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Six weeks, six months

My heuristic for improvement is: six weeks, six months.

Need to get in shape? (Whatever "in shape" might mean, but that's another topic.) It's going to take six weeks before you notice any changes, before any benefits are apparent. It's going to take six months before you're really building strength or endurance.

Six months or six weeks aren't real, scientific numbers—they're just heuristics. When you start some habit, it takes a solid starting chunk of time to lay the groundwork for improvement. When the habit is solid, it takes another, larger chunk of time to get the results of the habit to some satisfyingly high level. Six weeks and six months are close enough to capture that.

I am relatively out of running shape now (at least compared to past exploits). I was building it up this year, but the last few weeks didn't leave much time to maintain that. OK. Let's pretend it's a start from zero. How long is it going to take to solidify the habit? Six weeks. How long is it going to take to get in competition shape? Six months.

They're both daunting numbers. There aren't any shortcuts. You just have to keep doing it until you're better at doing it. There are matters of technique, coaching, learning, each of which have their place in improvement. But the real magic is buying into maintenance —relentlessly keeping at it until you get to the threshold where you can take on something more and learn to do it better and better.

It works

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Succeeds in Historic First Flight

There are two important aspects of Mule Time: (1) Head down, straight ahead to the end of the row, turn around, repeat; (2) stubbornness, bordering on insubordination.

Mule Time happens when there ain't nothin' left to plan. The plan happened. The doing-to-plan happened. But there's still some work left to do, maybe to a plan, maybe not. It doesn't matter. What matters is knowing when it's time to be a mule or when it's time to be a human and find a better way to get the job done. How do you know? You don't. It's a matter of taste or temperament.

I've written enough about automation, and I've done extensive planning for complicated projects. It's real. I believe in it. I use it. But when you've got a long, boring, grinding problem, you gotta get behind the mule.

Plan time is over

When plan time is over, you have to put away your toys and get to work.

No more messing around. No more diversions. No more delays. No more hiding.

A plan is only as good as its implementation—but not the opposite. A beautiful plan isn't that great if it can't or doesn't get done.

I enjoy planning—if only because it's the best time to try to avoid the mistakes I made last time—but not nearly as much as I enjoy doing. Possibly I like that inflection point even more where the plan falls away and leaves raw doing in its place. It's not about abandoning the plan, just knowing that it has served its purpose and now it's time to move on. Otherwise you end up serving the plan, not serving the purpose.


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

I've had that line from Fight Club (the book) banging around my head all evening. (The line from Fight Club (the movie) isn't so bad either.) Around and around in circles. Bouncing from one side to the other, back and back again. What does it mean?

Caterpillars spin a cocoon when they're about to go into their pupal stage. They stay in their cocoon then emerge, eventually, as something entirely different—something they were not, but something they were supposed to be.

It's one of a thousand overwrought metaphors we can rely on as we get to the end of the pandemic.

That first line, though—back and forth, like a clapper striking the side of a bell.

So much talk about getting back to normal, but I don't know about that. Normal is broken. Anyway, when I emerge from the cocoon, I want to be better than normal. I want to be like the narrator in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions—Vonnegut, himself—metaphorically throwing things over his shoulder.

I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there — the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes — there is a picture in this book of underpants. I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows.

"Every day is a new day" is a nice thing to say. I believe it, I just don't believe it. Some of the baggage we carry around we can throw out, but some of the baggage we carry isn't baggage—it is us, ourselves. Every day we wake up and we carry ourselves around. It's inevitable, really. I'm not sure what the alternative is.

Emergence, though, is a transformation. Waking up as something different than when you went to sleep. Waking up as something different than when you spun your cocoon. There are many constraints in the world, and also many choices. The choices are constrained and the constraints are uncertain. You can't wake up as a different person every day. But some days you can. You have free will, just not a lot of it. When we emerge, let's see how much we've got.

A crank theory about technical reviews

In aerospace we have technical reviews for anything worth producing and showing to other people: requirements, technical drawings, test plans, integrated designs, etc. We work with things too complicated for a single person to understand how it all works when it's put together. So we get groups of people together to find the problems,

The problem is that many people who approach the reviews as the producer of the content to be reviewed really hate that role. It is an uncomfortable role. Your literal job is to hold up things you've spent blood, sweat, and tears working on so that other people can hit them with baseball bats. (OK, maybe there's a better word than "literal", but we'll go with it.)

So what you often get is one of two things: (1) People who don't produce a review package that is easy to understand for reviewers; (2) people who host reviews for the sole purpose of having the review being considered done. Both are a problem for everyone.

The first is a problem because it makes the reviewer's job harder. Now a reviewer has to burn more time and effort to come to the minimum level possible to begin contributing to the review—actually having to work to get to level zero to start. The second is a problem because it subverts the purpose of the review. The purpose is not to check some box labeled "have review", the purpose is to find problems so that they can be fixed.

That's my crank theory: make it easy for your reviewers to find problems.

You have to produce a review package in addition to the thing being reviewed. Bringing a technical spec up for review? You should have something else that explains the tough parts, explains how the spec relates to other specs and products—things that aren't being reviewed themselves, but are related to the integrated whole. Make it absolutely, 100% as easy as you can for your reviewers to contribute. It's not about holding their hand (the pejorative usually lodged against helping people understand things), it's about setting them up in the best possible situation to do good work.

You have to point out the things that you think will be problems, and promote those things so that reviewers will see them, consider them, smash them, and ultimately help solve them. Aerospace is no place for letting problems slide. Everyone knows that when they make something that it has problems—it's a complicated field. Spray paint those things orange and get to work collecting issues against them.

It's an uncomfortable place to stand in front of people for the purpose of being told you're wrong. It also results in the best work. You have to choose discomfort to win.