Monthly Archives: April 2020

Automate and lose

An old post gets a companion: Automate and win (2018-03-22).

There was a tweet today by Kelly Vaughn that poked right at the heart of the insane drive to automate work—a drive that I take quite often...

To automate—perchance to save time: ay, there's the rub. I offer no solutions. If the problem is understandable or well-defined like a factory process, you can analyze the time, money, etc., to get a value for the efficiency gained. For the smaller problems that bother you or your team, the calculations are fuzzier, especially when you're faced with a software problem that is going to require some sort of software solution, especially when you know in your heart that the solution is going to be high on the hack-scale and low on the maintainability-scale. Then it's a matter of taste to decide whether or not to figure it out. Engineers especially like to have their problems with discrete solutions, but the truth is that you have to consider in addition to what your team at work will gain (or lose), that you might get something out of the deal for yourself in what you learn from the task, and how much of your own time you're willing to give to it.

And so on. Yet sometimes automation is a puddle of water that, once you step in it with the casual confidence that it won't even wet your laces, is actually ten feet deep. If your team has any common sense, they'll pave over that hole before you can climb out.

Randall Munroe of xkcd knows—here are a few of his own takes on the perils of automation:

Subatomic tasks

I've tried many ways to manage tasks, with varying degrees of success, at home and at work. I've never settled on any method for a long time—I don't know, maybe all methods tried have a flaw (overcomplication being the most common one), or there's another method over the next hill just waiting to be found so the current one can be abandoned.

I was drifting a little this morning and thought about what a task is, what it means—working backwards from the things I actually do, and breaking them apart into smaller and smaller bits. If you plan a project, it's some form of putting all of these bits together into larger and larger bits, and—hey presto—that collection of bits is the plan, more or less. So it seemed logical that if you don't have a good feel for what those bits are then your plan will always be wrong.

Break a task down and you get task molecules and task atoms that make up the larger task. Now let's overburden the analogy: what happens when you look inside the task atoms to prepare to break them down further? Subatomic tasks. Can you count those? Sort of—but not by observing them, maybe through statistical measurement of where the details of those subatomic tasks are expected to be.

It seems a reasonable, if overwrought, analogy—if you divide the work down into smaller and smaller bits, there is a threshold where the divisions cease to be useful. There is no thing anymore, but a cloud or probability of a thing. And what have you for all the trouble of that division? Time and effort spent—probably in unplanned tasks—yet no certainty, likely worse off than having found an appropriate level to understand the work and stopping there. A voice rumbles from the horizon: leave well enough alone.

A week in review, 2020-W17

Wrote

  1. Stability vs equilibrium (2020-04-20).
  2. Dive: lessons learned (2020-04-22).

Read

  1. Kae Petrin, St. Louisans Are Gardening To Manage Stress, Find Purpose Amid Coronavirus Isolation, St. Louis Public Radio (2020-04-21). In most crises, Salois said, people aren’t confined to their homes. They would have jobs or ways to chip in that make them feel useful. “If you have a typhoon or a tornado, you're out and about. You’re trying to clear brush or rescue your neighbors — you’ve got things you can do. Having something you can do really does help when there's trouble,” Salois said. She thinks gardening could help fill that desire to do something productive.
  2. Susan Atteberry Smith, Here's Our Guide to Growing Native Plants, Missouri Life Magazine (2020-04-07). (notes) Native plants predate European immigration to the United States. Plants from other parts of the world can become invasive in Missouri for a variety of reasons and can spread, choking out native species. [...] Invasive plants decrease biodiversity, too, she adds, because if native plants disappear from an area, so do the insects that eat them, along with the soil-enriching worms that munch on bug larvae.
  3. Seth Godin, Don't know (can't know), Seth's Blog (2020-04-20). (notes) As William Goldman said, nobody knows anything. It’s so much more honest (and efficient) for a selective college to send a letter to the people who meet basic criteria and say, “you’re good enough, but there aren’t enough slots, so we’re going to pick randomly.” Because the truth is that a randomly selected class of qualified people is going to be just as high achieving as any other combination they could create. And if you’re the one who wasn’t picked, don’t sweat it. They don’t know better. They can’t.
  4. Shane Franklin, "Wild Ones" Teach Foraging in Missouri, KSMU (2012-08-13). At her seminars with the Wild Ones at Burr Oaks, Mathews has plenty of suggestions on how to forage safely and sustainably. And even where the beginning forager could start. “My suggestion would be to pick out five plants in a year. Follow that plant through a whole season and learn about just five plants at a time. Be sure you know them well, and how to use them and what they are used for.” Mathews says you almost never want to take the roots, just cut the leaves. This way you can revisit the plant in the future. She says at first, make sure you go with someone else who knows the plants better, and always carry a good plant identification book with you.
  5. Cal Newport, Expert Twitter' Only Goes So Far. Bring Back Blogs, Wired (2020-04-23). (notes) Twitter was optimized for links and short musings. It’s not well suited for complex discussions or nuanced analyses. As a result, the feeds of these newly emerged pandemic experts are often a messy jumble of re-ups, unrolled threads, and screenshot excerpts of articles. We can do better.

Listened

  1. System 1 Research is Product Management, This is Product Management (2020-04-20). (notes) [8:51] It's equally important in any kind of digital development to understand that it's not just the app, it's just not a tool to do something. It's also plays into people's understanding of who they are and how they perform that role. Are you using new and cool techniques? If that's a position you aspire to be and adopt and think, then it's not just about the features themselves, but what kind of story that it tells. And that framing of the story is extremely important for people to buy into and say, yes, we've got to use this app, and this is what we need as a business, even though there might be a lot of other tools that you can use, but understanding the motivation and what can make people make say, yes, let's make this switch.
  2. Which Companies Will Survive the Economic Crash?, SupplyChainBrain (2020-04-22). (notes) [13:59] There's a lot of stickiness to restarting an economy and who's going to dictate that and how it's going to happen is yet to be seen, but because the federal government didn't impose mandatory shutdowns, they're going to have a lot of challenges imposing a mandatory back to work decree.
  3. #1210 - Q&A: Should I quit my job and go full time with my hustle?, Side Hustle School (2020-04-24). (notes) [06:21] Congratulations, once again. Shelly represents what many of our listeners aspire to. And of course you don't have to quit your job, just to throw that out there. Lots of people actually build up the side income to a substantial level but continue with their job. I think it's just wonderful to get to the point where you have a choice, and then once you have the choice, you have so much more power essentially. You have more power, you have more leverage, you have the ability to decide for yourself, which I think is a wonderful thing no matter what you end up doing next.

Watched

Andrew Bird, "Near Death Experience Experience" (2020-04-22)

Photo

can I offer you a nice bread in this trying time?

Upcoming


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

Dive: lessons learned

I'm switching teams at work this Friday and I want to jump off the start line. The best way to do this, I think, is to steal ideas from those who went before you[1]. In a slack moment, I let myself float and thought... What makes a good lesson learned? Who did it best? Worst? Are there any frameworks or standards for it? Any other works that are basically lessons learned but not branded as such?

I can't get sidetracked on that thought forever. Dropping off the pace to collect some lessons learned from similar programs at work will be tolerated for a few moments, but getting out the magnifying glass to consider the minute details of an abstract lesson learned is a good way to get kicked. Abstract ideas can be elegant, but at work are tolerable to the extent that they are useful.

So I need some help. I'm going out to the usual places to search for things (AIAA, IEEE, PMI, ACM, Google Scholar, etc.), but I want to know what else is out there—especially if it's not in aerospace. Applying aerospace solutions to aerospace problems works fine most of the time, but it cuts out a lot of good ideas and sometimes leads to inbreeding. If you need some bounds, assume I'm working in hardware/software systems, but a system is just a subsystem that has interfaces to project management, knowledge sharing, change control, etc. The net is wide—for now.

For me, the gold standard is NASA's Lessons Learned System, https://llis.nasa.gov/. I suspect there is some history written somewhere about why this database is as good as it is, but suffice it to say that post-Challenger or post-Columbia or whenever the system was setup, the people at NASA should have been experts at self-reflection, if not self-flagellation.

That kind of leads me to believe that in addition to lessons learned, searching for disaster inquiries about Ariane 5, DART, Mars Polar Lander, etc., might also lead to interesting results, but I think I'll aim at lessons learned as much as possible.

Bonus points: lessons learned in a Chinese context, or at least how to search for them. The best I've got is an idiom, 前车之覆,后车之鉴 (qiánchēzhīfù, hòuchēzhījiàn)—literally, the overturned cart ahead is a warning to the carts behind—but I suspect there's a more formal, project management term for it.

Comments work best. Email (/about) works nicely. I'll be appending my own notes here in Evernote as I collect them this week: Lessons learned.


[1] "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." Steve Jobs attributes that line to Pablo Picasso in his interview in Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires. Nice thought. Bunk quote by Picasso. More information than you require here: Garson O'Toole, "Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal", Quote Investigator (2013-03-06)

Stability vs equilibrium

I attended a workshop this afternoon through Wash U: Self-Leadership During Change, Disruption, and Uncertainty, presented by Judy Shen-Filerman of Dreambridge Partners.

There was one point from the workshop that has stuck in my head: the difference between finding stability and equilibrium. I don't think she couched it quite in those terms, but that's the idea that got fixed in my brain.

I tend to use stability and equilibrium as synonyms to mean that something is in a nice steady state that can't be disturbed. That's not quite right. That nice steady state is more like stability—stable equilibrium, where something rolls to the bottom of a valley and stays there until something comes along and pushes it out, and it will roll back if it's bothered just a little.  Equilibrium can also be unstable (balance that ball on top of the hill—not moving but once it does, there it goes) and neutral (balance that ball on a table).

The point is: there is no such thing as stability right now. Today's peak is tomorrow's rockfall. Today's valley is choked with trees next week. It's not a problem, it just is.

Equilibrium, however, is that point in the system where things are tending to go. It doesn't need to be stable, or static. It doesn't need to be the minimum or maximum for the whole system. It may shift—let it. That's what we need now—find that state where we can settle for a while—for this moment or this day or however long. Then be flexible and find it again.

Maybe stability isn't even the end goal as the external situation improves. Maybe balance is. Manage all those external forces and keep your own self steady instead of finding a place to fall back to.

One more thing from the workshop: reset expectations. There is Time Before and Time During. (And also there's Time After, but another relevant bit of advice was that only the short term is reliable right now.) What you can do now is surely less than what you could do before. I feel like I'm a step ahead of this one. I don't regiment things as much as I did, say, four weeks ago—give the day a few small routines and goals, but let it play out on its own. I keep some time set aside for considering what's next, but I'm comfortable keeping the future fuzzy and letting the plans change. Some days are good focus days and some days are bad focus days. Adjust—keep things tight and pull on the good days, and let the rope go slack on the inevitable bad days. 


Some links for the road:

A week in review, 2020-W16

Wrote

  1. Time for yourself (2020-04-13).
  2. Nod to self, from a different orbit (2020-04-14).
  3. Don't narrow out the future (2020-04-16).

