Category Archives: Reading notes

Now reading: Peopleware

Now reading: Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (2013).

Today at work I was talking—remotely, as ever—with an experienced software engineer. By "experienced", I mean that he said he's been working in software development for 50 years, which is both unbelievable and astounding. For all the magic that we see conjured by software, it seems like it could never be more than five or ten years old, even though we know better.

Fifty years? All of the funny lines and analogies seem insulting, and they get away from the underlying feeling: anyone with that much experience should be drawn from like a well. A deep, deep, deep well. Even if you decide later that you don't want or agree with what you get from that well, the direct and personal experience is worth the trouble.

Anyway, he recommended a few books to me while we were chatting on IM. One of them was this one. He suggested this one, out of the various suggestions, should be first because it deals with the human element of organizing projects with software and, most importantly, people. Somehow, people get treated like objects in projects, to the detriment of all.

Now reading: Managing with Power

Now reading: Pfeffer, Jeffrey. Managing with power: Politics and influence in organizations. Harvard Business Press, 1992 (Goodreads) (notes)

No, that doesn't really sound like the kind of book I would read, or the kind of topic I'd normally be interested in. But I'm taking a course called Power and Politics in Organizations this summer, and this book contains a bit of required reading, so here we are. It is a little difficult reading and studying power—Power—because it brings to mind a cavalcade of alphabros making gut decisions about things they don't understand and will have laddered their way up and out of the cleanup once the consequences have come home to roost. That is, I have a baseline distasteful feeling about.

[p. 10] By pretending that power and influence don't exist, or at least shouldn't exist, we contribute to what I and some others (such as John Gardner) see as the major problem facing many corporations today, particularly on the United States—the almost trained or produced incapacity of anyone except the highest-level managers to take action and get things accomplished.

I recognize that kind of person—it's many of the people I've worked with, and it's me. Some of the blame for not getting things done lies with those who set up and administer rigid top-down hierarchies that squeeze decisions out of the lower levels where they should be made. Some of the blame lies with the rest of us who don't do something about it.

One more line, and then we'll leave it for now. It's not explicitly about power, but it is about the frontloaded imbalance of the work to make decisions versus the work to make decisions work out.

[pp. 22-23] The important actions may not be the original choices, but rather what happens subsequently, and what actions are taken to make things work out. This is a significant point, because it means that we need to be somewhat less concerned about the quality of the decision at the time we make it (which, after all, we can't really know anyway) and more concerned with adapting our new decisions and actions to the information we learn as events unfold. [...] The most important skill may be managing the consequences of decisions. And, in organizations in which it is often difficult to take any action, the critical ability may be the capacity to have things implemented.

Hey—let's throw in some relevant Kurt Vonnegut here before we go. From The Sirens of Titan:

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.

Good doesn't just triumph over evil because it has better ideas.

Superior to the norm rather than incapable of it

From fragment 356 in The Book of Disquiet:

I don’t trust masters who can’t be down-to-earth. For me they’re like those eccentric poets who can’t write like everybody else. I accept that they’re eccentric, but I’d like them to show me that it’s because they’re superior to the norm rather than incapable of it.

Or maybe in the words of Del The Funky Homosapien ("Check It Ooout"):

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

Either way—it's not genius just because it's different. It has to be better.

Painful surprise

The human soul is so inevitably the victim of pain that is suffers the pain of the painful surprise even with things it should have expected. A man who has always spoken of fickleness and unfaithfulness as perfectly normal behaviour in women will feel all the devastation of the sad surprise when he discovers that his sweetheart has been cheating on him, exactly as if he’d always held up female fidelity and constancy as a dogma or a rightful expectation. Another man, convinced that everything is hollow and empty, will feel like he’s been struck by lightning when he learns that what he writes is considered worthless, or that his efforts to educate people are in vain, or that it’s impossible to communicate his emotion.

—Fernando Pessoa. "245". The Book of Disquiet. Translated by Richard Zenith.

Offhandedly it seems like a rupture in personal logic—to be surprised by the thing you were ostensibly expecting. But that makes an assumption: that you were really expecting that difficult or bad thing to happen.

I think, at least sometimes, that expected pain is a talisman to ward against the pain coming—like taking an umbrella not to keep the rain off your head, but to keep the rain in the cloud. Maybe the right word or thought or action will keep the bad things away.

Probably not, but it's worth a shot.

The big trouble

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.

—Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Apropos of nothing, I suppose, but that line has been banging around in my head.

I'm sorry I never met Kurt Vonnegut. ("He's up in Heaven now." [laughtrack]) Or maybe I'm not. I'd probably bore him. I don't have anything to say to any heroes—living or dead, real or fictional—and it doesn't bother me that much. Let us all keep our distance.

I've gone months now, if not years, without reading much of substance. Some articles here, some books there, but nothing much that gave me the Batman slap that I got from reading (some) Vonnegut for the first time. Maybe it's time to go back. That or Ed Abbey or Hunter Thompson—something to make the time go by, something to make the words coming in and going out have a little more something, I don't know what. I don't if that's something that's missing, but I miss it.

I don't know if Vonnegut was the inspiration, or if finding his writing was like finding a fellow thinker and that's why I latched on, but I've always felt comfortable in what I felt was the underlying current to all of his works that I read:

Bergeron's epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find, was this:

WE COULD HAVE SAVED IT
BUT WE WERE TOO DOGGONE CHEAP

Only he didn't say 'doggone.'

Disquiet

I've been reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (Richard Zenith translation) off and on for a few months. I'm not sure what to think of it.

I feel like it ought to be a fine book to read while cooped up during the pandemic. Or a horrible one to read. I could conclude either way at this point a third of the way through. (A third of the way through the book, not the pandemic, I hope.) Nothing... happens in the book. Each chapter (fragment) is just a line or a postcard worth of inwardly-directed observation of some kind, often a description of some tedium or dream detail. It's the most thorough treatment of ennui I've ever encountered, for good or ill.

I don't recommend reading through it from front to back, although that is what I'm doing. I'm only reading like this because it's the only convenient way to approach an ebook. And I feel a compulsion to read although the way through each book that I start. I feel like it should be flipped to a chapter at random, have a few chapters consumed, and then be put down for a while.

The entire life of the human soul is mere motions in the shadows. We live in a twilight of consciousness, never in accord with whom we are or think we are.

A final thought about the book. It's not that nothing happens, it's that what does happens—what is described, at least, because really nothing happens—is all very local, very compressed. Most of the book is in the narrator's head. Most of the rest occurs in his apartment or office—again, nothing happening in those places, just a location for the inward walkabouts to be set. This many pages with such a small (external) geography— that is some feat, I suppose.

I need help understanding what I'm reading. (A side note, it has taken me this long in my life to believe that I need help reading.) A few links found along the way:

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: