Decisiveness and Decision Debt

Consider your brain to be like a Git repository, constantly changing and updating and checking in new information. Everybody who has maintained a Git repo for any length of time is all too familiar with the amount of technical debt that is accrued through open branches. The more branches you have open and the longer you have branches open, the greater the likelihood that merge conflicts, hidden bugs, and other evils lurk in your future code.

Decisions work in very much the same way. Each decision is an open branch in your brain’s repository. The more you have open, the more places you are spending modest amounts of attention. The longer you have decisions unresolved, the more data gets trapped in that branch in need of sorting, reviewing, resolving, and handling. In short, the more and the longer you have open decisions, the more decision debt you accrue.

The problem with decision debt is the same as the problem with technical debt–what it robs you of are minor issues. When your project is rife with technical debt, there’s no such thing as a small change, because all changes have the potential to create a catastrophic effect. When you are plagued by decision debt, there are no small decisions; all decisions add to the pile, and suddenly where to go for dinner is just as stressful as which car to buy or how to proceed with a problem at work.

The cure is absurdly simple though: close branches. Make decisions. Find the decisions that are trivial to change later if you get more information and simply make the call. Just like with writing code, most times it’s easier to simply commit and see what the results are than to theorize for any longer. Pick the decisions with a low cost to change, and simply make those decisions and feel your anxiety melt away.

Here’s the hard part, once you’ve made your decision, be done with that decision. Don’t lament choices not made, don’t worry about whether or not you made the right decision–believe me, if you made the wrong decision, that will become apparent, and then you can simply change your decision if it’s needed.

Spoiler: a side effect of this is you are going to find that you have to revert precious few decisions. Most decisions you have to make aren’t worthy of the weight you are giving them. More on that in my next post.

Penguicon 2016 Schedule

This year, I have a fairly light schedule at Penguicon, affording me an opportunity to relax and visit with friends and (perhaps) attend some panels! My pesky responsibilities include:

Manager or Leader? Running a Technical Team

Saturday, 4/30 @ 10am-11am

The blurb: “Are you currently supervising a technical team? Maybe you’re considering taking the plunge? Come hear a few voices “from the trenches” talk about what it’s really like to lead a team: the good, the bad, the horrible, and the horribly funny. Topics will include: the differences between a manager and a leader, leading from the front, why your manager isn’t out to get you, managing up, ethical communication, and more.”

Dawn Kuczwara and I will discuss the finer points of being a manager, or leader, drawing from a combined 2-3 decades of leadership experience. While this is a “serious” talk, neither Dawn nor I are capable of being completely “serious” per se.

Sharing an Oral History: The Art of Verbal Storytelling

Sunday, 5/1 @ 2pm-3pm

The blurb: “We’ve all been there: this absolutely amazing thing happened to you yesterday and you want to share it with your friends and family. You take a deep breath and begin…only to helplessly watch as the story falls directly on its face. Storytelling is an art, and like any art it takes practice, study, and one of those books where you draw Sparky the turtle on the grid then mail it to Pueblo CO. This panel will basically be the turtle grid.”

This idea sort of rose out of listening to story after story after mind-numbing story that should be entertaining, but doesn’t quite make the cut. Dawn is an improv comic and I talk a lot, so, between the two of us, some good information might get thrown out there.

Penguicon Board Meeting

Saturday, 5/1 @  1pm-3pm

The blurb: “You’ve done the convention, you’ve met the staff, and you’ve even socialized with the ConCom. But what about those *other* Penguicon people? Those shadowy figures that create the multi-year rules, have their fingers on the money, and cause a ConChair to mysteriously appear every year in a puff of penguin-scented smoke? Ever wonder what the Penguicon Board of Directors does in their secret sanctum, and where they are taking Penguicon? Come to the Board of Directors meeting and see!”

I don’t know about shadowy, but we do have money fingers! I think I read that correctly. This is basically a 2 hour long glimpse into how the sausage is made. It’s not really a panel, but if you’re interested in what decisions are made at the board level, I’ve always found this interesting to watch, even before I was on the board.

So that’s me Penguicon weekend. Aside from those items, I’m sure there are a ton of panels that I’d want to attend, but they’re really hard to find on the online program listing (the program listing not showing who is on what panel this year is really a disappointing lack; I’m bummed by how unusable the online program listing is at the moment). Things that I am sure I’ll want to attend include, however:

  • How to Actually Relax
  • Continuous Delivery: Fast, Painless Software Deployment
  • Improving Leadership with IT
  • Intro to Agile/Scrum

Beyond that, I suspect I’ll be lounging on some random public area visiting with friends. What are your must-see panels this year?

Coaching vs Mentorship

As I discuss leadership, I often use the terms “coaching” and “mentoring” in a manner that would lead a casual reader to assume I mean them to be synonymous—that they are interchangeable. They are not.

For most of us, our first real exposure to a coach is in high school sports. My high school wrestling coach knew two important things: he knew what made up a successful wrestler and he knew that I had no idea what made a successful wrestler. With those two things, he set out to teach me the things that I needed to learn to be successful—often over my objections, frequently against my better judgement. He had a clear vision of what the goal for me looked like, and he helped me achieve.

Well, sort of, I never ended up being much of a wrestler.

A coach provides an end goal for someone who doesn’t clearly understand what the end goal should look like. He or she provides direction to achieve that goal, and supplies guidance along the way when his or her charge strays from the path. A famous example would be Mr. Miyagi in the first Karate Kid movie. Daniel’s vision of a successful practitioner of karate would have made him another Cobra Kai clone—Miyagi had a stronger vision for him.

A coach is a supplier of both the vision and the direction (the ‘why’ and the ‘how’) who guides someone through making good decisions about the ‘what.’ 

Conversely, a mentor is not supplying the vision. A mentor is working with someone who now has enough understanding of the field to know what success looks like—and that success is a deeply personal assessment of the state of things. A good mentor can listen to the goal, disagree with it entirely, and help guide the mentee toward their own vision.

To belabor my Karate Kid metaphor, in the second movie Mr. Miyagi took on the role of a mentor to Daniel. No longer was he rigidly enforcing his vision of how to employ karate, instead, he showed Daniel how to commit acts of violence against inanimate objects because that is one of the things Daniel found important.

