Observations on Japanese culture - Part 4 - Uniformity


Schoolgirls on a trip to visit the great buddha at Nara

Hats hanging up outside the classroom at another school

Uniforms and uniform backpacks, lunches, school supplies.

Everyone carries an umbrella

Agile Project Management Tips #9: Keep a Project Diary

All of the previous tips have provided ways to increase project visibility, participation, and collaboration. Those ideas were designed for a disparate audience: the team, managers, other employees, customers, and executives. This last idea, however, is to help you collaborate with one specific person: your future self.

Keeping a log of activities is not a new idea. Projects were tracked when Stone Age people drew pictures of a hunt on cave walls. Most tracking consists of structured metrics used to show managers and executives that the project is on target for the impending future release. Keeping a diary, however, is a way to track where the project has been.

A daily diary, like a personal diary, is meant for your eyes, and should be written for you as the audience. It can contain many bits of information that might not incorporate well into the project process. For example, if you have a complicated email exchange, do not leave it in your email client. Spend time extracting the exchange into paragraphs and annotate with pertinent details. Paste everything into the diary, and date it. Later, when someone asks, “What were we thinking at the time?” the diary will act as a personal reference to jog your memory.

Another use of a diary is to note exceptional efforts by team members. If someone on the team has a shining moment, make a note of it in your project diary. For supervisory staff who write employee performance reviews or provide feedback to Human Resources for employee assessments, these examples in the diary will prevent a lot of head scratching later and will benefit everyone.

Some activities to write down are

  • Hallway Conversations
  • Complex email threads
  • Reasons for decisions
  • Exceptional efforts by team members
  • Gut feelings or intuitions about the project

The benefits are
  • Helps answer the question "What were we thinking at the time?"
  • During retrospectives, the diary can help you prepare your notes.
  • Helps if you have to contribute toward employee evaluations
  • Provides a "long tail", some thing to give you a history
Most importantly, the project diary is a way to provide a history for you. After many projects, you may wonder what you have accomplished, and how you got there. Since the diary entries were personal for you, you can include ideas, guesses, feelings and emotions among the timeline and events. Years later, when you recognize a situation, the project diary provides a reference, of not only how the situation was handled, but also your thoughts at the time.


Agile Project Management Tips #8: Increase Communication by Pairing

Many Scrum proponents endorse creating cross-functional teams, but they do not always describe in detail the team mechanics. The high-level description is usually something like “Scrum relies on a self-organizing, cross-functional team. The Scrum team is self-organizing in that there is no overall team leader who decides which person will do which task or how a problem will be solved.” (see Cohn, What is Scrum Methodology?) As a result, team members may end up creating their own personal silos, with developers writing code, testers checking it, the business analyst reviewing, all without collaboration. Consequently, the hand-off points become discrete, and the communication between team members is limited.

Similar to cross-functionality, many Agile evangelists also point to pair programming as a way to create better code with fewer bugs than when programmers work alone. But, why limit pairing to only developers? By pairing developers with testers or testers with the technical writer, or the business analyst with the developer, you can achieve benefits similar to pair programming for the entire team.

For example, we occasionally have the developer write the rough draft of the user documentation. This process helps the developer better understand the user workflows and often uncovers gaps in functionality. Moreover, as the technical writer sees early versions of the system, he can look at it from the point of view of documenting user workflow and suggest changes to the UI to improve usability.

In the same way, asking a developer to sit with the tester while creating the initial test plan increases the informational bandwidth between them. The developer can point out areas that may need more scrutiny or were touched in development but not obviously connected to the main functions of the code. And, the tester may notice areas where the developer may not have fully understood the implementation of a feature. As they create the test plan, the developer may recognize that the tester is not working with the same mindset and steps that he assumed while writing the code.

These pairings are a great way to shorten the loop. Throughout the development process, the goal of the Scrum framework is to increase participation, ideas, and the general quality of the product through shortened feedback loops. This means each minor iteration of the process should have feedback, and meeting face to face is the best way to accomplish this.

Managers and Scrum Masters can do the following to make pairing sessions successful:
  • Make sure that the team has time to pair and suggest including pairings as tasks attached to stories. This raises the visibility of the pairings and allocates the time.
  • Ensure that both sides get encouragement. Developers like to show off their code, but can be protective of it. If the interaction is confrontational, it will not work and will not become a habit. The Scrum Master should plan to attend the first couple pairings and encourage a positive outcome. 
  • Keep the sessions concise. When working on complex problems, pair programming and other types of pairing is useful, but difficult. It is two different minds working together on the same problem and sometimes people pull in different directions. Set aside time for the pairing, but avoid forcing the issue. Let the team self-organize.
The result of pair programming, testing, writing, and other sessions is that members of the cross-functional team will get a better understanding of the specialties of the other members in their group and seeing other people’s perspectives helps everyone create better solutions.

Agile Project Management Tips #7: Simplify Design with Paper Prototypes

Requirements people, designers, and developers think on different levels. When they meet to plan what needs to be done they focus on different aspects of the specifications rather than on the problem that needs to be solved.

One way to avoid this is to embrace paper prototypes. When the team goes to work on a screen design, the fastest way to get everyone’s participation is to use paper, markers, scissors and tape or glue stick. In a just a few minutes, one team member can sketch out an initial screen and then let others add to the work. Using black markers enforces simple screen design and removes colors and fonts from the equation. If people make mistakes or suggest changes, tape and scissors make it easy to rearrange the screen. A photocopier can be used to duplicate parts if necessary.

Working interactively on the page turns it into a shared design problem. Everyone in the team can participate in naming items, and the business analyst can remind the team of the real-world terms. Once the prototype takes shape, testers can apply their tests to the paper: How many characters? Is this required? Where do you go when you click on this?

Paper prototyping has been used for years, and it continues to be useful in this age of mobile devices. Whether you are designing a screen for a tablet, a smart phone, or a computer, the basic rules are the same. Using a paper model makes initial design easier. Print out an oversize template of an iPhone, photocopy it, and then use that to draw in the screens with markers. To replicate the user experience, you can stack up the pages, hold them in your hand like a phone, and then flip through the story.

Agile Project Management Tips #6: Draw Out Ideas

Reviewing architecture and design documents can be tedious and boring since the process is passive: sitting in meetings trying to evaluate someone else’s design work. Participants easily check out, often keeping their eyes and hands occupied by doodling in their notebooks while the meeting uses their ears and brain.

Drawing, however, is an excellent approach to engage the brain in multiple ways, making a more creative and memorable meeting for everyone. A recent Wall Street Journal article began “Employees at a range of businesses are being encouraged by their companies to doodle their ideas and draw diagrams to explain complicated concepts to colleagues.” Drawing can be used to promote engagement, visual thinking, and enhance note taking.

