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Change

I never appreciated change until I lived in this house in the spring.

Here, out of the second story window of what serves as The Office, is a tree. I don't know exactly what kind of tree it is—some kind of pear, a neighbor told me. Seems about right—it excretes some kind of small, fruit-like thing onto the driveway. I'll pay better attention to the leaves this season and identify it.

What I've noticed, that I've never noticed before, is that subtle, constant change from winter to spring: bare branch, bud, flower, leaf.

Like many, many things in life, I feel like I'm behind the curve here. Somehow spring, as the engine that changes the earth, every year as it unlocks itself from its deep freeze, hasn't ever woken me up before. (This is its own essay, but spring is, as far as I can tell: (a) time for track and field, and (b) time to come back to school from winter break.) Here I am looking out of this window watching it—noticing it—for the first time.

Rapture.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Bud. Flower. Flower. Flower. Leaf.

Maybe it's simply that it's so common, so obvious, that I can't remember ever having noticed it before. Maybe it's just that I haven't had the change happen right there, so close it can be touched, seen so frequently it can be held. Again with the obvious: the change is so constant and subtle and regular and understood and expected, and yet so surprising and unexpected.


The primary question in this moment should be: how might we each play our part in bringing this pandemic to an end? But it is a moment too, for reflection, on the future. Who do we want to be, when we emerge from the worst of this? What do we want our organizations to stand for? These are questions of strategy—of what it means to win.

Jennifer Riel, How to Think About Long-Term Strategy When You Can Barely See Past Tomorrow, IDEO Journal (2020-04-02)

I think that's important: who do we want to be when we emerge from the worst of this? 
It's easy to get lost in the idea of hunkering down forever. Everything—or at least that small subset of everything that we experience now—feels like a tree being felled, waiting for the cut that topples it over. Rasp. Rasp. Rasp. Detach. And then the slow-motion fall.

But it ends. With skill (notch the tree in the direction of the fall) and luck (mind the crosswind gust) the fall goes at least roughly where you think it will go, and then you start again from there.

When do you want to begin to start again? Before the fall or after the fall?


If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?”

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996)

More on this later, I think. But just the idea for now. Fall... intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously... 

Who are we when we rise?


The color-patches of vision part, shift, and reform as I move through space in time. The present is the object of vision, and what I see before me at any given second is a full field of color patches scattered just so. The configuration will never be repeated. Living is moving; time is a live creek bearing changing lights. As I move, or as the world moves around me, the fullness of what I see shatter. This second of shattering is an augenblick, a particular configuration, a slant of light shot in the open eye. Goethe's Faust risks all if he should cry to the moment, the augenblick, "Verweile doch!" "Last forever!" Who hasn't prayed that prayer? But the augenblick isn't going to verweile. You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying; it is a canvas, nevertheless.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)

Once more with the tree.

I thought the white flowers were going to be the best part. Looking around the neighborhood from the same window, there were yellows and oranges and pinks and so on—pick the color that best represented your mood, your dreams.

But it wasn't the best part.

The best part is the green erupting from the core of the tree, leaf by leaf, the base of a flame, burning upwards through the flowers, slow by moment but fast all the same, changing changing changing.

Inconsistency vs uncertainty

I would much rather deal with uncertainty than inconsistency—in the short term, at least[1].

Uncertainty is, in simplest terms, not knowing. You can start to append attributes like probability and subjectivity and so on[2], but "not knowing" is good enough. Recognized uncertainty is certain—you know what you don't know. As a result, when faced with a situation that I don't really understand, it's possible to feel comfortable. Internal tension is low—the situation is unknown, and this squares with expectations.

Segue: There is no substitute for a good I don't know. This is important in leadership. It's unfair and unreasonable to expect a leader to have all of the answers; it's unfair and unreasonable for a leader to behave as if they have all of the answers. I don't know. Smells like weakness. But that's just pride. I don't know.

Saying I know when you don't leads to inconsistency in direction—something that is excusable in a fool-me-once kind of way, but eventually signals unreliability and, ironically, more weakness than just admitting to the fact.

Where do we go?

I know. [Order #1]

[gets to work]

I know. [Order #2. Inconsistent and contradictory to Order #1]

OK so we'll go that way then, but that seems a little off.

