Archive for the ‘Life Lessons’ Category

Constantine: The quest for the perfect tech guy.

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

As I’m writing this I’m rewatching the 2005 movie Constantine with Keanu Reeves. The TV show of this DC comic that originated in 1985 holds a very interesting character. John Constantine. I don’t want to go into depth in comic geekville but this character touches the very soul of what the hacker mindset encourages.

As a Christian myself I must ask others of many faiths to put aside their condemnation and assumptions aside for just a minute to understand the character not for if it’s a good or bad thing but what the characters aspirations are. He deals with the occult and battling demons through spells, black magic, trickery and ancient knowledge of the occult. The background of how he became that way is irrelevant to this conversation but what is relevant is that he really knows his stuff. Really knows it to the point he gets out of many dangerous situations with only his wits.

The hacker mindset is the tech dream for similar reasons. The hacker does have some toys and can do some deep stuff because of them but what makes them good is pure know how. They seem to know a lot about a whole lot of things in such a way that they can use very little yet bend their environment to their will. This to me is still the dream.

I don’t code to survive. I code to create.

The use of tools to make bigger and better tools that fit the situation you desire is what we desire. Learning and listening because some day some how these mountains of what may seem to be useless will prove to be what saves us.

This isn’t just a tech thing. Many professions desire this Constantine like knowledge of just the right thing you needed to know or figure out to get you out of a certain situation. The problem? The goal is endless. Regretfully life is not like TV. This goal can never be reached no matter how much you learn. However, I must say, like every life long learner like myself and probably like you my dear reader, it’s a hard but wonderful ride.

How to be an “Undefinable You” like Keila Banks #undefinableyou

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Recently my daughter (Keila Banks) did a talk at O’Reilly Media’s OSCON 2015. Hey keynote talk was “Undefinable Me.” In the talk, in short, she talks about how she’s a 13 year old coder and many many other things that make it hard to define her (video here). She ends her talk by saying “Join me in being an undefinable you.” Since then I’ve been flooded with messages, emails, texts and calls about her video asking for help with this concept. I will explain it in detail here.

When my daughter gives talks we brainstorm on an idea and I let her expound on it. She does all her

Me, my dad, Keila, Uncle John and son David.

Me, my dad, Keila, Uncle John and son David.

own writing and video presentation so there’s no speech written. She’s just talking about yourself and who can’t talk about themselves. I presented her with a title idea. To talk about herself. Let me digress for a second to give you a little background.

My dad (Sammie Banks) was an electrical engineer since the 1960’s. My uncle John was a mathematician that worked for the Pentagon back in those decades as well. This was a VERY hard thing in that there were few black people in technology fields. My father aimed us towards whatever we wanted. He’d pay for books if need be but he wouldn’t give out answers he knew to things. If I wanted to know I had to come back with enough information to discuss the question. I wasn’t an exceptional kid at math but I felt computers which had just started to be put in homes to be my new purpose. My dad’s words of advice to us in all things was simple, “In whatever you do you’re going to have to be twice as good as the guy standing right next to you.” Understanding the undertones that the man next to us was probably a white man the message was clear but racism was inexcusable no matter what other people did.

The lessons he gave me were changed a bit by me to come up with idea of perfecting my 3 principles at the core of everything. Mind. Body. Spirit. My children discuss and learn things (Mind), healthy and in good physical condition from exercise (Body) and God fearing and kind (Spirit). My things don’t have to be your things but choose your things. What are your core beliefs? Do they make the world a better place and not just you?

Men of the Banks family

Hunter Banks, David Banks, Sammie Banks, Phillip Banks Jr. and Phillip Banks Sr.

Programming since I was 10 like my sons and daughter I used to find on error message that would always cause you a problem when it hit. “Undefined variable.” This meant somewhere along in your code you were supposed to give something a value but you forgot to. Being undefinable is lacking the ability to be given a simple value. Programmers and geeks might know this as a list or array needed which gives this thing many values. This is the same for you but you’re going to break the program because you want to be undefinable. They’re going to have to come up with a new language for you.

I’m a 6’3″ Christian, black, athletic, geeky, sociable, funny (just roll with on that), inner city Los Angeles native that works on all tech things but mainly free and open source technologies like Linux and Firefox (read into that part a tree hugging/hippie tech geek perception) and always with his kids. I won’t go into the possibly negative connotations associated with who I am that I completely shatter in people’s brains but that’s great. That’s how it starts.

The main focus I wanted her to hit that she hit so well is that she’s not special. Even if you did this we’re smart that only gets you so far. Hard work on yourself is what gets results. So if you’re female change the narrative of what people say about females in tech to one that makes gender sound silly being discussed. If you’re young make the value associated with your age irrelevant. If you’re black, Latin, Asian, etc. defy saying or thinking things like, “I’m this way because I’m [fill in nationality here].” Then and only then are you an undefinable you.

Keila Banks on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC

Keila Banks on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC

Reference: Keila Banks “Undefinable me” talk at OSCON 2015
Business Inside article: (http://www.businessinsider.com/13-year-old-girl-coder-wows-crowd-2015-7 )
Banks Family Values (FOSS Force): http://fossforce.com/2015/07/banks-family-values-texas-linux-fest/

 

 

Teaching tech with Tinkerbell: A society of tinkerers

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Recently I was at a convention where my daughter spoke and one of the organizers told  me that she had an honest curiosity and that would take her a long way. I think fortunately that this lady was right. This was definitely a lesson that I needed to teach my daughter that is also a lesson for all of us who really have a passion for enhancing technology. We exist in a society of tinkerers.

Tinkerbelltech

Teaching grown men this is one thing but teaching a young girl this came easier than expected in the form of an old favorite Disney character: Tinkerbell.

Most of us adults don’t know much about Tinkerbell because she always flew by Peter Pan or Mickey Mouse and made fireworks happen with her wand. However, young girls know her a little better because my daughter watches the straight to DVD releases of Tinkerbell that have Tinker bell movie posterbeen put out since 2008 that show more about her and where she’s from. In short, Tinkerbell is a fairy. Where she comes from there are fairies of many different types that have different abilities. Some tribes may be weather or plants fairies etc. Well, Tinkerbell is named as such because she comes from the fairy clan of tinkerers. They’re snubbed because they aren’t as fancy as some of the other tribes because they like to get their hands dirty and take things that exist and tinker with them to make something extraordinary. This is a concept I knew oh so well already. Why? I’m a tinkerer too. My dad is an engineer and a tinkerer and so is my daughter. She comes from a long line of our “clan.”

I must admit that in watching some of these movies with my daughter I could relate more and more to the character’s trials and tribulations but even more so with her solutions. The key thing about tinkerers is finding solutions. That’s priority number one. Some of the other tribes might focus on things like beauty or social status but the tinkerers made something that not only gave them piece and leisure but even more so pride that they’d created something worth having. As my daughter Keila grows I notice more and more she’ll just need a tiny push into some software or give her a new piece of hardware and soon she’ll start making connections to create something else that will morph into something else and within a little time she’ll sit proud and relax in what she’s created and can’t wait to tell me all about it.

I first learned about Linux in 1993 from a tinkerer like myself. I was 23 and a consultant at my job named Chuck was there for the sole purpose of working on our $100k computer running HPUX. This machine seemed like a might elephant commanded by Hannibal careening through an area destroying all in it’s path with little resistance. The other computers seemed like toys compared to this machine. For some reason the might elephant was great but we had multiple buildings that needed to be connected so a huge bridge needed to be made so this might elephant could cross the buildings. Chuck, being the tinkerer that he was and seeing that I was one also said, “I’ve got an idea for this. We could take some computers and make them into bridges for this machine without spending the big bucks.” I of course was completely on board but the project got turned down and big Cisco bridges were bought. This inspired me though. If this Linux that he spoke of could possibly do this what else could you create with it. He told me to go get a copy of Slackware and learn it good and you can build almost build a clone of this big HPUX machine at home. He needed say no more. Any hardware I came into contact with was used to tinker even more. Not just with Linux but with Windows, Novell Netware and networks… and the rest was history.

I just got it but others out there want to tinker too. They just need what Chuck gave me. New tools. My dad had already encouraged the tinkerer inTinker Bell me.

Explaining it to Keila was easy. Disney had already created the framework for me. They showed her a tinkerer and how that tinkerer succeeded. Come find your place in the Tinkerer Clan. You may slowly start finding yourself opting out of fancy interfaces like an AppleTV or Smart TV for a Raspberry Pi running a media distribution. Take your Windows or Mac into the command line. You may find yourself hacking an Android tablet instead of getting an iPad. You may find yourself running only Linux on your desktop till it spreads to your laptop then work desktop then to servers everywhere you go like I did. You may find yourself compiling your own software and even learning a language to make programs or scripts to make your life and that of those around you easier. For a child like her though, you may find simple things like learning HTML and Python the magic wands you need to create or enhance from others in your society across the internet.

