Category Archives: Reading notes

Interpreting silence

I'm just finishing up this paper: Cramton, Catherine D. "The Mutual Knowledge Problem and Its Consequences for Dispersed Collaboration." Organization Science 12 (June 2001): 346-371 (pdf). It's worth posting all of the notes for it when I finish them. (Update 2018-11-17: all of the notes.) But there's this one passage that's been sticking in my head all day:

One of the biggest challenges team members faced was interpreting the meaning of their partners' silence. Over the course of the project, it became clear that silence had meant all of the following at one time or another: I agree. I strongly disagree. I am indifferent. I am out of town. I am having technical problems. I don't know how to address this sensitive issue. I am busy with other things. I did not notice your question. I did not realize that you wanted a response.

The context for that passage, and that paper, is investigating how a team of students distributed across continents completes a class project. But anyone who has worked on a team with some people here, some people there, and so on, would recognize it. I recognize that situation—but not until after it's pointed out. When it's pointed out in this way, and then I reflect on it, I always assume that other people who aren't in the same place that I am in interpret any silences that I give or leave, intentionally or unintentionally, in the same way that I do. I know what I mean, why don't they? Of course this is stupid on its face. How could they?

So the trick seems to be not just designing your explicit interactions with other people, but also the implicit ones—not just the things you say, but the spaces in between. My habit is to avoid extra emails where possible, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to spare some extra one to ask the question: are we understanding each other?

Now reading: Man's Search for Meaning

Now reading: Viktor Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning (1946). (notes)

Actually, I'm listening to this one, not reading it—I picked up the audiobook, read by Simon Vance, from the St. Louis County Library. I don't remember exactly where I heard of this book. I might have heard of it—several times, even—from guests on Tim Ferriss' podcast. It doesn't matter. It's ubiquitous. It has 255,039 reviews on Goodreads and 4,358 customer reviews on Amazon.

It's enough reason to read it, I think, because someone made it through the Holocaust with their mind intact, and shared not just an action story but what he was thinking as he was a prisoner. So my troubles aren't really troubles with that as a measuring stick. But as it relates to someone like me, I'll just steal this line from a summary on the library's book entry: "At the core of his theory is the belief that man's primary motivational force is his search for meaning."

From somewhere near the beginning:

Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it

I can't really explain it, but the idea of keeping on and keeping on, as evidenced by the book, dredges up two passages in my memory from unrelated books. Might as well share them:

This is how we go on: one day at a time, one meal at a time, one pain at a time, one breath at a time. Dentists go on one root-canal at a time; boat-builders go on one hull at a time. If you write books, you go on one page at a time. We turn from all we know and all we fear. We study catalogues, watch football games, choose Sprint over AT&T. We count the birds in the sky and will not turn from the window when we hear the footsteps behind us as something comes up the hall; we say yes, I agree that clouds often look like other things - fish and unicorns and men on horseback - but they are really only clouds. Even when the lightening flashes inside them we say they are only clouds and turn our attention to the next meal, the next pain, the next breath, the next page. This is how we go on.

—Stephen King, Bag of Bones (1998)

It was Trout's fantasy that somebody would be outraged by the footprints. This would give him the opportunity to reply grandly, "What is it that offends you so? I am simply using man's first printing press. You are reading a bold and universal headline which says, 'I am here, I am here, I am here.'

—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Now reading: The Power of Positive Deviance

Richard Tanner Pascale, Jerry Sternin, Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems (notes)

I don't remember exactly how I found this book. I think I was looking for another book on Safari Books Online and this one showed up in the search results or as a suggested book linked to whatever I was looking for. Doesn't matter. I saw this in the description and knew I had to read it:

In The Power of Positive Deviance, the authors present a counterintuitive new approach to problem-solving. Their advice? Leverage positive deviants--the few individuals in a group who find unique ways to look at, and overcome, seemingly insoluble difficulties. By seeing solutions where others don't, positive deviants spread and sustain needed change.

That's what I do. (How I see myself, at least.) Roundhouse kicks to the face of the status quo.