Actually it isn't off, it's just that you don't understand the nuances. I know. [Order #3. Contains elements of Order #1 and Order #2, with fresh inconsistencies]

Now it appears that we're back at the starting line, heading backwards. I'm not sure that

I'm in charge here, OK. I know. [Order #4...]

Enough. For want of someone nailing down what they know and don't know the initiative was lost.

A needlessly complicated definition of inconsistency might be: oscillating aggregated uncertainty over time. The first direction is certain—or at least appears to be so. The second direction is issued in a certain tone and gives off a smell of subjective certainty—but the contradiction betrays objective uncertainty. And on and on.

Too many words. If you don't know, say so. If the situation changes and a new direction inconsistent with the prior is needed, explain it and move on. The difference between uncertainty and inconsistency is frustration and loss of trust.


[1] In the long term, inconsistency and change can be a virtue—examine the paths you take every day and decide for yourself if it's a principle or a rut. See also:
Mark Twain. "Party Allegiance: Being a Portion of a Paper on 'Consistency' Read Before the Monday Evening Club in 1887". The Writings of Mark Twain, Volume 33https://books.google.com/books?id=6gk3yAvhzD8C&pg=PA1653

[2] Come for the discussion about knowledge; stay for the igloo of uncertainty.
Tannert, Christof, Horst‐Dietrich Elvers, and Burkhard Jandrig. "The ethics of uncertainty." EMBO reports 8.10 (2007): 892-896. https://dx.doi.org/10.1038%2Fsj.embor.7401072.

Some other things that seemed interesting (the first one has been cited over 10,000 times) but I haven't read yet, but to maintain overall behavioral consistency I'll just pass them along with a look-how-smart-I-am-I-brought-papers wink:

  • Kydland, Finn E., and Edward C. Prescott. "Rules rather than discretion: The inconsistency of optimal plans." Journal of political economy 85.3 (1977): 473-491. https://doi.org/10.1086/260580 (pdf)
  • Hsee, Christopher K., et al. "Lay rationalism and inconsistency between predicted experience and decision." Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 16.4 (2003): 257-272. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.445 (pdf)

This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be

It's not precisely relevant (bacteria/virus isn't quite tomayto/tomahto, although they're both very small), but this line came to mind recently nonetheless:

Because we humans are big and clever enough to produce and utilize antibiotics and disinfectants, it is easy to convince ourselves that we have banished bacteria to the fringes of existence. Don't you believe it. Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.

—Bill Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything. (2003)

This is still one of my favorite books, though I haven't read it in ages (not bad for someone from Iowa). It's really easy to believe that humans are The End of Evolution—The Pinnacle. Don't you believe it. We're only at the top of the food chain (sometimes) because the things that are smaller than us need us to be alive to feed them.

The one main thing I remember about the book is that the entire premise was something like: I don't know how the universe or the things in it work, so I'm going to start at the top (or the bottom, I don't remember which direction it goes) and ask "what is this—and why?" That's a good approach generally but also specifically, in This Time of Virus, when the loudest and most interesting voices on the internet are epidemiologists (NARRATOR: they are not epidemiologists), to take The Road of Curiosity towards problems. It's so much better than The Road of This Opinion I Have Based on My Tribal Alliances Which I Will Now Justify. Right? Pick one aspect of the situation that interests you (what does the virus look like, how long can a virus live on a railing, what is the optimal way to work from home, how do infections spread across a network (my personal favorite ("favorite")), what are good historical analogs to the current problem, etc.) Much better to think about the thing and learn something from it than to just bray your tribe's war cry.

(Wash your hands and stay away from crowds for a while. Don't be a jerk.)


Another line comes to mind... this time from Hocus Pocus (1990) by Kurt Vonnegut:

Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.

Drop database

Lately at work I've been letting others pick up the slack on simple tasks that I had been hoarding to myself for years. Nothing interesting—mostly database maintenance kind of tasks. Nothing intellectually nutritious—mostly things that I had learned to do either because they had to be done and someone had to do it or because someone had done it but not very skillfully and I just don't know when to leave well enough alone. It's work that I know how to do. It's work that I owned, not by any conscious thought rather that I can never get ahead of that default yes that escapes my mouth immediately after someone asks can you help me with this?

