A week in review, 2018-W16





Summoning Salt, 4-2: The History of Super Mario Bros.’ Most Infamous Level, YouTube, 2018-01-29.

Added to /links

#st-louis-blogs: St Louis Patina – Historical Urban Exploration



Image, or results

There’s this exchange in “How to Love Criticism” in WorkLife with Adam Grant, where he’s talking with Ray Dalio—intellectually I love the idea, but in real life… I don’t know.

[10:38 AG] A challenge network can only help you if you’re ready to listen.
[10:42 RD] It’s particularly important for me to be showing anybody what I’m doing, including my failures, my successes. Yes. Why would you not do that?
[10:52 AG] Well, because you’re afraid of the answer.
[10:54 RD] What are you afraid of?
[10:55 AG] Of the emperor being discovered to have no clothes.
[11:00 RD] If your objective is to be as good as you can possibly be, then you’re going to want that.
[11:07 AG] I think a lot of people would rather maintain at least the illusion of a decent image than to actually improve.
[11:13 RD] But then they care more about their image than they care about results.
[11:18 AG] And you’re not willing to tolerate that.
[11:21 RD] You know, life’s much better with good results.

I think, when I’m pretending to be objective, that this is what I want at work. (By the way, if you don’t know who Ray Dalio is, or haven’t seen any of the marketing for his book Principles, there’s going to be a lot of missing context here.) Be a Straight Shooter. No Bull. &c. On the other hand, what has 37 years of being alive confirmed but that my lizard brain really wouldn’t be that interested in radical honesty anywhere.

But it’s that part at the end that still resonates: how could you expect to get the best results if you can’t see yourself as you are, not as your ego wishes you to see how you are in order to avoid the pain of coming up short?

A week in review, 2018-W15





Jerry Seinfeld, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Added to /links

#food-and-drink: La Cosecha Coffee Roasters, Maplewood



Now reading: WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

Tim O’Reilly, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us (2017)

(Posting notes here.)

I feel like everyone that knows how to make something with a computer ought to know who Tim O’Reilly is because of the wealth of computer books his company has published over the years. Honestly that’s about the extent of what I know about him, although what I know was augmented recently by listening to a podcast that interviewed him. (Danny Fortson, Tim O’Reilly: “It’s our brains that are being hacked”, Danny in the Valley, 2018-01-25.) He struck me as a kind of Silicon Valley Kurt Vonnegut: optimistic in the possibility of humans to do the right thing, but a bit skeptical of the probability of it. Since much of the ground covered there was related to this book—and because they had a copy of it at the nearest STL County Library—I went for it.

From the podcast interview (notes):

[38:32] Just imagining the things that you can imagine, you will always miss things that, in retrospect, seem quite obvious. There’ll be some breakthrough, and then all of a sudden a set of people will go, “Holy shit, this is what we can do with that.” There’s so much that’s happening around us. The future happens, as I like to say, gradually and then suddenly.

Finished reading: When

I just finished reading When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink. It was pretty good—a popular science book that doesn’t get too heavy, that covers a lot of ground and digests it for you. However, he does put citations to the various scientific journal papers that he derived the content from in the back—notes here, if you’d like to see the bibliography. (Fairly certain I’m the only one who’s interested in that sort of thing. Party Animal.)

There were two ideas from the book that stuck with me.

One was the idea of chronotypes: the idea that some people are naturally late risers and late peakers, or early risers and early peakers, or more likely something in the big middle of that distribution. That’s fairly obvious, sure—but it does give some basis for not hassling people who are late starters for being lazy. It might just be how they’re tuned. And never mind other people—I’ve been using this insight for letting go of some kinds of heavy work during the middle of the day when gross unproductivity sets in instead of fighting it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Best to recognize it and plan for drudge work that needs to be done anyway.

The second idea that stuck is the U-shaped performance curve that you see from the beginning to the end of a task. You see it in running also: the fast start, the lag in the middle, the kick at the end. Again: pretty obvious. But: with citations that explain the extent and some of the psychological mechanisms behind it. This was my secret weapon in running. In high school, in the 800m run, you know that other runners tend to slow down from 400m to 600m. Since I wasn’t all that fast at 800m, I could still do well by pushing that segment of the race, knowing intuitively that many other competitors weren’t. Similarly, in endurance racing, the middle third or the third quarter was a lag for most people after a strong start—my secret weapon there was to start near the back, let the others burn off their adrenaline at a too-fast pace at the beginning, and eat them up over the second half of the race. So I didn’t know about the U-curve, but I knew about it.

