Coder’s Lullaby

[Sung to the tune of Woody Guthrie‘s Hobo’s Lullaby.]

Go to sleep you weary coder.
Let the output scroll on by.
Hear the cooling fans a hummin’.
That’s the coder’s lullaby.

Do not think about the deadlines.
Let the deadlines come and go.
Tonight you’ve got a nice warm cubie.
Safe from all the deadline woe.

Go to sleep you weary coder.
Let the output scroll on by.
Hear the cooling fans a hummin’.
That’s the coder’s lullaby.

I know the bosses cause you trouble.
They cause trouble everywhere
When you die and go to heaven,
You’ll find there are no bosses there.

Go to sleep you weary coder.
Let the output scroll on by.
Hear the cooling fans a hummin’.
That’s the coder’s lullaby.

Responsibility and Improvement

Feral chickens on the Hawaiian Island of Kaua’i are ubiquitous. And they can be aggressive, particularly when they are roaming around common outdoor eating areas.

While the vast majority of visitors to the island honor the signs that say “Don’t Feed the Chickens,” all it takes is a couple of noob’s to put the operant conditioning in motion and keep it going with each new planeload of first-time and unaware visitors.

I watched the consequences of this play out during a recent trip to the island. I was enjoying a cup of coffee and a blueberry scone at The Spot in Princeville. (Side Bar: GO HERE! The food and coffee is FANTASTIC!) A young couple, obviously new to the island, collected their breakfast order at the service window, selected a table, and then went back to the service window to get utensils, napkins, and whatever else. Left unattended for less than 5 seconds, the chickens were on the table and a sizeable rooster had made off with a croissant.

I can only describe the woman’s response as upset and indignant. She promptly returned to the service window and asked – expectantly – for a replacement. To which The Spot employee directed her attention to the sign above the service windows that said, “DO NOT LEAVE FOOD UNATTENDED. Chickens are aggressive and will attack your food if not guarded. WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CHICKENS AND CANNOT REPLACE DAMAGED FOOD FOR YOU.”

There are two (at least) lessons to be learned from this. One by the patron and one by the owner of The Spot.

First, the patron. Five bucks (or whatever a croissant costs on Kaui’i) is a very cheap price to pay for a valuable lesson about not just the chickens on Kaua’i, but the very fact that the Rules of Life from wherever your point of origin was have changed. I’ve camped on this island many time over the years and if you are not mindful of the dangers and keep the fact you are not in Kansas any more foremost in your mind, it’s easy to get into trouble. It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the planet with many hidden dangers. Slip and fall on a muddy trail, for example, can be deadly. Lack of awareness of the rip tides and undertows at the beaches can be equally deadly.

So stay alert. Be aware. Read every sign you see. Study what the locals do. Ask questions. And do a little research before traveling to Hawai’i.

For the owner of the Spot, I have this suggestion: The chicken warning sign is written in black marker on brown paper. It’s also placed high in the service window where patrons collect their order. If there is a line out the door, it typically bends away from the service window. Patrons don’t come to the service windows until their name is called. When they do, their natural line of sight is down, looking at the super scrumptious food. It is certain their attention will be drawn away from the warning sign about the chickens (#1 in the picture below) as they focus on gathering their food (#2 in the picture below.)

Fine to keep the sign in the service window, but lower it so there’s a better chance the patrons will see it. Also, put it on white paper. Even better, put a duplicate sign on the inside of the shop viewable from where customers are paying for their food. While they are standing in line waiting to place their order and reading the menu on the wall for the 12th time they are more likely to read the chicken warning sign. Maybe include a cartoon image of a rooster running off with a croissant.

This won’t “fix” the problems the unaware types bring with them onto the island, but I suspect it will cut down on the number of self-entitled noob’s demanding compensation for their lack of awareness. I’d like for The Spot to do everything they can to succeed, which means controlling costs and satisfying customers. I’d also like for the noob’s to gain some self-awareness and take that back home with them.

Win-win.

(I dropped a note to the owners of The Spot with these suggestions. They replied that they liked them and plan to implement these simple changes. If you’re in the area, send me a note, maybe with a picture, as to whether or not the sign has changed. If so, ask if the the changes made any difference! Always good to know the results of any experiment.)

