The C Programming Language

is an excellent book by Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan (isbn 0131103628). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
C provides no operations to deal directly with composite objects.
Any characters between /* and */ are ignored by the compiler; they may be used freely to make a program easier to understand.
The precision of both int and float depends on the particular machine you are using.
Individual statements are terminated by semicolons.
Statements controlled by the while are indented by one tab stop so you can see at a glance what statements are inside the loop.
We recommend writing one statement per line, and (usually) leaving blanks around operators.
It's bad practice to bury "magic numbers" like 300 and 20 in a program; they convey little information to someone who might have to read the program later, and they are hard to change in a systematic way.
Nesting an assignment in a test is one of the places where C permits a valuable conciseness. (It's possible to get carried away and create impenetrable code, though, a tendency that we will try to curb.)
Expressions connected by && or || are evaluated left to right, and it is guaranteed that evaluation will stop as soon as the truth or falsehood is known.
Array subscripts always start at zero in C.
A function provides a convenient way to encapsulate some computation in a black box, which can then be used without worrying about its innards… C is designed to make the use of functions easy, convenient and efficient; you will often see a function only a few lines long called only once, just because it clarifies some piece of code.
You should note that we are using the words declaration and definition carefully when we refer to external variables in this section. "Definition" refers to the place where the variable is actually created or assigned storage; "declaration" refers to places where the nature of the variable is stated but no storage is allocated.
The evaluation order is not specified for associative and commutative operators like * and +; the compiler may rearrange a parenthesized computation involving one of these. Thus a+(b+c) can be evaluated as (a+b)+c. This rarely makes any difference, but if a particular order is required, explicit temporary variables must be used.


It's no doubt completely obvious to everyone else but yesterday I was struck by the parallel between Deming's Plan-Do-Check-Act and test-driven-development, in particular test-first-development:

  • Plan - write a failing test (red-grape)
  • Do - write code to make it pass
  • Check - run the test to see if it passes (green-grape?)
  • Act - what was the outcome? what will you do now?
The photo of PDCA is from page 143 of Toyota Kata by Mike Rother.

No abstraction

Years ago, when my children were still at primary school I was asked to dress up as santa. I stuffed a few cushions under a big red santa costume, lalloped into the room where all the bright eyed kids were waiting, and after a few ho ho ho's I said

Do you know who I am?

to which one of the kids at the back shouted

You're Patrick's Dad.

Kids are great like that.
They're so direct.
They say it exactly as they see it.

John Seddon's Bristol University talk

This was a very enjoyable talk from a very good speaker. There was quite a lot of overlap with John's 2010 Øredev conference keynote but it was well worth going. There's something about seeing someone speak in person. The occasional thing they've said before suddenly somehow makes more sense.

Here's what I jotted down, in no particular order:
  • MBA - maybe best avoided.
  • If you give it a name [eg Lean] then managers will think it comes in a box.
  • [failure] demand went up. It should have been a signal.
  • Telephone work is not a separate part of the system.
  • Understand the problem - build understanding into the system.
  • Cost is in flow - not in activity.
  • If you measure cost, cost goes up.
  • The only plan is get knowledge.
  • Culture change is free [because] it's a product of the system.
  • Experience is not the same as knowledge.
  • Change is emergent. Don't think 'we can't make a change without a plan'.
  • Trust is not a point of intervention. It's a consequence.
  • You don't learn counter-intuitive ideas in a classroom.
  • Taiichi Ohno - "he never explain".
  • Don't persuade. Make them curious.
Those last three reminded me of the old chestnut about acting your way into a new way of thinking rather than vice-versa. John's point was that if you are trying to teach a counter-intuitive idea (a new way of thinking) then it's probably not such a good idea to start from the current way of thinking. That's trying to cause a big change in someone's behaviour (something counter-intuitive) by persuasion alone. Much better to get them to experience what you want them to experience directly and then they'll start to naturally think differently without any persuasion at all.

John also emphasized that service organizations can change fast because they don't make anything. That made me wonder to what degree his message applies to software-development (in isolation) since software developers very definitely do make something.

Kanban 1's Game Notes

Some notes from Kanban 1's Game's I've played at a few clients sites...

