If you stop doing something, you get worse at it. Last fall, I stopped writing for myself every day. I’m tring to get back to it now. I’m finding it harder to stich together thoughts and sentences. Typing—outside the context of my day job—feels weird. My writing has lost its voice—at least for now.

Chess is just poker now

The chess cheating scandal du jour is puzzling and fascinating. Matteo Wong’s article in The Atlantic does not really unpack the issue, but instead provide some depth into how computers have changed the game over the past 25 years:

What once seemed magical became calculable; where one could rely on intuition came to require rigorous memorization and training with a machine. Chess, once poetic and philosophical, was acquiring elements of a spelling bee: a battle of preparation, a measure of hours invested.

It is interesting, though understandable from a technological standpoint, that the concern in the 1990s was that a person might help the computer engine cheat. Today, conversely, the concern is that a computer engine (combined with some spycraft tech, it must be said) might help person cheat.

Tableau is a very powerful data visualization tool. The more I use it, though, the weirder it is to me from a UI standpoint.  I find it both easier and harder to use that it’s nearest competitor, Microsoft Power BI.

My writing as a child:

Why use a small word when a big word will do?

My writing as an adult:

Why use a big word when a small word will do?

I don’t need a better notes app. I need to take better notes.

Everything takes longer to do than I expect

A miser knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I feel that way sometimes about the people tracking my time at work. The thing is, they don’t bother me about how long it takes me to do my work. I bother me about it.1

A constant source of frustration for me is that everything I do takes longer than I expect it to. This is true whether I am doing something for the first time or the hundredth. I try to build it into my time estimates, but it is often impossible to guess how much time may be wasted on overcoming a technical setback. Most of my coworkers don’t have technical setbacks, per se. They are working primarily in Excel and Word rather than creating databases queries and analytical scripts. Consequently, they don’t understand how difficult it is for me to make time estimates. I can’t possibly create an accurate estimate of how much time I could lose to a bug I created, some analytical framework not working as promised, or the speed of a database or a network share being far slower than expected.

It also bothers me that it takes me the same amount of time to do a lot of my work as it did ten years ago. It isn’t because I haven’t gotten better at my work; the quality of my work is better, but adding that level of quality takes more time than doing the work in a slapdash, non-repeatable, non-controlled way. This kind of thing is true in my hobbies, as well. I can’t solve Sudoku puzzles or crosswords must faster than I could years ago. While solving quickly isn’t necessarily the point of doing puzzles, it makes me feel that I have plateaued in my abilities and possible cannot get any better.

I suppose, as I have gotten older, I have learned to be considerate and to care about quality over speed. Unfortunately, the world, I am afraid, still values the glib and quick over the thoughtful and slow.

  1. The calls are coming from inside the house. ↩︎

Dependence Day

On Independence Day, we Americans celebrate throwing off the yoke of tyranny of the British Crown and declaring that we, and all people, have certain inalienable rights under natural law.

The Supreme Court has made a mockery of this idea in its recent decision Dobbs v. Jackson. Now we are being led to believe that our natural rights are not natural at all. Instead, they depend on national tradition—specifically what the Supreme Court majority deems to be national tradition.

I refuse to believe that our rights should depend on the whims of a small group of unelected officials. It’s not much better than living under a monarchy.

Annual Reviews Are a Terrible Way to Evaluate Employees

Of course, on the weekend I have to write my annual self-evaluation essay for work, I read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Marcus Buckhingham. He spells out the problems with the annual review process:

The failings of the annual performance review fall into three broad buckets:

They are too infrequent. They are dehumanizing. They are irrelevant to real-world performance.

For years I have complained to my “performance advisors” about the absurdity of the annual review process. Part of the problem is that goals—even SMART goals—are often unachievable because priorities, projects, and clients change over time. Another problem is that too much time is spent ranking employees, which leads to an outside focus on areas of improvement. Not enough time is spent highlighting areas of strength. Imagine how empowering a performance review would be if it was focused on what employees are good at and on finding ways to let them do those things even more.

I thought this detail, from deep in the article, was especially well-observed:

Workers want attention, not feedback, and mostly attention on where they’ve shown glimpses of something good, and how they might show more of them.

Over the past two years I have cultivated a much better attitude about performance reviews. I believe that the managers at the various companies I have worked at want to do the right thing with performance reviews, and are doing the best they can with the tools they have available. I think the problem is that the wrong tools are being used—and have been being used, for my whole career, at every place I worked. The reason for that is that how performance reviews are performed has been baked into general workplace culture. It’s pretty much the same everywhere; blame the MBAs and management experts who developed the general processes and the ideas behind them, I guess1. No annual review process I have been a part of tries to break out of that mold and define a new culture.

In general, employers should help their employees develop their strengths and allow them to spend more time on them. It’s true that various weaknesses can and should be improved with training, coaching, and experience. In many cases, however, greater gains can be had in letting employees drop those areas of weakness and concentrate instead on further developing their areas of strength. That approach would develop the kind of employees that companies in my field want to hire: specialists with unique, world-class skills. In the market for workers, that’s what’s valuable. Why strive hard to become average in your areas of weakness when you could spend equal effort to become truly great at something?

  1. I’m an MBA with a concentration in management. Maybe I’m part of the problem. ↩︎

All billionaires are oligarchs

Leo Laporte, on this week’s MacBreak Weekly podcast, said that he is going to start calling Elon Musk an oligarch rather than a billionaire. I found that very interesting.

For some reason, we reserve the word “oligarch” for very rich, powerful men in Russia, but I think it may be an apt term for any billionaire. Having that much money certainly grants a person outsized authority and autonomy. Each company Elon Musk owns controlling stake in must feel to him like a fiefdom in which he can do whatever he wants.

“Oligarch” has a pejorative connotation, which gives me pause when I think of applying it to a wide selection of people. However, I think the stink of it is deserved even for the billionaires that we like. People cannot accumulate wealth at such an unimaginable scale without having some form of moral stain on their characters.

When I used Mac OS 8

Seeing Mac OS 8 emulated in a web browser today brings back some pleasant memories of my years as a Mac tech in college. Most of the machines I worked on for that job ran OS 8 or OS 8.5, which to my Windows-centric mind were beautiful and fun to work on.1

For two years, I worked in the theatre building with one of my best friends. We were in charge of keeping the theatre professors’ computers—and almost all of the computers in student areas, working. That entailed defragging hard drives, installing productivity software, setting up backups, installing RAM, replacing laptop keyboards, performing OS upgrades, and so on.

When I first got the job, I had never even used a Mac before. The only Apple computers I had ever touched at that point were the Apple II and Apple IIGS in my middle school and high school, which I had used almost entirely for word processing. I would not have gotten the job if my friend had not vouched for me during the interview process. It turned out that my experience messing around with Windows software (warez mostly, at the time) and reinstalling Windows every six months after inevitably bogged down, made me somewhat overqualified. If anything, fixing problems on a Mac was a lot easier than fixing similar problems on my PC.

My friend and I—and eventually a third person who I only met a few times—whipped the theatre building’s computers into shape within about a year. In my last year of college, the job became a make-work job for me. I set my own hours and did largely whatever I wanted to. People approved of my work, but a lot of it probably didn’t need to be done.

That year, I spent many hours working in FileMaker Pro to build a sophisticated inventory system for the theatre’s hardware and software. I was a bit obsessive about it. Some nights I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking too much about solving programming- or database design problems. Well after midnight, I would get out of bed, walk across campus to the theater building, find my way inside2, and program in my little office for hours.

Meeting those theatre students—most of whom I would never have crossed paths with if not for this job—was one of the pleasures of working there. I remember that grad students were especially friendly and chill; they seemed like students from a completely different school than the competitive, stressful one I attended. The best part of the job, though, by far, was that I got comped two tickets to every show at the theater—whether they were student productions or professional ones. I went to every single show, which otherwise would have been far outside of my budget, and loved almost all of them. The experience kicked off a life-long love of theater…and of Macs, too, of course.

  1. A few of the older Mac in the building ran the last version of System 7 and had monochrome monitors. Even then they seemed like relics. Still, I learned a lot about Hypercard on them, so I have a soft spot for them, too. ↩︎

  2. After hours, the theatre building was always locked. If you worked there, though, you knew how to get in. Even after midnight, there were often students doing theatre work inside, and none of them were supposed to be there, either. ↩︎

I realize now that I’m writing my blog for my children. A body of work—even a body of an unimportant, inconsequential work—is a better thing to leave behind than nothing at all.

A hastily built presentation is better than nothing

Last year I told myself that if I have the opportunity to present to somebody, I will always create some visual aids to complement what I say. It’s an easy way to differentiate myself from my peers, who rarely make slide decks unless they are training clients. It also shows that I’m well-organized and a structured thinker.

I found out today that I can build a good-enough slide deck in about ten minutes and present it right afterward. Half an hour before a team teleconference today, I was asked to present on a technology topic to my team. I said yes, then dropped everything for about ten minutes to create a brief slideshow on a technical topic of my choosing. I decided to share with my group how I started using Python to automate data validation. Because I am the only Python user in the group—which is not a technical group—the idea was entirely new to them. This allowed me to keep my presentation brief and high-level, while still being informative.

I normally spend many hours working a slide deck. Much of that time spent brainstorming visual designs, arranging objects to build diagrams, and revising slides to make them more concise and more visually appealing. Today, I had no time for any of that. Instead, I turned to PowerPoint’s Design Ideas feature, which automatically formatted my text and the one image I imported (the Python logo) into six presentable slides. I selected a theme with a dark background and light text—which is the opposite of our company’s slide template—to make everything pop. Then I finished up by changing a couple of the PowerPoint SmartArt shapes from what Design Ideas had applied. The result was inferior to the slide decks I painstakingly assemble, but it was far better than nothing, and nothing was my competition, after all.

I hope that showing good presentation skills time after time will help me move up into a more senior position eventually. It’s just one thing I’m working on to get there.

Chateau Picard

When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. One thing that I remember is that Captain Picard—in some future timeline, at least—retires to his family’s vineyard in France. It was a place that looked pleasant but terribly boring. It was far afield from the exotic, exciting locales that his starship captain career brought him to.

I always wondered why someone with such an exciting life would end up someplace so boring. Now that I’m older, I get it. I fantasize about spending my old age (which is still a long way off) with my wife in a pleasant, quiet, and otherwise unremarkable New England town—the kind of place that was abhorrently dull to me when I was younger.

Be excellent to each other

Tonight I had deep conversations with my wife and (later on) with my half-sister. They were rewarding, but they have exhausted the part of my brain that likes to write meaningful, or at least useful, blog posts. I guess my message to the world today is: be excellent to each other, even when it’s hard.

My daughter is turning 10 next month, and we are finally getting her some “older-kid” gifts. I just ordered her a pair of HomePod minis to use as a stereo pair in her room. I think she is going to love them. Someday she will play something other than Taylor Swift on them, too.

My wife and I just ran lines with my daughter for a skit she is working on for her acting class. It was kind of hilarious to act with her. I am either a terrific actor or a terrible ham. I can’t tell which, but I think my wife thinks it is the latter. 😅

The reward for doing good work

At the start of my career I learned an important lesson: The reward for doing good work is always more work. That often works in your favor. As you advance in your career, you move from doing many simple, repetitive tasks to solving fewer, more complex, and more interesting problems. In general, my experience bears this out—but not always.

In my first real job, I was a software developer in a small group within a large company. I started out knowing very little about how to do my job other than the programming fundamentals I picked up in A.P. Computer Science. However, I was smart and driven; I worked very hard and eventually became the best and most knowledgable programmer in my group—at least when it came to web and database development. For my effort, I was award with promotions and raises 1, but the nature of my work actually got worse instead of better.

Because I was so good at figuring out how other people’s code worked, troubleshooting, and fixing the hardest-to-fix bugs, those became my primary responsibilities as a programmer. I was no longer writing small systems from scratch or developing clean architectures. Instead, I had two roles. First, I was the Sherlock Holmes of diagnosing and fixing coding problems for other members of my team. Second, I was in charge of the technical side of large software integration projects. These are projects that involve bringing in code from people outside the company and making it work on our company’s systems. In both of these roles, I spent many hours a day wrangling with other people’s messy, awful codebases. In the end, my projects were successful, which was rewarding, but a lot of the day-to-day work was mind-meltingly difficult and unsatisfying.

I had moved from performing lots of simple tasks well to solving more complex—but not more interesting—problems. Sometimes I think that work, programming, and life works out that way.

