Saturday, October 27, 2012

nasal toast intrusion

Anna left for a business trip on Tuesday morning, as a punishment for doing the amazing work she does, so I did all the kid routines on Wednesday and Thursday. (He didn't starve to death or anything. We're all very proud of me.)
I haven't slept well this week, so Tuesday morning I was a bit of a zombie, and breakfast ended up being gluten-free toast with Trader Joe's goat brie, instead of something good for me. I was idly chewing my toast and drinking coffee, doing something on the computer, when suddenly I snarfed, and the airflow and timing in my throat and esophagus just kind of...broke, somehow. My soft palate failed to do its job, and I felt a significant amount of chewed toast go up into my sinuses.

At this point, I'm thinking two things:
  1. I've only been married for a year and I've already turned into one of those guys who can't manage life alone. My wife has been gone for 90 minutes and now I have toast up my nose.
  2. My sinuses are full of toast, and I'm supposed to care for a child?!
It didn't hurt, though it did feel quite awkward. We're really not meant to have chunks of food up our nose. Naturally I knew kids in school who could, at will, put milk or spaghetti into their mouths and have it come out their nose; like many things other kids did, I decided that fell outside my comfort zone.

Since the toast wasn't coming out by blowing my nose, I brought out the neti pot. That loosened the toast bits up enough to get blown out. The biggest chunk was about 4mm.

Luckily for me and you both, subsequent mornings have been less eventful.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

use of weapons

My half of Engineering played paintball on Thursday! I need not say that running around a course shooting each other with guns appeals primarily to men, but the women engineers have fun too, if perhaps not quite at the passionate level the men get to. (Apparent consensus: "That was pretty fun, I guess.") As a broad generalization, maybe we can all accept "men usually enjoy simulated violence as a hobby, and women usually don't" as a starting point.

We can afford to enjoy it, of course: we don't live in a state of physical threat from the other half of the species. As Margaret Atwood formulated the power difference, men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them. We've also had the luxury of not experiencing actual combat with real guns, like almost everyone we know. So, hey, acknowledging our extreme privilege, let's go have fun and shoot each other for the afternoon.

Paintball accurately mimics, at a low level, the basic things I know about being shot at:
  1. If you are capable of executing some kind of organized military tactic, do that.
  2. Otherwise, take cover behind something solid. If you have a gun, shoot back.
We did a bit of #1 (often directed by our former-Israeli-sniper VP), but mostly it was #2. This is a good quadricep workout, since you're constantly doing cycles of crouch-look around-shoot-crouch.

Paintball hurts, but not excessively. I'd compare it to getting with a fast tennis ball, but over a smaller area. Sharp stings that fade after a couple minutes. The worst are the paintballs that don't explode.

As with most things involving weapons, I am naturally better than average. My brothers are naturally gifted at sports; I'm naturally gifted at things like swords. I recognize what's in me and my history that makes weapons appealing, though I don't have an explanation for why my motor coordination is optimized for martial arts and not, say, soccer. Sometimes I feel like this:
It was a warship, after all. It was built, designed to glory in destruction, when it was considered appropriate. It found, as it was rightly and properly supposed to, an awful beauty in both the weaponry of war and the violence and devastation which that weaponry was capable of inflicting, and yet it knew that attractiveness stemmed from a kind of insecurity, a sort of childishness. It could see that--by some criteria--a warship, just by the perfectly articulated purity of its purpose, was the most beautiful single artifact the Culture was capable of producing, and at the same time understand the paucity of moral vision such a judgement implied. To fully appreciate the beauty of the weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy.
That's from Iain M. Banks's novel Excession. I don't typically find quotable introspective passages in his Culture novels, but I was quite struck by that one. I am who I am, and I have to be that, to the best of my ability; at the same time, I recognize that a way of life exists, or should exist, where warriorship in the forms we know it doesn't occur. If my childhood baggage--let's call it "karma"--leads me towards martial arts and weapons, I can't really deny that honestly.
To fully appreciate the beauty of the weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy. 
Instead, I practice a martial art focused on defense and protection, even the protection of the person attacking you. I learn how to use weapons mostly to feed my own inner requirements for a feeling of safety, with the hope that if needed, I can provide that safety and protection for others. I've been able to do that for people a number of times, and in general I feel like I am successfully being a man who can look the world in the face and construct a useful spontaneous response to help people, instead of panicking.

