Monthly Archives: November 2018

Now Reading: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language

Richard M. Roberts and Roger J. Kreuz, Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (2017). (notes)

How did I find this book? Accidentally. I was searching for a copy of a paper, Susan Brennan, The Grounding Problem in Conversations With and Through Computers, which is collected in Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication. I found that book in Google Books, and in the "related books" section I saw Becoming Fluent. "Roberts and Kreuz report evidence that adults can learn new languages even more easily than children." OK—sold. When I found out the St. Louis Public Library had a copy I jumped right into the queue for it.

The authors start out with three myths they intend to tear down:

Myth 1: Adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children.

Myth 2: Adults should learn foreign languages the way children learn languages.

Myth 3: When learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

Sounds good—I need all the help I can get.

Rabbit hole: structured reflection

Every day, every week, every month, at work and at home, I spend some time planning the upcoming day, week, or month. One of these days I ought to share the templates I use—Evernote at home, OneNote at work. (One of These Days™.) I've found it to be a useful habit for getting some of the things I want to do done.

That's half of the point here. I finished reading Michael Watkins' The First 90 Days (notes) over the weekend in preparation for a shift to a new team at work. I've never treated a job transition in a systematic way before—"I'll just wing it"—and I wanted to do it right this time. In Chapter 9, "Manage Yourself", the three main points boiled down to: plan, reflect, and get advisers. The first and the last seem clear to me, even though I only practice the first. (I used to also consult with advisers, although I didn't know that's what I was doing or that it was important—I've also been putting that back together.) Reflecting is the obvious missing piece to what I do. What's the point of planning if you don't loop back around and ask yourself if the plan worked?

The suggestion in the book was to use structured reflection, a term that seemed a little fluffy. A template was given with some questions to ask yourself and think about—a decent starting point. Now I list and describe three things that worked and three things that didn't work every day before signing off at work, and then the same at home. There is some tension about feeling constrained by a process or becoming a robot, but honestly I think that's more about the chafing of starting a new habit. There is plenty of freedom and creativity within the constraint.

Then I thought: why not look for more and better questions? Why not see if there's any evidence that it works? When I threw "structured reflection" into Google—and more importantly, Google Scholar—I discovered that structured reflection wasn't an idea created by the author, but something that's been studied and developed, especially it seems in nursing and education.

Here are some interesting references on the topic that I found, though I haven't read them all yet:

A week in review, 2018-W47



  • Douglas Rushkoff, Universal Basic Income Is Silicon Valley’s Latest Scam, Medium (2018-10-10). When it's looked at the way a software developer would, it's clear that UBI is really little more than a patch to a program that's fundamentally flawed. The real purpose of digital capitalism is to extract value from the economy and deliver it to those at the top. If consumers find a way to retain some of that value for themselves, the thinking goes, you're doing something wrong or "leaving money on the table."
  • Steven G. Rogelberg, Cliff Scott and John Kello, The Science and Fiction of Meetings, Sloan Management Review (2007-01-01). Although most employees believe that they have above-average meeting-oriented skills, that cannot be so. The reality is that many companies would see significant improvements if employees simply learned some of the basics: when to call meetings, how to prepare an agenda, how to encourage participation and how to manage cultural differences and resolve conflicts.
  • Evan Osnos, Facebook and the Age of Manipulation, The New Yorker (2018-11-15). The portrait of Facebook presented in the Times, as in other reports over the past two years, is no longer that of a hacker but, rather, that of a practiced participant in this golden age of manipulation, in which influential organizations—companies, candidates, murky political actors—use their power to shape political outcomes in ways they don’t disclose and that the public rarely fully understands.
  • Stephen Johnson, The True Story Behind the Legendary "Lost Ending" of THE SHINING, Thirteenth Floor (2016-03-10).
  • Kelly Boutsalis, Reclaiming our Mohawk heritage, one app-supplied word at a time, Mashable (2018-11-15).



Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


Creamy Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Gratin with Shallots and Gruyère


Forced incidental social relationships

I read an article last week by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian: Why do we feel so busy? It's all our hidden 'shadow work' (2018-10-12). I thought it was an interesting article—it explained how we might feel a little busier now because we buy products and services, we're also picking up more of the delivery, setup, service, etc. work. It seemed like a reasonable argument.

