The worst things about running in the cold, in alphabetical order

  1. Breathing
  2. Having fingers

    1. -9°C. Feels like 17°C. And that’s a step up from last week.

      Breathing doesn’t hurt. It just leaves a funny sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. Air doesn’t go down there. Where is that signal coming from? Hypothesis: the stomach is smarter than the brain, or at least has better survival instincts.

      And fingers. Two pairs of gloves. Three pairs of gloves. Doesn’t matter. Wind finds a way. And ten minutes into a run, the signal starts to break up, and the fingers don’t want to bend, and eventually they are there only if you look at them. Just useless, stiff, painless sausages. But wait, there’s more! In twenty more minutes you have a choice between (a) the pain of waking-up-fingers or (b) the anxiety of why-aren’t-these-fingers-waking-up.

      Trust me, you really need them to wake up. Try unlocking your front door while holding the key with two sausages. Possible, but not recommended.

Starting over–how hard could it be?

Have you ever looked over a cliff and felt vertigo–not to imagine falling but just feel the dizzying spin of the mind as it copes with the perspective and its implications. To brace for the impact that isn’t coming, but feels real nonetheless. To feel unstable even with four points of contact on the rock.

That’s what considering a professional shift feels like, anyway. The paychecks are coming, hands are on the rock face, something feels like it is floating down and away.

Instead of doing a web search for something obvious (“mid life crisis”) I opted for “know thyself”. Don’t ask me. I just live in this head.

The first (useful) link (that wasn’t about motivation or self-realization or some other claptrap that I’m probably going to be invested in within days at the current rate) was this one: Bence Nanay, “Know thyself is not just silly advice: it’s actively dangerous“. That’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for something a little more soothing so I could sleep tonight and make it through eight hours of work tomorrow. Just give me one of those quizzes and tell me what I am.

There is a huge difference between what you like and what you do. What you do is dictated not by what you like, but by what kind of person you think you are.

The real harm of this situation is not only that you spend much of your time doing something that you don’t particularly like (and often positively dislike). Instead, it is that the human mind does not like blatant contradictions of this kind. It does its best to hide this contradiction: a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.

And there’s a link in there to this paper: Quoidbach, Jordi, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson. “The End of History Illusion.” Science 339 (2013): 96. (Full copy here wink wink.)

Let’s just pick off the first sentence to set the tone:

At every stage of life, people make decisions that profoundly influence the lives of the people they will become—and when they finally become those people, they aren’t always thrilled about it. […] Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?

Google, show me “mid life crisis”. Mine, yours, anyone’s. I’m not picky. How much is a red convertible?

[…] people may believe that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that it isn’t who they were yesterday.

That’s more promising, right? A person doesn’t expect to change much in the future because they don’t recognize how much they’ve changed in the past. That’s the “end of history illusion”. The vertiginous feeling is leaning into the future over what your brain believes was a horizon not that far away. Imagining yourself becoming something else is, in that case, not much different than poking your head through reality. How else would you expect a healthy brain to react?

Stepped in a self-help book

I avoid self-help, motivational books because they give me the creeps. They’re a little unsettling to me. They don’t seem to me like they have wildly effective advice–to the extent that they have any practical advice at all, not just some cover-to-cover affirmative statements–but they still irritate whatever gland that is that makes me feel like I’m missing out on something. How does that work? I don’t know. It seems best to avoid it.

(Obvious pivot.)

Sometime last year I listened to Tony Robbins on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, and this year he popped up in an old version of James Altucher’s podcast that I downloaded. He was pitching his book Money: Master the Game. That title… oof. Hard to swallow. That’s like someone trying to sell me a pair of pants by telling me that they’re women’s pants–even if they fit, no thanks.

I got it anyway. (From the library.) The book is mostly vapid so far, but it’s interesting. I told my wife that my new year’s resolution this year would be to learn how to manipulate people–which was a joke, by the way. This guy has definitely tapped into some frequency that keeps you looking out for the next thing coming in just a few more pages, a few more chapters. I don’t want to read it, but I want to read it. What is that feeling? That compulsion? I’m somewhere around page 90 and I’d like to go to the other book I’m reading, but I also don’t want to miss anything in this one.

When he was pitching the book on the podcasts, the part that attracted me wasn’t the Yes You Can Get Rich part of it, but the idea that money could be a game. That really hasn’t been addressed yet in the book. But the idea has stuck in my mind. I bet if I could model my finances, and turn it into some kind of game and learn how to play it better than I’m playing it now, I could do better. And feel less anxious about our national religion, Money. And I could learn how to do the coding along the way to model something like that.

So I’m expecting that aspect of the book–dumbed-down motivational guide–to help me out. There’s something about having a published author give me a list of things to consider that feels more valid than ideas that I have myself. I’ll take that list of 7 Simple Incredible Invincible Steps For Amazing Freedom And Empowering Empowerment And Whatnot and build a simple game out of it. I’m serious. Why not? If it works, it works. Should be rich by Friday. Gimme $20 on Monday and I’ll show you how.

(Bonus: Step Right Up. “The large print giveth / And the small print taketh away.”)

One of my favorites: Python Weekly

Here’s one of my favorite email lists I’m a part of: Python Weekly.

I recommend it to you, even if you’re not a big Python person. What I like about it is just seeing the range of problems that can be solved. Honestly, I don’t even understand most of the Python stuff that it links to. And I don’t feel the need to understand most of it because I don’t rely so heavily on 3rd party libraries (for good or ill). I read through the links and absorb ideas that I can steal.

Do it up.

TableTalk

I checked into the Venture Cafe tonight at the Danforth Plant Science Center to hear some people pitch projects that they were working on. The one that stood out to me was this app: TableTalk.

The basic idea seemed to be this: make it easy to set up a table anywhere (via API connections to Yelp, Eventbrite, Meetup) and meet with people. Even if they’re people you don’t know, you could organize around an idea or topic.

I have a Meetup account, but I never use it. I’m a member (“member”) of a number of local groups, and I get the weekly updates, but I never use it. The regular schedule of the meetups make them seem like pseudo-organizations, and I’m not interested in that. And the feeling I get from the meeting announcements is that they’re aiming for big crowds, but there only seem to be a few people actually signed up. It all seems a little off for me, so I never use it.

TableTalk sounded nice to me because it seems to be aimed at a smaller audience per meeting—the size of a table, obviously. And it feels like a one-time thing for each event without any unnecessary obligation, even if you do repeat the events. The demo app worked quickly as well.

It’s planned for launch in a few weeks. I hope it goes well. I think it could go far.

On leaving well enough alone

This is a followup of sorts to this one: “My Recurring Nightmare” (15 Oct 2016).

On Friday, for our project 2 team in CS411: Database Systems, I needed to demonstrate the software we’re developing to the professor via Skype. The project is to develop a program that can perform SQL queries on CSV files. On Thursday night, I had a version of the code that only had simple capabilities (a single WHERE statement on a single table), but it worked.

And what follows is where we get the saying: leave well enough alone.

Since I ended up taking a sick day from work on Friday, I spend some of the time trying to develop more capabilities in the code. Mainly, just trying to get the thing to accept multiple WHERE statements. Naturally, I broke something. And that something that I broke, well, it broke everything. At least before it gave some correct outputs for simple inputs. But after the “improvement”: blank answers for everything.

And that’s what I got to present to the professor. Laugh or cry—what difference does it make?

At least I got to walk him through the code and explain how it was working the evening before. And it didn’t turn out too bad because the other project teams were also having problems, so another intermediate demo was scheduled. And I was able to get in there and, first, fix the thing I broke, and second, add the extra capability I was trying to get in there in the first place. So all’s well that ends well.

That moment of terror an hour before presentation time, though, was the stuff of occasionally recurring nightmares about college. I was tempted to say I learned my lesson about fussing with things that are good enough, but I’ve lived in this head long enough to know that I’ll do it again, and at the first available opportunity.

On GitHub, if you can work Python and would like to give it a try: SQL CSV ASAP.

Back to Los Angeles, December 2017

The version of me that spent three-ish years in the LA area may as well have been a different person. That’s one of the refrains I use on myself to avoid thinking too hard about whether I’d prefer to be there now or not.

I used to believe in no regrets, but after some years I’ve settled more on not only regrets. It doesn’t have the same ring to it, and it’s not going to make the cut for a motivational poster, but after a few decades I can’t image it’s not OK to look in the rearview mirror sometimes and think, “Oof, maybe I should have turned there.” The key is not to dwell on it. If you’ve figured that one out, tell me how.

Where were we…

Coming up in December: four days in the LA area. My wife and I are going to check in on the things we miss. Porto’s Bakery in Burbank. Sushi Komasa in Little Tokyo. 金海餐厅 in Monterey Park. Pick up a Green Tea Mille Crêpes cake at Lady M. Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Glendale. Oysters from the Pacific Fish Center at the Redondo Pier.

And others. If we can fit it in—fit in in the schedule, fit it in our stomach.

There are people there that I miss as well. Of course, there’s never enough time for that. But we’ll try.

There are other things in my memory from that time as well, but I don’t know how to classify them. I only lived there in Burbank—lived as in having my own address— for about 15 months. But I was there for 42 months, though the first 24 were only half-time because I was traveling two weeks on/two weeks off for work. So my memory from the time is a mess of running trails and diners and bars and roads and bookstores. As snapshots, when they come uninvited to mind, the memories are so crisp and tangible, but as they pass they leave eddies in their wake, fouling the memory image so you wonder if the substance of the memory was ever there at all. It doesn’t hurt. It’s more of a curiosity. Like seeing a face you think you recognize, only to realize that it’s a mirror.

Networking as a game

I used to be better at networking in college. Don’t know why. I suspect mostly it was that I didn’t have any agenda and it was fun to meet people—no pressure, no fear of failure, only action. And when you run an organization as a student, you can email anyone and ask them to come and make a presentation. If someone says no or the price is too high, you can ask someone else. I got Elon Musk to come to UI back in 2005. I didn’t even watch his presentation. I sent in the other students helping run the conference and covered the registration table while they watched. The payoff was in the doing, not the receiving. It was fun to set it up and let it run.

So much for all that. Networking doesn’t feel easy or fun now, perhaps because now I want the payoff. I feel like I need the payoff. That extra do-or-die pressure stifles the drive to even start networking and meeting people, never mind the execution.

I was considering that today and I thought: why not make it a game?

Indeed. Why not? Get past the stuckness and worrying by aiming at something else that accomplishes that same goal. It wouldn’t really be a game, like a fun thing to play, but just a scorecard—do this, get some points; receive that, get some points; aim for a goal or high score every week. Get back to focusing on action instead of payoff.

What would the scoring parameters look like? What would the actions be? For a first cut, using easy to enumerate parameters, maybe…

  1. LinkedIn profile visits
  2. LinkedIn connection count
  3. LinkedIn post interactions
  4. Internal network connection count
  5. Internal network post interactions
  6. Outgoing professional contacts
  7. In person meetings
    1. What actions would get you there?

      1. LinkedIn profile visits –> Visit LinkedIn profiles (reciprocal visits); Post interactions (like, comment); Post in groups
      2. LinkedIn connection count –> Add more meaningful contacts (reciprocal adds)
      3. LinkedIn post interactions –> More meaningful posts
      4. Internal network connection count –> Add contacts (reciprocal adds); Post interactions (like, comment); Post in groups
      5. Internal network post interactions –> More meaningful posts
      6. Outgoing professional contacts –> Collect potential connections; Send emails
      7. In person meetings –> Send requests; Go to events

      Part of it is a game where you get points for an accomplishment, and part of it is an experiment: make a hypothesis about what you think will increase the score, design and perform a test, see how it affects the score. Observe the results, and roll it again.

      It feels a little pathetic to approach it like this, but what the hell? If it works, it works. I’ll work on a version in my favorite prototyping tool, Excel (don’t judge).

The erosion of definition

At work we’re preparing for an upcoming customer review of our project. It ought to be a fairly standard thing, but after a program reorganization this year and last year, we lost a solid century of systems engineering experience to attrition and were organized under managers with a solid zero seconds of systems engineering experience. So: not ideal, but not impossible. There is opportunity in change.

Anyway, suffice it to say that it didn’t work out like that. Selah.

One thing that came up in a dry run for the review presentation is that some of the values we were using to explain our status on the project (basically just what percentage of our work was completed) no longer made much sense. Over the course of the summer, they started to drift a little—which is understandable if your leaders don’t know what the systems engineering status numbers mean. And that’s just in the general sense—every program’s definition of what done means is insane in its own way. With experience you learn to just deal with that, and try to stay on the top side of your board as the waves hit.

As the review approached, panic set in and the definition of done for required task statuses started to drift week to week, day to day, faster than the team’s ability to digest the changes. The culmination was a series of review slides with new terms,
numbers that didn’t add up. General confusion. Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria. I still don’t understand how we’re going to straighten it out.

Back up a step. Last year I started working on a side project to help the main project. I knew, from experience, that as the final review approached, there wouldn’t be time to constantly calculate status, never mind do the harder, more abstract work of deciding what status means. That has to be worked out before you start the calculation. So I ended up writing a few thousand lines of code that could query our databases and tell us where we were, from the top level of doneness to the doneness of each individual thing we needed to do. It was the first real software project I had executed in my life—maybe my second or third favorite professional accomplishment.

First was arguing with teammates about definitions of done. And I mean arguing in a positive way—presenting my case about how things should be defined, and being right about some things and wrong about others, each convincing the other until a steady state was reached. I don’t like to be told I’m wrong—hate it—but it’s a satisfying feeling to relax and open up to the possibility and then believe it when it’s true. And with code to lock in the definitions, the definition can be enforced. I can’t believe that’s not obvious. But some people prefer to run the calculation by hand (“by hand”, well, by Excel, but not necessarily the same way every time).

But the downside of working in a stodgy industry is that code is magic at best, totally made up at worst. The new regime hated the idea of code. There was a separate division that handled tools. We can’t waste our time with that. Real quote: I thought your code was just making up numbers.

It’s all a little bit of drama, but the point is this: you should lay out definitions in an algorithmic form and get the team to buy off on them. If the customer doesn’t buy off on them and want their own definitions—that’s fine, it’s just an interface to your own definitions. And, for the love of whatever you find holy, automate the things that don’t need an interpersonal relationship. Make your own tools to do it, because you learn the nuances of the problem by making tools—definitions that appeared simple on the face can be recognized as their complicated selves when you have to work through all of the conditions. Besides, it’s more fun to create than to consume.

Now reading: The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 1

It’s not the first time I’ve checked out this volume of The Paris Review Interviews. I doubt it will be the last. I think I’ll buy my own copy so I don’t wear out the library’s.

The interviews are fine literature on their own. They’re mixed and edited and laid back down in an interview Q&A format to create a good story. It’s how I imagine that I’d like to do interviews—although I don’t know if that feeling came before or after being exposed to these. I think Cal Fussman does a fine thing with interviews in Esquire also: “What I’ve Learned“. I suspect the average person would want to have an interview to be more like a transcript—sometimes I also want that, when I want the information as it was stated, like traceable bits of data for reference—but there are other truths in the material that can be only be found through refinement, like metal from an ore.

Anyway, I suspect I’ll be posting some lines from the interviews here as I encounter them. They’re too good to keep to myself.


From end of the introduction by Philip Gourevitch:

There is hardly a more enjoyable way to spend one’s time, when not writing, than in the company of so much sheer intelligence demanding the best of itself.

Indeed.


From “Dorothy Parker, The Art of Fiction No. 13” (Summer 1956):

As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.

There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.