I can help with that. But should I help with that?

Death by small tasks. Death by a thousand minutes of a thousand small tasks.

There's a central office that works on these databases in the company anyway, and a smaller one in our division that does the same (but separately, of course). I'm glad I was stubborn enough to avoid all that help for a while—like a drowning man splashing intentionally away from a thrown life ring I taught myself how to swim.

Swimming is a skill. Sure. As is understanding databases. But to what end? Because I know how things work, I know how things work...? It's one thing to practice a skill repeatedly, honing it, respecting it, perfecting it. But this wasn't that. A person could get stuck in that role forever—though not quite forever, really just up until the moment of terminal obsolescence.

Someone stopped by and asked for some help with the database. I didn't answer, not out of pique, not by any strategy, but because my brain was stuffed with cotton balls, couldn't get the thoughts to congeal into words into sentences. And they looked at me with a slightly concerned ok...? before asking if they should ask the database office to take care of it. Yes, please do that.

That database is a monstrosity, and the fools that learn to use it are doomed to keep using it. Say yes until you understand it, then say no. Simple subtraction. Clear out those minutes and use them consciously for something else.

mysql> DROP DATABASE timewaste

The bends

I got caught up recently at work in a problem I've had before.

I know how to move comfortably—maybe not comfortably, but naturally—in two speeds: (1) slowly deliberately thoroughly; and (2) breakneck downhill try to avoid the trees if you can but if you can't keep your forward momentum going. There not much of a gradient between the two.

I don't recall much about the state change from (1) to (2). There's a general frustration at the slowness of forward progress—quite often due to the accumulated work I've pushed out ahead of me while moving to slow, but frequently the frustration comes from the sludgy pace that The Big Company moves at with its infinite resources at the ready. The pressure builds and builds and then ignites. Like a rocket leaving the pad, the acceleration is slow until it isn't.

In state (1) the movement is manic: do this and do that and write this and test that and plan this and ship that. Never stop moving. Never slow down. Stay one step ahead of death, one step ahead of deadline. It's fear and flow, and sometimes it's not clear which one I'm feeling at the time. It's often like that at The Small Company—persistently understaffed and oversubscribed.

The transition from (2) to (1) is where I have problems. Moving from (2) to (1) is like ascending from the depths of the ocean, and it gives me the bends. The pressure from the outside has subsided, but the internal acclimatization to the pressure is still there. I imagine the best case scenario is simply easing back to the lower speed—literally no effort at all, just rolling. In reality I'm still pushing, although it's not clear why. All the insufferable bullshit that I foisted on others when there was a deadline and there was a need for urgency—it's extra insufferable when the pressure's gone. And the wheel in my head is running and running and it won't slow down and it won't slow down and it won't slow down.


Deep in the trenches carved into the floors of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, there are fish which live and die without ever seeing or sensing the sun. These fabulous creatures cruise the depths like ghostly balloons, lit from within by their own radiance. Although they look delicate, they are actually marvels of biological design, built to withstand pressures that would squash a man as flat as a windowpane in the blink of an eye. Their great strength, however, is also their great weakness. Prisoners of their own alien bodies, they are locked forever in their dark depths. If they are captured and drawn toward the surface, toward the sun, they simply explode. It is not external pressure that destroys them, but its absence.

—Stephen King, "The Langoliers", Four Past Midnight (1990)


Possibly related—I don't know—but this song has been playing on repeat in my head all week: Firewater, "Six Forty Five", The Golden Hour (2008).

So this is how it feels / To stagger from the undergrowth / And rediscover emptiness / Dancing on the beach

Fightflight

The quiet voice says:

Run.

The loud voice says:

Resist.

Fight. Flight. Fight. Flight. Fight flight. Fight flight fight flight fightflight fightflight fightflight.

Float.

Swimming is easy, but floating is difficult. Swimming, however, ends with the energy available to support it. Floating ends... ?

I admire the people who can remain quiet and wait things out. But. No. I admire the people who drop the shoulder and drive through the problem. But. No. Remember the fable about the oak and the reed? Bend but don't break. But. No. Remember the fable about the boy and the nettles? Grasp it firmly.