Tinker how you will. Just Tinker. Go. Create. Enhance. Transcend. The other clans have their purpose and they shouldn’t be shunned however if you are honestly curious about everything you just may be a tinkerer too and this is your fairyland.

He who has the most tools wins

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

I am told quite often, “You must have a lot of time on your hands.” This is usually following an off the wall rambling on Facebook, Twitter or at a client site. The funny thing about it is I’ve always got things to do I just make sure that I have a LOT of time to enjoy life. Among lots of reading, sports, lots of time with family, church obligations, phone calls, cooking and so many other things the goal is to fit as much into smaller amounts of time as possible.

A while ago I read the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and it is a book that has a cult following among efficiency experts. The GTD processes are something you can find a million websites and tools on. The one thing it didn’t mention is what a computer guy loves the most. TOOLS! See the thing my dad taught me by accident is that he who has the most tools AND knows how to use them wins. See my dad knew how to use every tool but didn’t always have them all around. However, a neighbour down the street had the most organized garage ever with tools of every kind. My brother and I would be sent down the street sometimes when we were working on our car, house, plumbing or carpentry. We’d learn how to use everything.

Translate this into modern day I acquire as many mental tools as I can as well as geek tech tools. Earlier today I had to do something and it would have been a project that a group of people would have taken hours doing. However, I know how to use databases well, I’m great with picture editing software and I know the web. The combination of the three had me set a timer for 30 minutes and knock this out in record time with unexpectedly fantastic results. At times in life I’ve actually learned things and immersed myself in them for a short period of time to get really good at them so I can do it faster.

Tools cost a lot right? Well, unlike the days of our neighbour’s garage, you don’t have to spend thousands on tools. Get some books on Amazon, install some apps on your phone, look at useful websites or search for “tip” or “tricks”, download free or open source software, read the table of contents on a book with the subject you want to learn and Google the rest or just pay somebody that knows what they’re doing in that area so you can be more efficient in the others. Get good at what you do and use the right mental, physical and software tools for the job and you’ll be a winner.

A comfort zone is where all the slackers hang out

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

I was inspired recently by a picture a friend of my posted on Facebook.

lifebegins.jpg It made me think of a lot of things I’ve said that were similar before about your comfort zone. I’m constantly entering into new stages in life and this is going to be the title of my next one. “A comfort zone is where all the slackers hang out.”

I am all about having fun and doing new and exciting things and it just caused me to think about all the people that you and I know that are living in the same world as you with the same amount of time and have far less commitments or obligations. How is it that these people are not living life to the fullest and don’t have better jobs, careers or business’ than you? It’s the fate of those who linger in the comfort zone.

I’m pretty big on watching football and it makes me think of the football players that hang out in the cool zone. The Cool Zone is a big fan with an icy cold mist coming from it that they pull out on the hot days. Football players are wearing so much armor and a helmet that running around and battling your opponent out there on the field gets you really hot. When they come off the field they head to the Cool Zone. Thing is, what is that guy that really hasn’t played in the game doing in there?

People who usually stay in their comfort zone are that guy. He/she hasn’t put in the time, strength or determination towards the goal but he/she wants to relax and not do anything crazy. You don’t yet deserve the Cool Zone scary player. Get back on the field and scare everyone. Even yourself.

Let’s start today doing things that aren’t what you’d usually do, places you wouldn’t usually go , and ballsy things you wouldn’t say (all within reason of course). Without big risks there are no big rewards. The people taking the risks are not doing it in their comfort zone.

Too much weight on the destination and not the journey.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

There’s a psychology term known as cognitive dissonance. For some reason people seem to equate where they are and where they think they should be and the further they see themselves from it the the more it starts to effect them. This is common human behaviour. I used to do this a lot until a couple years ago when I read a book that corrected my way of thinking (The Pursuit of Perfect). The problem with me was that I was trying to always be perfect with everything I did. I still believe in trying to be one of the best at whatever I do but to a much lesser extent than before I read this.

