antipaucity

fighting the lack of good ideas

more coolidge

More choice excerpts from Coolidge by Amity Shlaes (review):

The constant apprehension was, so long as then-existing legislation remained in force, that the unit of existing monetary relations would be changed. Such an apprehension is the surest ground for panic which can be offered. The panic which resulted when this fear became more specific was not a bank panic, nor a crisis in which the banks had any responsibility. –William Graham Sumner on issues surrounding changing from the gold standard.

I do not like an income tax, it taxes the land and the crops at the same time, it is too expensive to collect… no man’s income is permanent enough to admit of taxation, it will easily be a source of corruption. –Calvin Coolidge, 1894

The term of power for every party must therefore be limited. –Anson Morse – influencer of Coolidge’s views on length of time in any given office

The nineteenth century is slipping away. We are to live in the scientific age of the 20th century and must prepare for it now. There are millions who can only be hands and only a few who can be heads. –Calvin Coolidge, 1894

One should never trouble about getting a better job. But one should do one’s present job in such a manner as to qualify for a better job when it comes along. –Calvin Coolidge, 1894. (Don’t be unpromotable.)

what to automate

I have been in the world of automation for quite a while. Specifically in the realms of server, datacenter, and cloud automation – but I’ve been interested and/or involved in other tasks that tend towards automation (even for a short period of time) for far longer than just my post-college time in the world of HPSA and its related ilk.

One of the first questions customers ask us when we arrive onsite (heck – even way back in the technical presales cycle) is NOT what can be automated, but rather what should we automate and/or what can we automate first.

Analyzing the environment and finding some prime, low-hanging fruit to target in an initial automation push is vital.

To quote Donald Knuth, “We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time; premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

In the realm of automating, that means picking on tasks that, while the tools at hand can make quick work of them, are done so infrequently as to not warrant an immediate focus, since the ROI on infrequently-done tasks is not going to be readily seen* should be skipped.

This is part of where being a good architect comes to bear.

No.

That’s not true.

This is where being a good listener and collator comes to bear. In a future post I’ll talk more fully about the art of architecting – but for today’s topic, let’s focus on the true key personality traits you must display to get a successful project started, implemented, and running.

You need to listen. You do not need to “hear” – you need to process what is being said, ask it back, take notes, ask for clarifications, etc. In the counseling world, this is called “active listening“. In the rest of life, it’s called being an attentive, thoughtful, caring, intelligent, adult human being.

When you hear a customer say they have a real problem with some task or other (beware – managementspeak coming!) – ie, they have “pain points” in various places, ask about what those individual tasks are actually comprised of. Investigate what can be touched today, what can be planned-for tomorrow, and what needs to be tabled for a future engagement (for you architects and sales folks reading, this translates into “what can we sell them later – after this project is successful?” – how can we build and strengthen this relationship?).

Take these notes and conversations you have to your colleagues and tease-out coherent lines of attack. Collate all the notes form everyone involved into commonalities – what has everyone heard a customer say? What did only one guy hear? What order did each person hear them in?

After you’ve listened, after you’ve taken your notes, after you’ve powwowed with your colleagues - then comes the fun part of any engagement: the actual automation!

Bring your cleaned-up and trimmed-down notes back to the customer in an easily-digestible form, and give a solid plan for what we will do now, what we want to do soon, and what really needs to wait to be done til later. Put an N, S, or L next to each item on your list. – it’s a first-cut priority draft. Then ask your customer for how they view those tasks, and listen to what they say are their priorities (including “real” dates, if any exist). You may need to reorganize your list, but keeping it involved in all project discussions will show you’re truly paying attention to them.

And at the end of the day, everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. Always – even shy people want to hear themselves bragged-up, talked-about, promoted, and given attention.

When you showcase your individual focus and attention on your customer, it will show in their willingness to accept you into their closer rings of trust – their readiness to receive you as a “trusted advisor”, which is what you want to be for them: you want to be who they can talk to about problems they’re seeing in their environment (current or potential) so you can bring your expertise to bear on their issues.

The role of any consultant who wants to be more than a mere grunt is not so much technical or business acumen, but that of their business therapist and/or best friend. You want to be able to say with Frasier Crane, “I’m listening”. And you want them to know that you really are.

Some of the early steps you can take today to bring yourself there are to:

  • avoid electronic distraction in meetings
  • document everything you do for work
  • be detailed
  • know industry trends, what competitors are doing, etc
  • treat everyone you come in contact with at a customer as if they were the most important person there
  • anticipate what you may be asked, and where you want to go
  • never speak authoritatively about that which you do not know
  • learn – be a “Lifelong Learner”: the day you stop learning is the day you stop growing, and the day you stop being reliable to others

*Unless, of course, those infrequent tasks are only infrequent because they’re “hard”, and therefore automating them will yield a solid ROI by allowing them to be done more often

programming your home by mike riley

Mike Riley’s entry in The Pragmatic Programmers series, Programming Your Home – automating with Arduino, Android, and your computer – was a lot of fun.

While I am not really in a position to do many of the mini projects given in the book (wrong type of house plus we rent), reading some of the project ideas did give me some inspiration for other activities. One of those is a Buffer-like tool I’m now writing to queue tweets over-and-above what the free level of Buffer will allow (and on a different schedule from my Buffer-fed queue). In conjunction with python-twitter, cron, and simple email messages, I’ve got a system started to which I can email things I would like to be posted, and they will go out when the cron job runs.