Along the way, as happens in movies, the mentor and mentee’s common values resulted in each of their respective visions becoming more closely aligned. This is fairly commonplace in this sort of relationship, but should never be the goal of the mentor. Your goal is simply to teach the mentee how to be the sort of person that achieves their vision.

A mentor learns the vision of the mentee (the ‘why’) and teaches the mentee how to develop the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ required to achieve their vision.

It would seem then, at a glance, that coaching lends itself naturally to early in the career whereas mentorship becomes more useful later in the career. While that isn’t entirely inaccurate, it is more fair to say that at any given time I need mentors and coaches alike for various parts of my decision making—I am constantly a beginner in some areas and more expert in others, and so are most people. Patience, practice, and a heavy emphasis on listening will teach you which to use at any given time.

We Were Born Agile

 

No child learned to ride a bike by reading books about it, nor by rigorously documenting all of the steps that will be required in order to do it, planning those steps, then executing those steps. Children learn to ride a bike by experimentation and incremental improvement; they learn by taking minor risks fearlessly until they pay off.

Everything we learn as a child is done iteratively, incrementally…agilely. We learn to walk in tiny experiments, we learn how to read in the same way, most of us learn how to act socially (for better or for worse) by that same spirit of experimentation. As we get older, we learn to refine the experiments, but the experiments live on. At some point, we pitch experiments in favor of Gantt charts in MS Project. We spend countless hours learning about critical paths, fishbone diagrams, Monte Carlo analysis, and cost performance indices precisely because they are not intuitive. Documentation doesn’t come naturally. Long-term planning isn’t our natural state.

Our natural state of achievement is to do so agilely, so I bristle slightly when I hear that various forms of iterative delivery are difficult to learn; they shouldn’t be. Doing what you can and advancing forward bit-by-precious-bit is innate. While it is true that the accoutrements of frameworks like Scrum require a certain degree of education (especially in areas like vocabulary), the fact of the matter is the concepts are fairly elementary.

If your implementation is difficult to understand—especially if it is significantly difficult to grasp—perhaps you should be asking why you chose to make it so complex? Maybe there were good reasons, but shouldn’t you be consciously aware of those tradeoffs?

Post Migration: Episode 1

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I’m slowly going through the process of merging an older, out of use blog into this one. As such, I’ll be migrating selected blog posts into this space. Most will probably not make the transition for a variety of reasons—there is some truly terrible writing over there, as well as some “probably funny at the time but not so much now” stuff—but as I bring stuff over here I’ll post pointers back to them in case you’re so inclined. My hope is that by doing it this way I can keep the reposting to a minimum and keep posts in accurate date order.

Today, I pulled three posts over, the top three inbound landing pages for years now:

Things I’m learning from this process?

  • I have more poop-related problems than your average person.
  • Nobody in this universe can find me as funny as I find me; I’m strangely okay with that.
  • There is a TON of stuff, and precious little is going to make the cut I suspect.
  • My number 1 topic? Stupid things I do to myself. I completely understand why I don’t have a lot of ego wrapped up in appearing cool and collected. I’m an idiot.
  • My love for the horizontal ellipsis (…) has spanned at LEAST a decade.

Until next time!

Poor Sleep and Decisions

I have been sleeping ridiculously poorly. I am in a unique period of prolonged indecision; which it turns out is a thing that my brain does not like at all. I tend to be a pretty decisive person—I act on the knowledge that I have and course-correct based on new input as needed.

Currently, I’m working from a huge swath of unknowns and most of this decision is going to be based on gut feel. On emotion. Like a caveman.

As a result, I’ve been utterly exhausted for over a week now which, ironically, is the state that I least want to be when making decisions with an emotional component.

At any rate, I can’t think of anything clever or witty to write this week. If I come up with something, I’ll replace this with that—so if you’re reading this, I’m still feeling pretty sluggish.

Here’s to more fact-based information in the near future.

Managing Safe Spaces

There is this concept that has followed me around from team to team as long I’ve managed, coached, or otherwise led people. The description of the concept changes team-by-team—”shit umbrella”, “distraction barrier”, or (currently) “human meat shield” to name a few—but the core idea remains constant; a key attribute of my leadership style is that of preventing the enormity of the weight of the organization from ever falling on the heads of those I lead.

I’ve never given the concept a ton of thought despite the fact that I consider it to be among my most important job functions. It always just seemed like an obvious thing to do; so much so that it has always been endlessly frustrating when I don’t see it happening in my leadership. What it didn’t seem to be is particularly universal; it simply seemed to be a thing that I found important—a quirk of mine, if you will.

Recently, I was listening to a talk that reframed my thoughts on this. The act that my teams refer to with their colloquialisms are my attempts to create safe work spaces for my team members. The fact of the matter is, I know (apparently intuitively) that I do my best work when I feel safe to do that work—when I feel comfortable taking risks, when I don’t feel continuous and uninterrupted stress, when I know that my bad work will be allowed to be a learning experience, when I’m actually freed to do my best work. One of the easiest ways to sour my relationship with a company is to make me uncomfortable taking risks and doing what I do; to make my work space a non-safe space.

I had legitimately never considered this before in quite this way.

So, the reality is that my true goal as an ablative meat shield is for my team to feel safe to excel at what they are doing. There are a lot of ways to feel unsafe—in fact, there are many more ways to feel unsafe than to feel safe in the workplace—so the task of creating that safe environment is non-trivial. Some mechanisms that I, upon reflection, find that I use include:

Reward the taking of risks. It’s not enough to reward those risks that pay off, it’s important to reward the risk-taking behavior in either case, especially when taken with planning and forethought. I seek ways to highlight when risks work out, but also to point out smart risks that are taken and don’t work out.

Prevent punishment of risk taking behavior. This seems obvious when factored in with the rewarding of risks above, but it’s not. If corrective action needs be taken because of poorly planned and poorly mitigated risks, I ensure that corrective action addresses the planning and mitigation aspects of the failed risk, not the risk taking itself.

