Monthly Archives: March 2019

Listening is hard

Listening is hard.

I was dealing with someone today (read: exchanging reply-all emails), and I was overwhelmed by this rage of "Why won't you just listen?" Later, I did the usual corporate thing (read: banged out another email), except it was after work hours so I decided not to send it.

Not sending led to an unexpected wealth of time to reflect--this time, mainly, to consider my history of listening. Not so good. I tried to think of the best personal examples of times when I listened. The best I could come up with was the second half of undergrad, when I would fiendishly scribble notes, trying to not just catch the things on the slides and the things written on the board, but the additional information and context that was said between all those written words; and following all that I would rewrite the notes on yellow engineering paper. That's good, sure, but taking notes is fairly deterministic--the information flow is one-sided and defined by the lesson on the agenda, and there was really no penalty to missing anything.

Real Life is quite different. Listening well is quite indeterministic. There may be some contextual boundaries, but they're not hard boundaries. And it's not one-sided. You have to hold up your end of the conversation, absorbing what you hear, not spending that time formulating a response but actually absorbing, not posturing as if you're listening but actually listening.

All pretty obvious stuff, really. I wouldn't bother typing it if I was any good at it. I was hoping that considering the steps in listening would help me find the area where I'm getting it wrong. But like a lot of ego-induced incidents, the problem isn't getting the steps wrong, but rather the viewpoint you bring to a situation. If you try to protect your ego, you're going to listen poorly and allocate your attention to surface features, to look like you're listening, to concocting a response. But if you can subsume your ego, you might feel comfortable with the possibility that you're not going to look smart, that you're not going to have any witty answers, and your attention can be focused on the other person instead of yourself. So maybe there is no training for listening better, only practicing the subtle art of not taking yourself so damned seriously.

A week in review, 2019-W11


  1. Eating as an out-of-the-box solution (2019-03-16)
  2. Is there a better way to say process improvement than saying process improvement? (2019-03-15)
  3. A basis for working smarter, not harder (2019-03-14)
  4. Cow and pig: avatars of improvement (2019-03-11)


  1. Robinson Meyer, Houseplants Don’t Actually Clean the Air, The Atlantic (2019-03-09). "It's such an alluring and enticing idea," Elliot Gall, a Portland State University professor, told me. "But the scientific literature shows that indoor houseplants—as would be typically implemented in a person's home—do very little to clean the air." "My view is even harsher than that," Michael Waring, an engineering professor at Drexel University, told me. "I do not think that houseplants clean the air."
  2. Charles Duhigg, Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life Inside Tesla's Production Hell, Wired (2018-12-13). There’s a sense of tragedy in such stories because these men seemed, at one point, to rise above the masses and suggest that genius is possible. Silicon Valley in particular reveres these kind of heroes—and the more willful and ornery they are, the better. Technologists are often called upon to do things that seem impossible, and so they celebrate when doubters are proven wrong—when the dismissal of an idea becomes evidence of its visionary reach. The idea of the odd genius is afforded a special status within technology. People lionize inventors who listen to their intuition and ignore naysayers, who hold themselves and everyone else to a standard of perfection, regardless of what it costs those around them. Steve Jobs is gone; now we have Elon Musk.
  3. Megan Thompson, If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em:' University of Illinois serves invasive Asian carp for dinner, PBS NewsHour (2019-01-29).
  4. Nathan Robinson, Meritocracy is a myth invented by the rich, The Guardian (2019-03-14). In reality, there can never be such a thing as a meritocracy, because there’s never going to be fully equal opportunity. The main function of the concept is to assure elites that they deserve their position in life. It eases the "anxiety of affluence", that nagging feeling that they might be the beneficiaries of the arbitrary "birth lottery" rather than the products of their own individual ingenuity and hard work.
  5. Danny Wicentowski, Brian Stofiel Stumbled Onto the Right Stuff For Orbit: a Plastic Rocket, Riverfront Times (2019-03-07).


