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I Didn’t Learn This in School

Last year I went to my 10 year university reunion. The further I get from graduation, the more I have to discount the value of what I learned there.

Don’t get me wrong, a solid base knowledge in the fundamentals of electronics and some algorithm & data structure knowledge has gotten me out of some tight jams. However, a few days ago my father looked at something I was working on and said, “I guess you did learn something in school!” It was one of those “all-Greek-to-me” comments, but my own reaction was, “I didn’t learn any of this in school.” That startled me a bit. I’ve always argued the opposite, but there it was staring me in the face: most of my job consisted of applying knowledge I’ve learned after school.

When I started thinking about why what I do now didn’t relate to what I learned in school, I realized it’s because the choices you make in real life have longer term consequences.

In university, all of your projects are of very short duration. A term is only 4 months. You have to be able to start a project and complete it in that timeframe. However, at the end of that 4 month project, you throw out the result and start fresh on the next batch of projects. This is fundamentally different than the real world. Every day I deal with the consequences of decisions that I or someone else made years ago.

Over the course of your career you gain experience. As an Engineer or programmer, you learn to generalize. You learn to avoid commitment because you realize how much customers, bosses, and everyone else love to change their minds. Unfortunately you can’t hold off forever. You have to make choices, and I’ve realized a lot of the choices I make are based on my gut feel about what’s likely to change in the future and what isn’t.

For instance, if you need to add a fault timer for a motion, does that go near the logic that controls the motion, or in the fault logic routine? You want to keep things that are likely to change at the same time together. Is it more likely for someone to change the fault timer at the same time that they change other fault logic, or is it more likely that they change the fault timer when they modify the motion logic (personally I think it’s the latter, but it’s not cut-and-dried)?

Another example (acknowledgement to Reg Braithwaite): imagine you’re designing a Monopoly computer game and you’ve chosen to use an Object Oriented design. Traditional OO would suggest that you have a Property class, with a subclass for each concrete property (Baltic, Pennsylvania…), and that each concrete Property has a PurchasePrice value. But does it make sense that the definitions of the prices are distributed among all the different concrete properties? Isn’t it more likely that a rule change, or alternate set of rules would affect all property prices at once? So property prices should be defined in some other class. Unfortunately if you move all the property-related rules to their own classes, then each class has to know about the list of properties. What happens when you want to provide a regional variant of the game with different property names, different currencies, or even a larger board with more properties? Then you have to update all kinds of places because so much depends on the list of properties.

That’s when you have to ask, “what’s more likely to change?” You’re about to make a decision that’s going to pay-off or cost you in the future.

In school you never face this dilemma. You never have to choose the lesser-of-many-suboptimal-choices and live with the consequences of that choice. In the real world you face it every day. The consequences guide the choices you make next time, and so on. Every novice looks at a PLC program and thinks it’s too complicated. Every experienced PLC programmer tries to follow common practices, templates, and guidelines they’ve learned throughout their career because they’ve learned from the consequences of not doing that.

If we could adjust the education system just a bit, maybe students need to have a project that spans multiple terms, and even multiple years. Every term should build on the work you did last time. Every student in a class is given different objectives to achieve every term, and those objectives are assigned randomly. By the end of 4 years, they’ll learn how their choices in first year affected their ability to complete their objectives in fourth year. Then, I think, they’ll be a little more prepared for a career.

Technical Difficulties

I’m sorry if you were having issues with this site recently. It turns out what when I upgraded the WordPress software, it became incompatible with one of the “widgets” I had installed (specifically the AddThis bookmarking one). It broke all internal links (when you clicked on any internal link, you just got a blank page). I upgraded the AddThis widget to the newer version and now it all seems to be working again.

Computers… arg!

Beating Procrastination

I recently downloaded The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (by Steven Pressfield) for my Kindle and blasted through it. It was recommended by Seth Godin, etc., and I figured I’d give it a shot.

First of all, I couldn’t help but notice the irony: certainly reading a book about procrastination is, by definition, procrastination. Or is it just sharpening the saw? Well, I had just finished pushing out FluentDwelling so a little procrastination at starting the next project is probably understandable.

Secondly, the book is well worth a read. If you’re an artist, writer, engineer, entrepreneur, or really anyone that does creative work on a daily basis, this book is like a shot of caffeine. He starts off by describing what he calls “the Resistance”, which he manifests as the ever-present enemy of all of us. It’s the collection of invisible forces that keeps us from starting.

It made me do a little introspection of my own Resistance. I know that the key is to start working. The biggest thing that keeps me from sitting down and starting work is anticipation of interruption. Certainly we already know the dangers of being interrupted while working, particularly if you need to get into “the zone” to be productive in your job. The problem is that the negative consequence of possible interruption became so great that the anticipated consequence of the interruption was worse than the anticipated reward of getting work done. Interruption is a physical assault. It feels like being punched in the gut, and even though I can take a few of those in the course of the day, a constant pounding wears me down.