Teach the team how to take risks. This is an area in which I struggle, because most of my risk mitigation planning is intuitive—which merely means I’ve been doing it for sufficiently long that I don’t have to actively consider each of the steps. It is important to ensure that all members of my team have an opportunity to learn those steps along the way. It’s hard to feel safe when you aren’t sure you understand what you’re doing. That said, I try to teach my teams at a high level that their job is to take risks, their job is to plan for those risks, and that if they avoid making the same mistakes a second (or third) time, they will be alright.

Appropriate and constant feedback. There is an inherent safety in knowing that mistakes are not going to result in the loss of the ability to put food in your family’s mouths. At a very basic level, my team needs to know that they aren’t one or two bad decisions from losing that ability. My method of managing that is through constant and continuous feedback. Nobody on my team has to guess how they are doing; I casually and with minimal fanfare inform them when they are not meeting expectations (typically by trying to find out how I can help them catch up) and I make an effort to let them know when they ARE doing well. I know all too well the fear of being in a feedback vacuum where the only input you get is when you stray from the path.

Make work life safe. I am not an optimist. Further, I don’t feel comfortable feigning happiness about something with which I disagree. I consider myself a realist, and have no problem cheering positive news, but I am not good at being chipper about less-than-positive news. I don’t think that’s completely to my team’s detriment, though. Honesty is as important—no, honesty is more important—than being a cheerleader. My team knows (I hope) that I would not stay in a situation where I’m repeatedly forced to ruin the working lives of my team, so when I’m forced to deliver bad news, any positive spin I convey is spin that I truly believe—I’m not likely to bullshit about such a thing. I equate it to having a doctor who tells me exactly what is going to happen rather than warning me of a “little pinch” before causing tremendous pain for an indeterminate period of time. I trust my team to get through periods of discomfort if we all believe there’s something better on the other side.

Make work culture safe. This is the area in which I struggle the most. The tone for your team is set by you, the manager. It is set by your actions, by your words, and by what you allow to go on. I am sarcastic, I joke a lot, and I tend to foster an environment where that is fairly common. I also find it important to keep an eye on how individual members of the team are doing and making sure that we aren’t accidentally breeding a hostile, cynical environment filled with all snark and no care. I don’t always know if I do a great job of that. I struggle daily here. There is an entire blog post in discussing how I try to ensure that we don’t slip into cultural toxicity within my boisterous, snarky, jokey team.

Obviously, the above is an incomplete list. I am sure that there are many things I do that I’m not even thinking of in these terms, and almost assuredly there are numerous safety-building mechanisms that I don’t employ at all. I’m interested in learning more about both categories as I explore this idea further.

It is interesting to think about something about which I’ve been so blithe and cavalier for so much of my leadership career from a different perspective. The “shit umbrella” concept has long felt like an “important to me, but probably not to ‘real’ managers” thing, but from the perspective of building a safe work space, it genuinely seems like a broadly important act that I have been working on for a really long time. Maybe I’m not as bad a manager as I usually think I am…

Moving to Agile: Doing it Right

It takes a considerable amount of bravery to be in the process of moving an organization from waterfall to agile and to ask questions at most agile meetups and conferences. Nowhere in the universe are you more likely to be told that everything you do, everything you think, everything you are is simply wrong. This is one of my biggest pet peeves.

Somewhere, someone must have printed a checklist entitled “Think You’re Doing Scrum?” that looks like:

  • Test-driven Design?
  • Pair coding?
  • T&M contracts only (no fixed bid)?
  • No managers?
  • No PMs?
  • The entire team talks to the client regularly?

And if you don’t have all of those checked off, you’re absolutely not “doing Agile.” This really hurts the conversation; it makes the more tentative of us not want to speak up and it derails the discussion amongst those with a more mature viewpoint of how change works in an organization.

I suspect that most of the folks thinking that way have failed to really absorb some of the core concepts involved in doing almost any flavor of agile delivery—not the least of which being the ability to adapt to your delivery needs.

I invite all of you to remember a basic tenet of Scrum, that of constantly seeking to improve one or two things from your delivery. Sure, it sounds wonderful to scrap everything and start over, but that’s not iterative; changing inexorably toward agile…that’s what it’s all about.

Moving to Agile: Training

I haven’t really had the mental energy to write much about our transition to agile for the last month or two because I have been spending so much of that time period putting together and executing trainings. Even with as much enthusiasm as I have for this, it has been a draining several weeks.

The human urge to generate complexity when something seems too simple makes teaching simple things a weird chore. When I walk someone through the thought process behind answering a specific Scrum question, it’s often perceived as too simple—I get wary looks from the audience as if I’m trying to trick them. There is no trick, it’s really that simple.

I’ve been working on training folks to problem-solve in a very Scrum way rather than simply teaching a knowledge tree with steps to take—an effort that is dichotomous: when it’s working, it is as good a feeling as I’ve ever had; when it’s not, it is as much frustration as I can remember ever feeling. I think it’s mostly been the former, but I don’t know that right now, in the thick of it, is a good time for me to start trying to estimate how the percentage of ‘working’ versus ‘not working’ is stacking up.

The training sessions themselves went very well. Over the course of 3 weeks my co-trainer and I walked 300-400 people from three sites on two continents through a crash course on applying Scrum principles to our work flow. Travel, late nights, and tons of caffeine happened. We faced a unique challenge in addressing three discrete groups that brought with them three discrete points of view and several distinct challenges. Every time we felt that we had really dialed in the training, we were confronted with the next series of challenges and set to adapting our delivery to the new inputs.

Honestly, it was a great deal of fun.

At a high level, we sought to show the people we were training how to solve issues that come up by thinking critically about how different solutions enhance several criteria we deemed important to “Scrummyness.” By seeking to enhance communication amongst teammates about both the project and the delivery process, by improving the ability of teammates to collaborate on features and tasks, and by increasing transparency of knowledge and statuses, the right solution typically becomes clear. Whenever that doesn’t work, I just make something up.

So far, the training sessions have seemed successful. We recorded several of them, and I am hoping to chop up some of the best parts to make one “refresher” training that can be streamed. We are also putting together a managed FAQ, some helpful documents, and a team of coaches to whom project planners can reach out.

In a future post, I want to walk through an anonymized version of one of our projects to discuss some of the decisions that have been made along the way. I’m sure that’s where the Scrum purists will tell me we’re doing it wrong—maybe that’s the point?!

Ending My Split Personality

For years, I maintained two separate personas on the Internet. One in my own name and one not trivially able to be assigned back to me personally.

As time went on, I saw less and less reason to keep these separate–first my two Twitter accounts merged into one, then I canned my Facebook page in favor of just directing all of that content to my personal Facebook account. The last vestige of this division, then, has remained my two blogs.

The fact is, I have kept two blogs despite never posting in the old one anymore because there are posts in the old one that I simply didn’t want to have front-and-center for everyone in my wife’s life to see. In retrospect, that means that I am maintaining an entirely separate blog for what amounts to perhaps 5 posts in a decade.

That seems ridiculous.

Over the next several weeks, then, I’m going to start merging the two. I will be porting over blog entries manually that I wish to retain, backing up those that I do not, and shutting the doors on the other blog.

I point this out for two reasons: first, I do not know what impact posting retroactive posts will have on my RSS feed, so be warned that it might get wonky for a while; second, I might post periodically to highlight some of the posts that I have ported over if they amuse or entertain me in revisiting them.

Death Before Dishonor in the GOP

The news last night was aflutter with the fact that Jeb Bush’s campaign is over; he is no longer in the running for the GOP nominee for President in the 2016 race. It took perhaps two hours for the media to set upon his still warm corpse for the last bit of sustenance that his campaign could provide their hungry news cycles with articles discussing his flubs, detailing his downfall, and—perhaps most painfully—listing his saddest moments. It’s weird to have gotten to watch his flame-out in more-or-less real time.

Lest you forget, Bush was all but a certainty. Prior to the actual start of debates and primaries—think back a year or so ago—Bush was the front-runner and it was more or less assumed that we could count on the final race being a rehash of Bush vs Clinton with the possibility of the independent disruptor (in the form of a not-yet-entirely-batshit Trump) having the same impact as back in 1992. Now, a year later, things could not have gone more sideways for the Bush dynasty.

Why?

You can get a pretty good feel for why this happened if you go back and revisit the January debates. To refresh your memory, January was when the undercard claimed all but the 6 we’ve been following since (Paul managed to kick and scream his way back onto the main stage once more, but by January, his name was indelibly inked onto a placecard at the loser’s table), and those 6 turned on each other in a particularly nasty way.

It was at the earliest January debate that you can initially see the disbelief in Bush’s eyes when he is, for the first time, really the target of Trump’s rhetoric. Nothing in his political career had prepared him for this—this wasn’t the game that the GOP had created over the last decade, this was something altogether different. As this particular effect recurred in debate after debate, you could see the betrayal in Bush’s eyes.

“I’m playing by the rules,” his eyes scream, “you should be siding with me!”

He failed to notice that the rules had shifted. We’ll come back to the look in his eyes in a moment, but first, a brief historical recap:

In 1992, when David Duke–a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan–attempted a run for President, it was a response to the success that issues like welfare, crime within the black community, and white displacement had in helping hand Bush (George H. W., that is) a win over Dukakis. This set the rules for using quiet racism and classism for votes: you can do it, but you can’t do it overtly. GOP candidates, if they are to be successful, must use careful codes…

We don’t hate immigrants, but we are “taking back America for real Americans” and defending against “illegal aliens.”

We don’t call out crime as a black problem, but we do deplore “urban” crime or “thuggish” teens in the “inner city.”

We don’t applaud white nationalism or white supremacy, but we do wave a confederate flag around while discussing “state’s rights.”

We don’t say that we hate poor people, but we do characterize them as “takers” and discuss “welfare queens” and “food stamps”—the latter relying on a very real reaction to the “sort of people who need food stamps” despite the term being both dated and inaccurate.

These dog-whistles are the RULE, and they are the rule for a reason; they have, for decades, allowed a white population to vent their xenophobia, their nationalism, and yes, their racism in small bursts at the ballot box each election cycle while still feeling good about themselves and how progressive they are compared to their slave-owning ancestors. These euphemisms have been essential to the steady grind toward the extreme right that the GOP has been taking since the days of Reagan.

These concepts got Bush (George W.) elected in 2000 and again in 2004—not alone, for sure there were additional factors; notably the addition of fear-mongering and jingoism to a degree that I have only read about in tales regarding embattled banana republics—and it appeared to be the new normal for the Republican party.

What Bush (we’re back to Jeb here) didn’t notice was that during his brother’s administration, the tectonic plates forming the GOP’s platform had shifted right-ward yet again. The constant, unrelenting pressure of “subtle” racism, of hate-mongering against “muslims jihadists”, the fanning of the flames against the “takers”–all of this was suddenly brought to a crescendo when it became apparent that hundreds of years of inequity between men and women and between whites and everyone else within this country were sliding toward equity.

Back to Bush’s eyes.

If you watch those debates—especially starting in January, you can see how confused and shocked that Bush is in every reaction shot. He’s following the rules, and the people openly flouting them are APPLAUDED, they are CHEERED, and they PULL AHEAD. He uses his code words, he doesn’t overtly attack his opponents, and he attempts to at least appear to answer questions about policy—and he was losing in a big way.

The depressing part, from the perspective of the moderately sane member of the audience, is that we were able to watch the downfall of a genuinely honorable guy. Make no mistake, his policies were deplorable and his point of view is—charitably—classist to the extreme, but this is a guy who was witnessing what he had to do in order to turn his tremendous cash expenditure into a presidency. All he had to do was ignore his principles and join the rabble. He even had moments where he dipped his toe in those waters.

Ultimately, he decided he couldn’t do it. He, in honorable fashion, fell on his sword rather than use it in a way that he perceived as dishonorable. You have to respect that, even if you don’t respect his views; death before dishonor, and all of that.

That was the Jeb that we witnessed for the last month. The defeated, slumped shouldered wretch that didn’t have it in his heart to become the demagogue that his party now hungrily seeks. The Jeb that canceled his campaign last night might be the last vestige of the GOP that I understood when I joined their ranks in the late 90s.

