mason