Monthly Archives: April 2019

A week in review, 2019-W14

Wrote

  1. The Steph Curry of dumb questions (2019-04-02)
  2. Interesting accidents (2019-04-03)
  3. Magic backlog board (2019-04-04)
  4. Rabbit hole: the Jawb market (2019-04-05)

Read

  1. Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, Opinion: The Joy of Standards, The New York Times (2019-02-16). Standards have always struggled with an image problem. Critics worry that a standardized world is dull and mediocre, a nightmare of conformity and Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Yet the champions of standardization insist that standards create the foundations for a better world. Albert Whitney, who was the standards committee's chairman from 1922 to 1924, argued that many accomplishments of civilization involved "the fixation of advances." The committee's motto in the 1920s declared: "Standardization is dynamic, not static; it means not to stand still, but to move forward together.""
  2. Jia Tolentino, Stepping Into the Uncanny, Unsettling World of Shen Yun, The New Yorker (2019-03-19). Part of the seeming strangeness of Shen Yun could be attributed to a latent Orientalism on the part of Western viewers—including those of us who are of Asian descent. But the real root of Shen Yun's meme-friendly eeriness is that the ads brightly and aggressively broadcast nothing at all; this is why it's so easy to imagine them popping up in Ebbing, Missouri, or in the extended Blade Runner universe, or on Mars. The ads have to be both ubiquitous and devoid of content so that they can convince more than a million people to pay good money to watch what is, essentially, religious-political propaganda—or, more generously, an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa's spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime.
  3. Shane Parrish, The Distrust of Intellectual Authority, Farnam Street (2019-02-18). Don't get me wrong. Reasoned skepticism and disagreement are essential to progress and democracy. The problem is that most of what's happening isn't reasoned skepticism. It's the adult equivalent of a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. Sometimes experts are wrong and the common citizen is right, but those occasions are few and far between. What's growing is our inability to distinguish between experts being wrong occasionally and experts being wrong consistently. Participants in public debate search for loopholes and exceptions—anything that provides an excuse to disregard opinions they don't like. This sets up binaries and polarities, demanding that things be either true or false. This eliminates nuance. The reality is that most expert opinions are true at least in part, and the real value in disagreement is not dismissing the thing entirely, but taking the time to argue the weak points to make the overall better.
  4. Harsimran Gill, Mary Beard interview: 'Being a popular writer helps you say the unpopular', Scroll.in (2019-02-17). You certainly see it in Britain, in Brexit. Quite a lot of my friends voted for Brexit. I would never have done that, to me it is almost inconceivable but people were just as surprised that I have friends who voted for Brexit. And that's even sadder, I think. I do think the keyboard age – and I am both a beneficiary and a user of it – makes it easy to sit in your comfortable sitting room and have very strong views about the world, without ever having to think about difficulty and ambivalence. It's easy to be morally virtuous in your own sitting room.
  5. Nancy Armour, Opinion: Auburn's Bruce Pearl symbolizes the rot in college athletics, USA Today (2019-03-29). The power brokers in college athletics – athletic directors, school presidents, powerful alums – love to claim the moral high ground. In their minds, they are molding the lives and characters of young men and women. The billions that come with it are simply a lucky happenstance. No doubt Pearl has touched lives and helped many young men along the way. But at what cost? Bottom line, he has survived scandal because he wins. There's something to be said for that but, as we're reminded constantly by guys like him, the game is supposed to be about more than just winning and losing. Unless that's all a fraud, too.

Listened

  1. The Right Way to Get Your First 1,000 Customers, HBR IdeaCast (2019-04-02). So, this comes back to this – do things that don't necessarily scale. Scale is a problem of when you're growing fast. If you're small and you don't get to that phase, there's no point in trying to do things at scale if you're going to die beforehand.
  2. #760: Tax Hero, Planet Money (2019-04-04).
  3. Bliss, Radiolab (2019-03-21).

Upcoming


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at notes.kirkkittell.com

Rabbit hole: the Jawb market

Previous: Rabbit hole: subway mysteries of New York


It's so easy to get caught in the current on Wikipedia. Find the thing you're looking for then... link... link... link... link... and then you're miles downstream of where you intended to be. Sometimes the results are interesting.

It all started with a friend at a Jawbreaker concert in Boston... which is a blast from the 20th century.

"One two three four / Who's punk? What's the score?"

And then we had a quick chat about the jawb market, since 90s contemporary Jawbox is back and on tour.

I listened to more Jawbreaker than Jawbox in college—which is academic anyway since both bands had already broken up. But bits of Jawbox turned into Burning Airlines, who I also liked during college.