First, some teams have been exploiting the splitting rule. If they have a 4-work-item with 2 bugs on it, they simply split it into a 3-work-item and a 1-work-item and put both bugs onto the 1-work-item and then abandon it, and carry on with the bug-free 3-work-item. They have to check for bugs on the abandoned buggy 1-work-item but otherwise it doesn't affect velocity. This is obvious in hindsight but I hadn't foreseen it. It is amazing how simple rules can create complexity when used in combination. To counteract this I introduce a rule that when you split a work-item into two smaller work-items both new work-items get the bugs. So, for example, if you split a 4-work-item with 2 bugs into a 3-work-item and a 1-work-item, then the 3-work-item and the 1-work-item both get 2 bugs.

Second, the way backlog work-items are created (without any 1's cost), and then moved onto the first table (also without any 1's cost) creates another unintended (from my point of view), but nonetheless very interesting possibility that a few teams have also recently exploited. What they've done is simply created masses and masses of backlog work-items and immediately pulled them all onto the first table. They effectively move the entire backlog onto the first table. The price they pay for this is having to check for bugs on every work-item. Naturally lots of bugs accumulate on the masses of work-items on the first table. However, this does not directly affect the velocity since they can simply any abandon any buggy work-item on the first table and pull in a newly created bug-free backlog work-item at any time.
So I'm currently wondering if it's better to have to pay a 1 to create a backlog work-item and possibly also pay a 1 to move a backlog work-item onto the first table. I think this will be effective for two reasons
  • it simplifies the backlog rules a bit since I can now drop the rule that backlog work-items have to move onto the first table in strict creation order.
  • I can allow 1's thrown from any table to create backlog work-items. This will give players on tables other than table 1 something to do during the early days of the sprint.
It seems clear to me that the game should somehow take into account the total number of bugs on all work-items on all tables. I'm pondering that.

Thirdly, rather than recording the bugs on an index-card paper clipped to the work-item, simply use the paper clips! Two paper-clips on a work item (as in the photo) means two bugs. Much simpler. Again this is obvious in hindsight.

Litter bugs

When my kids were at our local primary school I often used to collect litter on the school run. They've all left primary school now but I still walk to the local shops and post-office and pick up litter on the way. I did post-office walks in successive days recently and decided to collect litter on both days. Normally I wouldn't bother on the second day, since I figure it takes a while for new litter to accumulate. As always when doing something new I discovered something new.

I discovered that on the first day I collected the most obvious litter and on the second day I collected the less obvious litter, which, the day before, had been invisible because it had been hidden by the more obvious litter.

I also discovered that sometimes I see a piece of litter but don't pick up. My monkey mind creates a rational explanation for not picking it up. Perhaps because someone else is walking by. That's a bug - I'm not satisfied with that behaviour. I have resolved to use picking up litter as a discipline-practice. From now on the litter run will only count as successful if I pick up every piece of litter I see. I'm going to use the technique Jerry Weinberg reminded me of when he coached me in a previous blog entry comment. When I see a piece of litter I'm going to say the word litter. That I can easily do. And I'm going to associate saying the word with the action of picking it up.

Nearest exits x 2

As best as I can recall, on every flight I've ever been on, when the safety announcements are made in two languages they are done sequentially. First the whole thing in Norwegian (say) with the accompanying demonstrations; nearest exits, floor lighting, decompression air masks, lifevest strap, lifevest inflation, lifevest whistle, lifevest light, etc. And then the whole thing again in English with the same demonstrations again.

On my little KLM flight from Linköping to Copenhagen it was different. This time the two languages were interleaved. The steward demonstrated the nearest exits whilst the canned audio spoke the appropriate nearest exit words in Dutch, but then rather than moving on to demonstrating the floor lighting (with appropriate floor lighting canned audio in Dutch) he immediately demonstrated the nearest exits again whilst the canned audio spoke the appropriate nearest exits words in English. Nearest exits taken care of, the steward and canned audio moved on to the next topic, floor lighting - again first in Dutch with a demonstration, then in English with the demonstration again. The effect was that even though I don't know Dutch I saw each demonstration twice.

Utility surprises

One of these photos is of the cutlery drawer. I know exactly what it contains: knives, forks, and spoons. Its the cutlery drawer. It's name tells you what to expect when you open it.

