So you think you’re a thought worker ?

One of my favourite quotes is from Fred Brooks, author of The Mythical Man Month :

Well over half of the time you spend working on a project (on the order of 70 per cent) is spent thinking, and no tool, no matter how advanced, can think for you. Consequently, even if a tool did everything except the thinking for you – if it wrote 100 per cent of the code, wrote 100 per cent of the documentation, did 100 per cent of the testing, burned the CD-ROMs, put them in boxes, and mailed them to your customers – the best you could hope for would be a 30 per cent improvement in productivity. In order to do better than that, you have to change the way you think.

This quote is about 13 years old now. You can tell it’s old because of the CD-ROM reference. Seriously, when was the last time…? But that’s about the only thing that dates it. Other than that, it’s as true today as it was then and I suspect it applies to many areas or disciplines besides software development. It’s just particularly pertinent to software development because it’s about productivity, one of the grails of our craft.

There is no shortage of software tools today. A new one seems to appear every week. Nor is there a shortage of column inches extolling the virtues or instructing in the use of this or that tool. By comparison there seems very little guidance on the use of the one tool that (one hopes) every developer uses, all day, every day, regardless of which language or platform religion they adhere to.

There’s a tacit assumption that we must be good at thinking. That because we *are* our minds we must know all there is to know about them and be good at using them. How could we not be ?

The closing comment in Fred Brooks’ quote above has often made me wonder how you go about changing the way you think ? How many different ways of thinking are there ? We are often told to “think laterally” or “think outside the box” but what does that actually mean, technically ? I mean, how can I tell if my thoughts are lateral or whether they are inside or outside the box? And, if they’re not the right thoughts, what mental buttons do I push, what mental map or set of instructions do I follow to get them there ? Is there some special Nam-Shub of Enki I can incant to get me thinking differently ?

For me, thinking about anything in depth, means constructing a mental model. I need something that is relatively simple and coarse-grained but that covers thinking from the most whimsical fancies to life-and-death decisions. I’m also a very visual thinker so it had better look pretty too.

thinking

There it is. Can you see where I am now ? That’s right, I’m up there in the cyan corner being all Conceptual. I’ve been trying to apply this model to the way I think in the sense of understanding at any given moment where I am. If the situation requires some “different thinking” then at least I know my current position and have some bearings of where else I might want to go.

I’ve also tried to work out what my relative strengths, weaknesses and preferences are and look for patterns that might indicate imbalance or the embedded routines that might indicate mental ruts (see Cognitive Bias). There I go again, in the cyan corner.

The red, critical segment is the real-time, here and now “me”, observing the stream of reality and working in a continuous loop of evaluation in the eternal search for the answer to the question, “What should I do next?” Always evaluating, balancing and judging. Working anti-clockwise we find the forward-looking strategist and prioritiser and then the backward and inward looking collator and categoriser of information. He has a million jigsaws on the go and as many mental models that need constantly refining to take account of new information and ideas. Next the outward looking innovator who works with pure thought-stuff and finally the raw nerve of intuition.

So, what have I learned about my thinking from thinking about thinking ?

1) When consciously applying myself to a problem, i.e. deliberately thinking, I tend to go Conceptual first and then work my way round clockwise. My first question, right after “What is the problem?” is “What type of problem is this?” This generally get’s me into a position to start moving clockwise and planning a practical solution. If not, I may have to go anti-clockwise to Innovative. This is where I think we find “lateral” and “out of the box”. I go in search of ideas or inspiration.

2) You can never go to blue (Intuitive), or at least I can’t. It has to come to you. This is the stuff that seeps through in your subconscious. This is what is at work when you decide to “sleep on it”. It may also tap you on the shoulder and take you by surprise at any moment when you are somewhere else entirely. Although I *do* Innovative, Conceptual, Practical and Critical, I *am* Intuitive and I rely on it a lot.

3) I am happiest within the processes of Innovative and Conceptual. These are my playgrounds. However, I am most satisfied by the results or output of Practical and Critical. Practical and Critical are much harder work but they are the most satisfying and rewarding. They mean a job well done.

4) Look at this “thought path” :

thinking2

You can probably tell what that is straightaway…almost without thinking 😉 It’s a snap decision, a knee-jerk reaction an impulse. These are risky because they can easily fall foul of the influence of our prejudices but they can also be quite valid and useful provided we don’t try to kid ourselves about what we just did. Often, the initial hop from instinct to decision is followed up by a quick visit to reasoning. This is called rationalisation or the “story-telling reflex”, whereby we either don’t acknowledge or don’t want to admit the sneaky short cut we just took to our decision so we go back and retrospectively apply reasoning to it to make it look legit. Some great examples of this (both the risky and the useful) are described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book entitled “Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”.

5) While I was looking for his “pure thought-stuff” quote, a final thing occurred to me when I re-read what Fred Brooks’ wrote about why programming is fun. The Intuitive, Innovative, Conceptual, Practical and Critical thinkers in me are all amply catered for in his marvellous description.

