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No more Wednesdays

I don't typically freeze in the face of a blank page or screen—which is, I guess, the privilege of someone doesn't have to write to pay the bills, or even write to anyone but himself. But Wednesdays cut the top off my head and scoop me out like a jack-o-lantern pumpkin, leaving a spongy, useless shell. When it's over I sit down and look at this blank white page and mutter, "so what do you want?"

The page never answers. That's how you know it's in charge.

I take classes on Tuesday and Wednesday evening this spring semester (although, mercifully, only for the first half semester on Wednesday). Ostensibly, I have been packing things into my head in class in the evening, and in the morning when I'm reading the papers and articles for class, and the free time around lunch and dinner when I'm scrambling to finish some assignment. That's the story I want to believe—right up until I sit down, tip my head over, and only a few tufts of lint fall out.

It reminds of something—that moment in an endurance race, maybe two-thirds of the way in. Hours in, hours to go, and the crew inside your head has begun to mutiny. What do you think about during the best races? Nothing—a mind as clean as a blank sheet of paper. What do you think about during the worst races? Everything.

The blank page as the thing we want, and thing we don't want.

Busyness as penance, and busyness as paradise, and busyness as perdition.

Gaze into the abyss and.

Gone to heaven

I've been watching this video of Perseverance landing on repeat since it came out yesterday:

What to feel when watching something like that?

Mostly wonder—face rightupclose to the monitor, nothing but Mars in view, imagining the ride down, imagining the feeling of swaying under the parachute, imagining the wait for the thrusters to kick in, imagining the silence at the end of the ride.

Some curiosity—watching the beautiful mad crazy machine work. What was the design meeting like when the direct shot at Mars + parachute + rocket pack + skycrane concept was pitched? Was there an open bar or what? Each of those systems and subsystems and pieces and subpieces and sequences and interconnections and pyros and cutters and sensors and monitors and so on and so on have one job and they have to do it—or else. They're so light but robust, exquisitely designed and built for that one ride to the surface. I can imagine the pause I would feel as I packaged the rover up for its journey to the launch site at Cape Canaveral—a pause that says without saying, "I hope I thought of everything".

Some insane jealousy—because I'm at the point in my career now where, although I'm not a space cadet anymore, I know several people on programs like this. I would give some of my favorite body parts to slang one of them rovers at Mars, or at another planet or moon or whatever.

It's not really jealousy—it's more subtle than that. It's that inner self-memory that knows the reason for getting into aerospace in the first place, and the feeling of closeness and distance from the once-imagined ideal of what it would be like, what I would be like. I don't think that with real jealousy I could enjoy these landings and rovings as much as I do. Give me a VR headset and some terribly boring panoramas of the deserts of Mars, and leave me alone for a few hours. I just want to sit there for a while and think of nothing, look at the hills, and feel the old urge to go see what's on the other side.

(I've also been listening to a lot of Pixies this week, hence the title, etc. A trip to Mars would be loud (launch) quiet (cruise) loud (landing).)

An unnecessary fight to the end

Bear with me—this is a Duolingo blog this week.

Before properly semi-quitting Duolingo after finishing the Chinese course, I wanted to get the one trophy that was eluding me: Legendary—Finish #1 in the Diamond League.

I know it doesn't matter. I really do. But. It's been bothering me in an annoying, low-key way. I've finished second maybe five or six times, including the last two weeks. I've been ahead on the last day, and then put the phone down—as a good human should—only to come back and discover I got bumped out of the top spot when the weekly tournament ended. It doesn't matter. But.

Not gonna happen this week. This week I'm going to stick it out.

It's just that I happened to find another player in my league this week who is committed to the top spot, and the points are spiraling out of control.

