Annals of Literature: The Palantir Mistake

The technology company Palantir Technologies may or may not have been part of the NSA’s currently publicized surveillance program “PRISM.” Right now it looks like a confusion among names. But considering their established relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense, the “Intelligence Community” (love the phrase), and their long-known relationship with the CIA, it wouldn’t be surprising. Leaving aside their PRISM possibilities, let’s look for a moment at the company.

Their current homepage splashes a story about combating human trafficking. Rich liberals hate human trafficking right now, a lot. What’s to like? They also sent “Philanthropy Engineers” (I did not make this up) to Oklahoma to fix things with computers in some way. Take a moment now to look through their website. They’re Google-smart and clearly successful, and it looks like a great place to work. Plus, strong ethics. Just look at the mission page. Not only are they committed to saving lives and fixing diseases, they have an explicit mission to preserve civil liberties. Very explicit.

If the CIA is a big customer and investor, you’re the darling of the Department of Defense, you advertise your usefulness in the fight against terrorism, and you’re making a pantsload of money off this, how can you possibly have any “commitment” to civil liberties? What do you do for the CIA, tell them what the mountains are like in Afghanistan? Or how likely it is that Suicide Bomber #53 will show up at Bagram next week? Who do you think you’re fooling, other than yourselves?

Also, “Palantir” is a funny word. Why would you name your company that?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel The Lord of the Rings is a nerd Bible, the original sword & sorcery fantasy. After Peter Jackson’s films, everyone knows it. In the novel, the Palantir is a crystal ball. “Kingly” people with appropriate credentials can stare into the Palantir and see all over the world. There are my enemy’s armies! Looks like the harvest is going well! Oh heck, is that a pirate ship? Send the cavalry!

Unfortunately, the major antagonist and bad guy has got hold of one of these things and because he’s kingly and a demigod too, he exerts influence. The bad guy can mess with another Palantir customer’s  visions and distort them, showing only bad news, twisting images, creating paranoia, and wrecking morale. A key plot point involves a good guy king spending too much time looking into the Palantir like bad daytime TV and getting so depressed about his war with evil that he commits suicide, nearly killing his son as well, and dies in flames clutching the thing. It is literally an epic fail. Another powerful character slides into 100% nasty evil partly because he gets trolled by a hijacked Palantir. He gets his town wrecked by angry anthropomorphic trees and later is stabbed by his assistant. One sees a pattern.

Another smarter kingly type picks one up to mess with the antagonist a little and scare him, and then doesn’t use it any more, because the thing is dangerous. Why pick it up, even during a war, if you don’t have to? It’s unreliable now and will lead you to make bad mistakes and give up the fight. It’s not useful any more. That’s the end of that!

I understand that nerds use words that are “cool,” or even entire ideologies that seem “cool,” without thinking about the meaning of, well, anything at all. Happy Star Wars geeks get together and march in parades as the civilian-murdering, robotic, and incompetent adversaries from the movie, for example. What the hell? Oh, right. It just refers to something. Meaning is not important.

In this case, though, it’s just too damn good. The generous, progressive, socially involved, and brilliant philanthropy engineers at Palantir are one and the same with the surveillance state. Whether or not their Prism is the current PRISM, they’re both key vendors and and investment for the U.S “Intelligence Community.” These are the people who tell the President who should be drone-murdered, which civilians are threats to national security, who’s going to try to blow us up, and who is being troublesome. There has been the occasional misstep here, which is mentioned even in the news.

Our government has in its hand a Palantir, some of which is provided by the eponymous company. Look into it and you’ll see enemies without and within, plots, revolutionaries, malice concealed as dissent, and an unending future of unstoppable terrorism and necessary war. The one thing you won’t see is the sign that says “STOP! This is stupid and evil. Get a grip willya?”

So far the national Palantir has been bad for everyone. Be smart, kingly types, and throw the thing away, and throw away the war on terror as well.

And by the way: that company should change its name once it has the guts to dump its most important customers. If they read more, they’d make fewer branding mistakes and kill fewer people.

The End of System Administration: “What would you say you do here?”

I have been a full-time Linux system administrator for more than a decade. This week, I lost my job because I am a full-time Linux system administrator. What happened?

For those outside my world, this is what a system administrator does: We manage server computer and networks. This means Internet sites, your computer system at work, and similar setups. The job dates back to the first time more than one person used a computer and someone needed to manage that.

That’s still the case, and there are many jobs for sysadmins. If you want to get one of those jobs, don’t worry.

However, I’ve been working in the world of leading edge startup technology companies, who write software themselves and also manage its use on the Internet. The trend here is toward something called DevOps (wikipedia article: DevOps). The short version of DevOps is:  Software engineers take on the tasks traditionally done by “Ops” (system administrators) and largely automate them. It’s part of a general trend towards very fast product creation, quick response to change, and cost-cutting. (Look up “Lean startup” for more on this.)

