Present from New Zealand

When I got the mail yesterday there was a thick envelope from New Zealand. I opened it to find:

This was kind of funny. I’m an old guy and I rarely drive over the speed limit. I also haven’t had any kind of ticket in years, but in New Zealand not only did I get a speeding ticket, I also had to pay a NZ$12 parking fine.

New Zealand was the first time I ever drove a car on the left side of the road (well, I should clarify with “for any length of time” before Mr. Byron takes me to task again to point out that to drive in the US you sometimes have to drive a short distance on the other side of the road). It wasn’t that hard to get used to with the exception that my muscle memory kept trying to signal using the stalk on the left side of the wheel, which just turned on the windshield wipers.

But there were two things that tripped me up (and that the car hire agent never told me about). The first was parking signs. In New Zealand you’ll see these little white signs that say things like “P-30” or “P-120”. Those are parking signs where the number represents the minutes one can park in that particular area. Once I got the ticket I put two and two together.

The second thing is an unusual traffic rule. It appears that if you are in a city and a car wants to make a right turn (remember, this is the turn that crosses the on-coming lane of traffic), traffic going straight must yield.

I found out about this in Rotorua. I was making a left (I liked lefts) and I didn’t notice the car in the opposite lane wanting to make a right onto the same road. We both made the turn (I assume he thought I was going to yield since I was slowing down and probably running my wipers). Luckily there was no accident, and in the slim chance the person I did this to is reading this blog – mea culpa.

I find the whole speeding ticket thing funny for a couple of reasons. The first is the traffic camera watermark on the citation (tres cool), and the second is that we are in talks with a company that supplies these cameras to provide a monitoring solution based on OpenNMS.

In English measurements, I was cited for doing 10 mph over the speed limit of 50 mph. I’m pretty sure I remember where this was, since the only time I did speed in Wellington was trying to get around a car that was driving erratically. There doesn’t appear to be a choice for that excuse on the form, so I guess I’ll just pay the fine.

The Games We Play

Working with OpenNMS brings me into contact with a lot of system and network admins, and I’ve noticed certain trends. For example, many have a penchant for high-end photographic equipment. It’s pretty easy to start a flamewar with this group just by asking “which is better, Canon or Nikon?”

Many also enjoy gaming. Video games, of course, are popular, but I’ve also come across pretty much every other type of game; from board games, to old-school table top role-playing to cards (I like bridge myself).

So I thought it might be cool to bring up a game I was introduced to recently. Back in November I took a vacation to New Zealand via Fiji, and in Fiji we played “Vidi Vidi” (pronounced “vindy vindy” or “vingy vingy” in the local dialect).

Vidi Vidi on Navini Island

The game is similar to pool or billiards, but it is played on a square wooden board using little plastic disks instead of balls. One disk, the striker, is slightly larger than the others, and you “flick” it to strike the other disks in an attempt to sink one in the corner pockets (“vidi vidi” means “flick flick”).

It’s a lot of fun, and when I came back to the States I went looking for a board.

I didn’t find one, but I did figure out that Vidi Vidi is based on an Indian game called Carrom. Luckily, an importer of carrom boards is close to where I live, so over the holidays we bought our very own tournament-grade board (from his scratch-n-dent pile) complete with nice strikers and wooden carrom men (or “coins”).

Andrea and Jeff playing Carrom

We’ve had a lot of fun with it so I thought I’d throw it out there in case others were interested. Or am I completely ignorant and this is just new to me?

Costco 401(k)

I never saw a class in college called “How to Start a Corporation” so I never took it, and thus much of what I’ve done with the OpenNMS Group has been on the job training.

Most of what is required to incorporate, pay taxes, etc. can be understood with enough patience, online research and tools like Quickbooks coupled with a payroll service. I did take an accounting course in college so I had a leg up on double entry accounting, and I understand cash flow, balance sheets and profit/loss statements.

