Category Archives: Uncategorized

Shield

If you were to ask me who my favorite manager was, I'd say JA, my systems engineering manager on KEI at Orbital Sciences Corporation. She was my first manager, so it's difficult to say whether her ranking is due to her being my first manager (what do you compare it to?) or some sort of objective manager-ranking metrics (I don't know what these would be, but hopefully something near-sadistic like performance management reviews).

Anyway, I don't care why. I don't even remember the details. And the details I remember are through the eyes of an idiot.

The one thing I remember—or at least still feel—is the way she shielded the team from external bullshit. (Technical term.) I remember that. The project was receiving some non-negligible amount of chaos from the external environment, but I have this lasting feeling of how she absorbed much of that trouble, leaving the people on the team free to do the work.

More than a decade later: I would do a Bruce Willis barefoot walk over broken glass for that kind of leadership. It's hard. It's rare. It's valuable.

Why?

At least, why is it valuable? You hire people to do work—to develop software, to design gearboxes, to machine housings, etc.—not to debate, impotently, about some thing that they can't control coming down from some level that they can't affect. Boss's boss's boss wants some extra hot sauce on their status report? Or the resident subject matter expert wants three spaces after every period and a genuflection after every pronouncement? The people doing the work shouldn't be subjected to that kind of useless direction. Pass on the things that need to be passed on, but absorb the rest. It's a difficult thing to do to stand between the people who have the power and the people that are going to get rained unnecessarily on by that power.

If you want your people to get the work done you have to shield them from the environment when possible. Take the hit from the outside yourself, but do what it takes to let the people doing the work do the work.

Finite

Randomly—unexpectedly, that is, not everything you're not expecting to see is random, necessarily—some Finite Element came up in my music app.

Bring on the memories.

Finite Element was a band I played in when I was in college. Don't know what "finite element" is? Don't worry about it. Either you took that class sophomore year if you were an engineering student, or you didn't.

A long time ago—2008, we were just children then—I posted Finite Element's live show in 2003 on WEFT Sessions at 90.1 WEFT in Champaign. It contains, in song #7 "You Could Be Mine", my greatest bass riff, a... I'm not sure what it's called. I know in music there is a thing called a triplet, where there are three evenly space notes in two beats, but what I played was five evenly space notes in two beats. It's so subtle, so useless, and I'm so proud of it—it really tied the room together.

Never mind, never mind... the songs that came up weren't even from that radio gig. The songs that came up were from some demos we recorded in Sunil's apartment in 2003. Green Mars—Marte verde—Green Tuesday Records. I think I'll find all that I can, including set lists that I've saved in a folder (why?), for completeness, archive them here. I listened to the songs—more than once. The feeling that remains from that: I wasn't nearly as bad as I thought I was at the time I was playing the music. It's not great, but it's not bad. But I remember it being bad—viscerally remember it being bad. I still remember all the wrong notes. It's so weird. All the wrong notes... here they come... blarghmm... wrong notes.... I remember them all, like cuts directly to the psyche. But when faced with the same music unexpectedly, without being prepared to judge it, the right, or at least interesting, notes far, far outnumber the wrong notes.

How fallible, exactly, is memory? How much does the mind fixate on the wrong things versus the other things that weren't so wrong?

Let's steal some Kurt Vonnegut, from A Man Without a Country:

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Those songs on WEFT Sessions... that was right after I bought the fretless bass guitar... the one I sold in California in 2015... when I moved my wife to St. Louis when she went back to university and I stayed behind in California until I could find a job in St. Louis, and there wasn't really enough room for both me and the bass to sleep in the back seat of my car on weekends. I get really cranky about this, but no one knows, no one knows. She doesn't know—she doesn't know how I made the money stretch by not spending money, and she doesn't read these posts, and I can hide those facts here in plain sight. I think that's one of the sticky points when I think of that bass: pleasure and pain; confidence and unconfidence; certainty and uncertainty. I don't often think of that bass guitar, but when I hear the sounds, the unexpected doom doom doom sounds of the fretless, and the smooth sliding between notes... I miss it. I remember buying it with Sunil at Guitar Center in some Chicago suburb. I remember playing it. I remember relegating it to oblivion, an artifact from a prior life.

I still run meetings at work, as an engineer, the same way I used to take the microphone on stage as the bass guitarist, not the leader but the... person who could be counted on to take the microphone when someone needed to take it—for example, at The Embassy in Urbana in October 2003:

Finite Element at The Embassy

Again, I'll say: the most surprising thing about hearing our old music is that I wasn't as bad as I thought I was at the time.

What lessons could I learn from that?

What if...

What if the things I'm doing now—today—aren't as bad as I think?