No matter what your affiliation, that cannot be seen as a good thing.

Well, I suppose if you’re a white nationalist, it’s not all bad.

My Right Foot

I’ll begin with a spoiler: it would appear the last several weeks of pain in my right footular region was the result of acute gout. This means, ostensibly, I am too fat and wealthy for my body. Only half of that assessment is accurate; alas, it’s the former rather than the latter. In all, this is an unexciting end to a typically quirky story.

My pain began several weeks ago when I got up in the middle of the night and brutalized my ankle in the most moderate way one can be said to have brutalized anything: I stepped on one of the dogs’ rawhide bone ends in a hallway and slightly rolled my right ankle.

The stuff of legends.

My ankle was a little tight when I returned to bed, and only slightly more so when I woke in the morning. When I say “a little tight,” I am not being euphemistic; a warm shower all but completely relieved the pain. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a showstopper.

By the time my drive to work was over, the discomfort had returned—perhaps it had even increased slightly—but by midday, the pain was unquestionably severe.  Walking was tremendously painful, and I was only able to get around by limping while partially supported by walls on my right side.  I went home early to work with an elevated, iced foot and ready access to a tremendous bottle of ibuprofen. My modest little ankle injury had become a full-blown inconvenience.

I spent a couple of days icing my ankle, elevating the injury, and throwing dirty looks at my wife’s largest dog. It is notable that the dog had, again, become emphatically my wife’s for the duration of my recovery.  No dog of mine would have done such a thing.

As these things always seem to go, the weekend brought an event that I had been looking forward to for a while, and at which my wife was to be working. My goal had been to be as supportive in her event work as she has always been in mine, but gimping around in what seemed to be a sprained ankle was putting a crimp in that plan.  Luckily, I found that a combination of a cane and walking only on the ball of my right foot meant that I could get around quite handily! So handily, in fact, that I allowed myself to be convinced (or perhaps more accurately, convinced myself) that playing a couple of games of laser tag would probably be fine if I were EXCEEDINGLY gentle.

I made it through two out of three games before swelling and pain required that I rethink my recovery strategy. I was not gentle enough I suspect.

It was relatively clear that my convalescence was going to require the nuclear option: a visit to a doctor. That would have to wait for a week though, because I first had to go on a business trip. So it was that I was in a Marriott in New Jersey when the pain gradually slid along my foot taking residence somewhere around the bridge of my foot and the big toe area. Placing weight on my foot was agony. Slightly bending my toe was a brief visit to a hellish realm where pain is merely the doormat welcoming you to so much worse. Touching my foot, even with the weight of a sheet, invited pain so intense that I would literally lie in bed shivering from the misery of it.

It was highly unpleasant.

Fun fact: it was roughly 2 miles, on foot, from my gate to my rental car.  The return trip was also roughly 2 miles.

Upon my return, I immediately saw a doctor to establish definitively that I had gout! Or a fracture. Or ligament damage. The problem was in my foot…that is the part about which we could be absolutely definitive.

One blood test, one week, and some gout medicine later, we could say with certainty that I probably didn’t have gout. For sure. In all likelihood.

After more painful investigation, another round of x-rays, and several more hours, I was referred to a foot specialist to establish if the injury I had sustained was to the tendons or the ligaments.

The podiatrist hemmed and hawed and gently handled my inflamed foot for almost a full minute before he declared that I had gout.

“Hrmm, my doctor ruled out gout, though,” I pointed out helpfully.

“Which is weird,” he said, “because you have gout.”

“My uric acid levels were on the low end of normal.”

“Unusual, what, with you having gout and all, but not impossible.”

“I was treated for gout and didn’t improve much!”

“Imagine how much more you’ll improve, then, when we finish treating you for your gout!’

Undeterred by my explanations, I was given a painful shot directly into the toe joint (which is every bit as much fun as it sounds, I assure you) and treatment instructions for a gout that I almost assuredly did not have.

At not quite a week later, my mysterious injury has abated considerably despite my treating it as if it were gout.

Lunacy, I know.

Moving forward, I’m told that I should cut back on shellfish, red meat, pork, and beer. I’m banking on the fact that I don’t drink beer at all to make up for overages in the other areas; although this plan has had mixed success so far.

As far as gout goes, though…I do not recommend it.

Valentine’s Mash Note for my Wife

In April of 2006, I was fairly well devoted to bachelor-hood. I had already done, at that point, the entire marriage thing with all of its pain and expense and failure, and dating had never been a significantly better experience for me. By 06, having just ended another rough relationship, I was determined to stop getting serious with women since I clearly chose them very poorly. Love was a load of bullshit that everyone opted to pretend was real.

Then I met a woman entirely unlike those with whom I typically found myself: self-possessed, smart, well-read, intellectual, strangely knowledgeable about dairy. In my mind she was a relatively safe friend because, while I was crazy attracted to her, she lived hours away from me and–a decade my junior–was far too young for me. We ultimately exchanged email addresses and proceeded to spend a couple of months falling in love by text and by voice.

I knew by the time we planned our first in-person date (which we couldn’t wait for, so we had an impromptu test-date shortly before) that my single status was not going to be a permanent thing: even were things with this new woman not to work out, I now knew that I was capable of falling in love and that a relationship could be a great experience.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to test that theory…in March of 2008, Geralyn agreed to marry me, and in May of 2009 became my wife. In the near-decade since we met, Ger and I have shared adventures as partners, as friends, and as a single unit against the rest of the world. She’s perfect for me, and I’m awfully glad to have her this Valentine’s Day…despite it being a stupid holiday in which I absolutely do not believe!

ConFusion 2016

I’ll be spending this weekend at one of the two conventions that I consider to be “home” for me. Over the last decade, ConFusion has increasingly become a place to be for authors of sci-fi and fantasy–so while there is plenty more going on here this weekend, if you are into genre fiction, you owe it to yourself to come visit the more than 50 authors that will be milling about in a much more relaxed, personal atmosphere than you’d expect.

If you had been here last night, you could have joined Alaya Dawn Johnson, John Scalzi, Cheri Priest, Wes Chu, Cameron McClure, and tons more for dinner and karaoke. Who knows what will happen tonight, when the list of authors in attendance is nearly 10% of the con attendance!