This perfection also changed the way I looked at reading. Most of my life I read books to get to the end.  I started a book by looking at the page number of the last page and set myself on a course to reach that page. Many TV shows showed cultures that believed that an assimilation of knowledge taken in a huge gulp made you a new and better being. Think: Borg from Star Trek, linking into the Matrix in the Matrix movies, and chopping off the head of a Highlander and you’ll gain all his knowledge in Highlander. This was my goal. The destination being the last page.

Life isn’t about being at the last page. The last page is the day of your death. Have you given any thought to the path to that day?

I rarely fell asleep during our long car trips when I was a kid. Falling asleep till you got to the destination made you miss the most amazing things along the way. Look at those cows and sheep! We never get to see those. Look at those mountains! Amazing what God has made. Look at the sun set on the ocean or a field of waving wheat. Amazing.

You’ll get to where you want in your career, your life, etc. Just stop and look at what you’re doing right now so when you get there you’ll have many great stories to tell about how fun that trip was.

Beyondblackwhite Blogathon: About me.

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Often I write a little bit about what’s going on with me or what I’m thinking about but today I’m going to take a little bit of a different slant. I’m going to tell you about me. See, my cousin Christelyn Russell-Karazin runs a great site called www.beyondblackwhite.com and she asked me to write a little something about ME. For some reason I’ll figure out in another post why I always procrastinate posting to my blog and forgot to look at the instructions while I’m away from home right now but here goes a glimpse at what makes me… me.

The computer guy that sits before you is a long story of a whole lot of work. Work on career. Work on marriage. Work on family. Growing up as a black man my father always taught me that if you work hard enough and smart enough it wouldn’t matter if you were blue. Also, that if you do what you love you would never work a day in your life. I am the absolute contridiction because I’ve worked extremely hard but yet have never worked.

As a kid I was really into computers and thus my dad being an electrical engineer helped feed me books. I was the kid that was always reading, talking and playing sports. By the time I finished high school I went to Cal. State L. A. and knew exactly what I was going into. Electrical engineering. Just like my dad. That’s where life got a little shaky. It was in my first month of school that I met my now wife. It was by my third month that she was pregnant and with all my unfocused college behavior that I decided I wasn’t taking all these hard calculus courses. I changed my major to Computer Science but was still just a little too overburdened by the time my first son was born.

I am not typical in anything and definitely didn’t want to be a typical dad. Now in many cultures this may be different but in the black community unwed fathers were unseen fathers. As I worked through college I was the opposite. I kept my son as much as humanly possible and had girls in the dorms watching him while I went to class or when I had to take tests.

School wasn’t the path I’d choose for many reasons. I ended up dropping out of school by my third year but not dropping out of my plan. My plan was to buy a house by 30 and be the Information Technology (IT)  director of a company by 35. I’m pretty open about the fact that I wasn’t feeling too much support in any direction except for my dad with what he could.

I won’t bore you with the Abraham Lincoln stories of reading by candle light but suffice to say there was a lot of it. Fill in the years with 3 more kids (all by my wife), a lot of reading on buses, metrorail trains, in parks, and late at night. Add in a lot of time helping develop my wife and kids into whatever they wanted to be. Sprinkle in a lot of mentoring to kids, family, coworkers and whoever wanted to listen and be the best they could be with me and whole lot of time with my family and you have made yourself the Phillip you see today.

The timeline worked out just right by the way. By 29 years old I was the IT director at then one of the countries biggest Post Production companies and also bought my house.

Easy? Not at all but like good exercise the pain in your muscles you feel is a good feeling because of the results. Mine is a story I tell to all men and boys because I juggle a very social life with all this work and family and it’s never that easy. It’s just what needs to be done the way I see it.

Combine as much as you can where you can. My kids have been regular faces at every place I’ve ever worked so that they’ll raise kids like my dad with me.

The Scotty Effect: Doing too many miracles makes them ordinary.

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

I found myself rather unnerved this week which is unusual for me. I had a client that took me to my wit’s end with no reward. I’ll go back and explain my problem.

scotty.jpgIn the TV show Star Trek in the 1960’s James Doohan played a character lovingly referred to as Scotty.  Scotty was the head engineer on the starship Enterprise that was the biggest baddest ship in the known universe. Seeing as how every week the Enterprise or it’s crew were put into a dangerous situation Scotty’s character was always asked to do something miraculous. If the repairs were assumed to take 5 hours he’d only have 3. If the crew was stuck on a planet in danger Scotty was desperately asked, “Beam me up Scotty” even if all known physics said he shouldn’t be able to. The problem with Scotty is that he made the unthinkable happen so much that he wasn’t a focal point of the crew. His miracles became background noise to the plot of other things going on.

