Author Archives: kirk.kittell

Good writing would make work so much better

Trailhead: Juan Pablo Buriticá, The future of work is written, Increment, Issue 15 (2020-11)

As engineers, I offer you this: We’ve learned how to measure the effectiveness of the communication networks we’ve built. We know and manage latency, throughput, packet loss, and retransmission of our communication infrastructure. So, what’s the latency of status updates? How can we improve it without people being constantly on their email or on Slack? Are we losing packets as we pass around meeting notes? Is there a better way to compress transcripts without losing the quality of the message? We’ve already solved many of these problems in distributed systems of computers—perhaps we could help solve them in systems of people. But not by trying to engineer our way to a place where asynchronous messages or writing replaces other human interaction.

To decide, to move on; to move on, perchance to forget; ay, there's the rub. With apologies to Shakespeare, etc.

Even in the best of times at work: meetings are had, decisions are made, work is done, decisions are forgotten, work continues, meetings are reprised, work is redone, and round and round and round we spin. It's frustrating, and exponentially so as more people are added to a team.

Writing things down is a solution that dampens the spin— small "s" solution, not the Solution. Bad writing is still bad writing. Good writing that can't be found on the server is wasted effort. Difficult writing tools are crimes. And, besides, one of the commandments of agile that Moses brought back from the mountain was to rank working code over comprehensive documentation, which is translated as all but an invitation to ditch writing altogether.

You can—and should—work with people to improve their writing skills. Clear ideas written clearly are indispensable. But without a culture (read: staff) to handle editing and knowledge management properly, the effort of writing is wasted, and a team reverts back to the old problems of lost information, but with a new resistance to the next scheme to improve it.

I enjoy writing things down, so I often absorb some of the work roles that call for that—meeting notes, guides to software tools, re-descriptions of processes (I mean, process documentation is its own description, but it's often written as if the purpose of the thing was to pass an audit, not for the end-user to actually be able to understand and use the thing, rant rant rant). But more than just writing things down, I'm a fanatic about making the outcome digestible by whoever might have to use it later, and about organizing the information so it can be found, and about linking the information to other information (give me an installation of MediaWiki at work and I will rule the world), and about constructing the information so that you can run a script over it and mash it up with other information. It rarely (read: never) works as elegantly as I wish it would, but there is no reaching the final goal anyway, only approaching it until the environment changes or the project is over.

Anyway—too much abstraction here. The teams that can write, that know to organize the writing, that maintain the writing (as infrastructure or as a stream), that respect writing, are the ones who are going to rule in the distributed work world. A steady diet of teleconferences and emails doesn't seem to be cutting it.

I don't know for sure. I'm relatively new to it (ten months in now) and there are millions of test cases out there to examine. Maybe it makes more sense to consider the teams who are working remotely well, and whether effective writing is a positive differentiator.

A trip to Cambodia

Previous stop: A trip to Paraguay

The final stop on our winter break pseudo-vacation was Cambodia. This time, there's nothing much to talk about except the food. Unlike the previous trips, we didn't have time to cover much information about Cambodia itself because we spent so many hours shopping (first time paying attention to the Southeast Asia section at Pan-Asia) and cooking. Maybe we'll come back around and watch some videos on the weekend, but we'll see how this first week back at work treats us. (It might be time to discover what Cambodians drink.) In the meantime, there is a bit of info back in the prep post: Next stop: Cambodia.

Saying we "only" made some food sells the entire enterprise short. We did a pretty good job with this one (with the usual caveat that we don't know how it all compares to the real thing). In fact, I think we might do it again this weekend. Here's how it went down:


Yellow kroeung
Making the bowls for amok trey
Ready to steam...
...ready to eat.
Marinating the beef for loc lac
...and eat.
Fry the fish...
...and hide it under a mango salad
Fill that gourd with eggs, palm sugar, coconut milk, and a little salt. I think I would cut a smaller opening next time.
Hide it
Heat it
Eat it

Now that work has started up again, we won't be able to fake travel again for a little while. (Actually we might try these recipes again this weekend—why not?) But we will take a fake trip about once a month this year. It was too much fun to leave it alone. Later this month we'll go to Baja California in our kitchen, though we'd certainly like to go there in person.

