Published: Mon, 04 Mar 2013 05:03:56 -0800
Last Build Date: Tue, 08 Feb 2011 21:40:59 -0800Copyright: Copyright 2013
Tue, 08 Feb 2011 21:40:59 -0800[This is actually a cut-and-paste from a photo album I posted in Facebook; it seemed worth posting here also. I'm checking if I can just link directly to the pictures on Facebook.] In 1989 I worked in Osaka for three months, and while I was there I attended something called the "All Japan Ninja Championship". I was telling my kids this and they were curious about it, so I dug up some pictures I had taken. This is a all the contestants lined up before the competition. I don't know exactly what that sign says, but the second and third Kanji are "Nippon" (Japan), and the fourth and fifth are "Ninja", so I assume it says something along the lines of "All Japan Ninja Championships". [Later comment: According to babelfish the first Kanji does mean "All", and the next 3 Kanji after "Nippon" and "Ninja" do in fact mean "Championship". The one after that means "big" by itself, and I think the next one means "combine", but I don't know what they mean together (babelfish just translates them back as "large combination").] Here they are throwing shuriken (throwing stars) at targets. Although they dressed like ninjas, don't kid yourself that there is actually a secret society in modern Japan; or if there is, it wasn't this crew. This is the "jump over a wall" part. I have some recollection that the middle part of the wall could be raised up gradually, so the event proceeded like a high-jump competition, based on the highest level that each contestant could clear. Here we see our heroes running along a narrow plank. Note the modern footwear! Most of them wouldn't have lasted five minutes in the Tokugawa shogunate. I remember this guy, with bib number 1, begin the closest to having actual ninja skills. At least he had authentic ninja shoes. This is an event that simulates storming a castle. The event was held in a small town called Koga, which evidently has all this stuff lying around. Storming the castle phase 2. According to Wikipedia there are three towns named Koga in Japan; this was the one in Shiga Prefecture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dka,_Shiga. Getting to Koga required taking a train towards Nagoya and then getting off somewhere in the middle and changing to another train going to Koga, which was just about the limits of my self-navigation skills in Japan. Nearing the top of the "castle". I had planned out my trip ahead of time with the help of someone who spoke Japanese, but when I got to the station where I had to change trains, there was a train pulling away on the designated track. I went up to a conductor and said "Koga?" in a despairing voice, luckily he knew the English word "next", so with a little gesturing he was able to explain that I had NOT missed my train. Another shot of the wall they had to climb (the camera was crooked, not the wall). It turns out that Koga (aka Koka) is the home of "infamous ninja leader Mochizuki Izumonokami's former estate", as described on this page: http://www.city.koka.shiga.jp/english/sightsee/sightsee_ninja.htm. I assume that is where the event was held. The trick here is to cross a shallow pond on pieces of plywood floating on the water. If you go fast enough, you don't sink. Note that this ninja is actually a ninjette. Ninja style! The whole thing was a little hokey (if you hadn't noticed). Also my "110" camera was a little lame (if you hadn't noticed). I didn't have a memory of what was going on here, but then I found this article http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/pop/?read=23021 which clearly describes exactly the same event, 14 years later (I was there in the fall, so the October timing lines up). This, then, would be the "Water Spider River Crossing". According to the article this event was a relay. That made me recall that the guy on the right is carrying that white T-shaped object on his back to simulate carrying somebody; I think the last person on the relay team had to do that. Water Spider fail. The article explained that those donut-shaped things actually float, and the competitors try to pole their way across. It also[...]
Sun, 19 Sep 2010 10:10:06 -0800An article today at espn.com claimed that the Seattle Mariners are the worst-hitting team in major league history. They certainly are a bad team; to avoid 100 losses they'll have to play .500 baseball in their remaining 16 games, and I've seen no evidence that they are able to do that. We went to the game yesterday and in the first inning, after Ichiro beat out an infield single, the next batter sacrificed him to second. Really? In the first inning? But sure enough, with Cliff Lee pitching (for Texas, not us) the Mariners did nothing much the rest of the game, and we lost 6-1.