I've had a Duolingo account for eight years, using it solidly for two of them and sparingly for two more, and I've earned 6.5% of my total points—ever—today trying to stay on top. It's madness. It's an unjustifiable use of time. But I... want to stop thinking about it. I just want to win the damned thing and be done with it. So I keep hitting the feeder bar, trying to get a few more pellets—working through some Chinese study, working through some Hindi study. (My Hindi language skills, meager as they were, have come back somewhat during this points blitz, so there's that.)

Only twenty more hours to hold on...

A tangent: sometimes I think that it would be interesting to turn work into a kind of game—points for this, points for that, have a leaderboard, crown winners, etc. I've got my doubts, though. Something that gets your team to work hard and finish things—that's good. But when I think of how my brain works in cases like this, where it locks onto this stupid need to have more points, then I know that gamification could go very wrong. I don't think I have an obsessive personality—see the other eight years of not caring so much about this one thing—but the potential is there, apparently. And I think that you might be able to mess people up with work-like-a-game if they were obsessive about games. Getting good performance from your people is good, but driving them nuts is not.

Nicole Lewis. "Be Careful: Gamification at Work Can Go Very Wrong". Society for Human Resource Management (2019-02-28).

Also worth a look: the references section of the Gamification page on Wikipedia: Gamification#References.

Another thing: how effective is the learning when I'm focused more on earning points? I have to answer questions correctly—identifying Chinese characters or Hindi letters, being able to write what I've heard, being able to translate simple sentences to and from the target language—but, like any game, the idea is to score, not to absorb the most learning. What that might mean anyway.

Work from home killed the radio


I drove so much today that I got to listen to an entire episode of This American Life: #731 What Lies Beneath.

That's a partial truth, I guess—I listened to most of it while parked and waiting for my time to pick up dinner. (Nixta. Yes.) But it was an Exciting Fact that I drove for nearly an hour somewhere, anywhere.

I don't listen to the radio anymore. "The radio" is "podcasts" now anyway. The radio was a Special Treat as I drove 20 minutes to work in the morning, and then 30 minutes back in the evening. The drive—which I don't miss, not for a moment—could be reclaimed somewhat by dripping a bit of information into my brain. Now the radio is gone. It's still there in my phone, entirely forgotten except for the occasional times I'll listen to it while washing dishes.

Basically all of the information I consume now is in text format. Few videos, few audios.


If I was ever going to waste time at work and watch videos or listen to podcasts, now would be the time, no? I could sit there, two computer screens right in front of me at home, and listen to and watch whatever I want, whenever I want. But I don't. I can't explain it. What I do typically: even during work, while wasting a bit of time, I don't sit around and read either, but when I find an article that I'd like to read I throw it in Instapaper for later instead of reading it on the spot.

My focus is a thing shattered into a million pieces these days—"these days", i.e., the last year—but for some reason I can't even waste time effectively.


I thought I was going to bring this post home with some kind of self-understanding, but I'm still confused. On one hand, it doesn't matter much—consuming information or entertainment via one media or the other, so what? On the other hand, the change went the other direction that what I would have expected. Are there any secondary effects? Is that life with less human contact—having words to read and not faces to see or voices to hear—causing some longer term changes?

White blood cells

Trailhead: My Bottom Line: David Jones, Havas, BBC (2021-03-23)

I think if our industry changes then it has the most amazing opportunity, but if it doesn't it will go the same way as the Polaroids and Kodaks. And I think today it's increasingly a disadvantage to have had a bigger legacy business, and I think the speed with which we turn our businesses into fully digital businesses is going to be the key thing that determines whether our industry is successful or has a tough time ahead of it.

I don't really think of things like that. "If we don't change, then we'll be dead". That's foreign to me—because it's sort of built in as an assumption in the model of my brain. There's no strategy to it. There's no thought. It's just there. Of course things have to change. That's the wave that I ride. (That's how I perceive myself—as riding some wave—but the reality is probably a lot more staid.)

I don't care much about the advertising industry that this statement is referring to. We covered it in a case in OB 565 Leading Change today: Havas: Change Faster, Multimedia Case. I care about it as much as it is an interesting window through which to see what it looks like when A CEO tries to head off future disruption of a well-established company by evangelizing change. That part is interesting. And so is seeing how the white blood cells of a well-established company kill the change.