As a computer guy that works in a lot of stuff I am suffering from the Scotty effect.  I’ve done things at companies in the past and present that have made people almost faint with awe. I’m the person that just knows I’ll find a solution. The company in particular that I went to has seen too many miracles happen. Therefore when I pulled off something that I couldn’t even find enough Google results to help me I had to pat myself on the back for once. Went to his office expecting praise only to be met with disappointment at why it took me as long as it did when even his internet provider told him that maybe it was possible but they’d never even been asked for that. To make it even more miraculous, the client of theirs that this was supposed to be for thought it was space age stuff they’d never heard of.

I’m calmer now but I guess it all comes down to real grattitude. It’s the cheapest fuel for the human soul that gets the best results and your local miracle worker is running out of gas. I grew up even hearing the story of Jesus being at a wedding and being asked to turn water into wine. I picture even this person patting him on the back and just walking away while Jesus stood in awe of what his own hands had done.

What am I doing right now? Nothing…

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

I have recently come to the realization that what I do I have been undervaluing. Often when I’m asked by my wife and others, “What are you doing right now?” I hesitate for a moment. Pull my hands away from the keyboard, piece of wire I’m holding, or drop my pen and think. This is something that’s causing me time to figure out myself. How am I going to tell this person exactly what I’m doing? I think to myself, “You’re good at explaining things. Go for it.” As this would be true, I’m capable of explaining everything I’m doing to a 6 year old but it might take a minute and I’d paint a picture in the air with flashbacks to previous work that would rival Picasso.

Should I draw it out on a piece of paper? Well, usually I’m on the phone so that would get lost in translation. All kinds of ideas float through my head in what seems like hours that are only milliseconds. It doesn’t matter though, in due time I realize that I will probably bore them or they don’t see the passion that goes into everything I do and get turned off by the enthusiasm I put in it. They may also, find it to be a rhetorical question in the first place so that we can just get back to them and their issues.

So in the end what do I say I’m doing? Nothing.

An it’s your fault world

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Today I had a very interesting moment. I have a vacuum cleaner at home that has stopped working. Relenting to pressure from my kids who didn’t want to sweep our living room and my wife I decided to go ahead and fix it. Upon openning it I found all kinds of particles stuck and other things that I cleaned but when I found that the belt inside was broke I knew that that was the real problem so I took off the broken belt and went to the vacuum repair shop. He asked me what kind of vacuum I had and when I stumbled and stammered my words he just figured let me go ahead and look at the old one (which I wanted him to do in the first place). He gave me a band for $2 and I was off to the house.

Moments after putting the piece back together I vacuumed the floor with great results but the smell of burned rubber. I openned the vacuum again and the roller with the brushes was broken and parts were melted.

Fast forward to today. I take the vacuum back and after a brief discussion I come to find out that the repair guy didn’t stock these kinds of parts for my vacuum and his suppliers didn’t stock my model. The causes could have been varied but when one of them was a belt being too small. The same belt that he sold me for $2 could end up costing me a lot more. It wasn’t even a scam because he didn’t even work on my vacuum type. I was torn in how I should respond.

In my line of work I fix people’s computers all day everyday. The one thing that I have a big problem with is people blaming me for a possible problem. I take my reputation very seriously. What almost 99% of the problem wasn’t from anything I did and I know before I come back. I do come back because I am one that takes responsibility. However, we live in an “it’s your fault” world. I definitely understand that there is the remote situation where you may have forgotten something but I would have liked the repair man to admit the possibility to his guilt in giving me the wrong size and look for solutions with his supplier. Alas, he didn’t and I was stuck with a broken part and no ideas where to go.

Are you this guy/girl? One of the main things I go over with my children is reliability and responsibility. Your life and your work are all due to decisions you’ve made somewhere down the line. Everything is because you made it that way so take responsibility. However, responsibility without action is just playing another blame game but with yourself.

My goal everyday is to make this world a little better to live in. If just a couple people read this and decide I’m going to fix some of the things I’ve caused then maybe it will spread and form this utopia that we all dream of.

Let the blame game end with you. No excuses. Just action.