Monday, January 28, 2013

Question Time

I've been watching a lot of talks lately, mostly because friends recommend them through some medium or another. In fact I've had a couple of oldish talks recommended to me by sources so unlikely to share common sources of information that I wonder what motivation led them both to the same location.

Anyway, most of these talks follow the conference format you'd be familiar with: person talks for 50-55 minutes, and then takes a few questions. For the most part, I'm referring to talks about thought provoking subjects rather than informational ones: how does meaning emerge from games rather than how to implement heap sort in language X. In informational talks, the question component is valuable. There's a good chance that several people in the audience will have missed the same thing, and if one person asks the question, everybody who didn't get it the first time round gets a second chance. Even if only one person didn't get it and they get their question answered, then they have a better understanding.

I'm not as convinced on the value of providing question time at the end of thought provoking talks. It is useful to the speaker, to see how people have interpreted the ideas, but it is less useful to the audience and the person asking the question in particular. Question time is not a discussion where extended dialogue can result in some sort of useful synthesis, it's a short question followed by a brief answer often to a misunderstood version of the question. It's bizarre to me that the first thing you would want to do after someone provokes thought is to immediately ask them to resolve the thought they just provoked. Often these questions are of the form "So does that mean...?" to which the answer is "No, no, what I mean is...". Maybe the person who asks it goes away and gives it more thought, or maybe they shrug and say "oh, fair enough". The worst thing you can do with an interesting line of thought is let it get influenced, hijacked or dismissed by someone else before you've given yourself enough time to see where it leads.

I think it would be far more useful at the end of such talks to offer five minutes of uninterrupted silence for reflection than to answer questions.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bespoke


It occurred to me the other day that I own nothing bespoke. I was reading a Patrick O'Brien novel (probably Post Captain) and was struck by how much of the desiderata of the nineteenth century was custom made: suits, boots, watches, telescopes, even ships. By comparison there is nothing in my extensive range of things that was made by someone else, for me. Overall I am more than happy to take the improved relative cost and breadth of products provided by the world of mass production, but there is something enviable about a person's belongings being of them in a way beyond mere possession. I am not talking about the tragedy of lost arts, there are probably more tailors and carpenters now that there were in the nineteenth century, just the idea that there is comfort to be taken in looking at something you own and knowing that it is yours down to the last fibre, that it wouldn't fit as well on anyone else in the world.

Craftsmanship is an attribute that we hold in high regard culturally if not during the daily decisions we make. The craftsman is not the same as the mere expert. The expert is a individual with whom we have had an up and down relationship over the years, and is currently widely regarded as a person to be treated with skepticism. The craftsman, on the other hand, is universally admired. The expert is reviled for telling us what to do and often that what we're currently doing is wrong in a stupid way, thus prompting the hot, prickly sensation of being publicly shamed. The craftsman, on the other hand, asks us want we want and then provides it. We go to the craftsman with vague desires, half formed ideas, a vision of an item that will improve our life, and leave with an object of perfect utility. As I say, this regard is often overridden by pragmatic concerns such as cost and effort, but it is nevertheless well-regarded.

One of the hallmarks of the modern consumer's world is the amount of choice available. A quick check of the Skechers site, for example, shows forty different varieties of men's shoe. That's one brand, and only their casual range. Ignoring size, since even if different brands have different numbering schemes your foot is likely to say roughly the same size, I have ready access to what probably tallies up to a thousand or more different models of shoe. That being the case what is the attraction of getting custom made shoes? First, and least defensibly, there is knowing you have something that nobody else has. Then there's the little options that you might not get in a retail situation, no matter how extensive the selection, one shoe a slightly different size to the other for example. Most important, though, is the knowledge that somebody who knows what they're doing has made the guiding decisions. Where the layman might think "this feels a bit loose, maybe I'll try the size down" the expert shoemaker knows all that is required is a little padding on the heel. We are routinely presented with a wide variety of choices in which we have no domain expertise. The craftsman has both the expertise required to make the right choice, and then the ability to execute that choice is the best way.

It would be nice, I think, to sit down in my office chair in the morning and have it feel just right instead of feeling as though like I had just sat my bony behind on steel plate. It would be even better if that was not because I had spent six months trying to find the right chair but rather because there was a chairsmith who had crafted one for me. I know that in the end things aren't important, but I do seem to spend a lot of time interacting with them so having things that are for me rather than simply mine seems like a mighty fine idea.