It's back

After years out away, the Captain's Newsletter is back. Here's the first one: v2020-W53. It incorporates some elements from the old Week in Review posts, which I was intending to convert into the newsletter sometime anyway. Well, we're converted. You should subscribe. I don't think I'll post them all here in the open on the site—let them be a Special Treat for anyone with a finger heavy enough to push that subscribe button. See you next Sunday.

Next stop: Cambodia

Previous stop: Paraguay

Our last stop on this winter break vacation is Cambodia.

Cambodia is a kind of lost opportunity for me. When I lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, for whatever reason there was a huge Cambodian population living there—the second largest Cambodian population in the US, if I remember correctly. I don't know why. I wish I would have been more curious about it at the time, outside of watching the occasional show at the Lowell Folk Festival. So, don't be surprised to see a little bit of Lowell sprinkled in here with Cambodia.

Cambodia is the first of our three stops whose capital city I knew. But, again: I don't know much outside of that. The food, the music—those are blank spots. When I've read or learned anything about Cambodia, it always seemed to be in the context of war, of the Khmer Rouge, of US bombing in the 1960s and 1970s—important, clearly, but also clearly missing just about everything about the place.

So: we'll dive in for a day. Food, music, history. And then it's back to work on Monday.

I see Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of No Reservations there in 2011: Season 10, Episode 2: Cambodia. We're going to watch that. I think that any time I'm going to travel somewhere, in person or virtually, I'm always going to search "Anthony Bourdain [LOCATION]" while planning.

Dishes that we're planning to make:

My wife picked those. I think we need a dessert as well.

Other quick info:

  • Seven national parks (Wikipedia)
  • Three World Heritage Sites (and eight on the proposed list)
  • Main language: Khmer. I've learned several alphabets, and the Khmer alphabet looks really intense.

There seems to be an interesting vein about Cambodia and 1960s rock music that I want to check out:


Onward: 2021

I don't do New Year's resolutions, per se, but I do start the year by writing down some things that I would like to finish or accomplish by the end of the year. I like these opportunities for regular ceremonies, to pause for a moment at the end of one revolution about the sun before setting off on the next one. I try not to take it too seriously, but I also want to keep myself oriented in some direction—or directions, honestly, as I still haven't learned how to focus like a laser on anything. So be it.

I'm not even sure if "goal" is the right word here. Some things are like goals, some things are just like projects that I'd like to complete. Some things are ongoing things—where the "goal" isn't to finish, but to keep going. Goal is a good enough word to get going.

My assumption, not knowing much of anything,—how much can you know when you've been spending 99% of the time in your own house for almost a year?—is that people are really going to lean into the new year this year. Right? After an ugly year, who doesn't want to have a beautiful year? After a year of limitations, who doesn't want to break out? It's going to be like the endurance runs I used to do, where everyone blasts off from the starting line—but it's a long, long race, and it's a race that doesn't reward fast starts, only finishes. Fast starts are, for the majority of us, the first step to an early exit.

Don't despair. I'll lay out here the things I'm planning to work on. And if you're out there and you're planning to work on something as well, let me know. One of my favorite things about endurance running was that everyone—even though we were all competitors—was on the same team. If someone passed you, you'd tell them to get after it. If you pass someone walking, you'd encourage them to get going again. It mattered. It didn't matter. Racing is silly. We all signed up for it knowing that much. But it was also serious, and we arrived at the starting line with the finish line in our minds, ready to do what it takes to get there. I don't know why. It doesn't stand up to analysis. 