I didn't think much then or now about where Burning Airlines got their name, but Wikipedia quite helpfully explained that they got it from a Brian Eno song, "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More", from his 1974 album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

And here is the delta where this current left me: during the development of Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt developed a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies to help them through the creative process—ideas and prompts and dilemmas that would help them think of things from a different point of view.

Here's a website (in 90s style—hello there, beautiful) from Gregory Taylor that explains the cards: A Primer on Oblique Strategizing (1997).

I think this sort of thing—random but thoughtful prompts—is great for getting a pushstart on work of various kinds. Stuck on writing a post? Draw a card. Stuck on a piece of code? Draw a card. Stuck on some work? Draw a card. The card need not have the answer, or even be a relevant question—it really just needs to nudge your internal trajectory so that you get to a thought you wouldn't have got to otherwise—which is kind of how this whole link-following episode turned out for me this time.

And a few other links to send you off:

And finally, from minimaldesign.net, a version of Oblique Strategies on your browser.

Try faking it.

Magic backlog board

My posts here tend to oscillate between the obvious and the esoteric. This one is going to bury the needle on the obvious side.

I have a good system for organizing information for projects at home and at work. In short: every project and initiative gets a page or notebook in Evernote (home) or OneNote (work); lots of linking in and out of projects and journals; individual pages for weeks, months, and years; etc. I've done this since 2012, evolving it into what I thought was a great system over the years, but this week I changed something and discovered it was only a good system.

Good not great. The parts of the system that deal with structure and organizing information are really good; the planning ahead in weekly/monthly/ yearly chunks is OK; the relationship between how much I accomplish to how much I planned to accomplish really isn't good at all. Execution... isn't this the part of the planning that matters?

Last week at work I took part in a two-day agile software development training course. I'm not a software developer myself, but I'm part of a development team, and we're using agile to do the development. So I'm trying to learn the rudiments so I don't get left too far behind.

The thing that struck me the most at the training course was how the backlog of work was treated. I also keep a backlog of tasks, but (1) it's scattered and not ranked; and more importantly, (2) I don't treat the next thing I take off the stack like something I need to finish before moving on to the next thing and the next thing. This second thing is so key.

A normal day for me would be queuing about seven or eight things to work on, and giving them each a half-hour or an hour of time on that day. That approach never worked, but there was always an internal pressure to organize the work like that anyway. I'm not sure why. Mostly I think it was the misguided idea that all things could get done if you just pushed them all forward every day. Maybe there were some other subconscious blocks, like I could make an excuse for not finishing any one thing on the sheer magnitude of initiatives I was trying to carry at one time.

So, taking a cue from the agile training, this week at work I took the list of tasks I keep in OneNote and put the top non-recurring tasks (the recurring ones still have to be done on a rhythm, backlog be damned) in a ranked backlog on my white board, with the one I'm working on now at the top, sort of like this (but with real tasks, etc.):

/now:
Review the development plan

/backlog:
Finish the user admin section of the spec
Draw change process figures
Draft the lower-level spec
World peace

And so on. You might recognize where the /now came from, no?

First of all, creating a ranked backlog and not moving on until the task at the top was finished was an immediate boost in focus, efficiency, etc. Things got done faster. Second, it feels good to erase the thing being done now and moving something from the backlog up. Third, putting the list on the board, instead of hidden on the computer where only I could see it, and only if I wanted to see it, added some extra motivation or direction to get the work done. Finally, putting the list on the board gave me the confidence to tell people (a) that I was working on something at the moment, where should I put their Immediate Request in the ranked list? and (b) when I finished doing some work for them I was moving on to the next thing (points at thing). There's a really fine line between being direct and being an asshole; let's just say I spend a lot of time on both sides. But I think that if I've done a good job in ranking the list, and in working with the various stakeholders associated with each of them, and in getting some cover fire from my manager by explaining what the plan is, then it's clearly the right way to handle the work.

My meta-plan now is to make the whiteboard backlog a Thing We Do on the team. Most people have to walk by my cubicle to get to their cubicle/office, so I think that if I stick to it, I can make it spread.

There is one thing I haven't figured out, though: there is clearly a threshold beyond which efficiency dies out. So there's some balance to work out there.

(I don't think anything in this post is original or new for The World. Intellectually, it's not even original or new idea for me. But I've never been able to muster the self-control to organize myself like this until recently, so viscerally, for me, this is a Whole New World.)

Interesting accidents

I was going to add this one to the post yesterday, but couldn't quite get it to fit. So I'll let it stand on its own.