  1. Don’t get too excited. I was always underpaid in those roles. At the time, I liked what I was doing, and lacked the confidence and the vision to take the risks necessary to switch companies in pursuit of a higher salary. ↩︎

I can’t seem to read books lately. It’s hard for me to even watch TV shows. I wonder if my attention span is shot.

Try telling Memento Mori to a five-year-old

My five-year-old son just realized that he, and everyone he knows, will die someday. It has lead to unexpected, devastating dinner conversations the past two evenings.

I don’t know why he started thinking about it. Out of nowhere, he started asking questions about death at dinner last night. At the time, my daughter and I had just started talking about Beethoven. I had looked up the composer’s Wikipedia entry and was reciting when he was born and when he died. Suddenly, my son—who knows that batteries die, that plants die, and even that animals die—asked in a shocked voice, “Why did he die?” Within a second, his lips started to quiver and he started to cry. A dozen other questions followed, none of them we were prepared to answer at a family dinner on a school night.

My daughter went through this same emotional journey four or five years ago. For her, it was precipitated by the death of my father, who was the first close family member to die since was born. She couldn’t understand why her Grampa was gone, and quickly became terrified that she would die, too. These thoughts scared her so much that she was afraid to fall asleep; my wife or I had to stay with her night after night in her bed to comfort her. We had a lot of talks about death with her to help her understand what it means and to begrudgingly accept it. Of course we told her the pleasant half-truths that death only happens to very old people and is nothing she needs to worry about for a long, long time.

My son has surprisingly practical concerns about death. Last night, he didn’t ask usb “Will I die?” He figured that out on his own and asked instead, “When will I die?” Tonight he asked us, with eyes wide with alarm, “Where will I go when I die?” My wife and I tried to explain to him that no one really knows, or that he would return to wherever he was before he was born. Those answers only made him more scared. Upon hearing them, he suddenly realized that he might not die in the same place as us or his sister, and became loudly distraught that he might end up somewhere where he couldn’t get to us anymore.

He then asked when my wife and I, are going to die. That did not bother me. When he asked when his sister was going to die, I teared up because it seemed unimaginable. Finally, before we could steer him to another, far lighter, topic of discussion, he became concerned, to the point of tears, that he is too big or too small to “fit” there—whatever that means. It astounds me that the physical dimensions of the afterlife—or whatever he imagines it to be—are what my little boy is worried about tonight.

All of my son’s thoughts and ideas about death have come, as far as we know, from his own imagination. No one close to him has died recently. We don’t talk about death much at all in our family; it is kind of taboo in our day-to-day conversations. Reflecting back on the past few weeks, however, I realize that he may have overheard the adults in the family discussing the untimely death of our rabbi’s husband, which occurred a week or so ago and understandably made us all very sad. We tried not to discuss it in front of our children—who did not really know the man—so that we would not upset them. Perhaps my son overheard us anyway.

It took my daughter a long time to come to terms with the idea that she is going to die someday. I am expecting my son to follow in her footsteps. He will probably have occasional nightmares about death—or at least have trouble falling asleep with worry about it. While it makes me sad to see my son start to go through this phase—and it has certainly led to some difficult dinner conversations—I know that he, like my daughter, is an emotionally healthy kid and will be fine. I expect him to think about death some more, talk about it with us, and become more emotionally mature through the process. He’s going to get through this; we all do.

It is quite a burden to understand that you, someday, are going to die. I wish I could ease that burden for my children, but I am wise enough to know that I cannot.

One thing that I learned about this year in chess that I never thought about is this:

For grandmasters, sportsmanship is resigning when your opponent will clearly win. For novices, sportsmanship is playing out the game and allowing your opponent to checkmate you even if it is inevitable.

Is increased productivity worth the increase in stress?

I think about productivity a lot. I wrote up my productivity system about nine years ago. I created todo.txt apps for iOS and macOS. I have strong feelings about how to stay productive. Because of all this, when I don’t feel especially productive, I stress myself out about it more than I think I should. I even stress out when I feel like I have had a productive day but think that it took me too long to do that work. Instead of feeling good, I end up feeling bad. Instead of feeling like I moved ahead, I feel like I fell further behind. This happens to me all the time. It makes me wonder if all of my thought and hard work trying to eke out more productivity is worth it.