Show your work

A presentation I gave last week sparked the need to reach back into personal history and ask when I first programed a computer. That would be high school. On an HP 9320 using HP Educational Basic and an optical card reader. The cards looked like this:

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What occurred to me was that in the early days – before persistent storage like cassette tapes, floppy disks, and hard drives – a software developer could actually hold their program in their hands. Much like a woodworker or a glass blower or a baker or a candlestick maker, we could actually show something to friends and family! Woe to the student who literally dropped their program in the hallway.

Then that went away. Keyboards soaked up our coding thoughts and stored them in places impossible to see. We could only tell people about what we had created, often using lots of hand waving and so much jargon that it undoubtedly must have seemed as if we were speaking a foreign language. In fact, the effort pretty much resembled the same fish-that-got-away story told by Uncle Bert every Thanksgiving. “I had to parse a data file THIIIIIIIIIS BIG using nothing but Python as an ETL tool!”

Yawn.

This is at the heart of why it is I burned out on writing code as a profession. There was no longer anything satisfying about it. At least, not in the way one gets satisfaction from working with wood or clay or fabric or cooking ingredients. The first time I created a predictive inventory control algorithm was a lot of fun and satisfying. But there were only 4-5 people on the planet who could appreciate what I’d done and since it was proprietary, I couldn’t share it. And just how many JavaScript-based menu systems can you write before the challenge becomes a task and eventually a tedious chore.

Way bigger yawn.

I’ve found my way back into coding. A little. Python, several JavaScript libraries, and SQL are where I spend most of my time. What I code is what serves me. Tools for my use only. Tools that free up my time or help me achieve greater things in other areas of my life.

I can compare this to woodworking. (Something I very much enjoy and from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction.) If I’m making something for someone else, I put in extra effort to make it beautiful and functional. To do that, I may need to make a number of tools to support the effort – saw fences, jigs, and clamps. These hand-made tools certainly don’t look very pretty. They may not even be distinguishable from scrap wood to anybody but myself. But they do a great job of helping me achieve greater things. Things I can actually show and handle. And if the power goes down in the neighborhood, they’ll still be there when the lights come back on.

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio – Coda

In a Scientific American column delightfully named “The Artful Amoeba” there is an article on a little critter called the “fire chaser” beetle: How a Half-Inch Beetle Finds Fires 80 Miles Away – Fire chaser beetles’ ability to sense heat borders on the spooky

Why a creature would choose to enter a situation from which all other forest creatures are enthusiastically attempting to exit is a compelling question of natural history. But it turns out the beetle has a very good reason. Freshly burnt trees are fire chaser beetle baby food. Their only baby food.

Fire chaser beetles are thus so hell bent on that objective that they have been known to bite firefighters, mistaking them, perhaps, for unusually squishy and unpleasant-smelling trees.

This part is interesting:

A flying fire chaser beetle appears to be trying to give itself up to the authorities. Its second set of legs reach for the sky at what appears to be an awkward and uncomfortable angle.

But the beetle has a good reason. It’s getting its legs out of the way of its heat eyes, pits filled with infrared sensors tucked just behind its legs.

A strategy suggested by the fire beetle life cycle is if you want to maximize a signal to noise ratio, iterate through three simple things:

  1. Work to develop a super well defined signal/goal/objective.
  2. Remove every possible barrier to receiving information about that signal – mental, emotional, even physical – that you can think of or that you discover over time.
  3. Repeat

Also, the “Way of the Amoeba” is now the “Way of the Artful Amoeba.” Update your phrase books accordingly.

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

A question was posed, “Why not be an information sponge?”

I’d have to characterize myself as more of an information amoeba – (IIRC, the amoeba is, by weight, the most vicious life form on earth) – on the hunt for information and after internalizing it, going into rest mode while I decompose and reassemble it into something of use to my understanding of the world. Yum.

More generally, to be an effective and successful consumer of information these days, the Way of the Sponge (WotS, passive, information washes through them and they absorb everything) is no longer tenable and the Way of the Amoeba (WotA, active, information washes over them and they hunt down what they need) is likely to be the more successful strategy. The WotA requires considerable energy but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. WotS…well, there’s your obsessive processed food eating TV binge-watcher right there. Mr. Square Bob Sponge Pants.

What’s implied by the WotA vs the WotS is that the former has a more active role in optimizing the informational signal to noise ratio than the latter. So a few thoughts to begin with on signals and noise.

Depending on the moment and the context, one person’s signal is another person’s noise. Across the moments that make up a lifetime, one person’s noise may become the same person’s signal and vice versa. When I was in high school, I found Frank Sinatra’s voice annoying and not something to be mingled with my collection of Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Today…well, to disparage the Chairman of the Board is fightin’ words in my house. Over time, at least, noise can become signal and signal become noise.

But I’m speaking here of the signal quality and not it’s quantity (i.e. volume)

Some years ago I came across Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible:

It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

This has been interpreted in a variety of ways. I carry this around in my head as a distillation from several of the more faithful versions: Expand the edge of what I know by studying the things that are close by. Over time, there is an accumulation of loosely coupled ideas and facts that begin to coalesce into a deeper meaning, a signal, if you will, relevant to my life.

With this insight, I’ve been able to be more deliberate and directed about what I want or need to know. I’ve learned to be a good custodian of the edge and what I allow to occupy space on that edge. These are my “internal gating mechanisms.” It isn’t an easy task, but there are some easy wins. For starters, learning to unplug completely. Especially from social media and what tragically passes for “news reporting” or “journalism”these days.

The task is largely one of filtering. I very rarely directly visit information sources. Rather, I leverage RSS feeds and employ filtering rules. I pull information of interest rather than have it pushed at me by “news” web sites, cable or TV channels, or newspapers. While this means I will occasionally miss some cool stuff, it’s more than compensated by the boost in signal quality achieved by excluding all the sludge from the edge. I suspect I still get the cool stuff, just in a slightly different form or revealed by a different source that makes it through the filter. In this way, it’s a matter of modulating the quantity such that the signal is easier to find.

There is a caution to consider while optimizing a signal-to-noise ratio, something reflected in Kauffman’s comments around the rate of exploration for new ideas: “If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization…”

Before the Internet, before PCs were a commodity, before television was popular it was much, much easier to find time to think. In fact, it was never something that had to be looked for or sought out. I think that’s what is different today. It takes WORK to find a quiet space and time to think. While my humble little RSS filters do a great job of keeping a high signal-to-noise ratio with all things Internet, accomplishing the same thing in the physical world is becoming more and more difficult.

The “attention economy,” or whatever it’s being called today, is reaching a truly disturbing level of invasion. It seems I’ve used more electrician’s tape to cover up camera lenses and microphones in the past year than I’ve used on actual electrical wires. The number of appliances and gadgets in the home with glowing screens crying out for bluetooth or wifi access like leaches seeking blood are their own source of noise. This is my current battleground for finding the signal within the noise.

Enough about filtering. What about boundaries. Fences make for good neighbors, said someone wise and experienced. And there’s a good chance that applies to information organization, too. Keeping the spiritual information in my head separate from my shopping list probably helps me stop short of forming some sort of cult around Costco. ( “All praise ‘Bulk,’ the God of Stuff!)

An amoeba has a much more develop boundary between self and other than a sponge and that’s probably a net gain even with the drawback of extra energy required to fuel that arrangement. Intellectually, we have our beliefs and values that mark where those edges between self and other are defined.

So I’ll stop for now with the question, “What are the strategies and mental models that promote permeability for desired or needed information while keeping, as much as possible, the garbage ‘out there?’”

 

Heroes

A bit of a break from what could be considered the usual theme of this blog to recognize several amazing heroes from World War II – Major General Maurice Rose and Corporal Clarence Smoyer. Both have a connection to Colorado, at least for today.

General Rose was educated in Denver and graduated from East High School in 1916. He lied about his age so that he could join the Colorado National Guard after graduating high school. Seventy four years ago today, General Rose was killed in action. He was the highest-ranking American killed by enemy fire in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. Rose Medical Center in Denver is named in his honor.

Corporal Smoyer, at age 95, is still with us. He served under General Rose and was in Denver today for a book signing – Adam Makos’ latest book, “Spearhead.” It was well worth the two hour wait to shake the man’s hand, thank him for his service, and – a distant third on the list – receive an autographed copy of the book.

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The plan was for Corporal Smoyer to ride in on a tank and stop in front of Union Station, the site of uncounted final “goodbye’s” during the war. Eighty trains a day, the Union Station historian said, arrived and departed from Denver in the early 1940’s carrying many young men on their way to war. Given it was a cold, wet, rainy-snowy day in Denver, the turnout was actually quite good.

Corporal Smoyer had ample escort!

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At long last, the Corporal arrived, mounted atop a WWII era Stewart tank. Although not the tank in which Corporal Smoyer went to war, it is the only civilian owned operable tank in Colorado.

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It took a little time to help the 95 year old soldier down from his mount. With his feet on solid ground, Corporal Smoyer stepped over to the Stewart tank and hung his handicap parking placard on the cannon barrel. Well play, sir. Well played.

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After a brief recounting of several stories and the unveiling of a commemorative painting to be hung in Union Station, he was off to begin signing copies of the book.

Today I shook the hand of a hero and am feeling profoundly grateful to Corporal Smoyer and all the men and women from his time that defeated a fearsome evil and preserved the Freedom of which I am a direct beneficiary.

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What’s in YOUR manual?

You go to see a movie with a friend. You sit side-by-side and watch the same movie projected on the screen. Afterward, in discussing the movie, you both disagree on the motives of the lead character and even quibble over the sequence of events in the movie you just watched together.

How is it that two people having just watched the same movie could come to different conclusions and even disagree over the sequence of events that – objectively speaking – could have only happened in one way?

It’s what brains do. Memory is imperfect and every one of us has a unique set of filters and lenses through which we view the world. At best, we have a mostly useful but distorted model of the world around us. Not everyone understands this. Perhaps most people don’t understand this. It’s far more common for people – especially smart people – to believe and behave as if their model of the world is 1) accurate and 2) shared with everybody else on the planet.

Which gets me to the notion of the user manuals we all carry around in our heads about OTHER people.

Imagine a tall stack of books, some thin others very thick. On the spine of each book is the name of someone you know. The book with your partner’s name on it is particularly thick. The book with the name of your favorite barista on the spine is quite a bit thinner. Each of these books represents a manual that you have written on how the other person is supposed to behave. Your partner, for example, should know what they’re supposed to be doing to seamlessly match your model of the world. And when they don’t follow the manual, there can be hell to pay.

Same for your coworkers, other family members, even acquaintances. The manual is right there in plain sight in your head. How could they not know that they’re supposed to return your phone call within 30 minutes? It’s right there in the manual!

It seems cartoonish. But play with this point of view for a few days. Notice how many things – both positive and negative – you project onto others that are based on your version of how they should be behaving. What expectations do you have, based on the manual you wrote, for how they’re supposed to behave?

Now ask yourself, in that big stack of manuals you’ve authored for how others’ brains should work, where is your manual? If you want to improve all your relationships, toss out all of those manuals and keep only one. The one with your name on the spine. Now focus on improving that one manual.

Mindfulness? There’s an app for that!

It appears mindfulness is…well…on a lot of people’s minds lately. I’ve seen this wave come and go twice before. This go around, however, will be propelled and amplified be the Internet. Will it come and go faster? Will there be a lasting and deeper revelation around mindfulness? I predict the former.

Mindfulness is simple and it’s hard. As the saying goes, mindfulness is not what you think.  It was difficult when I first began practicing Rinzai Zen meditation and Aikido many years ago. It’s even more difficult in today’s instant information, instant gratification, and short attention span culture. The uninitiated are ill equipped for the journey.

With this latest mindfulness resurgence expect an amplified parasite wave of meditation teachers and mindfulness coaches. A Japanese Zen Master (Roshi, or “teacher”) I studied with years ago called them “popcorn roshis” – they pop up everywhere and have little substance. No surprise that this wave includes a plethora of mindfulness “popcorn apps.”

Spoiler alert: There are no apps for mindfulness. Attempting to develop mindfulness by using an app on a device that is arguably the single greatest disruptor of mindfulness is much like taking a pill to counteract the side effects of another pill in your quest for health. At a certain point, the pills are the problem. They’ve become the barrier to health.

The “mindfulness” apps that can be found look to be no different than thousands of other non-mindfulness apps offering timers, journaling, topical text, and progress tracking. What they all have in common is that they place your mindfulness practice in the same space as all the other mindfulness killing apps competing for your attention – email, phone, texts, social media, meeting reminders, battery low alarms, and all the other widgets that beep, ring, and buzz.

The way to practicing mindfulness is by the deliberate subtraction of distractions, not the addition of another collection of e-pills. The “killer app” for mindfulness is to kill the app. The act of powering off your smart phone for 30 minutes a day is in itself a powerful practice toward mindfulness. No timer needed. No reminder required. Let it be a random act. Be free! At least for 30 minutes or so.

Mental states like mindfulness, focus, and awareness are choices and don’t arise out of some serendipitous environmental convergence of whatever. They are uniquely human states. Relying on a device or machine to develop mindfulness is decidedly antithetical to the very state of mindfulness. Choosing to develop such mental states requires high quality mentors (I’ve had many) and deliberate practice – a practice that involves subtracting the things from your daily life that work against them.

“For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.12

 

Clouds and Windmills

I recently resigned from the company I had been employed by for over 5 years. The reason? It was time.

During my tenure1 I had the opportunity to re-define my career several times within the organization in a way that added value and kept life productive, challenging, and rewarding. Each re-definition involved a rather extensive mind mapping exercises with hundreds of nodes to described what was working, what wasn’t working, what needed fixing, and where I believed I could add the highest value.

This past spring events prompted another iteration of this process. It began with the question “What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go to work today?”2 This is the flip of asking “What do I do at work?” The latter is a little self-serving. We all want to believe we are adding value and are earning our pay. The answer is highly filtered through biases, justifications, excuses, and rationalizations. But if in the midsts of a meeting you ask yourself, “What would be different if I were not present or otherwise not participating?”, the answer can be a little unsettling.

This time around, in addition to mind mapping skills, I was equipped with the truly inspiring work of Tanmay Vora and his sketchnote project. Buy me a beer some day and I’ll let you in on a few of my discoveries. Suffice it to say, the overall picture wasn’t good. I was getting the feeling this re-definition cycle was going to include a new employer.

A cascade of follow-on questions flowed from this iteration’s initial question. At the top:

  1. Why am I staying?
  2. Is this work aligned with my purpose?
  3. Have my purpose and life goals changed?

The answers:

  1. The paycheck
  2. No.
  3. A little.

Of course, it wasn’t this simple. The organization changed, as did I, in a myriad of ways. While exploring these questions, I was reminded of a story my Aikido teacher, Gaku Homma, would tell when describing his school. He said it was like a rope. In the beginning, it had just a few threads that joined with him to form a simple string. Not very strong. Not very obvious. But very flexible. Over time, more and more students joined his school and wove their practice into Nippon Kan’s history. Each new thread subtlety changed the character of the emerging rope. More threads, more strength, and more visibility. Eventually, an equilibrium emerges. Some of those threads stop after a few short weeks of classes, other’s (like mine) are 25 years long before they stop, and for a few their thread ends in a much more significant way.

Homma Sensi has achieved something very difficult. The threads that form Nippon Kan’s history are very strong, very obvious, and yet remain very flexible. Even so, there came a time when the right decision for me was to leave, taking with me a powerful set of skills, many good memories, and friendships. The same was true for my previous employer. Their rope is bending in a way that is misaligned with my purpose and goals. Neither good nor bad. Just different. Better to leave with many friendships intact and a strong sense of having added value to the organization during my tenure.

The world is full of opportunities. And sometimes you have to deliberately and intentionally clear all the collected clutter from your mental workspace so those opportunities have a place to land. Be attentive to moments like this before your career is remembered only as someone who yells at clouds and tilts at windmills.


1 By the numbers…

1,788 Stand-ups
1,441 Wiki/Knowledgebase Contributions
311 Sprint/Release Planning Sessions
279 Reviews
189 Retrospectives
101 Projects
31 Internal Meet-ups
22 Agile Cafés
10 Newsletters
5.5 Years
3 Distinct Job Titles
1 Wild Ride

2 My thanks to colleague Lennie Noiles and his presentation on Powerful Questions. While Lennie didn’t ask me this particular question, it was inspired by his presentation.