April 13, 2005

Provo, Novell, the decline of Western Civilization

So I was visiting the mothership out in Provo. Various people asked me, on my return, how I survived, how Provo was, all that sort of thing. I'd been careful to avoid going out there, managing to survive around eighteen months of corporate acquisition without doing so. I have to say, I spent all of my time in the corporate office with my team (IS&T DataCenters, woo) and I had a great time. No propaganda (if you read this blog, you'll know that's not what it's here for, heh). It was good to meet everyone I hadn't yet, face to face. It was good to explain to everyone out there what Peter Pouliot and I do out in the Monkeyhouse back East, and why we do it. I tried (and hopefully succeeded) in getting across the fact that for all our ranting, we're not 'Enterprise-class' Ops - we're small-business Ops. That's what Ximian was. That's what Peter and I have done in our experience, and that's what we're still doing, sort of, working in a satellite developer office and working in an 'experimental' datacenter facility. When we start ranting about Linux and practices and why/how to do things, we're evangelizing The Small Business Op Way - seat of the pants with no backup, just MAKE IT WORK. We are also evangelizing the Linux Way - even in Enterprise Solutions, you can Make It Work without blindly spending money and trusting a vendor who has a good story. You can make it work with free (as in beer and as in speech) tools, with your own brain, and with systems you build yourself and you can watch run.

What we do not know is how Novell as a Big Company(tm) runs its Enterprise Data Centers so as to remain compliant with the many regs and requirements that such an operation finds itself saddled with - requirements that may be reasonable and necessary (redundancy, safety, disaster recovery, security) or maybe overlegislated crap (coughSarbanes-Oxleycough) but are requirements nonetheless. Furthermore, we have never had access to the resources that Novell Data Centers have to solve problems - real storage systems, actual hot backup servers, actual spares chains and service contracts with reasonable response times, the luxury of reviewed solution proposals, other people who monitor systems, etc. etc.

So my point is that my visit out there was incredibly valuable to me (and to those who have to listen to my rants) because it gave me a chance to see what sort of tools I might actually have access to, and what sort of expertise my colleagues out there have that I might be able to go tap. Rather than airily saying on a diagram 'insert Real Storage System here' I can (and should) pick up a phone/IM/email and find someone who does that for a living and say "hey, what would I put here?" and put that there.

Now, Provo.

Provo was beautiful, in that 'Ooh! Look! Mountains!' sort of way. I'm from Manhattan, so anything over, say, thirty feet high is a novelty. It's handy to always know that East is that way. I even find the grid street system nostalgically handy (Manhattanite, again). Provo itself, however, sort of reminded me of nothing so much as the worst bits of Route 1 New Jersey, cloned by a demonic SimCity player and laid out in grid form. Miles of tiny stripmalls and little Sixties-era storefronts, with crappy BYU student housing interspersed with gas stations and cluttered signage. And no trees. Anywhere.

I'm fairly sure that all the nice places to live are somewhere else, like, say, up in those mountains that are visible from anywhere. I didn't go there, of course, because I was driving a Ford POS which didn't evince confidence on a flat road, much less up where there was still snow. From what people were telling me, the real estate pricing was such that even folks on, say, my salary might be able to procure fairly nice living conditions Up In Them Thar Hills, so I'm sure most folks have in fact done so. The signs in Provo proper saying "1 BR Rent $99" make that seem quite likely.

People? The people in Provo I interacted with were all very nice. Nice in a very non-L.A. manner. Nice in a manner that made me incredibly comfortable to be there. Nice in a 'gee, these are just polite considerate folks.' At the restaurant I stopped at, I was reading a book (I was alone) - and the servers made sure that they weren't interrupting me too frequently, asking me if they should approach to check if I wanted anything. They asked once. When I indicated that they should, they continued to do so, but very unobtrusively, not chattering, just wandering by, raising an eyebrow. When I wasn't reading, they'd come by and ask. Folks in the bookstore, when I asked about a title, made light conversation about my choice, with knowledge about the subject - not too much, not fluffy. People I passed, if I made eye contact, would genially nod, say 'Good afternoon.' Nothing overdone, and nothing space-invading like SoCal.

Exceptions - well, yeh. The Marriott Conference Center staff barely escaped a beatdown, but I'm willing to put that down to some corporate training bullshit. A previous post details one problem, but they may have been from out of town.