But.

No.

We were talking about change, weren't we? About what we can do to survive in uncertain times?

We were just hinting at it, hoping to sneak up on it with stories and metaphors. Hoping to understand change without the difficulty of calling it by its name.

Do you... do you think it will work?

Well, we're not dead yet.

We're not alive, either.



Oblique strategy: "Listen to the quiet voice"

39

(Ideally, these things would actually be published on my birthday. But.)

Greetings, humans. I have survived another trip around the sun. This one is not quite a prime number, which is code for: boring. The next one is code for: old.

Being born in December means: it's ambiguous when I'm thinking about the last year as an end-of-year review or an end-of-my-year review. Not sure it matters. We can replay content here. Look at the URL.

I weigh 67.7 kg (149.3 lbs). I am—I assume but can not be bothered to measure in the last *checks watch* decade or so—5' 8.5" (174.0 cm).

I am, as of recently, the Test and Integration Lead of a pseudo-proprietary program at Boeing in St. Louis. It's not proprietary in the sense that I'll go to jail talking about it, but proprietary in the sense that they might make more money if I don't talk about it. I don't worship money, but I believe that someone will collect what I owe on my mortgage if I don't pay for it, so I Don't Talk About It.

I am still trying to learn Chinese, and it's still impossible.

I am a student at Washington University in St. Louis.

I am.

What?

I am trying to get by. But I'm also, really, powersliding the turns, foot on the accelerator, aiming for the gaps that the Squares don't. (Raise your hand if I've given you the ol' left-right jab to the kidneys at work.) But I'm also a Square.

I am on a planet, which is rotating, which is revolving about a star, which is revolving about a... who knows, who knows... it's so complicated.

So much of the world makes sense until you expect precision or 100% reliability. Then the wheels fall off. To wit, I offer you the three-body problem. Although I don't remember all of the specifics of AAE 306 Orbital Mechanics with Prof. Conway in Fall 2002, I still remember the implausible idea that solving for the position, velocity, etc., of three bodies that are interacting with each other eventually devolves into chaos. I mean literal chaos—you can't solve for the specifics. But ask me any specific things about AAE 306 or anything else and I'll have to shunt you off into chaos faster than you can say "impulse".

Where were we?

I've got a better handle on tools—power and otherwise—than I used to. No eyes were lost. Many shelves were made. Muy hombre.

And?

And.

I wish I had read more books, but I didn't.

I wish I had cooked more dinners, but I didn't.

I wish I had learned more statistics/probability, but I didn't.

I wish I didn't wake up so often at 04:30 to get things done that I didn't.

I think the impulse is: get more things done. I think the impulse should be: get fewer things done, but make sure they're the right things.

Feel that blood pulsing. It doesn't do that when you're dead.

I didn't run any races this year. I still tune into the results for the Boston Marathon or the Western States Endurance Run. Our identity is so much more than what we're doing this instant—for good or ill. Our identity is aggregated over time.

By "our" I mean "my". I'm sorry. The words just fall out of my head.

I'm going to spoil the movie for you:

Everyone dies in the end.

But it's more complicated than that.

You alone get to decide if that matters. Is it a maudlin curse? Is it an inevitable conclusion? Is it a constraint? Is it freedom?

It depends.

I have moods. I think you have moods. Sometimes "the end" is a gift and sometimes it's a debt. Either way, don't take it too seriously.

I have gray hair—on the sides, at least, and some on my face, and supposedly I'd have some up on top if that hair had bothered to stick around. It doesn't bother me. Let it do what it wants.

I have no plans for the future. I haven't reached that crystalline point of let-it-happen but I'm amenable to the idea.

I am...

I am?

I am.

And that's that

After taking a final exam for DAT 5402 (data analytics for business leaders) this afternoon, the semester—and it still feels outmoded to measure the passing of time that way at this stage—is effectively over.

The last four months have been busy—subtly so. Typically when I think of busy-ness, or of running short of time, I think of The Grind—when there's so much to do and you just have to put a shoulder to the work and keep pushing and pushing and pushing until it's done or the time's run out. The last few months were slightly different. There were aspects of The Grind, but on balance the work was easier, it's just that the time somehow seemed to be accounted for so much more completely.