At the company our most powerful assets are our people, so I always want to take care of them. The easiest way is to pay them lots of money, but unfortunately in order to build the business I can’t pay them near what they are worth. If you’ll remember, our business plan is “spend less than you earn.”

So when we started I made sure to have lots of holidays. We recognize pretty much every national holiday and then some (like having the day after Thanksgiving as well as the day itself). At least half of us tend to work at least a few hours on any given holiday anyway, so our clients don’t go without attention, and it helps offset the average 60 to 80 hour work week (and doesn’t cost me anything).

About six months after we got started we were able to afford a proper healthcare plan. Again, being employee focused we cover 100% of the employee’s premium for medical, dental and vision, and offer a tax exempt way of contributing for family health insurance through payroll deduction.

Last year we started offering pager pay. Everyone who is in the “on call” rotation gets a little reimbursement in their paycheck to cover cell phone and internet costs. It isn’t much but it helps pay for, say, an iPhone.

This year we decided to set up a 401(k) plan. In the US a 401(k) is a tax deferred plan that lets one save for retirement and to migrate income tax obligations to later years (where revenue and thus amount of tax should be lower). Since most of that money is invested in the stock market (either directly, through index funds or mutual funds) now is the time to get into the program since the prices are so low.

While I have been a participant in 401(k) plans most of my professional life, this was the first time I was asked to set one up. Jeff pointed me to Costco, of all places, has a 401(k) plan that they offer through a company called ShareBuilder.

I have to say I am rather pleased so far with the process. The setup costs were less than one thousand dollars and the monthly fee is less than $100. I figured it was worth it to be able to offer the benefit to my team.

I should point out that the setup and monthly fees are only a portion of the costs associated with a 401(k). There are some hidden costs. The first is that one must have a bond to cover the account should the trustee (i.e. me) do something bad with the funds. That ran me about $100 a year.

But the main thing is that the 401(k) code has some strict limits on “highly compensated employees“. A highly compensated employee (HCE) is someone who makes over a particular amount of money or owns more than 5% of the business. I don’t have many of the former but a have a number of the latter. The amount the HCEs can contribute to the plan is controlled by the amount the non-HCEs in the company contribute, and there are penalties if a number of “tests” aren’t passed. These tests were designed to make sure that the executives in a company don’t benefit more than the rank and file, but they scared the heck out of me.

Stephanie, at ShareBuilder, told me about a number of “safe harbor” options which allow a company to be exempt from these tests, usually by setting up a profit sharing plan. If you have a small company like I do, I strongly suggest going with one of these options in order to take full advantage of the 401(k) for the owners.

Yeah, it costs at lot more, but it’s small change in the larger scheme of things, and my guys are worth it.

FUD from SAS

My friend Phil dropped me a note today about an article in the New York Times (registration required) about the R project. R is a language designed for data analysis, and it’s open source. It appears to compete against SAS, once of the most ubiquitous enterprise software packages out there, especially within academic institutions.

Now the SAS Institute is a local company (many years ago I did an OpenView installation for them) and it is one of the world’s largest privately held software companies, if not the largest. It consistantly ranks toward the top of the best places to work in the country.

But the somewhat isolated environment that SAS thrives in is now being challenged by open source. Of course, SAS is taking the old school approach of spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Commenting on R:

“I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code,” said Anne H. Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, “We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet.”

This is a common battle cry of the commercial software industry that no quality software can be created unless you pay for it (and of course, commercial software has always made flying much safer).

The fact that she’s willing to throw that out says to me that R is scaring SAS far more than they care to admit.

The CentOS Test

In many of my last few posts I’ve talked about the meaning of the term “open source”. While it may seem like splitting hairs for many, I hope it can be made simpler by applying what I am calling “The CentOS Test”

The Community ENTerprise Operating System (CentOS) project takes Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), removes all of the trademarked images, etc., and recompiles the code into a separate set of binaries which it then distributes.

For all practical software purposes, there is little difference between CentOS and RHEL.

When thinking about a purchase of the paid or “enterprise” version of something labeled open source software, ask yourself “does it pass the CentOS test?” Examine the license to see if it would be possible for you to take the source code, compile it and distribute it. If you can, I claim it is likely the software is truly open. If not, then you are looking at commercial software, with all of its limitations.

The test explicitly covers the first three criteria of the Open Source Definition. If you can’t redistribute it, access and compile the source code, and create derived works, it ain’t open.

Skinner Boxed Lunch

One of the things I like about living where I do is the high density of amazing people. Part of that is due to the proximity of universities like UNC, Duke and NCSU. Silicon Valley likes to brag about its atmosphere, but I think parts of the Triangle could give them a run for their money.

Yesterday, living here allowed me to have lunch with Dan Ariely. Dan is the author of “Predictably Irrational” which is a book of which I’ve become quite fond (if you haven’t bought it already, order it using this link since I’ll get some Amazon kickback, yo). He is the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke, and since that was one of the schools I got kicked out of it was nice to visit the old neighborhood.

Me and Dan at Parizade

I studied economics in college, and while I liked the logic behind it, it assumes that people react rationally. Dan was the first person I came across that actually studied how people reliably act irrationally when faced with certain decisions.

Lunch lasted close to two hours, and I’d probably still be there now if he didn’t have a meeting (yeah, most of you who know how much I like to talk are thinking it wasn’t a real meeting, admit it) and the topics were pretty wide ranging.

One topic that stuck in my head concerned lotteries. People like lotteries and gambling in general, but I never understood that the games play to an innate attraction of animals to randomness. I’ve just always joked that lotteries are a tax on people who are bad at math.

B.F. Skinner did some work on the power of random rewards. When a pigeon was taught to press a lever to receive a food pellet they were much more likely to press it if the reward happened after some random interval than, say, consistently after five presses. In fact, even after the reward stopped the random reward subjects would end up pressing the lever for a long time afterward.

Think about it. Suppose I set up a game where you bought $1 tickets and after you bought five of them I gave you $5. You’d probably think, like most people would, that it was a stupid game and I wouldn’t sell any tickets. Yet the expected return on lotteries is so much worse, yet people play it every day.

Dan told me that the average American adult spends $4000/year on gambling (including the lottery). I haven’t been able to find a reference for that number but if it is true then there are a number of people out there spending large amounts, since my family probably spends less than $50 a year and that definitely brings the average down. I buy the occasional Powerball ticket for entertainment purposes (the daydreams I have about what I’d do with the money are worth the dollar I spend) but since the odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 195 million I only play when the jackpot is greater than $195 million. I’m no dummy.

So here I was, eating a nice lunch and feeling superior, when Dan pointed out that the same thing can be applied to e-mail.

E-mail? But … I love e-mail … what could be wrong with e-mail?

As I write this it is all I can do to stifle the urge to switch over to my mail application. It just beeped at me. I have new mail. Could be a letter from and old friend. Could be spam. Might be a support ticket or possibly new OpenNMS business. Like Skinner’s pigeons (or Pavlov’s dogs) when the bell goes off I must go and investigate.

So I’m not all that superior to those people who play the lottery or spend their lives in Azeroth. I have an e-mail problem, and now I have to think about how it impacts my life and how to address it.

This was just one of the things Dan and I talked about. It was a great, e-mail free lunch.

Plus, he got me thinking out of the box.

Informal Fallacies

I’ve been kicked out of some of the best schools in the country, so I can’t say that my college career was in anyway stellar. But although it took me seven years to get my four year degree, I did manage to take away some important knowledge from the experience.

Part of that was an understanding of “Informal Fallacies of Logic“. When I was introduced to the Internet in 1984 on a VAX running Berkeley UNIX, it was first and foremost a text based experience. A lot of the action occurred on newsgroups, and thus I was exposed to the usual flamewars and hyperbole that one often finds there.

