Interpreting silence

I'm just finishing up this paper: Cramton, Catherine D. "The Mutual Knowledge Problem and Its Consequences for Dispersed Collaboration." Organization Science 12 (June 2001): 346-371 (pdf). It's worth posting all of the notes for it when I finish them. But there's this one passage that's been sticking in my head all day:

One of the biggest challenges team members faced was interpreting the meaning of their partners' silence. Over the course of the project, it became clear that silence had meant all of the following at one time or another: I agree. I strongly disagree. I am indifferent. I am out of town. I am having technical problems. I don't know how to address this sensitive issue. I am busy with other things. I did not notice your question. I did not realize that you wanted a response.

The context for that passage, and that paper, is investigating how a team of students distributed across continents completes a class project. But anyone who has worked on a team with some people here, some people there, and so on, would recognize it. I recognize that situation—but not until after point it out. When it's pointed out in this way, and then I reflect on it, I always assume that other people who aren't in the same place that I am in interpret any silences that I give or leave, intentionally or unintentionally, in the same way that I do. I know what I mean, why don't they? Of course this is stupid on its face. How could they?

So the trick seems to be not just designing your explicit interactions with other people, but also the implicit ones—not just the things you say, but the spaces in between. My habit is to avoid extra emails where possible, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to spare some extra one to ask the question: are we understanding each other?

Eggnog 2018

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

This is my third batch of eggnog, and the motivation is still the same as the first time: make an alcohol drink with raw eggs and then age it for 30 days? Gotta try that.

It seemed a little crazy. That's exactly the sort of thing that people who would drink alcoholic milk would say to do. That's what Michael Ruhlman said to do. So did J. Kenji López-Alt. So I tried it, waited 30 days or so, and it worked. And I tried it again, waited 30 days or so and it worked—but we didn't drink it all and I ended up aging a jar and a half for about 13 months and it still worked.

Xiaoqi standing by to call 9-1-1 while I drink the 13-month batch

I used the original recipe without modifications, except for not using the full measure of sugar (I started with 2 cups of sugar, then scooped some out until I felt less disgusted about how much sugar there was):

  • 12 egg yolks [egg whites were used for steamed eggs]
  • ~2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 liter bourbon [Maker's Mark this time]
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup brandy [E&J XO]
  • 1/2 cup Myers’s dark rum
  • pinch of kosher salt

There's not much to it:

  1. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together.
  2. Mix it up with everything else in a big bowl.
  3. Put it in jars. Put the jars in the refrigerator.
  4. Wait.
  5. Drink.

Can't waste the bit that didn't fit in the jar

Bonus: Here's a bunch of links to other people who tried it:

A week in review, 2018-W45



  • Anne Fisher, Don't Blow Your New Job: Managers are switching companies like never before, but a startling number don't last 18 months. Here's why. Fortune (1998-06-22). In the Manchester Partners survey, human resources people gave specific clues as to what kinds of questions are likely to help you identify the best fit; 76% urge you to find out what results will be expected of you in the first year, and 64% say you need to ask for a timetable spelling out what is supposed to happen when. You should also ask how potential higher-ups will measure your performance (62%). Finding out how often the people above you want progress reports and provide feedback (45%) also couldn't hurt.
  • Angie Herbers, Set Up to Fail: Bosses Create Problem Employees More Often Than You Think, ThinkAdvisor (2017-04-14). We all use job titles to communicate what each member of a firm is supposed to do and how that differs from other employees. [...] This creates confusion among management, other employees and the employee him- or herself about what job he or she is supposed to be doing.
  • Sarah Fenske, They Requested the St. Louis Police Budget. It Took 8 Months to Get It, Riverfront Times (2018-11-09). "We wanted to use this to say, 'Look at how you're spending money. Isn't there an alternative way?'" he says. "If we could get this information on time and get the real information, not just redactions, the people who elect the mayor and the aldermen could say, 'This is not how we want our government to be. This is not what we want to spend our money on.'"
  • Binyamin Appelbaum, Their Soybeans Piling Up, Farmers Hope Trade War Ends Before Beans Rot, The New York Times (2018-11-05).
  • Nick Gillespie, 'We Are as Gods and Might as Well Get Good at It', Reason (2018-11-04). "The main problem with fame, or any kind of success, is the insulation it packs around you," writes Brand near the end of The Last Whole Earth Catalog, explaining why he decided to stop at the publication's zenith of popularity and critical acclaim. "There's a difference between intention driving us on and mystery pulling us on. Mystery will always educate and correct. Intention can go off the end of its own limb."






