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Monday, November 29, 2021

Review: Renegades of the Empire

 Scott Macdonald told me that his group at Microsoft (DirectX) was so famous that a journalist wrote about it. The book was called Renegades of the Empire, and not only was it not available at any of the libraries near me, but there was also no kindle version. Which meant I had to buy a used copy from Amazon and read it on paper with a booklight and everything.

The book describes Alex St. John, Eric Engstrom, and Craig Eisler's careers at Microsoft, how they started the DirectX effort, shoe-horned it into Microsoft (killing off WinG in the mean time), and then proceeded to try to create a web-browser (named oddly enough Chrome before being called Chromeeffects) which would fail.

The trio's antics are famous and very politically incorrect. The kind of statements regularly made by Alex St. John, not to mention the antics (hiring contractors using the marketing budget), deliberately dissing their own company at product rollouts, would undoubtedly get someone fired today. There's even a story of a food-fight in one of Microsoft's meeting rooms, with the clean up bill sent to then Microsoft VP Brad Silverberg, who wrote an e-mail saying, "I hope you enjoyed yourself."

Having worked with a few ex-Microsoft employees, I now understand much of their behavior. For instance, there are several instances in the book where a manager going on vacation would come back to discover that his team had been taken away from him. That explains why many former Microsoft employees would never take vacation. (To be honest, I think that attitude permeates much of tech companies today --- even at Google one of my friends once reported that taking vacation was given as a reason to deny someone a promotion, so I won't pretend that things are any better today)

Anyway, the book is eye opening, hilarious in parts, and well worth reading for the insight into the way various people you might encounter at work behave. Recommended.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Review: The Messy Middle

 The Messy Middle is a book about entrepreneurship. Rather than being one about raising money, etc., it's almost entirely about the development of a startup past the initial stages but before being fully successful as an independent entity or being sold. The author started Behance, which was bought by Adobe, and sprinkles his narrative with anecdotes and stories from both his time managing Behance and as a transformative middle manager at Adobe.

The book covers many topics, but the management sections are interesting. In one particular case, he compares a well functioning team to that of a human body system, and describes a well-jelled team as having a healthy immune system, which would wholesale reject any transplant of a foreign entity (such as an new leader being injected into the mix). He describes the manager's role there as helping to suppress the immune system so that the new transplant can contribute. I will note that like many managers, at no point does he consider promoting someone from inside. (And in this particular case, he had been long time friends with the new manager and had faith that it would work out without tearing the team apart)

I switched from the audio book to kindle format in the middle of this book, but there were many anecdotes in this book that were geared entirely towards the product manager, rather than the engineering leader. One thing that particularly stands out is the fact that he considers the most important piece to be self-motivation, mentioning that startups are usually so hard that if you can't motivate yourself you absolutely will not finish.

There are huge sections about motivating yourself, optimizing processes, and right at the end a few notes about getting advice from third parties before any kind of sale happens. It's definitely good stuff and worth your time to read. There's the usual amount of self-aggrandization from any successful entrepreneur, but also enough useful stuff that I wouldn't consider it a problem.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Review: Batman Zero Year

 DC periodically reboots its universe for no reason other than to reimagine/retell all the origin stories from their classic pantheon of superheroes. Batman: Zero Year is of course its most recent retelling of Batman Year One, and in contrast to the grim and gritty Frank Miller approach, goes for the modern, post-apocalyptic viewpoint. 

The art style is modern and clean and a joy to view. The writing and main villain (The Riddler), not so much. Bruce Wayne, for instance, takes a long time to figure out that Wayne enterprises would be key to providing him with resources for his battle. Similarly, there are key scenes that make no sense, such as Lucius Fox injecting Wayne with a vaccine without telling him. The Riddler taking over Gotham City is a nice excuse for providing apocalyptic images, but ultimately shows how much supervillain victories look like the dog catching the school bus. He does nothing with that victory and never seems to be a serious threat.

The denouement, when it comes feels more than a little cliche, with Batman working away from a love interest that was barely introduced and one never cares about. I don't now why anyone would consider this even comparable to Miller's work.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Books of the Year 2021

 I read 69 books this year, including a couple of re-reads. It was heavily tilted towards non-fiction, which makes the non-fiction selection challenging.

By far the most useful book I read this year has to be Noise. A book about how to make decisions and remove jitter from your decisions has to qualify very highly in terms of usefulness. The problem is that the book is on the dry side. I would say that on the political side, the best book I read this year was The Price of Peace, the biography of John Maynard Keynes. It describes the long march and battle of ideas, and really shows how bankrupt the modern economic theories of Milton Friedman et al, are compared to Keynes' vision. It ties right in with Democracy in Chains giving you a complete understanding of the political economy. My favorite topic is still science, unfashionable as it is in this day of vaccine denial. I thought Exercised was a solid debunking of paleo exercise  and diet myths, and explains why we hate exercise so much despite also needing it. I also cannot help having a soft spot for Justice and The Wisdom of No Escape, both of which are exemplars of clear writing and thinking. By far the best business book I read this  year was Working Backwards. It's a clear explanation of how Amazon won so many battles against competitors with much higher margins and frequently better engineers. It's definitely well worth your time.

I guess having said all that, I will go for The Price of Peace as the book of the year.

The best fiction of the year was an easy choice: Project Hail Mary, easily the best novel I'd read in years. If you enjoyed the Martian, don't waste your time dithering. Just get the book and read it already.

I read a ton more comic books than usual, but none of them really stood out. I guess March would take the price, if I had to choose. As you can see, I found a bunch of really good books this year. I hope you try some of them!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Reread: Use of Weapons

 Use of Weapons was one of the first Iain M Banks books I read oh so long ago, and I decided to read it again recently out of curiosity as to whether it held up. The book runs in two narratives, one moving forward in time, and one moving backwards, revealing the post-singularity society of the Culture as well as the character of Cheradine Zakalwe, who works as an operative for Special Circumstances, the dirty tricks arm of the contact section of the Culture.

The world building is excellent, with reveal after reveal of the culture and the way it operates interspersed with the memory of Zakalwe mixed in. The surprise ending (which I won't spoil) doesn't surprise the second or third time reading the book, and upon reflection, is the weakest portion of the book, since it doesn't actually explain the nature of the identity.

The next weakest portion of the book is the plot, where Zakalwe's generalship surprises the planning and machine minds behind the entire purpose of pulling Zakalwe out of retirement. One would think that having had repeated encounters and use of Zakalwe, the machines/Special Circumstances agents wouldn't be surprised again.

The Utopia that is the Culture is one of the few Utopias in fiction that's believable: a post-singularity society run by machines where the organic peoples are essentially pets does seem like it could be more moral than ones built by humans themselves. I enjoyed the re-read.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Review: Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership is a book featuring two SEAL task units' explanation of how leadership principles in the US Navy Seals work, and can be applied to the world of business. As with many leadership principles involved, most of these are common sense, but the authors do a good job of giving these principles catchy names so you can remember.

For instance, Leading Up the Chain can also be called "Managing Up", but hey, no matter what you call it, it's a good principle --- you usually need to overshare information up your management chain, because when they're the ones not directly involved in the work, situations, techniques, and problems obvious to you in your day to day life simply aren't things they aren't going to know about.

Similarly, they point out that in a leadership position, you have to act as though you have agency and effectiveness for all aspects of your organization involved in your mission. Because if you don't, you're just going to fail:

SEAL troops and platoons that didn’t perform well had leaders who blamed everyone and everything else—their troops, their subordinate leaders, or the scenario. They blamed the SEAL training instructor staff; they blamed inadequate equipment or the experience level of their men. They refused to accept responsibility. Poor performance and mission failure were the result. (pg 36)

The stories/anecdotes, and examples from the Iraqi missions are fun, and illustrative of the modern military. Even after they've penetrated an enemy HQ, they still have to collect evidence and document it and label it correctly. It took discipline, but it shows that an elite military unit really can live up to the demands the civilian society asks of it.

Where do the book fall short? Well, the military's enlisted men, by and large, once they've been deployed, do not have the freedom to change jobs. They would face extreme sanction. And of course, once you're in the field self-preservation (and team bonding) ensures that they will stick it out long enough to return to base (though as the book points out, some return in body bags). The modern work environment, however, means that your talent can walk any time. But this makes leadership more important. As the book explains, you really have to explain the why behind every mission and not assume everyone understands it. If you brief your team and get no questions, that means that people don't understand it, or don't believe it and are too polite to let you know.

