11/1/15

Agile Open Northwest 2015

Agile Open Northwest 2015 (AONW) was held in Portland last February.  It's an Open Space conference, which means the agenda and discussion are self-organized by the attendees.  It's an interesting process, and if you have the opportunity to attend an Open Space conference I suggest you try it out.

Registration for the 2016 conference in Seattle is about to open, which made me realize I had not yet posted my sketchnotes from 2015.  Click on an image to see the larger version.

Mob Programming - The Coding Kata - hosted by Chris (?). During this talk we practiced mob programming, which is where one person runs the keyboard, and a separate person (or even the whole team) directs writing the code.  The practice is meant to exercise both the muscle-memory of writing code (keyboard) and the analytical skills required to explain the code to someone else (the director).  Using unit tests, iterative enhancements, and good coding hygiene, both the director and the keyboarder share their skills and knowledge. Then they swap places.  Reference: mobprogramming.org.

Pushing Practice to Proficiency was organized by Matt Plavcan from Intel. Similar to mob programming, his talk was organized around inoculating the team with the culture of lean engineering, and then using this to infect surrounding teams. The end result is a more proficient company.

No Estimates, led by Woody Zuill, discussed better ways of delivering the desired functionality within a given time. 

A group of people discussed Combating Technical Debt: What's acceptable, how to manage it, how to mitigate it.  The phrase Technical Debt was first coined by Martin Fowler.

During the Backlog Grooming session people shared their tips for effectively and efficiently managing the project backlog.  This is something I definitely need to revisit from time-to-time.

Arlo Belshee lead at least two sessions.  The first session, Microskills & Key Mindshifts, listed his top mental models for taking coding and project outcomes to the next level -- and then he listed the levels.  Some key points included refactoring, metrics, agile experiments, and cultivation of corporate culture.  

Arlo also presented his thoughts on refactoring legacy code.  Much of what he began to describe at AONW has be elaborated in his blog posts "Naming is a process, not a single step."  He also included mob programming in his demonstration of refactoring.

Agile Practices for Support and Maintenance organized by Shirley Hewitt raised some good ideas for managing maintenance development.  I liked the idea of creating swim lanes to provide visibility on technical debt maintenance or items that are broken in production.


PNSQC 2015 - Day 2

Here are my sketchnotes for the second day of the Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference 2015 held in Portland, Oregon.  Click on an image to see the larger version.

Ken Pugh, author of "Prefactoring, Interface-Oriented Design,"  spoke about effectively communicating using acceptance tests.  His talk outlined how the triad (developer, product owner, QA) work together to write acceptance tests that become the specs for unit tests, code, and automated regression tests.  This talk was accompanied by a hands-on workshop the following day.

Wayne Roseberry from Microsoft posed some interesting question: Microsoft has a lot of data regarding automated crash reports.  Can this data be used to identify which have already been reported?  Can it help identify areas of code that need refactoring, or have high bug results?  He developed a system using the Microsoft Azure Machine Learning engine to process the bug reports.

Keeping with the theme of the conference, Ron Thompson used the metaphor of how the product owner influences the resulting system in the same way a particular strain of yeast might affect brewing beer. 


Lucy Chang from Intuit gave an amazing technical talk about using Amazon web services with Wiremock to inject stubs and proxies into a distributed system. 

Click here to see the notes for Day 1 of the conference.

PNSQC 2015 - Day 1

The theme of the 2015 Pacific NW Software Quality Conference (PNSQC) was "Brewing Quality Software." That theme alludes to Portland's notoriety for great beer and coffee (and tea), but also ties in the focus on quality software in the Silicon Forest and beyond.

Last year I learned about developing functional unit tests, and this year I hoped to learn more about writing acceptance tests, and feeding these into unit tests.  I was also looking for tips on integrating unit testing in Continuous Integration (CI) environments.

Last year I tried sketchnotes for the first time. This year I focused on simplifying the notes.  I skipped trying to draw the speaker, except in simple cartoon form. I also found that a lot of my notes were simply transcriptions, so I focused on grabbing images from the talks and putting these into the notes. Sometimes these were actual images from the presentation, but more often they were metaphors or images used while speaking.

All these sketchnotes were done live. As a result, I often had to process and understand the section before I could make a note. I think this helped me get a better understanding of what I understood, and what I didn't really grasp.

My tools were my iPad, an app called Paper by 53, and a Musemee Notier Stylus. Click on the images to see a larger version.



Casey Rosenthal from Netflix presented his talk on Chaos Engineering. The basic premise is that future (and current) distributed systems will be so complex that system architects and development engineers will be ineffective without the help of other systems.  Chaos engineering will help build confidence in these systems by providing "turbulence in production," and creating new ways to visualize the systems.

Julie Green from Con-Way Enterprises talked about using pre-mortems as a way to elicit risks in the project.  She says "A Pre-Mortem meeting creates a safe environment where the sole purpose is to predict failure. Instead of a gripe session, the Pre-Mortem is structured so that attendees are asked for a few areas where they think issues will occur...Using the Pre-Mortem strategy you can stop these failures from occurring."