The other photo is of.... well it doesn't really have a name in our house - it's just "the drawer" - but it's what Michael McInyre hilariously calls the man-drawer (start at 1 minute 30 seconds). I thought it would be interesting to see what's in it:

  • keys, 15, of which only 4 have a known current use
  • plastic coin bank bags, 5, all empty
  • glue, 4 x super-glue, 2 x glue-stick, 1 x bostik, 3 still usable
  • pens, 4 black, 1 grey, 1 red, a few still usable
  • spanners, 1 x 7/16", 1 x 10mm
  • chalk, 1, yellow, an escapee, we have a chalk box elsewhere
  • radiator bleeding keys, 1 yellow, 1 red, 1 black
  • drill chuck key, so that's where it is!
  • drill bits, 3, I never knew they were there
  • tape, 1 x sellotape, 1 x black electricians - aha, useful, pilfered for fishing
  • paper clips, about 50, loose, box-escapees
  • drawing pins, about 100, loose, box-escapees, be careful when rummaging
  • string, ah yes, would have been handy a few days ago
  • screwdrivers, 1 x 7" blue thin phillips, 3 x 4" watchmakers, plus 3 x 2" from an xmas cracker - never used, put in the drawer simply to keep the other screwdrivers company
  • screws, a few, loose, also keeping the screwdrivers company
  • tape measures, 1 x blue plastic non retractable, 2 x orange metal retractable, 1 x yellow metal retractable, clearly excess tape measures have been purchased when existing ones were temporarily lost
  • matchbox, large, half full
  • electrical lead, black, unknown use

Once you start a "utility" drawer it has an unstoppable force. All things can then be classified as being possibly of utility. It becomes a magnet for all things. If utility-drawers could expand infinitely they would turn into black-holes and consume everything in the known universe.

If you have a utility-drawer, unless it was born very recently in a house you've just moved into, it's almost certain to be completely full. Frequently you can't even close the utility-drawer because it's so full. When this happens a second immutable law kicks in - taking anything out of the utility-drawer is strictly forbidden. Possible work-arounds include brute-force drawer closure, crushing items flat, and jiggling the whole utility-drawer in a kind of simulated-annealing fashion in a vain attempt to get everything to settle down a bit.

Once your utility-drawer is full it will bud out into new forms. For example, I also have a utility-tin (batteries of indeterminate age live here), a utility-folder (instructions for 10 year old appliances live here), and a utility-cabinet (coins from out of circulation currencies live here). Michael would be proud.

Hotel room to train carriage

Appeared in the ACCU magazine CVu, Vol 22, January 2011

Paul has asked me to write something for CVu. I don't have a clear idea of what to write about so I thought instead I would just write about stuff I'm doing. Tonight I'm currently sat in a hotel room in Langley (Berks) after a thoroughly excellent day at a client's site. I've been teaching day one of my C Foundation course. John and Ed suggested some ways the slides, and the words I use to describe the slides, could be improved. So the first thing I've been doing is making some mods to the slides. The first was a simple int to pointer conversion where I initialised an int pointer with the hex integer 0xBEEF. I chose 0xBEEF because it spells a word but didn't think about alignment. 0xBEEF is an odd integer number and the address of an integer is likely to be, at the very least, even. The second was something I said. In the chapter about pointers I said that an invalid pointer doesn't have to be dereferenced for bad things to happen. That's too strong. You only need to think about the free() function to realise that. After you've called free(ptr) then ptr no longer points to an object but as long as you don't dereference ptr you'll be ok. What I should have said is that when you do pointer arithmetic any sub-expressions must always be valid.

Something I try to do regularly is to examine what happened during my day and to learn from it. A sort of retrospective. So I'm looking at the C course mods and wondering what I can learn from them. I'm wondering, in the first example, why I chose 0xBEEF in the first place. Choosing a hex number that spells an english word is overly clever. Overly cute. So now I'm thinking I'd be better off choosing a hex number that doesn't remotely even look like a word. One that would align correctly. I'm struck but how hard it is to avoid being overly clever. By how hard it is to recognise and take into account context. From the second example, I'm reminded how hard it is to say clearly what I'm thinking. Or rather, how difficult it is to have sufficient clarity in my thinking that the words are naturally clear.