If you’re more into events, come see the costumes at the masquerade, the considerable slate of panels and talks, tour a dozen room parties Friday and Saturday nights, or socialize in the GIANT hospitality suite over Cylithria’s always amazing selection of beers and ciders…all free with the cost of admission.

If any (or all) of this sounds interesting, come out to the Novi Sheraton this weekend! $60 for adults ($45 for kids) gets you the whole weekend. I’ll see you there.

American Horror Story

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about this post lately. According to Evernote, I first bookmarked this for myself almost 2 years ago, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve almost assuredly seen it come across your social media feeds from time to time.

It’s worth a read; take a few minutes and do so. It’s certainly a better expenditure of your time than continuing on here. I’ll wait.

Welcome back.

So as I said, I’ve been thinking about that post a lot. I have probably reread it a dozen or so times in the last 2 years, and I sit and ponder it frequently. It is frustrating and demoralizing to be an American, these days. From my view of the Internet, it certainly seems like most everybody that is paying attention feels similarly—often manifesting itself as fear and anger and various forms of lashing out. I think about that a lot.

As Mark mentioned in his post, I—like most people of my generation—were brought up knowing with absolute certainty that we were the members of the best nation on Earth. We were the richest, the best educated, the most free, the happiest, the healthiest—the best. It was simple fact. As I grew up, imagine my disappointment to learn that none of that is true. Maturity stole Santa, the Easter bunny, and American exceptionalism each in the same way; slowly and then all at once.

We are, it seems, simply not the best.

We are subverting our precious wealth, working relentlessly in creating the steepest divide between our rich and our poor that history (at least our history) has ever seen. Even more disheartening, we have allowed ourselves to be sold on the proposition that we are all future rich people—so we should defend those with the most money and power so that we can enjoy ours when it comes in. We blame the poor for being poor, and pretend that the more than half of us that are living paycheck to paycheck without a safety net aren’t one misfortune from poverty ourselves. Somehow, the pittance that our tax dollars provide for support services for the poor is to blame for our economic woes, and not our bailouts, subsidies, and tremendous outflows to the defense industry. How dare you make me spend my tax money on poor people, you’d better make me spend it on businesses that are only making the rich richer!

Rather than being the best educated, we know the least about the world around us and actively aggrandize ignorance. Regularly, academics and scientists are disdained for expressing the results of their years of study—instead, we trust a few minutes of idle Googling. There is no better display of ignorance-as-coin than in the narrative that anti-vaxxers have manufactured where discrediting demonstrably false information is “censorship” and suggesting that parents listen to professionals that have studied diseases and biology is “egotism.” What ego, demanding that we primarily listen to facts from the most educated among us! Do you think you’re better than us?

Not only are we not the most free nation in the world, but it’s plausible that we never have been at all. American exceptionalism, at its very base, is predicated on a foolish lie that attempts to compare apples to a drawing of an orange done by someone who has never before seen fruit. We are not even among the top ten most free countries in the world by any sane measure (other than “freedom to accidentally shoot my child in the middle of the night because she sounded like an intruder”…I suspect we are still winning that one). To increase our freedom, we need only drive north a little ways into Canada. We could also go back to the nation from which our freedom-loving selves separated to improve our personal freedom. To really taste freedom, a tour through the Netherlands would be in order. It turns out, we continually sell ourselves on the idea that personal independence is the same thing as personal freedom—but what all of these other countries that are more free than us have learned is that when we work together as a group, we are all infinitely more personally and financially free. I know, I know, that’s basically socialism, right?

As far as happiness goes, look around you. Do we really seem happy? We spend, as a nation, most of our time yelling at one another about how different groupings of are destroying our country, hate America, are us ruining things for the rest of us, or are just plain stupid and evil. We aren’t allowed to simply disagree anymore. We aren’t allowed to be wrong. Our current political discussion isn’t a set of happy, engaged citizens discussing the best course forward—no, it is currently the televised equivalent of YouTube comment threads. We are so unhappy that we are legitimately, as a fucking nation, listening to some hate-fueled tycoon as he rants that all of our first-world problems are caused by immigrants, Muslims, and anybody else that isn’t straight, white, Christians. Does that sound like the behavior of happy, well adjusted people? Of course not. Not surprisingly, when you look at a list of the happiest countries, they tend to look an awful lot like the list of the most free countries. Israel spends a tremendous amount of time being the center of a multi-national tug-of-war that often leaves it…if not directly at war, at the very least in the middle of a war; the people of Israel are considered to be happier than we.

As far as health goes, you shouldn’t be surprised that we’re nowhere near the top there. If you’ve been paying any attention whatsoever, you might have noticed that for over a decade we’ve been arguing about doing the one thing that other industrialized countries have done to improve their national health. Unfortunately, a significant and largely under-educated percentage was convinced that a) they understood what socialism was; b) that socialism is inherently evil; c) that paying for another person’s health care is socialism; d) that somehow insurance is NOT the same as paying for another person’s health care; and finally that e) if your plans for health care for the nation don’t make companies rich, you’re a terrorist. Somehow, even with that amazing bit of logical maneuvering, we still managed to pass the first stages of a national health care plan that could pull us out of the basement level health rating we currently enjoy (seriously, you can go to Cuba, Chile, and South Korea and enjoy a higher health rating that in the US). Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to adequately capitalize on our new health care system because we’ve then spent the last 6 years having to defend it from being destroyed entirely by those that benefit most directly from enrichening the rich. Because, remember, we’re super fucking smart.

So I spend a lot of time frustrated, because we have motherfuckers in this country that have the temerity to grocery shop at the food bank and spend most of their lives living off the government teat that want to shut that teat the fuck down the minute they disengage their thirsty little maws from it. We have people who make the claim that Obama is cutting this country right in two with his divisive rhetoric, then—without an ounce of irony—claim that he is doing it because he’s a Muslim, or a terrorist, or a Kenyan, or he hates America, or he’s a socialist (remember, we don’t know what the fuck that means, though). We are so completely (and justifiably) ashamed of our own obvious institutional racism that we IMMEDIATELY lash out whenever it is even casually mentioned—as can be seen anytime anyone points out the subtle differences in treatment between white folks with guns and black folks without them.