What was the consequence? Entire days lost to quadrant 1 (or worse yet, quadrant 3) activities. When you work at a place where, if you wait 15 minutes, someone will call you with some “urgent” problem, then it’s too demoralizing to start working on the bigger tasks (or the bigger tasks only get done after hours and on the weekend).

I’ve only, in the past few years, realized how hard you have to fight for the right to work even in the workplace. Pressfield describes every day as a battle, and he’s right. The stakes are high. The enemy is relentless. Here are some of the tactics I’ve employed:

  • No instant messenger
  • Email notifications are turned off – I check email on my schedule
  • I work from a prioritized to-do list
  • I automate myself first – increase your own productivity, then help others

What are the worst productivity killers I’ve experienced?

  • Being asked more than once a day for a status report
  • Not having the tools to do your job
  • The Web – which is a nasty double-edged sword, because it’s a productivity multiplier

I don’t win this battle every day, but my win-loss record is improving. This book is one more salvo deep into the gut of the Resistance. I’ll leave you with this quote:

We were put here on earth to act as agents of the Infinite, to bring into existence that which is not yet, but which will be, through us.

Maybe that’s a prayer to say before sitting down at my desk in the morning. I look forward to doing battle tomorrow.

Hacking the Free Market

Like any system, the free market works very well within certain bounds, but it breaks down when you try to use it outside of those constraints.

The free market works when all of the parties in the system are “intelligent agents”. For the purposes of definition, we’ll call them “adult humans”. An adult human is free to enter into transactions within the system with other adult humans. The system works because the only transactions that are permitted are ones in which both parties to the transaction benefit. So, a plumber can fix an electrician’s drain, and an electrician can fix the plumber’s wiring, and they both benefit from the transaction. The introduction of currency makes this work even better.

In fact, if one party in a transaction ends up with less, we usually make that transaction illegal. It usually falls into the category of coercion, extortion, or theft. Nobody can put a gun to another person’s head and demand money “in exchange for their life” because that person had their life before the transaction started.

Still, we find ways to hack the system. Debt is one obvious circumvention. Normally debt is a transaction involving you, someone else, and your future selves. If you take out a student loan, go to school, pay back the student loan, and get a better job, then everyone benefits, and it’s an example of “good debt”. Likewise, if you need a car loan to get a car to get a better job, it’s “good debt” (depending on how much you splurged on the car). Mortgages are similarly structured. Consumer debt (aka “bad debt”), on the other hand, is typically a circumvention of the free market. However, the person who gets screwed is your future self, so it’s morally ambiguous at worst.

The free market can also be hacked through the exploitation of common resources. For instance, if I started a business that sucked all the oxygen from the air, liquefied it, and then I sold it back to the general public for their personal use, I doubt I’d be in business very long. I might as well be building a giant laser on the moon. Similarly, the last few decades were filled with stories of large companies being sued in class action lawsuits for dumping toxic chemicals into streams, rivers or lakes and poisoning the local water supply. Using up a common resource for your own benefit is a kind of “free market hack”. If a third party can prove they were the targets of a “free market hack”, the courts have ruled that they are entitled to compensation.

Still, we hack the free market all the time. The latest credit scandal is just one example. The general public was out of pocket because of a transaction many of them weren’t a party to. It really is criminal.

A larger concern is the management of natural resources. This includes everything from fossil fuels, to timber, fresh water, fish stocks, and, most recently, the atmosphere. The latter opens a new set of problems. All of the other resources are (or can be) nationally managed. Canada, for instance, while it has allowed over-fishing to take place on the Grand Banks, has exercised systems that reduce the quotas in an attempt to manage the dwindling resource. This makes those resources more expensive, so the free market can adjust to the real cost of these resources. The atmosphere, on the other hand, is a globally shared resource with no global body capable of regulating it.

I don’t want to get into some climate change debate here, so let’s look at it from a higher level. Whenever we have a common resource we always over-exploit it until, as a society, we put regulations in place for managing it. In cases where we didn’t (Easter Island comes to mind), we use up the resource completely with catastrophic results.

I realize the atmosphere is vast, but it’s not limitless. While everyone’s very concerned with fossil fuel use, if it was only about dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, it wouldn’t be a problem. The free market would take care of making fossil fuels more expensive as they start to run out, and other energy sources would take their place. However, when we burn fossil fuels, the energy we get is coming from a reaction between the fuel and oxygen in the atmosphere. The simple model is that oxygen is converted into carbon dioxide. Some of the potential energy of the reaction comes from the atmosphere, not just the fuel. We need to run that carbon dioxide through plants again to get the energy (and oxygen) back. Of course, that would take much, much longer (and more work) to do than the energy that we actually get out of the reaction.

If climate scientists are right, then we’re also causing a serious amount of harm to the climate at the same time. This is a debt that will continue accruing interest long after we’re dead. I recognize the uncertainty of the future, but as any good risk manager knows, you shouldn’t gamble more than you can afford to lose.

This is a free market hack because we treat it like a perpetual motion machine, but we’re really just sapping energy from a big flywheel. Like debt, whether this is “good” or “bad” depends on whether we can turn that consumption into something even more valuable for the future. In general (but not every case), every generation before us left us a better world than the one they inhabited. Most of the value we have now is knowledge passed from generation to generation. It costs comparatively little to pass information forward than the value we gain from the access to that information. Therefore, even if our ancestors used up resources, they couldn’t do it on a scale big enough to offset the value of the knowledge they were passing forward. It’s ironic if that knowledge let us build a big enough lever to tip the scales.

It seems pretty certain that if we fail to leave the future generations more value than we’re taking from them, they’ll make us pay. They’ll turn on the companies and families that profited at their expense, and they’ll either sue for damages, or drag the bodies of the CEO’s through the streets behind camels, depending on which area of the world they live in.

Personally I’d prefer prevention over retribution. The problem is that if there really is a future cost to our actions, the market isn’t factoring that into the price. Even though companies are accruing the risk of a large future liability, they don’t have to account for this risk in their balance sheet. That’s because while future generations have a stake in this situation, they don’t have a voicenow. Nobody’s appointed to represent their interests. That’s why the free market continues to be hacked, at their expense.

How could you structure such a system? Should companies be forced to account for estimated future liabilities, so it shows up on their P&L statements? Do we allow them to account for true value that they’re passing forward, like new technologies they’ve developed, which can help to offset the liabilities they’re incurring? Obviously that’s impractical. Not only does it become a bureaucratic nightmare, but there’s still no international body to oversee the principles of the accounting system.

Could an appointed legal representative of future generations sue us for the present value of future damages we’re risking? Can they spend the proceeds of the lawsuits on restorative projects? (Investments with a big dividend but which don’t pay back for 100 years, like reforesting the Sahara.) I doubt a non-existent group of people can sue anybody, so I doubt that’s a workable solution either.

I’m afraid the solution lies in the hands of politicians, and that makes me sad. We need a global body that can manage natural resources, including the atmosphere. At this point, a political solution seems just as impossible.

I’m still looking for ideas and solutions. I want to contribute to a workable solution, but my compass isn’t working. If you know the way, I’m listening.

(Hint: the solution isn’t energy efficiency.)

To be honest, we could still be producing knowledge at such a huge rate that we’re still passing forward more value than we’re taking from future generations. But I don’t think anyone’s keeping track, and that’s pretty scary.

Anyway, Earth hour’s about to start. While it’s a really silly gesture to turn your lights out for an hour in “support” of a planet that we continue to rape and pillage the other 8759 hours of the year, I think I’ll give this stuff another hour of thought. It’s literally the least I can do.

Edit: I posted a follow-up to this article called What can I do about our global resource problems?

Powering on a TRS-80: a Blast from the Past

Last night my 2 year old daughter came across a TRS-80 in our basement that my grandfather had given me, and she started banging away on the keys. I decided to plug it in and switch it on for her so she could get some feedback. I’d never turned it on before… but it worked! Well, kind of…

First it came up with a message that just said:


I figured that must mean “Cassette” and there was none, so I just pressed N and hit enter. Then it said:

Memory Size?

The front panel said 48K, so I dutifully typed 48 and pressed enter. It didn’t seem to like the answer, or indeed anything else I tried to type in. When I got the computer there was a pile of books with it, and this one was on the top:

Helpfully, the first thing it tells you to do is to just hit enter when it asks you that question. I did, and after a couple thoughtful seconds, it gave me the good old “ready” prompt:


The book suggesting typing CLS to clear the screen. I did this, but the L key didn’t work. I tried again. Nope…

Ok, so now it was a challenge. Isn’t it interesting that this old boat anchor could pass the time calmly in my basement when I thought there was nothing wrong with it, but the moment it needs repair, it becomes the focus of attention. I brought it up to the dining room table and started taking it apart (interestingly, my wife came home after it was sitting there disassembled, and it didn’t even phase her… apparently having the guts of a computer sprawled over the dining room table no longer provokes even the slightest surprise).

Amazingly, the “warranty void if removed” sticker was still intact over one of the screws. It felt good to void the warranty on an almost 30 year old computer. Once I got it apart, it wasn’t too hard to see what the problem was:

In case you didn’t quite catch that, here’s a close-up:

Yes, somewhere in this computer’s previous life, an industrious little rodent managed to build a nest under the lower floppy drive bay, and thoughtfully chewed through a few of the wires in the ribbon cable connecting the keyboard to the main board. After vacuuming it out I started searching for a suitable replacement. I took an unused IDE ribbon cable from my Windows Home Server. The TRS-80 ribbon cable had 20 pins, and the IDE cable had many more, but about 5 of the wires were “twisted” on the IDE cable. I had to carefully take it apart, untwist the wires, and put it back together. Then I was able to replace the keyboard cable with the new one, powered it up, and it worked!

> 20 GOTO 10

I hunted through the other documentation that came with it, and thought I’d share the nostalgia:

The one on the bottom left is particularly interesting. It’s literally a catalog the size of a Sears catalog, filled cover to cover with programs you could buy via mail order (anywhere from a couple of dollars to many thousands). It’s indexed by author, by industry, by application type, etc.

I never had a TRS-80 before, but I had an Atari 800XL, which was also programmed in BASIC (old school, with line numbers). It brought back many memories. I hope I could provide a moment of nostalgia for some of you too.

Now to figure out how to hook this up to something… 🙂

Doing it “Right”

As an engineer I notice I’m in a minority of people who are obsessed with discovering the “right” way to do something. At the same time, I know that there’s more than one way to do it. Not only that, but the “right” way isn’t the right way until someone discovers it, and the right way becomes the wrong way once someone discovers a better way (and then does the hard work of convincing everyone else that it’s better).

When we say there’s a “right” way, we’re implying that there’s also one or more “wrong” ways, but we’re also implying some more subtle nuances:

  • The “right” way is rarely the one that’s obvious to the novice
  • The “right” way takes more time, effort, and resources up front
  • It’s the “right” way because the additional investment pays off in the long term

I think these are interesting and insightful observations. All of them are strictly tied to experience. Nobody starts their first task on their first day of work and says, “wow, I can do this two different ways… I have no other way to weight the value of these strategies, so I’ll choose the one that takes more effort, time, and money.” By default, we choose the easiest, fastest, and cheapest route available to us. We change our strategy (if ever) only after seeing the outcome of the first trial. We only change if we see that the extra investment now will pay off for us down the road.

That’s why a homebuilder only builds your house “to code”. Have you ever seen how they build their own home? They put extra reinforcing material in the foundation, they use better materials, use longer lasting shingles, and they take care to get the best people to work on it. That’s because to them, the “right” way is different if they’re building your house vs. their home. Your house is just short-term profit, but they want their home to pay them back after the long haul. This is normal, logical, and selfish behaviour.

Yet I think Engineers, Architects, and Designers have some malfunction in their DNA that makes them obsessed with doing what’s in their client’s best long term interest even if there’s no benefit for them personally. There’s some kind of obsessive-compulsive aversion to a sub-optimal design. I would argue that it’s a prerequisite for those professions.

This often leads to frustrating conversations with clients, because the Engineer (not usually that good with social interactions to begin with) is trying to convince the client that they’re going to have to spend more money than they’d planned, it’s going to take longer than they thought, and it’s going to be more difficult than they’d imagined. That is, in fact, what the client is paying for: experience. The Engineer (who is a crazy deviant, always in search of some mythical “right” way of doing things) doesn’t understand why the client is upset, since they’ll be saving a boatload of anguish in the long term.

The most frequent complaint about Engineers has to be that they make things “too complicated”, and to be certain, you can take it too far, but what we’re really doing is inhabiting the losing end of every argument. As Engineers, we’re asking people to endure pain now for the promise of a better life later. If that were easy, the dessert industry would have perished long ago.

Format Shift

In case anyone out there is doubting my absolute nerdiness, I currently have a VCR hooked up to my computer through an NTSC to USB converter and I’m converting my old VHS copy of Hackers to an mpeg so I can store it on my Windows Home Server and stream it to my TiVo. Any other pseudo-nerd would just use BitTorrent to download a pirated copy of their favorite movies from the internet, but I’m one of those crazy people who think that copyright serves a purpose. At the same time, I absolutely stand behind my right to format shift the digital content I’ve already purchased to new formats.

“Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”

That’s my rant on format shifting. Interested in robot shifting? Check out Robot Shift – make the move to industrial robots.

On Helping

If I want something from you, I’ll probably tell you what you want to hear.

If I want to help you, I’ll probably tell you something you don’t want to hear.

Isn’t it interesting that we prefer to be around people who want something from us, rather than people who want to help us?