Category Archives: Uncategorized

It works, 2

Previous: It works (2021-04-19)

Trailhead: Eric Berger. "‘After a dozen flights, NASA’s chopper has yet to come a cropper". Ars Technica (2021-08-17).

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity is still going and going and going. Twelve flights in four months doesn't sound like much—but it's an amazing solar-powered toaster with rotary wings in a low-density atmosphere with no one around to set it upright or mend its body if something goes wrong. There are flying things of all shapes and sizes and methods here on much, so perhaps it doesn't seem as magical as it is. Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner (an amazing solar-powered toaster with rotary wheels) were also not that much compared to the robot vans on Mars today, but they tested out some methods and technologies that led to bigger and better missions.

One day it will be commonplace for aircraft of various kinds on Mars, providing the kinds of footage that can't be supplied from the ground or from orbit. Balloons, planes, helicopters. The interesting regions of Mars—the ones that will be in the final running for landing sites for human missions—will be known in fine detail before anyone gets there. It won't be a matter of if these robots will be able to fly, but how many and where and what kinds of robots will be flying there.

Every day is a day

"Well it's Groundhog Day. Again."

Every day is a new day is a casual fiction that we tell ourselves. We can break with our pasts and our futures, and light the fuse on our presents and—hey presto—off we go. I don't know about that. The past is a mystery and the future is history and today is a graft.

"There is no way that this winter is ever going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don't see any other way out. He's got to be stopped. And I have to stop him."

I'm not quite sure I ever had a plan for where I was going to take this mess of words.

I love middle age. Before I can finish saying "I can't believe it's Monday already" it's Thursday. Time is loaded into a cannon and the guy lighting the fuse doesn't even wait for you to get out of the way.

Outside of a traumatic experience, we get to wake up connected to the past and the future. Every day is a new day, but only if you don't examine it closely. It looks an awful lot like the day before, and the day before that. That's not the worst thing (love the process, keep pushing things forward) unless you're just coasting to a halt.

Every day is a slightly new day, maybe—you can tell it's not factory-new because it doesn't have that new day smell. Someone has been driving this day. Was it you? Maybe if you had to slightly change one small thing on your slightly new day, spend a little time behind the wheel yourself. Drive it into the quarry for all I care, but drive it.

Reference, 2

Previous: Reference (2021-07-30)

After reading a book or paper—the boring, sometimes informative kind, but I suppose that's obvious from the title of the post—I grab a pile of references and store them nicely and neatly in a place where I will never ever look at them again. I do this dutifully. I don't know why.

I finished reading Managing with Power a week or two ago, then tonight I thumbed through the bibliography and grabbed citations for books and papers that I remembered from the text, or had titles that seemed like something I wanted to read.

Hold on—just wanted to address the last sentence in the first paragraph. I think I know why. Even when alone, there is some kind of strange allure to appearing smart. Nobody knows I'm jotting down all these academic reference, but I still get something of the... I don't know... dopamine response to behaving in a way that would get some kind of "check out the big brain on this guy" reaction. It's weird. Not surprising, I suppose. We all have our self-images that we fight to maintain.

Anyway, here I am with a pretty large pile of references about psychology and sociology and so on in large organizations. I'm glad someone's thinking about it. Large organizations could use some work. But am I really going to sit down with those and read them? Any of the papers? Any of the books? Maybe. Should I? I'm not totally convinced. Is that the thing I want to know more about? To be better at? Sort of—in a stiff-arming-the-thing-that-annoys-me kind of way, it would be nice to navigate large organizations without getting mired in the hassles. But is that as interesting as doing the job itself better? No, not really. But do you ever get to just do the job in a large organization. No, not really. So, learning how to do the job and survive the culture both have a place, for good or ill. Interested yet? Eh. Not as interested in reading the references as collecting them, perhaps.

The Last Days

The 1998 documentary The Last Days has recently been added to Netflix. We watched it tonight—I'm not sure how we stumbled into it, but the algorithm probably noticed that we've watched The Pianist and Schindler's List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and several movies and shows about Nanjing, so we get more Holocaust movies served to us.