Here’s how the whole setup works: You hire some young, energetic people. Make sure that they can pass technology skills tests. Even more so, make sure they are socially and ideologically suited to the environment. The engineers have to get along with each other and help each other out, and since most of them haven’t worked at normal jobs before, this isn’t a given. And most of all, they have to buy the local ideology, whether it’s “lean,” or “DevOps,” or “Agile.”

The work environment for these people is fast-moving and very disciplined. There are daily short meetings in the morning. Programmers almost always work in mutually accountable pairs. Everything is tracked: accomplishments, stumbling blocks, opinions. There’s a heavy emphasis on making new things and getting them “out the door” as quickly as possible. Dreaming at the desk, absent-minded professoring alone at the whiteboard? None of that.

Meanwhile, the job of the system administrator shrinks. Monitoring, software deployment, scaling the size of the systems up and down, a load of tasks are automated after a quick initial assessment. This is done by software engineers. New tools have accumulated decades of knowledge built into them. Other roles have been taken by services; there’s an entire ecosystem of companies who take away one piece of system administration and replace it with an easy-to-use service that attaches to your other easy-to-use services.

Aside from some holes in this fabric, the role of the system administrator in an organization like this has been reduced to high-level technical support. When engineers need to know something serious about the way operating systems work, or what a database server can do, the local unix subject matter expert is useful. Just not useful enough. It has become the Willy Loman profession.

Most of this is an extension of what system administrators have always done themselves. If you do something three times, automate it. Part of it is the result of the dot-com boom and the terrible laziness of its self-identified geniuses. If engineers are forced to work in an assembly-line environment while watching each other, people can’t horse around all day. None of that is unexpected.

The tiresome part for me is that the interesting jobs are going this way. This last gig was the best job I’d ever had. Everyone was smart, interesting things happened all day, and the company was accomplishing things I was personally proud of. There was a real team spirit and a feeling of involvement in something bigger.

Until I found out I wasn’t seen as useful, which is never a good time.

So my advice to you is: if you want to go into cool startups, you should either be a very rich founder, or a software engineer. Don’t go into operations.

And most of all, be young, very young, and inexpensive, and energetic. The startup world is necessarily cruel because it is built on the need of great returns on investment. If you are comfortable in a very interesting assembly line job that could be lucrative, this is your world. If you are someone with a store of knowledge, beware. You will be abstracted, automated, and discarded.

The cattle STILL have brucellosis.

Thanks again to Small Peculiar for introducing me to Warren Zevon’s full range. Like everyone else I knew those three songs, and I’d seen him play with R.E.M. way back when. I was reminded of this gem because Iced Borscht brought up Kid Rock. Mr. Rock made the mistake of mashing up “Werewolves of London” with “Sweet Home Alabama,” thus unintentionally recreating the classic “Play it all night long.” Another live version is below for your enjoyment. There really ain’t much to country living, he’s right.

Play It All Night Long (Live)[audio https://bemyblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/5fc13-17-play-it-all-night-long-live-version.mp3|width=180|titles=”Play It All Night Long (Live)”|artists=”Warren Zevon”]

Are too a feminist.

Sometimes I’ll hear someone, either a friend or just someone in earshot, talking along about political and social issues, say this:

“I’m not one of those feminists.” Or, “I can’t stand those feminists.”

If queried on this, I’ll hear something like “I wouldn’t put myself in that category” or “I’m just not like that, I couldn’t be one of those people.” If the person is male, the original comment was probably “I can’t stand feminists” or “Those feminists, they are bad because of blar blar blar.”

My response is a series of questions. For women: Do you have a college degree? Do you drive your own car? Do you have a career, or plan to have one? Do you have your own bank account and credit card? Do you wear pants when you feel like it? If you are with a man and you can’t stand him, can you leave? Do you like the fact that you can leave?

For men, the questions are more fun. Do you have a girlfriend? Do you and your girlfriend share an apartment or house? If so, does she pay half the rent and utilities? Does your wife or girlfriend work, and contribute to the family finances? Do you like being able to date women without marrying them? Do you like being able to earn an income and keep it without being obliged to marry? Do you like getting sex retail instead of having to buy it wholesale? Do you enjoy participating in hobbies, sports, and work activities with women? Are any of your customers or clients women who pay you for your services?

Folks, if you answered any of these questions “yes” then guess what! You are a feminist. You are benefiting and profiting from the increasing equality of women in society over the last hundred years. “Feminist” does not mean “angry castrating lesbian who wants you to use awkward pronouns”. It means someone, male or female, who believes that women should have financial, political, and sexual freedom, and that these freedoms require protection and extension.

Next time you benefit from the F-word you should remember it’s not an insult, it’s a badge of pride.

Note: this was originally posted on my “Content Goes Here” blog in 2003.