As well as learning from the day's mistakes it's also important to think about what went well. I recently did a "60 minutes in the brain of" presentation for SkillsMatter London on deliberate practice (the topic of one of my entries in Kevin's 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know). SkillsMatter videod the talk and I've watched it a couple of times. Watching yourself on video is a tremendously valuable thing. It allows you to see yourself how others see you. Not how you see yourself. For example, something I noticed was a tendency I have to say "ok?" rhetorically at the end of a sentence. Ok? Doing that once or twice is fine but I did it perhaps a dozen times. It was almost becoming a tick. So one of my tasks today was to try not to say "ok?" at the end of my sentences. It's hard to know if I achieved that but I at least feel I didn't say it so often it became a noticeable tick. And I recall a couple of times where I was conscious I had not ended the sentence with "ok?" when previously I might have. But, interestingly, as I write this, I'm thinking how can I know? Perhaps I'm still doing it but don't realise because I can't see myself. So I'm wondering if, tomorrow, I will explicitly ask the guys on the course to tell me if I do it. I think I will. I'm reminded of the line from Robert Burns's Poem To a Louse, "To see oursels as others see is!". I remember Jerry Weinberg mentioning the connection in one of his books. And I notice bagpipe music is playing on my iTunes as I write now. I wonder if my subconscious made the scottish connection? It's the Skye Boat Song (Speed Bonny Boat). My mother used to sing that to me as a bedtime lullaby when I was a small boy.

It's now the next day. I'm on a train heading home. I'm reading some of Weinberg on Writing by Jerry Weinberg. I always carry a book. Usually three. I try to read a lot. Craig Larman once said to me that one of the main things that marks a consultant as a consultant is they read a lot. I have an odd reading habit. I don't read one book from start to finish before starting another book. Instead I read a small chunk from one book, and then put it down, and read another small chunk from another book. I often have about 20 books all partly read. Today the other two are A Little Book of f-Laws by Russell Ackoff and Herbert Addison, and Culture Against Man by Jules Henry. I don't have any fixed rules about switching from one book to another. I just try to sense when it feels right. And I don't have any fixed rules about which books I pop into my travel bags either. It may sound strange but I am trying to cultivate by subconscious so again I just try to sense what feels right. As I'm reading I highlight text that speaks to me. For example, in Jerry's book I've highlighted the following:

  • A trigger is a small amount of input energy that sets off a large amount of output energy.
    That caught my interest. I recall Jerry discussing triggers in some of his other books. So I've made a note to reread what he said about triggers there in the light of that quote. An actual note that is - I also always carry a pen and paper.
  • Raise your typing speed by ten words per minute. This will give you an extra six hundred words for every hour you work. If you work an hour a day, two hundred days a year, you'll type an extra 120,000 words - a couple of books' worth.
    That's quite illuminating.
  • You know, there would be no problem raising kids if only you could throw away the first one.
    That made me laugh.
  • Writer's block is not a disorder in you, the writer. It's a deficiency in your writing methods - the mythology you've swallowed about how works get written - what my friend and sometime coauthor Tom Gilb called your 'mythology'.

It took me a while to find that last one. I knew I had read it but I couldn't find it. I searched in the chapter I read most recently. No luck. I flicked through looking at the marked passages. No luck. Then I stopped and thought about what to do next. (It's almost always better than repeating a failed approach.) I wondered if Tom Gilb had an entry in the index. And he did. And it was exactly the passage I remembered. It was on page 19, not anywhere near the chapter I was reading most recently. And it was a passage I'd marked as I read it. And yet I looked at the marked passages trying to find it. I clearly missed it. That's reminded me that I have a tendency to only see something when searching for it if matches my pre-formed idea of what it will look like. My lovely wife Natalie tells me that's a typical male trait. That last snippet about Tom Gilb has sparked something in my mind. Partly I'm attracted to the word myth because one of my favourite corny jokes is the old chestnut "what is a myth?" the answer being "a female moth". But it's more than that. I think it's because my subconscious is connecting the word mythology with the word methodology. That's an interesting connection. A Mythodology perhaps?

Anway, when I've finished reading a book I copy the bits I highlighted into my personal wiki. Then I copy the dozen or so highlights that speak to me the loudest into a small book "review" snippet for my blog site 'Less Code, More Software'. Then I put the book onto a pile to take to the next accu conference to raise some money for charity. We'll be coming into Taunton at moment now so I'm going to sign off.