The Arduino is an impressive embedded platform – one that has also rekindled another long-time interest I’ve had in robotics. Years back, I recall seeing Sally Struthers advertising for one of those learn-at-home groups, and one of the options was robotics. (By “years back”, I mean 20+ years ago – probably more like 25 years ago, at this point.) I used to own a copy of Robot Builder’s Bonanza – and read it cover-to-cover a couple times. I loved watching Battlebots on TV. I’ve always wanted to buy/use LEGO Mindstorms.

Using robots to automate daily activities (and, of course, for fun) has been a fascination since I first saw Lost In Space and myriad other scifi shows and movies.

Riley does a great job of not demanding you be an expert programmer (or even a programmer at all) with the fully-implemented code examples in the book. He also does a good job of indicating what you’ll likely have to tweak on your own – and what you can probably just leave alone in the examples. Add to this the “extra credit challenges”, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in home automation, embedded development, robotics, or just general programming/scripting.

There are some other interesting Python snippets throughout the book – that don’t have to be used in the context of an Arduino (like using Google’s SMTP server (via authentication)).

first experiment follow-up

I’ve been attempting a “reactive”/”consumptive” reading experiment recently.

The first book I tried it on was the Henry Petroski’s horrid To Engineer is Human (my review). That turned into a failure as I couldn’t stomach his writing, and so “reacting” to it was going to pretty much be an exercise in futility.

So I’ve ditched that book – maybe someone else will not find it so poor a read.

Many of the books I read (and review) I get from my local library. All of which, therefore, are poor candidates for consumptive reading in the sense Ryan Holiday used the term in his blog post.

But as I dove through his writing a bit more, I saw his mention of a “commonplace book“.

“A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Specifically, he was taught how to do one by Robert Greene (author of Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, etc), and he cites various individuals in history who have maintained them. It’s also something that Roald Dahl mentioned obliquely in his book The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (one of my favorites by him (PDF)) in “Lucky Break” – namely, that he always keeps something on which to write nearby (a notebook, a scrap of envelope – even the dust on his car bumper) so that whenever an idea strikes him, he can jot it down in case it was good enough to actually write about:

“Sometimes, these little scribbles will stay unused in the notebook for five or even ten years. But the promising ones are always used in the end. And if they show nothing else, they do, I think, demonstrate from what slender threads a children’s book or short story must ultimately be woven. The story builds and expands while you are writing it.”

This got me to thinking about how I might integrate the idea myself – though, of course, in a slightly different way. And that’s where I am progressing to now: instead of “consuming” all the books I read, ones I find interesting I’m taking notes on in a composition book (specifically a quad-ruled one, as those are my favorite). I’ve found so far it’s helped form better reviews. It’s also not the only place I’ll keep those notes – many will end up on this blog. Others will end up on Twitter. Others maybe in email signatures, or Facebook posts, or wherever.

In our amazingly digitized world, writing by hand seems, well, old-fashioned and trite. Or hipster-ish and cool. (Depends on who sees you doing it, I think.) Sometimes I’ve already found my notes being done electronically – via SMS to myself, or draft blog posts, or just a quick Notes session on my laptop.

Anyways, where I’m going with all this is instead of always being a mere passive consumer of writing, I’m trying to be a bit more “thoughtful” about it 🙂

coolidge by amity shlaes

Calvin Coolidge is my favorite president. Has been for a long time.

So when I saw Coolidge at my local bookstore recently, I was very excited to grab a copy and read Amity Shlaes rendition of his life.

In just the first 18 pages is enough to inspire anyone to love the man we call our 30th President.

Some choice excerpts form the introduction and first chapter:

Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell. Under Coolidge the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent, or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically… Under Coolidge, a man from a town without a railroad station, Americans moved from the road and into the air… Under Coolidge, wages rose and interest rates came down so that the poor might borrow more easily.

Coolidge kept government out of the way of commerce.

Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism.

It was Washington whom Coolidge emulated in his deliberate decision not to seek reelection in 1928.

Without knowing Coolidge, Americans cannot know the 1920s.

Most presidents place faith in action; the modern presidency is perpetual motion. Coolidge made virtue of inaction… “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he wrote… In politics as in business, it is often harder, after all, not to do, to delegate, than to do. Coolidge is our great refrainer.

“The Coolidge family recipe collection contained instructions for ‘Scripture Cake’:

One cup of butter. Judges 5:25
Three and one half cups flour. 1 Kings 4:22
Two cups sugar. Jeremiah 6:20
Two cups raisins. 1 Samuel 30:12
One cup of water. Genesis 24:17
Two cups figs. 1 Samuel 30:12
Two cups almonds. Genesis 43:11
Six eggs. Isaiah 10:14
One tablespoonful honey. Exodus 16:31
A pinch of salt. Leviticus 2:13
Spices to taste. 1 Kings 10:2
Two tablespoonfuls baking pow. 1 Cor 5:6
Follow Solomon’s advice for making good boys (Proverb 23:14), and you will have good cake.
Bake in a loaf and ice.

Calvin wrote to his grandmother in 1887 while at boarding school,

“I am in first rate health and I am having a good time but having a good time is not everything to think about in this world.”

I pity anyone who does not appreciate Coolidge, and anyone who believes that emulating the leader of our most successful decade is a poor idea.

If only every president lead like Coolidge did.