Not only are we no longer ashamed of our ignorance, we relish in it. God looked down from his imaginary kingdom expecting to see us covering our naughty bits with fig leaves, and we are waggling our collective dicks at him instead. We can’t fathom why we should be ashamed of saying that Trump “might not always be right, but at least he says what he thinks.” When the fuck did expressing the most idiotic, hateful things that pop into your head become laudable? We used to revere people who could calmly, rationally reason their way through a difficult situation and come out with a plan of action. Now we mock them for being indecisive. We used to consider it a mark of greatness to be able to hear additional facts about something and change your position on it. Now that’s being weak.

We are, as a nation, weak. We are weak, and scared, and lashing out like the mewling kittens that we’ve become. We all must carry guns at all times because we’re terrified of a physical confrontation that is profoundly unlikely to happen. We sacrifice basic personal freedoms like privacy in favor of pretending to further limit our already cartoonishly small chance of being a victim of a terror attack. We choose not to vote so as to not vote poorly. We lash out at people who disagree with us because we fear being wrong. We other-ify people out of fear of change. We hide in our houses with our things because we are living in constant fear and we can’t admit it. Our fear and our shame is strong, and it’s ugly, and—make no mistake—it will be our undoing.

This is the real American Horror story—we’ve sold our country to the rich few because we’re too afraid to be the Americans we wish we were.

Year in Review

Two thousand fifteen was a hell of a year!

Family

This year my daughter became a senior, my wife and I celebrated our 9th year together, and my son graduated high school. It was really weird seeing my son walk across the stage at his graduation. Together, we learned that nobody in my family shares my love of wilderness camping—unfortunately we learned this on about day 2 of a 4 night wilderness camping trip. We did not spend the fourth night, but the story of our ill-fated trip was entirely worth leaving a day early.

We spent a long, temperate spring and summer kayaking, traveling, and enjoying the outdoors. I hope that we’ll be able to get at least a year or two more of this before the kids create lives that are completely separate from ours. I assume that all parents have this cliche moment when their children become adults.

Work

As last year ended, I found out that the scrappy little ecommerce company I had joined one year prior had been purchased; and not just purchased, but obtained by a huge IT services entity. I fully expected to start this year with a job search.

As the year kicked off, I agreed to stick around for a while to see if my new overlords were telling the truth when they said that they didn’t want to make us all corporate—but truth be told, I still assumed I was going to spend my sprint job hunting.

I’m pleased that I stuck around, as it has turned out that they were right. I’ve enjoyed a pretty fantastic year with my new employer, and look forward to exciting news, new challenges, and fulfilling work in the coming year.

Next Year

I don’t do new year’s resolutions, but I do have a few goals:

  • More personal travel…next year I want to visit friends on the west coast, take a few kayaking and camping trips up north, and plan a getaway to somewhere nice with Ger
  • No increase to work travel…I don’t love traveling for work, but I do see the necessity at times—I would like to keep that to a minimum if possible though
  • Cycle more…I did almost no cycling this year, and I miss doing it. I would really like to get back up to doing long tours again. Years ago, I had the goal of doing the ODRAM—it’s time to get moving back in that direction again

This year was a great year, if next year is half as good, I’ll be pretty happy!

But I’d prefer that next year be an improvement, all the same.

The Best Christmas Album of All Time!

I am not, in any appreciable way, a Christmas enthusiast. I enjoy giving presents but receive them awkwardly, am often exhausted by the planning and parties and all, and the holiday foods—especially the fixation on peppermint—are tiresome.

But I do love the music. To me, the Christmas experience is my father making the family wait with diminishing patience on the big morning as he makes coffee, brings in the paper,and takes care of the fire in the woodstove—all to a soundtrack Christmas albums that he has carefully (read: slowly) selected and placed in the CD changer.1

In the spirit of the holiday, I wanted to share a collection of what I consider to be a perfect Christmas album—my favorite versions of my favorite classics, along with some non-traditional songs that I find suit the season. Enjoy…

  • The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole — this is the quintessential version of what I consider to be the quintessential Christmas song. You can’t go wrong with almost any version of this song, but this is the correct one.
  • Little Drummer Boy by Bob Segar — Bob Segar’s voice was created for this song. This is a song that I generally find annoying, but this version is fantastic.
  • Thistle Hair the Christmas Bear by Alabama — Non-traditional? Yes. Weirdly sappy? Yes. I unironically, unrepentantly enjoy this song.
  • Baby it’s Cold Outside by Leon Redbone and Zoey Deschanel  — If you read, or write, a think piece about this song this year…learn how to search the web for things, trust me, it’s been done more than enough times already.
  • Frosty the Snowman by Willie Nelson — Like Bob Segar above, Willie’s voice was made for telling a story in a song like this. I was torn between this and his version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer; but this is one wins by a nose! (See what I did there? I’m not proud)
  • This Time of Year by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones — “It gets me, and it never lets me, act like I don’t care…”
  • Oi to the World by The Vandals — if “punk rock classic” was a thing, this would be it.
  • Sexy Christmas Baby Mine by Morphine — I love the sound of the horn in this; the lyrics? Not so much…
  • Silent Night by Stevie Nicks … This is my second favorite Christmas song, sung by one of my favorite female vocalists. Frankly, I’d listen to Stevie Nicks sing names from the phone book…but this is better.
  • God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen by Jethro Tull &hellp; Gorgeous, I have put this whole album on repeat and left it running throughout gift wrapping more than once.
  • Fairytale of New York by The Pogues — A Pogues song that is both catchy and—dare I say it—pretty?
  • Winter Wonderland by Michael Buble — What can I say, it’s a very classical treatment of a classic song. Also, this is how I found out what a Michael Buble was.
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Bad Religion — After the intro, it’s a fun punk treatment of the song, but don’t gloss over the really pretty harmonizing the gang did to start things off.
  • Do You Hear What I Hear by Whitney Houston — I normally think that Whitney Houston (like Mariah Carey and far too many female vocalists) does too much showy garbage. It serves this song well, though.
  • Christmas Song by Dave Matthews Band — Every time I listen to this, I fall in love with a different section of the guitar work. The song itself is great, but oh how I love that acoustic guitar.