I used to prepare diagrams or schema using Visio and hand them out in meetings only to realize that people were not fully engaged. I had gone through the journey of creating the visual, but for everyone else it was just a static image. Looking at a picture can be a fleeting event and the less energy one puts into it, the less memorable it will be.

In design meetings now, however, I arrive with an image in my head, and make sure I have a space to draw it out. The process is more engaging and we share the journey as the drawing is created. Describing the design and drawing it out simultaneously combines two methods of learning, sight and sound, helping to reinforce the ideas. The technique has many benefits.
  • Telling stories while drawing helps people who learn using different styles. Drawing is a process and a result, your mind carves out the lines as you examine the subject. 
  • The images will transcend language: drawing out ideas works even when colleagues do not share a common first language or have the same level of technical understanding.
  • Drawing is participatory: The brainstorm is directed and scoped, but democratic. Others may draw on the board or paper as well. It helps foster involvement in the critical thinking process, whereas a completed and polished image may give the impression that it is beyond criticism.
  • Drawing brings out creativity. As the cartoonist Lynda Barry says about her graphic memoir/how-to book What It Is, “drawing or expressing your image is a therapeutic biological change that occurs in your body and makes you say ‘ah!’”
  • Studies have shown that drawing enhances retention. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Jonathan Foer devotes a chapter to discussing mind maps and how they correlate with memory palaces (Foer 2011). A memory palace is a visual mnemonic device used to help organize and recollect bits of information. As the team works with the image, they inadvertently create spatial memory palaces of the system in their minds. Later, when writing code or testing, the image can help clarify details and provide a context within the larger system.
To take it to the next level and get people involved, give them a pen and ask them to include their ideas in the drawing. If people object, saying they cannot draw, suggest instead that they “make marks on paper.” Visual Meetings is an excellent book that provides a variety of ways to make meetings more dynamic and participatory with graphics and drawing.

In addition to using drawing in meetings, drawing helps with other parts of the design process. Kevin Cheng, author of See What I Mean promotes the idea of drawing comics for business reasons. Creating storyboards and scenarios as comics not only engages people in the process, but also saves time and effort. The sequential comic frames are simply another way to represent the steps in the user stories. Drawings can also be used to visualize the user experience, which is the main idea behind his web comic “OK/Cancel.”

Save the drawings at least until the end of the project. Even when working on a whiteboard you can still take a photo of the board and the memory of drawing it will stay with people.


Agile Project Management Tips #5: Broadcast with Information Radiators

First coined by Alistair Cockburn, an information radiator is the “generic term for any of a number of handwritten, drawn, printed or electronic displays which a team places in a highly visible location, so that all team members as well as passers-by can see the latest information at a glance.” Information radiators provide succinct visual messages for anyone who is in the area; similar to how a construction zone sign proclaims “187 days without an accident” to both workers and those who drive by. The goal is to convey current project status to people who are not involved on a day-to-day basis and to provide enough information to avoid interrupting the team with questions. Posting this information also implies that the team acknowledges the status of the project and is willing to share it with anyone.

Information radiators are one of the best low-tech devices for broadcasting the status of a project. Since they are visibly posted, it is a passive process. No one has to seek out the status or refresh a web page. As Cockburn mentions “online files and web pages generally do not make good information radiators, because an information radiator needs to be visible without significant effort on the part of the viewer.”

Our information radiator shows:
  • The current sprint’s stories and related tasks
  • A Kanban-style board with work under progress
  • The current build number and timestamp
  • The most recent release number and timestamp
  • All the stories from the product backlog
Other items that might be useful to post are:
  • A graphical display of the number of tests planned versus passing
  • Any planned resolutions discussed during the most recent sprint review
  • The status of any of the team members if they will be on vacation or otherwise unavailable
At a glance, anyone can tell how many more items are in the backlog for the current project and which stories are under development during a sprint.

Information radiator showing product backlog
and retrospective of previous release
When we first started using an information radiator the work space presented some challenges. It lacked large areas of windows or walls, and the facilities staff was reluctant to hang whiteboards due to the newness of recent renovations. Also, the development area was in a quieter spot, so not many people passed by.

Fortunately, we overcame those problems. Instead of a whiteboard, we used the cubicle walls for posting the backlog. Since it was difficult to get sticky notes to adhere to fuzzy cubicle walls, putting a long piece of strapping tape on the cubicles made a non-porous surface that worked better. The development area lacked space to display everything together, so we compromised by posting the backlog in one area, and the sprint status items in a slightly different area, but still visible from one spot. Moreover, passing traffic increased when sales materials were stored in an area just past development. Now the sales and training staff pass by the information radiator on a daily basis. Recently I saw a sales person looking at the cards, understanding what we are working on.

The biggest benefit of the information radiator is for the team itself. It creates a sense of completion as the backlog whittles down, and the sight of a once-daunting project dwindling down to a small tail of outstanding stories is a sure morale booster.

The Agile Alliance has more about information radiators here.

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Agile Project Management Tips #4: Keep the Sizes Relative

In Scrum, the product backlog shows the amount of estimated effort required to deliver each story. While there are other methods of estimating, such as Mike Cohn's Planning Poker, T-Shirt sizing is a simpler way to get a baseline idea of effort. The human brain is better at estimating relative sizes than absolute sizes. Relative sizing is simpler since less information is required. Team members need only to recognize which stories are larger than others. The goal is to give the stories T-Shirt sizes (XL, L, M, S, and XS) relative to each other. Then, after several iterations of tracking the stories completed in a sprint, the team will have a better idea of the schedule for the remaining stories.

A problem, however, is introduced when some team members try to correlate relative sizes with absolute amounts, such as “S = one day”, while others may use a different scale. Workdays are a subjective unit of measure and depending on other commitments, ideal days will vary. Using a simple mechanical method avoids this problem.

Only the Scrum team participates in the sizing process. Team members arrive at a sizing session with an idea of the stories and with any information that might inform their estimates.

The sizing process is similar to the one described above for prioritizing stories, except the Scrum Master leads the session. After an arbitrary story card is placed on the wall, the Scrum Master pulls the next card, reads it aloud, and asks if people think this story is larger, smaller, or about the same size as the one the wall. The vertical axis represents the size of the stories with higher on the wall indicating more effort; lower on the wall is less effort. People in the meeting say “higher” or “lower” and the Scrum Master follows their suggestions. If the team cannot agree on the size, then it is open for a five-minute discussion, and the Scrum Master decides the final position.

After all the stories have been placed on the wall relative to each other, divide the wall into five equal vertical sections. Mark the sections XL, L, M, S and XS, respectively. Drawing the five sections is a physical method for categorizing the stories by size.

Sizing the stories this way creates a visual map of the project in terms of effort. Reviewing it may highlight red flags hidden in the project. The Scrum Master should watch for L and XL stories that have lower priorities; in the last third of the project, for example. Large and XL stories toward the end of a project represent riskier work. Software projects have enough uncertainty that teams will want to avoid planning large stories at the end of a project. The PO may want to think about raising their priority, dropping them from the project, or trying to break them into smaller features.

