Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Power of Disagreement in Collaboration

I’m an old guy.  When I was young, in the early days of personal computers, I worked mostly worked on my own… developing software with me, myself, and I, as they say.  I did not see other computer programmers as my colleagues.  I saw them as my competition.  There really was not enough work for all of us and I wanted to be the one who knew things.  So, if I knew something useful and/or powerful I didn’t tell anyone about it.  I kept it to myself and increased my value to potential employers.

By and large we don’t live in that world anymore.  Most of the time we work in teams, collaboratively, and our work is also often dependent on the work of other teams, vendors, technology we did not create.  This brings the importance of effective collaboration and communication into sharp relief.

One example of this is when we disagree.  Disagreement can be an incredibly useful thing.  If you think X and I think Y, and I want to convince you of the value of my point of view, then I must think more deeply about what that is, and why.  It causes me to consider what I believe from another perspective, namely yours.  Your push-back will cause me to think yet more deeply, and perhaps incorporate some of what you are saying into what I think.  The same can be true for you.  Together, we may achieve a much more profound truth than either of us would have on his own.

But this only happens if the disagreement is cordial and non-threatening, if we can avoid the dysfunctional aspects of disagreeing with someone.  Here we can run into a particularly tricky roadblock when it comes to people who work in technical jobs.

Techies are paid, among other things, to be smart.  This is an intellectual business after all.  The idea that I may not know something that (perhaps) others think I should know can be very threatening, and can cause me to act defensively.  This does not lead to effective collaboration.

This comes up in my job as a teacher.  I teach classes in technical subjects like Design Patterns and Test-Driven Development, among other things.  Naturally, my students in these courses are technical people.  A classroom has a lot of similarities with a team; there is a leader to be sure (the teacher) but the engagement is more effective when it is highly collaborative.  Because of this I don’t want all information to come didactically, from me.  I want it to be a mix of me, my students, experiences, collaboration, and so on.  Part of this means that I, on a pretty regular basis, will pose a question to the room and ask the students to try to answer it.

Very early in my experience as a teacher I noticed that this tended to produce a lot of silence.  This varies by student group, of course, but it was not uncommon for the students to just stare at me rather than try to answer my question in front of the other students.  I gradually realized that this was often because nobody wanted to be shown to be wrong.  The whole idea was too threatening.

So, I came up with a technique for overcoming this, and I use it whenever I encounter a group of students that seem to be unwilling to “take a chance” at answering a question.  I think it can be equally useful on a team where people seem unwilling to yield even the slightest point to one another.  I call it…

The King Henry School of Argument

If you have seen “The Lion In Winter”, then you’ll recognize why I use this term.  If not, see it!  Two bucks on YouTube, and you’ll thank me. I even gave you the link. Anyway, here’s what I do:

I pick a student who seems relatively willing to interact with me.  Let’s call him Jason.  I start by asking him, personally, a question where he cannot possibly be wrong because it is about his own opinion.

Me: Jason, tell me, what is your favorite movie?
Jason: Um, I suppose it’s “Scott Pilgrim vs, The World.”
Me: Oh, I like that one too.  I particularly loved the way Andy Samberg portrayed Scott Pilgrim.
Jason: No, Scott Pilgrim was played by Michael Cera, not Andy Samberg.

I pretend to press the argument for a few minutes, even though of course I know Jason is correct.  Finally, I bring up the IMDB on the projector screen in the room and look up the film in front of the entire classroom.   Naturally when I look up the movie in question it confirms that Michael Cera played the part just as Jason claimed.  I pretend to be surprised by this.

I then turn to the room and ask the group “who won the argument?”  Almost without exception, everyone agrees that Jason won and I lost.  But I then point out that Jason came into the argument with the same information he left it with, namely that Michael Cera played Scott Pilgrim in the film.  I, on the other hand, have left the same argument with new information that I did not previously have and also I have corrected a mistake in my memory.  I have gained something from the interaction, whereas Jason has not (except perhaps a minor stroke to his ego).  To these old eyes, that looks like winning (that’s what I learned from King Henry in the aforementioned film).

I then, of course, own up to the fact that this was all a ruse.  Gotta keep things honest.  The point was to shift their point of view.

When we collaborate, the value we bring to one another is what we can contribute, each to the other.  If you already know everything then my value to you is limited or non-existent.  In the classroom, I point out that if a group of students is already “right” about everything then coming to class with me is a waste of time.  They have come, I submit, to gain knowledge they don’t already possess.  Revealing what those gaps are is just part of the process of learning.  And, by the way, I point out that I always learn from things my students because I am not afraid to admit that they sometimes know things I do not.

Of course, my real intention is to change the interaction from a threatening one to one of promise.  I also believe what I am saying to be the truth.  Nobody knows everything.  We operate in an environment of constant change and innovation, and staying current can be a real challenge.  If we take down the mostly pride- and fear-based impediments then we can be true colleagues, and everyone will benefit from them.

So will the products we create, and the customers that benefit from them.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Private health insurance will never work, and here's why

Businesses have to focus on making money.  That's not evil, that's their responsibility to their shareholders.  The simple math is that the more they charge in premiums, and the less they pay out in benefits, the more profit they make.  One cannot blame them for charging as much as they can and denying you as much coverage as they can get away with.  That's what the incentive is.  Health insurance should be socialized.

But not health CARE.  A Hospital makes more money when it does a better job of making people well.  It is incentivized to give excellent care, otherwise people will choose another hospital or clinic with a better reputation.

So when people talk about "socialized medicine" they are conflating two different things: who provides the care, and two pays for it.  Hospitals and doctors should be run for profit, by the market.  The government would make an utter mess of running hospitals (ask England), But health insurance should be done through taxation, where there is no profit motive.  Private health insurance cannot really work.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Sympton Donald Trump

Something is really wrong.

I am not writing this to criticize Donald Trump the man; there are plenty of people doing that all over the place.  What motivates me is a very strong feeling that something fundamental went wrong in this election.  When things just don't make sense we have to pay attention.

Think back over the entire election.  How completely impossible the Trump campaign seemed.  How every major analyst and poll had him completely shellacked in November.  How the electoral math was essentially an impossibility for him right up until the final days.

The pundits get it wrong, certainly.  But here it was like they were commenting on a completely different reality than we saw on election day.  We have never seen a candidate lose the popular vote by such a wide margin (HRC is up 2 millions as of this writing, and the count is rising) and not only win the electoral collage, but do so by a massive, massive margin.

I don't know if it's rigged or simply broken, but something is seriously wrong here.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bernie Sanders, the Socialist

I was really happy to see Bernie Sanders enter the race for president in 2016.  He's a very straight-talking, fearless guy who stands up for rank-and-file citizens against the moneyed interests that currently own our government, thanks to Citizen's United.

But everyone knows he does not stand a chance.  Why?  Because he is a socialist.  You know what?  So are you.

If you support the military, you are a socialist.  We pay for our national defense collectively, not in some capitalist, entrepreneurial way.  The same goes for the police and fire departments.  We don't hire our own individual cops and firemen on the open market, we pool tax dollars to pay for these services.  Same with sewage processing, and clean water delivered to our homes.  We built the power grid collectively, and the interstate highway system, and if we ever get around to fixing our roads and bridges before they all collapse, we'll do that collectively too.

The term "socialism" has become a bad word in this country because people think it means the same thing as "communism", which is untrue.  In communism everything is collectively owned and centrally controlled.  Socialism is simply people active collectively... for example, auto insurance.  We all pay premiums and those of us who get into car accidents are taken care of from the pool of money we all created.  Socialism.

Some things are better done through capitalism, some are better done through socialism, and this has always been true.  Our society is, and has always been, a mix of these two approaches.  The right, unfortunately, has turned the idea of socialism into a political football that they can trot out every time there is an election or political debate.  Very much like the term "liberal."

We need to get over this.

Should the government run shopping malls, restaurants, and auto dealerships?  No.  The private sector is much better at such things.  The same is true for science and research.  All of the great innovations we have produced have come from pioneers and entrepreneurs.  Those who tout the "free market" have a point.  They just overstate its power.

The free market produced the financial collapse of 2008 and almost destroyed the world economy.  It was the government that rescued it, like it or not.  It was the repealing of governmental regulations (like Glass-Steagall) that allowed the private sector to play roulette with our future. We need it back.

And what about health care?  Should the government run our hospitals and train our doctors and nurses, and tell them what to do?  Of course not.  Health care should be done through the private sector.  But health insurance is another matter.  Health insurance should be socialistic.  We should have single-payer:  public funding for to pay for our health care, the health care itself provided by for-profit hospitals.

Think of it this way:  People should profit from making you healthy.  That is an incentive that benefits us all.  People should not profit from finding ways to deny you care.  The latter is what private health insurance is all about; the more they take in and the less they pay out the more money they make.  That's the core of the health care dilemma in this country.

Oh, and by the way, no one should profit from putting you in jail.  We need to end this for-profit prison nonsense as soon as possible.  It's a nightmare.  But that's for another posting...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sony, and the North Korean threat

Recently we learned that Sony will not distribute the new Seth Rogan/James Franco comedy "The Interview" because of terrorist threats against the theaters that would show it.  The film ridicules the Korean dictation Kim Jong Un.  Sony pulled the film not because (as many are saying) they lack a spine, but because the theater owners refused to show the film once the bombing threats were issued.

Their lawyers told them that if anyone got hurt in their theaters, they would be liable and would be sued by the families of those affected.  And all this happened shortly after North Korean hackers broke into Sony's computers and stole social security numbers, home addresses, emails, and god knows what else.

At the same time we are learning more and more about just how awful the CIA's torture program got, and perhaps how bad it sometimes still is.  The west is losing whatever moral ascendency it had, and at the same time losing our technological superiority.

We fought WWII because Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo were threatening the world, and we won because we out-produced them and innovated.  Much of the world now sees us as the threat, our productiveness  is not what it used to be, and our innovations cannot save us anymore.

Today we are vulnerable to those who can threaten us from afar (hacking) and by infiltration (bombs in the subway).  No armies are needed, and no "mutually assured destruction" threat will protect us.  If ISIS or whatever the next group will be called decides we deserve to suffer, they can make it happen.  If they decide a movie must not be released, they can keep it from being released.   The game has decidedly changed.

I don't know what we can do about cyberterrorism, or any terrorism for that matter, apart from removing ourselves as such a glaring target.  We need to regain our moral ascendency, and we need to do it soon.

Unfortunately.... congress.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Paris Metro

Andrea and I recently returned from a ten-day vacation in Paris.  Everything about Paris impressed me, but one thing that I really felt was worth a blog in and of itself is the Paris Metro.

Metro is short for "Metropolitan" and is Paris' underground rail system (or "subway" as we would term it).  I've seen similar systems in other cities but nothing to match the Paris system.  It's amazing.  It's also incredibly clean, fast, and safe.

Part of what makes the Metro so convenient is the sheer number of lines and stations.  They say in Paris you are never more than 500 meters from a Metro station.  In my experience it was rarely more than a couple of blocks.  And once you enter a station and pay your way through the turnstiles you can now get to anywhere in Paris in a matter of minutes.

I bought a book before we left, "Discover Paris by Metro" which is a great book to have with you if you know how the system works.  It does not, unfortunately, explain the system at all.  So I thought I'd do that.

Paris is completely criss-crossed underground by subterranean rail lines; Fourteen of them as of this writing. When you descend into a Metro station typically that station will access one, two, or even more of them (most are just one).  There are trains running in both directions, named for the end of the line that they are headed for (each line has two ends, which are stations).  They don't use directions like "north" and "south" because the lines snake around the city in various directions.

For example: We were staying in an apartment near the "Porte de Vincennes" Metro station, which is on Line 1.  Line 1 runs from the "Chateau de Vincennes" station at one end across the city to the "La Defense" station at the other (the stations are named for nearby streets or points of interest).  So there are two platforms at our local station, one marked "1-La Defense" and another marked "1-Chateau de Vincennes".  There is also a map of line 1 on the wall (at the station and inside the trains).  If I know we want to get to the Louvre, and that its nearest Metro stop is "Palais Royale, Musee de Louvre", I can see that that's in the direction of "La Defense" from where we are, so we hop on that train and hop off at the station we want.

And I do mean "hop".  The trains run just about every two minutes so in general when you reach your platform you'll wait a very short time for the next train.

But let's say you want to go somewhere which cannot be reached by your local train.  Again, line 1 was the only line served by my local Metro station, but let's say we want to go to "Bir Hakeim" which is the closest station to the Eiffel Tower.  The "Bir Hakeim" station is on line 6, not line 1.

No problem.  You look at your Metro map (buy one, or there is one on the wall at every station) and find a station that serves both line 1 and 6.  There are two, "Nation" and "Charles deGaulle Etoile".  We pick the closest one and head that way.  When we get off at, say "Charles de Gaulle Etoile" there will be signs pointing us to the two different platforms each for lines 1, 2, and 6, because those three lines cross there.  We want 6, and so we pick the platform for the train going in the right direction for us, and get off at "Bir Kakeim".  But we never paid anything at our transfer station because once you are in the system you're good to go for as long and as many stops as you like.  When you leave the system then your ticket dies and you need another.

Alternatively, you can buy a weekly or monthly pass.  These are great because you just "scan in" at the turnstiles and you can go anywhere, anytime.  These passes also work on the buses, the surface light rail (the "Tram") and the trains (RER) to more remote areas like the airport and Versailles.  You "recharge" your pass for a Monday - Sunday period, online or using machines in the Metro stations.  There is also a clerk in every station to help you and most of them speak English.

The only other detail to consider is how many "zones" to make the pass valid for.  If you're just going to travel around Paris proper, buy zones 1-3.  If you're going outside Paris (Charles De Gaulle airport, Orly airport, Versailles) then buy zones 1-5.  Either way, it's an incredible deal.

You're probably thinking "yes, but how will I know the closest Metro station/line to a place I want to go?" That's where the book I mentioned above really shines.  There are sections for each line, explaining what is near each station as you go, and there is an index in the back where you can look up various attractions and it will tell you the line and station you want.  So if you know how the system works, the book fills in the rest.

One more resource you may find helpful is a metro planning site sponsored by the RATP, which is the rapid transit authority for Paris.  You put in any starting address and any destination and it will recommend the stations, trains, and changes to most efficiently get you there and even a little walking a map for the last bit when you arrive.  Here it is: Make sure to click on "EN" in the upper-left corner for directions in English.  (This site does not work very well in the US, so just use it once you get into Paris.)

The tool allows you to specify the fewest train changes, or the least amount of walking.  Choose the latter; the only thing about Americans in Paris is that you're going to get quite footsore.   Just walking through the Louvre will leave your feet throbbing.

Don't be intimidated if your route involves lots of train changes.  You won't wait much at all since the trains are so frequent.  If you get on the wrong train, or one in the wrong direction, just get off at the next stop and take the next train going the other way.  Once you get the hang of it, it really is child's play...  and the trains are so fast that it almost feels like you've got the transporter from Star Trek.  Enter at one station, emerge at another.

Don't rent a car in Paris. The traffic is terrible, many of the streets are quite narrow, and you'll just get frustrated.  Take the Metro. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity: How much of it is wrong, and why that's right

(Warning: Spoilers for "Gravity")

Alfonso Cuaron's magnificent film "Gravity" finally debuted last week.  I've been waiting for this event for years, having heard what he was attempting to do and having been totally blown away by his last film "Children of Men."  I was not disappointed.

Gravity is a masterpiece of film craft in every respect.  The effects are nothing short of breathtaking, the writing is crisp and compelling, and the performances are spot-on.  I did not realize what a brilliant actress Sandra Bullock was.  She really stands out, even though George Clooney is also performing at an extremely high level.

That said, the films physics (at least in terms of orbital mechanics) are completely wrong.  I think Cuaron knew this, chose to do it incorrectly, and that it was the right choice. 

Allow me to explain:

"Gravity" does not take place in zero-gravity, it takes place in free-fall.  Kowalsky and Stone are not in deep space, they are in orbit, where the gods of orbital mechanics make the rules.  They are extremely  odd rules.

In orbit, Earth's gravity is pulling you down constantly, but your forward momentum is pushing you away, at an angle.  The combination of this angular momentum with the gravity produces a balance that keeps you at a steady altitude above the earth and makes you feel and appear to be "weightless".  Even when the astronauts seem relatively motionless, they are hurtling around the earth at very high speed.  You cannot see this because they, and the shuttle, are moving together.

In orbit, your speed is your altitude, and your altitude is your speed.  If you increase your speed you move into a higher orbit, farther from the earth.  Decrease your speed, and the opposite happens, you drop into a lower orbit. The strange part comes from the fact that a higher orbit is a larger circle, and so you will take you longer to circle the earth.  In a lower orbit it takes you less time to complete that circle, because it is smaller.  So if you speed up, you don't increase your rate of orbit, you decrease it.

If you and I are in the same orbit, but you are 100km ahead of me and I want to catch up, I cannot do so by firing my thrusters forward.  If I do, I increase my speed and move myself into a higher orbit, farther from you.  Also, you will begin to creep away from me because you are in a lower orbit than I am.  No, to catch up with you I must fire my thrusters backwards, away from you, so I will slow down, drop into a lower, smaller obit, and then wait until I catch up with you and pass you a little.  Then, a bit ahead of you and below, I fire my thrusters again but this time to speed up, thus rising into your orbit for rendezvous.

This all assumes we are both in a standard equatorial orbit.  If one of us is orbiting at a different angle, then things get really complicated.

Rendezvous in orbit is really, really hard.  A major goal of the entire Gemini program was just to figure this out.  Buzz Aldrin (who landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong) got his PhD in just this problem, which is why many called him "Dr. Rendezvous".

I am sure Cuaron knows this, as he took years to prepare this film.  He also knew that if he filmed the real process of, say, Dr. Stone piloting her Soyuz to the Chinese space station by flying away from it, the visual result would make absolutely no sense to the audience.  Everything in orbit works backwards, and explaining this in a film would make for very dry, pointless exhibition.

This is a great example of the difference between verisimilitude on screen and "realism", which often does not work well as art.  It takes careful consideration to know when do to one versus the other.  All of the "three dimensional skating rink" maneuvers that Stone does while floating in the ISS, for example, are perfectly correct.  That works because the "floating astronaut" something we all understand now in terms of its visual language.

Again, I point this out not to criticize the film or the filmmakers, but to praise it and them.  The film gave me an absolutely real "feel" of being in space, even though I came to it knowing how the mechanics really work.  I was totally invested in the drama.  That's a master at work.