One of the references was to Craig Lambert and his book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. And at the very bottom of the Guardian article there was a link to a presentation by Lambert at Google in Cambridge, Mass. I didn't like the presentation much, and I doubt I'll read the book. Some of the ideas were interesting and unexpected—the professionalization of kids' sports affecting not just the kids but also causing an extra unpaid burden on the parents to keep up—but a lot of it seemed like it was yearning for Mayberry. I didn't agree with the screed against surveys at all. This review on Goodreads pokes at the book enough, and I haven't read it anyway, so I'll leave it there and move on.

I probably wouldn't have watched the entire video if I hadn't told myself I was going to sit on an exercise bike for an entire hour and watch it. I didn't want to break that important contract. The second-to-last question was redeeming. It didn't even talk about burdens or time or money or any of the other critical points to the argument, but rather the social consequences:

[0:52:07] Anyway, to me, though, the really interesting thing that you're getting at is the change in social relationships and a kind of atomization because I think one of the reasons people like to do this is that in many cases it saves time, but another really important reason is that a lot of people just don't like dealing with other people. They would rather check in at a kiosk than deal with somebody behind the counter. They would rather serve their own food than deal with the waitress. There's something about this that I think is kind of disturbing. A lot of people just don't want to have those kind of incidental social relationships that we used to be forced to have. I think there's something pretty disturbing about that, and I think it is changing the quality of our relationships. And one effect that it might be having is that the amount of social interaction that people of different social classes have with each other may be being reduced. I'm not sure about this, but one hypothesis, that some of these changes are basically making more of my interactions be with people of my own social class, and not as many with people of other social classes, in particular of less affluent people. And if that's really true, I think that could have profound effects on our social life.

And that made me think of a line from A.J. Jacobs in his recent stint on James Altucher's podcast 410 – AJ Jacobs: Ten Superpowers of 'Extreme Gratitude', The James Altucher Show (2018-11-15)):

The barista told me people just use her as a vending machine when they get their morning cup of coffee. Nobody looks her in the eyes.

So there's an obvious tension there. I like to save money on things, which often means doing the work myself. And companies like to save money, which often means getting me to do the work for them. But mix that all over larger and larger sets of people, and all of the connections between them, and imagine that they can opt out of those connections more frequently... and you can imagine that as an element in a feedback loop driving people to become more annoyed when they can't opt out of a connection, driving people to seek more isolation, driving... etc.

There needs to be a balance between just completing a transaction and treating a human as a human, not a human as robot. I think that feedback loop leads somewhere ugly, a one-way trip to Us Versus Them. I don't think it's reversible, but I always avoid the automated checkout lane at the grocery store as an act of harmless and mostly useless sabotage.

Postscript. What will the updated reference to the good old days that never really existed be for our generation? We should leave Mayberry to the folks for whom it was contemporary nostalgia, I think.

A simple rule: every day be sure you wake

Here's a post I come back to every few months: Seth Godin, Let's stop calling them 'soft skills', It's Your Turn (2017-01-31).

But we give too little respect to the other skills when we call them “soft” and imply that they’re optional.

It turns out that what actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work.

Culture defeats strategy, every time.

Emotional intelligence. Sure. OK. I get it (in that I understand it's an important behavior) although I don't really get it (I wish my amygdala had a stickier trigger).

There was a part on this year's performance evaluation at work under behaviors: Honesty and Communication. I believe the verbal explanation for my score on this one was, roughly: "Well, you're definitely honest." Do not file under: Compliments.

I suppose I'd like to believe that I'm just carrying water for Ray Dalio and his radical transparency, but maybe it's not the best thing to do. Maybe it's a blurry line between being honest and being an asshole, but honestly it's not that blurry. And without strong performance to soothe the burn, there's no line at all—you know where you stand.

There's a book I read last year to help work on this, On Emotional Intelligence, a collection of ten Harvard Business Review articles related to emotional intelligence. I guess I could use another dose. I'm not going to pick up the book again, but rather just scrape the individual articles somewhere:

  1. Daniel Goleman, What Makes a Leader? (1998-11) (pdf) (notes)
  2. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance (2001-12) (pdf) (notes)
  3. Joel Brockner, Why It’s So Hard to Be Fair (2006-03) (pdf?) (notes)
  4. Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein, Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions (2009-02) (pdf) (notes)
  5. Vanessa Urch Druskat and Stephen B. Wolff, Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups (2001-03) (pdf) (notes)
  6. Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, The Price of Incivility: Lack of Respect Hurts Morale—and the Bottom Line (2013-01) (pdf) (notes)
  7. Diane L. Coutu, How Resilience Works (2002-05) (pdf) (notes)
  8. Susan David, and Christina Congleton, Emotional Agility: How Effective Leaders Manage Their Negative Thoughts and Feelings (2013-11) (pdf) (notes)
  9. Jay M. Jackman, and Myra H. Strobe, Fear of Feedback (2003-04) (pdf) (notes)
  10. Kerry A. Bunker, Kathy E. Kram, and Sharon Ting, The Young and the Clueless (2002-12) (pdf) (notes)

Postscript. I've had this song in my head all day. I couldn't identify it, just that I knew it was from long enough ago. Then it just hit me now: Jawbreaker, "Save Your Generation". With these lines, I guess it fit the theme even though I didn't know it:

You have to learn to learn from your mistakes.
You can afford to lose a little face.
The things you break,
Some can't be replaced.
A simple rule: every day be sure you wake.


I suppose it it tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

—Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (1966)

This is a common quote, sure—"To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail". While reading Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for Leaders at All Levels (notes), there was a reference to this line by Abraham Maslow, which is, according to the author, the original.

A week in review, 2018-W46



  • Oliver Burkeman, Why do we feel so busy? It’s all our hidden ‘shadow work’, The Guardian (2018-10-12) Automation was always supposed to take care of the tedious jobs, so we could enjoy more leisure time. In reality, it’s taken paid work away from humans, while also increasing their burden of shadow work, by transferring tasks from employees to consumers.
  • Sarah Baird, This Appalachian Nonprofit Puts Books In The Hands Of Inmates Who Need Them, Buzzfeed News (2018-11-12) "Part of what happens is that the letters themselves are so personal and idiosyncratic that they do a lot of the work undoing the [prison] stigma," Ryan says. "Any stereotype you might have will be eroded by reading the letters, particularly when drawing a beautiful rose on the envelope doesn't really fit with what you might think about a person in prison."
  • Janelle Walker, An Elgin home's odd addition, with a roof that opened to the sky, is found to be a Jewish sukkah, Elgin Courier-News (2018-11-14) "For me, it is more fun to restore it and find tenants that appreciate" living in a home with architectural and historic details, he said. For Savel, seeing the restoration work he and partner John Anderson have been able to do is the reward—as well as honoring a part of Elgin's history.
  • Ryan North, I’m a Computer Scientist. Here’s Why You Should Never Trust a Computer. Medium (2018-11-01) The real vote, the real power, still lies in the paper ballot. Without that paper trail, you're left trusting the computer. And nobody should ever trust a computer.
  • Richard Feynman, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Engineering and Science 23:5 (1960-02) Now, the name of this talk is "There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom"—not just "There is Room at the Bottom." What I have demonstrated is that there is room—that you can decrease the size of things in a practical way. I now want to show that there is plenty of room.


  • ep. 8 | that brunch in the forest, Smithsonian Sidedoor (2018-11-14) Native Americans had held celebrations and dances around a harvest long before 1621. And Europeans in America had church-style services to give thanks since the 1500s. So how did Thanksgiving become the holiday about the brunch in the forest?
  • S 3 E 7 This Is Marketing, Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin (2018-11-14) So it's tempting, in the old model of marketing, of average stuff for average people, to get rid of the tension, to make it super easy. But in fact, that's not going to help you. That we have to embrace the tension, and in fact cause the tension, because that's what we're doing when we show up and offering to make change. We're inflicting tension on the people we seek to serve. And the tension is, "Where you are now is fine, but where I will take you, where we will go together, is better. And the only way to you to better is to get you to leave fine behind."
  • Episode 876: Patent Deception, Planet Money (2018-11-14)
  • 410 – AJ Jacobs: Ten Superpowers of 'Extreme Gratitude', The James Altucher Show (2018-11-15) "The barista told me people just use her as a vending machine when they get their morning cup of coffee. Nobody looks her in the eyes."


Spotlight (2015)


Our reward for complaining about the heat all year...


The Mutual Knowledge Problem and Its Consequences for Dispersed Collaboration

Catherine D. Cramton, The Mutual Knowledge Problem and Its Consequences for Dispersed Collaboration, Organization Science 12 (2001-06). (pdf) (notes)

This paper was very interesting, especially since I just spent the year working on a team that was split mostly into two locations (St. Louis vs. Oklahoma City), with a few other players in other cities around the country. That's why I sought it out after seeing it as a cited paper in N. Sharon Hill and Kathryn M. Bartol, Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams, MIT Sloan Management Review (Fall 2018) (notes). It's difficult to work on distributed teams and get it right, so I wanted some advice.

