The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Saving you the trouble of a FOIA request

I have some clarity now on what I can and can't say about the project I'm working on. In short, it's not classified (though the data we deal with is personally-identifiable information–PII—and private health information–PHI). My security clearance is "public trust," the lowest level, and in fact the only level that someone with a clearance can disclose. Also, the contracts for this project are publicly available through FOIA.

So, I'm free to discuss this project in a way that I've rarely been permitted before. Now, I'm not allowed to post photos of, or taken on, military bases, and it's a bad idea but not necessarily prohibited for me to discuss individual people. (Which is a shame, because a week ago I got a tour of the Pentagon that included the 9/11 memorial, which really moved me. I will try to obtain permission to post photos, but it doesn't look likely I can.)

Here's the story.

Technically (and I never thought I would be one of these), I'm now a defense contractor. My client is the Defense Digital Service, a franchise of the United States Digital Service. President Obama formed the latter to prevent debacles like the HealthCare.gov rollout, which funneled $50m to Accenture and produced something a well-run start-up could have produced for a tiny fraction of that amount. The former (my client) reports directly to the Secretary of Defense's office, and, as a civil service agency, is not subject to White House interference.

My client's customer is the Military Enrollment Processing Command (MEPCOM), headquartered in North Chicago, Ill. This joint command runs the country's 67 Military Enrollment Processing Stations (MEPS) and enrolls everyone who joins the U.S. armed forces in the enlisted ranks. (They also provide services for some officer candidates, but my project doesn't apply to those folks.)

Our company will be upgrading the software that MEPS use to track applicants from the time recruiters drop them off to the time they enter basic training. The current software launched in 1996 and functions only because a dedicated group of people up at MEPCOM keep it running with spit and duck tape.

We've got five months to produce a pilot program that shows how we can overhaul the entire process. We're working closely with MEPCOM, the Baltimore MEPS, and the Air Force, because if you're going to do a pilot project you really want that service to be involved. (Rimshot!)

In the end, we're going to produce software that helps kids who want to serve the United States do so without losing bonuses, or getting shut out of health care, or getting told they can't serve because of a technicality someone should have caught early. Software that helps the dedicated civil servants who work in MEPS across the country do their jobs better. Software that helps every American taxpayer by solving these real problems at a fraction of what the government would have spent 10 years ago. (In fact, they did. In the early 2000s another firm spent 5 years and tens of millions developing a replacement that completely failed.)

In the coming months, I'll post what I can about this project, and about the people we're helping. By "what I can," understand that I'm going to clear some of the information I post with DDS, MEPCOM, and in some cases, the Air Force. Since my client is the U.S. Government, I literally have a First Amendment right to post anything I learn on my blog; but I recognize that just because something is available through a FOIA request doesn't mean I should publish it. To wit: This project touches real people, many of them smart teenagers in bad situations who have lost their best shot at getting a better life because of bad software. And that pisses me off. But each situation raises a complicated interaction of privacy concerns, which the law as written may allow me to disclose, but basic human decency obligates me to protect.

Also, the kids who we'll be helping by and large don't care about who's running the government. They love their country. They want to give something back. Or maybe they just want a good job. It doesn't matter. In the past week, I've seen four swearing-in ceremonies, in each of which a group of teenagers pledged to serve the United States and our Constitution, knowing that when they come back in a few weeks, they'll be shipped off somewhere and asked to do things both boring and horrific for four to eight years. It's really moving to see that. Even the officers who do 20 or 30 of these ceremonies each week feel it.

This is going to be one of the most impactful projects I've worked on. And it's really, really cool.

Firehose

I've learned more in the last week about the U.S. armed forces and how they enroll new members than I can recount. (I mean that in several senses.) Our team were at the San Antonio MEPS before 6am and stayed until almost 11; later this afternoon, we're heading to Lackland AFB to watch Air Force recruits getting off the bus for basic training.

First, though, I need to nap. We left our hotel 15 minutes before the nearest Starbucks opened and couldn't locate an open fast-food joint on the way to Fort Sam Houston. Also, the USO volunteer—the person with control over the Keurig machine—didn't arrive until 8. Oh, the madness.

More about this later. We're still sorting out what we can and can't post on social media (no photos, no personally-identifiable information, but some details about the project). For now, I just have to assimilate all of this information and come up with a minimally-viable product outline by next week. Fun!

Strangest office building I've ever been in

Imagine the largest office building (in land area) you've ever been in, add a small shopping mall, four food courts, and the security that demonstrates exactly how silly and ineffectual airport security is, and that's the Pentagon.

I'm in a little island that's like an anti-SCIF (Secure Compartmented Information Facility). We're in the one unclassified office in the ring, complete with unclassified Internet service, and because of that, behind two steel doors and in a Faraday cage. And it's literally the only place we're allowed to take pictures, which is sad because every hallway in the building is a museum exhibit. It's weird.

That, and we can't go to the bathroom without an escort, makes this a very strange day indeed.

Also, it's like an ongoing pop quiz in uniform insignia recognition. And I'm still having problems with upper enlisted ranks.

Home tomorrow, after a visit to a military facility outside Baltimore.

New project meetings

Yesterday and today I've been in meetings all day starting a new project at work. Unusually for my career, the project is not only a matter of public record, but the work will be in the public domain. That's right: I'm doing a project for the largest organization in the world, the United States Government.

Some parts of the project touch on confidential information, and I'm going to remain professionally discrete about the project details. But the project itself is unclassified, and we have permission from the sponsor to discuss it openly.

I'll have more about it tomorrow, including a photo or two I never thought I'd be able to take, let alone share publicly. Stay tuned.

