Monday, April 30, 2012

sometimes it's not fun

I went to aikido yesterday! Just the early weapons class, but it was nice to train again. I'm predictably sore, but not exhausted, though I was definitely using as much energy as I had available. I'm pretty sure that means I'm feeling better.

I had a really crabby, unenjoyable day today. Nothing bad really happened, as such. My team has encountered weeks of problems implementing the architecture design, and wasted a couple weeks on some stupid stuff imposed from outside, but those are the kinds of things that happen. No, I had a bunch of meetings, which people insisted I needed to be at, and I could easily have skipped. Those same people tell me I need to draw boundaries and go to fewer meetings. Which I do, until they harass me about the supposed need for my presence.

There's a lot to pick apart in that experience, though ultimately I think it's not very interesting. The thing that sticks with me is this: When I go to a lot of meetings, I hate my job. I love working with my teams, and going to meetings robs me of that. The product and strategic stuff just doesn't interest me. I'm completely consumed with the engineering work and people work that I do care about.

That's an excellent thing to know, as well as to know that it goes in phases and overall I like it. I wonder what, if anything, I should change.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Talk[tm]

J is 7 now, and developing a level of maturity where it's time he knows that he has Asperger's syndrome, and how that makes various things easier (math, reading) and harder (everything else) for him. He's known for a long time now that he's different, so hopefully it comes as a relief. Anna found this really great book that I recommend for pretty much everyone. It was amazing to read it and keep nodding and picturing J's version of that behavior or difficulty. Like, all his flapping and dancing and twirling? That's full-on bona fide stimming, which is immediately clear if you watch videos of other kids doing it.

It should be a good conversation, though I don't know if I'll be there for it: being Mama, she handles most of these things, and for whatever reason, J is usually more comfortable discussing challenging things with her, when I'm not around. (Otherwise we risk having him clap his hands over his ears and repeatedly say, "Please stop talking about that, it's making me sad," sometimes escalating to dramatic moaning and collapsing in a puddle on the floor.)

It's a tricky thing to talk about. One the one hand: "Here's this condition that describes your gifts and challenges really well, and explains why some things are hard for you."

On the other hand: "Lots of things are harder for you than for other kids, but you know, you have to do them anyway."

And J is unusual for Aspies, too, with his awareness of other people's emotions, so you have discuss what's specially different just about him. He doesn't have an obsessive special interest, either, nor does he monologue drastically more than other 7-year olds.

Speaking of things that are harder, he swam today! Actual self-buoyant, laying-flat-on-the-water, not-dog-paddling swimming! A classic thing for kids on the autism spectrum is lack of coordination between their left and right sides, so this is is a pretty huge thing and the result of a few years of work.

I promised to take him sailing when he could swim; guess I should find some weekends for the sailing certification, so I can rent us a boat.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

why you don't know more about Buddhism, part 1

The founding texts of Buddhism make up what's called the Pali Canon. Pali is closely related to Sanskrit, so on the scale of "how weird is it for English speakers," it's harder than Spanish but easier than Chinese. The texts--they don't have the sort of divine authority you'd associate with "scripture"--were transmitted orally for a few hundred years before being written down. There's been a lot of textual scholarship in the past few decades and it appears that oral transmission, at least in this case, is a lot more accurate that we tend to think.

Teacher and author Stephen Batchelor typically estimates that if you were to print the Pali Canon in English, it would come to about 6,000 pages. He further guesses that if you eliminated the repetition, you'd still have 3,000 pages. My RSV Bible is a mere 1087 pages. This is the Pali Canon:

The Pali Canon is divided into three pitakas, or "baskets": the Vinaya, or monastic rules, the Abhidhamma, a post-Buddha systematized psychology, and the part most of us would be concerned with, the Suttas, a vast collection of discourses by the Buddha.