Since the stories sizes are relative, the majority of the stories should fall into the small, medium and large categories. If there is a larger ratio of XL stories then the team should re-examine the stories that fall between L and XL. Perhaps the team has overlooked some details of the stories, or perhaps they are epics that should be split into multiple, smaller stories.

Note: relative sizing only works for stories considered during the same session, but the simplicity of the process makes it especially accessible for teams and team members who are new to Scrum.

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Agile Project Management Tips #3: Use an Insertion Sort for Prioritization

To be successful, Scrum requires a prioritized backlog of stories. Teams focus their efforts during the sprint on the items with the highest priority. Often, explanations of Scrum imply that the Product Owner (PO) already has optimally prioritized the backlog. That sounds like an easy request, until you realize the process required to achieve prioritization. Supposedly, the PO sets the priority, but that assumes a fully informed PO, which may be asking a lot of one person. Each stakeholder involved with the project has his or her own set of priorities, and backroom lobbying for features can cause conflicts. It is better to have a transparent prioritization process.

There are many ways to prioritize the backlog, but some tend to exclude participation more than others do. For example, when using a spreadsheet, database or document to organize the priority, only one person at a time can make modifications, so it is not an inclusive process. In planning meetings, no matter how large the display, the entire backlog cannot be seen at once, so attendees end up seasick watching the screen bounce around while one person sets the priorities. In other cases, when someone has assembled a printed document with the complete backlog, the prioritization process becomes a bubble sort on paper, stepping through the list, comparing items and swapping them if they are in the wrong order; not the most efficient method. In all of these cases, providing a pre-processed list allows some priorities to slip by without any discussion.

A simpler solution is a physical process that involves an insertion sort. In this method, the PO convenes a prioritization meeting and anyone who has a stake in the project can attend. The meeting space must have enough space to display all the story cards on a wall or window. The process steps are:

  1. The PO places a random story on the wall, and then pulls another from the backlog.
  2. The PO asks whether the current story has higher or lower priority than the one on the wall.
  3. People in the room may offer their advice, but the PO has the final authority for placing the story card.
  4. If the current story has a higher priority than the one on the wall then the PO places it to the left (meaning higher priority), otherwise it is placed to the right (lower priority). All stories must have a unique priority, so they should all be at the same level horizontally (see Figure 1).
  5. Leave space between the cards so it is easier to organize them if a subsequent story is prioritized between two others.
  6. One by one, the PO continues with the remaining stories, reading them aloud, getting advice, and then placing them into the correct priority.
  7. When all stories have been prioritized, write the initial priority on the front of each story card for tracking purposes because priorities change over time. 

It is also useful to track the priority in a spreadsheet or requirement management system.

Uniquely Prioritized Stories
Using this process, our team has been able to prioritize up to 50 stories in a two-hour meeting. It is not recommended to try for more than this since people get decision fatigue and attention spans decline. Depending on the size of the team and of the stories, it may not be necessary to prioritize beyond the top 50 items. Since the process is an insertion sort, it is easy to split the process into multiple sessions.

The benefits of this approach are:
  • Each story has its own moment under the spotlight—there is no a chance for it to be lost. 
  • It is a more democratic process, where the stakeholders can lobby the PO on behalf of their preferred stories and the PO becomes more fully informed. 
  • The unique prioritization avoids the situation where multiple stories end up with the same priority. It forces people to acknowledge the constraints of time and resources early in the project. It also avoids vague priorities where some stories are “high,” some are “medium” and some might be “medium-high.” 
  • The space allows everyone to participate, and the spatial orientation helps people better understand the scope of the project.
There are some potential variations to this process. When two project teams are working in tandem, it is acceptable to create two physical lines. This may expose dependencies. The prioritization process can also help define the minimal viable release points. The PO can move along the horizontal axis to identify the earliest acceptable release point. We maintained the prioritization as we moved the stories to the information radiator (see section 3.5). When a story is added to the backlog, it will have the lowest priority until the next sprint planning meeting when there will be an opportunity to re-prioritize.

Agile Project Management Tips #2: Make Your Story Cards Work Overtime

Numerous articles on Scrum discuss story cards. They usually explain how the cards contain a user story, an informal statement about the value of a feature in the system to someone. A common form of the statement is:

As a  , I want  so that .

Most articles explain that the cards are merely an artifact to begin the conversation about the full requirements of the feature. Some teams transcribe the stories into spreadsheets, documents or project management systems.

At this point, some people may toss out the cards, but wait! Even if the story is documented electronically, the physical card has value for the project. Since the principal goal of story cards in Agile development is to raise visibility and focus for each feature, keeping story cards posted in a public place is a good way to do this. Think of the card as an icon for the full feature.

The card can also be a shortcut for the additional details associated with each story. For example, on each card we write a unique tracking ID, the story size, and the initial priority. If the story has a particular champion, the PO writes that person’s name on the back of the card.

An all-too-familiar artifact
This card shows the size, XL,
the original priority, 16th,
and you can see the value was
under debate
As the project progresses, each story card will become a familiar artifact, bringing joy or dread, memories and ideas. The story card becomes memorable token that stands for the full feature. The position of the card can also carry meaning, like a flag. Turn the card sideways to remove it temporarily from the action. Turn it upside down to indicate that the feature is in distress. If conversations about the story become contentious, use the story card as a talking stick, allowing each person to speak their point of view as long as they hold the card.

Even when a story is tracked electronically it is useful to revert to low-tech by printing the summaries on labels and putting them on sticky notes. For multiple, parallel projects use different colored cards for each one.

A word of warning about using story cards: watch out for the nighttime janitor or strong air conditioning. If there is a mysterious gap in the backlog, you might want to look around on the floor. This emphasizes the need to keep an electronic copy of the stories in a spreadsheet or requirement management system.

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9 Low-Tech Tips for Agile Project Management

“Somewhere today, a project is failing.” These are the first words in chapter one of DeMarco & Lister's cubicle-breaking book Peopleware. They say that the major hurdles encountered in software development projects are not so much technological as they are sociological. For years, people have been developing and redeveloping the same or similar projects, and yet one somewhere today is in trouble. The problem is that high-tech people, enamored with the technology, look to code themselves out of a problem rather than interact with the team. DeMarco points out that because we go about software development in teams and projects and other tightly knit working groups, we are mostly in the human communication business. In 1987, this may have been a cry in the wilderness, but by the time of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, it was commonly accepted. As the manifesto proclaims, the focus should be on “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Peopleware proposes changing physical work spaces and mental attitudes to promote communication, but communication can also be improved by simpler project management processes. Project management can be tough, especially when technology gets in the way of the goal of developing software that provides value to the users. Creating a complex software system becomes even more difficult when processes rely on other complex systems. Project management is easier if you can reduce complexity whenever possible. Considering this, it is better to choose a simpler, low-tech solution when one is available. Additionally, some low-tech practices can lead to higher visibility, more democratic processes, and simpler solutions.

On my team, the path that led to our current project management process was not a quick one. Having explored multiple project management methods over the years, including modified waterfall methods and a couple failed attempts at Agile, we now use Scrum for most of our non-regulatory projects. We found that some of the techniques learned during our initial Scrum training continue to shine through as excellent practices, especially because they are so simple. Other activities, however, were more opaque at the time. It took repetition, over multiple sprints and projects, before we realized the full value of the activity.

In an Ignite talk, Adam Light asserts, “Scrum moves organization from the individual level to the team level.”  For managing projects, this means:
  • Helping people take their ideas into a shared work space in a structured and efficient way. 
  • Getting the right people working on the right things at the right time. 
  • Building on the shared ideas to create better solutions
In short, it means collaboration: moving the project management process from the project leader to the team. The Scrum Master becomes a team member who has the role of facilitating the progress of the project rather than the project leader.

The Scrum Master provides the tools and environment to make the project easier, and allows the team to self-manage. Self-managing, however, is not a goal but a habit, and like any habit it takes time to become innate. The nine tips discussed in the following sections provide a set of good habits that lead to self-managing teams. They all have the common goal of using low-tech methods to make ideas visible and shared, enhancing collaboration.

The process of developing software is essentially one of taking ideas and making them tangible. Since it is usually accomplished with a team of people assigned to create a complex software solution, it is necessary for the team members to communicate their ideas and opinions to others. High-tech teams often navigate toward high-tech solutions to accomplish this goal, but those solutions come at a cost and can complicate the project management process in unexpected ways.

Even Agile projects are complex. Although Scrum reduces some of the complexity, developing modern software solutions is fraught with risks and unforeseen dependencies. Simplifying the project management process frees the team to focus on creating the solution, rather than occupying themselves with administrative tasks. Additionally, involving the team more in the project management process achieves the Agile goals of collaboration, short feedback loops, and user-centric development.

While all of these tips have been used in conjunction with Scrum, they are not limited to an Agile project framework. Many of these tips may not be new to you, but I hope that you see them in a new light. The low-tech goals of collaboration, increased communication, and democratic processes align with the tenets of the Agile Manifesto to promote face-to-face communication, people over process, and collaboration over silos. 

Tip #1: Take a Field Trip
Tip #2: Make Your Story Cards Work Overtime
Tip #3: Use an Insertion Sort for Prioritization
Tip #4: Keep the Sizes Relative
Tip #5: Broadcast with Information Radiators
Tip #6: Draw Out Ideas
Tip #7: Simplify Design with Paper Prototypes
Tip #8: Increase Communication by Pairing
Tip #9: Keep a Project Diary

Agile Project Management Tips #1: Take a Field Trip

At the beginning of every project, we develop a vision document. The goal of this document is to provide a vision of how the product will work once the project is complete. The contents of this document are words and diagrams, pages and pages of writing in an attempt to bring imagination to life. The vision document is supposed to be the inspiration for the project, but often it is a flawed vision only approximating the actual results.

There are two good reasons why a vision document cannot possibly hope to communicate everything. The first is because of the fuzzy front end. A vision document is meant to inspire, but the project could be killed at any point so only a limited amount of work is spent defining the edges of the system. Second, while the vision document may talk about personas, it often does not describe actual system users in the way that a novel might bring a character like Harry Potter to life.

One way to fully realize the environment and characters that will populate your software solution is to take a field trip to sites where the software will be used. Remember the acronym GOOB - Get out of the Building (or -- Get out of the box). Visiting a site brings concrete images to the abstract ideas summarized in the vision document. While it may not be feasible or affordable to bring the entire team on site, even video and phone calls give an enhanced understanding of the environment. The goal is provide a deep impression that will help with development later in the project.

Developer desk <> a dental operatory
The most obvious observations to make are the workflows. The business analyst is best at this process. For the technical staff, the environment may play a factor in developing a solution. For example, dental operatories must be hygienic, so keyboards and mice are wrapped in disposable plastic covers. Since this makes touch screens unfeasible, we had to investigate voice and motion recognition solutions. In other offices, we discovered that staff had such cramped working spaces that they did not have desk space for their paper notes, so they ended up holding them in one hand and typing with the other, which raised a usability issue.

The field trip is a good time to put faces to personas. Previously you may have thought of the receptionist as “Receptionist 1,” but now you know her as Betty, who is extremely good at multi-tasking until it comes to her software. We would not have imagined the reception desk was such a hub of activity until we saw Betty interrupted nearly fifteen times in a fifteen-minute interval. Observing this not only impressed on the programmers and testers the importance of avoiding any software failures, but also provided data for system response times. Betty would be extremely unhappy to take time to call for support if something went wrong with the software.

There are other ways to observe the system: shadowing through screen-sharing sessions, conference calls, setting up role-playing scenarios at work, but none of these bring the situation to life as well as a field trip.


iOS7 First Thoughts

I updated the iPad at work to iOS7.  Although it's nice, it's not that impressive. 
Simulated parallax view

Some of the things mentioned in the video:
  • Parallax background (looks cool, but is it useful?). 
  • All the OS apps have new icons
  • Some of the new features:
    • Control Center - swipe up to get access to airplane mode, etc
    • Camera UI is revised - square format, panoramic mode, video is integrated, live filters
    • Zoom out from desktop to see the running programs
    • Search & URL bars are unified

It seems like Apple has been creating buzz about the lack of skeuomorphism in the new OS.  This first link, from a Guardian article back in June, 2013, almost sounds like something from The Onion.  "Rather than old-school flatness, iOS7 gives you layers of flatness." (Their italics.)

This more current article from Medical Daily goes even further, saying how the Apple flatness is better than Android's flatness. "By contrast, the brain receives just two elements to decode when presented with the experience of the flatter design of many Android devices on the market and under development, testers say. Although this flatter design may at first appear superior, the brain begins to appreciate the richness of experience amid the melding of man and machine."

Update your iTunes if you're gonna update to iOS7
It reminds me of a quote from Spinal Tap, just replace "black" with "flat."
"There's something about this that's so black, it's like how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black." - Nigel Tufnel


Test Plan / Test Diary

There are two parts to testing software.  The first part is planning what to test. The second part is executing the tests and recording the results in a diary.

A) Here's what should go into each item of a test plan:

  1. Test Name: Name of the test. Consider this to be similar to a newspaper headline. 
  2. Description: High level description, including why this test is useful.
  3. Expectation: Expected results from the test.
  4. Steps: Steps to perform the test. Include context, if necessary.

B) Each test in a test diary should include references to the first four sections and also

  1. Result: Actual results. Describe how it differs from expectations, if necessary.
  2. Build version
  3. Date
  4. Any variables not described in #4 above.

Is this how you create test plans?