Their lineup really is a succession of .231 hitters giving way to .181 hitters, followed by somebody hitting .216. Out ninth batter last night, Josh Wilson, was hitting .241, which is sort of what you expect, except he actually had the fourth-best average in our starting lineup. Except for Ichiro, nobody on the whole team is hitting above .257. the most amazing statistic in the ESPN article is the claim that our designated hitters are hitting .190. Is there an option to decline the DH and let your pitchers hit? As the article says, "you still managed to field a lineup with more hackers than a convention of former Microsoft employees."
In other Mariners new, Felix Hernandez is having statistically the best season among AL pitchers; he's is in first place, although sometimes by a small amount, in every statistical category you can think of. Nonetheless, due to the anemic Mariners offense, some blown saves the bullpen, and bad luck (even among Mariners pitchers he has the worst run support), his record is 12-11. Comparing that to C.C. Sabathia's 20-6 record on a good team brings up the question of whether he has a chance of winning the Cy Young Award. I actually think David Price of Tampa Bay should win it; he is statistically ahead of Sabathia but behind Hernandez, but looking over his season log he has only had one really bad game, whereas Hernandez and Sabathia have had 3 or 4 each (one of which Sabathia actually won, due to Yankee bats bailing him out). But I suspect Sabathia will win it, unless Price gets to 20 wins (he's 17-6 right now) in which case it will probably come down to one of them pitching particularly well during next week's Tampa Bay-New York series, or failing that, whoever's team wins the AL East.
There has also been a bit of a dust-up because Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln is sad that Mariners fans think he's incompetent. In this case there is no doubt; Howard Lincoln is in fact a gigantic idiot. Forget the managers he has chosen or the players he has signed; the fundamental flaw is his persistent strategy of developing the farm system so he can trade young players for 33-year-old former stars. His current complaints, coupled with other weirdnesses like his statement that the Mariners didn't win the World Series in 2001 because of 9/11, only raise the question of whether he is merely terrible, or actually a kook.
Fri, 30 Apr 2010 14:08:22 -0800Question: Would you rather spend 10 minutes drawing some cool graphics in Powerpoint, only to discover that there was a SmartArt that would have done it for you in a few seconds; or spend 5 minutes typing in bullet points and then have the program crash and lose what you typed?
I suspect that most people would mind the second one a lot less, even though technically the first one wasted more of your time. In the first case you still felt like you were doing something; in the second you felt like your time was wasted (in fact, Office these days has very good auto-save and the second scenario is unlikely, but it's just an example).
I mention this because when software designers think of productivity they seem to focus on the first kind of productivity--helping the user do something they already do, but faster--not the second--preventing the user from losing work they have done. What really annoys me about computers is when I spend time on something and then it is lost. When I worked at Softimage back in the mid-1990s, I discovered they their 3D editing product, and its competitors, were notorious for crashing a lot. But they also all had really good auto-save, so when they crashed you just restarted them, and you only lost a few seconds worth of work. This would horrify a typical Microsoft developer--just engineer it not to crash, and then you don't have to worry about auto-save! But very niche-y products like 3D tools tend to be designed by people who used to be the customer, so to them it can make perfect sense to crash and recover, because they understand that from a user's perspective, that is the behavior thet will make them feel like they lost the least amount of productivity.
In fact I realize that this is why Outlook's incessant "the attachment to this email has changed, would you like to save it" messages annoy me. A little bit of it is because I have to think, and make sure I closed the right email--the one that I just opened that Word decided to reformat on its own, not the one that I've spent 15 minutes typing. But it's mainly the attitude, that the designers of the software have chosen not to distinguish between work that the computer did for me, which is completely repeatable, and work I did myself, which I can only do by spending the same amount of time again.
Mon, 12 Apr 2010 10:48:36 -0800My father once told me a story that goes as follows:
A man is sentenced to die by the king. As the verdict is announced, the man says, "Wait! If you spare my life, I promise that in one year, I will teach your horse to talk. If I fail, you can kill me then." The king is intrigued, and figures he has nothing to lose, so he agrees. Afterwards, the man's friend says, "Are you crazy? You'll never teach the king's horse to talk." The man laughs and says, "Think of it this way. I have an extra year to live, and a lot can happen in a year. I might die. The king might die. And who knows, maybe the horse will learn to talk."
This is actually one of my favorite stories (see, Pop-Pop, I was listening). I like the bias to action and the "What do I have to lose?" attitude, but also the wisdom that if the worst thing that can happen isn't worse than what's going to happen anyway, why not give it a shot? I recall telling this story during my PowerShell days, possibly in regards to the alleged virus fiasco in 2005 (of course, what actually happened there was I got yelled at by the security team, and Lee won an award from our VP for customer engagement; not sure what the moral of THAT story is).
I was reminded of this story because I'm watching an internal presentation where somebody told this same story, except a) It took them 7 1/2 minutes, not the 20-30 seconds it would take to tell my version above, b) they told it badly, and c) they completely botched the moral, trying to turn it into something about "People like to convince themselves that the horse will learn to speak", which has absolutely nothing to do with the original story.
P.S. Oh gak, the presentation just ended with a little 45-second coda about "How the story turned out", which manages to confuse the moral even more. GREATEST. PRESENTATION. EVER!!!
Tue, 19 Jan 2010 22:30:37 -0800Atul Gawande, who I have blogged about in the past, came to Microsoft last Monday on his book tour for The Checklist Manifesto.
He spoke for a little bit and then took questions. If you've read his book there wasn't anything particularly new in what he said, although it was interesting to hear some of the stories directly from him. He has said that about 20% of doctors resist the idea of checklists, so during Q&A I asked him about the adoption of checklists (and similar moves away from "fighter pilot" mode) among resisters in industries like aviation and construction. He said that part of it was the older generation retiring, but there also tended to be a point where the government stepped in and imposed rules, which then led to everybody needing to adopt a checklist.
I realized, however, that we have been looking at checklists for software in the wrong way. A typical checklist we have from EE might be a code review checklist which had items like:
The problem with these items is that each of them is something you have to check for on almost every line, which means you wind up looking at a little bit of code, then the checklist, then the code, etc. Or you wind up memorizing the checklist, but if you can hold all that stuff in your mind, you might forget something occasionally, which is what a checklist is designed to avoid. As Gawande explains, checklists are not meant for "heat of battle" kind of checks--that is where your existing expertise come in.
Instead, checklists are for use during "pause points"--natural points where people have a moment to consider a checklist, such as the beginning and end of activities--and are for checking the very simple things that "everybody knows" but that people sometimes forget because they have so much to keep in their heads. The proper way to construct a code review checklist would be to conduct a root-cause analysis of issues that slipped through earlier code reviews, but following Gawande's advice, it would include items like:
I'm making that up, but hopefully you get the idea. These are really simple things that people mostly do right, but sometimes mess up, and there is a natural time to do them that is NOT when your head is buried in the code.
Tue, 05 Jan 2010 14:15:51 -0800Atul Gawande recently wrote a New Yorker article entitled "Testing, Testing". He explains how agriculture in the United States became dramatically more efficient in the early part of last century. The government did not come in with a central plan for how to run farms; instead, it found farmers willing to experiment with new ideas, and then it used their successes to promote the ideas that worked. As a quote in the article explains, "What a man hears he may doubt, what he sees he may possibly doubt, but what he does himself he cannot doubt." Gawande is using this example to explain that the proposed US health care bill, which is small on big ideas for reducing costs, but big on small pilots for reducing costs, is not such a bad thing. But as is often the case with the medical profession (see here and here and here and here), there are a lot of parallels with software development. In Engineering Excellence at Microsoft, I think we often come across as being the central government telling other people what to do, with no experimental results to back it up. Here is a recent comment on Mini-Microsoft: "What's up with the EE team? I was listening to a presentation by Alan & most of his ideas are old (some blatantly taken from James Whittaker). Can we get some originality & accountability in that team?" Now, we have been talking about piloting more things ourselves (and encouraging others to pilot more things), but the point does hit home, and is especially important at Microsoft, about which the quote (from Gawande's article) "there was a deep-seated fear of risk and the uncertainties of change; many farmers dismissed new ideas as 'book farming.'" could be directly applied (c/farm/engineering team/). People at Microsoft have a virtually infinite ability to convince themselves that their team faces unique challenges, and therefore they have nothing to learn from other teams that have been successful (I think Steven Sinofsky's book is partly about the challenge of fighting that belief among the different teams in Windows). Gawande writes, "There are, in human affairs, two kinds of problems: those which are amenable to a technical solution and those which are not." As it happens I recently took a course on "Adaptive Leadership", based on the book Leadership on the Line, which makes the same distinction--it talks about "technical challenges" and "adaptive challenges", with the adaptive ones being the tough ones that don't have a known solution. My favorite quote from the book is: "Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate" (see examples under "health care bill, disappointment with Barack Obama over"). The claim is that solving adaptive challenges, by their nature, is going to be disruptive: things that can be solved by business-as-usual are by definition merely technical challenges. I think many in EE expect that we can figure out all the answers on how to develop software and all we have left is the technical challenge of spreading the word. But the more time I spend here, the more I am convinced that the pilot program approach that Gawande talks about is a much better way to go. I think this will disappoint some people; hopefully they will be able to tolerate it.[...]
Fri, 01 Jan 2010 22:31:31 -0800During the holidays I was down in California and we went to the Shops at Mission Viego mall to eat at Ferrell's. While we were walking through the mall, I was intrigued to see this banner hanging in an atrium: Yup, sure enough this was the location of one of the new Microsoft retail stores--only the second one in the country, according to Wikipedia. Microsoft had done a good job advertising the store in the mall; in addition to the banner, those colored signs on the railing glass are ads for the store, and there were also stickers on the food court tables and ads on electronic billboards inside the mall. This is the front view of the store: and here is the inside: The merchandise is set up on tables, with an attempt to categorize them, for example these are "Medium laptops": There is a place to get questions answered: the obligatory Surface machines: and the also-obligatory Xbox demo area set up to look like a living room (which they had also replicated in a seating area in the mall in front of the store, I assume as part of the initial advertising for the place): Naturally, you might draw some comparison to a certain other store, such as this example which happens to be just a few locations down the mall from the Microsoft Store: (Let's run that Microsoft Store interior shot again for comparison:) While there are some obvious differences (our tables are natural wood, theirs are white), there are also similarities: the way the merchandise is laid out, the army of bright-t-shirt-wearing staffers, the answer station, etc. (the store also has a small theatre in the back, which I haven't seen in Apple stores, where they give talks on topics like sharing photos and intro to Windows 7). I don't think there is anything wrong with this, any more than it's wrong for a Honda showroom to look a lot like a Toyota showroom. Apple has figured out a good way to get people to buy computers and get problems fixed, so why not take a similar approach? In fact, when I think back to my teenage years haunting computer stores like Futur Byte in downtown Montreal, it's more amazing that those store were able to sell anything at all: they had some machines laid out to play with, but nobody to show them to you. It was entirely geared towards people who already knew what computer they wanted and just needed a place (in those pre-Internet days) to make the actual purchase. Presumably the owners of the stores, who were computer experts themselves, had the thought "What kind of store would I want", and the answer was what they produced. Now people realize that a lot of folks who are buying computers are a bit hesitant about which one to buy, and appreciate having a cheerful t-shirt-clad assistant walk them through the decision. In fact, the real precedent for this type of store is a car dealer, but more like a car dealer in the old days, when there was a proliferation of models that changed from year to year, and no readily available source of information on them. In this environment a salesman expected to begin every customer conversation with some variant of "So, what will you be using the car for?" (In a flip-flop which I think might actually meet the book definition of irony, the automobile industry has changed enough, due to consolidation and other factors, that a car dealer is more like an old-fashioned computer store--every time I've bought a car I went into the dealer knowing exactly which model and accessories I wanted, and only needed the salesman to write the order). As it happens, Microsoft tried the direct retail route once before, with a store called microsoftSF in San Francisco which opened in 1999. You can read the press announcement about the opening, and also an article about it shutting down a couple of years later. It must be ordained that I stumble upon every Microsoft attempt at a retail presence, because I also visited the microsoftSF [...]
Tue, 27 Oct 2009 23:11:35 -0800Or even some theatre...The 5th Avenue has "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat", through November 1. In fact they are having a 2-for-1 sale for the two shows on Halloween. Now, you may think of "Joseph" as that silly show with Donny Osmond, but let me say that this show is better than that one!! Joseph is played by Anthony Federov who is not, as I would have guessed, a hockey player, but was actually a contestant on American Idol. Fedorov has a honey-soaked voice and an apparent aversion to wearing clothes on the top half of his body. Meanwhile the eleven brothers are hilarious, and did I mention that two of my kids are in the children's chorus?
Meanwhile, for something a little smaller and more Carribean, Studio East is doing "Once on this Island", also closing on November 1. Another great performance by a great cast, and I think one of my children is in that also.
Wed, 23 Sep 2009 22:00:46 -0800Leverage Your Weakness is the title of the book I thought up today, which would get me on the sell-books-to-drive-corporate-training-to-sell-more-books virtuous cycle. All I need is to actually write the book, which I unfortunately don't have time to do.
The idea came to me during a class on the book Egonomics. That book talks about how people's strengths can become weaknesses if they do too much of them, which is not a new idea. For example, being dedicated is good, but if you overdo dedication, it turns into obsession. That sort of thing. In class they called this a "counterfeited strength", although that term isn't used in the book as far as I can tell.
What I would explain in Leverage Your Weakness is how you should flip this around and view EVERY weakness as the sign of a counterfeited strength, which means that the person actually possesses a strength that they are just overdoing. Take away the overdoing and presto, what's left is a strength. If you have somebody who gets obsessed over their work, don't view this as something that they should just stop; you view obsession as an indication that they have a natural tendency to be dedicated (a good thing) which they are doing too much of. So rather than tell them to stop obsessing, you work to dial it back a bit, so it turns into a positive (I could throw in some fancy math about how if you multiply two negative numbers you get a positive number, that'll impress those MBA types).
The book could list a bunch of weaknesses, show the corresponding latent strength, and then give advice on how to take advantage of that. For example, somebody who likes to show off all the facts that they know. Instead of telling them to shut up, you recognize showing off for what it really is: counterfeited knowledge. This person has the ability to retain lots of information, which is something you can leverage if you just stop them from annoying everybody else while doing it. One example of the guidance there would be to dispatch them to learn new things and then present them to the team in a formal setting where people expect to hear facts spouting out of their mouth. See, just like that the weakness becomes a strength.
I really think I could turn almost any weakness into a counterfeited strength. Somebody can't make decisions? That means they have a counterfeited strength in considering multiple options. Inability to listen to others without interrupting with your own ideas? Must be counterfeited creativity. Yells at other people? Counterfeited passion for the job. And so it goes. Just remember, every time it works I get a quarter.
Fri, 04 Sep 2009 21:40:41 -0800Question of the day: What are these people doing?
Reading a wine review site? Watching Masterpiece Theatre videos on YouTube? Reviewing county-by-county results from the 1956 presidential election?
No, it turns out they are enjoying the star attraction of a Windows 7 Launch Party. These events are an opportunity for Microsoft employees to spread the word about Windows 7. I gather the idea is that you invite your friends over and give them a demo--like a party for Tupperware or Stampin' Up, except it's an operating system.
At first I thought this was ridiculous, and I've seen it generate some eye rolls at work, but I actually like it. I mean, why not? I've been using Windows 7 at work and it really *is* pretty slick. Getting to be an early adopter of cool technology is a perk of being an employee. In fact somebody in my group signed up to host (there's a selection process to determine who is actually allowed to host) and it would be interesting to attend. I don't know if I will get quite as excited as the woman in the middle of the picture above, who appears to be suffering heart palpitations at the sight of the new taskbar, but there is enough eye candy in the product to rival anything that Pampered Chef could produce.
Here's a fact: Windows XP came out in October 2001. Going with the generally-accepted consensus on the quality of Vista, and ignoring the (correct) claims that Windows XP SP2 really was a new release of the OS, that means that Microsoft hasn't release an [insert adjective here] operating system since my son was born--the one who just started second grade. No wonder he wrote an essay on our new Mac, which recently replaced a flaky PC, that began, "One time there was a kid who loved the computer, his name was Noah." Hopefully with Windows 7 we can start winning back those hard-to-please seven-year-olds.
Fri, 14 Aug 2009 22:12:17 -0800My first blog entry was five years ago. My recent two month gap is the longest I've gone without blogging; I do plan to blog more, but I've just been too busy. Including being too busy to post more than this to celebrate the fifth.