The great challenge for those interested in reconstructing a historical perspective is the way the Sutta Pitaka is organized, without any kind of narrative. Chronological order? Nay nay, shar-pei. There are 5 groupings, or nikayas. In an innovative monastic order in ancient India, this is how we roll when we have reams of material to memorize:
  1. Digha Nikaya - The long discourses.
  2. Majjhima Nikaya - The middle-length discourses. (I'm not making this up.)
  3. Samyutta Nikaya - The "connected" discourses, using various criteria for "connected," including one group organized by who appears in the sutta.
  4. Anguttara Nikaya - The "numerical" discourses, organized by the number of topics they cover. (I'm serious. Click on the link.)
  5. Khuddaka Nikaya - Khuddaka means "random little things that wouldn't fit anywhere else," including collections of sayings like the Dhammapada.
So yeah. Where do you start, exactly?

Monday, April 16, 2012

pause, and return

Our Zen sangha had our fall retreat (sesshin in Japanese, which means "gathering the mind") this past weekend: 2 days of sitting, with short walking breaks. Anna couldn't come, sadly: the scheduling forced it to be on a Kid Weekend.

I have mixed feelings about sesshin, as I think most people do, and rightly so. It's acutely uncomfortable, but navigating our internal experience of that discomfort is part of what sesshin gives us. We come together to do, as a group, something which almost none of us are able to do separately. Your body gets sore, your mind gets twitchy. It's never been a huge deal for me. When the end comes, I recognize that I actually need a longer retreat, but I'm not at all sad that it's over.

That said, I did jump a bit too fast back into everyday life after this one. That's okay, too. Nothing is ever wasted.

Last week I agreed to lead a second team. It was a team of two people, and the lead left the company, leaving the one guy and a partly-done roadmap. Anna thinks I'm insane, given my energy level and my ongoing ambivalence about how much I enjoy managing. She may be right. Today I found out that on Wednesday, along with every other team lead, I'll be presenting my two teams' design, testing, and deployment strategies to a group of very senior engineers from a very large Japanese customer with whom we have a very strained relationship: one hour, with translation. Of course I don't know a whole lot about Team #2 yet: I can't even draw the system on the whiteboard. That will change by 5pm Wednesday. This is why I'm useful.

Team #1 is cruising merrily along. Phase 1 of our system rebuild is almost done, and as predicted we got a more than 100x improvement in the thing we were trying to improve. That broke a bunch of other stuff, as is the way of things, so the team is fixing that. Oh, and now there's a hurry to build some content encryption, which has been waiting in the wings to rise up and interrupt our work. So Phase 2 of the rebuild has to wait a couple of weeks.

J was overjoyed to see me, which is always gratifying. Besides the neurotypical giant grin (which isn't super common), he has his weird, J-specific ways of showing it: taking my hands and moving around with something intended as dancing, and then just walking over and leaning on me. He's weird, but truly marvelous in ways other kids aren't: smart and sensitive, and when he's not freaking out about nothing in particular, he has an acute intuition about what's going on in the world, about how other people think and feel and react. When he remembers not to be pre-emptively judgemental, he's patient and kind and open.

It's hard to describe his differences to someone who hasn't met him. I've found people trying to dissuade me from the idea that he's somewhere on the autism spectrum: "Kids are like that" is a common response. Maybe they're concerned that I'm some sort of over-worried parent, going out of my way to find something wrong. Usually they settle down when I point out that actual medical professionals made an actual diagnosis. No, trust me. I was a weird, weird kid (did I mention weird?). J is in a whole other league.

Sometimes we spend sesshin letting our minds run their course. My teacher says she once spent an entire 7-day sesshin remodeling her house in her head. Usually by the end of the two days, I've just started to settle. I don't mind at all spending two days on a cushion watching thoughts go by about my life. It's all pretty awesome.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

being in charge

I've been trying to work on some Buddhism-related posts, so of course they're sitting there in my Drafts folder for months, because even if I can't get them perfect, I need them to be clear and to say what I mean to say. This is not helped by my lack of sitting, or my general tiredness.

But! Work is interesting, as always. At the Engineering offsite on Tuesday, we ran a multi-hour simulation where people were assigned to simulated versions of our real teams, usually outside their normal areas: I was on Analytics instead of Transcoding, for example. The Team Leads for the simulation were generally the youngest engineers. One of my team's two youngest engineers was acting as team lead for the simulation, where we had a backlog of work to do, every half hour counted as a month, and teams had to made trade-offs among recruiting and Operations resources, vs. how much work they had to do and how much technical debt they incurred.