I've grabbed lots of notes, quotes, and references here.

Five problems to achieving a state of mutual knowledge were identified:

  1. failure to communicate and retain contextual information
  2. unevenly distributed information
  3. difficulty communicating and understanding the salience of information
  4. differences in speed of access to information
  5. difficulty interpreting the meaning of silence

(2) and (4) are obvious enough. Skip.

Point (5)—misunderstanding silence on the other end of the line—was the most surprising, and perhaps the most interesting. I made some notes about it here: Interpreting silence. It's really obvious—once you're aware of it. Think of any time you've been ghosted for any reason, deserved or not. It hurts. I've been trying to be conscious about it.

An interesting point was raised about (1), the "failure to communicate and retain contextual information". A reference was made to information sampling (Garold Stasser and William Titus, Pooling of unshared information in group decision making: Biased information sampling during discussion, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 48:6 (1985)). The quick idea is this: when people want to talk about something, they sample from the information that they know. If more people in a group have the same piece of information, it is more likely that it will be mentioned, which leads to more people knowing the shared information. Esoteric information is less likely to be shared, and fewer people will know it. If a team is split up into separate parts, information is less likely to be sampled and shared across partitions because much of the communication happens locally, so different teams will be holding a different pool of knowledge—and that means that they'll be working in different contexts as they try to solve the group's tasks.

So you need a Single Source of Truth even more with a distributed team. Imagine what kind of abuse I get when I suggest that teams should have an internal blog. But they should. Individual knowledge and team knowledge need to be mixed together.

Finally, point (3): misunderstanding which information is important. Similar to (5), this is one I've clearly been getting wrong. An example given in the paper is how easy it is to misunderstand things written in emails. A sender might think one point given is obviously the most important thing; the receiver might think something else is the most important thing and not even see the important thing the sender wanted to communicate. The point needs to be clearly The Point, else frustration and bad decisions will soon follow. It's much worse when you're separated from the person you're trying to communicate with because all of the hand gestures and facial expressions and voice tone and so on that are also communicating information aren't there.

One more final note from the paper that raised a point that I often get wrong: attribution of blame. I get that it's not helpful to blame people directly, instead of the situation or result, but I make that slip often. There's even a field of study related to it—Attribution theory—so I guess I'm not the only offender. Anyway, from the paper:

When an error or conflict in information exchange is detected, people make attributions concerning its cause. [...] Personal attributions associate the cause of the communication conflict with some characteristic or behavior of an individual. [...] Attributions were judged to be constructive if they facilitated inquiry and change to reduce the incidence of communication conflicts in the future. Attributions were nonconstructive if they were task irrelevant or destructive to cooperation, inquiry, and adaptation. The researchers suggested that situational as opposed to personal attributions tend to produce better resolution of conflicts because they focus participants on modifying the "contracts that guide the communication process. If attributions are destructive, contracts concerning the communication process break down and people withdraw from cooperation.

If you work in distributed teams you should read the paper. It might keep your foot out of some of the traps that others have stepped in. (Now to find ways to pry my foot out of these traps that I just noticed...)

Aside. Interesting-looking rabbit hole discovered but not pursued: Several references are made to Herbert Clark, a psycholinguist at Stanford. Based on titles alone, I would check out the following if they ever line up with what I'm pursuing:

Mission engineering, digital engineering, and MBSE

I attended Bob Scheurer's INCOSE Midwest Gateway Chapter talk earlier this week: Mission Engineering, Digital Engineering, MBSE, and the Like: The One Underlying Essential Attribute. The presentation slides are available here.

Here are a few notes, along with links to the sources, of notes I took during the presentation...

Now, MBSE I understand. Not that I am an expert practitioner, but I understand what model based systems engineering is getting at. I've got one shoulder to the wall separating the usual set of text-based system requirements, trying to push it over into model-based requirements. Let the analyses and the tests do the talking, not just the words.

But: digital engineering and mission engineering were new to me. Sort of—rather their current names were new to me, which was part of the thrust of the presentation. Mission engineering is basically systems engineering at a really high level. It seems to be about designing missions, which would then be the driver for designing or acquiring systems to accomplish the mission. In other words, to repeat, it's just systems engineering. However, put another way: it's systems engineering using currently popular terminology, so maybe there's an angle to exploit there.