Six books suggestion by Dan Pink as further reading:

A week in review, 2018-W14





Added to /links

Added several podcasts I listen to: /links#podcasts


Blues vs. Blackhawks, 4 April 2018



[45:08] Guy Raz: If you could go back to Nolan Bushnell in the late 70s or early 80s and say, “hey, you know, I wanna give you some advice”, what would you tell yourself?

[45:19] Nolan Bushnell: Boy, that’s a real hard one because, you know I… Some of the bad decisions I’ve made, I’m not sure if I’d like my life to not have had them. And I’m not sure that if I were to give myself advice and change that trajectory, I would end up where I am right now. And I like where I am.

—”Atari & Chuck E. Cheese’s: Nolan Bushnell“, How I Built This, 2018-03-25.

That makes a good tonic for this. I don’t really have to be convinced that it’s a good thought. When in the right mood—or at least not in the wrong one—I think the same way. But on the other hand I’m also a serial optimizer. Just tweak one more variable and get it right. One more. One more. That’s what made the endurance running so attractive: so many variables and so much available to work on them.

And the past is also like that, right? And the model is so much more developed because you can see—at least from one perspective—how things turned out, so you can kind of work the result backwards and try to reverse engineer how it turned out that way. Apply that kind of model to Future You and maybe there’s something there worth thinking about. Unless the voices in your head have more discipline than the ones in mine, that’s not how it works. In mine, it’s just picking and picking and picking at suboptimal performances.

But what the hell? Remembered line from a long-forgotten poem: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Purpose first, technology second

You don’t need a digital strategy. You need a better strategy, enabled by digital.

—George Westerman, “Your Company Doesn’t Need a Digital Strategy“, MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2018

This is line with what I think. Some people will get a new technology and it becomes the center about which an organization must revolve. “Hey, we bought this thing, now use it so we can justify the expense.” It’s right up there with making your organization revolve around process. “Organization” is intentionally abstract—it’s work, it’s a professional society, it’s a club, it’s home (guilty as charged).

Technology doesn’t provide value to a business. […] Instead, technology’s value comes from doing business differently because technology makes it possible.

There’s a line I put in my LinkedIn profile: “Serve the Purpose, not the Process”. I mean it. It’s the same in this case: serve the purpose, not the technology. If you don’t remember that, you will drift from your own vision of what you want to create in the world and instead start focusing on feeding and watering some thing that you bought. Let’s steal a line from Chuck Palahniuk: “The things you used to own, now they own you.”

INCOSE is awful about this. They invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a website for members and local chapters. And when I say “create for” I also mean that we’re required to use it; no buts. It’s taken them almost a decade and two attempts and it’s still lousy. They selected the technology without, it seems, much input from the users or beneficiaries of it. In the end, it’s hard to use to the point of not wanting to use it—which brings up a question of whether or not to renew that subscription. What is the recourse? Nothing. It becomes embedded in the process of the organization, and in an inflexible organization that process drives your organization instead of being driven by it.

Give me a garage solution that works over a professional solution that doesn’t any day. (That’s garage as in something you make yourself in the garage, not a typo; garbage is garbage, whether you make it in the garage or the lab.) Some of the solutions that come from the bottom have been designed organically to meet a need, and the solution mimics the design of the organization. Fit the technology to needs and it will become a part of the organization instead of the opposite. It won’t be as stylish, but was that the point?

There are some areas where it makes sense. At Mason we invested quite a lot of money in some new test equipment. We needed it. From that point on, the system testing we did on our flight control products had to be tested, and to some extent designed, with this test equipment in mind. (I guess this isn’t exactly the same—we did, after all, design the test equipment to fill a need.)

A week in review, 2018-W13





Grant Heslov, Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009.


Break it yourself

(With apologies to Andrew Bird. You can listen along.)

I give you a holy word:


(Great, now I have to apologize to Kurt Vonnegut, too.)

A few weeks ago I did something accidentally that I regret, but I think it’s just as well that it happened.

That’s the remainder of my time at Orbital Sciences, and the short first phase of my career. Ten years ago today was my last day there. I remember the last day, walking around, collecting signatures for a revision of the Orion Launch Abort System Jettison Motor spec. Then handing in my badge and driving off down VA-28. I quit that job to move to Texas for a girl. I love telling that story. I’ve got the whole routine down, all the way down to the mirthless laughter and asking the audience to be sure that write it down: don’t do that.

Coincidentally, two days ago I bought a new car. I’ve had the other once since—drumroll—26 October 2006, four days before I started that job at Orbital. That’s a less painful story. Why did I buy that car? Because the one the preceded it broke down in the Appalachian Mountains in western Maryland, and I got towed to a Pontiac dealer in Cumberland and traded it in.