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962)

Reading a novel is like directing a film in your head. Each scene is visualized, and of course those images are influenced by previous things you’ve seen and read. The first time I’d read Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” was shortly after finishing Norman Spinrad’s "The Iron Dream." Spinrad’s book was another novel-within-a-novel, showing a leather-clad biker version of Hitler on the cover and a blurb of "Adolf Hitler's classic bestseller of future genetic warfare." This image, plus numerous black and white WWII documentaries on TV probably altered my impressions of the “The Man in the High Castle”, adding weight to the Nazi portion of the story. This time, however, I pictured TMITHC in the same sepia tones as Spielberg’s direction of “Empire of the Sun,” except updated slightly for the year 1963.

The novel asks the question: What if the Axis had won World War II? In that world Joe Zangara succeeded in his assassination attempt on FDR and the US stayed out of the conflict for too long.  The result is Europe falling to the Nazis, opening the door open to an Axis conquest of the world. Fifteen years later the US is divided with the Pacific Coast states under Japanese rule, and the East Coast under Germany, while border states like Colorado and Wyoming fall into a gray area.

As the novel begins, the Nazi Führer Bormann dies, initiating an internal power struggle between Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring and others who wish to succeed him as Reichskanzler. This event creates ripples across the world. The story weaves together several loosely connected characters who bounce around on those ripples. All but two of the fifteen chapters are broken into sections, usually so that the action can move from one character to another.

There are three main paths paths of characters, loosely intertwined but strongly interdependent. Frank Frink, an ironsmith in San Francisco, loses his temper and is fired, and subsequently tries to start a new business making modern-American jewelry. Frink, a Jew in hiding from the Nazis, has the skills -- he previously created fake antique pistols as a side-job for his employer -- but doesn’t know how to market this new jewelry to the Japanese, who are the only customers with money. His main market is through R. Childan’s antique store where his forged guns were also sold. Robert Childan is an antiques dealer who specializes in selling pre-war Americana to young upwardly mobile Japanese, and is especially distraught when he learns from a mysterious customer that much of his inventory may be fakes.

The second path is a tale of intrigue. Martin Baynes is a secret agent representing the more moderate arm of the Nazi party who has come to San Francisco with an urgent message for a representative of the Japanese government. He works through the office of Nobusuke Tagomi, a ranking minister of the San Francisco Japanese Trade office who often purchases antiques from Childan as gifts.

And the final path is that of Frink's ex-wife Juliana Frink who meets an Italian ex-military turned truck driver and decides to ride with him to visit Denver. On the way they discuss Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” a science-fiction novel portraying the alternate world if the Allies had won World War II, and they ultimately decide to pay him a visit at his house in Wyoming.

Many of the characters are pretending to be something else. While each appears as one thing: a Gentile, a Swedish businessman, a truck driver, an honest salesperson, or an elderly tourist, reality almost always brings treachery. Even Childan has pretended to be subservient to the Japanese for so long that he doesn't realize he has given up. He has been false for so long that he thinks it is true, just like the antiques in Childan's shop are replicas of authentic pieces, yet still have the authentic craftsmanship.

This is Dick’s ninth published novel, but he seems to pull out all the stops in this one to explore the multiple ways of false reality. The most literal take on this theme are the fake and forged antiques found in Childan’s shop. A couple years later, in “Now Wait For Last Year,” Dick creates a character that’s an expert in pre-WWII Americana who’s hired to purchase authentic antiques by a millionaire who wants to recreate his childhood. In MITHC there are two key passages discussing fakes and forgeries. The first is when the stranger visits Childan’s store.

Laying down a leather and felt box he said, "Here is exceptional Colt .44 of 1860." He opened the box. "Black powder and ball. This issued to U. S. Army Boys in blue carried these into for instance Second Bull Run."
For a considerable time the man examined the Colt .44. Then, lifting his eyes, he said calmly, "Sir, this is an imitation."

"Eh?" Childan said, not comprehending.

"This piece is no older than six months. Sir, your offering is a fake. I am cast into gloom. But see. The wood here. Artificially aged by an acid chemical. What a shame." He laid the gun down.

Childan picked the gun up and stood holding it between his hands. He could think of nothing to say. Turning the gun over and over, he at last said, "It can't be."

"An imitation of the authentic historic gun. Nothing more. I am afraid, sir, you have been deceived. Perhaps by some unscrupulous churl. You must report this to the San Francisco police." The man bowed. "It grieves me. You may have other imitations, too, in your shop. Is it possible, sir, that you, the owner, dealer, in such items, cannot distinguish the forgeries from the real?"
The second, however, calls into question whether it matters if the item is true or false.
"Well, I'll tell you," he said. "This whole damn historicity business is nonsense. Those Japs are bats. I'll prove it." Getting up, he hurried into his study, returned at once with two cigarette lighters which he set down on the coffee table. "Look at these. Look the same, don't they? Well, listen. One has historicity in it." He grinned at her. "Pick them up. Go ahead. One's worth, oh, maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collectors' market."

The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.

"Don't you feel it?" he kidded her. "The historicity?"

She said, "What is ‘historicity'?"

"When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?" He nudged her. "You can't. You can't tell which is which. There's no ‘mystical plasmic presence,' no ‘aura' around it."

"Gee," the girl said, awed. "Is that really true? That he had one of those on him that day?"

"Sure. And I know which it is.
Of course he only knows which is the one with “historicity” because it has a scratch on one side. Other than that, the two lighters are equal. Dick even seems to twist reality again when Tagomi uses a forged antique gun to fight off some attackers. In the end, does it matter if the gun is authentic as long as it can shoot?

Another way that Dick plays with reality is through false identities. The best example of this in Dick’s writing is in “A Scanner Darkly” where the lead character wears a scramble suit that hides his identity even to his employers. Through a strange twist of fate, he’s assigned to investigate himself because he has been acting suspiciously. In MITHC the scenario isn’t as extreme, but there’s a strong undercurrent of self-deception in many of the characters.

Robert Childan is living a lie by thinking he can sell pieces of America to the Japanese invaders and make a living. He discovers his pieces are fake, so what is he selling? Is it America, or the idea of America? As we see in the dinner scene the young Japanese couple don’t respect him when he acts subservient to them, and this is because they want the idea of America -- not someone who’s trying to imitate the Japanese manner. But, later, they don’t understand him either when he decides to be true to his American heritage and begins selling modern American jewelry. Among all the characters, I think the two who grow the most are Tagomi, who sees the world of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, and Childan, who decides to take a chance on an idea and an innovation. I guess that’s what Dick must have considered the best of the American Dream.

Martin Baynes is deceptive on purpose. He’s a spy, bringing an urgent message. But even then he’s not very covert. Nearly everyone he encounters, from the passenger on the rocket from Sweden, to Tagomi in the San Francisco office, to the local Nazi police, recognizes him as a spy. By the time he delivers his message no one considers him to be a Swedish businessman. Unfortunately, Baynes only has one level: his secret message. Once that has been delivered he loses most of his depth. He assists in a shootout, and then fades off.

