Category Archives: Reading notes

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."

Now reading: The Brothers Karamazov

Now reading: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1879) - translated by Constance Garnett (1922) [Goodreads / Goodreads review / Notes]

I don't know anything about this book. Nothing. It was late. I had recently finished the last book I was reading. (Lu Xun, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun) I wanted to read some more fiction in 2020 because I had been reading more-or-less only nonfiction for the last few years. I didn't want to buy an ebook. I didn't want to pick up a book from the library the next day. That meant: going back to the old 1001 Books to Read Before You Die spreadsheet, picking an old book, and then finding a free copy somewhere on Google Books or the Internet Archive or sometimes a free ebook on Amazon. The Brothers Karamazov is the one I picked.

I expected this book to be just about as interesting as that last paragraph, but 40 or so pages in: it's completely absurd. Not at all what I was expecting--I was really expecting something dusty.

I remember off-handedly that Kurt Vonnegut referred to Dostoevsky, so I looked it up. It was a reference to this book in Slaughterhouse-Five:

There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life... it's The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that's not enough anymore.

Plus a quick link now in my read-later pile: Donald Fiene, "Elements of Dostoevsky in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut", Dostoevsky Studies 2 (1981).

Now reading: Digital Apollo

David Mindell, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (2008). (Goodreads/review - notes)


I found this book while searching for more information about the Apollo Guidance Computer in preparation for a talk (see: Landing on the moon: three visions attained). Fortunately for me, the nearest St. Louis County Library branch to work had a copy.

I had assumed the book was just about the computer itself, which was why I got it, but at ~80 pages in, it really hasn't been covered except by reference. Instead, what the book has covered is something that I recognize from developing flight controls back at Mason, and to some extent in systems engineering in my current position: the tension between the human pilot and the automatic pilot (and by extension its designers). It's an inevitable tension—in simplistic ego terms, the fight between controlling and being controlled. In more sympathetic terms: it takes more than equations to design and more than human experience to fly a sufficiently complex aircraft.

So: straight ahead, learning more about X-15, etc., until I get to the parts about the AGC and flight software that I wanted to learn more about. In the meantime, the book has also been the source of some interesting citations:

[p. 73] In those days, airplanes were unreliable and I thought they might become more so. I never flew without a pair of pliers, a screwdriver, and a crescent wrench in pocket so I could fix things on the airplane. This was being a mechanic, not an engineer. I had applied for the Engineering School because I thought there should be a better rapport between the aeronautical engineer and the pilot. It seemed to me that the engineers felt pilots were all a little crazy or else they wouldn't be pilots. The pilots felt the engineers as a group were, if not incompetent, at least not thoroughly acquainted with the pilot's viewpoint—that all the engineers did was zip slide rules back and forth and come out with erroneous results and bad aircraft. I thought from a philosophical point of view that it would be good to have engineers and pilots understand one another better. It seemed desirable to marry these two capabilities in one person—and I wanted to be that person.

—General Jimmy Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography (1991)

To train the pilots for the X-15 landing phase, several methods were considered. First, an analog computer was used with an oscilloscope presentation to indicate approach attitude. This gave the pilots and engineers an understanding of the relative importance of the factors affecting the landing flare, but definitely lacked the in-flight realism afforded by the rapid approach of the ground.

—Dick Day, Training Considerations of the X-15 Development, NSIA Meeting (1959-11-17). In: Gene Waltman, Black Magic and Gremlins: Analog Flight Simulations at NASA's Flight Research Center, NASA SP-2000-4520 (2000).

Now reading: Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module

Tom Kelly, Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module (2001). (Goodreads/review - notes)


Naturally, when faced with the opportunity to dig into the Apollo program, I came back to this book, which I haven't read since... sometime in college, I don't even know when. Whenever anyone asks about a good systems engineering book, this is the one that I suggest—it's just a wonderful design effort to meet a set of gnarly and shifting mission requirements in a previously untried environment. It would have been an incredible opportunity to be on that program. Just... amazing.

[p. 51] I had the aerospace engineer's dream job of the century. Not only would I design and build the first spaceship to land men on another heavenly body, but I was encouraged by NASA to let my imagination run wild and question everything we and they had done in prior studies and the LM proposal. I could start fresh, with a clean sheet of paper, using our past work as a point of departure. Such freedom!

What I remember liking about this book is that the program it covers, the development of the Lunar Module at Grumman in the 1960s, is not at all smooth. Things are late, things don't work, things break, the customer changes their mind, etc. It's all stuff we have to deal with today, sure, but the stakes were really high and public, and the mission was literally and figuratively out there.

I don't often re-read books, but I'm really looking forward to reading this one again.


Bonus: here are some papers by Tom Kelly that discuss the history of the Lunar Module.

Kelly, Thomas. "Design features of the project Apollo lunar module (LM)." 16th Annual Meeting and Technical Display. 1981. doi: 10.2514/6.1981-910.

Kelly, Thomas. "A review of the Apollo Lunar Module program and its lessons for future space missions." Space Programs and Technologies Conference. 1990. doi: 10.2514/6.1990-3617.

Kelly, Thomas. "Manned lunar lander design-The Project Apollo Lunar Module (LM)." Space Programs and Technologies Conference. 1992. doi: 10.2514/6.1992-1480.

