#Influences: First in a Series

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Interrogator: "Is that a fair thing to say? That you've been under the influence of other people?"

Sheridan: "No."

Interrogator: "No, really? I find that most remarkable. I mean, aren't we all under the influence of others? It's part of being in the world. Somebody in the office is in a bad mood, pretty soon everybody's in a bad mood. We're all influenced by other people."

—Babylon 5, Episode 4.18, "Intersections in Real Time"

To avoid one problem I have with writing—the strong feeling that I am repeating myself, leading to being super redundant, pointless and boring—I'll try a new tack.

For many of the various things I feel I've learned over the years, often I can point back to one or more specific things which led me there.

And rather than just expound on my various philosophies & heresies here, I think it will be more interesting to write about where some of these things came from (when I have particular things I can point back to).

This sort of rhymes with my wish to post about #ExcellentThings as well.

On some level, these kind of posts are just another series of 'Things What I Like'. But they are specifically things that I recall often, that I can point to as having had a lasting effect on my thinking.

Another part of wanting to post about these is to leave a trail for my son to find someday, helping to explain 'why was Dad like that, anyway?'.


#Influences: On Change

I was an avid reader of DC's The Question, by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan.

O'Neil used a lot of Eastern philosophy in his dialogue and plots, which was fairly interesting as a counterpoint to the Rand and Heinlein and so forth I was reading as a teen.

Of all the interesting thoughts and quotes that came out of it, the one that has stuck with me for decades is from the finale of a three-part crossover with Green Arrow and Batman, titled "Fables". (For an extensive exploration of that story, with scans of many panels, visit that link.)

Skipping the very very long setup, the line I come back to is spoken across a stormy ocean from a dying sensei to the main character Vic Sage (who is still immature, quick to anger and so forth).

The world was roaring around me...the wind shrieking, the water pounding and hissing.

I can't be sure I heard the old man's voice... I don't know if he really said it...

"I was once like you.

If you live, you will change."

—The Question, Annual #1, "Fables Part III" by O'Neil, Cowan & Magyar, 1988

it's a versatile idea, approachable from several angles:

If you live, you will change. If you continue to live, you will continue to change.

The only way you will stop changing is to stop living. You are never a "finished" person until you have no more breaths.

Assuming that you will change, that more changes are coming: will you deliberately attempt to become better, or inattentively change to become more calcified, more rigid, more of the same?

I come back to this whenever I get pushed out of my comfort zone, or when I have clearly made a bad mistake.

It's an egotistical thing to think that my behavior is as good as it really ought to be in all ways, in all situations. I can improve, and frankly as an adult human I should be capable of improving. And one's friends and spouse can give you a nudge at times by helpfully pointing out when, e.g., you have been a real ass. And it's helpful to see that as guidance for your future changes.


A discussion of 'change' would not be complete without the other thing that reliably leaps to mind any time it comes up:

Benjamin: How would you feel about making a change?

Garth Algar: We fear change. <hits nearby machine with hammer repeatedly>

—Wayne's World, 1992 (clip)

So much to re-learn

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Inigo: I am waiting for you, Vizzini. You told me to go back to the beginning. So I have. This is where I am, and this is where I'll stay. I will not be moved.
Brute: But the Prince gave orders –
Inigo: So did Vizzini – when a job went wrong, you went back to the beginning. And this is where we got the job.
The Princess Bride, 1987

Lessons I am trying to learn again, or for the first time:

  1. It is better to publish things on your own site than on Twitter or Facebook.

    You can control it, and it can't just go away without warning. Those sites are fine for mentioning posts and for getting feedback though.

  2. Waiting for polished writing means waiting forever.

    As evidenced by my very very sparse blog output over the last several years, I am a bit fussy about what I publish here—too fussy. These days, I think I will be happy enough to have some output of just-publishable quality instead of little-to-no output of quality I feel proud of.

  3. It's okay to have an idea cross multiple posts.

    I get stuck wanting to compile everything I have to say about a thing into one comprehensive master post, and that just leads to never ever finishing.

So I'll stop here. More to come.

2013, Under the Wire

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One should have a post at least once a year, surely? Herewith some hasty disorganized thoughts at year-end, focusing on the positive:

  • Having a pretty healthy 5-year-old kid is one of the big successes. He was able to shed the egg allergy this year, so a wider range of foods opened up for us; hoping that trend continues next year with the remaining allergies.
  • Joined a choir, the Alexandria Choral Society. I did miss singing in groups. The December concert went nicely, I had a solo (We Three Kings, the Myrrh verse) and didn't mess that up, so thumbs up there.
  • The markets had a good year, which meant the 401K had a good year. Like/Favorite/+1.
  • Big work project launched, pretty successfully.