Moving into the house and starting the Tuesday/Thursday evening PMBA program at the same time turned into the biggest test of time. One weekend, we moved into the house. The next weekend I had the kickoff weekend for school. And immediately, I was behind on all fronts. Then on and on in a feedback loop. Losing a weekend of unpacking and building at the house meant I fell behind there. Using Monday and Wednesday evenings to catch up on the house meant falling behind in school. Like drowning, it wasn't necessarily the water itself that was most threatening but the thrashing about to stay above water—the thrashing saps energy and will at the expense of The Goal, versus the in-the-panic counterintuitiveness of simply floating.

Floating is a good solution. Floating is focus. It's focusing on the one thing that really matters—not even keeping your head above water, but just the bits that need to be above water.

So this week starts a break from school until sometime in January. And this week is the last week of work for the year—if you can call it that, once the reality of staff discovering their unused vacation and sick leave sets in. The cycle eases itself a bit. I'd like to lay on the ground, one side of my face in the dirt, and just witness the world from the vantage point of a worm. Don't bother me—it's the season for hibernation. But. The downcycle is the best—sometimes the only—opportunity for reflection. Doing and reflecting are necessarily opposed. Each requires the focus that the other requires. Where do we go from here? And where is here? And how did we get here? It's not really about getting ahead of the future, but getting down into a coiled position, alert and prepared to grapple with it when it arrives.


I don't know if it fits, but that last brooding passage from The Great Gatsby floats to the surface of its own volition:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us the, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning———
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The ritual of the notes

At work I'm fairly methodical about planning ahead for the next day, week, month--almost as methodical about planning as I am about disregarding the plan when the time comes. It involves OneNote and I should explain it sometime--it's a useful system.

One key part of it is making a new note page for every (pertinent) meeting in my calendar. It serves two purposes: (1) to line up the day's or week's events; (2) to catch notes from the meeting. The first part I'm good at; the second part I'm not.

I think that a slight frame of reference shift would improve the actual keeping of notes. I tell myself: it's about the information. It's about keeping receipts. It's like an old school engineering lab notebook. (A fine ritual itself.) But I don't think that's the most useful thing. The notes themselves aren't as important as the ritual of the notes. Why don't I write meeting notes as frequently as I think I should? Can't keep notes when you're not paying attention. Can't keep notes when you're talking too much (or doing that thing where you're just waiting for an opening to talk). Being present in that moment is the real value.

I am good at keeping notes when I am or feel responsible for keeping notes for the group in a meeting. Perhaps tapping into that is another method to self-motivate.

Metrics and their discontents

A fair amount of my job involves figuring out how to collect some data about work processes and... well, just packaging it in a table or chart so that managers can, presumably, use it to make decisions. Sometimes it's interesting because you have to get down into the esoteric nuances of the definitions involved in the data, debugging things along the way to get the data right and the right data. Most of the times it's just work.

But sometimes there's a little itch in the back of my mind that seems to indicate: maybe we don't need to do this. Or: maybe we're not measuring this right and someone who isn't us, whose work we're overseeing, is going to pay for it. Or: aren't we just expressing the same measurement in three different ways that say the same thing. And so on.

Measuring work is somewhat enjoyable, in the sense that you and your team can get better at what you do, but the time spent doing the measure sometimes also unironically eats the time you would spent doing what you do, which drives an unironic feedback loop of more measurement, less doing. It's frustrating.

There's an art involved in selecting what to measure, how to transform it, how to show it, who to show it to, how to use it, etc. I'm not an expert. But I think the most important question is: how am I going to use this? If the measurement doesn't have a specific use, throw it out. Go lean. Collecting for the sake of collecting is a disorder--hoarding. Side effects include: what's measured gets managed, even the data you collected that doesn't have a specific useful purpose. Don't believe it? Hand your boss a chart with a downward-pointing graph. Exchange your dignity for a few action items.

Fuzzy ideas, fuzzy ideas... I can't quite put my finger on what I think the problem is. In the meantime, a reference that for me has turned into a source of references, and a comfort when I think I'm the only person wondering why I'm carrying this bag of numbers around everywhere: Jerry Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics (2018) (notes).