Now reading: Loonshots

Safi Bahcall, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries (2019). (Goodreads/review - notes)


I heard about this one in an episode of HBR IdeaCast in March 2019: #674 A Theoretical Physicist (and Entrepreneur) on Why Companies Stop Innovating.

Why did I pick it up? I've worked in big companies and small companies. They each have maddening characteristics, although they're not quite the same maddening characteristics, for the most part. I thought Safi Bahcall's explanation in the podcast of how there are structural characteristics of organizations that could be manipulated—versus the normally soft and not-often-well-explained cultural characteristics from business books—to develop new products and new ideas, especially in larger organizations that have developed in such a way that they tend to favor sure things and avoid new things.

Now reading: Wisdom at Work

Chip Conley, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder (2018). (Goodreads/review - notes)


I first heard of this book when Chip Conley gave a talk at one of the Long Now's Seminars on Long Term Thinking in March 02019: The Modern Elder and the Intergenerational Workplace. I didn't consider reading the book after listening to him then. The talk was interesting, but I didn't give the book any thought at all.

Then earlier this week, while compiling a list of things to read on the topic of managing older employees, the book popped up again. This time I had a reason to get it, so I picked it up immediately on Kindle (a rarity for me—I tend to get things at the library or used).

Why?

The reason for picking up this book is mostly tactical. I want to convince a certain target audience to pick up the mantle as an elder—an experienced person with something to give rather than something to prove. Growing up in aerospace from the mid-2000s on, there always seemed to be some sort of catastrophic warning about the coming workforce turnover, like the punchclock at the factory was going to strike midnight and all the boomers were going to turn into pumpkins. It seemed like an opportunity, honestly. How many times we were told that the average age of engineers on the Apollo program were some obscenely low age, something in their 20s. (Parenthetically: those opportunities exist and existed in this era if you know where to look for them; suffice it to say that it's a fool's errand to look for them in established places.) More than a decade later, the feeling is some uncomfortable amalgam of "please don't go I have more questions" and "why don't you leave already?" The former feeling derives from knowing that they know why things actually work the way they do; the latter feeling is a visceral frustration at the clot of upper-level staff forever occupying the upper-level positions.

So it makes sense, I think, to try to understand how things feel from the other side. And it also makes sense to plan for how to engage that experience and wisdom without casually tossing it out.

Structure is not organization

Here's a paper I just finished reading, and I recommend to you:

Robert H. Waterman, Jr, Thomas J. Peters, and Julien R. Phillips, Structure is not organization, Business Horizons 23:3 (1980-06). (pdf) (notes)

I found this one as a reference in The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins (notes) in the section on securing early wins. That section boils down to: you really need to understand how your organization is put together, and how the various components and functions affect each other, in order to make change work.

This paper is (I think) the source of the McKinsey 7S Framework—the seven S's being:

  1. Structure
  2. Strategy
  3. Systems
  4. Skills
  5. Style
  6. Staff
  7. Superordinate goals

I think that list of traits is mostly obvious, in a subconscious way, but people tend to focus on (1) structure and (2) strategy. I'm not sure what fallacy it is, but I understand the tendency toward thinking that if I just organize a group of people or an organization in a certain way, then a successful outcome will just fall out of it. "If you build it they will come", right? Similarly for strategy: all we ever need is a good plan and we're all set to win.

Structure is king. Strategy is king. We've all experienced how the outcome really goes when we push the lever all the way in either direction.

[p. 17] Our assertion is that productive organization change is not simply a matter of structure, although structure is important. It is not so simple as the interaction between strategy and structure, although strategy is critical too. Our claim is that effective organizational change is really the relationship between structure, strategy, systems, style, skills, staff, and something we call superordinate goals.

One of the important things that the drive for the One True Strategy or Structure completely misses is the importance of the people involved in crafting the ideas and, even more importantly, grinding and polishing them until the ideas work. To forget that is inhumane.

[p. 24] We are often told, “Get the structure ‘right’ and the people will fit” or “Don’t compromise the ‘optimum’ organization for people considerations.” At the other end of the spectrum we are earnestly advised, “The right people can make any organization work.” Neither view is correct. People do count, but staff is only one of our seven variables.

Anyway, the lasting thought I had after reading this is: for complex systems, it's not likely that there's just one factor you need to adjust to fix something that's out of balance. But that's obvious, no? Of course. Who doesn't understand that by intuition, let alone experience? But the 7 S's are a nice, simple basis for a checklist or template to consider when planning to make a change that affects a complex system. (And by "simple" I don't mean it's simple to change anything complex, but that having a short list is as simple as you can hope for.)

Now Reading: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language

Richard M. Roberts and Roger J. Kreuz, Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (2017). (notes)

How did I find this book? Accidentally. I was searching for a copy of a paper, Susan Brennan, The Grounding Problem in Conversations With and Through Computers, which is collected in Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication. I found that book in Google Books, and in the "related books" section I saw Becoming Fluent. "Roberts and Kreuz report evidence that adults can learn new languages even more easily than children." OK—sold. When I found out the St. Louis Public Library had a copy I jumped right into the queue for it.

The authors start out with three myths they intend to tear down:

Myth 1: Adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children.

Myth 2: Adults should learn foreign languages the way children learn languages.

Myth 3: When learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

Sounds good—I need all the help I can get.