I think I could understand it if someone said—prior to receiving evidence, of course—that they didn't believe such a thing happened. It's a scale and a brutality—scales and brutalities—that are hard to square with human activities. On the surface, at least. Below the surface, I think we see ourselves and the people we know and the people we don't know, and we understand. I think it's an unsettling feeling, this under-surface thought. We can imagine ourselves in any one of the roles in this story—any and all of them, not just the valiant and the dispossessed, but the aggressors.

All models are wrong

All models are wrong

Now it would be very remarkable if any system existing in the real world could be exactly represented by any simple model. However, cunningly chosen parsimonious models often do provide remarkably useful approximations. For example, the law PV = RT relating pressure P, volume V and temperature T of an "ideal" gas via a constant R is not exactly true for any real gas, but it frequently provides a useful approximation and furthermore its structure is informative since it springs from a physical view of the behavior of gas molecules. For such a model there is no need to ask the question "Is the model true?". If "truth" is to be the "whole truth" the answer must be "No". The only question of interest is "Is the model illuminating and useful?".

—Box, George EP. "Robustness in the strategy of scientific model building." Robustness in statistics. Academic Press, 1979. 201-236.

Sometimes it doesn't come together

I send out this newsletter every Monday. Usually it comes together. It's a sort of performance. I have some links to things I read and watch and so on that I like to pass on for others to read and watch and so on—that's the easy part, it just accumulates during the week. The performance happens in the few paragraphs before that.

I don't mind speaking in front of groups. Prepared, semi-prepared, unprepared, extemporaneous—it doesn't matter. Something always bubbles to the surface when I need it to. It's not always the best something, but I only need something something. The note that comes out flat can be the step up to the right note, and in that step sometimes a completely new pathway has revealed itself and we're off on a journey. Which is to say that I can talk about nothing forever once I get that something out.

The first few paragraphs of the newsletter are like that. I don't know what's going to come out. I stare at this infernal screen for a few minutes hoping something will arise—some distant noise, some distant memory, some minor irritation, something I saw but didn't see until I saw it in memory and now I'm ready to investigate its hazy impression from the periphery of my eye and mind. I sit and I fidget. I apply 80 proof directly to the frontal lobe with a brick. I glance at the clock and see midnight coming and step up to the line and jump. The words are going to come out—but which ones? Doesn't matter. Gather them all in a basket and then put them together in a way that works.

Sometimes it doesn't come together. It's not that it's bad. Some bad art is OK if you were really leaning into it, trying to make it work, trying to explore some new territory, trying to grab some idea out of the ether. The real problem is when it's nothing. Some words. Some thoughts. But no direction. No real attempt. Not enough speed to leave the ground—the blocks not even removed from the wheels, but I sit there in the cockpit mumbling VROOM VROOM to give the impression to nobody that things are moving, that we're going somewhere.

The delete button is my friend. We've undone a lot of bad work together. Tomorrow is also my friend because it ain't never said nothin' bad about nothin'.

Missing obvious problems

A storm rolled through the area on Thursday. There never seems to be a nice, easy rain here, just a wall of water that has tipped over somewhere and arced ungracefully to the ground. There are two rain scenarios in the garden: drought; and cleaning up after the deluge.

Fewer than half of the corn stalks in the Country Gentleman and Golden Bantam plots are standing now. Every storm takes one, but now that they're taller, this storm took down more than its quota. Never mind that all of the corn stalks are weird and thin from being transplanted anyway, and just waiting for some pressure to bend and then break.

The Black Aztec plot had even more problems—the transplantation problem plus my thorough misunderstanding of how much light that area gets, or maybe it was the gazebo we put on the deck taking away an hour of light. Those corn stalks are weird and thin and not very stiff—prone to bending over on a good day, especially those stalks that had pole beans growing on them.