  1. Unconditional Love, This American Life (2019-03-08). [35:17] "I don't think he wants to hurt me. I don't worry about that at all." It's a very unsentimental view of her relationship with her child, but that is probably exactly what has made Heidi so successful. That is, Heidi is an unusually pragmatic person. She's not a flowering earth mother with a wealth of love to give. She is fundamentally realistic, tough minded, and these are precisely the characteristics that are needed in this situation. If you're the kind of person who actually needs love—really needs love—chances are, you're not the kind of person who's going to have the wherewithal to create it. Creating love is not for the soft and sentimental among us. Love is a tough business.
  2. Episode 211: Sartre on Racism and Authenticity (Part One), The Partially Examined Life (2019-03-11). (notes) [13:00] So one of the things the anti-Semite is doing is they're grounding themselves in the irrational and the concrete and the intuitive, as over and against the universal and the rational. So the manifestation of that, right, is to say, look, I have a certain heritage, I have these societal values, my family's been in this country for hundreds of years, I simply inherit and possess these things and I don't have to do anything for them. I don't have to be smart, I don't have to achieve a lot, because--this is the strategy, according to Sartre, of the middle class--I just have to possess these cultural values, and in that sense I gain a status and a transcendence of everyday class and social hierarchies by way of that. So, without effort, without having to compare my status to others. So, he calls this a kind of mob equalitarianism or mob egalitarianism or, another way that he puts it that I like, is elite mediocrity, an aristocracy of birth where someone who's not at the top of the hierarchy can enjoy high level status through identification with country.
  3. Continuing Education Directory Earns Six Figures, Side Hustle School (2019-03-09).


天上“龙肉” 地上驴肉【食尚大转盘 20170226】 ("In heaven there is dragon meat, on Earth there is donkey meat.")


McDonald's 油条


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Eating as an out-of-the-box solution

Megan Thompson, 'If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em:' University of Illinois serves invasive Asian carp for dinner, PBS NewsHour (2019-01-26).

I've had this article sitting in my to-read pile for weeks before finally reading it this morning. Have you ever seen Asian carp in action? They're awful. In high school, I went water skiing in the Illinois River near Havana a few times with a friend. No problems then (except for not being so good at water skiing), but I bet it's not even possible now—or if possible, not safe. You'd have to dress in football pads and helmet to survive, and even then you'd get slimed.

Anyway, that's just the aesthetic aspect—the practical aspect is that they ruin the aquatic environment they're in (remove plants, disturb the riverbed) and run off other fish.

So: good on the University of Illinois for serving the fish up on plates. Now, if you've got any Chinese friends, the solution would have been obvious to them from the start—it wouldn't have been a question of should the fish be eaten but when and how it would be cooked. For us, in the Midwest, there are two kinds of fish: frozen fish and catfish. (Fishing friends, don't @ me.) Left to our own devices I don't think we would have come up with the idea of eating the problem as a solution. These are the kind of fish you want to beat with a baseball bat and then bury unceremoniously in a corn field. Given our context, eating the fish is thinking outside the box; how they got the students to buy into eating it, I don't know, maybe they just followed the line of Chinese students into the dining hall.

I think that sounds like I'm getting close to the pejorative there, but I've eaten several things in China—some of them tasty, some of them well-that's-an-interesting-experience—that I never would have considered eating myself. And every one of the places serving that food had a line.

I was going to call this post "Eat the problem", then I found that Chef Philippe Parola was a step ahead: He's taking on the problem from the other end of the Mississippi River.

Is there a better way to say process improvement than saying process improvement?

"Process improvement".


If you've ever had a corporate job you know about process. Sorry, I mean capital-P Process.

Nominally, process is how you—yes, you—as a good worker take something from point A to B to C to ... to the End. Maybe it's metal fabrication. Maybe it's paperwork fabrication. Either way the idea is to transform things from their original state to a final state.

Just typing that word makes my blood pressure spike... process.

You see, in the best scenario, process—a set of written rules that you follow to get from start to finish—helps you Get The Job Done Quickly And Correctly. But in the worst case, process does the opposite: it's out of date, it's wrong, it's confining, it's stifling, it's not the best way but it takes seven weeks and four review boards to change so whatever it's good enough, it's the way we say we do things when our boss asks but in reality we each have our own list of steps that actually gets the job done. And so on.

Beating around the bush here—sorry. Process improvement. I don't mind doing it. I wish it was called something else more interesting, but it's not. I really spend time at work thinking, "how can I do this boring task way faster?" Or, "how can I write some software so that I can just push a button and do my work for me?" Or, "why does this work standard say I have to do these 17 steps when we only really use the output of 7 of them?"

But there's a limit to the amount of things you can improve by yourself. To really knock things over, you need to organize a team[1]. That's the leap I'm trying to make at work. Yesterday day I wrote some words about working smarter not harder. Creating a team, and getting them to Move, is perhaps the archetypical way to work smarter. I've never had much trouble doing that outside of work. Organizing a professional society or alumni club or whatever, it's always been second nature to recruit people, give them a vision, get them to work together, and then light out after some goal.

Then this year I thought: why not just do it at work the same way I do it out of work? And that's what I've been doing. This week I ran our first Performance Improvement Group (PIG) on our team, just to do simple things like find opportunities to automate work that we all hate but have to do, and share ways to do our everyday work faster. It's not all that inspiring—it's no moon shot—but it saves time and money, and for anyone that wants to get into it there's a chance to learn some coding. And it's had a secondary effect where more people just drop by my desk and ask if I can help them with things. Now, it's definitely not that I know more things. What's happening, I think, is that now there's an environment where people can question the most basic things that they're doing, that now they can listen to that internal voice that thinks that there's got to be a better way. And then what happens is that two people will come to me with the same problem, then you can do a little work and hit two targets with one shot.

All of that is within the team—maybe two dozen people at most. The next iteration of this is going to be inter-team, connecting systems engineers from different teams to share what they're doing and ruthlessly steal from each other. Connecting different teams will definitely be a forgiveness-not-permission kind of affair (for good or ill, managers know how to guard their territory), but there's so much more opportunity to wipe out duplication where it's not needed and bring the best ideas to the top and leave room to experiment where you can, etc.

So, inasmuch as process improvement is about getting more things done better and being open to the idea that the world is always changing and improvement implies changing to keep up, I'm in. If process improvement is about ossification at the best state at a given time, and then intentionally fighting against the inevitable change in the world, I'm out.

[1] Ed Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang: "One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothing can beat teamwork."

A basis for working smarter, not harder

"Work smarter not harder" is lame, obvious advice that you should always keep to yourself. Obviously this is what should be done, right? Saying it out loud doesn't serve any purpose other than to mark yourself as the kind of person that nobody wants to hang out with.

Again, though, it's good advice. Folksy knowledge. Common sense.

Here's a paper I found recently that explains why:

Repenning, Nelson P., and John D. Sterman. "Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems That Never Happened: Creating and Sustaining Process Improvement." California Management Review, vol. 43, no. 4, July 2001, pp. 64–88, doi:10.2307/41166101. (pdf) (notes)

Common sense is easy to dismiss when it seems folksy—the sort of thing that doesn't necessarily apply to a Man of Sophistication. So what I like about the paper is that it takes a system dynamics approach to explaining why working smarter eats working harder's lunch. System dynamics (Wikipedia) is essentially a way to understand how feedback loops affect the behavior of a system, which produces weird (non-linear) results.

The short-short version is: working harder is like trying to cut more wood with an ax by spending more time chopping without investing enough time in sharpening the ax. It's like eating the seed corn or spending the principal. In the short term, you might get ahead of the problem, but at the cost of reducing your capability to solve the problem so that eventually you fall behind. And then what? Keep chopping or start sharpening? The former will lead you into the capability trap where you get too far behind to ever recover; the latter will cause short term slowdown when you take away time from catching up, but long term improvements because you can move faster.

Reading this paper will give you some substance to push back on the natural drive to solve a capacity problem by simply spending more time on it.

...Now that I think about it, working smarter might seem like common sense intellectually, but viscerally working harder feels like common sense in the moment—some sort of an I Am The Master Of My Destiny feeling as you wrestle with something that didn't necessarily need to be wrestled with. That's covered in the paper also: the fundamental attribution error, where a manager assumes that the problem is a lazy or incapable staff that just needs the right amount of beating to get motivated to solve the problem. It's not an easy feeling to resist, but if you remember there are benefits to sharpening the ax, you might make the right long term choice to do so.

Cow and pig: avatars of improvement

Some people use fast, ferocious, inspiring, fearsome animals as the mascots for their projects—hawks, eagles, lions, tigers. Livestock is my spirit animal.

Today I put together a weekly get-together on Friday at lunch to share some better ways of getting things done, and to focus on some vexing problems that could be automated to save ourselves some time. Nothing fancy. It's just that people often stop by my desk for some help with DOORS (requirements database) or with displaying some text stuff that shouldn't have been put in Excel (but for the fact that it's better there than wherever else it would end up, probably PowerPoint). Or maybe I just look at documents and spreadsheets and so on with that nagging feeling of "there's got to be a better way"—constantly. I enjoy doing that work—improving things—but (1) I'm not that good at it, I'm just persistent; and (2) I don't want that to be my job, I just do it so that I can work with or display the actual content better.