Digital engineering seems to be: how are you going to design your individual systems so that they can provide data to a central entity that integrates that data into some other purpose. What that strikes me as, although I am exceedingly ignorant about the details, is the interconnection of things on the web. Each of the individual servers attached to the web send and respond to HTTP requests. Many sites have defined application program interfaces (APIs) that set rules for how external entities can request and use their data via HTTP requests. Maybe big physical systems are coming around to that.

Anyway, the lingering thought is that it's difficult to tell the difference between mission engineering and digital twin and digital engineering and many other buzzwords that crop up from time to time. Maybe they're useful, maybe not—time will tell. In the meantime, systems engineer have to treat them like real things if we want to keep our heads above water.

Slouching into training shape, 3: slouching out of training shape

Slouching into training shape, 2

If there's one thing I've been lucky to not experience, it's athletic injuries, even while accumulating years and mileage. The left ankle that was sprained in fall of 2001 while playing ultimate is still larger than the right one. And I kicked a rock hidden under the leaves somewhere around mile 37 at the 2012 Ozark Trail Endurance Run, tweaking something deep in my calf muscle, eventually dropping out around mile 50 for my first and only DNF. Otherwise: nothing debilitating. Some IT band syndrome early in 2012 (not recommended—the worst, most-painful non-injury injury, just deeply weird to relieve knee pain by massaging your hip) that took a while to get rid of. But nothing else that I can recall. Resilience isn't sexy, but so what? I'll take it.

What is the difference between resilience and luck? I don't know. Injuries can be bad luck (hidden under the leaves). Injuries can be earned through stupidity. But what's the path that leads to not-injury? Of course that's a nonsense question. It's like asking how I roll so many 4s while playing craps.

What happens is this: something hurts. OK, no big deal when you're Muy Hombre. Just a pain in the right calf, somewhere down low, somewhere you'd expect an occasional pain because you run with the zero-drop thin-rubber shoes. And you think: I've had worse. It doesn't necessarily affect the run itself, it just hurts in the morning. Then it hurts after the run. Then it hurts during the run. Then a two-mile run involves some walking. And there you are.

This is a hard lesson. I tried taking two days off, to no avail. I got tired of limping around the house, around the office, etc. This time I'm taking a week off.

The horror! The horror!

It's hard to take time off something that has, for good or for ill, become entwined with your own self-definition. But it's a long game, right? This is something we're trained to understand as systems engineers: sub-optimize the component to optimize the system that it's a part of. Take a week off, lose a little bit of (planned) training, in order to do better over the long term.

Those words are all very sensible to send out to the rest of the world, but internally it's just... chomping on the bit to get moving... want to push it, but...

It's like that out in the Real World, too, eh? When you're going the same way you've been going, dragging something (like your leg) behind you, losing ground, pushing anyway... sidelined... chomping on the bit to get moving...

I've taken a week off running now, but this week I discovered ("discovered") an exercise bike in the gym. It's a different set of muscles, and different kind of energy to make it ago, and—most importantly—it doesn't piss off the muscle or whatever that was causing the trouble. So that whole time there were options within the constraint, I had just always mentally filtered out the exercise equipment in the gym because it didn't match my vision of myself.

These past two weeks I've been studying web stuff I kind of knew, but didn't really know all that well—JavaScript, HTML, CSS, PHP, etc.mdash;for a project. I had written it off in the past as being something I couldn't understand beyond what I already knew. But I knew more than I thought, it turns out, and with what I've learned about software engineering in Python, R, etc., in the last two or three years, I can make all that stuff dance now. Eight years ago, when I got laid off, I had time time time to learn and do these things, but I didn't have focus or any vision for how it could be used or learned or whatever, and I just didn't understand how to bridge the gap between reading about something and making it exist in the real world. The information was all out there, but I didn't see it—at least not in the right way. But the situation had turned a little bit in these last two weeks, and I got to see it from a different angle, and it made sense. So that whole time there were options within the constraint.

I was going to start running again tomorrow, but I might not—I might mine that cycling vein for a while and see how it turns out. I was going to give up this web programming kick tomorrow, but I might not—I might mine all these ideas for implementing other ideas for a while and see how it turns out. I've got no plan for either thing, it's just fun to push it, get good enough to compete, lace 'em up, go, and let the race sort itself out.