I’ve long let this blog go stagnant because there is so little that I have to say these days that would find the appropriate audience here anyway. As it is I use tumblr for some things, twitter for some, facebook for others, and mostly just ruminate and keep my thoughts to myself more than anything else. So as you can see from the front page here, this is mostly for remembering to post pictures of the cakes made for my kids’ birthdays.
If you read the archives on here (why would you do that?!) you will get a strangely incomplete picture of me, as my opinions on so many of the things I’ve written about have changed, though some haven’t. It makes me want to write a little “State of the Charles” address every couple of years, though few would really care.
DSLR Cake for JAke
This is 7 layers of the 15, there are another 8 in two extra lenses and an external flash… all still in progress, some I’m more pleased with than others.
Visit puppetaweek.com for my personal puppetry project, and deathbypuppets.com for the puppetry group I’m working with.
(copied from my tumblr)
Grace had a Punky Brewster themed sixth birthday party. I made two 3-ish layered mis-matched shoe cakes for her 6 layers of cake.
So, more than a decade after everybody else, I’ve finally started reading Harry Potter. Many of you know the story as to why I’ve never read it. When the first three books came out I was chewing through Dune and Ender novels and pretty much everything else Frank Herbert or Orson Scott Card had written. I wasn’t opposed to Harry Potter per se, but it hadn’t bubbled up to the top of my “that sounds interesting and I should read it” list. This is the story of why, even with the hype of Goblet of Fire, I never got around to reading Harry Potter until now. I had a bit of a grudge against the whole series.
In the fall of 1999 I started working at the not-quite-opened-yet 800,000 square foot distribution center for Amazon.com in nearby McDonough, GA. When I started there I had more technological skills than most of the other local warehouse workers and quickly became the guy who handled inventory issues in the database, simply by virtue of having understood early on how the system was thinking about inventory and orders. One of our early challenges that first Christmas season was with toys. The original amazon system hadn’t been designed to handle things like toys, and there was the new phenomenon of Pokemon which of course none of us in the warehouse could identify, and had issues left and right trying to make sure the Jigglypuff and Squirtle were in the right places and being sent to the right people.
After surviving our first holiday season at ATL1, I ended up heading a small team that was looking through data to find “wins” that would help us get certain items through the warehouse faster (things slipping through the automated cracks at that time). One of the books I recall at the time that was problematic was ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ which inexplicably was sent out by the dozens and hundreds, but often came into the system in ones and twos. We had a few weeks where our little team of 5 or 6 did little except make sure those books could get out of the door. I was only a couple months away from moving into the IT department, or maybe I had already moved into IT, when HP 4 was coming out.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to anybody that the fourth book of Harry Potter was a big deal at amazon that year. Amazon was a big dot-com player at the time, but was still in its toddlerhood and there was huge pressure to make sure everything went smoothly. What we received was dozens (or was it hundreds?) of pallets of the new HP book all wrapped in black plastic so nobody could see, and leak, what the cover of the new book was. I believe it was about a week before the book’s official release date that our local management started to prepare to start packing up the books. And about twenty minutes after that when things went awry for me.
Not to get into the esoterica of how Amazon processed orders in those days, but essentially the number of orders and the number of books combined with a bit of poor planning on somebody’s part to break the system’s method for handling orders. Part of the pressure was that things all had to be processed and books all had to be shipped a day or two before release dates so they would all arrive on the drop date and everybody who ordered from Amazon wouldn’t be waiting any longer than people who went to their local Barnes & Noble. Long story short I spent several very long days mucking around making sure that the system could process each order as it needed to. The way things worked in that day we didn’t have individual computers of our own, but all shared x-term thin clients around the warehouse, though I had a specific one at the bottom of “pick module D” that I used most often and that was where I camped out with both my normal bifocals and a pair of reading glasses that I wore over the top of my bifocals when my eyes got too tired to keep reading the screen.
That was my first primary experience with Harry Potter and, though I recognized it was doing fantastic things for reading amongst the target audience, that was why I had a grudge against Harry Potter for a decade. Now admittedly I no longer held a real grudge after a couple years, and it was more just a “thing” at that point, and as I knew the books meant a lot to many of my friends and acquaintances I couldn’t hold it with the same distain I have for The Great Gatsby (which I’m sure is just a defect in myself as so many other people love that book).
Which brings us up to present day. Somewhere along the way my wife also had a grudge against it, but that’s because she thinks it’s evil. And because of her grudge, our son Jake (who is 14) had never read them either. When all of his friends have read them it was annoying for there to be references he didn’t get (that is *my* boy), so he petitioned his mom and she conceded that at 14 he should be able to make that judgement call himself. So now that he has started reading them (he’s working on book #3 now) I too have joined in and am enjoying them greatly. I’m only halfway through the first book admittedly, but thus far I’m seeing why they’re so well loved.
