Monthly Archives: May 2019

A week in review, 2019-W20




  1. David Dobbs, The Science of Success, The Atlantic (2009-12-01). The coup also showed something more straightforward: that a genetic trait tremendously maladaptive in one situation can prove highly adaptive in another. We needn’t look far to see this in human behavior. To survive and evolve, every society needs some individuals who are more aggressive, restless, stubborn, submissive, social, hyperactive, flexible, solitary, anxious, introspective, vigilant—and even more morose, irritable, or outright violent—than the norm.
  2. Jill Lepore, What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong, The New Yorker (2014-06-16). Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.
  3. Nancy Duarte, How to Get Others to Adopt Your Recommendation, MIT Sloan Management Review (2018-12-12).
  4. Dean Keith Simonton, Looking back: Creative genius in classical music, The Psychologist (2009-12-01).
  5. Eric Lindquist, Wisconsin bar owner uncovers huge, 134-year-old circus poster: 'It should never have survived', Chicago Tribune (2019-05-18).


  1. Kai Fu Lee: "AI isn't biased, humans are", Danny in the Valley (2019-05-17).
  2. Episode 214: More Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Part Two), The Partially Examined Life (2019-05-06).


Bill Morrison, Outerborough (2005)




There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at

A week in review, 2019-W19


  1. Shield (2019-05-07).
  2. Don't even think about it (2019-05-08).
  3. Now reading: Loonshots (2019-05-10).


  1. Ted Mills, Tangled Up in Blue: Deciphering a Bob Dylan Masterpiece, Open Culture (2019-05-09).
  2. Deepti Asthana, In a remote Rajasthan national park, two women forest guards forge a friendship, Firstpost (2019-02-22).
  3. Sandy Rovner, Rats! The Real Secret of NIMH, The Washington Post (1982-07-21).
  4. Daniel Miller, Walt Disney Co. archivist Dave Smith, an 'unsung hero' who cataloged company secrets, dies at 78, The Los Angeles Times (2019-02-15).
  5. Michael Chabon, Ricky Jay, the Magician with an Edge, The Paris Review (2019-02-12).


  1. 680: How China Is Upending Western Marketing Practices, HBR IdeaCast (2019-04-30).
  2. Apeiron’s Christian Angermayer: "Magic mushrooms' long, strange trip", Danny in the Valley (2019-05-03).
  3. Episode 214: More Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Part One), The Partially Examined Life (2019-04-29).





There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at

Now reading: Loonshots

Safi Bahcall, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries (2019). (Goodreads/review - notes)

I heard about this one in an episode of HBR IdeaCast in March 2019: #674 A Theoretical Physicist (and Entrepreneur) on Why Companies Stop Innovating.

Why did I pick it up? I've worked in big companies and small companies. They each have maddening characteristics, although they're not quite the same maddening characteristics, for the most part. I thought Safi Bahcall's explanation in the podcast of how there are structural characteristics of organizations that could be manipulated—versus the normally soft and not-often-well-explained cultural characteristics from business books—to develop new products and new ideas, especially in larger organizations that have developed in such a way that they tend to favor sure things and avoid new things.


If you were to ask me who my favorite manager was, I'd say JA, my systems engineering manager on KEI at Orbital Sciences Corporation. She was my first manager, so it's difficult to say whether her ranking is due to her being my first manager (what do you compare it to?) or some sort of objective manager-ranking metrics (I don't know what these would be, but hopefully something near-sadistic like performance management reviews).

Anyway, I don't care why. I don't even remember the details. And the details I remember are through the eyes of an idiot.

The one thing I remember—or at least still feel—is the way she shielded the team from external bullshit. (Technical term.) I remember that. The project was receiving some non-negligible amount of chaos from the external environment, but I have this lasting feeling of how she absorbed much of that trouble, leaving the people on the team free to do the work.

More than a decade later: I would do a Bruce Willis barefoot walk over broken glass for that kind of leadership. It's hard. It's rare. It's valuable.


At least, why is it valuable? You hire people to do work—to develop software, to design gearboxes, to machine housings, etc.—not to debate, impotently, about some thing that they can't control coming down from some level that they can't affect. Boss's boss's boss wants some extra hot sauce on their status report? Or the resident subject matter expert wants three spaces after every period and a genuflection after every pronouncement? The people doing the work shouldn't be subjected to that kind of useless direction. Pass on the things that need to be passed on, but absorb the rest. It's a difficult thing to do to stand between the people who have the power and the people that are going to get rained unnecessarily on by that power.