Intuitive : “the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination.

Innovative : “the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepeating nature of the task. In one way or another the problem is ever new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.

Conceptual : “the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning.

Practical : “the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and to find it helpful.

Critical : “Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separately from the construct itself.

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Badass tattoos and pimped nails

I went out for a few beers with colleagues last night and left my phone in a restaurant. Fortunately my colleagues rescued it for me. Unfortunately they then took it with them on a drunken, late-night tour of  Tower Hill and Essex whilst logged into my Facebook profile. Here’s a record of how thoroughly I was violated.

 

Hospital Cuts

My wife is a consultant anaesthetist. She works in a well renowned North London hospital. One of the surgeons she works with is a paediatric specialist of some repute. A complaint they regularly treat in infants is something called DDH or Developmental Dysplasia of the Hip. This is where either the ball or the socket of the hip is not correctly or fully developed and requires intervention to make sure that it develops correctly.

A common treatment for this is a type of plaster cast which holds the legs and hips in the correct position. It then often requires a that a horizontal brace be incorporated into the cast at about ankle level, so that the whole cast forms an “A” shape with the brace as the cross-bar. There is no special instrument or implement prescribed for creating this brace so surgeons tend to improvise. The surgeon in question favours wooden walking sticks. These are cheap, abundantly available in hospitals and can be quickly and easily sawn to the exact length required.

One of the theatre staff can pop out to the medical supplies room, grab a walking stick and remove the rubber end-cap so that the exact length can be sawn off the end. At the end of the procedure the it is common practice to  pop the rubber end-cap back on the sawn-off stick and hang the stick back up in the medical supplies room with the other walking sticks. That way the surgeon may get two or three braces out of a single stick. Over time quite a collection of these little walking sticks had built up.

The other day one of the senior theatre staff was showing trainees round the theatre suite.

“This is the supplies room”, he said and proceeded with the usual tour of where to get what. As they were turning to leave one of the trainees caught his eye.

“What are these little walking sticks for?”, the trainee asked.

Without missing a beat the staff member replied, “Those are for Dwarf Clinic.”

“What’s Dwarf Clinic?” the trainee enquired.

“We run regular clinics for Dwarfs,” came the reply. “The circuses have always favoured us because they can make camp in the surrounding fields during the off-season and the performers can come in for treatments that are hard to undergo while they are constantly on the move.” The hospital is indeed surrounded on three sides by fields.

“Dwarfs, contortionists, sword-swallowers, fire-eaters”, he continued, “we’ve treated them all here.”

“That’s fantastic” boggled the trainee, “I had no idea”.

It is a credit to the other theatre staff that they all managed to keep straight faces during this exchange and managed to maintain their composure even when later the trainee had cornered the hospital’s Head of Training in the corridor outside theatre and was overheard to ask, “…and while I’m here I’d really appreciate it if I could attend one of the Dwarf Clinics.”

There was a flicker of confusion on the senior man’s face as the trainee was whisked away down the corridor, the ensuing conversation echoing back, “We’ve had to cancel them. The land has been sold to property developers and the circuses can’t afford to lease it any more.” “That’s awful!” “I know, but what can we do ? One just hopes they’ll be able to find another hospital with the right facilities.”

I worry that this amusing fabrication will now leak out and take on a life of its own as urban legend. I fully expect to turn on Question Time in a few weeks to hear some minister being harangued over the lamentable state of affairs in the NHS that has led to fat cat property developers in the green belt causing medical treatment units for persons suffering from dwarfism to be closed. The headlines about big business filling its boots at the expense of the little man just write themselves.

Auberge Du Lac

Once a year my wife and I treat ourselves to a meal at what many consider to be the best restaurant in England. It’s not cheap but Phil Thompson is an absolute food wizard. This is what was on the spring tasting menu tonight, each course accompanied by a different and perfect wine.

Canapés
– Pesto & Cream Cheese
– Walnut & Apple Salad
– Chicken parfait on toasted brioche
– Seared Tuna with Candied Orange Peel and Pomegranate

Amuse Bouche
– Leek and Chive Panna Cotta with Truffle Egg and Herb Foam

First Course
– Caramelised, Hand-Dived Scallop, William Pear Tart Fin, Crispy Pigs Trotter, Sherry Caramel & Thyme

Second Course
– Port & Armagnac Marinated Fois Gras Torchon with Gingerbread, Malt, Peanuts, Banana & Nougat

Third Course
– Morel Ash Coated Loin of Monkfish, Carpaccio of Cheek, Charred Spring Onion, Samphire, Mussels & Bacon Vinaigrette

Passion fruit sorbet

Main Course
– Serrano Ham Rolled Breast of Poussin, Honey Glazed Wing, Brocolli, Roasted Onions & Oregano

OR

– Butter Poached Best End of Little Braxted Hall Lamb, Rosemary Steamed Bun, Goats Curd, Yoghurt & Candied Olive

Champagne Jelly, Blackcurrant Jam & Vanilla Foam

Desert
– Glazed Dark Chocolate & Pear Ganache, Pear Jelly and Puree de Malt

OR

– Cheese Trolley <= has to be seen to be believed

Coffee & Petit Fours

Trying a slice of Blackbird Pie

Just trying out the Blackbird Pie feature on WordPress that lets you embed tweets.