Anyway, I called the group the Performance Improvement Group. The PIG. It is, after all, the year of the pig in the Chinese zodiac calendar.

And that reminded me of how, five years earlier, I enrolled another bit of livestock to help me record some beefs we had with the program we were on and to collect some lessons learned:

May is, after all, Beef Month in Iowa.

A week in review, 2019-W09




  1. Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick, The Tragic Tale Of How NASA's X-34 Space Planes Ended Up Rotting In Someone's Backyard, The Drive (2019-02-19). The X-34B, along with the entire X-34 flight test program, never came to pass. Orbital Sciences never finished the X-34A-3, either.
  2. Jeremy Littau, Media's Fatal Flaw: Ignoring the Mistakes of Newspapers, Wired (2019-01-30). The accidental brilliance of the newspaper business model is it commoditized all those information needs to an audience that, pre-internet, had no other choice. You want a weather report? The newspaper had it. Looking for a job? The newspaper had it. Newspapers owned their readership, which had many needs but few choices. Advertisers showed up in droves to capitalize on this holy grail—a captive audience that could be reliably delivered in a defined space. The internet changed everything. The weather became a website, then an app. TV guides went online and became interactive and customizable. Classifieds became searchable and interconnected across regions, then states, and eventually the nation.
  3. Ivan Maisel, The South Stands at Armageddon': Breaking the Sugar Bowl color barrier, ESPN (2019-02-26). The officials understood that they would be inviting a black player to be a subject of Sugar Bowl hospitality. Grier would dress in the locker room. Grier would shower in the showers. He would play on the Tulane Stadium field, and after the game, he would be invited to the dinner and dance held for the two teams at the Saint Charles Hotel. [...] "If he shows up, I won't block his way," manager Mike O'Leary said of Grier. "But you know he would never come. Traditionally, the St. Charles Hotel does not allow Negroes at dinners or dances."
  4. The adventurous life of first solo kayaker on the Yellow River, CGTN (2019-03-02). "The most dangerous part is where the Yellow River flows from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the Loess Plateau. The altitude abruptly drops from over 3,000 meters to only 1,000 meters. With such an altitude difference, the rapids are thundering." At the moment, he received an anonymous call from someone who had participated in the first Yellow River rafting 30 years ago, warning him to skip the dangerous section because "theoretically, no one could survive that."
  5. Kevin Levin, W.E.B. DuBois on Confederate Monuments, Civil War Memory (2017-05-29). DuBois pushes right back against the myth of the Lost Cause. He refuses to draw a distinction between the Confederate government and the men in the ranks. DuBois clearly understood that as long as white southerners were able to mythologize the war through their monuments, African Americans would remain second class citizens. Confederate monuments did not just occupy the Jim Crow landscape. For Dubois, they helped to make it possible.


  1. Episode #200: Escaping Excel Hell with Python and Pandas, Talk Python to Me (2019-02-21). (notes) [45:33] One of the things I've wanted to do but I haven't really done a whole lot of is, what kind of user groups can you set up in your company so that you have some of these peer resources to help them work through the process. Your podcast about the Apple Python training was really, really interesting and certainly a much larger scale than what I'm talking about, but I think that that would be another option is to try and get four, five, a dozen people, likeminded individuals, together and over the lunch hour start to introduce these concepts and build a community where they can learn and share their learning.
  2. 148 - Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, You Are Not So Smart (2019-02-25). (notes) [63:58] I think what is really important to understand is that these rise in populist leaders and mesmerizing personalities is not really that unique. There's nothing unique about this time period, about this particular cultural moment. What we can see in our data is that when people feel threatened, whether it's real or imagined, just like they do in the country level when they're facing diseases or disasters, they want stronger rules and they want more autocratic, independent leaders to help lead the way. It's something that's kind of deeply evolutionary, as I mentioned, and we can see that when you increase threat you tighten norms.
  3. Graham Duncan — Talent Is The Best Asset Class (#362), The Tim Ferriss Show (2019-02-28). (notes) [44:41] What I feel like a really good coach can do is by listening to the way I'm making sense of something can observe, oh, you're actually assuming x, your grip--I think of it as grip--your grip on certain things is really tight. And if a coach can find what you're gripping really tightly, and that you're actually not--you can't articulate the opposite of this belief you have, that might be a sign that you have identity or ego caught up in that thing.


Queen - Live AID 1985 Full Concert



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