If you want your people to get the work done you have to shield them from the environment when possible. Take the hit from the outside yourself, but do what it takes to let the people doing the work do the work.

A week in review, 2019-W18


  1. Now reading: Wisdom at Work (2019-05-03). The reason for picking up this book is mostly tactical. I want to convince a certain target audience to pick up the mantle as an elder—an experienced person with something to give rather than something to prove.
  2. Finite (2019-05-01). What if the things I'm doing now—today—aren't as bad as I think? And so what if the things we played were bad? Like when we played the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" at The Embassy, but the pace got out of control? So what? No humans were harmed in the making of these memories.
  3. Rabbit hole: managing older employees (2019-04-30).


  1. Andrew Chaikin, Who Took the Legendary Earthrise Photo From Apollo 8?, Smithsonian Magazine (2018-01-01). When I got to the tape of the Earthrise, I had absolutely no trouble recognizing the voices. I could clearly hear that it was Anders who first saw the Earth coming up, not Borman. It was Borman who said, "Don't take that, it's not scheduled," and I realized he was teasing Anders about his strict adherence to the photo plan (because, as the tapes also revealed, when Borman wanted to take a "tourist photo" of a crater hours earlier, Anders told him not to). I listened as Anders urgently asked Lovell for a roll of color film. Then Lovell was at his own window and the two men argued about who had the better view. Lovell demanded Anders hand over the camera; Anders told Lovell to calm down. Finally, Anders snapped two color pictures. Hearing this historic moment unfold I felt like a stowaway aboard Apollo 8.
  2. Charles Bramesco, Is Apocalypse Now: Final Cut the best version we'll ever see?, The Guardian (2019-04-29). Last night, whatever opposition this film once faced was a distant memory, as Coppola dispensed wisdom from the right side of posterity. "If you want to make art," he said, "you have to be comfortable with risk, and taking a chance that you know best." Soderbergh put it even more succinctly: "I don't know what to say, other than that you gambled and you won." Coppola beamed at the instant round of applause, surrounded by irrefutable evidence that he had made the right decisions, even if they seemed crazy at the time. They say textbooks are written by the victors, and because he just so happened to be a genius with talent too great to be denied, Coppola now gets the privilege of setting his own legacy.
  3. Bryan Wawzenek, Monty Got a Raw Deal' Takes R.E.M. Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Diffuser (2017-10-12). "How much of the song is real, how much of it is about Montgomery Clift and how much is about home?" Buck asked in 1992. "I couldn't tell you."
  4. Bridey Heing, Midwesterners Have Seen Themselves As Being in the Center of Everything.'', Longreads (2019-04-23). One thing that really blew me away was that some migrant farm workers who were coming from Mexico to the rural Midwest had ancestors from the rural Midwest who were forced out in the early 20th century. So in that sense, people who are sometimes denounced in political discourse as alien others who should be walled out of the United States are actually struggling for a right of return.
  5. J. Kenji López-Alt, The Best Fried Cauliflower (Buffalo and Korean Style), Serious Eats (2013-02-22).


  1. Emma Cline Reads Miranda July, The New Yorker: Fiction (2019-05-01).
  2. Episode 213: Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Part Two), The Partially Examined Life (2019-04-22).
  3. Supple, Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin (2019-05-01).


Passengers (2018)


Missouri Botanical Garden


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at

Now reading: Wisdom at Work

Chip Conley, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder (2018). (Goodreads/review - notes)

I first heard of this book when Chip Conley gave a talk at one of the Long Now's Seminars on Long Term Thinking in March 02019: The Modern Elder and the Intergenerational Workplace. I didn't consider reading the book after listening to him then. The talk was interesting, but I didn't give the book any thought at all.

Then earlier this week, while compiling a list of things to read on the topic of managing older employees, the book popped up again. This time I had a reason to get it, so I picked it up immediately on Kindle (a rarity for me—I tend to get things at the library or used).


The reason for picking up this book is mostly tactical. I want to convince a certain target audience to pick up the mantle as an elder—an experienced person with something to give rather than something to prove. Growing up in aerospace from the mid-2000s on, there always seemed to be some sort of catastrophic warning about the coming workforce turnover, like the punchclock at the factory was going to strike midnight and all the boomers were going to turn into pumpkins. It seemed like an opportunity, honestly. How many times we were told that the average age of engineers on the Apollo program were some obscenely low age, something in their 20s. (Parenthetically: those opportunities exist and existed in this era if you know where to look for them; suffice it to say that it's a fool's errand to look for them in established places.) More than a decade later, the feeling is some uncomfortable amalgam of "please don't go I have more questions" and "why don't you leave already?" The former feeling derives from knowing that they know why things actually work the way they do; the latter feeling is a visceral frustration at the clot of upper-level staff forever occupying the upper-level positions.