It's worked pretty well so far.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

work work worky work

I had a bit of burnout at work last week, and I'm currently trying to recover, which I've never done before. The crux is that over the past couple of months I've ended up being a manager instead of a technical lead. It's a fine-grained distinction, which at my company gets explained more by example than by principle, but managers generally don't make technical contributions, and spend their time herding cats and coordinating and organizing things. That's important, don't get me wrong, and I'm also good at it; but I don't like it at all, and it turns out that my technical contribution is really important to both me and the company.

My higher-ups have been really helpful, and I'm working on two antidotes:
  • No meetings in the afternoons. Ever. 1:30 PM onwards is my time.
  • Have people email the whole team to get implementation details or up-to-the-hour status updates on projects.
The latter is the most interesting to me, as I realized I was becoming a sort of documentation repository, with people expecting me to know the technical details of the dozens of bugfixes and projects we might have going on at any given time. That's becoming impossible, with the team's size and scope: I've been spending all my energy studying and tracking what everyone's been doing, which is already difficult when I haven't been part of the implementation.

People also expect a certain unreasonable level of omniscience: if you ask me about something's status at 4 PM, I'll have no idea. The team does status updates every morning at 11 AM, and I don't bother people after that. (Partly that's projection on my part, because I despise when managers ask me for status updates every couple hours; but whether an engineer finds it annoying or not, it is an objectively disruptive thing to do.) Don't get me started on trying to keep track customer issues. I could literally spend eight hours a day doing nothing but reading and understanding what my team is doing. In fact, that's not far from what I've been doing. I hate it.

I'm feeling better, certainly. I've been a bit at a loss, in that having clawed back some time for coding, I'm not entirely sure what to write code on. It's starting to come into focus, though.

I gave a short talk today at the company meeting, about my team's (pretty amazing) reduction in costs this year. The funny thing is that we didn't start out trying to reduce costs: we were trying to make things work, having faith that once we had stability and consistency, we could tweak it for efficiency. We were right, our costs are down 83% since July 2011 and about 60% so far in 2012, and we're not done yet.

I like giving talks. I'm good at it, people tell me they learn things and have fun, and it's not super hard. I'm comfortable enough in front of a crowd, and my brain is soaked with enough knowledge and experience that I can give myself a basic outline to speak on and I can just extemporize in a relatively engaging way. I can do it in Spanish, too: I spoke for 15-20 minutes to a group of teachers in Valparaíso about my experience of their (very bad) school system. The next level up in speaking, where I actually rehearse a more detailed and less hand-wavey version of what I'm going to say, is pretty easily achievable, and I've already done it once or twice.

Being a grown-up is weird.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


When you take a kid through airport security these days, if the kid can talk, they ask his name, since they don't usually have ID, and check that the name matches the boarding passes. During one of our many trips over the summer, the TSA guy said something to J about his "parents," and J being the almost unfailingly honest little urchin he is, immediately started a monologue in response as he walked away.
"Actually Chris isn't my father, I don't live with my parents and I don't know if I've ever lived together with my parents except maybe when I was a baby..."
Wanting to quickly dispel the idea that maybe I was kidnapping the child, I rolled my eyes and said "I'm his stepfather," and we continued on. Perhaps inevitably, I felt a little sad, even though he's right.

I left Anna and J to go to the bathroom, and when I came back, J walked up and...apologized! We can't remember the exact words, but he very clearly apologized for hurting my feelings. It turns out Anna was explaining to him why that might leave me feeling excluded, and how sometimes it's okay to let people have the wrong idea--there's no harm in letting the TSA guy think I'm his father.

While she was explaining, though, I reappeared and J immediately decided on his own to come apologize. Not your typical Asperger's kid, by any stretch.

