This is installment #6 of the annual newsletter I share with my colleagues at Enthought (previous years 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017).
I feel like I consumed less media this year, and yet, there is so much stuff! (And even more I didn’t include!)
I hope you’ll find a good thing or two.
I’ve been told a few times: “your newsletter is amazing, but I haven’t read or watched or listened to anything from it.” This is my attempt to fix that. If you do only three things, make it these three:
- Listen to Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw.
- Read Too many needles by Oliver Burkeman (author of Four Thousand Weeks). It helped me take a step back from my desire to read all the things. This sentence was key: “After all, you presumably don’t feel overwhelmed by all the unread books in the British Library – and not because there aren’t an overwhelming number of them, but because it never occurred to you that it might be your job to get through them all.”
- Watch One-Minute Time Machine, a delightful and surprising short film.
The Big Idea: Cynefin
The Cynefin framework (kuh-NEV-in) is a framework to make decisions by making sense of the domain you’re in: clear, complicated, complex, and chaotic. Depending on the domain, the “right thing to do” will change.
- The clear domain is known knowns. Things are stable, causes and effects are clear. It’s the world of rules and best practices: you acquire data (sense), categorize them, and respond appropriately.
- In the complicated domain, it’s known unknowns. You don’t know the cause-and-effect relationship, but you can figure it out with analysis. You sense, analyze, then respond. It’s the domain of experts: engineers, lawyers, and surgeons.
- In the complex domain, it’s unknown unknowns. You figure out the cause and effects after the fact. You must probe the system first, sense, then respond. Probes are experiments that are safe to fail. Here are markets, culture, and much of software development.
- In the chaotic domain, cause and effect are… a mess. You can’t take wait to figure out what they are. You must act first, then sense and respond. Be quick and decisive. This is crisis management, September 11, and March 2020 and the COVID pandemic. You want to get out of this domain ASAP.
Things go wrong when the approach you chose doesn’t match the domain you’re in. It would be a valuable framework to convey to clients that want you to take the wrong approach, but teaching it to them is a tall order. Here’s a great quote from the HBR paper A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making:
As in the other contexts, leaders face several challenges in the complex domain. Of primary concern is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles—to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to overcontrol the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.
Like Simon Wardley’s maps, the “sense-making” exercise to map domains and identify where you are helps setting the “direction” to go towards to achieve the desired results. Unsurprisingly, Snowden and Wardley know each other. Wardley wrote a chapter for the book Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world.
The HBR paper above is a good entry point, so is this video of Snowden. For a software development angle, check out Liz Keogh’s Cynefin for Developers and Estimating Complexity. She also has a great summary. Even Stack Overflow wrote about Cynefin. If you want to dig further, there’s a Cynefin wiki and the site of Snowden’s company, The Cynefin Co.
Free Returns Are Complicated, Laborious, and Gross by Amanda Mull: I didn’t like sending stuff back, now I really don’t want to send anything back.
Outliers, Revisited on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast (transcript): In schools and in sports, the “best” people in a class or team have the largest “relative age.” That’s the age difference to the youngest a person can be to join the team or class. On a hockey team where the cutoff date is Jan 1 for selection, 40% of players will be from Q1. For young people, months make a big difference on size and ability! They go to UPenn and talk to 75 seniors. Everyone is older than the minimum age, by a lot. Some people are 20 months older than the minimum age. Is there a name for this phenomenon of aggregating a “feature” too much and losing important info? Aggregation error? They suggest using a formula to compensate or account for the differences within a group. Even though it “works,” it feels icky.
Self Documenting, Interactive Make by Exthoughter Matt Planchard. A wonderful nerdy interactive
make script with help. Over the top.
You need to start writing Architecture Decision Records by my colleague Rahul Poruri. Organizations need decision records for all big things, not just software. We could adapt decision journals for teams. I recently discovered Loomio, a tool explicitly designed for collaborative decision-making. It assumes the decision will be made asynchronously by a distributed group of people.
A tiny CI system by Christian Ştefănescu. This is a neat little project: self-host a Git server and your own little CI server based on Git post-receive hooks.
Novelty Search and the Problem with Objectives PDF by Joel Lehman and Kenneth O. Stanley: Optimizing for novelty, not fitting an objective. Relevant to art, creativity, and… science?