Over the last couple of months (today marks 61 consecutive days/exactly two months actually) I’ve been doing a bit of personal writing using the website www.750words.com . For me it’s a little bitter-sweet as Buster is doing with 750words what I’d always hoped to do with Wordtrip; get people writing. I would love to say that the reason I rarely update my blogs is that I’m working on writing things that are “more important” using 750words, but it hasn’t been just the last two months that my plethora of blogs and websites have gone largely dark.
One of the reasons I’ve been drawn to blogging and forums like Wordtrip are that I’m generally more interested in conversation or discussion of a topic than just dumping out of my head. It is certainly, and obviously, easier to live only within my own opinion and spew them onto a page without feedback, but I’m not sure that’s the most useful means of intellectual growth.
Over the years, as my personal philosophy has developed and grown there have been a few periods where I spent substantial amount of time writing elaborate discussions driven e-mails with friends. Those were large motivating factors in my journey of study simply because I was uncomfortable making unsubstantiated assertions of opinion without some research to back them up. That is one of the reasons I’ve wanted to put my writing “out there” to get the sanity check on my philosophy and thoughts in general.
On the one hand the feedback in either a blog, a forum, or an e-mail chain causes me to further flesh out an idea or concept so that I understand my own thoughts better. On the other hand that same feedback may play into my own confirmation bias and cause me to hunt out ideas and opinions which support my own view rather than looking objectively at evidence. Though I understand that it raises the risk of me entrenching myself in an opinion, simply by having an awareness of that risk I think it is, at least partially, diminished and the potential benefits begin to outweigh the potential drawbacks.
All of that is to say that, depending on which of my plethora of sites you read, you may see more writing from me in the not too distant future as my daily “write 750 words” habit begins to include a little time for reflection and editing so I have something to post… somewhere.
On diets, baseball, project management, and getting things done.
There is a thing called a mind hack. If you are unaware, a mind hack is an ostensibly productive, or at least positive, use of the esoteric nature of our brain to trick ourselves into doing something we otherwise might not due to procrastination, priorities, or ‘oh pretty butterfly’ distractions. For the most part almost anything you find in the self-help isle of a book store is utilizing this concept in one way or another (even if the authors are blissfully unaware of this themselves). From diets to people management, from personal productivity to programming project management, they are all like Nomar Garciaparra’s pre-batting fidget routine, or Dumbo’s feather.
Timothy & Dumbo
What I find amusing, or is it depressing, is that Timothy Mouse knew what we are doing in 1941. They’re not actually making us fly, lose weight, or get more work done. They’re all Dumbo’s feather, they distract us from thinking we can’t do something, and help us get out of our own way. In baseball you see hitters go through elaborate routines before each at bat. We know, and hopefully they do as well, that these routines aren’t “doing” anything per se, but like Dumbo’s feather it helps them to not over-think the process and let their experience and instincts to the work.
When you pick the latest diet craze, or perchance you pick one from twenty years ago, the primary thing you’re doing is giving yourself a framework to be mindful of what you are putting into your body. Dieting is a relatively simple, if not easy, concept: eat enough food to keep your body from starving, but less food than you burn (measured in calories). For some the diet that works for them is to cut out carbs, or lower fat, or eat a grapefruit a day, or whatever. The main function of all of these though, is to give you method for being aware that you’re consuming a certain number of calories (though they’re not always measured as such) and possibly tracking that you’re doing a certain amount of exercise. There is the 7-word diet put forth by Michael Pollan: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. If you keep it in mind, you’ll be limiting the calories you eat, limiting yourself to food (not food-like consumables like Oreos and American cheese), and by eating mostly plants you’ll fill yourself up with nutrient dense calories that will keep you feeling more full and less likely to binge on a bag of Oreos.
In the realm of personal productivity there have been numerous methodologies for “Getting Things Done” like the Franklin Covey methods (and associated products) and David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). These generally give you a framework of things to do which aren’t empirically the best, but are designed to work around the problems our primitive brains have working in our modern world. Our brains are simply not wired to hold everything in them that we need to do in a given day/week/month/career, and most of these personal productivity methodologies are simply acknowledging that and getting you to use a paper brain to store the information and allowing your meat computer to do what it does best: think/compute/imagine/innovate.
When it comes to team projects and getting things accomplished, especially in IT, there are “project management methodologies” which are serving the same basic purpose as any given personal productivity methodology would. They’re attempting to give a framework for us to get out of our own way. Depending on the nature of your business and project it may be best to use a “classic waterfall” project management method, or a fancy new “Agile” method, but I think it is a serious mistake to think that one or the other is “the best” way of approaching something. Unless you’re an Agile development consultancy it is unlikely that Agile development will suit your needs in every project, just as it is unlikely any other methodology will work in all cases.