I usually refer to J as my son, which works fine until I mention that he's at his father's house for the weekend, which creates understandable confusion. As I explained to him in the airport, though, I do a lot of Dad Things in his life: I take care of him, teach him stuff, play with him, bring him places, snuggle him when he's hurt. We keep getting closer and closer over the years, as he discovers I'm pretty reliable and trustworthy and loving. So I've been thinking a lot about the process of acquiring a pre-grown child by marriage, instead of making one yourself.

With the make-your-own route, you get a substantial head start on your relationship with the child. That relationship still depends on you and the child interacting and feeding back into each other, but you are, always and inevitably, The Mom or The Dad. By default, you're the child's primary--for many years the only--exemplar of that role. In fact, it comes as a bit of a shock when kids learn how different other parents and parent-child relationships can be: both more and less permissive, abusive, demonstrative, controlling, or cooperative than the reality they've known so far. You're the baseline, though. The Ur-Dad.

If you acquire a child by marriage, you don't have the luxury, or the hazard, of not treating the child like a person, with his own already-distinct personality and complex view of the world. You start out as Just Another Guy: he's already got a father, he knows what fathers look like, and you're just someone Mama likes. For this to work, you have no choice but to take him for the person he already is. You're not The Dad. You don't get that head start. You have to get to know each other like any two strangers in the world.

People obviously respond to this differently. There's all manner of possibilities for bad chemistry, bad assumptions, bad relationships. J and I are blessed in really liking and loving each other, and that the three of us have felt like a family together from the beginning. Someday soon he'll be old enough to reflect on his experience, and I'm looking forward to pointing out to him that he made a father out of me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

welcome back, everything's broken

[I wrote this after one of our trips over the summer and never got around to publishing it.]

I got back to work on Friday to a flurry of accumulated issues, quickly dwarfed on Saturday by an across-the-board inability for our customers to upload our videos. Note that this is really the only thing our customers do, and while overall it's far more important that users be able to watch our customers' videos, an inability to upload brings to a halt the work of every individual and company that actually pays us.

I spent 2 hours in a sunny car on I-80 working on my laptop over a cell modem, and another half hour in a Starbucks when my battery ran down, mostly explaining to Tech Support that "Customer cannot upload videos" is not enough information to work with when we have more than a dozen different ways to upload a video. (It turns out they all go through one component, and that's the thing that failed.)

Yesterday I had a 1-1 talk with my boss, which I always enjoy, and I remarked on how my team and its primary software (the video encoding system) are so much better than when I started. He said, "Yes, it's so much better that no one asks about it any more." It turns out that during the uploading outage, several customers commented that video encoding continued to work perfectly. Neither of us really knows what it means for video encoding to continue functioning when you're unable to submit videos for encoding, but I never turn down a compliment.

I took over my team at a time of incredible chaos: the previous team lead is a very smart guy, but not good at either management or software engineering, so the software was a wreck and the team wasn't working coherently, and their constant flailing to keep the awful system running had them aiming for burnout. The company had planned to hire a new team lead, a video encoding expert like my predecessor. They offered me the job because in my anger at the state of the system and especially its human costs, I made a plausible plan to fix it and declared in no uncertain terms that this is what we were doing, and anyone who disagreed had to convince me otherwise (no small challenge when I've spent months thinking through the plan). It turns out this is exactly what you need from someone running a completely autonomous team with a ton of problems.

I complain a lot about my reduced technical role. I do some prototyping and experimenting and smoothing the path for the team, but my overarching role is to make my team work effectively. Not me; my team. As one lead discovered, "Coding is priority number five." It's a common complaint of leadership roles that we no longer do tangible things. It's true, it's a lot of email and talking to people, making design diagrams and plans and sometimes slide decks. We lack the sheer power, the playful omnipotence of typing into a computer, pressing a button, and watching the computer do exactly what we tell it to. (Whether what we actually told it to do is what we intended to tell it to do is, of course, why software has bugs.)

Obviously dealing with software is the core work of the team, as our patron saint Rands reminds us:
Those 15 people don't work for you; you work for them. Think of it like this: if those 15 people left, just left the building tomorrow, how much work would actually get done?
 All that effort has to be directed, though. Someone has to steer the ship, resolve disputes, tell the rest of the company to sod off, and make all sorts of random decisions. There is so much deciding.

Things I learned this year: I'm really good at running a team.