There's nothing mean-spirited about killing change. Rule #1 of an organism is: survive. That which threatens you is trying to kill you. Of course that's not objectively true, but tell that to your amygdala.

I don't know. I'm a white blood cell and a pathogen. I change things because it's natural to me and I resist change because I am a part of an organism.

A line from Fight Club that I always fall back on: "Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart."

Or: "How everything you ever love will reject you or die. Everything you ever create will be thrown away. Everything you're proud of will end up as trash."

I think it comes across as a negative outlook. But there is something... lighter about it. You can see a thing as it is, as it will be, as it was, as you would like it to be. How it will be and how you would like it to be will diverge—always. You might be able to affect a thing in a positive way, but there will be something missing, something chipped, something faded. That's OK. That's what it is to be alive. The burden is lighter when you accept it, and do what you can.

Finished with Duolingo Chinese course

Back in July, I made it to the Diamond League in Duolingo, and it was only semi-ironically that I declared it my major accomplishment for the year. 2020: take your wins where you could get them, I say.

Many days later—308 "consecutive" days, although there are a few streak freeze days in there—I finished the Chinese course:

Please clap.

OK, simmer down.

When I started using Duolingo in 2013, there wasn't even a Chinese course. I mostly did the Spanish course (to better understand the local language in California) with a little bit of Portuguese (since our main customer at Mason was Embraer down in Brazil).

Duolingo works well for me because it is a game—it reaches right into that part of my brain that counts points and acknowledges streaks even though they're meaningless. You don't win anything, but you have many of the ceremonies of advancing in tournaments and winning. Even much of the content itself has limited educational value—but it has some value, so if you keep going, you get something out of it. The language content isn't optimal—whatever "optimal" might mean here, I'm not very concerned about defining—but your knowledge will follow an upward trend.

Duolingo is dessert. You can't (shouldn't) live off it, but it is nice and good and has its place in the world and I'm not going to stop eating it.

I've been thinking of bailing out of the Duolingo Chinese course for ages now, but more than wanting to finish the course for its content, I believed in the value of sticking to something to the end because my self-education history is a scrapyard of partially-finished projects. It's a weakness of mine to have some other plan catch my attention before the finish line, and then run after that; then another one, then run there; then another and run; and so on and so on. (Bokonon: "Round and round and round we spin, / With feet of lead and wings of tin".)

So: I stuck this one out. Now what?

On Duolingo? I don't know. I think it could come in handy to study the language for places where I'm planning to travel, if the language is available. I think the app is good for languages you don't plan to master, but just want to learn a bit about. The other languages aren't my focus, though.

Chinese? See, this one I want to master, so I have to figure out the next path. A simple, discrete goal for this year is to get up to HSK Level 4. A certification like that is a lot of vocabulary and grammar patterns—useful stuff, but in and of itself not very interesting. I don't care about a certification, but it is a landmark off in the distance that I can walk toward. Not not-moving is key.

It would be more interesting to be able to read good literature in Chinese. It would be more interesting to understand what the crosstalk performers are joking about. It would be more interesting to be able to both understand what people are saying to me and say something back to them—not just something but something witty and hilarious. (The people of the Chinese-speaking world deserve this Content and I must not deprive them of it.)

So I'll make a new path. I don't know what it is yet, but I'll head off in some direction, then adapt and adapt and adapt. It's a little bit like hiking. Sometimes it's best to know exactly where you want to go and how to get there. Sometimes it's even better to have a rough idea of where to go, no idea how to get there, and then have an open-ended adventure as you find or don't find a destination. I've found some places in India and Inyo County and Ingersoll Scout Reservation that have stuck in my memories all these years, and I don't know where they are, what they are, or how I got there. It's a matter of taste to decide which type of trip to take when it's time to set out, and then again when you're out there, and then again when you've returned.