Read

  1. Rob Walker, Productivity and the Joy of Doing Things the Hard Way, Wired (2019-05-28). (notes) At some point you have to wonder if the thing we’re hacking away isn’t just annoyance or inefficiency, but potentially delightful serendipity. Or, you know, life itself.
  2. Tyson Bird, Author and Illustrator Edward Carey Shares the Story Behind His Quarantine Drawings, Texas Highways (2020-04-14). (notes) I draw now what people ask for (with the exception of a self-portrait on my fiftieth birthday), and I like that. It takes me somewhere different, and we all need to find new destinations during this time of shelter. I’ve no idea what drawings will follow, nor how many drawings will be stacked up by the end of this. I’m just taking it—like so many people around the globe—one day at a time. One drawing at a time. A drawing a day to keep the eye off the plague.
  3. Divya Gandhi and Anusua Mukherjee, Art for the Anthropocene, The Hindu (2019-12-28). (notes) Her unerring eye for detail began with a large coffee table book, Hummingbirds, she illustrated. “It lifted my art to another level. I had to follow a very specific protocol: each plate had to be to scale; each one had to depict both the male and female of the species. And each had to show one interesting behaviour trait of the hummingbird
  4. Gwen Moran, Now is a great time to make some mediocre art, Fast Company (2020-04-07). (notes) Creating things, especially in the face of uncertainty, fear, or other distressing and unsettling emotions, is an innate drive, she says. “It speaks to our own individual identity and our need to have a sense of agency and control over our lives and over our time,” Kaimal adds.
  5. Steve Blank, In a Crisis – An Opportunity For A More Meaningful Life, steveblank.com (2020-04-16). (notes) But every crisis brings an opportunity. In this case, to reassess one’s life and ask: How do I want to use my time when the world recovers? What I suggested was, that the economic disruption caused by the virus and the recession that will follow is one of those rare opportunities to consider a change, one that could make your own life more meaningful, allow you to make an impact, and gain more than just a salary from your work. Perhaps instead of working for the latest social media or ecommerce company or in retail or travel or hospitality, you might want to make people live healthier, longer and more productive lives.

Listened

  1. Managing Crises in the Short and Long Term, HBR IdeaCast (2020-04-14). (notes) [10:27] Taking a narrow view is another one of those traps and the human mind is hardwired when faced with a threat to narrow its perspective. You think back to our sort of prehistoric ancestors. When they heard a rustling in the bushes they had to really quickly figure out was that going to eat them, or were they going to eat it? And so this narrowing happens and you have to, if you’re going to lead, you have to pull back and see that bigger picture, not just the foreground, what’s happening now, but the mid-ground and the background, looking into the future. Because if you’re leading you've got to be thinking about not what has to happen right this second. Hopefully you’ve got competent people around you doing that. But what are we going to need in two weeks, two months, six months?
  2. Agility Robotics' Damion Shelton: "Legs over wheels", Danny in the Valley (2020-04-15). (notes) [18:23] We've been selling product early. So that was one of the lessons from my 3D scanner days was sell something as opposed to nothing as rapidly as you possibly can because you're going to learn an awful lot.
  3. Authenticity is a Double-Edged Sword, WorkLife with Adam Grant (2020-04-06). (notes) [35:48, Carmen Medina] You're not going to win those battles if you do a frontal assault every time. And sadly, for a lot of organizations, behaving in your authentic way can be perceived as a frontal attack. And I just think that's horrible, but that is still the world that we live in.

Watched

Guilty of Treeson, WORLD'S BEST TREE FELLING TUTORIAL! Way more information than you ever wanted on how to fell a tree!

Photo

garlic forest

Upcoming


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

Don't narrow out the future

There was an exchange in a recent episode of HBR IdeaCast with Eric McNulty (Managing Crises in the Short and Long Term, 2020-04-14) that caught my attention:

[10:27] Taking a narrow view is another one of those traps and the human mind is hardwired when faced with a threat to narrow its perspective. You think back to our sort of prehistoric ancestors. When they heard a rustling in the bushes they had to really quickly figure out was that going to eat them, or were they going to eat it?

And so this narrowing happens and you have to, if you’re going to lead, you have to pull back and see that bigger picture, not just the foreground, what’s happening now, but the mid-ground and the background, looking into the future. Because if you’re leading you got to be thinking about not what has to happen right this second. Hopefully you’ve got competent people around you doing that. But what are we going to need in two weeks, two months, six months?