All I know is that I don’t want to create a paper maché volcano

I want to help my daughter do a science fair project and create a fancy 3-fold poster for her elementary school’s science fair next month. I like the idea of making oobleck (a.k.a. “slime”) with cornstarch and water and doing some simple experiments with it. I think it would be a lot of fun. I wonder if it is too basic for fourth grade, but I expect it would be OK. I think that learning the format of creating an experiment and presenting it in poster form is a lot more important than the impressiveness of the experiment.

I am thankful for sun, warm weather, and my home office loudspeakers this morning. It’s going to be a good day.

Advice for giving effective presentations

I gave a coworker some advice for giving effective presentations today. I told her some things worth remembering:

  1. You are the star of your presentation, not your slide deck.
  2. Structure the presentation around ideas rather than facts.
  3. Make the presentation structure seem simple and obvious to the audience. One thing should always lead to the next.
  4. It is better to present fewer concepts well than it is to present more concepts poorly.
  5. Incorporate narrative into your presentations if you can. People love stories and are more likely to remember concepts that are tied to stories and anecdotes better than those that are not.
  6. At the beginning of your talk, convince the audience members why they should care about what you are telling them. If they care, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.
  7. A slide deck should not be a reference book. If you want to produce reference material for your audience, create a handout—which most likely should not be in the form of a slide deck—and give that to your audience during the presentation.
  8. Each slide should be simple enough for the audience to understand it in a couple seconds. You don’t want audience members to be reading your slides when they should be listening to you talk.
  9. Slides should contain no more than six items. The human mind can process up to six items incredibly quickly; it takes much longer to process seven or more.
  10. Break up long lists into multiple slides.
  11. Avoid making lists of bullet points. Instead, space out your items in an eye-pleasing grid (no more complex than two-by-three) and use meaningful icons for each item.
  12. Full-bleed images and single, short sentences centered on an otherwise blank slide can be used to highlight important points and stimulate visual interest in the audience.
  13. You are not going to read your slides while you present. Therefore, to keep on track during the presentation, write (and later refer to) speaker notes for each slide that cover your main points.
  14. Rehearse the presentation until you can perform it by only glancing at your speaker notes.
  15. Manage the clock well. Don’t let asides or questions from the audience take up so much time that you cannot cover all your material or properly wrap up at the end.
  16. The best way to project confidence when hit with an unexpected audience question is to smile, speak slowly, and look toward your co-presenters for help.

🇺🇦 I stand with Ukraine and my heart breaks for them

My little corner of Micro.blog has not had much to say about the invasion of Ukraine. This is probably a good thing, because it provides me a respite from grim news and unsubstantiated reports from the front lines. If I still had a Twitter timeline to scroll through, I’m certain that it would be full of performative, meaningless platitudes1, and strident back-and-forth arguments from people who (like me) have no bearing on the outcome of the conflict about what should be done about it.

All I can say right now is that the war is very upsetting to me and the news and commentary about it over the past two weeks (starting before the invasion) have been driving me crazy. Reading news reports and scrolling through social media has been especially disquieting to me. I know not everything I see is true. A lot of it is likely to be propaganda from one side of the conflict or the other. The internet is the best disinformation vehicle the world has ever created, and it is not only being used by Russia, it’s being used by Ukraine and everyone else, too. Ukraine may not be doing as well in this war as some of the video clips I have seen would lead me to believe.

Ukrainians are fighting a just war against an invading force, which makes taking sides in the conflict morally simple. Ukraine clearly does not deserve Putin’s incursion, and has put up a brave and savvy fight so far against it. It is easy to get caught up in how exciting and seemingly effective their defiance is, and to cheer them on in their defense of their democracy. But war is not an action movie. That it started already makes it a tragedy, and no matter the outcome it will end as an even greater one. The scrappy, virtuous underdogs may lose the fight. Their allies’ aide may be insufficient. Their charismatic leader may be killed. The two sides may broker a peace after heavy losses, and leave nothing meaningful resolved. Whatever the outcome is, I think we are all the worse for it.

  1. You may think this post is one. It is my personal reflection on the news, not a statement that I think is meaningful to anyone else or will advance a specific cause. ↩︎