What is a task

Innocuous questions about basic things end up causing me so many headaches.

I was trying to map some tasks to each other at work—there are, notionally, definitions of tasks and how they relate to each other, but it's not formally laid out—and I paused for a moment to ask myself: what is a task?

I'm not sure if that's even relevant to what I was doing, which has to be wrong, right? You can plan tasks without having a formal definition. I don't know how I'd get through the day without a heuristic like that. A task is a thing to do, and when it's done, it's done. Anything more complicated than that and the dishes wouldn't get washed, the trash would pile up, and the refrigerator would be empty.

But I want to play with the formal idea a little. I'm taking OMM 500D Project Management at Wash U this year. I know how to use Microsoft Project reasonably well, but that's just a tool to use—I'd like to think about things a little from the bottom up, starting with questions like: what is a task?

Thinking about what a Task class looks like...

  • A Task is a thing to be done:
    • Describe the thing to be done
    • Know when the thing is done or not done
  • A Task starts:
    • It starts at a time
    • Someone starts it
  • A Task ends:
    • It ends at a time
    • Someone ends it
  • There are different uses for a Task:
    • Planning
      • A Task can be planned to start or end at a time
      • A Task can be planned to start when another Task(s) end
    • Doing (above)
    • Reference
      • A Task can be recalled later for information
      • A Task can be shown in a map with other Tasks

I have some doubts that this line of thinking is going to result in some sort of prize or breakthrough. I don't have any big problem to solve—this is just an exercise in building things. What does it take to build a task planner, or task analyzer, or project scenario visualizer, or whatever.? Not a to-do list manager (Microsoft To Do is mighty nice), and not a project scheduler (Microsoft Project is... what we have), but something else that lets me play. I'm also not a proper software developer, and there are some features of Python I've been meaning to learn how to use (e.g., NetworkX for graphing networks), and some methods for modeling systems that I ought to learn to be fluent with our modelers at work. So it's all unnecessary, but for fun.

I started a repo called renwu to play around. (任务/rèn​wu is the Chinese word for task.) We'll see where it goes. Metaproject: developing tasks for a project that develops tasks.
In the meantime—as ever—here are some interesting things that I found that I may (or may not—as ever) follow up on:

An alternative definition of task: something you were late in finishing.

Cranky rewards

Trailhead: Zaria Gorvett. Why it pays to be grumpy and bad-tempered. BBC Future (2016-08-10).

Eh. Honestly I didn't need any more motivation to be ill-tempered. But I do appreciate the opportunity to know that I can be that way and get something out of it. It really takes away some of the anxiety of knowing that I've been a difficult person to deal with.

The truth is, pondering the worst has some clear advantages. Cranks may be superior negotiators, more discerning decision-makers and cut their risk of having a heart attack. Cynics can expect more stable marriages, higher earnings and longer lives – though, of course, they’ll anticipate the opposite.

I don't act difficult by choice. It happens when I settle into Problem Solving Mode. It's not a decision to go there—something catches my attention, a switch is flipped somewhere inside, the world narrows into a focused beam, and I can be an outright jerk while I wrestle with The Problem, whether it's a real or perceived problem. That narrowing causes the problem to be as large as the world—ignoring it isn't an option. Thinking nice thoughts about it isn't something I do—internally I'm really cranking away trying to find an angle, a solution, and I just don't feel the extra space I would need to have a balanced view of the situation. I just... it is Go Time. And although I'm sorry that bystanders sometimes catch an elbow, that's often after the system has cooled down.

In essence, creativity is down to how easily your mind is diverted from one thought path and onto another. In a situation requiring fight or flight, it’s easy to see how turning into a literal “mad genius” could be life-saving. “Anger really prepares the body to mobilise resources – it tells you that the situation you’re in is bad and gives you an energetic boost to get you out of it,” says Baas.

