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Beyond Blame

2017/01/05

That went away fast. You can finish it in one shot. Especially if you are in one of the most thankless professions, with lots of responsibility and zero authority. The narrative, however thin, feels close to heart because this things happen. Or may have even happened to you or someone you know.

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The Cynefin model

While this is no Phoenix Project, the first sixteen chapters serve to lay the playgound for implementing a proper postmortem process, where no one is afraid to withhold critical information. This along a very useful bibliography is presented in the last chapter.

As always, the hard thing is to make people who think that “rolling heads” improve morale and performance, to see the error of their ways.

Yesterday’s Kin

2017/01/04

Why are you here?

To make contact with World. A peace mission

I first learned of Nancy Kress via the IEEE Spectrum podcast. Since Yesterday’s Kin was not published yet, I read the Beggars in Spain. This week, it was Kin’s turn. It read fast, less than two nights in a row. Science fiction and genetics is Kress’s playing field and she handles it well.

So what do you do when an alien race, advanced in Engineering comes your way? How do you proceed when they reveal an incoming threat for both races and request for scientific assistance? How do you deal with information sharing? With conspiracy theories that arise worldwide? How do you build trust?

I really do not know what to write without revealing the plot. This is a fast paced story, the genetic science “computes” (well at least if you are not a biologists, then maybe it does not, but I remember she does a lot of research prior to writing anything). It is one of those stories that when reading them I think “It runs so good that I do not see a perfect ending”. Indeed the ending is not the best of endings, but at least it is plausible within the novel’s context and its sub-arcs.

A really nice piece for when on holiday.

 

The Fields Medal. A genius Mathematician racing against time. Will he make it before he’s 40? The journal of his adventure is what this book is about. Along with his fears, the way he measures himself against other giants (does he really have to? To the reader it may seem he does not, but to him is matters a lot; the top is the top). And yes, it is written as a diary.

I will not pretend that I knew, or still understand anything about Landau damping. Or even the Boltzmann equation. In fact I know only of a handful of people who could recognise the complete notation used. Interestingly, this does not make the book less enjoyable. It took me over a year since I first found out about the book, started reading it and then finishing it. And you know what? It was not the Mathematics that put it to a pause. It was a long chapter on music, on stuff that I could follow in complete detail. When I reached there I paused in order to find the proper time to enjoy the written soundtrack. Well that time came about a year later.

Far too many top Mathematicians and Mathematical Physicists parade in the book. Perelman‘s antics and perseverance get explained. Luckily some simpler (to grasp, not solve) problems too, the Collatz for example. As it happens I too use it sometimes to block my mind from interference. But that’s where the similarities with the author stop. The other thing that felt close to heart was Coq. I always had ideas about using it in ways not expected by its creators, but my academic limited attention per suject blocked this.

All in all a fascinating read about a man, his passion and his target. You can safely ignore the Mathematics. It is hard enough for the professionals and is there to show what he dealt with. The pain is described not in algebraic notation but with plain alphabet.

 

The Last Lecture

2016/09/16

Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.

I will admit to never having seen The Last Lecture. Over the years I’ve started watching it, only abandoning it after the first couple of minutes. The only thing that I’ve seen, and this only by chance, is the part where Randy Pauch describes how his parents let him paint his room. Somehow this stuck with me and in our house the kids are allowed to draw on the walls of their room, only in contrast to his parents, the room gets painted from time to time and the drawings are thus erased.

Somehow I decided to read the book. Mostly because it contains one of the most annoying phrases I’ve ever heard offered as consolation: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand”. Well, you cannot argue with a dead guy, and Pauch, if alive, would not let you win the argument.

It takes tremendous self discipline to write a book like that (even though technically he did not write it, he dictated it on tape and a writer undertook the polishing). I was told though by a good friend that similar efforts (like keeping a journal) help coping with the situation. And this is visible in the writing. As is visible that we are not the main audience of the book, his three kids are (lately I pick authors with three kids). He even admits that at the end of the book. The man has little time left and a lot of guidance to give. So what is this book? A self-help book? A career-advice book? A parenting one, drawing mostly from the example his parents set for him? All of that?

Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think

It is a time-management book. Because here is a guy that was on the path to success, that had a lot to give to his field and his family, who is suddenly told that long-term plans do not matter any more. This is what you’ve got at best, squeeze whatever you can inside. So through his book (and the lecture I suppose) he basically delivers a lesson in time management (which explains how he managed to do so many things until he was diagnosed terminally ill), planning, team building, mentoring and correcting one’s behaviour.

This is not a book that made me feel relaxed or even good about myself after reading it. Nor is a book that I agree 100% with what is written. More likely close to 60% of the advice. But am I happy I read it? Yes. Should you read it? Only if you can handle enumerating all your mistakes so far.

 

 

I do  not remember how I happened upon the book, but it is one of those books that you need to read if you are interested in the technology competition during the Cold War. It is also a far more interesting book than that because by following the lives of Joel Barr (and his alter ego Al Sarant) you learn a lot of stuff about OPSEC failures, how naive and ill equipped  was the FBI during WWII in its counterintelligence efforts,  the Communist Party USA at its prime, the Rosenberg Spy Ring and the technology transfer that resulted because of its operations.