The book of five rings

is an excellent book by Miyamoto Musashi, translated by Thomas Cleary (isbn 1-57062-748-7). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
Preface: In common parlance, to do something with a real sword means to do it with utmost earnestness… The Book of Five Rings… explicitly intended to symbolise processes of struggle and mastery in all concerns and walks of life.
The martial way of life practiced by warriors is based on excelling others in anything and everything.
Fourth is the way of the artisan. In terms of the way of the carpenter, this involves skilful construction of all sorts of tools, knowing how to use each tool skilfully, drawing up plans correctly by means of the square and the ruler, making a living by diligent practice of the craft… practice unremittingly.
You should observe reflectively, with overall awareness of the large picture a well as precise attention to small details.
Having attained a principle, one detaches from the principles; thus one has spontaneous independence in the science of martial arts and naturally attains marvels.
As human beings, it is essential for each of us to cultivate and polish our individual path.
Observation and perception are two separate things.
It is essential to be relaxed in body and mind.
If you get to feeling snarled up and are making no progress, you toss your mood away and think in your heart that you are starting everything anew.
In my military science, it is essential that the physical aspect and the mental state both be simple and direct.
Whether in large- or small-scale military science, there is no narrow focus of the vision. As I have already written, by finicky narrowness of focus, you forget about bigger things and get confused, thus letting certain victory escape you.
Things stick in your mind because of being in doubt.
The practice of all the arts is for the purpose of clearing away what is on your mind. In the beginning, you do not know anything, so paradoxically you do not have any questions on your mind. Then, when you get into studies, there is something on your mind and you are obstructed by that. This makes everything difficult to do.

Writing left handed

Tom Gilb lent me a book about Leonardo Da Vinci a few months ago. Inspired by the great artist's ambidexterity (and something I read in Drive by Dan Pink) I've been learning to write left-handed (I'm right handed, ooops I wrote write there at first). At first I practised my alphabet with separated letters. Then with joined up letters. And more and more recently, with joined up words. It's starting to actually look like writing, and feel smooth when I write.

Wit and Wisdom from Poor Richard's Almanac

is an excellent book by Benjamin Franklin (isbn 0-486-40891-4). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
Observe all men; thyself most.
At 20 years of age the Will reigns; at 30 the Wit; at 40 the Judgement.
Laziness travels so slowly that Poverty soon overtakes him.
He that never eats too much will never be lazy.
He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolve not to mend now.
Friendship cannot live with Ceremony, nor without Civility.
Men take more pains to mask than mend. Bad Gains are truly Losses.
A good wife and Health, is a Man's best Wealth.
Buy what thou hast no need of, and e'er long thou shalt sell they necessaries.
He that would catch Fish, must venture his Bait.
Learn to be skilful; He that teaches himself, hath a fool for his master.
Tis easier to suppress the first Desire, than to satisfy all that follow it.
He that would live in peace and at ease, Must not speak all he knows nor judge all he sees.
He that cannot obey, cannot command.

The way of the leader

is an excellent book by Donald Krause (isbn 1-85788-137-0). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
Do the essential things well: Be proactive (do through action), Reduce complexity (concentrate effort on the essential things), Seek improvement (get the essential things done better).
We can never know everything there is to know about a complex process… The knowledge that we really need to optimise a complex process is unknowable. Therefore, we can only approach optimisation a little bit at a time as our understanding grows.
Battles are won by great execution, not by great plans! Great execution can save a mediocre plan; poor execution will always ruin a great plan. [George Patton]
A person who practices self-discipline and continuously develops his level of skill seldom fails in the long term.
Listen carefully. Observe closely.
When the chips are down, the main question is not how you go about meeting your objectives, but whether you succeed in doing so.
For an effective leader, determination is more important than intellect.
Perfection is the enemy of effectiveness.
The art of leadership is an art based on simplicity, and all success is rooted in performance.
Learn by observing the behaviour of other people. If you observe good behaviour, copy it. If you observe bad behaviour, look for the same behaviour in yourself and eliminate it.
There is no surer road to disaster than to fit past solutions, however successful, to current situations.
Discipline is not intended to kill character, enthusiasm, and initiative, but to develop them.
Minimize form and maximise substance.
It is better to be alone than in bad company.
It has been just so in all my inventions. The first step is intuition - and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise... Persistence is the key [Thomas Edison]
Character is a habit. It is created through the daily choice of right and wrong. It is a moral quality which grows gradually to maturity. It does not appear suddenly.