Out with 2013, bring on 2014. A few select goals I have in mind:

  • Launch a project which can simultaneously serve as a useful tool for communicating difficult ideas and as a way to demonstrate publicly some of what I know about software, UI and complexity. More on this to come.
  • Level up at work -- I'm moving back into a team lead role, which requires a different focus than I've had recently. So I will need to consciously make some changes to succeed there.
  • Blog more than once, eh?

After many years of relative quiet in public (mostly existing as a twitter feed), I would like to plan for 2014's underlying nature to be this:

  • Enough reading, enough preparation, enough mulling. Do.
  • To borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Instead of thinking about what would be possible to do, under better conditions than these, possibly ideal conditions (what would even be ideal conditions, really, let's mull that over a bit) and with a better set of tools..how would one measure which tools are the best ones, hm, that's a chinstroker, and so on, and so on.
  • Real artists ship. - Steve Jobs

A Tale of Two 2012s

Around the middle of November, this was how I was feeling about the year—


Ever said this, exasperatedly? "It's the twenty-first century!" "It's 2012!"

These are the things that people I know say when faced with a problem that seems like it should have been solved long ago.

  • Like the fact that the majority of cabs still only take cash and not credit cards. (Seriously. Is it 1989?)
  • Like any company or government agency which requires you to fax something to them.

Or, more soberly:

  • Discovering people who think that people of different races shouldn't marry.
  • Discovering people who think women should stay out of the workforce.
  • Hearing that women shouldn't be able to vote, or be allowed to wear pants to important functions.

So it's usually said with a negative affect.

Why aren't we further along than this? <negative>It's 2012</negative>.

But there was just an election. And some things which have seemed overdue (or downright futuristic) have actually begun to happen.

  • Marijuana legalization was passed in Colorado and Washington. While I don't partake myself, I appreciate this move as possibly the beginning of a rational climb-down from the endlessly expensive/ineffective/violence-soaked War on Some Drugs.

  • 18 women were elected to the US Senate (including the first disabled woman, first openly lesbian woman, first Asian-American woman..), bringing the number serving to 20.

  • Marriage was legalized for gay couples by voters in Maine & Maryland & Washington, and Minnesota voters declined to pass an anti-gay amendment.

  • Not to mention the first-ever black President earned re-election, by a pretty significant margin.

Look at that, gentle sentients.

<positive>It's 2012.</positive>


Then of course on December 14 there was the Newtown slaughter.

Not that there isn't always some horrible news out there if you look for it. But this one obviously stood out as both extra-horrible and potentially-preventable at the same time.

In its wake, I have been left philosophizing and analyzing and theorizing to myself even more than usual, and contemplating to the point of great distraction both the powerful inertia of everyday life and the sudden randomness of some fates.

I don't have an essay in me right now about how I tie all this together in my mind; instead I'll try to sum up one piece of it—


I read a lot of Isaac Asimov stories and essays when I was young. And he argued well for his outlook on humanity and the future, which has been labeled 'Humanist' or 'Secular Humanist'. Here's one summation from him I found:

As indicated by our very name, we humanists celebrate humanity, want humanity to survive, and recognize that if humanity does survive, it will be by its own efforts.

Never can we sit back and wait for miracles to save us. Miracles don't happen.

Sweat happens. Effort happens. Thought happens.

And it is up to us humanists to help—to expend our sweat, our effort and our thought. Then there will be hope for the world.

And since I—who am not on the front lines of any of today's conflicts—despair sometimes at the intractability of the problems we face and at our intransigence as a species in addressing all but the shortest-term issues, I find it helpful and important to look to those like Asimov and Carl Sagan—who saw far and were confronted very directly with obstacles and resistance—and remember that they could bring themselves to continue to put forth effort in the name of Humanity, day after day. Somehow.

Their example is useful when I feel defeated, as I have by Newtown and other events.

As a valediction for 2012 and an epigraph for 2013, I nominate this somewhat recent musical mashup of clips from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, with a special emphasis on this part of the chorus:

The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day
Venture to the stars


If we do not destroy ourselves... by giving guns to as many people as possible and inviting ever more accidental gunshot deaths into our lives (even if you dubiously exclude the supposedly-deterrable intentional ones).

If we do not destroy ourselves... by biasing all our planning for the short term and leaving any real progress on longer-term threats (like a warmer planet) for much, much later.

If we do not destroy ourselves... we will one day venture to the stars.

Let us not destroy ourselves.

Happy 2013.