An us-versus-them reader

I've been thinking recently about how to solve an us-versus-them problem with a team I was working on. Sometimes us-vs-them manifests itself as a fight against groups on the outside, but it also happens on the inside of teams, especially geographically separated or functionally separated teams. It's this second problem that I'm most interested in. Us-vs-them within a group is really us-vs-us. It's a stupid and pernicious problem, if you stop and think about it. But it's hard to stop and think about it when you're in the middle of it, when you get that amygdala activated and charge straight ahead at the enemy—straight ahead at ourselves.

All of those instances of "you" above should be replaced with "I". I'm not here to 'splain anyone about how they're wrong. I just wanted to compile a list of things to read to identify the problem, understand the problem, and most importantly improve the problem.

What is it?

Looking at us-vs-them like a scientist

Avoiding and fixing

After Startup Connection 2018

Here's the preview post, Startup Connection 2018, with more links and information about all of the startups.

I attended Startup Connection this week in downtown St. Louis. It's a big show-and-tell of local startups and organizations that support them. It's an interesting peek at St. Louis from an angle that isn't obvious—unless you know where to look. There are lots of interesting small companies, and people running them. It's not Boston. It's not San Francisco. And it won't be and it needn't be. It's St. Louis.

Some news coverage:

Here are my favorites from the show:

Equine Smartbit, LLC


When I saw this company on the list, I knew I had to learn more. The product description sounded like a Fitbit for horses. How did it work? I had to know. Would it be like a big watch that fits around the horse's neck? No! It's a literal bit that fits in a horse's mouth, with embedded electronics. Of course. It measures heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen. There's a part of me that thought: like owning horses, it sounds a little indulgent. But after talking to the people running the booth, what they've created seems so obvious and useful.

esso skin care


Listen. This company's products are not for me: "We formulate and sell essential, effective, and effortless skin care for women of color; African-American, Hispanic, Asian, African, Indian, Native-American, etc." I score a zero for all that. I don't do skin care; I'm not even effective. It doesn't matter. The best part for me was talking with the founder, Kathleen Cook, about how she started the company. I thought it was interesting how she mixed her background in chemistry and biology with a need she experienced to create something new. When I talked to her, she said she had recently talked to someone at Target that might be her first retail customer—fingers crossed, etc.



Again, much of the fun is talking to the founder. Ola Adeboye brought the recipe for the drinks from home, Nigeria. I tried the lemongrass flavor—and I can recommend it. I don't think they're selling it in any retail outlets, but I think it's just a matter of time.

Just noticed: Wakava will be at Square's Pop-Up Emporium Fall 2018 at the Cortex Commons on 15 November 2018.



This one was a really interesting experience that I had never considered before. How do blind people see graphs? I wouldn't have been able to answer that before. But Vital's demonstration app (on a tablet) made sense: when I ran my finger over a sample bar graph, there was some vibration (haptic feedback) to let me know when my finger was on the bar, and a slightly different style of vibration when my finder was on a different bar. I'd never thought of that before—it made sense immediately after trying it. I took one of their flyers and gave it to a co-worker who has a blind son. I really hope this product makes it.

There were also a few old favorites that I saw in 2017 or 2016 that are back again, and seem to be doing good business. It's just a matter of time before they're too successful and won't be startups and participating in the expo anymore—what a nice problem to have, eh?