not always so

subtitled Practicing the true spirit of Zen, is an excellent book by Shunryu Suzuki (isbn 0-06-095754-9). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
What is most difficult for any teacher, especially a Zen teacher, is to teach without teaching anything. "If I tell you something," Suzuki Roshi said, "you will stick to it, and limit your own capacity to find out for yourself." But, as Katagiri Roshi said, "You have to say something," because if the teacher says nothing, the students wander about sticking to their habitual ways of being.
Most of the happiness you have is the kind you later regret losing.
You may think it was sudden, but actually it was the result of many years of practice and of failing many times.
Be yourself in the present moment, always yourself, without sticking to an old self.
When you understand how practice goes back and forth, you will enjoy your practice.
A baby has the same basic attitude of interest towards all things. If you watch her, she will always be enjoying her life. We adults mostly are caught by our preconceived ideas.
We attach to the descriptions and think they are reality. That is a mistake.
Usually when we deny something, we want to replace it with something else.
The Buddha's teaching is not about the food itself but about how it is grown, and how to take care of it.
Staying silent will open your intuition… Not to talk does not mean to be deaf and dumb, but to listen to your intuition.
If the left is wisdom, the right is practice.
Rituals are more than just training. Through rituals we communicate and transmit the training in a true sense. We put emphasis on selflessness. When we practice together, we forget our own practice… When you practice your own practice together with others, the true ego-lessness happens.
Everyone has character, but if you don't train yourself, your character is covered by ego.
Practice first, then apply the teaching.
If you want to appreciate good art the most important thing is to see good work.
Practice and enlightenment are one. Practice is something you do consciously, something you do with effort. There! Right there is enlightenment.

Zen mind, beginner's mind

is an excellent book by Shunryu Suzuki (isbn 0-8348-0079-9). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
The most important thing is this moment, not some day in the future. We have to make our effort in this moment. This is the most important thing for our practice.
Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.
Wisdom is not something you learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness.
Right practice, right attitude, right understanding.
The flow of his consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centred consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances that are present.
To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.
The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous.
The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.
Bowing helps to eliminate our self-centred ideas.
Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.
To give is non-attachment, that is, just not to attach to anything is to give.
It is when your practice is greedy that you become discouraged with it. So you should be grateful that you have a sign or warning signal to show you the weak point of your practice.
We should begin with enlightenment and proceed to practice, and then to thinking.


is an excellent book by John Kay (isbn 978-1846682889). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
Happiness is not simply the aggregate of happy moments.
The modern philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre contrasts the business of fishing - designed and planned - with the practice of fishing - the methods and traditions which have evolved over the generations in a fishing community.
Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. (Jack Welch)
Experience has shown that too much effort devoted to fire extinction is counter-productive. But some fire-control activity is essential.
The forests the National Park Service inherited were diverse, the product of thousands of years of unplanned development. In the 19th century German foresters rejected unplanned evolution in favour of design. You can still see such planned forests in many countries of Europe and North America: the trees are identical and evenly spaced… These forests are generally ugly, but were not very successful in economic terms, far more prone to accident and disease than the planters had anticipated. The foresters saw the trees but not the wood. You cannot necessarily deduce the properties of the whole by adding up the properties of the individual parts.
The context of the problem matters to our solution as much as the problem itself...
A plan of how he [Admiral James Stockdale] would survive would have been harmful, not helpful.
In tropical waters around the world, cleaner fish remove parasites from the mouths of predators. The large fish attend 'cleaning stations', and the smaller fish that congregate there swim into their jaws. Having performed their prophylactic service as they eat their meal, the small fish swim out again unharmed.
In complex systems the blind watchmaker may be more effective than the sighted one.
Evolution is smarter than you are.
It is more important to be right than to be consistent.
In obliquity we learn about the structure of a problem by the process of solving it.
The more we practise the better our judgements.