There is a fuzzy line in there—hard-nosed focus to get something done, and just being a good old-fashioned asshole. The only way you really know the line is there is after you take a few steps over it, after you finally catch an empty second to look around the room and read the expressions. Not again. Sorry.

I'm also not sorry. That mode is my superpower. But it's a superpower with poor control. It's complicated. The tools we wield, wield us.

One thing missing from that article: it's written as if the benefits accrue to the crank. But who really works alone? How does having that so-called mad genius on your team work out for everyone involved.

Small nothings passing through vast nothings

In an alternate timeline, I decided to stay in the astronomy department in college and not switch to engineering.

"Astronomers Confirm Solar System’s Most Distant Known Object Is Indeed Farfarout". NOIRLab press release (2021-02-10).

This is more like what I imagined when I was thinking about studying astronomy: staring into a telescope for a very long time, staring into the abyss, trying to make incremental sense of an incredibly large, dark nothing.

It's easier to imagine an alternate me doing that than a real me. There's something romantic about the idea of sifting through data, day after day, year after year, searching for answers to abstract questions of the universe. Romantic about the idea. The idea is a movie montage—a telescope, a man at a computer, a man point at the stars, a press conference with shutter clicks and pointing to the reporters for the next question. Years of waiting and popularly uninteresting results not thrown out so much as never considered for inclusion. A long arc reduced to its key points. A reality, a fiction.

I doubt that professional astronomers really sit there and look into telescopes night after night after night. Anything that needs the kind of resolution that can be handled by the human eye is surely a nineteenth century problem. There are things we would recognize as images, but much of it is raw, raw data. Looking for the light wiggles of a star eclipsed by a planet that can't be directly seen. Impossibly scarce but very hot gases like wreathes around star systems. Ever-so-slightly unexplained perturbations in the orbits of our neighbor planets, indicating that something somewhere is lending its gravity to the party.

Long, slow problems. Small nothings passing through vast nothings. Ambiguous traces of interstellar importance. How many of these small wanderers exist out there? It's not even a real number. Swivel back around to the eyepiece, and keep looking.

Intentional networking

This week in OB 565 Leading Change we've been discussing the role of networks in organizational change. For the most part, we're taking off from two articles:

The general idea is that you can map out who-knows-what and who-knows-who to understand how organizations actually work, not just how they're formally organized. Using ORA and observed company data, we get network graphs like this:

That all makes sense to me. It's all graph math based on relationships between nodes. It's similar enough to how we model how faults propagate through a network in aircraft, from the sensors that detect them to the computers that collect and analyze them to the displays that alert the pilots and the maintenance crews on the ground and so on.

The part that isn't sinking in is the idea that organizational networks can be designed intentionally to produce some desired outcome (or avoid some undesired outcome, like having noncommunicating factions within the organization). It all sounds like nice theory—very nice and neat, the kind of thing a professor can write on a board and then, with a swish of the hand, declare it "obvious".

I'm slow. It isn't yet obvious to me how you can go from (a) computational organization design to (b) a meaningful real world change. I believe it, and I can feel it, but I can't see the connection yet to the real world how-to yet.

The two examples that come to mind that are the nearest to what I am most often concerned with:

  1. How to organize teams at work in such a way that the many components and subsystems and software and test kits and so on can get done in an "optimal" way. (The scarequotes mean: what is optimal? Fastest? Cheapest? Most robust organization that won't fail due to turnover or difficult technologies not getting ready in time?)
  2. What skills should I learn and who should I meet to achieve some goal?

So I'm looking around for a bit more practical information about the how-to. I don't need any papers that explain the graph math of different organization structures. It's not even really about considering the pros and cons of different structures. It's more like: (a) how do you really know what structure you have, and (b) how do you know what structure you should have, and (c) how do you perform small experiments to discover a good path from (a) to (b)? I suspect it's right there in front of me in these articles and papers, but I'm too dense to get it. It's an interesting problem and I'd be surprised if there's a tried-and-true method to do it.