A lot of people and groups are going to miss that—some unavoidably while tending to the critical Now—and forget about the future while the present submerges them and everything else. But if you can find the space to calm down, pull back, and see where things are going, you might get the opportunity to jump to something else as we all collectively hit an inflection point.

A snippet from Fight Club came to mind a few weeks ago when thinking about change (Change, 2020-04-03), and it still loops around my mind in a highly elliptical orbit:

If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?”

—Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996)

The circumstances are different—no space monkeys here—but the inflection point is there. In fact, maybe it's even more similar than you'd think, because it's not just about changing into something or someone else entirely different, but inhabiting what is already in you as it becomes you, or as you become it, or however that might be explained in terms of the book itself. There's always an opportunity to change, sure, but inflection points are change incarnate—ready or not, there you go.

Anyway. I have some more notes from the podcast, and also from a webinar that Eric McNulty gave last week for MIT Sloan Management Review: Leading Through a Crisis Day-by-Day. Crisis management, and Harvard's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, are quite popular right now after all.


One more thing I read after posting this that is along the same lines and more substantial:

But every crisis brings an opportunity. In this case, to reassess one’s life and ask: How do I want to use my time when the world recovers?

What I suggested was, that the economic disruption caused by the virus and the recession that will follow is one of those rare opportunities to consider a change, one that could make your own life more meaningful, allow you to make an impact, and gain more than just a salary from your work. Perhaps instead of working for the latest social media or ecommerce company or in retail or travel or hospitality, you might want to make people live healthier, longer and more productive lives.

—Steve Blank, "In a Crisis--An Opportunity for a More Meaningful Life", steveblank.com (2020-04-16).

Nod to self, from a different orbit

Thousands Apply to Join NASA’s Artemis Generation, NASA (2020-04-01)


The application for the newest class of astronauts opened March 2 and closed March 31. The number of people who applied to be an astronaut represents the second-highest number of applications NASA has ever received, surpassed only by the record of 18,300 set by the most recent class of astronauts who graduated in January.

[...] Since the 1960s, NASA has selected 350 people to train as astronaut candidates for its increasingly challenging missions to explore space. With 48 astronauts in the active astronaut corps, more will be needed to serve as crew aboard spacecraft bound for multiple destinations and propel exploration forward as part of Artemis missions and beyond.


Look at that number. 350. Total. Ever. I've had plenty of days when I've felt good about my capabilities and accomplishments, but never that great. 350 is a rare number.

I threw my name in the hat.

There isn't a snowball's chance in Houston of getting into that club. But what the hell?

Could I do that job? Without a doubt. Am I worthy of that job? Not even remotely.

Applying was a nod to my past selves as I'm closing in on age 40. Maybe if you took note of all the events and decisions and possibilities and opportunities in a life, and played the simulation forwards from each of them so that you could see the results of every fractal possibility, maybe one of them includes an episode where you get to see the Earth in its entirety every 92-and-a-half minutes. If you latch onto a wild dream when young, and push and get pushed even in that direction, you still have the opportunity of going farther than you would have with your own dreams alone, you still get to enjoy the ride in a system versus goal or journey versus destination kind of way. Thanks for getting me this far, guys.


Send us off, Frank Turner:

Not everyone grows up to be an astronaut,
Not everyone was born to be a king,
Not everyone can be Freddie Mercury,
But everyone can raise their glass and sing.

Well I haven't always been a perfect person,
Well I haven't done what mum and dad had dreamed,
But on the day I die, I'll say at least I fucking tried.
That's the only eulogy I need,
That's the only eulogy I need.

Time for yourself

'Cos it's important for your mental health


Sometimes I get a little concerned that the most trivial and the most trite memories are taking up needed space in my head. There are some reasonable expectations—at work, at home—that I should be able to sort out the useful from the useless, the tasteful from the tasteless, etc., but sometimes absolute tripe just floats up from the depths. A picture. A song. A face.

This time it was a song from the frontier of esoterica. Something I've probably got collected on a CD in a box in a box in a box from undergrad days. Something right from the turn of the century at the last moment when it was difficult to find esoteric music from the bands you loved.

(I could go on and on about this last point. I think getting to see the web before it was good was a lucky stroke. Finding an FTP site or Usenet newsgroup with binary files or a shared user drive on the dorm network could lead to weird and useless troves of outtakes and demos and bootlegs of bands like Ween. It's all out there now and easy(-ish) to find—torrent, uploaded to YouTube, etc.—but it used to be a bit of a treasure hunt.)

I know why this song has...

("Treasure hunt" could be switched with "waste of time" with no truth harmed in the process.)

I know why this song has crept back into my head though. "Gotta have time to yourself". In quarantine, yes. "'Cos it's important for your mental health". Oh yeah.

Stuck in this infernal house for lockdown is just an invitation to half-formed memories from the past to come back after a long gravity assist around the outer planets, right back to the place where they started but with greater speeds and weirder spins and pieces chipped off and so on. None of them are worth sharing—just an unusual shell on the beach that you might notice for just a second—not notable enough to spend time with, not notable enough to announce—just a moment of interest and then it's passed.

Normally I'd just leave it alone, but it's been banging around my head for days. It's not even a good song. It's not even a real song. It's just some end-of-radio-interview banter then an improvised song, "Time 4 Yourself", with Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween) and Instant Folk Death, collected on the equally esoteric collection, New Hope Is a Bad Scene in 1995. I probably wouldn't even include all this detail in a post but that it took me a while to sort it out. 


One more thing. Don't know where to put it. I'll put it here. I think about it occasionally: what happens to these external internet sites that I embed or link to? They go away.
Lostwave's Ween site is still there, for whatever reason. Chocodog.com is not.

I was considering what it was like to discover websites on the older web and I remembered StumbleUpon, which was really from the post-old web, one of the early social media sites. I remember having to kill that account some time ago as a barrier to time waste. StumbleUpon itself is dead since 2018. A few links to nostalgic sendoffs about it:

A week in review, 2020-W15

Wrote

None

Read

  1. Elizabeth Macanufo, Late-Night Conversation Sparks Frustrated Lawyer's Bright Idea, Plotlines (2020-03-03). (notes) “I hated tracking every six minutes of my day on my timesheet and being measured only on the time I spent, not the value I created for my clients,” he says. Lawyers profited from spending time billed to clients, but they didn’t prioritize creativity in their own businesses. “New ideas are scarce because ‘precedent’ is the first thing you learn in law school; many in the industry believe that everything we’d like to try in our businesses must be based upon something done by others before.”
  2. Adam Grant, The Fine Line Between Helpful and Harmful Authenticity, The New York Times (2020-04-10). (notes) Authenticity without boundaries is careless. When we broadcast our limitations, we need to be careful to avoid casting doubt on our strengths.
  3. Rosecrans Baldwin, A California Dream, Mental Floss (2016-07-01). California City, California, is the third-largest city by area in America’s third-largest state, and most of it barely even qualifies as a ghost town—a ghost town needs people to have lived there first. California City is a ghost grid.
  4. Adam Grant, In Negotiations, Givers Are Smarter Than Takers, The New York Times (2020-03-27). (notes) Believing in a fixed pie is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we expect the worst in others, we bring out the worst in others. When we recognize that everyone feels the impulse to help (unless they’re a sociopath) we have a chance to bring out what Lincoln called the better angels of their nature.
  5. Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville luffa grower finds multiple uses for gourd, Knoxville News Sentinel (2016-09-22).

Listened

  1. Missing in Action: U.S.-China Cooperation on Coronavirus, China in the World (2020-04-11). (notes)
  2. Leverage and gearing, Akimbo (2020-04-08).
  3. #1197 - Q&A: What do you think about multi-level marketing?, Side Hustle School (2020-04-11).

Watched

Marc Maron: End Times Fun (2020)

Photo

welcome color in a gray environment

Upcoming


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