  • SensrTrx: taking sensor data from factory machines to improve uptime and productivity
  • Agrela: solar powered sensors, standing in fields, providing data about fields to farmers
  • Strayos: drones flying over mining sites, providing analytical data

Startup Connection 2018

A follow-up post, from after the event: After Startup Connection 2018

The annual Startup Connection is happening in downtown St. Louis tomorrow (2018-11-07). I thought I'd do a bit of recon like I did for the recent Startup Talent Showcase because it's interesting to learn more about what's going on in the area—and there is a lot going on, you just have to know where to look.

I took the list of companies provided by Startup Connection and made a big table with information for each company, plus external links (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Crunchbase) on Google Sheets: Startup Connection 2018.

(If you're behind a firewall, here's a PDF version: startup-connection-2018.pdf)

Perhaps you'd like to follow those companies on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Here are some links to posts on those platforms that will make it easier to follow them rather clicking all the links in that table (i.e., on the Facebook and LinkedIn links, mouseover each link to bring up a popup to follow each, etc.):

Bonus: some information from Startup Connection 2017 that I must not have posted here to the site last year:


A selection of news items about the various companies:

A week in review, 2018-W44





美食作家王刚, 厨师长教你:“葱爆牛肉”的家常做法,葱香味浓郁,学做起来 (2018-05-27)

Honestly it doesn't matter which of his videos you watch, they're all fascinating: 美食作家王刚.


Pumpkin madness continues at home


Better ballots

My wife and I got our sample ballots in the mail from the St. Louis County Board of Elections this week. It's my wife's first time voting. She looked at the sample ballot and said, "It's almost like they don't want you to understand." From the mouths of babes.

It's not bad, but as with most things: There's gotta be a Better Way.

It took 12 seconds of searching to find information about election board meetings, and how to take part in the public forum. No doubt there was, and is, a way to make suggestions, and I didn't care enough to learn how to do it. There's no sense complaining mindlessly—reckon you can find plenty of other places on the internet for that—so let's take a look at that ballot and see what I'd improve if I were King. And then let's see if there's a way to get involved.

  1. URLs for everything. Make it easy, or at least possible, for voters to get to more information. Unique URLS for every candidate is probably overkill, but for each level of government might be possible: e.g.,, /state, etc. And use internal anchors for individual positions or candidates: e.g., /ballot/federal#senator, /ballot/federal#senator-mccaskill
  2. Style. These are petty suggestions, but:
    • Font size. I measured it: 1 mm. It's hard to read.
    • Collapsed list items. If you look at the amendments and propositions on the ballots, you'll see that there are some list items there set off with a dash bullet, but instead of each having their own line they're all set in the same line. It's really hard to read. Compare (1) a recreation of how it is, vs. (2) a slightly modified version (sorry, it's still pretty small, here's a Visio file you can play with if you want to edit it):

  3. Recruit volunteers. While people are thinking about elections, recruit people to volunteer for the next one. Give people a simple URL (/elections/volunteer) or make part of the sample ballot so that it can be mailed back to the Board of Elections with a checkbox for "contact me to be an election volunteer." (Side note on volunteering: why the hell do I have to declare party membership to be an election volunteer?)

Taking off from (1) URLs for everything: it seems like it would be easy to have a big list of candidates, filtered somehow based on where the individual voter lives, and then fill that page with basic info and links to more info. For example, using the ArcGIS app linked from the country elections page, I can get my sample ballot. It's OK. But imagine instead being taken to a website for a ballot, organized something like...


  • Federal: U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative (District 1)
  • State: State Auditor, State Senator (District 24), etc.
  • etc.

...and each page might be something like...


U.S. Senator

Josh Hawley

  • Party: Republican
  • Website:
  • Bio: (100-word statement about candidate)
  • Platform: (100-word statement about platform)

Claire McCaskill




There are so many other options available, so many online resources that are basically utilities at this point, not just indulgences. Using the two most likely Missouri candidates for U.S. Senate, here are other things you could link to:

That's just a quick run-through of ideas while they were still on top of my head after studying the ballot. It's OK as it is, but it could be better. Maybe there's a current of activity and effort that I've just been missing because I've not been looking, or looking in the wrong places—after all, the minutes from the September 2018 election board meeting say that 3500 poll workers have been trained for this year's election.

I think this might be something OpenSTL could hack on. This is a civic problem and a data problem.

重复利用火箭系统 - reusable rocket system

Let me teach you a little bit of Chinese:

重复 (chóngfù) 利用 (lìyòng)火箭 (huǒjiàn)系统 (xìtǒng) - reusable rocket system

You didn't really need to know that word until October 29, unless you also wanted to learn 猎鹰(lièyīng)-9 (Falcon 9). Now you do, because CASC posted some video of their reusable rocket demonstrator:

Clearly there's a long way to go before becoming a fully reusable rocket a la SpaceX or Blue Origin. For starters, that's not using rocket propulsion, but whatever jets it's using is good enough to get it away from the ground, and then good enough to keep it away from the ground, good enough to test the attitude control software and the actuators that vector the thrust. Landing a rocket with the engines on the bottom is like driving a rear-wheel drive car on a gravel road—it just wants to slide the tail end around.

For a bit more info:

One more thing that's always been on my mind about the reusable rockets: is it worth it? I never doubted for a second that SpaceX would get the technology to work. And they did—beautifully. But I've never encountered anything more than the usual platitudes about how it's obviously better to reuse rockets. It's that word obviously that makes me pause. Obviously is sometimes a code word for assumed. (whispers: Space Shuttle.) I would love to be convinced one way or the other. Honestly, taking some time to model the the thing is the only way to understand it, like OccupyDuna on Reddit.

In the meantime, here is a collection of links that I've just collected to read about the economics of reusability:

Now reading: Man's Search for Meaning

Now reading: Viktor Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning (1946). (notes)

Actually, I'm listening to this one, not reading it—I picked up the audiobook, read by Simon Vance, from the St. Louis County Library. I don't remember exactly where I heard of this book. I might have heard of it—several times, even—from guests on Tim Ferriss' podcast. It doesn't matter. It's ubiquitous. It has 255,039 reviews on Goodreads and 4,358 customer reviews on Amazon.

It's enough reason to read it, I think, because someone made it through the Holocaust with their mind intact, and shared not just an action story but what he was thinking as he was a prisoner. So my troubles aren't really troubles with that as a measuring stick. But as it relates to someone like me, I'll just steal this line from a summary on the library's book entry: "At the core of his theory is the belief that man's primary motivational force is his search for meaning."

From somewhere near the beginning:

Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it

I can't really explain it, but the idea of keeping on and keeping on, as evidenced by the book, dredges up two passages in my memory from unrelated books. Might as well share them:

This is how we go on: one day at a time, one meal at a time, one pain at a time, one breath at a time. Dentists go on one root-canal at a time; boat-builders go on one hull at a time. If you write books, you go on one page at a time. We turn from all we know and all we fear. We study catalogues, watch football games, choose Sprint over AT&T. We count the birds in the sky and will not turn from the window when we hear the footsteps behind us as something comes up the hall; we say yes, I agree that clouds often look like other things - fish and unicorns and men on horseback - but they are really only clouds. Even when the lightening flashes inside them we say they are only clouds and turn our attention to the next meal, the next pain, the next breath, the next page. This is how we go on.

—Stephen King, Bag of Bones (1998)

It was Trout's fantasy that somebody would be outraged by the footprints. This would give him the opportunity to reply grandly, "What is it that offends you so? I am simply using man's first printing press. You are reading a bold and universal headline which says, 'I am here, I am here, I am here.'

—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (1973)