Characterizing people as non-linear 1st order components in software development is a 1999 talk by Alistair A.R. Cockburn of the Agile Manifesto. This predates the Agile Manifesto by two years. It’s a great telling of the evidence that human factors are the most important predictors of software quality, not technology choices. For an even more fundamental take on this topic, check out The epistemology of software quality by Hillel Wayne.
Justice Stevens reads the fine print: Matthew Butterick: Law + typography + David Foster Wallace.
Contributing to Complex Projects, a how-to by Mitchell Hashimoto, founder of HashiCorp.
Architecture, Design, and Urbanism
Sustainable Apartments – A New Model for the Future by Jeremy McLeod at TEDxStKilda: Interesting because of the financial, environmental, and social design of the apartments. They only get ethical investors to buy the site. They interview people for who gets to buy, but they use a lottery to decide who gets to buy which appartment. There’s just one bathroom per apartment, no chrome because it’s toxic, no tile because it comes from Spain or Italy (it’s in Australia). They prioritize social spaces within the building.
The Bagworm Caterpillar’s DIY Mobile Log Cabin: Nature is just incredible.
The Ugly, Dangerous, and Inefficient Stroads found all over the US & Canada: will give you a word for the terrible stroads of Austin, like Burnet and Airport.
It’s been a good book-reading year. I think it’s due to a good amount of travel and a regular-enough book club. I read books marked with a ♣️ (club, getit?) as part of the Enthought book club.
- ♣️ No Rules Rules by Reed Hastin and Erin Meyer: a fascinating account of how Netflix manages their (creative) organization. Each component taken separately would be unstable or unsustainable in other organizations, from the absence of vacation policy, to the culture of feedback, to the requirements of taking any recruiter’s call. Yet, when all implemented together, it creates a solid organization edifice.
- Sourdough by Robin Sloan: A novel about a programmer who gets into baking because of a powerful sourdough starter. I loved it.
- ♣️ Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg: should be required reading for any consultant. It’s peculiar, as my colleague said, but the stories are great. Some key lessons. Don’t accept someone else’s solution as your problem statement. Check if you can change the question if you don’t like the answer. Don’t solve other people’s problems if they can solve them perfectly well. Don’t be a solution problemer: someone with a solution in search of a problem.
- ♣️ Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott: coined the term ruinous empathy. When being nice is actually damaging. Hit home.
- Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber: A bullshit job is pointless for both the company and the individual. He develops an ontology for such jobs: flunkies, box tickers, goons, duct tapers, and taskmasters. It’s an incisive and deeply funny analysis of work and working. I loved Chapter 6 on the history of the concept of time and labor, and the difficulty of distinguishing between social value and economic value. Recommended.
- The Premonition by Michael Lewis: Interesting reading this after reading about the Cynefin framework. The pandemic was definitely in the chaos and then complex realm. Charity Dean was a master of dealing with chaos. Carter Mecher somehow managed to turn a complex situation into something complicated. The CDC and the (US) government were doofus, not even acting as if the situation was simple, they were just concerned about optics and saving their own butt. The government really was f’ed up.
- A World Without Email by Cal Newport: Coins the term Hyperactive Hive Mind: “A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.” And the term Attention Capital Principle: “The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify workflows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.” Newport theorizes that the lack of friction in communication is leading to out-of-control feedback loops. A core proposal is to “seek workflows that (1) minimize mid-task context switches and (2) minimize the sense of communication overload.” This must be done at the team or organization level. It’s hard to solve as an individual.
- The All-Road Bike Revolution by Jan Heine: a summary of everything Bicycle Quarterly has learned about bicycles that feel great. I see a new bike in my future.
- Who: The A Method of Hiring by Randy Street and Geoff Smart: Presents a rigid framework for recruiting. The full process is long for hiring for technical roles, but seems appropriate when hiring for leadership and management roles. Makes a big deal of reaching out to 7 references. Ultimately, the key point is to hire great people, not good people. Echoes * No Rules Rules* and Netflix.
- Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber: I wonderful little book I read after Bullshit Jobs. I knew nearly nothing about anarchism and this was eye-opening. He makes the point that anarchy is based on action, not theory. The various anarchy groups are named based on how they act: anarcho-syndicalists, insurrectionists, anarcho-communists, individualists, and not on their thought leaders, like Marxist-Leninists, or Maoists. There’s also a powerful and scary idea about democracy: it can only exist if there’s both a belief that people should have equal rights in making ground decisions and a coercive apparatus to enforce those decisions. In a democracy, one must lose (their election/vote) and the winner’s choice must be enforced. Instead, anarchist movements are based on consensus: no one loses. There’s no assumption of changing someone’s mind. People decide on a common course of action. There are only two forms of disagreement: “stand aside” or “block.” The former says “I don’t like it and chose not to participate but won’t stop anyone from doing it,” whereas the latter is a veto arguing the action would violate the reasons for being a group. (That’s super interesting: it means in a democracy, someone must lose face. In anarchy, no one does.) He wrote this book early in his career, but you can see elements of future books: Debt, Bullshit Jobs, and The Dawn of Everything.
- Saga: Compendium one by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: A graphic novel that’s weird, original, and continually surprising about a couple from two different planets caught in a deadly war. Not family-friendly, but highly recommended.
- How to Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters by Michael Bungay Stanier: a straightforward process for defining and getting started on big personal projects. An easy read.
- Learning to Build by Bob Moesta: a follow-up to Demand-Side Sales, but on the building and prototyping stage. One particular lesson is the use of the Taguchi Method to design experiments and explore a problem space efficiently.
- The Circle by Dave Egger: a dystopian novel about a young woman joining a new all-powerful tech company encouraging everyone to share more about themselves. It was fine but not great.
- In the beginning by Diane Arbus: photography. I saw her work at Pier 24 in San Francisco and enjoyed it. The book was on sale at BookPeople.
- Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren: things can be perfectly imperfect.
- Y: The Last Man - Compendium One by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra: starts fun and continues to be for maybe three or four books, but then gets contrived and unoriginal.
- Zero to One by Peter Thiel: Meh.
- Everything Everywhere All at One (2022): Just watch it if you haven’t! Don’t look anything up! My favorite movie of the year. Decade? Life?
- Fire of Love (2022): A documentary about a couple and their love and study of volcanoes. Interesting, funny, moving, and beautiful.
- Glass Onion (2022): better than Knives (out)
- Parasite (2019): Not at all what I was expecting! “[F]ollows a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family and infiltrate their household by posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals.” Things don’t go well.
- Russ Olsen - To the Moon!: A touching and inspiring talk about how perseverance, belief, leadership, and “followship” can make the impossible possible.
- I have mixed feelings about HBO’s Succession. It’s a great show about terrible people who are too mean for my taste. But I only have positive feelings about Succession But It’s Arrested Development.
- Tom7’s latest ridiculous talk is Harder Drive: Hard drives we didn’t want or need. What’s the hardest way to store and retrieve information? By taking advantage of the inherent delay of
pingcalls? In Tetris games? In the drive of discarded electronic covid tests?
- Stop-motion animation of someone cutting a Lego salmon into sushi
- Chris Voss’s Masterclass on The Art of Negotiation: excellent teacher. Scarily effective techniques from the former FBI hostage negotiator.
- DinosaurJS 2017: Solving Imaginary Scaling Issues, at Scale by Laurie Voss
- Where Does The Tone Come From In An Electric Guitar? Eye-opening.
- Casino Cheating Expert Reviews Card Counting and Casino Scams From Movies
- Mark Adams: Recycling is a defeat. Reuse. Best over newest. Not in the talk, but I would add: master the tools you have.
- How to Guide Clients through the Shape Up Workflow, with Ryan Singer: Adapting Shape Up for client work. Great insights from both sides.
- Kirby Ferguson is back with Everything is a Remix Part 2, and Part 3. My favorite line: “Genre: a très bon French word.”
- Meet the Liverbirds!, the story of Britain’s first all-female rock ‘n’ roll band. Like that other band, they came out of Liverpool in the 60s. Part of the New York Times’s Almost Famous series. It’s a great story.
I started listening to Soundfounder, the KUTX show hosted by Andrew Brown, on a regular basis. Half the show is artists I love (and sometimes forget that I love) and the other half is new artists I really enjoy, many of which are from Austin. Two stand-out artists I learned about are Domi & JD Beck, and Ross From Friends.