And so what if the things we played were bad? Like when we played the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" at The Embassy, but the pace got out of control? So what? No humans were harmed in the making of these memories.

I want to find a lesson in all of this.

I'm not feeling much of a lesson, to be honest.

I can't remember how it all got started. Kevin and Sunil and I were all on the same aerospace engineering senior design team... and we played at a house party near where I lived at 5th and White in Champaign in... fall 2002? And where else did we play? The Illini Union. The Canopy Club. The Iron Post. The Embassy. The last week of Record Service (where is that copy of the Daily Illini with us inside the front cover?). Kams. Bits of the old website exist on the Internet Archive: feband.com. It's so weird, in far retrospect. It's almost like we were doing professional work, but I was fixated on the details, and I didn't really notice the big picture at the time. I was practically dying from lack of confidence, but the product spoke for itself. And what does that say about the things I'm doing today? Yesterday? Tomorrow?

Forget about the sun / For you're the only one / Who burns so bright

Rabbit hole: managing older employees

Offered, for the time being, without comment. But let's just say that, other than earlier this week running across a clip of Nirvana playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time live in 1991, I've never felt more Gen X than I have in the past few weeks.

A week in review, 2019-W17

Wrote

None

Read

  1. Jason Kottke, Why Everyone Is Watching TV with Closed Captioning On These Days, kottke.org (2019-04-26).
  2. Joel Rose, Smells Like Teen Spirit,' The Anthem For A Generation That Didn't Want One, NPR (2019-04-23).
  3. Matthew Ehret-Kump, The American Spirit Behind China's New Silk Road, China Channel (2019-02-28).
  4. Andreas Klinger, Managing Remote Teams - A Crash Course, klinger.io (2018-12-10).
  5. Colin Dwyer, A Horrorshow Find: 'Clockwork Orange' Follow-Up Surfaces After Decades Unseen, NPR (2019-04-25).

Listened

  1. Americanish, Radiolab (2019-04-19).
  2. The Illiberal Turn: Shifting Geopolitical Alignments, Council on Foreign Relations (2019-04-04).
  3. #843 - Chemical Engineer Zips Up Solution for Baggy Shirts, Side Hustle School (2019-04-23).

Watched

Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991-04-17)

Upcoming


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at notes.kirkkittell.com

Rabbit hole: the Jawb market

Previous: Rabbit hole: subway mysteries of New York


It's so easy to get caught in the current on Wikipedia. Find the thing you're looking for then... link... link... link... link... and then you're miles downstream of where you intended to be. Sometimes the results are interesting.

It all started with a friend at a Jawbreaker concert in Boston... which is a blast from the 20th century.

"One two three four / Who's punk? What's the score?"

And then we had a quick chat about the jawb market, since 90s contemporary Jawbox is back and on tour.

I listened to more Jawbreaker than Jawbox in college—which is academic anyway since both bands had already broken up. But bits of Jawbox turned into Burning Airlines, who I also liked during college.

I didn't think much then or now about where Burning Airlines got their name, but Wikipedia quite helpfully explained that they got it from a Brian Eno song, "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More", from his 1974 album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

And here is the delta where this current left me: during the development of Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt developed a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies to help them through the creative process—ideas and prompts and dilemmas that would help them think of things from a different point of view.

Here's a website (in 90s style—hello there, beautiful) from Gregory Taylor that explains the cards: A Primer on Oblique Strategizing (1997).

I think this sort of thing—random but thoughtful prompts—is great for getting a pushstart on work of various kinds. Stuck on writing a post? Draw a card. Stuck on a piece of code? Draw a card. Stuck on some work? Draw a card. The card need not have the answer, or even be a relevant question—it really just needs to nudge your internal trajectory so that you get to a thought you wouldn't have got to otherwise—which is kind of how this whole link-following episode turned out for me this time.

And a few other links to send you off:

And finally, from minimaldesign.net, a version of Oblique Strategies on your browser.

Try faking it.

Magic backlog board

My posts here tend to oscillate between the obvious and the esoteric. This one is going to bury the needle on the obvious side.

I have a good system for organizing information for projects at home and at work. In short: every project and initiative gets a page or notebook in Evernote (home) or OneNote (work); lots of linking in and out of projects and journals; individual pages for weeks, months, and years; etc. I've done this since 2012, evolving it into what I thought was a great system over the years, but this week I changed something and discovered it was only a good system.

Good not great. The parts of the system that deal with structure and organizing information are really good; the planning ahead in weekly/monthly/ yearly chunks is OK; the relationship between how much I accomplish to how much I planned to accomplish really isn't good at all. Execution... isn't this the part of the planning that matters?