Hawthorne Abendsen, the so-called “Man in the High Castle,” is an interesting character, but we don’t see much of him until the end. When we finally see his house we learn that he doesn’t live in a castle any more, so that’s a lie. Also, his story is a fiction in three ways: 1) It’s a novel in a novel, but 2) we, the readers, know there is no actual complete book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, and 3) Abensen believes his book is fiction, but when they consult the I Ching it says that it’s reality. So, Dick has set up a sort of ping pong game of realities.

Aside from the themes, TMITHC is science fiction, so Dick literally plays with reality in the scope of the book, but does it with tact. In the novel Joe Zangara succeeded in his attempt to assassinate FDR, but the premise of "Grasshopper" is that he failed, just like he did in our world. In the novel “Grasshopper” provides some sort of hope for the people of the US. This hope sparks Frink’s dream to create modern American art, which comes to infect Childan as well. They stop looking to the past, and look to the future, and at this point the Tagomi sees the break in the world.

TMITHC also showcases two of Dick’s recurring topics. He seems to be infatuated with re-fighting and reimagining World War II. Many of his books include the remnants of Nazi Germany and German characters such as Krupp und Sohne or Dr. Blutgeld. In this book the Nazis here are occasionally stereotyped, shown as being insane, racially interbred, obsessive compulsive, but I think he’s trying to understand how they came to power. He revisits this idea in “The Simulacra”, “The Unteleported Man”, “Dr. Bloodmoney” and other books. I see Dick’s infatuation with the Nazis, particularly Adolf Hitler, to be hand in hand with returning to the theme of a cult leader such as Jones, Der Alte, or Yancy in “The Penultimate Truth.”

And the I Ching plays a large part in this story. It used by many of the characters including Tagomi and Frank Frink, but in a foreword Dick says he consulted it many times when creating the story itself. I’ve wondered in other reviews whether Dick used the I Ching to create names, such as “Pretty Blue Fox” or “Green Peach Hat”.

So, would TMITHC would make a good movie? As it stands, I’d have to say, not really. The story doesn't easily translate to a studio blockbuster, but more like a Robert Altman film. But it makes an excellent novel. The plot and characters go hand in hand, like a tablecloth draped over a table, or a shroud over a face.

My opinion on Dick’s conclusion is that even if the Axis had won WWII, it would not have ended the war. It would have continued, on a smaller scale. The American urge to create and recreate itself would fight against any totalitarian or fascist state. The creativity put into the jewelry by Frink and McCarthy is described by Paul Kasouras as “wu.” It’s this wu which briefly transports Tagomi to the alternate San Francisco where the Allies defeated Germany and Japan. Through the piece of jewelry he is shown that possibility, a world which isn’t better for him, but impresses on him the power of the American Dream and of the American people.


Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K Dick (1974)

I used to think Gary Numan’s song “Listen To The Sirens” was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.” What I didn’t know, in those pre-internet days, was that both were based on an early English song from 1600 by a lutist named John Dowland. The song is called a lachrymae, literally translated as "tears," probably because of the falling melody, dropping down in tone like tears falling. Gary Numan’s song is less subtle but still full of angst with a hint of sadness. And Dick’s story is of course a sad, bewildering one: a man mourns the loss of his own life, even as he stays alive.

“Flow My Tears” is essentially “It’s a Wonderful Life” except that instead of the main character wishing he had never existed, someone else has wished it upon him. Jason Taverner is the man without a life. One day he’s a world-famous crooner with a Tuesday night TV talk show, a starlet girlfriend, and mansions in LA and Zurich. The next he wakes up in a flophouse in a sketchy area of town without anything, even fame or identity. No one seems to recognize his face, his music is absent from the jukebox, and even his girlfriend thinks he’s an obnoxious fanboy. When he checks the national police database his name is strangely missing. His only resources are the $5,000 he had sewn into the lining of his suit, and his genetic heritage: he is a six - the result of an experiment in genetic engineering which caused him to be born with good looks, charisma, and a body that ages more slowly. The government has been a police state since the student uprisings, so Taverner needs all of his skills and luck to travel even a few blocks without encountering a checkpoint, let alone staying free long enough to unravel the mystery of his disappearance.

Taverner succeeds for a while, meeting Kathy who is an identity forger and stool pigeon who psychotically believes that the police are forcing her to fink by holding her boyfriend in a gulag in Alaska (he actually died in a car accident). Kathy also has a mental problem where she imagines people to be celebrities and she often imagines these celebrities are stalking her. At first I read this as one of Dick’s normal blind alleys, but in this novel he manages to tie this idea back into the main plot.

Eventually, however, Taverner gets the attention of the police, and is hauled in to the station where he meets Felix Buckman, the Director of Police for most of the US. We learn that Buckman is married to his own sister Alys, a tall, wild woman dressed in leather pants and gold chains and addicted to drugs and sex, although it is not generally known that their relationship is other than husband and wife. Buckman investigates Taverner’s existence with suspicion, but decides to release Taverner after surreptitiously placing trackers and a small self-destruct device on him. Taverner is immediately picked up by Alys, and at this point he and the reader begin to uncover clues explaining his sudden anonymity.

Given that the two previously published novels by Dick, “We Can Build You” and “Our Friends From Frolix 8,” were such wrecks, it’s a surprising delight to read “Flow My Tears.” The tone and style of this novel is somewhat of a departure for Dick. In some ways it harkens back to “The Man in the High Castle” where Dick wrote a mature novel set in a science-fiction framework. But he also seems to have nearly mastered the habit of putting dreams and intuitive events into the novel without derailing the plot. I sawy "nearly" because there are still elements of this. For example, the part where Felix Buckman dreams that Jason Taverner has been killed was pulled from a vivid dream:

“In the writing of Flow My Tears, back in 1970, there was one unusual event which I realized at the time was not ordinary, was not a part of the regular writing process. I had a dream one night, an especially vivid dream. And when I awoke I found myself under the compulsion—the absolute necessity—of getting the dream into the text of the novel precisely as I had dreamed it. In getting the dream exactly right, I had to do eleven drafts of the final part of the manuscript, until I was satisfied. “

Additionally, the odd sequence at the end, where Buckman meets a man at a gas station and hugs him, has the feeling of more intuition than logic. In his essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later” Dick attempts to explain that this passage is part of his anamnesis, his “loss of forgetfulness” that means he’s channeling the truth into his novel. Fortunately, in “Flow My Tears” these passages don’t detract from the plot or the characters, and they even add slightly to the surreality of the story.