I wandered over to the simulated Transcoding team periodically, usually to find people looking at me a little wide-eyed and saying something like, "Wow, this is...really hard."

Yes. Yes, it is.

The best was probably the simulation team lead, who on Monday got a little cranky and told me I need to start handling more "on-call" stuff (basically interrupt-driven production problems and stakeholder requests) because I hadn't yet and it's grinding on the people who are doing it. I've tried, in the past, but any time I've arranged to try, there's been a production meltdown or someone forgot they were going to work with me. Supposedly the solution is to just take on the full responsibility for a week; given that from last Friday-Friday I had about 9 working hours overall, we'll see how that goes.

His comment on the simulation was, "It's really stressful."

Yes. Yes, it is. It's difficult to explain why, exactly, or what takes up so much time. Some of it, sometimes a lot, is meetings, but mostly it's the constant interruptions of people needing small decisions or opinions or bits of direction. It completely chops up the day, so there's no stretches of time to be settled and concentrate enough to produce something.

One of the goals of the simulation was to give everyone visibility into the kinds of resource and technical trade-offs that the company is constantly making, but which are typically hidden from the people who do what I call "real work." This is by design: if you involve everyone in the decision-making, you'll accomplish neither the decision-making (too many deciders) nor the engineering work you're trying to decide on (everyone shares the team lead's fate of constant interruption). It's been gratifying to have people understand better what I'm doing and why it's hard. It's always good to feel more heard.

But! The more awesome thing is the work my team has been doing. We're winding down Phase One of the giant re-architecture project, appears to work exactly like I thought it would. It's a huge step for me as a senior engineer, and for my team as a group of people buried under a Gordian knot of crappy software they inherited. Even better, as they see what the system is now capable of, they're better understanding the plans for the next 3 months and 3 months after that, and a general trajectory of making things go from "suck" to "not suck" to "genuinely awesome." I get judged on what my team accomplishes, and they are, so far as I can tell, kicking ass. They themselves are amazing people, but particularly given the disorder and uncertainty when I took over, this past quarter says promising things about my leadership ability.

I have a reputation at work now, though I'm not entirely sure what it is. I think it has to do with speaking very directly and with little patience for wasting time. My friend Matt (who now works with me) might say that I smile while I very politely tell people to fuck off; someone else sees me as "that crotchety guy who will always tell you exactly what he thinks." A friend who's on my team can't picture me as "crotchety." I'm not sure what anybody else thinks.

I like to think that while my diplomatic language is not consistent, that I do make sure that people's concerns are heard and acknowledged, and if I don't turn their requests down immediately, that it either gets scheduled, or added to our backlog with a promise that it gets done someday sooner than "never." I tell people why I'm responding the way I am, what the team's concerns are that might be more important (and most likely how they benefit from our prioritizing other things first), and what other work we want to do that their request can piggyback on. I suppose I tell them all the things that I would want to hear in their position: a response from my own sensitivities to not being told things I should know.

I'm not always sold on the job. It's really incredibly difficult, in ways that are stressful yet hard to articulate. But it's pretty gratifying to carefully make a big plan and then watch it happen, even if I don't get to do much of the actual work.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

pulp classics

I finished a couple more classic books.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars. One source for the recent movie John Carter. It's a really good book. There are elements of the colonialist white-hero thing (torn to shreds in lovely short essays here and here), but while Carter does come in and save Martian society #1--a more advanced society than Earth)--he does it by helping them make peace with Martian society #2, and the allied natives win their war against Martian society #3. Deliciously absent is the arrogance of the white hero not only marrying the native princess, but defending the nature-loving natives from the other white men.

H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines. Apparently the first of the Lost World literary genre, it's a rollicking adventure read, but HOLY CRAP, so racist. It's set in South Africa, future home of apartheid, in the 1870s or so, and...yeah.
"I do perceive that now as ever thy words are wise and full of reason, Macumazahn [Allan Quatermain, the narrator]; that which flies in the air loves not to run along the ground; the white man loves not to live on the level of the black or to house among his kraals [villages]."
I just finished re-reading Huckleberry Finn, finally, but Twain is clearly anti-racist. Haggard...not so much.