The roses of success

I was watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with my son Patrick the other day. I was struck by two things. The first was just how scary the child catcher is. The second was the lyrics of The Roses of Success, which beautifully capture the relationship of failure and success.

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you'll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!

For every big mistake you make be grateful!
That mistake you'll never make again!
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
There's magic in the wake of a fiasco!
It gives you that chance to second guess!
Then up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success!

Disaster didn't stymie Louis Pasteur!
Edison took years to see the light!
Alexander Graham knew failure well;
he took a lot of knocks to ring that bell!
So when it gets distressing it's a blessing!
Onward and upward you must press!
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.

I'm also reminded of a line Reg says in Monty Python's The Life of Brian

Thank you, Loretta. Siblings!! Let us not be downhearted. One total catastrophe like this is just the beginning.


is an excellent book by Ricardo Semlar (isbn 0-7126-7886-7). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
Our board meetings have two open seats for the first employees that sign up, and two more for any person in a leadership capacity that cares to show up.
My role is that of a catalyst. I try to create an environment in which others make decisions.
During this time I often thought of a business parable I had heard. Three stone cutters were asked about their jobs. The first said he was paid to cut stones. The second replied that he used special techniques to shape stones in an exceptional way, and proceeded to demonstrate his skills. The third stone cutter just smiled and said: 'I build cathedrals.'
…I'll recommend that you take two aspirins, eight times a day. These sixteen pills won't do very much, except remind you regularly that you have a huge problem to solve.
In business, effort is too often confused with result.
Imagine! Workers wanted to be searched to prove their innocence.
Dress codes are all about conformity.
A conservative bunch, they adhered to a rigid hierarchy, even when complaining.
Almost all businessmen think their employees are involved in the firm and are its greatest asset. Almost all employees think they are given too little attention and respect, and cannot say what they really think.
I have come to believe that economy of scale is one of the most overrated concepts in business. It exists of course, but it is overtaken by the diseconomies of scale much sooner than most people realise.
I believe Taylor's precise job descriptions limit workers' potential and constrain the possibility of job enrichment, which dampens their motivation.
We quickly learned he was the kind of person who would count to ten when he got angry - and explode at two.
Any alley cat can stay lean when food is scarce; the trick is to stay lean during the good times.

The Systems Bible

is an excellent book by John Gall (isbn 0-9618251-7-0). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
Systems don't appreciate being fiddled and diddled with. They will react to protect themselves.
Systems tend to oppose their own proper functions.
Perfection of planning is a symptom of decay.
People in systems do not do what the system says they are doing.
The system itself does not do what it says it is doing.
To those within a system, the outside reality tends to pale and disappear.
Specialized systems select for specialization.
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.
Experience isn't hereditary - it ain't even contagious.
The meaning of a communication is the behaviour that results.
Information theory is a mathematical treatment of what is left after the meanings have been removed from a communication.
Just calling it "feedback" doesn't mean that it has actually fed back. To speak precisely: It hasn't fed back until the system changes course. Up until that point it's merely sensory input.
Most of the parts are needed primarily as correctives to the vicious tendencies of the other parts.

The Label Law

The Label Law is one of Jerry Weinberg's laws from The Secrets of Consulting
The name of the thing is not the thing.
...our tendency to attach a name - a label - to every new thing we see, and then to treat that thing as if the label were a true and total description...
Once the stereotyped label is attached, the problem becomes much harder to solve.
I was reminded of the Label Law recently when watching, you've guessed it, The Princess Bride (one of my favourite films) with my son Patrick. There's a scene where the Man in Black (aka Westley) explains to Buttercup how he has become the Dread Pirate Roberts:
The name was the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear. You see, no one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley.
The Label Law also reminds me of the apocryphal story of the man who, lacking any cheese, baited his mousetrap with a picture of some cheese, only to find the next day he had caught a picture of a mouse.

Richard Feynman knew the difference between something and its name. In his book the pleasure of finding things out he recalls spending time with his Dad in the woods:
Looking at the bird he says, "Do you know what that bird is? It's a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese it's a … in Italian a …, " he says "in Chinese it's a …, in Japanese a …," etcetera. "Now," he says, "you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of the bird is and when you've finished with all that," he says, "you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now," he says, "let's look at the bird."
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