What else is left? Maybe it’s time to turn in this 703 area code on my mobile phone. What else is left? The bike that I wrecked when riding back from the office in 2007 got stolen in Burbank in 2014. I don’t mind. It still had scars on the frame and seat. What else is left? Until recently I had a travel mug that I bought on my first work trip to Arizona even though it hadn’t kept a proper seal in ages. What else is left? Somewhere I’ve filed my first paystub and my first performance review and raise (I think the percentage on that first raise is roughly the same as the sum of all subsequent raises).

What’s the one thing I wish I had kept? I had an email from Dave Thompson, the CEO of Orbital, thanking me for an article I had written in the American Astronautical Society’s magazine. Didn’t think about taking that at the time.

I don’t know if it’s an American thing, or a male thing, or a youthful thing, or whatever it is, but I understand that the “correct” answer when talking about your life is: no regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing. &c. Buddy, I’d change a lot of things. Leaving would be #1.


Honestly, after ten years, I thought that I’d have an Objective answer to the question of whether I should or shouldn’t have. It would make this note a lot simpler to write, that’s for sure, but it would also make the thoughts I have about it quiet down and disappear. It’s not even an interesting thing to get stuck on. I mean, I know several people my own age who have died or almost died from breast cancer, killed themselves, died or almost died from plane crashes, etc. Those are problems.

(“Dare the plane to crash / Redeem the miles for cash / And we’ll dance like cancer survivors / When the prognosis was that you should have died”)

Professionally, it’s been a toss downhill since then. The job in Texas was bunk, even though I got to sit on a MER console for two Space Shuttle launches and landings. I stayed there for a year and three days (the moving bonus vested after one year on a Tuesday).

Moved to Lowell, Mass. Spent short of two years on that job after the company laid a bunch of us off. The job itself was so-so, but living in the Boston area covered for that, especially volunteering for 826 Boston. After the layoff, and the extended limbo after it, that was the thing that kept me alive, having some kind of external purpose.

And that interstitial period was strange. I can’t fully account for it. I’ve thought before about examining it, considering it from different angles to see if there’s any sense to be made, giving it the written treatment. It’s like a pond that reflects the sky, giving no intimation of the world beneath until I dive into it. But I’d rather not. Swimming in fresh water gives me the creeps anyway. So I’ll just toss it out here and leave it.

I spent 10 weeks in India. I climbed Elephant Tusk while backpacking around in Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. I fixed the plumbing at the Panamint Hilton after heading up to Half Dome. I ran 100 miles (yeah, that first one, ran more like 70 miles) and qualified for Western States. Anyway, those were trivial, listable things. There was time together, but a lot of time alone.

There’s no sense to be made from it all. No narrative. (Here’s an interesting article: Galen Strawson, “Let’s ditch the dangerous idea that life is a story“, Aeon Magazine.) But all of that time, sixteen months of it, does reside somewhere inside of me like a patch of cool shade. It’s not a malevolent feeling, it’s just like that small hitch before you breathe in and sigh.

Move to Wisconsin because that’s where I got hired. Platteville. Maybe 11,000 people including the university. Two months in, before even my things were delivered from Mass to Wisconsin, get transferred out to our sister company in Sylmar, California—which is in the Valley, but a weird corner of the Valley where the vaqueros ride their horses unironically down the road—for two weeks. Then two weeks back in Wisconsin. Repeat. For two years. Go on a weird distance running binge. Meet Chen. Effectively move to St. Louis while commuting to California. Get married. Move out there to Burbank. Basketball on Wednesdays. Tianjin food on Saturdays. Go to China. Move back to St. Louis when she went to business school.

That last part seems chaotic but it’s the stable part.

When I started this I didn’t want to make a big list of things. I wanted to make sense of them. Because ten years ago I felt like the trajectory was pointed upward, like a rocket. I had a network. I was working on a human spaceflight project. Failure wasn’t an option because I wasn’t going to lose but because I just didn’t realize it was an option. I miss that feeling—although I wouldn’t have felt it at the time, so I guess it’s more proper to say that I miss the position I was in. And I want it back and I don’t want it back. I have that feeling more than you would believe. Things are good, but the magic of possibility isn’t there. Maybe it would have been like that anyway. Maybe it’s like the endurance running was—the magic of discovery in the first few races, discovering new places on the map of yourself, but most of the time and effort was in the training in between the races where there was usually the same old ground.

I thought I would come up with a clever ending to this while writing it, something Hollywood to say as I flung it away, but it never came. Fine, fine. It fits. I’ll keep it.