Election 2012 News Sources

Just as a historical note, in this era I find the most interesting/useful sites for keeping up on basic day-to-day election news to be the following:

And a Twitter list which follows these accounts:

I followed these accounts because they gave me a good balance between informative/timely on the one hand and not a bloody firehose of updates on the other. (That's why @barackobama was not included - too chatty.)

Suggestions for other qualifying feeds gratefully accepted.

DIY links

I have a thousand links to link. Here are four, with a theme. (And a theme song: Peter Gabriel, "DIY")


A presentation from Maciej Ceglowski about his Pinboard experience: The Business of Bookmarking (warning: PDF).

The most popular business model has been to offer a free service and then shut down.

(Ha.)

...while the [Pinboard] business is healthy and profitable, no angel investor or venture capitalist would touch it with a long stick, as it sits on the wrong side of the risk/reward curve. The combination of low startup costs and investor aversion means there are all kinds of opportunities lying around for a developer to run a profitable small business, provided he or she remembers to charge money.

...An archive needs to have a credible plan for offering the same basic feature set over a time scale of decades. Any major redesign risks spooking users who will perceive it as a sign of instability. And the last thing people want to hear is that you're swinging for the fences - real archivists bunt.

A good role model here is craigslist, which has endured sustained derision for its 'ancient' UI for years from a succession of more modern websites, nearly all of which are now out of business.


Related: A fellow named Tom Armitage created a workflow which automatically turns his Pinboard stream into books, by year.


Comic writer/artist Kate Beaton (of Hark! A Vagrant) dispenses a bunch of good advice for aspiring comic writers/artists in: A lil' Q and A, part one [tumblr]

My first comics were awful. Everyone's are. Some people are awful for a long time then stick with it and get good. But you have to know you can.

(You can.)

... The real wonder of the New Yorker is that anyone can submit cartoons, so technically, anyone has a chance of getting in. Can you say that about many other 'prestigious' publications? Not really.


Last Thanksgiving I found this carving video more valuable than all carving instructions and videos before it: Wegmans Turkey Carving Time Savers.

Notes on a Bobs concert, 11/12/11

  • I was lucky enough to score a front-row-center ticket to The Bobs (@bobsbestofbreed) performing at Wolf Trap this past weekend.

     I didn't do anything special or illegal to get it -- I just checked the website when I was reminded of the concert by the Bobs' email newsletter, and lo and behold the seat I was presented with was the best seat in the house. I can only think someone who had the prime seats had to return them, or something strange like that. Thanks, unintentional anonymous benefactor!

  • Having scored an amazing ticket, I of course somehow misplaced it. Luckily the Wolf Trap Box Office person I spoke to on concert day was very helpful and printed a fresh ticket for me to pick up once I provided a blood sample and a confirmation number.

  • This was an unusual Bobs concert, in that it was a passing-the-torch moment: Amy Bob Engelhardt's last gig with the group and Angie Bob Doctor's second-ever Bobs concert.

  • Angie Bob and Dan Bob Schumacher have a CD of duets out, He Said, She Said which is just the two of them singing fascinating, complex arrangements (by Richard Bob Greene) which fill in just enough notes to feel like a song is 'all there'. This is hard to do in the best of circumstances, and even harder to reproduce reliably in a live setting. But the two of them performed a few of their tracks as the 'opening act' for the Bobs, and it was impressive.

  • Amy Bob was as good as ever in her farewell gig (i.e. very good). "Sandwich Man" was probably my favorite Amy song of the night.

  • Matthew Bob Stull has been with the group for all of its 30 years. I had the opportunity to find him after the show and tell him what I have always appreciated about his performances, namely his complete, matter-of-fact commitment to whatever profoundly goofy shit is happening on stage. (He laughed.) Having done some goofy shit on stage myself, I know how hard that can be, but he succeeds at it all the time without going over the top. If I have a challenging task to do on a stage, I will actually sometimes consider: How would Matthew Bob do this?

  • How was the new member? Angie Bob is clearly a very skilled singer, but in contrast to Matthew Bob's practiced ease with weird material, she seemed a bit tentative a good part of the time. This frankly isn't surprising: some of the material is truly, deeply odd, plus she's having to learn a deep catalog of songs for live performance and it's hard to ramp up quickly.

      In hindsight I'm really glad I saw her duets with Dan Bob first, because she really shone there. That tells me she's not wrong for the job, she probably just needs a bit more time to settle in.