So it makes sense, I think, to try to understand how things feel from the other side. And it also makes sense to plan for how to engage that experience and wisdom without casually tossing it out.


Randomly—unexpectedly, that is, not everything you're not expecting to see is random, necessarily—some Finite Element came up in my music app.

Bring on the memories.

Finite Element was a band I played in when I was in college. Don't know what "finite element" is? Don't worry about it. Either you took that class sophomore year if you were an engineering student, or you didn't.

A long time ago—2008, we were just children then—I posted Finite Element's live show in 2003 on WEFT Sessions at 90.1 WEFT in Champaign. It contains, in song #7 "You Could Be Mine", my greatest bass riff, a... I'm not sure what it's called. I know in music there is a thing called a triplet, where there are three evenly space notes in two beats, but what I played was five evenly space notes in two beats. It's so subtle, so useless, and I'm so proud of it—it really tied the room together.

Never mind, never mind... the songs that came up weren't even from that radio gig. The songs that came up were from some demos we recorded in Sunil's apartment in 2003. Green Mars—Marte verde—Green Tuesday Records. I think I'll find all that I can, including set lists that I've saved in a folder (why?), for completeness, archive them here. I listened to the songs—more than once. The feeling that remains from that: I wasn't nearly as bad as I thought I was at the time I was playing the music. It's not great, but it's not bad. But I remember it being bad—viscerally remember it being bad. I still remember all the wrong notes. It's so weird. All the wrong notes... here they come... blarghmm... wrong notes.... I remember them all, like cuts directly to the psyche. But when faced with the same music unexpectedly, without being prepared to judge it, the right, or at least interesting, notes far, far outnumber the wrong notes.

How fallible, exactly, is memory? How much does the mind fixate on the wrong things versus the other things that weren't so wrong?

Let's steal some Kurt Vonnegut, from A Man Without a Country:

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Those songs on WEFT Sessions... that was right after I bought the fretless bass guitar... the one I sold in California in 2015... when I moved my wife to St. Louis when she went back to university and I stayed behind in California until I could find a job in St. Louis, and there wasn't really enough room for both me and the bass to sleep in the back seat of my car on weekends. I get really cranky about this, but no one knows, no one knows. She doesn't know—she doesn't know how I made the money stretch by not spending money, and she doesn't read these posts, and I can hide those facts here in plain sight. I think that's one of the sticky points when I think of that bass: pleasure and pain; confidence and unconfidence; certainty and uncertainty. I don't often think of that bass guitar, but when I hear the sounds, the unexpected doom doom doom sounds of the fretless, and the smooth sliding between notes... I miss it. I remember buying it with Sunil at Guitar Center in some Chicago suburb. I remember playing it. I remember relegating it to oblivion, an artifact from a prior life.

I still run meetings at work, as an engineer, the same way I used to take the microphone on stage as the bass guitarist, not the leader but the... person who could be counted on to take the microphone when someone needed to take it—for example, at The Embassy in Urbana in October 2003:

Finite Element at The Embassy

Again, I'll say: the most surprising thing about hearing our old music is that I wasn't as bad as I thought I was at the time.

What lessons could I learn from that?

What if...

What if the things I'm doing now—today—aren't as bad as I think?

And so what if the things we played were bad? Like when we played the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" at The Embassy, but the pace got out of control? So what? No humans were harmed in the making of these memories.

I want to find a lesson in all of this.

I'm not feeling much of a lesson, to be honest.

I can't remember how it all got started. Kevin and Sunil and I were all on the same aerospace engineering senior design team... and we played at a house party near where I lived at 5th and White in Champaign in... fall 2002? And where else did we play? The Illini Union. The Canopy Club. The Iron Post. The Embassy. The last week of Record Service (where is that copy of the Daily Illini with us inside the front cover?). Kams. Bits of the old website exist on the Internet Archive: It's so weird, in far retrospect. It's almost like we were doing professional work, but I was fixated on the details, and I didn't really notice the big picture at the time. I was practically dying from lack of confidence, but the product spoke for itself. And what does that say about the things I'm doing today? Yesterday? Tomorrow?

Forget about the sun / For you're the only one / Who burns so bright