Still, there was one thing that bothered the heck out of me about the region. I mean, a lot. It's hard to explain without telling a story, which will make this already rambling post EVEN LONGER. Sorry.

Driving down from Salt Lake City International Airport to Provo is a jaunt of around 48 miles on I-15. There are many billboards. This makes sense; the region relies on tourism and (if you believe the Governor of Utah, who spoke at Novell Brainshare) on high-tech business. So far, so good.

The problem is that on no less than three of those massive billboards, there were egregious spelling errors. My favorite was for 'THE SMOKE SHOP', which purports to sell, I shit you not, 'CIGARS, CIGARETTES, and TOBBACO.'


Now, let me be quite clear. I have no issue with the fact that someone made a spelling error. I make them myself frequently. To err is human. This is why we invented the spellchecker, after all. But in this case, this bothers me quite a bit - not because of the spelling error, but because of the fact that the error made it that far, remains, and what those things tell us about the climate. How many people had to see that error before it got painted in seven-foot-tall letters across a billboard overlooking an interstate highway? The client who wrote the ad copy. The agency that took it? The contractor who painted it? The painter themselves? At a minimum, three or four people? Did none of them notice it? Did no-one run out to look at this ad and say 'gee, we paid money for this, and whoops, there's a spelling error here?' Did anyone notice the error in the process and either say 'not my problem' or say 'ha-ha I'm not telling them'? What?

If the client made the spelling error, how? They, apparently, sell tobacco for a living. They must see the word on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Yet, there it is.

Driving down the highway, I'm assaulted with the error, which has made it through numerous potentional layers of correction and checking. What does this tell me about the environment in which this billboard sits? It tells me, the cynical intellectual from out of town, that the environment in which this billboard sits, doesn't give a shit about basic spelling - about the basic written language - at least, insofar as it comes down to selling things to me. Now, given that this billboard is sitting on a highway not very many miles from the airport astride the route to one of the most heavily touristed areas of Utah (skiing, Sundance, Snow Park, etc. etc.) along with the High Tech Area the Governor was going on about) I have to assume that I am at least part of the intended audience.

But again, the basics of communication - accurate use of language - are not so important here. I will mention that this is one of three of such errors I saw on billboards on this single pass, at night, in high-speed heavy traffic, between SLC and Provo. I won't go into the spelling of various would-be-ethnic food on the menus at the Provo Marriott, because of the plethora of potential vectors of idiocy there.

I will note that although myself and various co-workers have trouble spelling, there are times that we know we have to get it right. Configuring servers. Writing emails to fairly high-up authorities. Do we always? No, we don't. Do we try? Yes, we do. More to the point: do we seek second opinions? Yes, we do, in those cases. Do we misspell Linux, when talking to a customer? We damn well try not to, and we damn well ask each other to check our statements for that. If our message is going down on hard copy, we treble and quadruple-check - and we still don't catch all our errors. But as soon as they are pointed out to us, we do everything in our power to make them right. How long has that billboard been there? I don't know, but it didn't look new.

But, as I've been told, there are more important things to worry about - like whether or not people are teaching that hideous evolution claptrap in schools. Whether the people teaching in those schools might be gay. Whether the people in those schools might be gasp DEMOCRATS WHO WANTED TO KILL TERRY SCHIAVO. That's the message I'm bombarded with by the Party in Power and its' minions, these days - that I'm the enemy, and that my concerns are those of a Godless, heathen, Northeast Liberal = Evil Incarnate Communist (insert smug smirk here) Liberal Bastard who can't be trusted to Defend This Country from the Horrible Threats Facing It.

After all, when the gays and the A-rabs and the commies are out after you, who gives a shit if little Tommy can spell? And really, who gives a shit if a billboard is spelled properly?

I begin to see what Karl Rove and other various Republican White House aides mean when they deride the 'Reality Based Community,' telling its representatives (in the form of New York Times reporters) that 'Every time you people chuckle over GW's malapropisms or misspellings, you do our work for us, because regular people love him because he's just like them.' Apparently so. The fucking President can't fucking spell, form a fucking sentence, or have a fucking thought himself.

Probably smokes Tobbaco, too.

Posted by jbz at April 13, 2005 3:05 PM | TrackBack

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