Modern classical music
I listened to multiple episodes of Meet the Composer, the 2014–2017 radioshow/podcast hosted by Nadia Sirota (of yMusic and Alarm Will Sound). Each episode dives into a single modern classical music composer and is beautifully produced. It’s like the Radiolab of modern classical music. Every time I listen to it, I learn of a new artist who makes incredible music and who is off most people’s radar. I’m sad the show is no more. The two standout composers were Andrew Norman and Caroline Shaw. Caroline’s work is stunning. A lot of her music has been used in TV and movies. Her most famous piece is Partita for 8 Voices. Its Motion Keeps, written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, is another fantastic piece.
Honestly, I don’t love many Austin bands (🙀). I enjoy Spoon, Balmorhea, and Grace Pettis but that’s pretty much it. Until this year. Here are six awesome songs.
- Urban Heat - HAVE YOU EVER?
- Darkbird - Heartbeat
- Strawberry Hospital - Azure: the tags say “noise, vocaloids”. It reminds me of the strange and interesting pop music coming from Japan.
- Sir Woman - Party Woman
- Font - Sentence I.
- B11ce - Pointillist
Last.fm tells me I’ve listened to 11,800+ songs. My most-listened track (29 times, now 31 after writing this) is You Will Never Work in Television Again by The Smile. I did have tickets to go see them in Dallas, but the Universe conspired against us and we didn’t go. Oh well.
I collected all my “liked” songs in the 2022 playlist (387 songs). Similarly with the 2022 Albums.
I listened to the album Ultimate Care II by Matmos the most. All sounds are recordings of their washing machine. I discovered it on Meet the Composer. I got to see them live. The first two pieces were also made of samples recorded live. It was great.
San Salvador is a voice and percussions ensemble who sings in Occitan, or “langue d’oc” in French. They’re my new favorite band. The rhythm and vocal harmonies are right up my alley. The energy they project in the video linked above is stunning. I hope I get to see them live one day. Their music reminded my of Barbatuques’ Baianá.
Ephemera by Ehsan Gelsi is a strange two-twenty-minute song album composed for the Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ, Moog, Buchla, analogue electronics and live percussion. Recommended if you like prog rock, even if just a bit.
Jihye Lee Orchestra - Daring Mind: Modern Big Band Jazz. You’ll love this if you like Absolute Ensemble, Kevin Eubanks, and Dave Holland’s big bands. Modern jazz meets modern classical. She put together a fantastic jazz big band playlist.
Other great albums:
- Genesis Owusu - Missing Molars: Sounds like the L.A. groove scene. Not quite hip hop, but also also not not hip hop. Sounds “like a ton of brick”, as we say in Québec.
- Louis Cole - Quality over opinions: A new Louis Cole groovy album is always an event.
- Harvey Sutherland - Boy: very, very, funky. For the Vulfpiece, Louis Cole, Jason Collier,and Scary Pockets fans.
- Ben Marc - Glass Effect: Electronic, UK hip hop, Bonobo-like
- Lisa Leblanc - Chiac Disco
- Archive released two albums this year, Call to Arms & Angels and Super8.
- Prefuse 73 reads The Books. Like ASMR for my brain. Just the right amount of glitchy loops.
- Sylvan Esso - No Rules Sandy
- Kinnship - Commensality (2020) and Intenserenity (2022)
- Pantha Du Prince - Garden Gaia
- Rival Consoles - Running
- Shire T – Tomorrow People: dancy, a little loppy. Wonderful music for programming or cleaning the house.
- Weval - Forever
Aquarian - Mutations 1: Death, Taxes & Hanger: Glitchy drum n bass. There’s a part 2
Keith Jarrett - Bordeaux Concert: the most-recent improvised solo piano show by the master.
Fleuves - Fleuves: bass clarinet, Fender Rhodes, a little Jaga Jazzist-like. Almost no online presence.
A Stapleless stapler for stapling articles to read and annotate. Satisfying.
A USB-rechargeable plasma lighter. The fact that it exists boggles my mind.
Buying art (and then framing it, which I have yet to do). I managed to put my hands on two Phlegm prints: Customary Hats and Civilization II. Then there’s a stunning black and white infrared photo of a Twisted Sierra Juniper at Emerald Bay by Ctein. Next up: acquire more wall space.