Note: this is take two. I originally wrote a screed about working in the bespoke software industry but I bored myself writing it, and even more reading it back, so I canned it. You're welcome.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bargain


I have what I have come to appreciate is a simplistic approach to commerce. I go into a shop, find the thing I want, see if the price tag is within the bounds of what I'm willing to pay, and then find someone who works in the shop and ask them to ring it up. The mistake, in case you didn't see it there, was assuming the number on the price tag is how much I have to pay. Apparently in a lot of cases it's completely all right to ask if you can pay less. My dad prefers to explore this option with the opening gambit "what's your best price?" I'll be honest, the first time I was with him and I heard this my reaction was to put my head in my hands and groan (I was a teenager at the time and as a result being embarrassed by my parents was something I was naturally good at).

What sort of shop, thought I, is going to lower the price of their goods just because you ask them to? Sure, maybe at a second hand store or some sort of open air market you can get away with those kind of shenanigans, but in a retail store? These prices must be calculated carefully based on the wholesale cost, rental, staff wages, required profit margin, and probably another dozen complex factors. It's a national company with dozens of outlets, whole legions of people working in logistics and marketing, carefully honing the retail chain to its most efficient and competitive. Merely asking for a better deal isn't going to come into consideration.

Without any sign of being surprised or offended at my dad's suggestion that their prices were anything but a reflection of fair market value, the salesman looked him in the eye and said "I reckon I can knock fifty bucks off it for you." It wasn't even haggling, the salesman just dropped the price. Hell, maybe there was a better bargain to be had by haggling further. It was a sobering moment to find out that the economy you're operating in isn't based on the vendor asking what they believe to be reasonable for their wares but rather charging as much as they think the buyer can afford. I'm not saying that's a bad move by the vendor, just that it's a bit depressing.

Why does this process of just asking for a better price annoy me so much? Is there some poorly thought out excuse about an implicit social contract in the retail environment? Not really. The truth is that I think it makes me look like a sucker. More correctly, it makes me a sucker. I could be getting things more cheaply simply by asking. I don't even have to go to the extra effort of the dedicated bargain hunter, who makes the explicit trade off of time and/or quality for price. I just have to give a cheeky smile and say "what's your best price?" but I know I never will.

Next week's word is bespoke.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Anecdote

It always surprises me how many people are bad at recounting anecdotes. To me the anecdote is as much a staple of engaging in social situations as trying to figure out what to do with your hands when the waiter takes away your wine glass. These brief, amusing little personal stories let us engage in a kind of conversational gin rummy; sufficiently engaging and interesting to stave off boredom, yet easy enough to understand that nobody feels left out. I don't think that everybody has to be an Oscar Wilde level raconteur but when there's an awkward break in the conversation anybody should be able to entertain a small group with an amusing tale.

First, and most importantly, is the use of "amusing". An anecdote is not a joke. That is not to say it can't be funny but rather that it doesn't have to be. What it has to do is amuse the audience. This can be because it's humourous, cute, tender, sympathetic, shocking (in a double take kind of way, not a dry wretch kind of way), or causes mutual indignation. Some people tell their anecdotes with no confidence, scared that they won't get the desired reaction. If you don't think your funny story is very funny and as a result rush past the punchline, it's not going to be funny. If you're not sure whether it is amusing, or quite what the point is, just don't tell it. Not only to avoid your own embarrassment but for the people listening who are discomfited by your discomfort, and for that one nice guy who tries to help you out with a forced laugh and a "yeah, that's so true".

An anecdote is differentiated from other stories a person may tell by its brevity. Keep it short. Nope, shorter than that. An anecdote is not a painting, it's a sketch on a napkin used to get the point across before being discarded. Keep your characters as verbal stick figures to whom things happen. If the audience needs to know more than a simple archetype (big fat guy, officious government employee, angry hobo) then you're going to spend more time providing character descriptions than telling the story. Keep it short enough that if someone suddenly realises they need to go to the toilet, they can intuitively tell that they will be able to hold out for long enough to hear the denouement.

Remember, too, that an anecdote is not an act of recall. "I was helping a friend move house a couple of years ago" is a solid opening. It provides a situation familiar to most people and situates the narrator's role in events. "It was mid August." What? Why is that relevant? "I tell a lie, it was early August, I remember because it was pretty soon after my brother's birthday." What's happening? "Actually no that was when I moved. I helped Jake move in October. Yeah, because it was during the playoffs." Have you decided to start dictating your memoir in the middle of a social gathering? Nobody you're talking to knows when it happened or with whom and they don't care. They can't help you remember. You are the performer, not the audience. The point of the anecdote is to amuse the listener. Any aspect of it which doesn't further that end can and should be cut, no matter how interesting or important it may be to you.

