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):

History Repeats Itself

A few months ago, I wrote a lengthy post describing the various ways that I found Donald Trump’s deplorable campaign to feel eerily reminiscent to that of a circa-1920s Adolf Hitler. As I wrote and rewrote my post describing the way that both of them tugged very similar chords within a very similar group of people, I just couldn’t find happiness with the wording. At its core, no matter how you slice it, I’m essentially calling someone ‘Hitler’ which has become a lazy shorthand among ignorant people for ‘someone with whom I disagree strongly.’

I am revisiting that post though, because, in light of recent events—notably assertions that Trump is not against Muslims having to carry a special ID, being placed in a database, and possibly being rounded up into special camps. I don’t know if I can word it reasonably, but I am feeling more and more like it needs to be said.

I’m tempted to end this post with some pithy statement about Trump or some hyperbolic statement about the IQ of his supporters, but instead, I’d like to end with this thought:

If you consider Trump’s (or to a lesser degree Carson’s, Cruz’s, or Bush’s) point of view to be reflective of your own, I would invite you to consider for a moment what the emotional backing for that support might be. Decisions made out of fear, or outrage, or anger—misplaced or otherwise—have never gone especially well for any nation that has mired itself in them. It feels good to lash out, it feels good to have someone to hate or blame, it feels good to be the victim…but the cost is to high to leave those thoughts un-inspected.

Moving to Agile: Adjusting to Change

This post is the third in a series that began here.

It did not take very long for one of our projects to see its first curveball. As our client fell behind on providing information that was necessary for us to progress, we were in danger of running out of work. In our traditional waterfall model, that meant that we were stuck in a common position of having to pull the dev team off the project and delay the progress of the project—pushing the project day-for-day until we have what we need to move forward.

I must admit, it didn’t even occur to me to handle this a different way until someone said in jest, “shouldn’t this magical new process fix this?”

Yes, yes it should…

We got the team together and discussed our current predicament and asked them for thoughts as to how to proceed. After a surprisingly short period of time, one teammate pointed out that the information we were waiting for affected only minor details of the implementation. We could easily just implement it using what is currently known, use our best judgement for the rest, and after we present it to the client we can adjust with their guidance.

This procedure might sound familiar, if you’ve been paying attention.

With that direction, we were actually able to sand off another transitional rough edge; now we were spending less time waiting for our client to provide us with feedback so that we can start building and more time just getting things done.

Ultimately, the client’s review of what we had done revealed a small amount of rework. We sacrificed nearly a half day of duplicated effort to save us 2 to 4 weeks of delay and considerable frustration from the client. We decided that that is a pretty fair trade.


Along similar lines, we found some success on one of our projects when the client made the request for significant additions to scope. In the past, this was always something of an ordeal—even paid and clearly defined alterations to scope upset our little waterfall applecart resulting in frustration and difficulty.

In this case, the team worked with the client to properly add the new features to the backlog and order them appropriately. Because the team had already become used to ignoring the rest of our backlog until it became time to address it, it was almost entirely a non-issue.  This was really gratifying to see happen, because this was a considerable pain point for the teams in the past. During the time I spent exploring the prior process, changes to scope came up regularly and with great vigor.

When I say “vigor” I mean “swearing and gnashing of teeth.”

In all, we found these cases (and numerous other smaller examples of the same) to be huge wins for the team. More importantly to me, these were huge feel-good moments for everyone involved in the migration to our new scrumesque manner of delivery. Good things are happening! Bad things aren’t happening! Benefits are being reaped in a huge, visible way! It’s a good feeling.

 

Moving to Agile: Iteration 0

In my previous post I detailed the strategy that I employed in order to attempt to bring a more agile build approach to some of our projects. With a plan in place, I did the most agile thing I could think of…I just started working!

After sharing the overall vision with my scrummasters-to-be, I worked with each of them in turn to help guide their product owner in converting their task list into a true, groomed backlog. Most of our attention was focused on organization and setting expectations as to the definition of “done.” If I had it to do over again, I would have spent infinitely more time working on that one simple word—done. Nothing caused more problems in those initial sprints than that word.

Ultimately, our definition of “done” was influenced more by the rigidly defined roles within the organization than by any lofty scrum principles. A feature would be considered done when it was verified by QA. How much trouble could that get us in?

Our first major issue occurred when we were arranging for teams—we had no QA people available. We huddled up and made a judgement call: surely starting the QA team a sprint or two late and having them circle back to verify the features closed in the first sprints wouldn’t be a big deal. How far behind could we get?

As it turns out, two sprints will buy you two lost sprints. When QA finally got on the project, it took another complete sprint for them to build a backlog of bugs technical debt that was sufficient to take up an entire sprint. So by sprint 4, we were working exclusively on bugs from sprints 1 and 2. We did not catch up until sprint 6, when we were mostly taking on new features again having put our clever plan to bed. What a completely foreseeable chain of events.

We learned several important things from this series of lessons:

  1. I wish we were doing TDD (one day soon, this will be!)
  2. Working ahead of your ability to test doesn’t actually save you any time
  3. Don’t let the pursuit of perfection prevent starting—we made some mistakes early on (and will likely do so in every sprint forever) but we learned from them and recovered