You do learn of the life that two foreigners led during the Cold War “on the other side” and the passion for recognition of one of them “who was not Caltech material” according to R. Feynman which resulted in singlehandedly him kickstarting Soviet electronics. Sarant was definitely driven to prove him wrong, and when placed in an environment where he could operate, in a way he did: The UM-1, the Uzel and Zelenograd are his and created within an environment that did not favor his modus operandi.

You also learn a lot about management, how risk aversive management ultimately leads to failure and how choosing to copy instead of competing (and embracing failure) widens the gap and leaves you behind:

And then one of them, the highest one, a department head at the ministry, asked me, “Do the Americans do that?” When I said I didn’t know, he said, “Son, remember, if they don’t do something, it isn’t worth doing.”

There are also patterns of behaviour that we still find peculiar and contradicting today, but are explainable by those who commit them really easy:

the prospect of committing a crime to further a cause in which you deeply believe is a very exciting one. Here is a test not only of what you believe, but also of what you are.

Think about that the next time a suicide bomber explodes.  This is what rationalises everything in their head. And while you are at it, here is how contradictions between actions and ideology get rationalised too:

These little people in the party accept the discipline of the party, do what they are told, think what they are told; and if these things seem contrary to reason, patriotic duty or common sense, they do them because the party says that is the correct thing to do “at the time”.

There you have it. That explains the party herd. And the following explains the rest:

He was particularly impressed by their ability to tune out the intellectual garbage that was thrown at them from every form of communications media, even in the ubiquitous slogans that adorned rooftops and bulletin boards.

Orwell was a genius! As a rule I try not to buy books that cost more than $20 (thanks to tsundoku) but I am really glad that I broke the rule this time. I find the stories of Berg (Barr) and Staros (Sarant) valuable, both in their political mistakes and in their engineering perseverance.

I suppose that I am one of a few people who had an interest in Loudcloud even though they had no vested interest in it. Maybe because it was Andreessen’s second company and I thought it would it would go south, I am not sure though.

However, because of its CEO, who also has three children and one of them autistic, the book was even more interesting to me. Horowitz is only a few years older than me.  The first part of the book describes the origins of Loudcloud, the efforts to keep it afloat after its clients went under, its transformation to Opsware and finally the sale. You can read the first part really fast; in fact you can feel the adrenaline.

Then comes the second part, equally interesting but a slightly slower read, where Horowitz explains his strategy and tactics and how he came to learn the job on the job, how mentoring helped him and how he built and transformed his management team. Without doubt the hardest things discussed are how to “properly” fire people and how to develop a HR process that can handle growth and personnel management.

However, due to two incidents briefly discussed in the book, I strongly believe that the author does not even come close to the hardest decisions that were made during this 8 year journey:

My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?”

Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?”

“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked.

Again, I replied, “No, what?”

He said, “Divorce”.

 

Because you see, the hardest choices were made by his wife and she has not written a single page.

There is also another thing I take issue with the book. Horowitz describes himself as a wartime CEO and he complains that there is no wartime management literature and that most likely there cannot be a CEO who can run things both at peace and during war. First, this is not a war. Let’s get rid of the analogy, no matter how much Sun Tzu has helped you manage things. You did not kill any people. And second of all, if you ever need advice on how to run an organisation at peace and during turbulent times just ask a ship’s captain or figure out their curriculum if you’re so much in need of a citation.

While several German religious leaders, writers and artists, industrialists and politicians mounted strong opposition to Nazi rule at great personal cost, sometimes of their lives, there was nothing comparable to be found in German science.

I stumbled upon the book thanks to this article that mostly dealt with the effort of constructing an Aryan version of Physics. What an interesting book. By using the stories of giants like Max Planck, Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg during the Nazi rule the author explores the apolitical stance many scientists used to have (and depending the field continue to adopt) on the results of their work and the repercussions of them being used. Planck remained glued to the Fatherland regardless of who was ruling it (and whether being true to the Fatherland), Debye tried to walk though the rain without getting wet and Heisenberg with the arrogance that came with his ability tried to rebuild German Physics by assuming the role of its curator.

Together with these we learn of the noble stance by Max von Laue and Fritz Strassman  (“I value my personal freedom so highly, that to preserve it I would brake stones”) and the grey stance of the rest who stayed and did science within the regime. Even Lise Meitner and Debye left at the very last moment they could. Correspondence between many prominent scientists from the beginning of the Nazi rule till after WWII is also included. Very interesting points of view and commentary of the situation these people were in.

While you cannot completely enjoy the book without remembering your Physics, you will highly enjoy the questions of ethics and moral compass that it poses. I know it troubled me and it makes me answer questions about the work I am doing and the sector it applies too daily. And DevOps is not exactly science yet.

While the stories we read about for 11 or so chapters serve largely as a preamble to the fantastic epilogue on Science and Ethics, they do describe the situation we are in today and questions we need to answer. Prior to reading the book I used the get a bit sad when a scientist or an engineer I admired failed me on other standards that I supposed they were concurrently holding. I do not get sad any more. Within the realm of politics they are equally fallible like the rest of us.