The book's worth a read. It's entertaining, and yeah, you might know all the common sense stuff, but it's worth reminding yourself of them every so often.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Review: Influenza

 Why read yet another book about Influenza, when I'd already read The Great Influenza? I kinda skipped the history of the so-called Spanish flu, having already gotten all of those details from that other book, but the modern parts of the book were actually interesting.

For instance, I didn't know that the approval of Tamiflu was actually steeped in controversy. It turns out that it reduces your symptoms by one day, but only if you take it right away. But we stockpile it anyway, thanks to some insider's political involvement during the procurement process. Similarly, I didn't know that the British NHS would only vaccinate the very old and the very young with the flu vaccine and basically not recommend flu vaccines for everyone in between. Again, I don't know if that's changed since the COVID pandemic.

In any case, it seems like any kind of treatment/effective vaccine for the influenza is quite some time away, and of course, since the book was published events have over-taken it and we've gotten effective COVID19 vaccines in record time, so maybe if another influenza pandemic kicked off we might be able to do it again.

I thought the book was good, but not as good as The Great Influenza.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Review: The Math of Life and Death

 While Bowen was in pre-school, there would be days when he would regress, going from playing with challenging problems to something dumb and simple. On those days, I would comment that he'd taken a stupid pill, and just wanted to do something that wasn't an intellectual challenge.

I must have picked up The Math of Life & Death on one of those days when I'd taken a stupid pill. The book doesn't really describe anything I didn't already know, even to the point of rehashing the old Google interview question involving the Birthday Paradox.

While I was working my way through this book, on a bike ride Bowen asked me why even though we're on the decimal system, directions and time were described in minutes and seconds, which were in base 12. And I had just read the section of the book the day before about how certain human cultures counted in base 12 by counting the knuckles of the fingers of one hand (excluding the thumb), which added to 12, while using the other hand to count off the number of 1-12 cycles, which is how you got 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour, and 12 hours per half day.

Dang, I did learn something from this book after all! The book is transparently written and entertaining with all sorts of factoids like this that kept me going. And hey, it must not have been a stupid pill if it made me sound like a knowledgeable dad to my (now cynical and difficult to impress) 9 year old.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Review: Mindset - The Psychology of Success

 In recent years, you might have heard of or been encouraged to take a Growth Mindset. Well, Mindset is the book that kicked off this trend. To some extent, the book is similar in philosophy to something that I said about startup a few decades ago: "Your success as a startup is dependent on luck, market factors, and all sorts of vicissitudes you have no control over. However, you might as well plan for success, because if you planned for failure you will achieve it."

Similarly, the book basically eliminates discussion of fixed traits such as IQ, body shape, etc., but basically says: "you should plan as though there are no fixed traits, since no matter what traits you have, you can improve your success at a task through the right kind of work, and the evidence is that the people who approach life with this attitude are much more successful than the people who adopt the idea that their major attributes are fixed with no hope of changing them."

Put in those terms, the book is pretty much common sense. But there are several subtleties that I wouldn't have realized that the book points out. For instance, the book points out that women are much more dependent on external validation/evaluation of their performance than boys/men are:

Boys are constantly being scolded and punished. When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct. Boys are also constantly calling each other slobs and morons. The evaluations lose a lot of their power. (kindle loc 1344)

A male friend once called me a slob. He was over to dinner at my house and, while we were eating, I dripped some food on my blouse. “That’s because you’re such a slob,” he said. I was shocked. It was then that I realized no one had ever said anything like that to me. Males say it to each other all the time. It may not be a kind thing to say, even in jest, but it certainly makes them think twice before buying into other people’s evaluations. (kindle loc 1346)

That boys constantly "neg" each other actually gives them power --- control over how they view other people's opinions and evaluation. Similarly, Dweck points out there it's possible to have a fake growth mindset, where the focus isn't really on growth and personal improvement, but on external achievements --- she describes a high achieving high schooler who succumbs to ulcers and other health problems due to the pressure put upon her by her parents.

Dweck also points out that growth mindset is contextual. You might have a fixed mindset about your drawing abilities while adopting a growth mindset about your engineering skills. There's nothing wrong with that unless your approach percolates to your family and children, where they start emulating your mindset. Plenty of examples (long-winded, unfortunately) are scattered throughout the book to drive home her points.

I thought the book was worth reading, common sensical as it was, but maybe that's an indicator of how successful the book was --- you'll read it and kinda think well, of course! But as with everything else in life, adopting that common sense is much harder.


Monday, November 01, 2021

Review: 3 Doctor Strange Books

 Boen was looking for a movie to watch, and so I pulled out my copy of Dr. Strange, which my wife had watched years before, and rewatched it with him. The special effects on that movie are still good, and I found it enjoyable, though I was very surprised when Boen asked me to read Doctor Strange comics to him instead of his usual non-stop diet of Invincible.

First up, was The Oath, which despite being ranked very highly was a very simplistic story. But it was clearly targeted for little kids and Boen enjoyed it enough to ask for more Dr. Strange. Then I tried The Way of the Weird. This was less dumb, but still not very good, and far too talky. Boen got bored by the 4th chapter and has since gone back to his usual diet of Invincible. I finished it and the book ended in a bad place, so I checked out The Last Days of Magic. This was passable fantasy, but still dumb. There's no sense of wonder, and despite the scope of magic, it clearly has nothing on anything Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore did in the DC Universe: Swamp Thing, The Sandman.

Clearly, the writers tried, but couldn't produce anything of clear literary value. It's amazing to me then, that the Dr. Strange movie ended up being as good as it was!

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Review: A Philosophy of Software Design

 Over time, I've learned to be very suspicious of thick programming books. The thicker they are, the more likely it is that they be crammed with worthless code listings, and pages after pages of diagrams and pontification that's worthless. Thin books like K&R tend to be much more useful. When Steve Grimm recommended A Philosophy of Software Design, I was very happy to discover that it was a thin book.

You probably know many of the things Ousterhout points out, but even if you do, you've probably never seen them articulated this way before. For instance, he mentions that you should aim for API designs that have depth. His expression of "depth", however, might be different in principle from what you've heard before, which is that you should have few APIs/interfaces that are composable in ways that provide maximum functionality and abstraction.  He explicitly compares the UNIX file "open" type system calls vs the Java InputStream set of classes and finds that the InputStream type much to his distaste --- using it requires creating multiple classes stacked on top of one another, leading to verbosity, while the UNIX api just requires an "open."

There are many other common design mistakes that Ousterhout points to, including avoiding pass through methods, avoiding decorators, putting different abstractions for different layers of an API design, and taking on as much configuration complexity as possible as part of the design of the lowest layer of the API, rather than exporting it as tunable knobs at higher levels. In particular, he also points out that the error API like exceptions and return codes are part of a system's interface, and that programmers and designers need to think carefully before exposing them as part of a design --- if you can eliminate an error code, you've simplified the design considerably, and it's worth implementation complexity to do so.

I loved the sections of commenting ("write the comments first" is counter intuitive advice that might be worth trying), and naming hygiene, where he describes a bug that took him 6 months to find because a the same variable name was used to hold both physical blocks and logical blocks, and that one piece of code that confused the two slipped by multiple code reviews and inspections while silently corrupting files in a file system. These are design issues that can only be learned through hard fought experience, and Ousterhout has the scars to prove it.

I also enjoyed his perspective on object-oriented programming, agile development, and test-driven development. (Spoiler: he thinks that test driven development is bad because by writing the unit tests first, you've unconsciously made the cost of changing a design during development higher, thereby making it more likely that you'll try to patch a bad design than radically refactor it)

The book does have limitations. For instance, a lot of the complexity in modern APIs are because of the need to support legacy applications. Ousterhout has no experience with this (and neither do his reviewers, many of whom are Google engineers), and so doesn't comment on it, but it's a major issue in any company that's built a platform or is building a platform, since usually those are built in a hurry and only after success do you realize that you screwed up (the failures never need to be fixed since they have no customers). Many modern programming environments and systems make it easy to pull in libraries and dependencies from open source or other repositories, but this explosion of dependencies actually makes it really hard to debug and fix code. Ousterhout doesn't comment on that either, since most of his designs were base layer operating system type code. Another source of complexity I've found in modern systems is a penchant for putting behavioral controls in config files rather than in code. For instance, many Java logging systems assume you'd want to control logging in a properties file, which I've found to be backwards --- the logging systems should expose a programmer API, and if the application needs a config file to control behavior then there should be libraries available to do that reading and configuration, but making it hard to control behavior through an API actually makes it harder. SpringBoot (where you can spend all your time debugging inscrutable config files) is another example of this sort of misdesign.

No matter the limitations, this is a great book and well worth your time to read if you're an engineer. It's a great discussion of microarchitecture (not systems design) and good API design as well as good programming practices that makes you think. Recommended.

Update: The above was a review of the first edition of this book. There's now a second edition, and Prof Ousterhout has kindly published the additional chapters as a PDF on his web-site.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Review: Measure What Matters

 Measure What Matters is John Doerr's slides about OKRs turned into a book. OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are given credit in the book as a management tool for companies like Intel, Intuit, Google, and many others for organizing their workforce around a common set of objectives, and driving for continual improvements. They are getting credit for eliminating politics and getting cross functional teams to work together.

Perhaps if I'd been more indoctrinated in the OKR process I would have avoided many career mistakes at Google. For instance, hiring, mentoring, and other important activities were never part of the organization's OKRs, so in retrospect I should have spent zero time on it and focused on my OKRs. Similarly, if you help someone save their job (by moving them out of the PIP process through mentoring or intensive teaching), you were not working on anybody's OKRs. An organization as big as Google really doesn't care.

To me, this is the biggest indictment of OKRs: by the time morale and cohesion of employees has deteriorated to the point where it's important enough to become an OKR, you've already lost. It's too late to stop an exodus of talent. OKRs almost never deal with this until it's too late, which is why you get the Silicon Valley death spiral.

At the back of my mind also is that the book doesn't actually provide any counter-factuals. For instance, there could be companies that have succeeded without OKRs as well, and it could be that Google succeeded not because of OKRs, but because it was in such a great market and had such a great business model that it would have succeeded anyway. Notice, for instance, that OKRs didn't help Google Video win over YouTube. It was having $1.6B in the bank that allowed Google to buy YouTube and then leverage that property into success. But in a business book, you're not allowed to write about alternate hypothesis to the tool you're trying to push.

Furthermore the kind of stuff that's discussed as distractions and innovations (the book makes the point that most innovation happens bottom up, rather than top down, but doesn't discuss the possibility that a laser focus on OKRs would actually usually prevent such innovation) usually turn out to be valuable, but difficult to measure, and probably never on anybody's OKR radar. I once had a conversation with Bill Coughran about OKR myopia and his response was, "The founders worry about becoming quarterly and short term focused after an IPO. I fail to see how the company could become any more short-term focused."

If you work any any company that fully adopts OKRs are an operating principle, this book is essential for your personal and business success. But if you're in the position of thinking about adopting this, just remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Review: The Joy of Sweat

 The Joy of Sweat is an appropriate book to read during the summer, with high temperatures, and especially on a camping trip where you forgot to bring the shower on a hot day. In it, you will learn some interesting facts like the fact that it only takes 15 minutes for what you eat and drink to become detectable in your perspiration: 

It turned out that it took less than 15 minutes for the tracer to transit through his stomach, be absorbed by the intestine, get filtered through the liver and kidney, enter his bloodstream, lap through his circulatory system to reach the veins in his skin, diffuse through his dermis toward the sweat glands, and then escape out of the millions of pores on his skin. (kindle loc)

It's astonishing how leaky we are as far as being water bags are concerned. The book then takes a look at how other animals cool themselves. Vultures, for instance, defecate on their legs and then increase their blood flow to take advantage of evaporative cooling, so no matter how icky you think your sweat is, be grateful you're not a vulture.

After that initial bout of facts, the book then takes a fairly big detour into  various ancillary topics such as fingerprints, body odor, and whether or not you can smell somebody's fear:

Some law enforcement visionaries have also proposed installing chemical detectors at airports that respond to fear odor. These could alert authorities about an anxious would-be terrorist. In reality, such a device is more likely to buzz continually, given the large number of people at airports who innocently fear flying. (kindle loc 963)

There's a section on how different people are when it comes to sweat, including some uncommon conditions, such as when certain people sweat so much that pencils slide right off their hands, and they have to change 3-4 T-shirts a day. What's interesting to me is that when drops of sweat appear on your body, that means that you're being inefficient --- sweat that doesn't immediately evaporate does nothing to cool you down, but judging by how frequently I sweat even with a little bit of activity, it seems strange that the body hasn't evolved ways of detecting the surrounding humidity and saving water rather than just extravagantly releasing it in excess. I guess humans evolved in an environment where water was plentiful, and the penalty of spending too much water pales in comparison to the penalty of not sweating enough.

There's a description of people who were born without sweat glands and the implications thereof:

 Pajkic was born without sweat glands. This means his skin is very dry and extremely resistant to electricity. His sweat-free skin acts like a huge piece of rubber, a characteristic that supplies him with an apparent superpower: He seemingly can’t be electrocuted. Pajkic discovered this skill as a teenager, when he touched an electric fence and did not get electrocuted. In 1981, Pajkic withstood a shock of thousands of volts of electricity. More recently, he has upped his game to 1 million volts. In 2001, he boiled a cup of water in 1 minute and 37 seconds by passing electricity across his body—a feat that landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records. (kindle loc 3154)

Wow, so superheroes exist! Though "insulator man" doesn't quite have the ring of "Electro."

For entertainment, this book is tops. For practical advice for the athlete or the profuse sweater, less so. But I recommend it anyway.


Monday, October 18, 2021

Haypress Campground

 Bowen seemed to really like Point Reyes and the various trips we'd made there. Every so often I'd check and everything in the area would be taken. Then one day I found the Haypress Campground available. I'd never been there before, and was intrigued, and what the heck, the $5 reservation fee was reasonable.

The weekend we were due to go, a mass of bad air from the various fires in California visited the Bay Area. Purple Air didn't have coverage of the campground, however, so we elected to go, bringing our TemTop to check the air quality to decide whether we would stay the night.

Full Trip Photos

Arriving at the campground, I as astonished as to how crowded it was. We had to park an extra quarter mile from the trail head as a result, and it took me a while to get both kids bikes off the car, load up the trailer (which last saw use when Bowen was 3), and then load the first bunch of camping equipment onto it.

The campground looked far different from the photos. For instance, from the pictures you might think that there were places to hang a hammock. You'd be wrong. All the trees were awkwardly positioned and difficult to get to. Many photos made the campground looked like it was shadeless, but in fact, it was positioned in such a way that most of the campground was shaded from mid morning on, and before that the frequent marine layer would make shade unnecessary.

I made another trip to fetch lunch materials and various sleeping materials, but still had dinner to bring over. I decided that we'd wait until 4pm, check the TemTop, and then decide to commit. In the mean time, we had time to go to the beach!

Going to the beach was a mistake. It was hot, and shadeless. It was a good thing we ate in the shade at the campground before going. An hour in the sun and I was cooked. I told the kids that I was going to take a walk, but the kids had also had enough, and so we all went back to the campground together. There, Boen finished the rest of his lunch, and I read until 4pm. The AQI had fluctuated between  70-110, but at 3pm, it took a dive down to around 70 and stayed there, so I rode to the car, and exchanged the lunch cooler for the dinner box, taking the opportunity to move the car much closer to the entrance of the park for easier loading the next morning.

Getting back, Bowen was hungry, so I made dinner, using up as many canisters of backpacking fuel as possible. By then it was starting to get cool, and I suggested watching the sunset to Bowen, who agreed. Boen decided to stay in the tent.

This second ride proved to be spectacular. First, we chose not to ride to the beach, opting to climb up to the Ridge. Secondly, we had evening light, and it was nothing short of beautiful.

We did discover to our dismay that the descent back to Tennessee valley was either on the Fox trail (marked forbidden to bikes) or all the way to Muir Beach, risking an after dark visit to the Miwok trail. We opted to take the illegal trail, which turned out to be wide as a fire road and was only marked illegal for bikes because it was steep and inexperienced cyclists (Bowen not being one of them) would probably crash.

We got back to camp to find Boen already fast asleep. We woke him up to brush his teeth, then unpacked all the sleeping bags and got everyone to sleep. I noted that the AQI was now in the 20s, a far cry from the 160s that Mountain View was at this morning.

The morning arrived with a thick marine layer and clean fresh air, and it wasn't cold at all! I made some coffee but the kids weren't up for breakfast, so I made a first trip to drop all the sleeping bags and then came back and packed everything up and brushed everybody's teeth, and then we were out! Such an easy trip! No bears to worry about, and a pleasant escape from bad air.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Review: Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0

 A recent work event had prep work that included reading Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, a book I read way back in 1995 because Reed Hastings (who is indeed mentioned in the book's introduction) was enthusiastic about and told me I should read. Jim Collins was the same guy who also wrote Built to Last and Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall.

The trap of non-fiction business books is that they go out of date and because of selection bias. For instance, almost every company in Good to Great (Circuit City, Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae, GE) faced a decline soon after the publication of the book, some going out of business, while others facing criminal charges, etc. Collins would defend his book as documenting the companies that became great, but of course, it also illustrates that we don't actually know how a company is actually "built to last", since so many didn't.

Similarly, Beyond Entrepreneurship named Jim Gentes, the founder of Giro as a man capable of articulating his vision and mission, but of course, Giro is itself no longer an independent entity. It has long since been sold to another company.

That's not to say that the book is valueless, or that the second edition of this book, despite being full of self-promoting stories, adds nothing. For instance, there's now a chapter on how important people are to an organization. (Seriously?!) But the book talks about generalities (you need to put the right people in key positions), but nothing on how to go about doing it. It's clear when talking about people, the book means managers. But that's too general, since if you're in the tech industry, key technical people also matter, but the book is too general to deal with it, despite covering the rise of HP and IBM (both companies whose best days seem behind it).

There's a section on values and how they related to the company's purpose and mission. That's great. But there's the problem of survivorship bias. It isn't that companies with values/purpose/missions succeed, it's that every company has them, or at least pay lips service to them, so maybe it's the same as saying "all successful people have a brain." To its credit, the book takes pains to point out that many people talk about values/purpose/mission but don't align their systems to provide a consistent message, or its managers don't behave as though those values have meaning. But to be honest, from the recent reveals about say, corporate sanctioned sexual harassments at Google, it's clear that when given a choice between a good business model and ethics, choose the good business model if you want to be "built to last."

The rest of the book consists of platitudes such as "turn the flywheel", and make sure you surround yourself with honest people:

You need at least a few people around you who aren’t afraid of you and who aren’t concerned with politics. This is where detached and objective outsiders (consultants and directors) are invaluable. You also need honest people inside—people who are so honest and direct they are almost uncomfortable to have around. You don’t have to like them. You just need to listen to them. (kindle loc. 3295)

But the book doesn't tell you how to do that either.

I'm much reminded of the fantastic interview with Jim Keller when he says:

IC: I think I remember you saying that before you went into your big first management role, you read 20 books about management techniques, and how you ended up realizing that you'd read 19 more than anybody else.

JK: Yeah, pretty much. I actually contacted Venkat (Venkatesh) Rao, who's famous for the Ribbonfarm blog and a few other things to figure [stuff] out. I really liked his thinking about organization from his blog, and he had a little thing at the bottom where it says to click here to buy him a cup of coffee, or get a consulting or a consult, so I sent him an email. So we started yakking, and we spent a lot of time talking before I joined AMD. He said I should read these books and I did. I thought everybody who’s in a big management job did that, but nobody does. You know it was hilarious - like 19 is generous. I read 20 more management books than most managers have ever read. Or they read some superficial thing like Good to Great, which has some nice stories in it, but it's not that deep a book management-wise. You'd be better off reading Carl Jung than Good to Great if you want to understand management.

There you go. The reason to read a ton of management books is that you need to get exposed to lots of different viewpoints, no matter how bad most of them are, before you can make any decent amount of generalizations. This book by itself won't make you great.


Monday, October 11, 2021

Review: Numbers Don't Lie

  Numbers Don't Lie was something recommended by a Bill Gates newsletter. The praise was effusive, and I like numbers so I checked it out of the library. The book reads like a series of blog posts, each topic being short and covering a short topic, and if you read them separately you might not notice anything odd.

But I read it over a series of just a few days, and one thing really jumped out, which is Smil's anti-environment agenda. For instance, he would take the time to talk about how impractical electrical power was for container ships, which pretty much require diesel fuel to cross oceans. But he would ignore the obvious big picture story, which is that reorganizing the global economy to be less carbon intensive would imply placing a carbon tax high enough to make the need for such large container ships less necessary: instead of shipping things on giant containers across the ocean, you might use rail transport instead and make more things locally, which is actually more resilient than outsourcing everything to China anyway, as the recent pandemic showed.

Don't get me wrong. His facts and numbers aren't wrong. For instance:

For every dollar invested in vaccination, $16 is expected to be saved in healthcare costs and the lost wages and lost productivity caused by illness and death. (Kindle Loc 308)

in just the last two years the country [China] emplaced more cement (about 4.7 billion tons) than the US did cumulatively throughout the entire 20th century (about 4.6 billion tons)! (Kindle Loc 2531)

But while numbers don't lie, providing numbers without surrounding context and interpretation is a form of insidious lying. By all. means read this book, but be very very wary about the implications Vaclav Smil wants to provide of the facts in this book, many of which are deliberately out of context and anti-environmental.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

 Horizon Zero Dawn came with really good reviews. It is, however, one of those cases where the gaming press preferences run pretty counter to my own. The game's setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth where robot dinosaurs roam the earth and your player character finds a bluetooth headset early on that allows her to augment reality sufficiently to detect weak spots, examine their programs, and eventually gathers the weapons necessary to attack, takeover, or ride them.

I dutifully played the game on normal difficulty for a while, and did actually a large number of quests and got through 2/3rds of the game when for whatever reason I had to put it down for a while. I didn't start playing again until after I'd gotten a PS5, but had forgotten how to play. It was too difficult to play on normal after such a break, so I turned down the difficulty to story mode and just kept plowing through the quests to get to the finish.

What I've discovered is that the game's combat systems are way too intricate: you have only 4 weapon slots but you have more weapons than you can use in those 4 slots. Add to that the game's dinosaurs have a lot of different weaknesses, etc., so you're forever scrounging supplies so you can craft the right ammo to take them down. Even in story mode I'd run out of blaze canisters, until I discovered one day that the rewards from quests were in "treasure chests" sort of like loot boxes that you can open to extract the contents, and those actually have blaze canisters in some of them. Still, I ended up having to find a merchant to get enough so I couldn't run out.

The art for the game is gorgeous, and the story is decent. But the quests are kinda one-note, without the story telling in say, The Witcher 3, with its plot twists and misdirection. By the time I finished the game I understood the story but was not in a hurry to listen to any of the audio clips. I finished the game out of obligation but did not feel obliged the pursue the DLC. I guess I'm not going to be first in line when the sequel comes out later this year.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Review: Red Comet - The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

 I've actually never read anything by Sylvia Plath, but her name kept coming up over and over again in various contexts, mostly non-fictional, as someone who was brilliant and depressed, or who was an example of how when you took away an easy means of suicide, people stopped actually committing suicide. So when I saw that Red Comet was easily checked out of the library as an ebook I gave it a shot.

The book turned out to be huge, taking more than 1000 pages and taking me more than 3 weeks to finish. For me, it was compelling reading because I knew the ending --- which had been documented in so many places that it wasn't a spoiler. Secondly, it was a fascinating look at a woman who defied convention, set the course of her life, got everything she wanted, yet discovered that she could not hold on to it, which eventually wrecked her.

The thing is, Plath isn't a likable person (at least, not to me). Sure, she was brilliant from childhood, winning poetry prizes and writing prizes, and becoming a nationally published author by the time she got to college. And far from the stereotype of the unsocial, introverted writer, she got around, getting tons of dates despite getting matched by her mother (her father passed away while he was young, from untreated diabetes). Her depression, however, plagued her even from when she was young:

Sylvia was compassionate toward others but bore herself little mercy. She often mistook her depression for weak-willed complaint. How could she feel so terrible when thousands of girls would give anything to switch places with her? Didn’t she realize how lucky she was? What did she possibly have to complain about? Her self-contempt fed her depression in an unrelenting circle of anguish that continued to baffle her. “I have much to live for,” she wrote in her journal that winter, “yet unaccountably I am sick and sad.” (pg. 160)

Despite this, she was a high functioning person until she got what she wanted, a prized position at a major magazine in New York City as a summer intern. She discovered, much like many software engineers who joined major tech companies only to discover that the reality is that both major tech companies and literary women's magazines are essentially giant vehicles to deliver ads:

 Nearly all of the bulky, 380-page August 1953 issue of Mademoiselle, which Plath edited that June, comprised fashion ads or fashion photo shoots featuring thin white women (pg. 240)

The result clash between her expectations and the reality of New York City led her to her first major episode of depression and attempted suicide, followed by an even more mentally and emotionally recovery in a mental hospital, where the  ECT therapy of that time was not very well managed and led to her horror of psychiatric hospitals for the rest of her life, which you could blame for her eventual suicide.

Fast forward to her post-graduate Fullbright scholarship to Cambridge, she had already articulated her goals: (1) to make money as a writer/poet, determining her fate, (2) to marry someone and have children, but that person had to be supportive of her career, and help out enough that she could achieve (1). She eschewed the doctor her mother had matched her up with, since a square, socially conservative doctor in a upper middle class lifestyle would dictate that she would spend all her time dealing with family instead of writing, and searched for wilder, more bohemian types who would presumably be less concerned with the social strictures of that time. She found Ted Hughes.

Her wedding was meant to be a surprise “gift” to Aurelia, but in fact it was Sylvia’s checkmate. Ted knew he was the antithesis of the all-American Wellesley boys Aurelia had quietly encouraged her daughter to marry. He described himself that day as “the Swineherd / Stealing this daughter’s pedigree dreams / From under her watchtowered searchlit future.”163 He was not wrong. Ted’s joblessness worried Aurelia and would remain a source of grievance for years to come. She did not trust him to care properly for her daughter, who was more vulnerable than he knew. (pg. 448)

Hughes was her equal in literary achievements, and the book is very sympathetic to him during the early phase of their marriage. The author (Heather Clark) never failed to point out that he was very active in child rearing, dealing with their first daughter in the morning so she could write, and then swapping places with her so he could write. They even shared writing studies, "hot-desking". In return, she applied her considerable promotion talents to helping him get noticed, published, and win awards. 

Ted had “commissioned” her his “official agent,” she joked, but it was true; he would owe his career to her. She typed Hughes’s poems in Whitstead’s sunny backyard as he sat beside her, revising his now famous poem “The Jaguar.” She felt his work was, like him, “fierce, disciplined with a straight honest saying,” and predicted that “the world will be a different place” once he began publishing.134 (pg. 444)

Here's the thing, once Hughes became successful (and the social strictures of the day meant that he had an easier time being recognized than she did), she started facing the flip side of that success.

Sylvia “wasn’t at ease” with Ted’s BBC work, she said, because “there were a lot of women at the BBC, and those were the kind of women who went to bed.” They had a “loose” reputation at the time, she said, though such a claim sounds sexist now. Plath was married to the most famous young poet in England. “She was not crazy,” Suzette said, to think that a successful BBC producer might find Ted attractive—or he her—while Sylvia folded diapers.  (pg. 633)

When the inevitable happened (remember, she'd deliberately picked a husband who would not be bound by social strictures!),  the fall was quick. Even here she wouldn't blame Hughes, but instead blame the other women he'd had affairs with.

fame gave Hughes sexual and professional opportunities to expand at exactly the time Plath wanted him, as he saw it, to contract—to settle into a predictable, domestic life. Plath had suggested as much when she told Dr. Beuscher that movie stars had nothing on handsome male poets. (pg. 753)

OK, I mentioned that I didn't like Plath as a person. Here's why: all through her life, she'd received enormous financial support from her mother, who was making money doing as many as two jobs at once, allowing Plath to live a life on her own terms --- she'd had a teaching position at Smith at one point but gave it up because it interfered with her writing --- and this was before she had kids! But she would be harsh and mean to her. Near the end of her life, she finally realized:

Plath told friends she did not want to raise two children on her own as her widowed mother had. She was appalled that, for all her efforts to live a different kind of life, she had ended up in the very same situation as Aurelia, but worse—rejected, unemployed, far away from friends and family. (pg. 858)

This was in the 1950s and 60s, when it was possible for a single woman in America to make good enough money to support her adult daughter, and when magazines paid so much that a top notch poet could almost make a living wage. Plath lived in England, where healthcare costs were covered by the state. Hughes and her were at the top of the field. Hughes had frequent BBC productions that paid well, as did Plath. But if you contrasted her approach with Stephen King's where he and his wife taught school while writing novels on the side, you realized that she was taking giant risks, and her social safety net (her mother and Olive Higgins Prouty) was what allowed her to frequently live beyond her means. (And yes, she did resent Hughes turning down money-paying positions because he, like her, never wanted to feel that he was working for a living)

If you treated this biography as a novel, the lesson would probably be: "Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it." I thought the book was overlong, and it felt like Heather Clark quoted way more from Hughes than she did from Plath, but it was definitely compelling reading.

“Fame will come. Fame especially for you. Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes You will have paid for it with your happiness, Your husband and your life.” (pg. 475)

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Review: Press Reset

 The subtitle of Press Reset is "Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry." I picked it up expecting light reading in the face of a Sylvia Plath biography, but unfortunately, the "Ruin" part of the book dominates the "Recovery" piece. The book essentially covers the shutdown of several well-known industry game studios, and the human cost of it. I've worked in game-industry adjacent companies in the past, to the extent that I've been loaned out to various game industry companies to help build games. My experiences talking to game industry cohorts closely reflects what you'll read about in this book: the game industry is rife with worker exploitation, uncertain outcomes, poor pay, and no share of success even if your game succeeds.

Now, there are several recent business model changes that have affected the game industry. The book outlines several of them, and is a good reminder of how fluid the industry is:

  • MMORPGs promised a lucrative subscription model. The problem is that there's only room for a couple of big MMORPGs, and it's difficult to break into it. (The book has a harrowing tale of 38 Studios shutting down suddenly, denying their workers their paychecks)
  • Indie games that are self-published provide a continuous stream of evergreen income rather than a single big hit that dissipates. That model, however, leaves all the risk to the authors, and is unable to sustain a big budget, high-fidelity game (it's the only "Recovery" story in the book, describing the team behind Enter the Gungeon)
  • Free-to-play (especially prevalent in mobile) theoretically provides a wide audience, but distorts game designs and especially is a poor mix with nostalgia reboots. The book describes Dungeon Keeper and  how it came to be so detested.
At the end of the book the author tries to propose ways to salvage the industry and prevent it from burning out so many employees. I view that as a lost cause: the entertainment industry in general has a line out the door of young people looking to make their mark and get famous, even if it doesn't make them rich. Without unionization (very  unlikely in the current environment), I doubt if any of the approaches described will be successful. That makes this book a useful cautionary tale for parents whose kids want to get into the game industry. Recommended.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Review: Continental GP5000 700x32

 Just before the 2019 Tour across Bavaria, I'd worn out all my Michelins and my Fairweather by Traveler tires. I replaced them with Continental GP5000 700x32 tires because those were the only high quality bicycle tires in that size I could find at the time. They survived the tour just fine and also did find for day touring, commuting to school, and all sorts of rides.

Then, at around 3500 miles on the tires, while climbing alpine road the rear tire blew out. Fortunately it was a climb, so we could stop the bike. We had to call Xiaoqin to deliver a new tire to us, and I rotated the front to back.

For reference, my previous Michelin 700x28s would last 1000 miles on the same bike, so to get 3X the life in exchange for about 2X the price is a good deal. On the other hand, a blow out can easily cause all sorts of injuries so my preference would be for a tire that only lasted 1200 miles, but didn't blow up spectacularly for the same price.

Michelin now makes the Power Road TLR in 700x32, which looks attractive, but it's a much heavier tire.  I will run through my remaining stock of GP5000s and hope someone makes a decent lightweight 700x32 tire.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Review: Anthro VIsion

 I don't know how AnthroVision got onto my reading list, but I didn't realize until about a third into the book where I'd seen the name Gillian Tett before. Once she talked about the CDO/subprime crisis, however, I realized that I'd heard her on the radio and read her articles in the Financial Times about the mortgage crisis and how it worked. She was someone who'd covered the story even before it had blown up, and she was one of the credible people reporting on it.

