The Measure of Who We Are

The older I get the more value I place on having timely and frequent feedback. It sounds like an insignificant thing but if you want what your doing to actually be useful it is paramount.

Never underestimate the power of an evolutionary process with a tight feedback mechanism.  –Linus Torvalds

Frequent feedback is so important because of the abundance of bad ideas that actually mask themselves as initially useful. Anyone who has done software development or design has had 100 people say “I have this million dollar idea I need you to implement.”  The reality is that most ideas are bad and seldom deal with the practicalities of reality.  Often their shortcomings are not obvious.

Good ideas (aka theories) are actually pretty uncommon.  We build these perfect structures in our heads and then begin to wonder why our dreams cannot also be truth.  Once we latch onto a theory we will remain “loyal” to it and will seldom surrender it easily until external facts force us re-evaluate them.  In actuality these ideas are not even theories but beliefs, which is what a theory really is until it has been tested.  A feedback loop is really a way to force us to test something with an external reference we cannot ignore.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. –George Bernard Shaw

One of the major changes in the structure of technology companies and their succeed has been the dissociation between a business BEING an idea, and a business trying an idea.  The new mantra in places like Silicon Valley is get actionable feedback, make a change, fail fast, and pivot.  Failing fast provides as much feedback as possible in the shortest period of time; so fewer resources are spent on bad ideas and thus increasing the likelihood of isolating good ideas.

On the macro level, the key to the effectiveness of capitalism has been the success of the market as a feedback mechanism.  Local government’s superior representation is a direct reflection of the ease at which local officials can be replaced.  The feedback loop for a City Mayor is quite a bit tighter than for the President of the United States.

Notice how, in the last example, by focusing on the feedback mechanism we can evaluate two systems that are superficially are identical but function dramatically different.  Why does progressive democracy work so well for Denmark and not for the US?  Because Denmark’s feedback loop is closer to Missouri’s than it is to the whole of the United States.

With genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race. But it will be a slow process, because one will have to wait about 18 years to see the effect of changes to the genetic code. –Stephen Hawking

Feedback is so fundamental that systems that have weak or non-existent evaluation mechanisms are losing their authority overall.  We value academic disciplines by how consistent their feedback loops are.  Things like math, science, and engineering all have well defined and extensively tested methods to evaluating themselves and make corrections when shortcomings are identified.   Non-empirical disciplines like art, philosophy, and religion are suffering from the lack of reference available to the natural sciences, and their overall effectiveness is thus reflective.  Remember, at one time science and mysticism were one and the same until science formalized the scientific method, liberating itself (and humanity) from the confines of dogma.

“Science gives man ever greater powers but less significance. It gives him better tools and with less purposes. It is silent on origins, values, and ultimate aims.  It gives life and history no meaning or worth that is not canceled by time and death.”. –Will Durant

This is not to say that ideologies and theories are likely to disappear. On the contrary, as religion had demonstrated, systems that have no effective feedback loop are nearly impossible to remove entirely because there is no way to “prove” the shortcomings of their beliefs.  You cannot fail a test you’ve never taken.

Nor do I mean to suggest that systems lacking structured feedback methodologies are bad.  I strongly believe in the value of philosophy, art, and religion as part of making a full life; and I passionately love my liberal arts education.  The need for improvement isn’t an absolute and, contrary to popular belief, neither is the need for truth.  But, when the desire is to approach understanding, even if only asymptotically, there is simply no better system we know of then a quality feedback loop.

The same mistakes, only sooner.

Yes, another set of links. I have a pretty massive bookmark list to empty out and everyone who visits suffers because of it.

  • Dijkstra’s Algorithm – Wikipedia is like a drug. Hello my name is Bob.
  • Beating Ubuntu – A editorial on how to take the Linux desktop title away from its current leader.
  • Desktop Linux: Mission Impossible – Editorial discussing if it is even possible for desktop Linux to ever win the OS war.
  • Kontact & Google Apps – Kontact is probably the best Outlook replacement on Linux and this tutorial by Linux.com helps you get it working with Google.
  • Retirement Mistakes – Ben Stein (look up his wikipedia bio, you will be floored by how smart this guy is) discusses the 3 biggest retirement mistakes people make.
  • Raising Smart Kids – Some tips on how to develop children with above average intelligence.
  • The POG Gallery – Glen Palmer first designed the closed bold semi-automatic paintball gun before the Auto Cocker had even been conceived. To this day his son makes the best paintball guns in the world (with not electronics in them.) Here are some beautiful examples.
  • Worlds Most Expensive Scotches – The title says it all.
  • Bill Cosby’s Rant – This is part of a speech Bill gave at the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the Brown vs Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court Decision.  It is an interesting commentary on the state of civil rights in the United States.
  • Are Rich People Parasites – An editorial by David Gordon that discusses the economic value of wealth in a free market society.

Of VC’s and Management

Two great articles covering the business world. The first article is titled “The Venture Capitalist Wishlist.” Provides a nice overview of the major desires that VC’s have in providing capital to new businesses.

The second article talks about the famous superplant GE Durham, NC. The plant is famous because it employees 170 jet engine workers, with only one manager. The 9 teams that make up the plant personal are entirely self sufficent and make all decisions for their teams from unpacking parts, to assembly, to working hours.

Software Development
and Project Success

When I was growing up our family’s resources were less extensive than they are now, and as such, we sometimes had to do without some perks. One of these perks was a complete set of tools for home/car repair. Simple fixes like changing a battery would result in hours of work because of the inherit limitations of our tools; which ostensibly consisted of a hammer and a butter knife. Whenever I was brushing off the latest “injury” incurred while fixing something, my father would say to me, “Everything is simple if you have the right tool.” The better the tool is at doing a specific task, the easier it will be to complete that task. Ever watched “This Old House?” They had a tool to do everything! I didn’t even know they made adjustable-corner-rounded-cut-circular-door-saws with the optional digital level… cordless, if you are lucky. Heck, if I had a shop with 30 million dollars worth of specialized equipment, I bet even I could make something as fundamentally complex as a bar stool.

“Everything is simple if you have the right tool.”

This maxim (while not always true) is amazingly accurate in describing the modern development process. In fact, this is the reason I work on KDE (as opposed to the “other” Linux desktop environment.) Things are simply easier to do, are more productive, and more functional because the tool is designed better and focused specifically on desktop software development.

Today I ran into a series of articles by some application developers who I have come to respect. Their insight into the software development process will hopefully help give me some direction on future project management. Here they are will some selected quotes that stand out:

The strongest indication of a weak team is the realization that if you were to quit and start your own business, you wouldn’t try to poach any of your colleagues.

“Strong teams have almost impossibly high hiring standards. Strong teams will always leave a desk empty rather than settling for less than the best.”

“Examples of development hygiene include source code versioning, maintenance of an accurate bug or issue database, significant use of automated testing, continuous integration, and specifications that are kept current (whether incredibly detailed or high-level overviews).”

“A chicken is an individual who has significant authority over your project, but does not make a personal commitment to the success of the project.”

“And every time I’ve delivered software on schedule milestone after milestone, my influence and standing with stakeholders has grown. And every time I’ve missed a date, I’ve suffered, regardless of whether the late software was demonstrably better than what was originally planned for the missed date.”

“Documents such as specifications yield the same benefits of source control.”

“Discard all processes that are mechanically completed with little actual benefit. Tweak those that require more effort than necessary, maximizing the results while minimizing the effort.”