  • It's worth mentioning that each lady Bob who has been in the group has had a very different sensibility in terms of exactly what kind of odd songs they seem to enjoy singing, and often it's hard to imagine other lady Bobs really digging each others' stranger material. (Lori Bob Rivera's "Vapor Carioca" leaps to mind, and I'm not sure any other human can ever do justice to "Fluffy's Master Plan for World Domination" besides Amy Bob.)

    All that to say: I'm looking forward to hearing Angie Bob do her own weird tracks on the next album.

  • Richard Bob's "Disappointment Pants" is one of my favorite tracks. They sing it noticeably faster live, which I think takes something away. Trivia: Last time I saw them (2008) they dedicated the song to Eliot Spitzer, which was perfect.

  • Cream's "White Room" is still a kickass closer, with Dan Bob doing most of the kicking.

  • Public service announcement: there are some still-fairly-new cover tunes available on bobs.com including Queen's "Bicycle Race" and "Synchronicity" by the Police. Worth a listen.

Juicy links; Sad news

Born blog-ranter Steve Yegge, a Googler for the last 6 years, recently laid into his employer in a lengthy, fascinating post which was apparently not intended for public consumption. It's in the wild, though, so everyone can see it now.

Fascinating reading if you work on software. Quoth Medley after reading it, "Now I need a cigarette..."


Found this linked a few places today, and if you care about interfaces and communicating complexity (like I do), then it's a fascinating read.

The toy example itself isn't important at all, but the approach is.


In sad news, Dennis Ritchie, inventor of C, has died. His death coming close to Steve Jobs' means that some people are already straining to weigh the contributions of the two against each other, as though it is a contest.

Really people, they can both be titans in their own way. It's OK.

Netflix backs out of the dead end road

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The plan to split Netflix into Netflix (streaming) and Qwikster (DVD) never made sense to me. Now Netflix is turning back the clock and keeping them together. The text string 'Qwikster' will be returning to deserved obscurity.

This at least shows that Netflix can understand whacks on the nose.

But what has struck me throughout this odd episode is their misunderstanding of what their own customers like about the service.

Making customers split their queue management into two separate websites which don't integrate with each other was a really really bad plan (with -- notice -- no actual reason given for it), and I can imagine lots of heated arguments in-house from the people who could tell it was a deeply stupid move. Tip for the head office: keep a list of those people and consult them the next time you get a really 'bright' idea.

The most foreboding aspect (for anyone wishing Netflix any success, that is) is the continued dimness and/or pridefulness of the executives. The juicy quotes in the New York Times report on the policy reversal do not inspire confidence:

"We underestimated the appeal of the single Web site and a single service," Steve Swasey, a Netflix spokesman, said in an interview, before quickly adding: "We greatly underestimated it."

Ok, so far so good. They have understood their basic error. But wait.. Reed Hastings doesn't agree with his own spokesman:

"there is a difference between moving quickly -- which Netflix has done very well for years -- and moving too fast, which is what we did in this case."

Replace 'moving too fast' with 'moving in the wrong direction' and you've sold me.

'Moving too fast' just tells me you really want to try this again in a year or two. And that means you do not understand your basic error.

We are still customers for now (and switching to streaming-only), but we'll be keeping an eye out for further drug trips and policy freakouts from the Netflix head office.

Where My Interests Lie, 2011 edition

These are the sort of topics which catch my eye these days, and about which I'd like to learn & say more:

Complexity

  • Where it comes from
  • Tools to make it both more comprehensible and easier to manage
  • How to communicate effectively with outside parties about how complex a thing actually is

    That's a compact way of saying: it really ticks me off when people who clearly understand many nuances and tradeoffs involved in some things (say, their job, or a sport or two) then consider everything they are not that familiar with to be very straightforward and obvious.

    This happens among otherwise-elite, brainy people too; this XKCD is a great example.

Uncertainty

  • Humanity is constantly having to make big bets based on limited information.

    (I think this has always been true; while you could argue that people throughout history have been solving much simpler problems than we have today, they also lacked most of the modern tools we have to tell us about the world - accurate maps, for instance. We're always bumping against the limits of our understanding.)

  • How we (as a society) handle decision-making under great uncertainty could be improved.
  • How we (as a society) view past decisions made under great uncertainty could be improved.

Music - studying, performing, appreciating, describing

Software - design, construction practices

Apple stuff - Mac OS X, iOS devices (yes, still a big Apple fan)

Parenting - I have a 3-year old. 'Nuff said.

Business - Management; "Organizational Behavior"; Emergent properties of systems of people

Checklists (a la Atul Gawande) and any other ways to improve the performance of groups of people doing complex tasks.

Politics & Media - the various intractable problems we face and the channels through which we all learn about them.

There's plenty more, but those are the headline grabbers for me at the moment.

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