Not every anecdote can be told the same way in every situation. Lots of factors can affect how you regale a group with an anecdote. If it's a large group just accept that sometimes you'll get interrupted by impatient people or another conversation starting up. At a noisy party, keep it as unsubtle as possible so that missing some of the detail won't cause the anecdote to lose all meaning. If it's a specialised group, you can bring out the story about the kernel hackers that shouldn't even be considered at an extended family dinner where nobody even knows what an iterator is. Or there is rock bottom, the place where anecdotes go to die. Everything is going along well until some complete bastard utters those fateful words "oh, tell that one about..." and then says the punchline. Then there you are, left with a group of people staring at you expectantly and waiting for a hilarious story to which they already know the conclusion. The only advice I have in this situation is go hard or go home: either you tell the story as if it hadn't just been ruined and trust yourself to be able to pull it off, or you wave it away and tell the dismissive ten second version. You can stab the person who did it to you later.

Most people have a collection of anecdotes they've told many times, refined over the years, some culled when they are no longer timely, some replaced by Darwinian action. The good ones have multiple ways they can be told, a subtle variation for each social context. You don't need to have led an exciting or even interesting life to have good anecdotes, although that doesn't hurt. All you need to do is make sure you know what story you're telling, why it's amusing, what version you need to tell in the circumstances, and above all that any story involving a monkey is going to go down well.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ambition


I am not the kind of person who looks upon the kingdoms of the world and thinks that bringing them under the rule of my iron fist sounds like a good career choice. While it is probably for the best that I don't want to conquer the world, more for my own safety than for any sort of threat I would pose to the world, personal safety is not the reason. It's because I am at heart not an ambitious man. Ambition, to me, is about wanting to achieve more than it is assumed you will or can. Whether that expected level of achievement is a real societal expectation or the classic parent- or peer-induced inferiority complex, ambition is the desire to exceed it. The corollary of this is that achieving something ambitious is hard enough that failure is a more likely outcome than success.

Within that definition it is very easy for someone like me not to be ambitious. If I had started life as a street kid from the slums of Peru (I assume Peru has slums, if not, sorry to any Peruvians for the disparaging remarks) then becoming a tertiary qualified software developer with a good income and stable home life would be pretty ambitious. By contrast, for a white male born to a pretty well-off family in suburban Australia it's completely unremarkable. It is quite possible, and trust me on this, to achieve that merely by taking the path of least resistance.

If I had ambition I feel that life would be straightforward: pick something to strive towards and then, in the best traditions of living organisms the world over, strive. Preferably towards it. Figure out the arc of events that leads from here to there and then map out goals, milestones, and other such achievement based things. I imagine at this point that people with ambition will have a quote from an appropriately inspirational figure printed on a poster that hangs in their office/bedroom/car. Straightforward but not easy: more than an even chance of failing dismally, but that's the risk you take. No shame in trying and failing (except for the shame of failure, obviously, which is all too often overlooked when people provide pep talks). If the endeavour is successful, bask for a little while, then repeat the process.

Unfortunately despite being quite small and very nerdy all through high school, I never developed a good liver-gnawing bitterness towards "them", nor did anybody ever tell me I wouldn't amount to anything. So having achieved comfortable life without breaking a sweat (not because it's easy, but because all the heavy lifting was done by the situation I was lucky enough to be born into) and with nobody to stick it to, what's next? Not having some sort of long term goal is like finishing an exam with an hour to spare: there's nothing to do, everyone else is too busy with their own stuff, and there's a growing sense of unease that you've missed something important. Can I just make something up? Pick some target that vaguely interests me and fool myself into believing that I really, really, want to reach it? If I know me, and I think I do, that approach won't survive the first minor impediment that presents itself. I think the most sensible course of action is to start doing a lot of different little things and seeing what interests me. If nothing else it should be distracting.

You know, I think this would have worked better if the word was "angst" or possibly "self-pity". Regardless, next week's word is anecdote.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Year of Writing Dangerously

For reasons that are laid out quite clearly over in +Jonathan Lange's neck of the woods, this blog is going to be seeing a lot more activity in 2013. At least twenty five times more activity, in fact. Which is a lot.

At some point I would guess one of us will come up with some sort of over engineered solution to unifying the posts. Until then, might I suggest following Jonathan as well if you don't already. If nothing else it will greatly increase your chances of reading something interesting.

The first word is nominated, my first virtual fiver is thrown into the pot.