Dwayne Thomas and Kevin Swallow from Crowd Compass presented a session on using coding clubs at work to improve the understand between development and QA.  

Bhushan Gupta raised everyone's awareness on the need for secure web applications in his talk.  Some key points were the owasp.org list of threats, and the NIST800-30 Threat Modeling Risk Assessment. 

Click here to continue to Day 2 of PNSQC 2015.

9/17/15

Tillicum vs Tilikum

Tilikum Crossing opened last week (09/12/15). It was the first new bridge built across the Willamette in the Portland area since 1973, and also the only bridge in the U.S. which isn't for cars, but carries light rail trains, buses, streetcars, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Despite all the hoopla, I was surprised when I walked across it. The bridge name is Tilikum. Until I saw it spelled out, I had been thinking "Tillicum." I wondered why, and did it matter how it was spelled?

Tillicum is a Chinook jargon word that was used with various meaning for a century or more. Chinook Jargon was a trade language based on Chinook, the language spoken by the natives who inhabited what is now the Washington and Oregon coast. The language was used mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to Oregon Geographic Names
by McArthur & McArthur, Tilikum in "early Chinook referred to people or tribe or even relatives. With the passage of time the word came to mean also friendly people or even a friend. It also means friendly or agreeable, as in the case of Tillicum Creek. The older Chinook jargon word for friend, applied to persons rather than things, is siks or six."

The word may have changed over time, but did the spelling matter? Is the word simply a transliteration of the spoken sounds? In English, the difference between a single- and double-L is arbitrary, as well as the difference between K and a hard C.

With some online research, I found a free edition of a Chinook Jargon dictionary. Here are the entries that have tilikum, tilicum, or tillicum.
elip tilikum, the first people
Konaway tilicum, everybody.
Kunsih tilikum mitlite? how many people are there?
Til-i-kum. People.
Cultus tilikum, common or insignificant persons.
Huloima tilikum, strangers.
Nika tilikum, my relations.
Hul-o-i-ma.Other; another; different. Ex. Huloima tillikum, a different tribe or people;
Hy-iu. Much, many, plenty, enough.
Hyiu tillicum, a crowd; many people;
This article here mentions that the words were probably spelled phonetically, along with simplifying everything. "Grammatical forms were reduced to their simplest expression, and variations in mood and tense conveyed only by adverbs or by the context."

Tony Johnson on this site has an interesting point about how Chinook jargon, what he calls Chinook Wawa, was different from the traditional Chinook language.

Interestingly, I found that English speakers may unknowingly use some Chinook jargon, for example muckamuck.  People may call a politician or a lodge leader a "high muckamuck."  In its proper Chinook form it's "hyas muckamuck" (pronounced "high-ass" -- ha!).  Sometimes it has degraded to "high mucketymuck."  Many English speakers recognize this to mean the big boss.  In Chinook it means a "big feed" or an "important banquet."

Also, the word and concept of potlatch has been integrated into US society.  In Chinook Jargon it means a ceremony among certain tribes involving food and exchange of gifts.  We sometimes use the term to refer to a potluck dinner, or sharing personal stuff with friends. There are more examples of popular Chinook jarogon here.

Tri-met states "Tilikum is a Chinook Jargon word meaning people, tribe, or family, and the name is intended to honor the Multnomah, Cascade, Clackamas, and other Chinookan peoples who lived in the area as long as 14,000 years ago."

But it is also a way to bridge between the ages and peoples.  The Chinook Nation still exists today. People in the area will use the bridge every day.  Hopefully, this bridge will be a reminder of the people who were here before us, and the legacy that we and the people around us leave for the future.

9/11/15

Haiku: A template for error messages

I see quite a few tongue in cheek references to Haiku versions of error messages. For example:
Program aborting:
Close all that you have worked on.
You ask far too much.

Many people know that Haiku require a certain meter for the phrases: 5 / 7 / 5. In English the meter is equated with syllables, but in Japanese it's called "on" which is more the beat of the languange. In English, Haiku also have other requirements: the use of a word that lets you know the season (kigo), a cutting word that divides the poem (kireji), and often specific references to nature.

I ask people to think like a reporter when writing a software change request or a bug report. A newspaper reporter needs to cover the 5 W's: who, what, why, where, when and how. If you're writing a bug report, then act like a reporter:
  • Who got the bug?
  • What was the problem?
  • Where in the program did they get the problem?
  • When did it occur? Is it time dependent?
  • Why were they doing this and why is it a problem?
  • How can they recreate it and how did they work around it?

Another basic template is the user story in agile development: As a (who?) I want to (what?) so that I can (why?). The (why?) is usually associated with a value statement.

So, why am I writing all this? I had an idea that we need a template for error messages. With all the interest in Haiku, it would seem that software developers might catch a clue in writing better error messages. Just

What's wrong
Why it's wrong
what to do about it

8/30/15

Giant Apartments of Philip K Dick


I recently took a trip to New York City and was walking to the High Line when I was surprised to see an improbably immense apartment building.  Then I happened onto another, and another.  They were huge, each one consuming a NYC city block.  I'd never before seen anything like it, even when visiting communist countries like Czechoslovakia or East Germany.  The buildings were small mountains in the city, like something out of science fiction.  In fact, what they reminded me of most were the buildings in Philip K Dick novels.


In the movie Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation building is a huge pyramid in new LA, but in the book "Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep" the more shocking setting is the large empty decrepit apartment building where the fugitive androids meet John Isidore.  Most of Earth's population has emigrated off world, and only genetically damaged people like Isidore, who is a chickenhead, remain. They live in decaying apartment buildings meant for hundreds of people, now housing only a handful.  Blade Runner hints at this when it uses the Bradbury Building in LA as a stand-in for JF Sebastian's mostly empty apartment building.

Dick's early novels often had the protagonist struggling against oppressive buildings.  In "The Man Who Japed" the apartment committee is in charge of tracking moral offensives (such as missing a building committee meeting) and reporting the offenders to the government.  The hero, Purcell, subconsciously nonconforms by performing his japery, which only gets him into more trouble with the building.

The residents of the "great communal apartment building, The Abraham Lincoln" also have to deal with a heavy-handed governing committee in "The Simulacra," except in this case the committee also reviews tenant talent, and pits them against acts from other buildings in a competition weirdly reminiscent of Star Search or American Idol.  The winner of the local competition gets a chance to perform for the president of the US, "Der Alte", and first lady, the lovely Nicole.  People who don't supply talent for the competitions risk losing their apartments, and also their status as citizens.

In "The Penultimate Truth" the apartment buildings are almost a mirror of the image of the skyscrapers of the 20th century.  The elite Yance men live on large spacious estates, while most of the citizenry live in underground bunkers, ignorant of the true mechanics of their government. One of the sub-plots is the power struggle between the Yance-men and a free agent called Louis Runcible who builds apartment buildings for the occasional refugees that manage to escape to the surface.  The penultimate truth is that people have been tricked into believing that they want to live with security, at the cost of their freedom.


In "Martian Time-slip," the oppressive building is planned by the United Nations as part of Earth's colonization of the red planet. The complex will be called "AM-WEB", a contraction of the German phrase "Alle Menschen werden BrĂ¼der" (All men become brothers) from Schiller's An die Freude (Ode to Joy).

Meanwhile, Manfred Steiner is an autistic boy living on Mars. It is said that he can predict the future.  But Manfred's greatest fear is a future that only he can see.  Mars is derelict and the AM-WEB is a dumping ground for forgotten people like him, where he will eventually be confined as a decrepit old man to a bed on life-support. I've read enough PKD to believe that AM-WEB is a reference to the German concentration camp slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work will set you free). But, it's unclear whether PKD means AM-WEB to be an allusion to the Nazi concentration camps, or whether it is a metaphor for the fear of schizophrenia.  The feeling of despair is there regardless.




In many of the novels the buildings are ominously present, but passive.  Two of PKD's works have buildings that play active parts in the plot.  The killer building in "A Maze of Death" first appears a tiny model, but then grows into full-sized structure which appears to the colonists on Delmak-O.  Something is written above the entry to the building, and each person each perceives the words to mean what they most hope or fear. One person sees WINERY, another reads WITCHERY, and one character interprets the word as HIPPERY HOPPERY, a place where they have people hop onto animals for “youknowhwat.”  The building has permeated both their consciousness and subconscious mind, representing their hopes and fears.

In a similar way, Heldscalla, a mystical cathedral embedded on the ocean floor of Plowman’s Planet in "The Galactic Pot-Healer" also represents hope, but it speaks to faith.  An omnipotent being, the Glimmung, gathers a group of artisans and craftsmen from Earth to help raise the sunken cathedral.  Each person has their part to play in the project, but as they proceed they learn there's a black Glimmung and a counterpart black cathedral also lurking under the sea.  The team begins to wonder whether they are working on the right side, and whether the project is even possible.  The obvious religious quandaries become even more frustrating when mixed with an unhealthy dash of Dick's paranoia.

In all these novels, the buildings are institutions: a hospital, the government, a church, a bygone way of life, a mental institution. They reek of the impassive face of authority. In all of Dick's stories he obviously preferred people over institutions.

Can we find the roots of this theme of the impassive building vs the all-too-human protagonist?  When Dick was in high school in the mid-1940s he underwent intensive psychiatric treatment for agoraphobia and other psychological troubles.  He wasn't institutionalized, but perhaps he felt a building would be a good metaphor for this combination of school and therapy, or for any authority figure.  Regardless of the source, it seems an apt image: the human against a faceless, massive, stone edifice, something that we think of as permanent.


In the end, PKD was all about humanizing his characters. Bringing a massive story such as colonizing Mars, World War III, or the corruption of the US government down to a personal level: a boy in a hospital, a man trying to find lifesaving supplies for a friend, or two guys who just want to get the jug band back together.  At that's what all good science fiction is about, taking the amazing and larger than life, and asking how does this affect me?

8/22/15

How to Achieve Flow

Have you ever been working on something that's so enthralling that when you pause for a moment you suddenly realize that hours have passed?  It may be well past lunch and you're hungry, but your work session was productive, focused and you felt good about it.  Maybe you wrote ten pages of your novel, or completed a software routine, or wrote a jingle, or just painted a picture, but while you were working, it felt effortless.
"During single-minded work time, people are ideally in a state that psychologists call flow. Flow is a condition of deep, nearly meditative involvment. In this state, there is a gentle sense of euphoria, and on is largely unaware of the passage of time."

That passage is from "Peopleware" by Tom DeMarco & Tim Lister.  The book is a thesis on what later became one of the tenets of the Agile Manifesto, that individuals and interactions are valued over processes and tools.

They discuss the benefits of flow, which are:
  • Total focus, no interruptions
  • High energy work, maximum productivity
  • Finding passion and fun in the work
  • Minimal effort to continue working
This sounds great, but the question is "How do I achieve flow?"  Here are my tips for getting to a state of flow.


Before you start, listen to your inner voice and see if the task in front of you is really what you need to work on.
  • Make a list of ten things you have to do.
  • Prioritize them by urgency and value.
  • Cross off nine of the things.
  • The remaining item is what you need to work on.
  • Throw away the list so it doesn't distract you.
Next, evaluate your task. Is this something that you can do by yourself, or do you really need more research or conversation with other people?  Be honest, but flexible. If you think you can accomplish 80% of the task alone, then go for it.  On the other hand, if you only have 20% of the knowledge, then maybe you need help.  For now, let's assume you have enough resources to accomplish most of the task.

Now that you know what you're working on, and have the right knowledge, you are ready to begin working.

Steps to achieving flow:
1. Get your butt in the chair.
If you're not in your workspace, you're not going to get any work done.

2. Make sure you're comfortable.
Adjust your chair if necessary. Make sure you're not too hot or too cold and the light isn't blinding or too dim.  Get a snack and take a bathroom break before you start.

3. Prevent interruptions.
Hide your cell phone in a drawer. Turn off notifications in your web browser and email. Put your desk phone on standby. Close the office door. Turn your chair away from the window or TV.  Put up a "Do not disturb" sign.

4. Create an audio wall.
Play some background music to reduce distractions. Choose music that you know, but it may not be your favorite. I prefer jazz without vocals.

5. Give yourself permission to work.
Set a mental tickler that says: I am now focusing.

6. Just start working, even if it's not productive.
If you fear starting, write for 5 minutes about what you think you're going to work on. This acts as both a warm-up for the real work, and also helps organize your thoughts.

7. Relax.
Don't try to hurry flow. According to "Peopleware" it will take at least 15 minutes, maybe more.  If you're going to be interrupted in the next hour, you will need to go back to step #3.

8. Focus.
Ignore the voices in your head that lead to other tasks. You've already dealt with that.

9. Let go.
Don't edit yourself. Flow is like falling asleep. You don't realize you're in the spell until it's broken. There's time to edit later.

10. Start.

6/19/15

For Stew - The Drummer

When I first met Stewart he was dressed up like a magic mushroom. Or maybe he was on mushrooms. I forget. It was at a Halloween party.  He’s gone now, so I can’t ask him.

I had gone out party surfing, a Saturday night habit in Corvallis. In a town so small, walking four or eight or ten blocks eventually lead to a party in progress.  A house with the doors open, music rumbling the walls, and college kids swarming the door like bees. Corvallis was also big enough that I could crash anonymously without any questions.  In this case the house was a Dutch-style farmhouse with a half-finished basement filled with a students.  Everyone was waiting for “the band” to play, but apparently they were missing the bass player.  The drummer and guitarist, Stew and Doug, were hanging out in the garage having a beer. I play bass, and usually I’m shy about offering to play music for a crowd, but maybe I’d had a beer as well, or maybe because it was Saturday night and Halloween and everyone was wearing a costume and acting slightly giddy, but I offered to get my bass and amp and fill in.

I don’t remember how I retrieved my instrument -- probably ran home and trudged back, bass and amp in hands. My bass at the time was a Mosrite, purchased from a friend in high school.  The amp was a farty little practice box, barely larger than a… well, in those days I’d say portable record player, or typewriter case, but these days I’d have to say karaoke machine.  It probably pulled 40 amps and the only way it could possibly be heard at the party was if I turned all the knobs up to ten. Which I did.

Doug had wild curly brown hair, was wearing a blue lumberjack shirt about ten years before grunge made it popular, and had apparently shaved off half of his full beard – left side clean, right side fuzzy. Stewart, in addition to the mushroom hat, was wearing what I’d come to recognize as his standard uniform: a rainbow tie-dye shirt.  When he saw me with the bass in hand he gave a huge grin, blue eyes as big as quarters, and helped me schlep the amp into the basement.

Doug had a set of songs that he’d written, as well as a couple of crowd-pleasers like “Louie, Louie” and “Tequila,” I just tried to stay in tune and on the beat.  Most of the time Stewart favored a shuffling beat, so it was easy to follow along.  The audience apparently liked it because nobody was leaving and half the crowd was actually dancing. The basement buzzed with the sound of guitar, bass and drums, and the shouts and cheers of a happy college crowd. We played for hours, taking a couple breaks for beer, and at the end of the night when they asked if I wanted to join the band, I jumped at the chance.  They were called “Maurice and the Chevaliers,” Doug was Maurice, so I became a Chevalier.  I still don’t know what happened to their former bass player.

At heart, Stewart was a happy guy. Maybe the reason I thought he was on mushrooms was because he always flopped into the room with the sort of grin that suggested a psilocybic euphoria.  In college he had slightly longer hair, almost a Dutch-boy haircut that gave him an aura of innocence.  I don’t believe he was innocent, but at peace with himself and this reckoning gave him serenity.  He liked the Grateful Dead, listening and playing music, making art and meeting people.  Both he and Doug were in the Fisheries program at OSU, so none of my computer science classes intersected with theirs.  A couple times he came into the restaurant where I worked to order a sandwich, but for the most part we interacted in the context of the band: getting ready to practice, practicing, playing a party, or hanging out after practice.

In our trio, Doug was the driver. He wrote songs and worked up the lyrics.  While Stew and I sang backup, he took on the lead vocals and played guitar.  If it weren’t for his direction, the band wouldn’t have any shape at all. Stewart was more laid back. If the gig happened, he was happy. If it didn’t – oh well, there’s another day.  He liked to play music, but if that failed, he enjoyed talking or just hanging out.  I like to think that I provided the bass riffs that held everything together. I smoothed over the rough patch that might appear during a song when Doug switched from vocals to guitar solo.  If Stewart lost the beat, the bass helped find it again.

During the time we played together I didn’t write any songs, but Stewart came up with one. The only lyric I remember of it is “see it shine, shine, shine.”  I have never much listened to the Grateful Dead, but it seemed like something they might play.  I don’t think Stew played any instrument other than drums, so when he described the melody to us he had to sing it.  His eyes went toward the ceiling as he recalled the lyrics, like he was getting a message from a particular star.  He sang the song to us, pretty sweetly, “see it shine, shine, shine..”  We tried for an afternoon to get it right, but it never worked as well as he imagined it, and I don’t think we ever performed it.

One song written by Doug was “Volkswagen,” popular among the fans of the band. It was an ode to the car manufacturer, touching on Hitler, Woodstock, hinky repairs, and the culture dedicated to their vee-dubs and hippie buses.  Doug hit the chords on the off-beat, and I chimed in with a Reggae-style bassline, while Stewart stuck to a Grateful Dead drum beat.  The chorus ran

Give me Type I, Beetle, 
Karmann Ghia, Funky Bus 
Squareback, Fastback, Scirocco or Thing 
The new ones aren't as cool, but give any to me 
As long as they're made in West Germany!

Both Doug and Stewart had Volkswagens.  Doug’s was a gunmetal gray VW Bug circa 1965.  Stewart had the hippie bus – I think it was the 1963 23-window model that he finally started to restore in 1999. As a poor college student, I didn’t have any car, but the song influenced me enough that I ended up owning two Rabbits, and two Fastbacks.  VWs had a certain cachet. Yes, they were promoted by Hitler, but they were also popular with the hippie generation, and one center of the 60’s was Eugene, Oregon, only fifty miles south of Corvallis.  At lot of the drop-out generation had migrated to Corvallis while dropping out, and perhaps we had picked up some of that nostalgia through osmosis.  Stewart loved jamming on this song, egging us on with a wild grin, or closing his eyes and feeling the beat.

We were young and we could play forever. I’d get blisters on my fingers, but that only built up my stamina for next time.  Stew, however, always got the full body workout on the drums. One time, after an hour of jamming, he’d worked up enough of a sweat that he pulled off his tie-dyed shirt. I was shocked by the scar on his sternum.  I’d had other friends that that had similar scars. They usually had a heart problem when they were born, or as young kids.  I don’t remember if I asked Stewart about this, but somehow I knew that he had a heart problem.  He never mentioned it.  Whatever problem he had had, it didn’t seem to interfere with life.

At the end of the school year Stewart graduated, and that incarnation of the band broke up.  Later in Portland we found a new drummer, and “Maurice and the Chevaliers” continued for a few more years.  But after graduation I never saw Stewart in person again.

When I think back on the whole experience, one night sums everything up.  We had been practicing, and were at Doug’s house. A week earlier he had bottled a batch of homebrew stout, and we decided to sample the results.  Doug’s girlfriend Sharon had shown up and the plan was to go to a party later. It was a late spring evening and the mild weather was a nice change after months of rain.  The party started late, there was no hurry, so we kept opening 22oz bottles of homebrew.  After a while we realized it was nearly 11pm, and thought about going to the party, or maybe to get something to eat.  Doug said he’d drive us somewhere, and even though he was probably drunk, all four of us clambered into his bug. The combined weight stressed the shocks enough that we scraped the curb pulling out of the driveway.  Doug pulled the car out of the driveway, but accidentally killed it changing gears.  With the engine dead, in the middle of the street, Doug decided to open the sunroof.

In the night sky over Corvallis, where we had been used to the comforting clouds of rain, all of a sudden there was a clear starry sky.  Everyone in the car grew quiet, and even the background noises of the small town disappeared, not even a barking dog or the faint motor of a car cruising 9th Avenue.  In my head today I hear what Stewart was trying to describe in his song: “see it shine, shine shine.”  For a moment it was peaceful, and then we all cracked up laughing.

Some might see in this a wasted youth. Kids drinking, playing, going nowhere. They should have been industrious at their studies.  I see it as a moment captured in time, a gift. There’s a saying, “Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.”  When you’re young you don’t realize how beautiful you are, and how life is a fleeting thing.  A moment like this, when reason is reduced to nil, free from responsibility, but able to see all the beauty of the universe, is a rare thing.

I walked home under the stars that night.

For Stewart Alcorn  June 23, 1964 - March 19, 2015

5/8/15

The Encounter

Today on my bike ride to work I saw something that made me think about how bikes and cars interact on the road.


It was a nice spring day, the kind that brings out both hard core bike fans and newbies. I was coasting down a mildly sloped hill on a street designated as a bike route. I was probably going about 15 or 20 mph.


Nearly two blocks ahead of me I saw a cyclist in the middle of the lane, going a little slower, and he seemed to wobble a bit in the lane.  Although he was a ways ahead, I slightly adjusted my speed and got ready to pass him.


Then, a new, black Mustang pulled out of an intersection in front of me and cruised down the street.  I had seen the car before, usually rumbling with loud music. If you are the kind of person who likes late-model factory-optioned muscle cars, you’d be proud to drive it.
 
The ‘Stang was probably half a block away, but the engine was loud enough to be annoying. It revved up to about 20 mph, maybe more, and passed the cyclist with only a narrow berth. I noticed the incident for two reasons: the car was loud and fast, and it passed the cyclist quickly although he was riding in the center of the lane. The car drove on past, the guy on the bike seemed ok, and I figured “no harm, no foul.”


At the next stop sign, because of cross traffic, we all three pulled up together.  I broke to the right, because I was turning, but the other biker crossed to the Mustang’s driver-side and rapped on the window with his fist.


"You drive too fast! You dangerous!" he shouted.


Now, It's easy to be righteous when you're riding a bike.  It’s easy to think, “I'm going places, and I'm doing it under my own power, dammit! I'm saving the world one pedal at a time.” That may be true, but being righteous doesn't make you right.


On the other hand, this was probably more a case of adrenaline than righteousness.  If you're not used to it, a close shave with a bumper can be frightening. After the tight pass, the guy was obviously more shaken than I would have expected.  He want to let the driver know what a fright he’d put into the cyclist.


Part of what makes this encounter difficult is that it happened on a street that is not only a designated bike route, but an "urban greenway." It’s a street meant to promote walking and cycling.  On most streets cyclists are third class citizens while cars get the priority, but it seems like cyclists should be royalty on bike routes.  On the other hand, it’s not illegal for cars to drive on the street, and the guy with the Mustang probably lives in the neighborhood.


The cyclist, despite his fear, could have approached the car differently. Maybe an open hand rather than a fist.  I don't know if the driver would have rolled down his window -- there's nothing more threatening to a driver than a personal confrontation.  Driving a car is like wearing a suit of armor, while bikes suffer from total exposure.


My opinion is that the driver needed some empathy and awareness.  The cyclist was probably trying to achieve that, but a fist on the window doesn’t work. Instead, the driver should probably spend some time in the cyclist’s shoes.  For example, a long time ago I broke both arms.  It wasn’t until they were both in a sling that I realized how difficult some things can be without arms (like opening a door, or tying my shoes. Let’s keep it clean here, huh?)  In the same way, if  everyone who drove could take a day to walk or ride the route, it might make traffic a little bit nicer for everyone.  Don't simply share the road -- share the ride.


It's hard for many people to to ride to work. Bad weather, dangerous traffic, potholes and dark streets can all be detriments to a happy cyclist.  It's even harder if they feel endangered.


I'm not going to tell you how the encounter ended. Instead, I'll ask, what would you do? How would you end it?

4/24/15

Trading vs Gaming


In a flash-crash news story about Navinder Sarao, I was struck how much it seemed to Sarao almost like a game. He didn't show outwardly his wealth, but instead treated it much like a score, an indication of his prowess.  Couple this with the way day traders work, and I got this inspiration: What if I changed one word in the original story?  I replaced the four letters "trad" with the letters "gam". Here is the result:
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Briton blamed for contributing to the May 2010 Wall Street flash crash maintained frenetic relationships with a series of brokers, banks and software firms that appear to mirror his rapid-fire gaming activity, U.S. court documents showed.
Navinder Singh Sarao, 36, was arrested in London on criminal charges this week, and authorities have sought to link his games to the flash crash, when about $1 trillion was briefly wiped out from U.S. stock markets in a matter of minutes.
Sarao, who has been charged in separate civil and criminal complaints in the United States, was granted bail in London on strict conditions, including a 5 million-pound sterling ($7.5 million) bond. A lawyer for Sarao contacted by Reuters on Thursday declined to comment on whether the gamer had yet been released on bail. He has said he opposes exgamition to the United States for trial.
Court documents released Thursday in the civil complaint, brought by the U.S. Commodity Futures gaming Commission, show that the self-described insomniac appeared to juggle millions of dollars at a time through the global banking system between the British West Indies, the Middle East and Switzerland.
Operating his one-man shop from his parents' house in a working class London suburb miles from the financial district, Sarao became the first person to be charged with illegal activities related to the May 2010 rout in the U.S. equity market, which is dominated by far more sophisticated players.
He is accused of using an automated program to "spoof" markets by generating large sell orders that pushed down prices. He then canceled those games and bought the contracts at the lower prices.
Sarao's gaming reaped him a roughly $40 million profit, authorities allege, though he showed few, if any signs of wealth. The drama has stunned Sarao's neighbors, who said he never drove a car or wore fancy clothes, though he apparently was not shy about his gaming prowess.
In 2007, he sent an email to Doubledown Media – the now-defunct publisher of gamer Monthly – inquiring about joining the ranks of the now-shuttered magazine's "30 Under 30" list. On an average gaming day, he claimed that he could make $133,000.
Sarao also boasted to the UK's Financial Conduct Authority that he had always been quick with the computer mouse, but that he was still an old-school gamer.
"That is how I always have gamed, admittedly very, very fast because I have always been good with reflexes and doing things quick," he said in a May 29, 2012, email.
Sarao was able to place and then cancel orders at a rapid pace through the use of software designed to do just that. The software would automatically cancel orders as the price of the S&P stock market futures index, which is based on the Standard & Poor's 500 index, shifted closer to the price where he had placed his orders. The practice would lead authorities to conclude that Sarao never had any intention to fill these orders - and instead was intent on just trying to manipulate the contract in question.
Sarao's explanation, according to the emails in the court documents, was that he "changed his mind" a lot.
The emails contain detailed instructions to software companies to tailor their programs so that they would do exactly what Sarao wanted, as well as one long exchange with one of his brokerages, R.J. O'Brien, about whether his Internet connection was impeding the speed of his gaming.
"There's something very wrong here ... I can't put up with these fluctuations in speed so that I can't game when the market is moving like it was today," he said in an October 2012 email, released by the CFTC.
The documents also contain emails from Sarao to software companies gaming Technologies and Edge Financial with detailed instructions for customizing software for his gaming needs - including functions that would cancel his orders if the market moved close to where his orders were resting.
A representative for gaming Technologies declined to comment. Edge Financial was not available for comment.
According to the court filing, Terrence Hendershott, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, examined Sarao's activities for the CFTC and found that Sarao, on 12 days in particular, canceled more than 99 percent of the orders that he submitted through his gaming algorithm - compared with other gamers who cancel about 48 percent of the time.
Hendershott declined comment to Reuters.
MOVING MONEY AROUND THE WORLD
Sarao went through a rapid succession of brokerages that cleared his games on the CME (CME.O), of which he was a member, doing business with now-defunct MF Global, Marex, Knight Futures and finally R.J. O'Brien.
R.J. O'Brien "had no involvement in the gaming decisions" made by Sarao, or his company, a spokeswoman for the firm said, adding that the company had cooperated with authorities.
Some of the emails suggest that Sarao had a hard time winning some firms over when they expressed some skepticism on doing business with him.
In one May 2012 email to a compliance staffer at the futures brokerage FC Stone, a frustrated-sounding Sarao wrote:
“Morning mate. I have to say, I really can’t understand your compliance’s standpoint on why they are taking so long to open the accounts.”
He added that he was most successful gaming on volatile days, and had FC Stone moved quicker, he could have earned the company at least $15,000 “just this week alone.” FC Stone declined comment to Reuters.
Sarao was just as busy moving money around the world as he was gaming. He set up two separate entities in Anguilla, International Guarantee Corporation and Security Atlantic Life Insurance Limited, according to officials on the Caribbean island. At one point, he sought a loan of $3 million from IGC, according to the court filing.
Sarao was billed 375,000 pounds sterling for helping him save 7 million pounds in tax as a result of transferring his money to the Federation of St Christopher & Nevis, by a tax consultant named Brian Harvey. Harvey was not immediately available for comment.
Later in 2012, he had $17 million in assets in an account at Hinduja Bank (Switzerland). He then proposed transferring money to the United Arab Bank Dubai, saying he was meeting with a UAB director as part of a procedure to open an account.
The emails also show a man proud of what he has achieved, even in the earlier days of his career.
"It's been an extraordinary year in my gaming career. You must understand that for me to be in the top 30 is not a vanity thing," he said when he wrote to gamer Monthly in 2007.

1/9/15

The Verge, Shaq and Shingy Bumped My Post

I noticed a bump in web traffic on my blog yesterday. Tracing down into the stats, I found a lot of the traffic was coming from a post on The Verge called "Shaq and Shingy hacked my brain with #brands."

How do I fit in with Shaquille O'Neal, AOL's digital futurist David Shing, aka Shingy, and a conference on brand innovators?  I wondered the same thing.  Then I scanned down the article.

Shingy's favorite quote from Leonardo Da Vinci is "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."  That clicked. Several years ago I wrote an essay called "The Trouble With Simplicity..." where I tried to track down, through the Internet and (gasp) printed books, whether Da Vinci actually wrote this quote.

The author of the piece on The Verge links to my piece as a way to say Da Vinci did not write the quote in question.  But that's not exactly my answer, which is less simple. To quote myself:
"simplicity can often hide complexity"
Regardless, I appreciate the web traffic.  Now, back to work on my #brand :-)

1/2/15

New Year's Game Day 2015

For most people, New Year games are probably football.  In my family, however, for the past couple years we've had the privilege of playing board and card games all day with friends. The family that hosted has an amazing wall of games, and Rael describes himself, among other things, as a "fledgling game designer."

This year's games included some new, some old. The party had a wide age range, from young grade-school kids to aging baby boomers, but almost all the games were appropriate for all ages.

We arrived just in time to participate in a "break the ice" game of Cat and Mouse. This is a party game where everyone gathers in a room, and one person is the cat and another designated as mouse.
People hand off roles by tapping a person next to them. The "cat" chases the "mouse" around the room until it catches it, or time runs out. It's a good large group game.  A more complete description is here.

After that, we settled down to business. Fun business. I managed to play five games, with Small World Underground taking the most time.

Red7 by Asmadi Games is a card game that I'd describe as being the opposite of Uno. Instead of being the first to go out, you want to be the last person playing. Like Uno, the cards have rules associated with the colors. Each time a player puts down a card, it has to be a winning move based on the current rules in play, otherwise they are out. It seems simple at first, but as the play progressed I realized the intricacies of the game.  Quick to learn, but each hand can be as sophisticated as your opponents.

Another card game was Sushi Go! by Gamewright.  Like a sushi conveyor belt, players are dealt a hand of cards and then must choose one while passing the rest of the hand to the next player. The various cards have point values or can modify other cards.  For example, a piece of nigiri is 2 points, or two tempura cards make 3 points. It's a fast game to learn, and the younger kids seemed to have a lot of fun playing it. There's some satisfaction at the end of a round when the cards fall your way, even though your hand is always changing. The illustrations of sushi are fun, as well.





Splendor is described as a board game, but it's actually a card game with playing pieces. The object of the game is to gather enough gem cards to score 15 points. Players gather gems by spending coins, which each player gets a chance to accumulate from a bank. After you get each gem card, those can be added to the coins as collateral for further gems. When I got the hang of it I realized that resource hoarding can be a way to block your opponents from gathering gems. A game goes quickly, and it seems like it would be easy to play several times in a hour. From Asmodee, the company that also made Dixit and 7 Wonders, the art on the cards is interesting, but nothing special. The coins, however, had a nice hefty feel to them and were fun to play with.

The most involved game that I played was Small World Underground from Days of Wonder. Small World is like Risk, except set in a fantasy world and the different factions are different species of elves, mummies, lizard-men and what-have-you. The mechanism for creating and assigning races is interesting. Although there are a fixed set of races, they are paired with special ability cards, which are assigned randomly. Also, the cards are queued up, and it's possible to buy your way out of the first or second pair in the queue. For example, I paid 1 gold piece to skip the Argumentative Dwarves and become instead the Mystic Mummies. Aside from the expansion and invasion gameplay, there are also opportunities to gather magic items which enhance or detract from abilities. While shorter than Risk, the gameplay can take a while, so it may not be as sustainable for younger kids.



We rounded out the evening with Diamonds, by Stronghold Games. It's a card game, similar to Hearts, except instead of points, the goal is to gather little plastic diamonds in your vault. The card suits have special abilities: diamonds allow you to bank a diamond, hearts let you take a diamond, but it's not yours yet, and clubs mean you can steal a diamond from another player. If you've played Hearts or any other trick-taking card game, Diamonds is simple to learn. But the opportunity to steal points from other players makes for an interesting twist on an old game.

In all, we had hours of fun playing these games, and it was an activity that both kids and adults enjoyed.