Dreams, shadow dancing

I'm reading a book called Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A (notes) by Michael Ventura. I found it by accident—via Peter Schwartz's The Art Of The Long View (notes), and that one itself via Tim O'Reilly's WTF?: What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us (notes). I like to follow the references—so many things out there I wouldn't even know to look for, let alone find. The book is from 1985, and it is a collection of essays reworked from his articles in the LA Weekly. Here's another thing I like: reading books that are separated from my own age by just a generation or two. It's interesting to feel the subterranean chill of a contemporaneous reference that may have been important at the time but has been buried just long enough to have been forgotten. It's easy to forget; it's easy not to know.

The fourth essay is called "The Big Chill Factor". Ventura himself has posted a copy here so you can read it. I think you should read it. The first third is a warmup, a kind of simmering annoyance about The Big Chill. (I've never seen it.) Then he cranks the dial and explains his recollections about growing up in the late 1960s and the subsequent comedown from all that energy. A Main Era. It's on par with that "high and beautiful wave" (chapter VIII) from the middle of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both Ventura's essay and Thompson's passage are savage, raw—these are people who held dreams in their hands and later watched them slip through their fingers like sand, and the experience burned a taunting image somewhere in their psyche that was so deep that it never went away. Like an afterimage from staring at the sun.

As it was all coming to an end I wrote a kind of note to myself which I wouldn’t read again until a long time later, a fragment of clarity on a cacophonous night: We know now that out dreams are not going to come true. Are never going to come true. We have learned that our dreams are important not because they come true, but because they take you places you would never have otherwise gone, and teach you what you never knew was there to learn.

Data fictions

Those who gather and interpret such aggregate data understand that there is a certain fictional and arbitrary quality to their categories and that they hide a wealth of problematic variation. Once set, however, these thing categories operate unavoidably as if all similarly classified cases were in fact homogeneous and uniform.

—James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Chapter 2: Cities, People, and Language (notes)

This is one of the aspects of work that I really try to press on younger engineers: metrics are just metrics. Especially in organizations that live and die by earned value management, it's easy to forget: the map is not the territory. Metrics are just metrics. People get hung up on the difference between, e.g., a specification being 82% done and 83% done. It doesn't matter. It's the trend that matters. The specific number is just a heuristic. It has no meaning as a precise measurement like the outside temperature or your tire pressure. It's just a formula that I applied to a database based on a tailoring of a company-wide process instruction with weights that I applied based on experiences (read: bias).

But the real problem is that once you put that heuristic into place—that definition or interpretation of the data that everyone knows at the onset is a useful fiction—it tends to become Law. The old people forget or move on, and the new people never knew. Whether out of fear or custom, one thing is certain: the Law must be upheld. What happens to the person who tries to remind everyone that, hey, wait, that's not a law, that's just a helpful fiction? Enjoy wearing that big scarlet A on your chest, Asshole, it matches your eyes.

Metrics are like your speedometer reading: glance at it when you need to know, but don't stare at it or you'll really be in trouble.

Anyway, Matthew Mcconaughey does it better:

Fugazi, Fugazzi. It's a wazzy, it's a woozy. It's [whistles] fairy dust. It doesn't exist. It's Neverlanded. It is no matter. It's not on the elemental chart. It's not fucking real.

Finished reading: In the Company of Giants

Rama Dev Jager and Rafael Ortiz, In the Company of Giants: Candid Conversations with the Visionaries of the Digital World, 1997.

I found this book while searching the Boeing Library to see if they had a copy of The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur's Vision of the Future by Steve Case, co-founder of AOL. They didn't. But searching on Steve Case brought up this book—OK, good enough. (St. Louis County Library has a copy, though: book, audiobook.)

It's two MBA students from Stanford interviewing people who started computer software and hardware companies, mostly in Silicon Valley. I enjoyed it. Filter out the boilerplate and marketing talk, and you get a look into a creative culture that really doesn't exist anymore. This book was released in 1997, and the interviewees are established people looking back. It has an old school feeling to it—the stories are of less polished beginnings, with less starter money, than seems to be the case today. (Not that I know about it personally—the feeling from 2000 miles away is that there is no shortage of money to go around for ventures.)

There are two funny points that kept coming up in the interviews. (1) Prognostications about what the internet might provide. It's hard to remember the internet in 1997—four years old, still an infant. (2) people who developed things that are fundamental and nearly invisible today because of their ubiquity (Adobe, Intuit), or fundamental and invisible because they defined how things work in their industry and went away (AOL, DEC).