Last week at work I took part in a two-day agile software development training course. I'm not a software developer myself, but I'm part of a development team, and we're using agile to do the development. So I'm trying to learn the rudiments so I don't get left too far behind.

The thing that struck me the most at the training course was how the backlog of work was treated. I also keep a backlog of tasks, but (1) it's scattered and not ranked; and more importantly, (2) I don't treat the next thing I take off the stack like something I need to finish before moving on to the next thing and the next thing. This second thing is so key.

A normal day for me would be queuing about seven or eight things to work on, and giving them each a half-hour or an hour of time on that day. That approach never worked, but there was always an internal pressure to organize the work like that anyway. I'm not sure why. Mostly I think it was the misguided idea that all things could get done if you just pushed them all forward every day. Maybe there were some other subconscious blocks, like I could make an excuse for not finishing any one thing on the sheer magnitude of initiatives I was trying to carry at one time.

So, taking a cue from the agile training, this week at work I took the list of tasks I keep in OneNote and put the top non-recurring tasks (the recurring ones still have to be done on a rhythm, backlog be damned) in a ranked backlog on my white board, with the one I'm working on now at the top, sort of like this (but with real tasks, etc.):

/now:
Review the development plan

/backlog:
Finish the user admin section of the spec
Draw change process figures
Draft the lower-level spec
World peace

And so on. You might recognize where the /now came from, no?

First of all, creating a ranked backlog and not moving on until the task at the top was finished was an immediate boost in focus, efficiency, etc. Things got done faster. Second, it feels good to erase the thing being done now and moving something from the backlog up. Third, putting the list on the board, instead of hidden on the computer where only I could see it, and only if I wanted to see it, added some extra motivation or direction to get the work done. Finally, putting the list on the board gave me the confidence to tell people (a) that I was working on something at the moment, where should I put their Immediate Request in the ranked list? and (b) when I finished doing some work for them I was moving on to the next thing (points at thing). There's a really fine line between being direct and being an asshole; let's just say I spend a lot of time on both sides. But I think that if I've done a good job in ranking the list, and in working with the various stakeholders associated with each of them, and in getting some cover fire from my manager by explaining what the plan is, then it's clearly the right way to handle the work.

My meta-plan now is to make the whiteboard backlog a Thing We Do on the team. Most people have to walk by my cubicle to get to their cubicle/office, so I think that if I stick to it, I can make it spread.

There is one thing I haven't figured out, though: there is clearly a threshold beyond which efficiency dies out. So there's some balance to work out there.

(I don't think anything in this post is original or new for The World. Intellectually, it's not even original or new idea for me. But I've never been able to muster the self-control to organize myself like this until recently, so viscerally, for me, this is a Whole New World.)

Interesting accidents

I was going to add this one to the post yesterday, but couldn't quite get it to fit. So I'll let it stand on its own.

In a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss Show—Neil Gaiman — The Interview I’ve Waited 20 Years To Do (#366) (2019-03-28)—there was a sequence near the end from Neil Gaiman (whose books I've never read yet, but never mind that) that I liked:

[1:32:52] The biggest thing, looking back on it, that I learned from Terry was a willingness to go forward without knowing what happens. You might know what happens next, but you don’t know what happens after that, but it's okay because you're a grownup and you will figure it out. There's lots of metaphors for writing a novel and George R.R. Martin, for example, divides writers into architects and gardeners. I can be an architect if I have to, but I'd rather be a gardener. I would rather plant the seeds, water them, and figure out what I'm growing as they grow and then prune it and trim it and pleach it, whatever I need to do to make something beautiful that appears intentional, but at the end of the day you have to allow for accidents and randomness and just, "What happens when things grow?"

I'm not sure which of those categories I tend to fall into most often. On one hand, I do a lot of planning, trying to sort out details before getting started. But I also sometimes just start in order to see what happens. And other times I do the planning, but throw out the plan when getting started, using the methods practiced while planning more than the specific details that were planned, and then enjoying the interesting accidents that occur.

Sometimes it just depends on the stakes, and who is relying on the outcomes. If it's something important and there's time to plan: plan. If other people are working with me or counting on me to get something done and there's time to plan: plan.

But in the main, I think I tend to get started without knowing all the details and tweaking the trajectory as I go along. I enjoy watching the pieces emerge and fall into place. I feel calmer trying to figure out the action as I go—perhaps because there is no worrying about whether or not things are going to plan, or because it's just more interesting to see what happens.

Reminds me of one more thing—perhaps due to thinking of that last hesitation before leaning into something uncertain:

The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself—the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponent—all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.

—George Plimpton, Paper Lion (1966)

The Steph Curry of dumb questions

Actual line from an email that I sent today:

I am the Steph Curry of dumb questions.