I've been looking out of the second floor window for three days after the storm, annoyed at the state of the Black Aztec plot. None of the good ones were standing anymore, only two or three dwarf plants (out of a starting plot of sixteen). I would check it out from the window, see the sad and bent plants, brood over the lost effort. But I couldn't be bothered to go down there.

Today I went down there to check things out and do maintenance.

There was a branch from the oak tree above laying on several of the stalks.


So maybe if I had checked that out on Friday the corn might have picked itself back up again, at least a little.

Sometimes it's the mundane details that get you. Sometimes it's the big thing that gets you, but you don't notice because you're too busy considering the theory of forests instead of the tree that has fallen on you.

Stress building

I was going to start off here by saying, "When I get stressed, I like to go build something as a way of handling the stress." That sounds like a healthy, well-adjusted way of doing things. Create something good while burning off something bad. Win. Win.

Here on this site I can start however I want, but that was a little too rich.

Perhaps it would be more accurately stated as: in the absolutely best cases, when I'm feeling stressed, I go out and use my hands—maybe build a bit of a wall or shelf, maybe dig a hole (for a project, not just... dig a hole somewhere), paint something, tend the garden, etc. Most of the time the response is: pace around the house for as long as it takes—hours, days. This is an undersold benefit of working from home. If I did that in the office, I'd look like a madman. (Actually, I do it in the office, I just walk around different floors of the building, or to other connected buildings.) In the office the best case is working on some little software scripts, which doesn't really remove the stress because I'm always about one line of code away from getting stuck and frustrated, but at least the stress is directed in a useful direction.

I've never tried using a squeezeball. It seems useless.

I'm not feeling stressed now, so it's funny to look back at those times—like looking at a different person. (Like looking at an animal in a zoo.) Being able to pick apart the healthy and unhealthy responses so easily is the kind of gift you only get when you're not in that kind of situation. Now, if only there were a way to springload the healthy, useful response so that it was right there, ready to go, at the right time.

Meetings or work

I started to collect some links and references, etc., about the conflict at the intersection of having meetings and getting work done. I'm sort of just sitting here with a crooked smile and one should drooping a little lower than the other. It seems that perhaps I'm not the first person who has thought of this particular problem. I do have a pile of links that are either work sharing or not, I haven't decided. It's a lot of common sense—but how relevant is common sense if it doesn't seem to jump the fence from sense to action? Yes we all know that setting ourselves on fire is bad common sense, but in these here parts we're all given a lighter and a can of kerosene and we know what we're expected to do with them.

Mule time, 3

Previous: Mule time, 2

There's a downside to the mulish grind through work. (There are many, but there is only room for one thought at a time in mule mind.) Pulling and pulling and pulling on a plow, one row at a time, one row at a time, one row at a time, pulling, onward, repeating, repeating, pulling, row, row, row—there isn't much space for introspection. Some activities, boring and repetitive as they are, offer some space to expand—simple work that doesn't last long. Mule time is different. Mule time is the longest month you've had this week. Sun down to sun up. Pulling, rows, etc.

Where does the mind go?

For that weird, brief interlude when I was running long distances, well-meaning jokers would ask: what do you think about for that long?

I'll tell you:


If you're lucky, nothing. The brain—fantastic piece of evolved machinery that it is—only gets in the way if you're going to go run all day and part of the night. As soon as that thing starts thinking about the situation that it's gotten itself into, it's going to figure out that it's a situation it wants to get itself out of.

Row. Row. Row. (In a field, not in a boat.) Put the brain in a cradle and rock it to sleep. Row. Row. Row. (Gently down the field.) The fuzzy, swaddled brain has no thoughts to think. Row. Row. Row. The sleeping brain might work out some ideas while it dreams, but the mulesleep brain is on standby.

During the mule times I look at this screen, and I shake my head, and there is nothing but the sound of a few loose pebbles clinking around the inside of the skull. Eventually the thoughts come back, but it's tiring to think about it. Pulling the plow is one kind of tired. Pulling thoughts out of the ether is another kind.