Another book review: “Better”

Posted April 1, 2008 by Tom Comeau
Categories: Metrics, Process Change

I read Atul Gawande’s Better: A Surgeon’s Notes On Performance last night. It’s written from a medical perspective, and talks about many of the things that are wrong with medical delivery today, but it is really about performance. I recommend it for anybody who cares about their own performance.

The book started as a series of essays, some of which I’ve read before. There are three sections, and each has a theme around improved performance.

Diligence is about how to do something well, and it boils down to just that: be diligent. Planning things, making sure the plan is complete, and executing the plan; washing your hands every time; tracking your own performance and being honest about failures.

Doing Right is about understanding what will improve your performance, and then actually doing it. The Right Thing isn’t always obvious, and deciding on right conduct can require serious soul searching. Having decided on the right thing, however, means accepting the obligation to do right.

Ingenuity is about metrics, of all things, and about finding good metrics and applying them to your work, and about finding innovative ways to improve performance.

In an afterword Gawande makes five Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant.
1. “Ask an unscripted question.” Ask about things that matter to the other person, and actually listen to the answer. This may make other people seem more like real people, and less like machines.

2. “Don’t complain. … It’s boring, it doesn’t solve anything, and it will get you down.”

3. “Count something. …be a scientist in the world.” Some metrics are better than others, but some metric is better than no metrics.

4. “Write something.” This is the same advice Cliff Stoll gives everybody. Publish something, somewhere, in the hope of contributing to a larger world.

5. “Change.” This doesn’t mean chasing every fad, it means recognizing that you are not doing everything you might as well as you might, and you need to try new solutions.

Despite being 250+ pages, I found it a very fast read. It is at times inspiring, at times disheartening and occasionally terrifying, but Better is well worth the read.



The Big Switch

Posted March 17, 2008 by Tom Comeau
Categories: Process Change, Software

Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison To Google is a look at two major changes in how business behaved. It is part success story, and part warning, and it does a great job of both.

The first fifth of the book is about the process of moving from a world powered largely by muscles or water, and lit only by fire, to industry powered and lit by electrical utilities. No single invention — the electric generator, electric motors, electric lights or power transmission lines — was the key to this second industrial revolution. Rather, it was the construction of systems of generating, delivering and using electricity that led to a complete transformation of industrial production, and laid the foundation (with Hollerith and Watson) for the next great change: digital computing.

Read the rest of this post »

Macs take over astronomy

Posted March 11, 2008 by Tom Comeau
Categories: Hubble, STScI

Okay, maybe not all of astronomy, but I got these numbers yesterday from the people who handle HST proposal submissions:

Platform     Proposals
Mac OS X        492
Linux           297
Windows         115
Sparc Sun        46
Not Given        11

Five years ago, less than ten percent of proposals were done on Macs. This year it’s more than half.

Of course, the more interesting numbers would be the percentage on each operating system for accepted proposals, but we won’t know who is accepted until the end of May.

(Put another way, what I’d like to know is whether the platform used for submission predicts, even weakly, proposal acceptance, and whether the proportion of platforms for accepted proposals predicts future submission platforms.)

Senator Obama: Echoes of President Kennedy

Posted February 19, 2008 by Tom Comeau
Categories: Uncategorized

I was watching Senator Obama speak at a rally in Texas.  He mentioned JFK’s “never fear to negotiate” statement.  It reminded me of this:

      Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.

JFK never delivered that speech.  Obama is often compared to JFK, and I get the similarity.  I also get the differences.  I’m a Republican, so I’m disappointed that my party has nobody like Obama.  It looks like Senator McCain will have his hands full.


Audacious rhyme

Posted January 28, 2008 by Tom Comeau
Categories: Home, Security

It’s been a while again, mostly because I’ve been busy.

But this morning I was listening to Antje Duvokot’s Merry-go-round and was struck by this rhyme:

We are slightly scared of death, a little bit afraid
So we celebrate everything we can think to celebrate

I would never have put those two words together.


What it means to be rich.

Posted November 26, 2007 by Tom Comeau
Categories: GeekDad, Home, Process Change

I stumbled into an article in the Washington Post this morning that includes this comment about the aspirational difference between “middle class” and “rich.”

“The middle-class aspirations include a decent home in a good neighborhood with a good school, and the ability to save for college and to make sure that your children have the opportunities to put themselves on a path to match or exceed yours,” Bernstein said. “If you’re upper class, you think about whether you want to move your horse from one barn to another barn.”

There are several things I find interesting about this notion, including one that happens to be purely about timing.

Teela’s riding instructor (I’m Teela’s dad) just decided to move her business to Arizona, so several of her riding buddies are thinking about new barns for their horses. All but one of them probably makes less than I do. For sure, none of them are rich. I wish I could afford a horse for Teela – a good one – because she’s put a lot of effort into her riding, and is at the point where she could start to compete. But I really can’t afford one, and if I could, I couldn’t afford to keep it.

My household income puts me in the top 6.5% of US households. The NY Times defines “rich” as the top 5%, which is a mere $157,176 in 2004 dollars. I live in the third richest county in the richest country in the history of the world, but I still worry about whether I’ll have enough money to cover a major illness or injury; whether I’d be able to find a job before my savings run out; or whether, if I save and invest carefully, Teela can go to a first or second tier university.

We’ve done a lot of things well, and we’ve been very fortunate, but from either an income or an aspirational perspective, I don’t think I’m rich. That puts me closer to Hilary Clinton than Barack Obama on the definition of “rich.”


Some quotes I like.

Posted September 4, 2007 by Tom Comeau
Categories: Communication, Process Change

Recently on the Manager Tools forums, I shared some of my favorite quotes.

(If you lead or manage people, as a boss, a project manager, or a team lead, you really should be listening to Mike & Mark’s podcasts. Even on the rare occasions that I really disagree, I learn something. I try, with some success to apply what I’m learning to my work. I’m a premium member.)

“Don’t be ridiculous sergeant. They can’t possibly hit us at this.”
– unknown officer, often attributed to a American Civil War General.

This is probably apocryphal, but I don’t care. The point is that the guys in the trenches are closer to the problems, so if you’re going to second-guess them, it’s best to do so from good cover, and concealment.

“It worked!”
– J. Robert Oppenhiemer, at the Trinity test.

This isn’t the quote usually attributed to Oppenheimer, but it is what eyewitnesses agree he said. I usually find it surprising when things work on the first try, particularly when it’s an entirely new system.

“Contact light.”
– Buzz Aldrin. (First words spoken from the Moon.)

When you are in the middle of doing a new thing, get the thing done before you worry about dressing it up. The “Tranquility base here….” line is a great one, but the first few seconds were still about making sure they were down, in one piece, and getting set up to get back off the surface in a hurry if they had to. They had a procedure for touchdown, and they stuck to it, even having just gone through an unexpectedly difficult approach.

“That’s enough of you. Let me talk to Beavis.”
– My brother, an Air Traffic Controller, to a particularly dense pilot.

My brother is both witty and subtle. He is also very well organized, and has little patience with people who aren’t prepared, particularly where safety is involved.

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
– Werner von Braun

There is a companion to this quote, which I can’t quite place, that is something along the lines of …Real science starts when you say “that’s not right…” The other thing is, when you get stuck, don’t get frustrated, get interested.

“For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong.”
– H. L. Mencken

When people tell me to keep it simple, or that things should be easy, this is the one I remember. It is far too easy to jump to the wrong conclusion and hope the world is simpler than it actually is.

“Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.”
– Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

That’s my plan.