I don't know where the words, and the phrases, and the sentences, and so on, that form in my head come from. Sometimes I'm even listening to the words that come out of my mouth just to hear what happens next. For the most part, I think, it's not just a bunch of gobbledygook. (Sometimes it is.) But I am willing to experiment with the ideas I'm thinking of, to experiment with the words I use to describe them, to find some kind of oblique way to get the point across. I don't have all that much patience for the prosaic—for good or ill. I search and I search and I search for the words to make an impact when I describe something. (For good or ill.)

I found a trapdoor into the past this evening, and I've been falling and falling and falling through it ever since. There was a reason for it: I was tying together an article I read about farming on Mars (I intended this post to be about that, but it didn't make the cut) with our senior design project at Illinois back in 2002-2003. Because I keep everything, I found on a backup drive the folder that had not just our report (which was all I expected to find) but all of the data and references and animation files and meeting minutes and so on from that project. And I also found some things from when I ran the Peoria-area Order of the Arrow chapter back in the 20th century in a nearby folder—something I was actually looking for another time, but found accidentally now.

This post has gone sideways from the very start, but here's a reason I mentioned the last two things: sometimes I wonder how I end up as the lead on various projects that I participate in, both professionally and not. I still don't know why. But I've been doing it now for decades. And finding some of the original materials is very weird because some of the things that I think I've just come up with today while leading a group of professionals turns out to be a variation on something I did a long time ago. "There is no new thing under the sun"—barely any new thing inside my head.

I remember Mike Riopell saying to me, circa 2000, as I emerged unplanned from the woods at the post-camp Staff Burn at Ingersoll Scout Reservation: "You're so flamboyantly inappropriate." Maybe it's true.

I am the Steph Curry of dumb questions.

Being flamboyantly inappropriate has its use.

I was in a meeting on Tuesday, and the Tech Fellow—company-designated genius, seriously, no joke—leading the meeting is saying something something something CPS something something. Panic. I must be the only person dumb enough not to know what CPS means. So, in whispers, I ask other people around the table what it means. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. One person has the courage to say: maybe you should ask. I ask. The Tech Fellow explains. Everyone around the table goes, "Ah", and more than a handful write it down. How is that? Why? How can a group of intelligent adults just be satisfied to let meaning rush past them without bothering to ask?

I am the Steph Curry of dumb questions. Anywhere on the short side of the halfcourt line is my territory. If I can push it just far enough to get a reasonable question off—and if I've done the work in the years and years and years leading up to the opportunity—I'm going to shoot it. Perhaps other people want to wait for a higher percentage shot—a layup, a jumper from the elbow, something that won't expose them. Not me. For reasons I don't understand I was given a headful of questions and permission to shoot. Which is partially true. The full truth is that I stew in that uncomfortable feeling—to ask or not to ask—before going forth. My superpower is being able to hoist two shoulderfuls of shame and keep moving forward.


Postscript: Ecclesiastes, chapter 1 (King James translation):

[3] What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
[4] One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
[5] The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
[6] The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
[7] All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
[8] All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
[9] The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
[10] Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
[11] There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

Support systems hocus pocus

Automation is easy. It's as simple as taking note of how you do a repetitive task and teaching some software how to do it for you.

The next easiest version is similar, but taking note of how other people do repetitive tasks. What happens when you do this is: (1) you learn some new and better ways of doing things that you would never have figured out yourself, and thus are worth stealing as they are; or (2) you learn some really backwards and awful ways of doing things, which are also worth stealing, but as a starting point to riff off of (and later they become things that you know your automations will have to prevent, like the protections we put in our airplane thrust controllers to keep pilots from accidentally putting them in reverse in flight).

After that comes improvement and optimization and teaching the software to teach itself and so on. I'm just skipping past that here because that part of the problem is fun—working on the function is visceral.

That brings up the hard parts of automation: finding ways to share the methods, making the human interfaces tolerable (never mind even good, just tolerable user interfaces are difficult I think), making the automations configurable for different users, finding abstract ways to store the inputs and the outputs and the automations themselves, validating that everything is working as it should, some guides on how to use the thing, and so on.

Basically, the hard part is the support systems. Those parts aren't fun and they don't get the same respect as the core functions—but without them, things fall apart. Software will also seize and die one day, or at least the nature of the problem will start to drift away from the automated solution.

Anyway, I guess I wasn't trying to teach or explain anything in this note as much as I was trying to motivate myself to work on the support systems for the more interesting automations I'm trying to develop at work. I'm trying to think of a list of what needs to be done after the so-called Real Work is done—because it doesn't matter if the software works if no one can use it.


Postscript

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."
—Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus (1997)