I still organize the things I do in my life in terms of curricula. (Here's a version of it from 2018: Buffet problem.) I've simplified it somewhat, and although it's not yet simple enough, it's the boat I'm going to sail into 2021:

  1. Chinese curriculum: learning how to speak Chinese
  2. Home curriculum: making things (either building or cooking)
  3. Physical curriculum: running and strength training
  4. Learning curriculum: learning new skills, for work or for fun
  5. Project plan: all of the other things that I like to do that don't really fit neatly into the other categories

Here's what I'm planning to do in 2021:

  1. [Project plan] Post every day on this site.
  2. [Project plan] Publish The Captain's Newsletter every week.
  3. [Home] Perform a regional food showcase every month.
  4. [Learning] Complete PMI-ACP certification. (Q1)
  5. [Project plan] Create a working flashcard app on (Q3)
  6. [Chinese] Complete HSK Level IV certification. (Q3)
  7. [Physical] Top 5 in the Wildwood Trail Marathon. (Q4)

That's all. That's enough. Each one is fairly small, I think—nothing there that's explicitly going to change the world. But to do any of them requires some discipline. After 2020, what I want more than anything is to keep moving. Onward. Some of them are for me (the running race, the agile cert), but some of them are meant to build connections (daily posts, the newsletter, cooking at home). None of them are completely new—they're all variations or extensions of things I've been working on. The overarching goal is that it's better to be better—not for the sake of "self improvement", but it's just more interesting to get to the top of that next hill and see what everything looks like from there.

Here's a small pile of links that I found that I thought were at least somewhat relevant:

A trip to Paraguay

Previous stop: A trip to Ghana

There doesn't seem to be much advice out there about traveling to Paraguay—compared to its neighbors like Brazil and Argentina, or compared to other places I've considered traveling in my life. That's worth +10 points on my scorecard.

We picked Paraguay's name out of a hat, albeit a hat that only contained South America and Asia this time (so: random, but not random). Terra incognito—for me, at least, although it's home for millions. Here are just a few small things that I learned while filling in that part of my map. It's just a game—one day of doing, maybe one day of preparing—and the best part of the game, since it is impossible to learn very much in such a short time, is the occasional "oh that's very interesting" insight that plants itself like a small seed in your mind, perhaps bearing some kind of fruit later, perhaps not.

But yes—the "trip" itself.

This time I was in charge of doing the grocery shopping, and a good deal of the food and recipe finding (as if my Spanish is remotely functional anymore), so I didn't even really get the chance to learn much about Paraguay itself in addition to the pre-trip post. Instead, we outsourced that work to the late Anthony Bourdain, from his trip to Paraguay in 2014 (it's a full episode on YouTube, you'll have to buy it to see it):

That's a weak effort for learning about history and culture, so I'll pass along here a few unfinished notes:

Now, onto the food.

Listen: I have been converted. I never would have thought to myself, when thinking of a place to go, that I should try to make dishes from the place I'm going to go. Eat? Sure. Make? How? But the act of looking up what some of the essential dishes are, and trying to figure out how to acquire the odd ("odd") ingredients, and trying to find recipes and videos and advice, and then actually making the dish is, I think, a great way to gain some insight into the place, and to earn the interest that you've gained. What we make will never, ever be right, especially since we've never had any of these things before making them (aside from the empanadas, but I've never had any explicitly Paraguayan empanadas, whatever that might actually mean). The act of thinking and planning and searching and cooking—there's something more there than just consuming, even if it's wrong. (I sort of remember, while visiting Udaipur ages ago, that there were cooking classes that you could sign up for, and I never really thought about it at the time. I would certainly do that now.) Anyway, the point is: don't worry, make food.