The book's thesis is that anthropology is a hidden secret lens with which you can view the world, complementary to BigData (which can tell you correlation but not causation), and she does a good job describing the process of ethnography (I've long considered ethnography an under-utilized tool in business --- if you're a software engineer and you want to know how people are using your applications, there's no substitute for doing a user study --- and if you do it right, you're doing ethnography!). I loved the many business stories: there's one about how kit-kat became a cultural phenomenon in Japan (and also why there are many Japanese kit-kat flavors that cannot be found in the West), one about how one of the star managers of traders constantly rearranges the seating arrangements in the trading floor, and one about the rise of social-responsible equity investing.

But what caught my eye was the study an anthropologist of smart-phone addiction in teenagers:

As boyd sat in teenage bedrooms, she realized that the teenage middle-class American kids had striking attitudes toward time and space. A teenager called Maya in a middle-class suburb of Florida was typical. "Usually my mom will have things scheduled for me to do. So I really don't have much choice in what I am doing Friday nights," she told boyd, listing her extracurricular events: track, Czech lessons, orchestra, and working in a nursery. "I haven't had a free weekend in so long. I cannot even remember the last time I got to choose what I wanted to do over the weekend." A white sixteen-year-old named Nicholas, from Kansas, echoed this idea: he said he was not allowed to socialize with friends because his parents had packed his schedule full of sports. Jordan, a mixed-race fifteen-year-old living in a suburb of Austin, said she was barely allowed out of the house due to stranger danger. "My mom's from Mexico and she thinks I will get kidnapped," she explained. Natalie, a white fifteen-year-old in Seattle, told boyd that her parents would not let her walk anywhere. Amy, a biracial sixteen-year-old from Seattle, observed that "my Mom doesn't let me out of the house very often, so that's pretty much all I to people and text on the phone, 'cause my Mom's always got some crazy reason to keep me in the house." The parents backed this up. "Bottom line is that we live in a society of a parent I admit that I protect my daughter immensely and won't let my daughter go out to areas where I can't see her," said Enrique, a parent in Austin. "Am I being overprotective? Maybe. But it is the way it is...We keep her very busy without making it depressing."

The parents and teenagers considered these controls to be so normal that they barely commented on them---unless asked. But boyd knew that in earlier generations in America teenagers had been able to  congregate with friends, collide with acquaintances, and physically travel out of the house. As a teenager herself in 1980s Philadelphia boyd hung out at the local mall with other teenagers. Now the mall operators---and parents---were banning that. Teenagers were being excluded from other public places, such as parks or street corners, if they tried to congregate there in large groups. The contrast with even earlier eras was even more stark: in the mid-twentieth century it had been normal for teenagers to walk or cycle to school, congregate in fields, take part in "sock hops," stroll around town, travel between venues by themselves for jobs, or simply congregate in large groups on a street corner or in a field. "In 1969, 48 percent of all children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade walked or biked to school compared to 12 percent who were driven by a family member," boyd noted. "By 2009, these numbers had reversed: 13 percent walked or bicycled while 45 percent were driven." Boyd does not make any moral judgements about these new constraints (although she does not that there is scant evidence that stranger danger has increased in recent years). But she told the Davos dinner that if you wanted to understand why teenagers used cell-phones, it was not sufficient to just look at phones or cyberspace. That was how parents and policy makers discussed the issue. So did the engineers when they designed phones; to them the physical real world of life outside a phone seemed less important than what happened inside it.

But while parents, policy makers, and techies ignored these real world, physical---non-phone---issues, they mattered. The reason was that controls in the tangible world made A"roaming" online doubly appealing; cyberspace was becoming the only place where teenagers could explore, wander, congregate with friends and acquaintances in large groups---or do what teenagers had always done in the real world---with freedom. Indeed, it was almost the only place where teenagers could push the boundaries, test limits, reshape their identity without "helicopter" parents watching them or the need to schedule an appointment into their busy schedules.

That did not absolve tech companies of responsibilities in relation to digital addiction: boyd knew that clever engineers were using "persuasion" technology to make apps appeal to people's brains. But it did mean that parents (or anybody else) had to acknowledge these physical controls if they wanted to understand why teens seemed addicted to their phones. Most people treated cyberspace as if it were a disembodied place and so they ignored the physical world. That was as much of a mistake as ignoring deivatives in finance before 2007. (pg. 144-146)

Wow. From an ethnographic examination of disparate families to draw the conclusion. Lots of computer scientists would sneer at this description  as "the plural of anecdote is not data", but would fail to realize that the big data approach to this problem would have completely missed the context of phone addiction. The need for teenagers to have autonomy and control over their schedule has been completely ignored by society, and it is the parents themselves who are to blame. And if you broadened the picture further, notice how the parents themselves felt like they had no control over the situation. Visit Europe and you have a completely different attitude:

Germans believe children have rights—or more precisely, Germans believe children have more rights than Americans are willing to give their children. The rights of children are encoded into German law and in the everyday actions of ordinary people. (Achtung Baby: Kindle loc 3427)

 I like Gillian Tett's thesis, and I think this book is well worth your time, whether you're a parent, manager, or just someone who believes the context matters to human behavior. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Review: The Wisdom of No Escape

 I came across The Wisdom of No Escape when someone read from it during a talk. The opening chapter was written with such wisdom and courage that I had to check the book out of the library:

There's a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we're committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we're going to run; we'll never know what's beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.

When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It's a bit like saying, "If I jog, I'll be a much better person." "If I could only get a nicer house, I'd be a better person." "If I could meditate and calm down, I'd be a better person." Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, "If it weren't for my husband, I'd have a perfect marriage." "If it weren't for the fact that my boss and I can't get on, my job would be just great." And "If it weren't for my mind, my meditation would be excellent."

But loving-kindness-maitri-toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already.  (pg. 1)

The book, then is a collection of lectures from a series of talks that Pema Chodron gave. I'm not a Buddhist, never was one, and probably never will be one, though of course as an East Asian, of all the religions I've encountered and studied, Buddhism is still by far the least objectionable, and most admirable in its steadfast refusal to evangelize, declare itself the sole possessor of universal truths, and its practitioners certainly aren't anti-science the way many middle eastern religions are (I'm talking of the obvious big 3 that the Western world obsess over) About the only objection I can raise to Buddhism, is that by allowing big businesses to co-opt those techniques, meditation appears to have been a way for corporate American to teach their employees to handle stress better, so that the corporation can extract more work out of them, or (as is often the case with good things), monetize them, or allow evil bosses to add even more stress to the employees since the employees can now handle stress better.

With those opening words, I was prepared to be disappointed. But I wasn't. The book is full of hilarious anecdotes, and a very human attention to humility. The author relates a story about Dainin Katagiri Roshi:

When he first came to the United States from Japan, he was a young monk in his late twenties. He had been a monk in Japan--where everything was so precise, so clean, and so neat--for a long time. In the U.S., his students were hippies with long unwashed hair and ragged clothes and no shoes. He didn't like them. He couldn't help it--he just couldn't stand those hippies. Their style offended everything in him. He said, "So all day I would give talks about compassion, and at night I would go home and weep and cry because I realized I had no compassion at all. Because I didn't like my students, therefore I had to work much harder to develop my heart." (pg. 8)

The book is short, but a lot of the lessons are essentially about self-compassion. It's about not beating yourself up about your feelings, or even about your past actions. The stories of (presumably famous) Buddhist teachers and the problems they faced and had to overcome, as well as the deliberate practice of their philosophies are great and add humanity in ways that make you realize that these are human beings doing their best to live their lives, but aren't we all? 

A lot of the book is repetitive. After all, it is a collection of lectures and sermons, and in many ways it approaches the same subject from different directions to give the students a deeper understanding of what those various Buddhist principles are. While those principles may never give you a solution for climate change (only scientists and engineers ultimately will solve those problems), they give you a sense that while Western societies led by middle-eastern religions will break down, go to war, and  blame other people for their problems, the Buddhists will still be there, suffering along with everyone else, but never letting it affect who they are or letting the external world take away their humanity. If that doesn't make Buddhism a comparatively admirable religion, I don't know what would.