Wed, 17 Jun 2009 21:10:48 -0800The other day somebody showed a slide that said "Our customers are not stupid". I objected to this, which led to some laughter. But I was actually serious.
I don't mean that our customers ARE stupid, of course. It's just that with one billion or whatever customers, one must assume that they fall at various points along the intelligence scale, for whatever definition of intelligence you choose.
Although you might feel virtuous in declaring that our customers are not stupid, it's actually dangerous. I suppose it's better than looking down on your customers. But if you say "Our customers are as smart as us, they are just think differently", then you will be tempted to view their lack of understanding about how our software works as a sign that things just haven't been explained well enough. Once they see the model, you expect them to figure it out.
On the contrary, if some of our customers really aren't as smart as us, then you have to design the software so they can understand it. If they can't figure it out, it's not an explanation problem; it's a design problem. Explaining it again may be easier than fixing the software, but it won't help.
Now, I think what the person meant was something like "Our customers needs aren't stupid" or "Our customers' understanding of how our software works isn't stupid." That is certainly correct; you have to know your customers so you can design software that works for them. But if you get to know them and discover they aren't all geniuses like yourself, then that's the way it is.
Fri, 05 Jun 2009 16:06:20 -0800I recently heard somebody use the term "Client+Cloud" to refer to that combination-of-smart-clients-and-the-Internet which is often called "Software+Services". I've decided I like that term much better.
"Software+Services" doesn't differentiate the two parts clearly enough. The Services part clearly has a lot of Software involved in it. And I've realized that a typical "Software" piece really is a Service also. Whether it is sold as packaged software or a download, something that runs on my machine has all the attributes of a service, especially from the viewpoint of a developer: users expect it to be available all the time, they don't like to have to restart it, they want install to be seamless, they expect that problems can be diagnosed and patched remotely. I may not expect 99.999% reliability from Windows, but I basically want it there when I need it (for example, the part I hate about reboots due to Windows Update is not the fact that the computer reboots overnight; it's the five minutes of disk thrashing that happens after I log on, which is effectively "downtime", even though an old-school developer may protest that the machine is up). The fact that developers expected users to patch Windows by hand, to do manual backups, to stop using their machine while we debugged problems, to reproduce bugs on demand--that's all just engineering laziness that we got away with because in the old days we could. All the clever things that developers do to make quote-unquote services highly available and remotely diagnosable can all be rolled back into standalone Windows, and all of them will make it a better product.
Meanwhile "Client+Cloud" really captures the idea much better. You have a piece of software which a rich client of some sort, be it slurped down automatically in the browser or installed standalone, and it runs locally but also communicates with the cloud. So Hotmail, Windows, Xbox, Office, and almost everything else Microsoft is working on fits "Client+Cloud" designation--which means it make much more sense to say that it is the future of Microsoft, since it is also the present of Microsoft.
Tue, 26 May 2009 12:30:15 -0800I went to a Seattle Storm pre-season game recently, and the national anthem was sung by The EriAm Sisters (whose website proclaims, "The EriAm Sisters have begun to soar and are destined to bling", the first time I have seen "bling" used as a verb). What amused me was how they were introduced. The announcer will say something to establish the credibility of the performer, so we give them the benefit of the doubt and don't start throwing tomatoes until they can't hit the "rockets' red glare" notes (for the record, the Sisters belted out a spirited if slightly overwrought performance, and no airborne vegetables were deserved nor delivered). Normally the introduction will mention having performed here or recorded there, but for the EriAm Sisters, his comment was "they have recorded over a million hits on YouTube!"
Mon, 25 May 2009 21:11:28 -0800These are the instructions for sending a letter to the South Whidbey Record, a newspaper on Whidbey Island (the southern part, as I understand it):
"The South Whidbey Record welcomes letters from its readers. Letters should be typewritten and not exceed 300 words. They must be signed and include a daytime phone. Send to editor [at symbol] southwhidbeyrecord.com."
The reason I was reading the SWR is because they had an article about Last Exit, a play my son is in. It's performing in Langley, which is a bit of a hike to get to from the mainland, but the play is well worth it.