We made four dishes:

  1. Sopa paraguaya - called a "soup", but it's a cornbread with eggs that give it a most non-cornbread texture.
  2. Soyo - a ground beef stew
  3. Empanadas - Paraguay dumplings
  4. Dulce de mamón - a desert made with mamón verde, which I couldn't find at Kirkwood's Global Foods Market, so I went with papaya instead
Corn meal for sopa paraguaya
Corn meal + eggs, cheese, milk, and onions
Empanada filling
Empanada filled
Empanadas joining sopa paraguaya for a few minutes in the oven
What can I say... soyo looks like something that you already ate, not something that you're preparing to eat, although it is delicious.
Papayas on their long, long cook
Yerba mate

Marginal pandemic superpower

I've never read a comic book. My understanding of comic hero superpowers, absorbed through movies and other pop culture, is that there is an upside and a downside to them.

My pandemic superpower is that I can tolerate boredom--self-imposed boredom, at least--for an excruciatingly long time. Years of staring out of the windows of cars, buses, and trains, and of going on long walks and runs, has prepared me to survive in this never ending state of waiting. (I would have preferred the case where society-at-large did what needed to be done to make the wait shorter, but here we are.)

The downside that I haven't learned how to mitigate yet is that being able to hide out forever inside yourself is a net negative for others who know you, who depend on you. I'm thinking about that as 2021 rolls in.

Next stop: Paraguay

(Previous stop: Ghana)

On Wednesday, the next stop of our tour-around-the-world-without-actually-going-anywhere-game is Paraguay. Again: selected at random. Again: another country that I don't know anything about (didn't even know the capital city of Paraguay). I could tell you a little about all of the surrounding countries but nothing about Paraguay itself. So: a lucky pick, a good opportunity to learn about a place that I otherwise wouldn't think about.

I'm looking for information in the usual places I'd look if I were actually traveling somewhere (and I've also been trying to codify that approach, because someday we'll go somewhere: Travel approach). If you've got any knowledge or experience about Paraguay—food, music, places to go, etc.—let me know and we'll add it to our itinerary.

Things that have immediately caught my eye that seem worth looking up:

  • 90% of the population can speak an indigenous language, Guarani
  • The Gran Chaco is a dry, wild area in the northwest, consisting of 60% of the land area of Paraguay but 10% of the population
  • Paraguay has 15 national parks and 1 World Heritage Site (and 6 others on the provisional list)
  • Haven't found much yet about which dishes, etc., are essential to Paraguay, but Recetas de Paraguay seems promising so far. I have discovered sopa paraguayo, but I don't understand it because sopa is soup but sopa paraguaya is some kind of bread (?).
  • ... and other notes here as I find them.

Backyard model

I've been meaning to share this for some time, but the actual work on the wall and steps in the backyard have been occupying that time.

In the backyard, the boss wants (1) steps from the garage back door down to the backyard and (2) a flat backyard. It took a long time to design it (some early steps here, starting with measuring the level of the backyard) because I didn't really know how it was going to work. Somehow the steps needed to be integrated into a wall. Somehow the final level of the yard needed to be sorted out. Etc. So I had to teach myself how to use SketchUp, a solid modeling program, to figure it out.

Here's what I came up with. I don't know how to efficiently show the dimensions in the model, so:

  • West-east: outsides of outside piers are 30' 1" (9.14m) apart
  • North-south: steps from garage to end are 36' 4" (11.07m) long
  • Up-down: top of top step to top of bottom step is 7' (2.13m) high (and then each block is 6" tall with 6" of limestone base underneath it, so it's a great deal of Fun if you love Shoveling)
The yard itself, showing the west-east (left-right) slope and the north-south (top-bottom) slope, as well as the deck piers, garage door (upper left) and basement door (lower right).
Adding the wall and step models to the original terrain.
Replacing the original terrain with a flat yard. The wall area under the right side of the deck is a notional design for a shed—not going to look exactly like that, but it's a future project anyway, so we'll deal with it in the future.
Here is, more or less, what has been installed as of... now, except for the curve at the top right. The notch near the upper left corner is a pass-through for the underground electrical cable. I was planning to make this wall one more block deep, but the cable sort of set the max depth.
Comparing the model to a recent pic.
Comparing the model to a recent pic.

Which was harder? Modeling? Or building? Ambiguous. Eventually, while digging, you'll find bedrock and need to stop, but modeling can go on forever. (At least, that was the criticism I was getting.) However, moving blocks in a model was so much easier than in real life, although I appreciated the one week of Popeye forearms after moving 600 of those bastards, plus rocks, etc.

This all divides itself into four phases:

  1. Build the deck wall
  2. Build the steps (this is the boss's most important feature, but it has to sit on the wall)
  3. Build the wall around to the garage
  4. Build the under-deck shed
  5. And then later some of those other blocks sitting around in the yard will be used to build a retaining wall on the northeast corner of the house, but we'll burn that bridge when we get to it.

If any of you want to learn how to use SketchUp, hit me up. I haven't done any solid modeling of my own since college (Unigraphics, which has been subsumed into some other company and software now), and I used to be able to open and explode (technical term) SolidWorks drawings of our flight control to put diagrams in specs and test reports when I was at Mason. Like most things in life, it's pretty easy to do once you know how to operate it, and then the difficulty is in knowing how to organize things.

A trip to Ghana

Yesterday we took a trip to Ghana.

Not literally—or even close, really—but we did the best we could from home.

My wife had an idea that we should play a game: pick a country, at random, and then take a trip there—sort of take a trip there. We could cook the food, find music and movies and pictures, learn about the place—do whatever we could do without, well, taking a trip there.

I picked a number (47). She compared it to a list of countries. 47 turned out to be Ghana. OK. I don't know anything about Ghana. Really—nothing.

Honestly, I wasn't sure how it was going to work out. This kind of game could have been really cheesy or shallow. But with the right balance—believing that you could find some meaningful information about a place without believing that what you found was totally representative of the place, or even marginally representative, or maybe even right because how can you tell without any real insight?—it could be a chance to learn a little something.

Here's what we cooked:

Lime rice

Okra soup

Here's how it turned out for us:

(What "we" cooked... my job was to look up history and culture, but I only ate the food, I didn't cook it.)

And so: a bullet list of small things I collected while learning more about Ghana:

  • High point: 885m (Mt. Afadja)
  • Low point: half of Ghana under 150m
  • Lake Bosumtwi is a large lake in an old meteor crater (W)
  • 7 national parks (W)
  • Highlife music
  • Kente cloth (W) (GI)
  • Khofi Annan – UN Secretary General (1997-2006), 2001 Nobel Peace Prize
  • Languages:
    • Official: English
    • 11 government sponsored: Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi, Fante, Dagaare, Dagbanli, Dangme, Ga, Nzema, Gonja, and Kasem

(That's a quick list. I was asked to make slides... yikes. Next time I'm going to get in front of it and make a quick web page.)

Look at this list of Ghana history at BBC:  Ghana country profile. You might think that Ghana's history mostly consisted of European countries. Even at first glance that seems wrong. Given only an hour to dig around, I modified it to be something like this:

  • ~1000-2000 BCE – Kintampo Complex, migrants from western Sudan
  • 300 BCE – Ghana empire (unrelated namesake, northwest of current country)
  • 1000s – Dagomba states (Northern region)
  • 1482 - Portuguese arrive and begin trading in gold, ivory and timber with various Akan states.
  • ~1500 - Gã people arrive in Accra
  • 1500s - Slave trade: Slavery overtakes gold as the main export in the region.
  • 1600s - Dutch, English, Danish, and Swedish settlers arrive
  • 1670s – Asante Empire
  • 1874 - The Gold Coast is officially proclaimed a British crown colony.
  • 6 March 1957 - Independence: Ghana becomes first sub-Saharan African colony to declare independence (video of the ceremony)

(That's not great, or complete, but if you're going to do a historical timeline about Ghana, or anywhere, you really should pay attention to the lens that you look at it through.)

And a few videos:

Ghana vs. USA in the 2010 World Cup

Deutsche Welle: People, trading, and markets in Ghana