When the police are trying to determine Taverner’s true identity they give him a test. To me the test feels similar to the Voigt-Kampff tests in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”
After the recording of the footprint he spoke the sentence, "Down goes the right hut and ate a put object beside his horse." That took care of the voiceprint. After that, again seated, he allowed terminals to be placed here and there on his head; the machine cranked out three feet of scribbled-on paper, and that was that. That was the electrocardiogram. It ended the tests.
I wondered if the sentence was a from an actual psychological test, but I couldn’t find any references to it.

Dick has a running theme of crowded, oppressive apartment buildings. In “Flow My Tears,” however, Taverner is brought to Felix and Alys’s wonderful, spacious mansion. They have filled the house with collections of all sorts of interesting nick-knacks like rare stamps, coins, bondage cartoons and pornographic snuffboxes. Alys and Felix are like Virgil Ackerman in “Now Wait for Last Year,” collecting bits of esoteric ephemera in order to build a solid world around them. I have to wonder, does PKD scorn the empty, expansive mansion, seeing it like AM-WEB in “Martian Time-Slip” as a place of death? But, I also gather from his books that he seems to like collecting these bits of esoteric information, so he, too, is a collector. I wonder if he’d find it ironic that collectors are now paying more for first edition copies of books that he wrote, than he was paid to originally write them?

So far I’ve written reviews of nearly thirty PKD books without using the word solipsism. It’s a word from the blurb on the back of my DAW paperback. The definition is “the theory or view that the self is the only reality.” Other reviewers have called many of PKD’s books solipsistic. In “Flow My Tears” he uses science fiction once again to effectively ask these questions: What is life before you? After you? Without you? Everyone is the star of their own world, their own narrative, but Dick brings this idea to the forefront by creating a character who’s a major celebrity, and then bringing him to complete anonymity. The result is a fascinating novel, and an intriguing exploration of Dick’s personal philosophy of solipsism.

From the 1974 DAW paperback edition:
Jason Taverner woke up one morning to find himself completely unknown. The night before he had been the top-rated television star with millions of devoted watchers. The next day he was just an unidentified walking object, whose face nobody recognized, of whom no one had heard, and without the I.D. papers required in that near future.
When he finally found a man who would agree to counterfeiting such cards for him, that man turned out to be a police informer. And then Taverner found out not only what it was like to be a nobody but also to be hunted by the whole apparatus of society.
It was obvious that in some way Taverner had become the pea in some sort of cosmic shell game -- but how? And why?
Philip K Dick takes the reader on a walking tour of solipsism’s scariest margin in his latest novel about the age we are already half into.


Our Friends from Frolix 8 by Philip K Dick (1970)

In the year 2085 the human race began to mutate and some people developed advanced brains, while others gained psionic powers such as psychokinesis and telepathy. When the story begins, in approximately 2208, the New Men and the Unusuals are the ruling powers in government, while the regular Old Men make do as best they can in a world slanted against them.

Ten years ago the greatest of the Old Men, Thors Provoni, stole a prototype starship and left to find help for the Old Men. In his absence, a counter-culture based on the writings of Eric Cordon has existed as the only daily hope for the Old Men. The government has made possession of Cordonite literature illegal, but Old Men still print, distribute and read the books.

The situation is relatively stable, with a detente between the New Men and Unusuals ruling the world, to the detriment of the regulars. The civil service tests are rigged to keep this Apartheid state. Then, a message from Provoni is received, telling the old men that he's brought help from outside the solar system.

The first time I saw "Our Friends from Frolix 8" was when my sister brought it home from the library. Because of the cartoonish cover she thought it was a kid’s book, but I think she gave up reading it after a couple chapters. I was in high school, and thought I’d give it a go. I can’t remember for sure, but “Our Friends” may have been the first Philip K Dick novel that I had ever read. Unfortunately, it was a forgetful first meetings: it was neither a kids' book nor particularly memorable science fiction.

On re-reading it with a more experienced eye, I thought some parts were interesting, but "Our Friends" is probably one of the weakest of Dick's novels.

The story follows three main characters. Nick Appleton is a regular who works as a tire regroover, but hopes that his son Bobby will be tested and classified as a New Man. Then, there’s Willis Gram, the council chairman of Earth. He’s a telepath who has been the ruler of Earth for the past two decades or more. And the third viewpoint is from Thors Provoni as he travels back to Earth with one of the “Friends from Frolix 8.”

As usual, Dick provides dozens of ideas for the novel, but not all of them resolve. After drinking a beer (alcohol having been banned by the Gram government) the humble tire regroover Nick Appleton falls in with a crowd of Cordoni supporters known as Undermen. He meets a sixteen year-old girl named Charley, a feisty black marketer of revolutionary propaganda with whom he becomes infatuated. The government computers identify Nick Appleton as the bellwether citizen -- whichever way he goes is the way of the populace. So, the government is watching Nick when the news of Cordoni’s death spurs him to take action and leave his wife.

In a very clumsy way, Nick Appleton is the hero of many of PKD’s novels: an average guy who has been chosen by a higher power. Similarly, many of these guys are divorcing, or have just divorced their wives. But instead of a fully fleshed out character Nick Appleton feels like the outline from a Dick novel.

The ruler of Earth, Willis Gram, is a man that you love to hate, and probably the most interesting character in the book. He reads voraciously, spends most of his time in bed, and chooses political prisoners as his sex slaves, after which he has them dispatched. Because of his telepathic abilities he has been able to stay in power for decades. His right-hand man Lloyd Barnes is the Police Director of Earth, a New Man, and an effective hammer to keep citizens in their place. That description makes Gram sound dangerous, but not much danger is shown in the book. I feel if Gram had been a stronger villain, the story probably would have been better.

There are other evolving threads: Alice Noyes is a tough private eye hired to follow Gram’s wife, and Gram even discusses a plan with her to kill his wife, but she is a character that gets lost along the way. A New Man scientist called Amos Ild, of the McMally Corporation is working on a project to build a telepathic machine, which could upset the balance of power between the New Men and the Unusuals. He is barely mentioned at the beginning of the novel, but becomes a key character near the end.

In fact, even the aliens don’t play much of a role. We get some feeling of their power -- which is near godlike -- but Dick doesn’t attempt to explore much of their motivations or history. The aliens are like the Checkov’s gun -- they appear near the beginning of the novel and you know they will be used by the end. The main focus of “Our Friends from Frolix 8” is on the humans and how they react in this situation.

Dick has some fun with the government in this novel. It’s an odd, failed fascist state: drugs are OK, alcohol is illegal. Certain books are illegal, yet the government knows where they are published and by whom. The government pretends to equality, but everyone knows the tests are rigged. Yet, the economy must be entirely state run because the best jobs are as government employees. Again, though, it’s merely a sketch and doesn’t feel solid.

Overall, I’d have to say that this is one of the weakest Dick novels.


Ubik by Philip K Dick (1969)

In the year 1992 the abundance of precogs and telepaths has made it necessary for some who value their privacy to employ "prudence organizations" -- companies who provide anti-psis services to protect information.