1 If you want to feel old, remember that CD changers were a thing.

Why I Hate Slideshows

By the time this posts, I will be completing the last of 6 training sessions over the last two weeks. The culmination of weeks of planning and preparation reminds me of why I don’t use slideshows. For my style of presentation, I far prefer the lost art of the chalk-talk.

It begins with my distaste for most uses of slideshows in presentations. As a rule, slideshow usage falls into one of two categories, both equally annoying to me. The first is the script: whether it’s a few simple bullet points per slide or a complete wall of text, it doesn’t matter, because the presenter is going to read you every single word on those pages. Slowly. Haltingly. Maddeningly! I understand the utility here; if you are really very nervous about public speaking and really very uncomfortable in front of a group this feels like a tremendous weight off of your shoulders, but I assure you that you’re not making yourself MORE comfortable by making your audience less so. Instead, consider notecards with that same information on it, then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. You’ll still be nervous, but preparation should take the edge off and make you able to present.

The second use of the slideshow is as an exclamation point: each topic is accompanied by a slide that in some way visually highlights the points being made, typically in a way that doesn’t add to or elucidate the point, but merely visually represents it. Now, if this is done in a particularly humorous way or done in a way that enhances retention for those of us who are visually minded, it manages to work–but the failure mode for this is the appearance of a superfluous crutch. It becomes a nuisance very quickly in those cases, and often serves to distract from your point rather than provide emphasis to it.

Beyond just how poorly slideshows are typically used, however, is how they place artificial boundaries on my presentation. Slideshows tie me down, both figuratively and literally. In a literal sense, I’m bound to either a rigid cadence enforced by the timed slide progression or I’m bound to my computer and/or a remote control to progress through my slide deck. While this can be used to some great effect, it rarely is, leaving me artificially structured by a construct that is providing minimal value.

Figuratively, though, I’m tethered far more restrictively. I have sacrificed the ability to flexibly follow the flow of my audience. Some of the most compelling moments of a lecture or presentation have come when I noted that an explanation didn’t land with my current audience and I’ve “called an audible” and broken my explanation down a different way.  Being able to just continue drawing in order to expand upon an idea–or even to wipe the slate clean and try a different approach altogether–has tremendously enhanced my ability to convey thoughts, ideas, and concepts in a way that is understandable to the folks listening to my words.

Remember always, that is the whole point of the exercise, right?

There is absolutely a time and a place for a slideshow (and I have, with some degree of success, used a mixed presentation model that includes both ugly drawings and static slide cards), but I would argue that those are exceedingly few. When making your next slideshow, ask yourself if what you’re putting into PowerPoint is actually aiding the audience’s understanding of the topic, or is it merely distracting. Even better, I invite all of you that present regularly to step out of your comfort zone, grab a marker, and try including your audience in your next presentation!

Training Days

This and next week I will be performing a series of trainings for groups within our organization to describe how we’re using Scrum (initially, at least). This is easily my favorite part of my job.

Not the “performing training” part; while I enjoy that considerably, it is also utterly exhausting. No, my favorite part of the job is helping others understand things. Anybody can tell someone the answer. Some of those people can even tell someone the right answer. It is immeasurably more satisfying to walk someone through the though process by which the right answer was derived so that in the future you can watch them solve the next problem correctly.

To me, that’s what this training amounts to. Describe the principles, describe the tools, describe how we’re using the tools to support the principles, then describe how we use the principles to answer the questions that come up along the way. So simple, so difficult.

I’m going to need some caffeine.

Gratitude

I can only assume that the general atmosphere around this time of year is to blame, but I’ve been thinking quite a bit for the last several weeks about how great I have things. I have life pretty easy, in all.

I was born into a country that affords me a tremendous amount of freedom and a ludicrous amount of invisible benefits that I usually take for granted. I can bitch about my government and its representatives with impunity, I can protest without significant fear of reprisal. I am allowed to cast a vote for the person that I best think will fulfill my wishes (or least piss all over my wishes) as they go to work for me as my representative to the government.

I was born a white, able-bodied male in a relatively accent-free region of our country with a particularly great public school system. Despite being firmly middle-class growing up, this means that I was afforded the opportunities to experience computers at a very young age, receive an excellent education that was financed at least in part by people who made a lot more that my family, and was given to believe both in word and in deed that there were literally no limits to my ability to achieve in life. I was American™, and goddamnit, I could do anything I wanted.

I have a job that can be stressful and can be draining, but overall represents the happiest I’ve been at work in my career. Beyond that, though, at my job, I have the benefit of having everything I do be representative of me, and me alone. When I get loud, I’m passionate. When I speak bluntly, I’m being frank. I’m never “bitchy” or “shrill” and I never have to worry that my actions will make it harder for other people like me to be taken seriously. I also know that, should I ever need to search for a new job, I will not have to seriously worry that I simply won’t get called in for an interview because of my race, religion, gender, orientation, or anything else except my overall ability to do the job (which is quite a relief, as I’m something of a hard sell to begin with even without increasing the level of difficulty).

Does this mean that I suffered no hardship during my life? Absolutely not. That’s an absurd question to ask, and you’re absurd for asking it. :) What it does mean is that I am profoundly grateful for all of these gifts…all of these privileges…that I have been granted without ever having asked for them.

I choose to show that gratitude, when I remember to, in several ways. One is simply by reminding myself that these things (and many more like them) exist. Another is by doing whatever small things I can, day to day, to try to help other people who maybe weren’t quite so lucky to get some of these gifts for themselves too.

And that is what would make me the most grateful this season. To know that some of you would take a moment to do the same. Think about how lucky you are in so many ways for just a few moments, then share that luck with someone else. Donate to a charity, help someone you know that needs it, or spend some time and energy improving things for those that don’t benefit from our same sort of luck.

If you’re so inclined, here’s some pretty great reading to get you started (and please note, I hate the term ‘privilege’ because I think it no longer creates a useful conversation, but I implore you to substitute some other, less objectionable word when reading these excellent resources):

Bloviating Wildly