In any case, the language, the clarity of prose, and the anecdotes make for so much fun reading that I strongly urge you to read them. I'm not a Buddhist and I still enjoyed this book thoroughly. Recommended.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Review: Noise - A Flaw in Human Judgement

 Noise is a book about human judgement. The book's unique perspective about judgement is that judgement is an attempt to use the human mind as an instrument. Of course, the human mind is unreliable. Your judgement is not just biased as a result of your lived experience, but also inconsistent --- your decisions about important things (e.g., judges sentencing someone) could be affected by the weather, your internal state of hunger, and and whether or not you just had a spat with your spouse:

Eliminating bias from a set of judgments will not eliminate all error. The errors that remain when bias is removed are not shared. They are the unwanted divergence of judgments, the unreliability of the measuring instrument we apply to reality. They are noise. Noise is variability in judgments that should be identical. (Kindle loc 5183)

 The early part of the book establishes several things:

  • Many simple algorithms outperform expert humans (e.g. mechanical diagnostic rules outperform many doctors) purely because they're consistent
  • Machine learning algorithms do even better, but not by a lot
  • Humans are unforgiving of algorithms once they've seen that it makes a mistake (this is why self-driving cars don't merely have to match the standard of driving that humans achieved to be accepted --- they have to outperform humans in nearly all situations)
  • It's sexy to have an anti-bias program, but unsexy to talk about noise. But from the point of view of judgement errors, they have the same impact, and it's easier to fix noise than to fix bias

people are willing to give an algorithm a chance but stop trusting it as soon as they see that it makes mistakes. On one level, this reaction seems sensible: why bother with an algorithm you can’t trust? As humans, we are keenly aware that we make mistakes, but that is a privilege we are not prepared to share. We expect machines to be perfect. If this expectation is violated, we discard them. Because of this intuitive expectation, however, people are likely to distrust algorithms and keep using their judgment, even when this choice produces demonstrably inferior results. This attitude is deeply rooted and unlikely to change until near-perfect predictive accuracy can be achieved. Fortunately, much of what makes rules and algorithms better can be replicated in human judgment.(kindle loc 1917)

One interesting thing is that there are people who exhibit less noise than others. This was covered by Philip Tetlock in his research on political experts and predictions. The super-forecasters have one particular characteristic that's important:

 To be actively open-minded is to actively search for information that contradicts your preexisting hypotheses. Such information includes the dissenting opinions of others and the careful weighing of new evidence against old beliefs. Actively open-minded people agree with statements like this: “Allowing oneself to be convinced by an opposing argument is a sign of good character.” They disagree with the proposition that “changing your mind is a sign of weakness” or that “intuition is the best guide in making decisions.” In other words, while the cognitive reflection and need for cognition scores measure the propensity to engage in slow and careful thinking, actively open-minded thinking goes beyond that. It is the humility of those who are constantly aware that their judgment is a work in progress and who yearn to be corrected. We will see in chapter 21 that this thinking style characterizes the very best forecasters, who constantly change their minds and revise their beliefs in response to new information. Interestingly, there is some evidence that actively open-minded thinking is a teachable skill. (location 3300)

(Incidentally, if you read that description of an actively open-minded person carefully, you'll note that there's one profession where that trait is not only encouraged, but it is essential: scientists!) 

The second half of the book discusses how to get rid of noise, or at least, reduce it. Much like "how to lose weight," you may find that you already know most of the techniques, and are already using it in some arenas (such as hiring and interviewing):

  1. Structure your decisions. By splitting off the decision into multiple facets, deciding on criteria and rating each facet separately, you prevent the halo effect of one particularly outstanding facet overshadow your ability to independently assess your other facets. (when interviewing candidates, you get each person interviewing those candidates to focus on a different facet to assess)
  2. Humans are better at ranking decisions than at absolute comparisons. It is far better to have a few instances for people to compare against, than to try to construct a scale that everyone agrees on. For instance, you might think that on a scale of 1 to 10, a 10 means "in the top 10%", but someone else might never give a 10, because to her, a 10 means "perfect", and nothing is ever perfect. But given a list of examples, it's probably easier for two people to agree that X is a better engineer than Y, who is in turn better than Z.
  3. When it comes to group decisions, ensure that there is independence between people who are assessing the decision. Rather than doing a round-table discussion, make everyone write down what their assessment, and show aggregate/anonymized sentiment charts before starting the discussion. This will allow contrarian folks to see that the "groupthink" sentiment might not be as dominant as it seems from a purely verbal discussion, and prevents corrupting later speakers with the opinions of the early speakers.
  4. When you don't have a group to make a decision, take advantage of the inconsistency of your own judgement by separating the facets and making assessments at different times, writing them down, and integrating your judgement on different days. This gives you a chance to average out the noise in your judgement.
  5. Appoint a bias observer with a checklist to look for fallacies in decision making. (There's a sample checklist in the book)
  6. Treat a one-time decision as though it's a recurring decision that's made once. It's worth the effort to break it down and structure it as though it's going to happen again.
  7. When picking a team to make decisions, it's better to pick a team with a diverse set of skills than to rank order who are great decision makers and just pick the top N.
Did I just summarize the book so you don't have to read it? No. Much of the book discusses the complexity involved in the above rules. For instance, in rule 2, they discuss:

Many executives object to the notion that nearly all employees can meet expectations. If so, they argue, the expectations must be too low, perhaps because of a culture of complacency. Admittedly this interpretation may be valid, but it is also possible that most employees really do meet high expectations. Indeed, this is exactly what we would expect to find in a high-performance organization. You would not sneer at the leniency of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s performance management procedures if you heard that all the astronauts on a successful space mission have fully met expectations. (kindle loc 4192)

 a system that depends on relative evaluations is appropriate only if an organization cares about relative performance. For example, relative ratings might make sense when, regardless of people’s absolute performance, only a fixed percentage of them can be promoted—think of colonels being evaluated for promotion to general. But forcing a relative ranking on what purports to measure an absolute level of performance, as many companies do, is illogical. And mandating that a set percentage of employees be rated as failing to meet (absolute) expectations is not just cruel; it is absurd. It would be foolish to say that 10% of an elite unit of the army must be graded “unsatisfactory.” (kindle loc 4196)

In discussing having a decision/bias observer, they note:

 A decision observer is not an easy role to play, and no doubt, in some organizations it is not realistic. Detecting biases is useless if the ultimate decision makers are not committed to fighting them. Indeed, the decision makers must be the ones who initiate the process of decision observation and who support the role of the decision observer. We certainly do not recommend that you make yourself a self-appointed decision observer. You will neither win friends nor influence people. (kindle loc 3400)

 The authors observe that performance systems at most companies not just suck, but are actively counter-productive:

if you do measure performance, your performance ratings have probably been pervaded by system noise and, for that reason, they might be essentially useless and quite possibly counterproductive. Reducing this noise is a challenge that cannot be solved by simple technological fixes. It requires clear thinking about the judgments that raters are expected to make. Most likely, you will find that you can improve judgments by clarifying the rating scale and training people to use it consistently. This noise-reduction strategy is applicable in many other fields. Speaking of Defining the Scale “We spend a lot of time on our performance ratings, and yet the results are one-quarter performance and three-quarters system noise.” “We tried 360-degree feedback and forced ranking to address this problem, but we may have made things worse.” “If there is so much level noise, it is because different raters have completely different ideas of what ‘good’ or ‘great’ means. They will only agree if we give them concrete cases as anchors on the rating scale.” (kindle loc 4257)

Do I have criticisms of this book? Yes. It's frequently repetitive, and the authors clearly stitched together the book by writing various sections separately. As a result, one section of the book will repeat items from a previous section of the book. By the time you've finished the book, you'll feel as though a dead horse has been both beaten and flogged.

But this is such an important topic, and has such wide applicability (Which candidate do we hire? Which employee should we promote? Which job offer should you take? Which graduate school do you attend? Which car do you buy?) , and current practices so poor (think about how infrequently we structure even major decisions like an acquisition) that the book is very valuable in forcing you to slow down and think hard about how the process of making decisions. The culture today prizes intuition, and the book points out that trying to take out intuition will lead to a backlash and might not be desirable anyway, but instead, the correct approach should be to delay the use of intuition until it's been fully informed through a valid process. Only then can intuition lead to your best available decision. The book points out that the process need not be slow, and provides many case studies on how it can be used.

That makes this book important and valuable reading, both in business and in personal life. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review: Keen Aimea H2 Flip-Flops

 I've been a long time user of the Keen sandals. The toe protection is great, and they're the ideal shoe for casual summer outings like walking to the grocery store, etc. What they are not is fast. They're not fast to put on or take off (they're faster than laced shoes, but I've long given up on those).

The idea of flip flops are great, but when I saw the Waimea H2 with toe protection I thought to myself, wow. These are a good idea. I got a pair to try, and they're light, around 200g for a pair, about half the weight of the regular Keens. So I found myself bringing them on the Glacier National Park trip rather than my usual Keens.