In a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss Show—Neil Gaiman — The Interview I’ve Waited 20 Years To Do (#366) (2019-03-28)—there was a sequence near the end from Neil Gaiman (whose books I've never read yet, but never mind that) that I liked:

[1:32:52] The biggest thing, looking back on it, that I learned from Terry was a willingness to go forward without knowing what happens. You might know what happens next, but you don’t know what happens after that, but it's okay because you're a grownup and you will figure it out. There's lots of metaphors for writing a novel and George R.R. Martin, for example, divides writers into architects and gardeners. I can be an architect if I have to, but I'd rather be a gardener. I would rather plant the seeds, water them, and figure out what I'm growing as they grow and then prune it and trim it and pleach it, whatever I need to do to make something beautiful that appears intentional, but at the end of the day you have to allow for accidents and randomness and just, "What happens when things grow?"

I'm not sure which of those categories I tend to fall into most often. On one hand, I do a lot of planning, trying to sort out details before getting started. But I also sometimes just start in order to see what happens. And other times I do the planning, but throw out the plan when getting started, using the methods practiced while planning more than the specific details that were planned, and then enjoying the interesting accidents that occur.

Sometimes it just depends on the stakes, and who is relying on the outcomes. If it's something important and there's time to plan: plan. If other people are working with me or counting on me to get something done and there's time to plan: plan.

But in the main, I think I tend to get started without knowing all the details and tweaking the trajectory as I go along. I enjoy watching the pieces emerge and fall into place. I feel calmer trying to figure out the action as I go—perhaps because there is no worrying about whether or not things are going to plan, or because it's just more interesting to see what happens.

Reminds me of one more thing—perhaps due to thinking of that last hesitation before leaning into something uncertain:

The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself—the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponent—all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.

—George Plimpton, Paper Lion (1966)

The Steph Curry of dumb questions

Actual line from an email that I sent today:

I am the Steph Curry of dumb questions.

I don't know where the words, and the phrases, and the sentences, and so on, that form in my head come from. Sometimes I'm even listening to the words that come out of my mouth just to hear what happens next. For the most part, I think, it's not just a bunch of gobbledygook. (Sometimes it is.) But I am willing to experiment with the ideas I'm thinking of, to experiment with the words I use to describe them, to find some kind of oblique way to get the point across. I don't have all that much patience for the prosaic—for good or ill. I search and I search and I search for the words to make an impact when I describe something. (For good or ill.)

I found a trapdoor into the past this evening, and I've been falling and falling and falling through it ever since. There was a reason for it: I was tying together an article I read about farming on Mars (I intended this post to be about that, but it didn't make the cut) with our senior design project at Illinois back in 2002-2003. Because I keep everything, I found on a backup drive the folder that had not just our report (which was all I expected to find) but all of the data and references and animation files and meeting minutes and so on from that project. And I also found some things from when I ran the Peoria-area Order of the Arrow chapter back in the 20th century in a nearby folder—something I was actually looking for another time, but found accidentally now.

This post has gone sideways from the very start, but here's a reason I mentioned the last two things: sometimes I wonder how I end up as the lead on various projects that I participate in, both professionally and not. I still don't know why. But I've been doing it now for decades. And finding some of the original materials is very weird because some of the things that I think I've just come up with today while leading a group of professionals turns out to be a variation on something I did a long time ago. "There is no new thing under the sun"—barely any new thing inside my head.

I remember Mike Riopell saying to me, circa 2000, as I emerged unplanned from the woods at the post-camp Staff Burn at Ingersoll Scout Reservation: "You're so flamboyantly inappropriate." Maybe it's true.

I am the Steph Curry of dumb questions.

Being flamboyantly inappropriate has its use.

I was in a meeting on Tuesday, and the Tech Fellow—company-designated genius, seriously, no joke—leading the meeting is saying something something something CPS something something. Panic. I must be the only person dumb enough not to know what CPS means. So, in whispers, I ask other people around the table what it means. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. One person has the courage to say: maybe you should ask. I ask. The Tech Fellow explains. Everyone around the table goes, "Ah", and more than a handful write it down. How is that? Why? How can a group of intelligent adults just be satisfied to let meaning rush past them without bothering to ask?

I am the Steph Curry of dumb questions. Anywhere on the short side of the halfcourt line is my territory. If I can push it just far enough to get a reasonable question off—and if I've done the work in the years and years and years leading up to the opportunity—I'm going to shoot it. Perhaps other people want to wait for a higher percentage shot—a layup, a jumper from the elbow, something that won't expose them. Not me. For reasons I don't understand I was given a headful of questions and permission to shoot. Which is partially true. The full truth is that I stew in that uncomfortable feeling—to ask or not to ask—before going forth. My superpower is being able to hoist two shoulderfuls of shame and keep moving forward.


Postscript: Ecclesiastes, chapter 1 (King James translation):

[3] What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
[4] One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
[5] The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
[6] The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
[7] All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
[8] All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
[9] The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
[10] Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
[11] There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.