I knew of things like Godwin’s Law, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to informal fallacies that I had a way to formalize behavior that I saw on the Internet (and in “real” life as well). While Wikipedia as always has a definition, an “informal” fallacy is basically a statement that may be or seems to be true, but it is irrelevant or doesn’t support the argument being made.

What I didn’t realize is that, like the fnords, informal fallacies are everywhere. Once I had a method of formalizing them, they became much easier to see.

The reason I’ve been thinking about them today is that a gentleman named Dennis Byron has decided to take me to task for my post on The War for Open Source, first in the comments and then on his blog.

The point of the post was to state that the term “open source” has a certain meaning, defined by the OSI, and that the commercial software industry is trying to blur that meaning so that consumers won’t be able to tell the difference between truly open software and commercial software.

So, instead of attacking that argument, Mr. Byron decides to pull out some of my illustrative prose, find fault with it, and thus attempt to discredit me.

This is an informal fallacy known as a “Straw Man“. In a straw man fallacy, one “takes the original argument of his/her adversary and then offers a close imitation, or straw man, version of the original argument”. This argument, made of “straw” is much easier to defeat.

In the case of Mr. Byron, he attempts to find fault with my history of commercial software, which is funny since I never intended to write one.

And if anyone can tell me what the heck the “razor blades” are that the OpenNMS Group is selling, I’d love to know.

Awards and Honorable Mentions

I’ve never been much for industry awards or the opinions of the various trade rags. I mean, when NetInfoCommWeek decides to compare open source network management platforms, we are never included, even though most of the time a Google search on “open source network management” has OpenNMS as the first hit. This despite spending zero money on marketing.

I’m not sure I’d even want them to check out our software, since quite often it is more of a beauty contest, and the “amazing” test lab with nearly 25 devices doesn’t exactly lend itself to demonstrating the strengths of OpenNMS, which starts to shine in the 2000 to 20,000 device range.

But I am often delighted when people who actually eat, live and breathe network management mention OpenNMS favorably. For example, when TechTarget interviewed 1300+ users and asked them what was their preferred network management platform, OpenNMS came out ahead of OpenView and Tivoli. This was from the viewpoint of people who actually use the software, not overworked and deadline driven reporters.

Last week we got a mention on Doug McClure’s list of 2009 Predictions as a possible contender for a Business Service Management (BSM) Lite platform. That was pretty cool, considering that the whole project is bootstrapped and community driven.

Doug’s is an opinion I value (I first met him at barcampESM and since he is in Atlanta Jeff gets to seem him occasionally), and his mention of our project was rather humbling. And I didn’t even blink at the word “Lite” since OpenNMS has a long way to go before we can replace all of OpenView and all of Tivoli.

We started this project to build a sustainable, free and open replacement for the major commercial management platforms. So of course we started on the most basic functions: the need for discovery and an inventory database, monitoring, event management and data collection. As was seen in the TechTarget award, this is enough for many folks.

However, we’d definitely like to move into the area of BSM, especially as more and more companies start looking at the utility or Software as a Service (SaaS) model. No one at the executive level of the company cares about the bandwidth or errors running through a router; all they want to know is that the widgets are rolling of the assembly line.

Another area I’d love to explore is the idea of runbook automation. One company that is doing a lot in this area but you rarely hear of is IPSoft out of New York. They claim that they can resolve 56% of problems automatically. The idea of capturing and automating the knowledge of experienced network and system admins is exciting to me, and seems to play into the main ideas of BSM.

But for now, as we enter into what may be a difficult time for all businesses, we will focus on remaining profitable and our mission to “help customers, have fun, and make money”. It appears to be working, as we reached a nice milestone last week. Our first customer, who joined us in December of 2001, renewed their support for the seventh time. The fact that someone who saw value in our product and our services so long ago still does means more to me than any magazine or trade award could.