Hidden complexity in software could be a problem

The Atlantic worries that there's a "coming software apocalypse:"

There will be more bad days for software. It's important that we get better at making it, because if we don't, and as software becomes more sophisticated and connected—as it takes control of more critical functions—those days could get worse.

The problem is that programmers are having a hard time keeping up with their own creations. Since the 1980s, the way programmers work and the tools they use have changed remarkably little. There is a small but growing chorus that worries the status quo is unsustainable. “Even very good programmers are struggling to make sense of the systems that they are working with,” says Chris Granger, a software developer who worked as a lead at Microsoft on Visual Studio, an IDE that costs $1,199 a year and is used by nearly a third of all professional programmers. He told me that while he was at Microsoft, he arranged an end-to-end study of Visual Studio, the only one that had ever been done. For a month and a half, he watched behind a one-way mirror as people wrote code. “How do they use tools? How do they think?” he said. “How do they sit at the computer, do they touch the mouse, do they not touch the mouse? All these things that we have dogma around that we haven’t actually tested empirically.”

The findings surprised him. “Visual Studio is one of the single largest pieces of software in the world,” he said. “It’s over 55 million lines of code. And one of the things that I found out in this study is more than 98 percent of it is completely irrelevant. All this work had been put into this thing, but it missed the fundamental problems that people faced. And the biggest one that I took away from it was that basically people are playing computer inside their head.” 

I'm not sure that there's a coming apocalypse. Things get more complex; we have adapted pretty well as a species. I imagine taking any of today's top technologists forward 1000 or 2000 years (or even 100 or 200) and watching their heads explode. A bronze-age Egyptian wouldn't understand a telescope. An iron-age Roman wouldn't understand movable type. And Guttenberg himself wouldn't understand a light bulb, let alone the 1920x1200 LED monitors I have in front of me.

So I'm not too worried about an apocalypse. But as a programmer, I'm very worried about crappy software.

Also, it's interesting that the author singled out Visual Studio, which is the tool I use most often to write software. (I wrote all this blog's customizations with it, for example.)

Welcome (and overdue) feature in Chrome

The January release of Google Chrome will prevent videos from auto-playing:

Starting in Chrome 64, which is currently earmarked for a January 2018 release, auto-play will only be allowed when the video in question is muted or when a "user has indicated an interest in the media."

The latter applies if the site has been added to the home screen on mobile or if the user has frequently played media on the site on desktop. Google also says auto-play will be allowed if the user has "tapped or clicked somewhere on the site during the browsing session."

"Chrome will be making auto-play more consistent with user expectations and will give users more control over audio," writes Google in a blog post. "These changes will also unify desktop and mobile web behavior, making web media development more predictable across platforms and browsers."

I mean, really. The more advertisers annoy the shit out of us, the less effective it will be effective.

Slosh modeling started here

The science of modeling hurricane storm surges started here in Chicago after the seiche of 1954:

When the surge hit Chicago, it hit a city that housed one of the world’s great meteorology departments, at the University of Chicago. One of its professors was the meteorologist George Platzman....

The meeting of those two freak concepts—real but rare deadly Great Lakes storm surges, and the bizarre possibility of an atomic bomb detonating in Lake Michigan—along with his computer-forecasting experiments, led Platzman to take up the nonexistent science of storm-surge prediction, beginning with an attempt to reverse-engineer the 1954 tragedy. His first model, in 1958, got the timing right, but was off by half on the height of the surge; nonetheless, it was used to accurately predict a 1960 Lake Michigan storm surge on Chicago, resulting in a public warning that may have saved lives.

Five years later, Platzman published a much more ambitious run at the phenomenon, crunching 20 years of hourly wind and water-level data at six weather stations on Lake Erie. He also used a much more sophisticated model than his 1958 study—which didn’t include wind stress—a level of complexity only possible in the computer age. And it worked, with an accuracy of about 90 percent.

The models improved into today's SLOSH model, which meteorologists have been using with abandon the past two weeks.

Software frustrations

I'm on the Board of Directors for the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, and information technology is my portfolio. Under that aegis, I'm in the process of taking all of our donor and membership spreadsheets and stuffing them into a new Neon CRM setup.

So far, it's going well, and it's going to make the organization a lot more effective at managing membership, events, and donations.

That said, in the last 24 hours I've logged five bug reports, including one of the most frustrating user experience (UX) bugs possible: a broken back button. This UX failure is so well-known and so irritating that we were talking about it when I started developing Web apps in the late 1990s. Jakob Nielsen called it the #1 web design mistake...of 1999:

The Back button is the lifeline of the web user and the second-most-used navigation feature (after following hypertext links). Users happily know that they can try anything on the web and always be saved by a click or two on Back to return them to familiar territory.

Except, of course, for those sites that break Back by committing one of these design sins:

  • opening a new browser window (see mistake #2)
  • using an immediate redirect: every time the user clicks Back, the browser returns to a page that bounces the user forward to the undesired location
  • prevents caching such that the Back navigation requires a fresh trip to the server; all hypertext navigation should be sub-second and this goes double for backtracking

Neon, however, has made some alternative design choices, and even has a FAQ explaining how they've broken the rules.

Seriously, guys. It's a good product, but wow, is that irritating.

Reactions to the weekend

Apparently, life went on in the US while I was abroad last week. First, to James Damore:

Of course, that wasn't the big story of the weekend. About the terrorist attack and armed ultra-right rally in Virginia, there have been many, many reactions:

Can we have a discussion about domestic right-wing domestic terrorism now? Before we have another Oklahoma City?