Gene Runciter runs Runciter & Associates, one of the largest telepathic protection services in the world, but recently some of his anti-psi agents have gone missing, and he doesn't know whether they are defecting to his competitor, or being knocked off. He goes to the Beloved Brethren Moratorium where his wife Ella, who has been dead the past three years, is kept in a state of half-life where he can occasionally thaw her out and talk with her.

Meanwhile, Joe Chip meets Pat Conley, who is applying to work for Runciter and Associates. She has the ability to rewind and re-route time, effectively negating precogs. Joe, who is a technician and partner of Runciter, decides to hire her, but makes a note "watch this person. She is a hazard to the firm."

Runciter is approached by a representative for interplanetary speculator and financier Stanton Mick. He wants them to assemble a team of anti-psis to scrub his Luna base of any telepaths. The team of six women and five men, plus Joe Chip and Runciter arrive on Luna, only to discover that Mick is a decoy, a remote-controlled bomb, that explodes and kills Runciter. The team grabs Runciter's body and escapes back to Earth, leaving the dead man at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium.

At this point the story goes crazy. Cigarettes, fresh out of the box, crumble to dust. People, starting with Wendy Wright, one of the team of antis, start dying, leaving only bits of dust their collapsed bodies. Coins show antique dates, or Runciter’s face. Manifestations from Runciter invade the world. At one point Joe Chip picks up a phone to hear Runciter's voice coming over the line in a monologue, apropos the bombing, but not as a conversation. Al Hammond finds a message from Runciter in a random cigarette carton in a random store in a random city, and they ask “How are these messages coming through?” And it seems that the only way to solve the problem is to find a spray can of Ubik.

I last read "Ubik" over twenty years ago when I was in college. Reading it now the characters at times felt stilted, like much of Dick’s dialog. In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine Dick said that most of his books from before 1970 were written on speed with little or no revision, and I must conclude that many of the characters are speaking in his own voice -- the voice of the creator and the editor that occurs while writing. How else can you explain, in moments of high tension, little asides like the following:

Joe said, "But we're not dead. Except for Wendy."
"We're in half-life. Probably still on Pratfall II; we're probably on our way back to Earth from Luna, after the explosion that killed us - killed us, not Runciter. And he's trying to pick up the flow of protophasons from us. So far he's failed; we're not getting across from our world to his. But he's managed to reach us. We're picking him up everywhere, even places we choose at random. His presence is invading us on every side, him and only him because he's the sole person trying to-"
"He and only he," Joe interrupted. "Instead of 'him'; you said 'him.'"

Why does Dick write this ungrammatical sentence, then correct himself? Perhaps he’s making it up as he goes along without editing -- or, editing himself on paper?

The plot of "Ubik" feels like that: it starts, and doesn't stop until the end. For the first 100 pages, each chapter of the novel lurches in a new direction. There are some familiar science fiction tropes of mid-century: telepaths and precogs, but there's also there's also the paranoia and faltering reality themes that make this book different. In particular, I like the dreamlike way reality shifts during the story - he may have been making it up as he wrote, but it works in a compelling way.

Chapters 8 through 13 spend most of the time with Joe Chip trying to rationalize his situation - whether it’s the fact of his own death, or the death of his boss, or the demise of reality as he knows it. In this part of the story the characters also have to deal with retrograde time, but it’s dealt with in a much more interesting way than in “Counter-clock World.” Instead of trying to logically explain how a reversal of time’s arrow might work, Dick succumbs to sliding the characters through time much as an artist might paint with watercolors: pushing the paint but accepting the result as the colors soak into the page. Impressively, both the result and the story’s resolution are satisfying.

A reader innocent of PKD might find “Ubik” either opaque, or completely mind-blowing, but experienced Dickians know that it’s one of his common themes, first explored in “Eye in the Sky” and revisited often: a group of people travel together through a (false?) reality, trying to adapt to a changing situation. The book “In Pursuit of Valis” collects quite a few of Dick’s notes, and in the chapter “Interpretations of His Own Works” Dick acknowledges and discusses this.

The info conveyed chronologically in the sequence of books is interesting.
1). EYE plural and subjective worlds.
2). JOINT world as simulated deliberately
3). STIGMATA plural hallucinated worlds concocted by an evil magician-like deity
4). UBIK messages of assistance penetrating the simulated world(s) "from the other side" by/from a salvific true deity
5). MAZE simulated worlds fabricated by us, to escape an intolerable actuality
6). TEARS the nature specifically of that actuality (an intolerable one -- the BIP ACTS)
7). SCANNER buried memories connected with lost identity; & protospeech breaking through, not into world as in UBIK but inside a person's head. Two psychoi one in each brain hemisphere, each with its own name & characteristics.

...EYE, JOINT, 3 STIGMATA, UBIK & MAZE are the same novel written over and over again. The characters are all out cold and lying around together on the floor, mass hallucinating a world. Why have I written this up at least five times? Because -- as I discovered in 3-74 when I experienced anamnesis, remembered I'm really an apostoic xtian, & saw ancient Rome -- This is our condition: we're mass-halucinating this 1970s world... {1978}

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dick’s revisitation to this theme is that all the stories have a similar premise, yet they all reach different endings. Much like Joe Chip in “Ubik”, Philip Dick in his own life has gone to great extents to try to rationalize reality as he perceives it. Unfortunately, the date he mentions, March 1974, is when all explanations for reality broke, and he suddenly perceived a different reality. Whether this was madness, a stroke, after-effects of drug usage, or a true change in perceptions, it opened up a new world that he couldn’t explain.

From cover flap of the 1969 Doubleday Hardcover edition:

If he was alive why was he riding in a 1939 Willys-Knight on his way to his boss’ funeral in Des Moines, Iowa? If he was dead why wasn’t he beginning a chilly half-life in the year 1992?

What had begun as a crucial Luna mission for Joe Chip and ten of his colleagues from Runciter Associates had ended in a living or dying fiendish nightmare. Gene Runciter was dead -- murdered. But was he really dead? Joe was receiving ominous messages from the other side of the grave from Gene, and all were warning of a plot of the most hideous nature.

At every turn Joe was being confronted with treachery and terror. How could he find answers in a time and city where the Depression was still a way of life and telepathy wasn’t even a word with meaning? Was the traitor amongst his colleagues, who had been spiralled back in time? There was Pat Conley, the telepath with the unique power of reversing time - backwards. But she was living through the same ghastly adventure and as incapable as the rest of them to return them all either to a grave or the future world of 1992. And still Runciter’s ghostly messages kept appearing - in sky-writing, on traffic tickets, graffiti, matchbook covers -- anywhere, everywhere. And their key word was alway UBIK. But what was it? Joe had never heard of it, either in 1939 or 1992. He know, however, that if he could discover the secret of UBIK he would at long last be approaching the end of his surrealistic existence. But if it were to end in certain death, did he really want to know the answer?