Another book to read in the same vein is Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days, with interviews by Jessica Livingston. I prefer it to Company of Giants, but reading both won't harm anyone.

People interviewed in the book:

  • Steve Jobs (Apple)
  • T.J. Rodgers (Cypress Semiconductor)
  • Gordon Eubanks (Symantec)
  • Steve Case (AOL)
  • Scott Cook (Intuit)
  • Sandy Kurtzig (ASK)
  • John Warnock and Charles Geschke (Adobe)
  • Michael Dell (Dell)
  • Charles Wang (Computer Associates)
  • Bill Gates (Microsoft)
  • Andy Grove (Intel)
  • Trip Hawkins (Electronic Arts)
  • Ed McCracken (Silicon Graphics)
  • Ken Olsen (Digital Electronics Corporation)
  • Bill Hewlett (Hewlett Packard)

A few lines that caught my eye:

[John Warnock, p. 111] The money and all of that stuff is nice, but it’s not why we started Adobe. It just isn’t in the equation. The money is more a measure of how well you’ve run your business and the impact you’ve had on the market.

[Michael Dell, p. 120] If you think I came into this business with a master plan—we knew everything we were going to do in the next 12 years... Wrong. We made lots of mistakes. But we corrected those mistakes reall fast, and we often didn’t make the same mistake twice. Or if we did, it wasn’t fatal.

[Charles Wang, p. 142] If people keep telling me what I want to hear, then I tell them, "If you and I agree all the time, then one of us is redundant—and it ain't me. Now you figure that one out." And they understand.

[Ed McCracken, p. 198] Well, I certainly agree with, whatever you call it--karma or whatever else--there's a lot of that in everything. I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and I really appreciate the farming mentality because you work really hard--and then you let the weather happen. And some years are good and some years are bad. You don't have much responsibility for it. It's what you do, rather than the result, which is important.

[Ken Olsen, p. 224] Success in business is so fragile--human beings are involved, and the market is involved. People who follow somebody else's wisdom without thinking about it will miss these things. Being critical and analyzing issues ahead of time is satisfying. You must have humility if you're trying to figure things out differently from everybody else. But most people don't think at all. They fall in love with phrases. The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong.

Finished reading: Edward T. Hall, The Dance of Life

Edward T. Hall, The Dance Of Life: The Other Dimension Of Time, 1984

I picked up The Dance of Life from the St. Louis Public Library after seeing it on the list of books suggested by Dan Pink at the end of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. I had never heard about the book, or about Edward Hall—so why not give it a go?

There were three concepts that stuck with me:

  1. Monochronic time (things done serially, one at a time) and polychronic time (things done in parallel)
  2. High-context culture (much of the message conveyed implicitly) and low-context culture (little implied beyond the words used)
  3. Synchrony between people (and within people) when they communicate

And, generally, it seems to be mainly about the idea that different cultures live in and consider time in different ways. To explain this he uses his experiences living on a Navajo language when he was younger (added to my to-read list: West of the Thirties: Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi, a memoir of his time there). I guess that's an obvious point—different people are different— but time seems so fundamental, especially after enough years in engineering. But it isn't. We created it. And depending on how one approaches life, and ranks dealing with people or dealing with tasks, time is going to be strict or fuzzy. And knowing the what or why isn't really as important as knowing that there's a difference—something to be aware of when one steps into an invisible mess.

Here are some notes, including bibliography, in Evernote: The Dance of Life. Mostly it's just the bibliography. As with most books I pick up without knowing much about them or their topic before diving in, it takes a great deal of the book before I've sufficiently changed mental gears in order to really get into the thing.

A few other links to works by and about Edward Hall:

Summer 2018 book recommendations from Bill Gates, with St. Louis library links

Bill Gates recently posted a reading list for summer 2018 on LinkedIn: 5 books worth reading this summer. He describes that whys and wherefores in the article, but I'd like to extend that with some links to more information and where you can pick up a copy of the books in St. Louis.

(SLPL is St. Louis Public Library, i.e., city library, SLCL is St. Louis County Library.)

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson:
SLCL (audiobook) - SLPL (audiobook)

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler:

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders:
SLCL (audiobook) - SLPL (audiobook)

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, by David Christian:

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund:

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: