Category Archives: Reading notes

I do the best I can between high spots

Trailhead: Jan Ascher and Fleur Tonies. "How to turn everyday stress into ‘optimal stress’ ". McKinsey Quarterly (2021-02-18).

Taking stress advice from a consulting firm is either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid. Incredibly smart: those that thrive in a top-tier consulting environment surely must have figured out how to deal with their stress well enough. Incredibly stupid: learning how to live with high levels of stress is about as smart as learning how to live with high levels of shotgun wounds (assuming there is an alternative, etc.).

I am a simple man. I like sports analogies. They break down problems into small pieces that my monkey brain can digest.

The analogy between sports and stress helps illuminate a big challenge in managing stress: poor self-awareness. At the gym, for example, we’re acutely aware of when we’re straining muscles or resting them (the two phases of supercompensation). And when we consciously add new, varied exercises (behaviors) to our workout, we become stronger and more flexible over time.

The same should be true for managing stress. Yet at any given time, we’re unaware of which stress state we’re in (engagement or recovery), let alone consciously seeking behavior changes that would improve the efficacy of either state. Managing stress, therefore, starts with self-awareness.

The way I manage stress is actually an awful lot like how I used to train for running—stupid with reasonably good results that allow me to justify continued stupidity. I'm reliving a memory now of running in the San Gabriels, up and over Whitney Saddle from Newhall to Sylmar then back to Newhall, but collapsing on the last four-mile downhill, crawling, puking, crawling. That was inconvenient, but normal. It was just training. No pain no gain, eh? It worked, I suppose. It was unlikely to have a worse time in a race than that. That run was peak bad. It was the kind of experience that could be recalled during a low point in a race, providing a positive response to the often-asked question, "could it get any worse than this?"

That has no place in the rest of life, for the most part. At work? Nah. Maybe if you're a firefighter or a soldier or a cop, where resilience is a necessity. For a White Collar Hero? Definitely not. But I often find myself cranking up the stress internally anyway. Nearly all of the time this is useless, detrimental. But every so often an occasion will arrive that feels catastrophic for most people—but for me, I've found my calm place. I'm not planning for it, I'm just made for it, for good or ill.

I'm scrolling through the article and the advice is sound. Drink yr water. Look at yr dog for 30 seconds. Take a walk around the block you miserable bastard. Then sit back down and produce.

When managed well, however, stress can be a path to personal growth. To turn stress into an opportunity for growth is to find your optimal stress point. The key is understanding our own stress so that we can better harness our body’s normal stress response, rather than only being subservient to it.

Sometimes I read things like this and I don't even want to improve anymore. There's no fault with any of what was written there. It could fit neatly in between advertisements for supplements on The Tim Ferriss Show. It's just weird in a way that only superachievers would find normal. Stress will find me, ready or not, and we wrestle. Sometimes I win, sometimes he wins. I don't want to understand it. I have genes. They're not the kind of genes that produce organisms that like to chill out. My goal isn't to optimize stress—what a gross phrase, "optimize stress"—but to just not subject anyone else to any negative downstream effects from it.

Vonnegut, Bluebeard: “I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

Also, Vonnegut, Bluebeard: "I've got news for Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive."

Go ahead and learn how to deal with your stress in useful ways. I'm not going to journal about it or monitor my heart rate or whatever. If someone wants to live an optimal life that's fine, I guess. The pedant in me wants to ask: what variable are you optimizing for anyway? But maybe it's just because I don't have my own favorite variable. I like running face-first into difficult things to see if I can survive. We all have our kinks.

I have never seen much point in getting heavy with stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don't bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone. They will not inherit the earth, but then neither will I... And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there's a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.

—Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time

The false name

Currently reading The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa—this from fragment 66 in Richard Zenith's translation:

Civilization consists in giving something a name that doesn’t belong to it and then dreaming over the result. And the false name joined to the true dream does create a new reality. The object does change into something else, because we make it change. We manufacture realities.

This is the opposite of giving things the right name, no?

The right name is for building tangible things, measuring them, verifying their results against our expectations. But the right name is the right name only because we believe it is the right name. It's what it is—without a name, whatever it is essentially—and it is the result of the name that we give it, and it is the story that we build (bind) around it.

This page is nothing but paper or a screen. And the words, individually, are ideas that don't mean much individually. Then I put them together on the page, and give it all a name, and wish it into a new existence.

Every new beginning is an open field, and the turbid past follows at a distance until you slow down enough and it eddies turbulently ahead, burying the grass that was once greener in sediment. Why not pause, and give it a fresh name anyway? A new name doesn't wash anything clean, but it might be that name which allows you to believe in the world under the sediment, a false name that isn't what it is, not apparently at least, and get on to the next day, day after day, perhaps even restoring the place instead of pushing onward without rest.

Nothing does only one thing

I've (re-)started working my way through Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (notes) by Toby Hemenway in preparation for the gardening season. I just now got to the chapter that I was waiting for, the reason I was looking for a book about permaculture: complementary plants.

Plants as complex systems is an appealing idea. I don't think about them like that. In my mind, without thinking about them very deeply, they're just single-themed entities. A tomato plant makes tomatoes. A flowering plant has flowers. Weeds are a nuisance. Lettuce has edible leaves. And so on. Whatever main feature the thing has, that is its only feature—in my mind, at least.

I first came across the idea of permaculture while reading Seeing Like a State (notes) by James C. Scott. In Chapter 8, "Taming Nature: An Agriculture of Legibility and Simplicity", he screeds about agriculture. ("If the logic of actual farming is one of an inventive, practiced response to a highly variable environment, the logic of scientific agriculture is, by contrast, one of adapting the environment as much as possible to its centralizing and standardizing formulas.") But he also tours briefly through forms of agriculture that are alternatives to the only kind I know—the long, long, well-ordered rows of single-cropped corn and soybeans set in forever-long flat fields of glaciated Illinois soil.

The image of permaculture, on the other hand was messy, riotous. Aesthetically—from a distance—it was unordered, unkempt, uncontrolled. But the underlying logic made sense: if you conceive of each plant as being a system with more than a single-output, then each of those other outputs—the leaves it drops as mulch, the shade it throws, the wind it blocks, the rain it collects or blocks, the chemicals it produces around its roots, the nutrients it processes from the soil, the bees it attracts, and on and on—become an input for other plants, animals, and on and on. Designing the system to a human aesthetic of well-ordered rows breaks the network of inputs and outputs.

The city desk of a newspaper, a rabbit's intestines, or the interior of an aircraft engine may certainly look messy, but each one reflects, sometimes brilliantly, an order related to the function it performs. In such instances the apparent surface disarray obscures a more profound logic.

—James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State

That's where my head is right now. First it was acquiring a raft of seeds for their single outputs that I wanted. Next is figuring out if any of them are complementary in some way so I can think of how to plant them. Then, if there is time, I'd like to fill in the gaps: what other plants fit in the network of inputs and outputs and produce an "optimal system" (whatever that might be), or at least a good system.

Exploration, meandering, boredom

Trailhead: Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Play breeds better thinkers. Science 371:6525 (2021-01-08).

I've not read the book that the review refers to (Susan Engel, The Intellectual Lives of Children), but the review itself brought some thoughts to mind. Also, I don't have any kids, so I'm not even thinking of ways to optimize or improve their development.

Yet explorations take time—the time to meander and discover, the unscheduled time to be bored. As Engel writes, “when children are allowed to dive into a topic thoroughly, they... connect isolated facts in order to generate new ideas.” They learn grit and they learn to have agency over their own learning. [...] As adults, we often overlook the fact that learning is happening during periods of unstructured play, or we dismiss these intervals as unproductive.

This is also true for adults. But there is a different kind of tension. At home there's the tension of "stop messing around" or "you should know how this works by now". At work there's the tension of "follow the process" or "stop messing around".  That treats problems as already solved, and solved problems as being solved correctly, and problems solved correctly as being solved in the best way. [sweeps arm about the horizon] Look around you and tell me that you believe this is true.

Some of the current mess—pick whichever mess suits you—is the result of poor performance or poor planning, but plenty of problems suffer from not having new ideas. Best practices and lessons learned should be consulted and used, but not exclusively. They have blind spots. Frontiers aren't passed with certificates. Breakthroughs aren't broken by following the process. "Messing around", letting your mind wander, getting bored or stuck and trying to get out of it or not—that's where the magic happens.

The review refers to two books that have been on my to-read list for ages. Maybe it's time:

Ruminations on Influence

I recently finished reading Influence: Science and Practice (notes) by Robert Cialdini. I first read it in 2014, having seen it on the reading list of several business school class syllabi. This time I wanted to come at it from a more intentional point of view, namely: it's useless to know how something works if you don't have the skill to influence others to adopt your approach. It's a recipe for long term frustration. It makes sense to get better at the the other side—being able to transmit an idea or approach effectively—because if you don't, the time spent improving the idea itself is wasted.

That's just the work-related bit. Since starting this draft, we've been treated ("treated") to an internet-row seat to monsters storming the U.S. Capitol. The entire world isn't based on the best ideas and the best execution and the best moral judgment—but in the best case, it is. That world has to start—to originate from, to radiate from—somewhere. At some point it is a moral or ethical imperative to lead and influence. If you try to live a good, moral life, and you sit back or are unable to push the front in the right direction, then the side of treachery wins.

One more thought, and we'll get back to what was intended to be the point of the post:

There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.

—Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan (1959)

I wanted to ruminate a little bit about the book before moving on to the next one—to extract a little more information and try to use it somehow. Honestly I don't like thinking much about influence or persuasion because, for reasons I don't understand, those terms are on the same par as manipulation for me. It's silly, and I know it, but in the clinch that's the feeling that I have. (Cialdini, Robert, and Sarah Cliffe. "The uses (and abuses) of influence." Harvard business review 91.7-8 (2013): 76-81.)

Get over that feeling is something I'm working on this year. This book was one front. I've signed up for the OB 524 Negotiation class at Wash U this semester, and for the MGT 6540 Strategies for Influencing Others class at Wash U's continuing education center. I'll find some other books and things on the topic to read and I'll pass those along when I get to them (starting in February—going to finish up this PMI-ACP cert in January first).

The way I want to think about some of these common scenarios I encounter and methods for dealing with them—at least the ones relating to weaknesses—is in terms of frameworks. There are some things in the world worth thinking about in detail, appreciating all of their nuances as I craft an individual response as they arrive on my desk. But that's not most things. Most things have some sort of front-end heuristic associated with them—if this, then that—that filters the world down to a set of dealwithable decisions. You need a good toolbox of heuristics, else you'll be inundated with inputs, and decision quality will suffer.

The book gives six principles for persuasion, primarily in terms of "you need to recognize these when they happen to you so you can defend yourself", but with a perspective shift they can also be tools for performing:

  1. Reciprocation: people want to repay others who have given them something, even if the something given was unwanted or only a concession from an earlier offer
  2. Commitment and consistency: people tend to want to appear consistent with their prior words, beliefs, and actions
  3. Social proof: people tend to follow what other people are believing or doing, especially in situations that are ambiguous
  4. Liking: people tend to comply with other people then know and like or who they are similar to
  5. Authority: people tend to comply with authority
  6. Scarcity: people assign more value to opportunities when they become less available

So, that's roughly the plan—to try and bulk up the weak skill muscles.
In the meantime, here is a pile of references from the book that I've collected for future reading:

Three minutes

I'm working on a case about Bill Miller in finance class this week. To supplement the info in the case I've been looking for some other articles about him, his investments, etc. Naturally, I fixated on the references to other books and people in the articles—it's what I do. Follow the graph, etc.

In this 2020-Q2 newsletter from Miller Value Partners is a great line from A.E. Housman (about whom I knew and know nothing):

Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.

Story of my life right there.

Doing a little digging around, the line comes from the introduction (p. xi) of his edited edition of Juvenal's Saturae, available here from the Internet Archive.

A few IPT case studies from Integrating PM/SE book

2020-07-02: Now reading: Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering

I just finished Chapter 7 of this book, which used the F/A-18E/F program—from ol' McDonnell right here in St. Louis—as a case study for how to integrate project management and systems engineering via integrated product teams (IPTs). I've never really thought much about the whys and wherefores of IPTs. They're just part of the air that you breathe on large aerospace/defense programs, projects decomposed into functional teams and subteams and so on. I wasn't sure if IPTs are still in style or not—I think we're all agile now—but clearly aerospace companies are putting that in their job postings, so it must still have some currency.

Anyway. You either have access to that book or you don't. But it is drawn heavily from other references that are readily available. If F/A-18E/F is as good of an example of how to integrate systems engineering and program management as the book describes it—ahead of time, under budget, under weight (in a good way)—then it's something worth learning more about, to see how they did it.

  1. Bailey, E. (1998, April 9). The F/A‐18E/F: An Integrated Product Team (IPT) case study. Institute for Defense Analyses. IDA NS D‐8027.
  2. Bailey, E., Nash, S., & Woolsey, J. (1999, January). Integrated product and process development case study, Development of the F/A‐18E/F. Institute for Defense Analyses. IDA D‐2228.
  3. White, J. W. (1997). Application of new management concepts to the development of F/A‐18 aircraft. Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, 18(1), 21–32.
  4. Younossi, O., Stem, D., Lorell, M., & Lussier, F. (2005). Lessons learned from the F/A–22 and F/A–18E/F development programs. Rand Corporation. Report MG‐276. ISBN 0‐8330‐3749‐8.

Now reading: Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering

Eric Rebentisch (editor), Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering: Methods, Tools, and Organizational Systems for Improving Performance

I've had this one on my reading list since sitting in on a meeting of the INCOSE PM-SE Integration Working Group at a conference last year. (PM = program management, SE = systems engineering.) The topic is right there on a bridge that I'd like to build... or cross... depending on the day. But now I've bumped it up to the top of my reading list while working with the local PMI chapter to do a joint PM/SE online meeting in September. What topics to cover? I don't quite know yet—so let's start with the topics in the book, fan out on the references, and go from there. I'm thinking about how to get one SE and one PM and have them go at topics from their side of the fence, giving a little bit of perspective for the other side to consider. Stakeholder management will certainly be one. Certification might be another. Or not—or more. There's time yet to figure it out.

No one wants to admit it, because there's professional pride involved, but these two disciplines ("disciplines") are mostly the same thing, but with one side focusing a little more on time and the other side focusing a little more on technical content. At a big organization, they are separated to suit the hierarchy of the organization—nerds go this way, suits go that way. Go to a smaller organization and you'll see what it's really about—time and money and technical content are managed by the people who are available to manage them. Oh you're a program manager? That's great. Hold this screwdriver. Oh you're a systems engineer? That's great. Why is this equipment late and expensive? There's no magic in the title—your product is either in the box or not in the box when it's time to ship. If you need something to make you feel good about your role, get a dog.

To what nature leads thee

From Book 7, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (George Long translation) (Goodreads|review|notes), one of the several thoughts along the lines of "the world outside of you cannot affect you unless you let it":

Everywhere and at all times it is in thy power piously to acquiesce in thy present condition, and to behave justly to those who are about thee, and to exert thy skill upon thy present thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined. Do not look around thee to discover other men’s ruling principles, but look straight to this, to what nature leads thee, both the universal nature through the things which happen to thee, and thy own nature through the acts which must be done by thee.

The last half brings to mind a bit from Thoreau's Walden, in "Economy":

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man,—you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind,—I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.

Feel that tension between doing what you're told and explicitly not doing what you're told. The former is what we get paid to do, most of the time, most of us. (In my opinion, etc.) That's OK. The world needs people like that—most of the time, and most of us. The latter is some kind of spectrum, perhaps from laziness to rebellion. (What axis is that?) You need a bit of this as well, but not too much, not from too many people. Surely we play different roles from time to time, but it's not unreasonable to say that we're typically one or the other.

But what if that get-along kind of behavior isn't really part of one's nature? How does one cope? Jazz seems to me, an ignorant outsider, to be some kind of intelligent, thoughtful, controlled anarchy. Do jazz players like to play from sheet music? Boxy 4:4 beats? But that's where they have to start, right? Students learn the music as some kind of structured heritage—the how the what the why—and then, over time, you have the music in you and you can bend it. So if you can drag or pull yourself through the things that aren't you in the conscious pursuit of who you really are, maybe knowing that you're on the way somewhere is how you can handle the parts of the trip you don't want. (And there's plenty of things in Meditations that say you should just deal with the world gladly, whether you're going somewhere you want to or not.)

More, and further afield: from Gary Klein, "Seeing the Invisible", Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making (Goodreads|review|notes):

Knowing how to violate procedures is a type of tacit knowledge

Tension: you can't go off-plan without knowing how and what and why the plan is the way it is. You can't thoughtfully reject something until you understand the thing you're rejecting. (A future post, maybe, about Chesterton's Fence, but in the meantime: Vicky Cosenzo, "Chesterton's Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking", Farnam Street Blog, 2020-03-09)

One more line arises, somewhat unlike the rest, but getting at the point, and I've been waiting for ages to get it out there—Del The Funky Homosapien, "Check It Ooout", from No Need for Alarm:

I love to peep a rhyme / First of all I'm seein' if my man can keep the time / If he go off beat, and it's on purpose / He gotta come back on beat / Or the effort is worthless

Breathe more deeply

I feel comfortable and collected in the chaotic times, although I do not ever wish to experience them.

In quiet times, peaceful times, and so on, when quiet and peaceful people appear to be going about their quiet and peaceful lives—although who can really judge that from the outside looking in, maybe they're just barely holding it together—I myself find it to be something of a struggle to hold it together. It's like sitting in a quiet clearing in the forest, staring up at the leaves and boughs, with a mad dose of tinnitus ripping through the sky. It's not like any kind of hyperactivity where I feel the urge to move on to something else, there's just an underlying disharmony. It's not often destructive, but there are times, there are times.

Contrast that: chaos is calming. For me, anyway. The adrenaline flows and the eyes focus and the world shrinks to the size that it needs to be to get the job done. It's as if all that distracting noise in the larger universe is masked by the commotion of the battle. I wonder if that's what it's like to be a boxer--are those punches coming in at a fraction of the speed that we see them from the audience?

The Virus is unnerving. The Stock Market is unnerving. The Uncertain Future of an engineering company that made its wings out of finance and wax before flying to close to the sun is unnerving.

Breathe more deeply.

I started reading the George Long translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius recently (Goodreads|review|notes), in part, I suppose to help deal with those moments of unpressing uncertainty, when things get crazy but there's really nothing to you can do to affect the situation—to be, as Jules exhorted Yolanda, like three little Fonzies. One line stands out from the end of Book 4:

Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

Unhappy am I because this has happened to me.- Not so, but happy am I, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future. For such a thing as this might have happened to every man; but every man would not have continued free from pain on such an occasion. Why then is that rather a misfortune than this a good fortune? And dost thou in all cases call that a man's misfortune, which is not a deviation from man's nature? And does a thing seem to thee to be a deviation from man's nature, when it is not contrary to the will of man's nature? Well, thou knowest the will of nature. Will then this which has happened prevent thee from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent, secure against inconsiderate opinions and falsehood; will it prevent thee from having modesty, freedom, and everything else, by the presence of which man's nature obtains all that is its own? Remember too on every occasion which leads thee to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.

Maybe a little less fancy, but a little more true to my taste, from Ed Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang:

"When the situation is hopeless, there's nothing to worry about."