They're still too bulky and heavy to bring on a 3 day backpacking trip where I'm the person stuck carrying all the food, but for doing things where I'm likely to get my feet wet, they're great. You still aren't going to use them for white water rafting or kayaking, but walking to the beach, going to and from the swimming pool, or even messing around in the garage they're great. And toe protection is nice and makes them quite different from other flip flops. They're absurdly expensive for flip-flops, but the premium is well justified for the toe protection that no other flip flops give you.


Monday, September 13, 2021

Review: Messy - The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

 Messy is Tim Harford's book about messiness. It's a surprisingly wide-ranging book covering many topics. For instance, when evaluating scientist productivity, Harford notes:

The top scientists switched topics frequently. Over the course of their first hundred published papers, the long-lived high-impact researchers switched topics an average of forty-three times. The leaps were less dramatic than the ones Erez Aiden likes to take, but the pattern is the same; the top scientists keep changing the subject if they wish to stay productive. Erez Aiden is less of an outlier than one might think. As Brian Eno says, the friend of creative work is alertness, and nothing focuses your attention like stepping onto unfamiliar ground. (kindle loc 397)

Then there's a great section about how outstanding games are built not by a single team, but by a network of teams:

 outstanding games were forged by networks of teams. The social networks behind these games contained several different clusters, groups of people who had worked together many times before and so had the trust and commitment and mutual understanding necessary to pull long hours in pursuit of a shared goal. But the networks were also diverse, in the sense that each of these teams was different from the others, having worked on very different projects in the past. This is not conventional social bridging, where a tidily packaged idea is carried from one cluster of people to a distinct cluster of people, where the idea can be used profitably in a fresh context. Instead, the researchers were uncovering creative tension, where two or three tightly bonded teams with very different creative histories had to find a way to work together over an extended period to produce something quite new. That sounds exciting, and it’s not a shock to hear that the cognitive diversity of the teams was an asset, nor that close-knit teams could achieve remarkable things. But the greater effectiveness of networks of diverse teams, knitted together at what Vedres calls “structural folds,” comes at a cost. “Structural folds shorten the lifespan of teams,” he says. “They fall apart much quicker. The instability comes from different sources. Maybe there are concerns about loyalty, or perhaps just scheduling conflicts. But such groups fall apart much faster than a random baseline.”... The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogenous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. (kindle loc 640-780)

In other words, the cost of diversity is discomfort, but that discomfort is highly generative. To the extent that such teams fall apart faster, that diversity might also be responsible. This partly explains why despite organizational platitudes to improve diversity, in real life we find limited progress --- the increased effectiveness is there, but offset by the discomfort which get teams to fall apart faster.

 There's a great section about buildings that support collaboration and creativity. It turns out that the successful buildings are not the ones that were designed to foster creativity --- it turns out that designers and architects don't know how to do that. The successful buildings are the ones that are so cheap that the people in the building feel like they have autonomy to reconfigure and modify it:

Nobody would have guessed, and nobody tried to guess, either. The hodgepodge of Building 20 was the result of simple expedience and neglect. Where did MIT put disciplines that didn’t fit, researchers who had no clout, projects that made no money, student hobbyists, and anything and anyone else that just didn’t seem to matter? In the cheapest, nastiest space they could find. If Building 20 hadn’t been a mess, these strange collaborations might never have happened. Another key element of Building 20’s success was that the space was easy to reconfigure. Its services—water, phones, electricity—were exposed, running along the corridor ceilings, supported by brackets. This was ugly but convenient. Researchers thought nothing of tapping into them directly for whatever experimental needs they had. Paul Penfield, a longtime occupant of Building 20, recalled: “You know that if you want to run a wire from one room to another, you don’t call Physical Plant, you don’t plunk down a thousand dollars to call an electrician and a carpenter, instead you get out a power drill or a screwdriver, and you jam it through the wall, and you string the wire, and you take care of things right away, and you do it in one afternoon, rather than waiting six months for a purchase order to come through.” ...Building 20’s true advantage wasn’t so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, “Nobody cares what you do in there.” (kindle loc 1190-1203)

There's another section about how automated systems that are only partially autonomous are the worst systems for humans to use:

 automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate and by automatically correcting mistakes. Because of this an inexpert operator can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent—his incompetence is a hidden weakness that can persist almost indefinitely without being detected. Second, even if operators are expert, automatic systems erode their skills by removing the need for them to practice. Third, automatic systems tend to fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations, requiring a particularly skillful human response. For each of these three strands, a more capable and reliable automatic system makes the situation worse. (kindle loc 2692)

 There's another section about Erwin Rommel, about how he would eschew planning, sow chaos on the battlefield, and rely on his ability to improvise faster than the enemy. But by far my favorite section is the discussion of the difference between people who pile up paperwork on their desks (me), and the people who relentlessly tidy up:

“We predicted that filers’ attempts to evaluate and categorize incoming documents would produce smaller archives that were accessed frequently,” they wrote. But that isn’t what they found. The filers didn’t have lean archives full of useful and oft-accessed documents; they had capacious cabinets full of neatly filed paper that they never used. The filers were filing prematurely. In an effort to keep their desks clear, they would swiftly file documents that turned out to have no long-term value. In their bloated archives it was hard to find anything useful, despite the logical organization, because the good stuff was surrounded with neatly filed dross. The Borges problem made things harder—as one person told Whittaker and Hirschberg: “I had so much stuff filed. I didn’t know where everything was, and I’d found that I had created second files for something in what seemed like a logical place, but not the only logical place . . . In some cases, things could legitimately be filed under the business unit or a technology. And I ended up having the same thing in two places, or I had the same business unit stuff in five different places.”..The pilers, in contrast, would keep documents on their desks for a while and sooner or later would pick them up, realize they were useless, and dump them in the recycling bin. Any archives were small and practical and frequently used. When the time came for the office move, the pilers had an easy job—they simply kept the top half of every pile and discarded the rarely used lower documents. (It’s that informal Noguchi system again.) The biggest disadvantage that the pilers suffered was that because their offices looked so messy, somebody else might sneak in and tidy everything up, a ruinous act of vandalism. (kindle loc 3476-3486)

In other words, the idiots at the office who keep at you to tidy up your desk? They're wrong. You're much more efficient  than the people who proactively file stuff. I thought that was great. Similarly, this effect extends to over-planning. People who plan everything down to the minute are actually less effective than people who do not planning, but people who organize a monthly plan are more effective than both. In other words, you should set goals, but not micro-manage how you get there:

 The daily plans were catastrophic. Students using them started by working 20 hours a week but by the end of the course they were down to about 8 hours a week. Having no plan at all was just as bad, although arguably it encouraged more consistent work effort: students began by working 15 hours a week and sagged to 10 hours a week later in the course. But the monthly plans were a tremendous success in motivating students to study—they put in 25 hours a week, and even studied slightly harder at the end of the 10-week course than at the beginning. These are huge effects—the monthly plan motivated about twice as much work as the daily plan. When the researchers followed up a year later, these trends had continued and were reflected in the students’ grades: the students with monthly plans were doing better than ever, the students with no plans were treading water, and the students with daily plans were sliding ever further down the scale of academic achievement. (Kindle loc 3533)

The reasons are what you would expect: rigid plans can't anticipate the unexpected, and as a result once you fall behind there are no ways to catch up, and worse, you demoralize yourself.

The book gets even better as it discusses why match-making/dating apps algorithms don't work (other than the obvious disincentive --- a customer that gets matched on a dating site stops producing revenue, while someone who keeps having bad dates keeps their subscription active). There's even a section on dangerous adventurous playgrounds. I myself observed this --- kids who're otherwise whiny and dependent at home suddenly start taking responsibility and pay attention to the park ranger's briefing when told that they might face natural hazards such as bears.

schools opened up nearby unused land for primary-age children to roam free in during breaks. There were no more serious injuries than when the children played in their conventional playgrounds—indeed, there were fewer. And other results were dramatic: when they returned to the classroom from their feral wanderings, their behavior was better. They paid attention in class. Bullying fell to the extent that the school abolished a “time-out” room and halved the number of teachers on duty at playtime.44 (kindle loc 3866)

This is a great book. Whether you're a parent, manager, or just someone who owns a messy desk, you owe it to make the time to read it. Highly recommended.