It is far too easy for us to find our favorite mind hack and become disciples and evangelists for it as “the one true way” of managing ourselves, our teams, or our projects. The feather served its purpose for Dumbo and let him overcome his fear of flying. Nomar’s pre-batting routine served its purpose of distracting and focusing him long enough every at-bat to let his instincts (developed through hours in the batting cage) win him Rookie of the Year honors and a batting title during his career. I think the main thing to remember about this isn’t learning how to be the best GTD practitioner or Agile developer, but that the goal is, or at least should be, to get something accomplished. And that, is less about how you’ve tricked yourself into being productive, and more about that we’ve found a way (and a reason) to be more productive… tricks or not.
@Lisa_Ray is doing a “Year Without Disney” with her family, and when I started rambling in her comments about appreciating Art as it is created, instead of buying the product as it is marketed, she amazingly asked me to do a guest post… Me doing a post on a blog protesting the Disney Corporation is a bit incongruous as I am a fan of many things Disney owns or distributes (Pixar, Muppets, Studio Ghibli), but (and this is the crux of my piece) I realize the difference in the art that is created by the artists working for the corporation and the business practices of that corporation. So, as I obviously NEED some motivation to write, I took her up on the idea and, well, here it is.
I’m sure this isn’t a new analogy (but because I want to write it I won’t Google it to see exactly how unoriginal it is), but when talking to my wife about my career as a software developer, the day job, I described myself as a Google developer and not a Wikipedia one.
A large percentage of the people I’ve worked with in IT (be they in development, or system administration, or whatever) have had a degree in IT and are what I’m referring to as Wikipedia developers. They are people who have a set of knowledge and apply it to their problem (generally quite effectively).
I described myself as a Google developer because I don’t have the degree, and while I have a fair bit of knowledge, I don’t have a set of any given language which I “speak” fluently to solve a problem. What I have is enough knowledge of the various ways a problem might be solved, and a baseline understanding of how to find out how to utilize a given technology to solve the problem. I’m also a pretty good problem solver.
Wikipedia is a large pile of knowledge which can be used. Google is access to a much larger pile of knowledge, but you’ve got to work a bit harder to use it, and it’s a different skill set being able to find it. I think I’m Google (though I’ve also answered to “vast repository of useless knowledge” as well… so maybe the analogy breaks down… they all do don’t they?)
I think this means two things for me professionally.
A) my resume doesn’t look as good as I’d like it. I can’t say “I’m an X developer” and get a job doing that. Once I’m in a job (as I am now, and have done in the past) I tend to be able to prove myself useful because even though I’m not the star player on a team, I can be the super-sub utility guy who can help solve a lot of different problems.
B) I’m not as fast in solving any given problem because each time I’m faced with an issue I have to work out some random syntax issue to get a given technology to do what I want. But in the end I can usually solve the problem.
Ideally I’d like to be both; fluent in a language or three, without losing the ability to search out information as needed. I’ve known a few of those IT people as well.
After reading this article I sent it off to a couple of my friends, a brief back and forth ensued and I wanted to flesh out some of the thoughts I had re: this piece. Here’s what I posted to my tumblr (tumblog, whatever that thing is called).
I have a, I’m sure fairly standard, case of middle-class angst over my career. I don’t hate what I do, but it’s not really what I want to do (though I’ll admit that seems to be a moving target. I’m unsure if that’s because I’m simply wishy-washy, or because I haven’t stepped out of the rat race and really followed a dream full force, or because some dreams don’t take up an entire lifetime, or something else)… and I don’t want to get caught in that trap of working so hard to advance a career I don’t care about, but I don’t want to stagnate where I am. And, with kids/wife/mortgages it’s not like I’m currently in a position of reasonably quitting the day job and pursuing something I’m “passionate” about.
So, what to do? It’s not like this isn’t a question millions of other people ask themselves. I’m fairly certain it’s a question a high-percentage of those people never really answer though (not that I’m answering it either, so not casting judgement). Once our society moved past the “oh crap I’m starving to death/oh look lions want to eat me” stage it seems we let ourselves vacillate between mindless entertainments to fill our time, or foolish hopes in a nebulous “paradise” to reward ourselves after death. There’s no great here-after where I’ll get to spend days making puppets, writing novels, baking cakes, acting, talking about science/philosophy/art, or making music, so if I’m going to do the things I love it has to be here and now. But the family does have to eat, so ya know… fairly standard pre-middle-age middle-class angst
PS: I’m also well aware that it’s a luxurious question to get to ask. I realize I’m unspeakably lucky to have been born as a white male (with all the advantages that alone provides), and in this century (OK technically I was born last century, but you know what I mean), in a first world country with a piles of technology, in a middle-class family with reasonable education opportunities, passable intelligence, and decent health. So don’t take this as misunderstanding how lucky I really am. I think there is a certain responsibility to not waste the lucky opportunities afforded me by where and when I was born, while not living in such a way as to take away some of those opportunities from others less fortunate.