Getting the hang of hooks

wire-coat-hanger2I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if I were to ask you which part of a wire coat hanger the “hooky” bit is, that is to say, the part of the hanger that endows it with all its “hookiness”, you’d quite reasonably tell me that it was the part circled in green and labelled A in the picture opposite. However, I have a theory that it is in fact the part circled in red and labelled B. Furthermore, it is a theory that I can back up with evidence from a simple, repeatable experiment which you can try for yourself at home.

1) On a school-day morning as you are trying to leave the house take the last clean school jumper one of your children owns and get them to drop it down the back of a radiator.

2) Run to your wardrobe and attempt to extract a wire coat hanger from in amongst the contents. You will notice that the hanger becomes repeatedly hooked on pretty much everything in the wardrobe. The rail, other hangers, clothes, itself, your hand. Even the very air itself seems to snag as you wrestle the hanger out of the wardrobe. It is, in short, a very hooky thing.

3) Now proceed to unwind section B and bend the hanger out until it is a long piece of wire with a hook on the end.

4) Finally attempt to hook the jumper out from behind the radiator. You will notice at this point that the hanger has lost all its hookiness. You might as well be trying to get the jumper out with a slice of cheese.

You see ? Same hook, same wire but once you undo that twisty bit in section B…useless.

Q.E.D

Animal Magnetism

We’ve recently acquired new neighbours who seem lovely. They have 3 cats who also seem lovely. Our cat does not agree. He is getting on a bit now and is finding the whole territorial warfare lark a bit tough going in the face of such insurmountable odds. The neighbouring cats have noticed and have taken to popping into our house through his cat flap to borrow a bit of cat food from time to time. Mostly at night. This has moved the turf war from our neighbourhood’s interlocking gardens and driveways into our house with all the associated yowling and marking of territory. Not good.

As a result I spent my Bank Holiday Saturday morning upgrading our cat flap to one of those posh ones that only opens for our cat…that’s the theory anyway. The flap in question is a Staywell 400 Series Magnetic 4 Way Locking Deluxe Cat Flap. Homebase did not mention the even posher 500 series which is an infrared operated version. If they had I might have got that instead, given how much I like to be on the bleeding edge technologically, and saved myself a bit of bother.

catflap The cat flap is operated by a small magnet worn on the cat’s collar. So actually it would appear that the 400 Series will grant admission to any cat with similar magnetic accessories. As the cat brings it’s head within pushing distance of the flap the magnet triggers the lock and the flap will open. Brilliant.

Our cat was not impressed. Within minutes of having his new magnetic medallion fitted cathe ran downstairs, upended his food dish in a fit of pique and ran out of the house. The ungrateful bugger returned later in the day after I had swept up all the IAMS and promptly upended the whole thing again. From upstairs I could hear him rattling the empty dish around the hallway and shouting. I cleared up the foodquake debris again.

During the night he tipped all the food out of his dish again. Over breakfast on Sunday we were debating the cause of his protests. Did he not like the new flap ? Did he not like the magnet on his collar ? Did he resent our interference in his complicated relationship with the neighbourhood cats ? We persevered.

The vicious cycle of IAMS-sweeping, re-filling and dish-tipping continued through Sunday and Monday. On Monday night I was woken up at about 1 AM by a particularly violent bought of dish rattling. Trying to get cat biscuit out from between your toes in the wee hours must concentrate the mind wonderfully because the answer came to me in a flash as I was refilling the dish. The cat dish. The biscuit dish. The nice shiny dish. The STAINLESS STEEL F**CKING DISH! There had never been any act of protest at all. Every time the cat had leaned in to get a bite of food the dish had attached itself to his magnet so that when he lifted his head between mouthfuls the dish would tip up and he’d go clanging about about the place trailing biscuit everywhere until he managed to shake it off.

Cat forgiven. Plastic dish purchased. Still considering upgrade to Series 500. INFRARED, Man ! Now that is cool for cats 🙂

5 Question Interview

Twitter, home of a million memes, has thrown up another bit of fun. I’ve been tagged by @sniffyjenkins for the 5 Question Interview, so here goes.
Q1.  When were you happiest?
I am a happy person. It’s always been my natural base-line state and it takes a lot to put any kind of a dent in my my basic demeanour of good-natured contentment. I suppose I should say that I was happiest on my wedding day or at the birth of my children or something like that, but the truth is I don’t remember being especially happy on those occasions. I remember being apprehensive, worried, excited and a whole host of other emotions but happy? Like “walking on sunshine happy” ? I’m not so sure. I can remember having a really good time at university. I mean “time of my life” kind of stuff but I don’t look back on it now as some kind of “golden period” of my life. I also think that there’s probably nothing in my adult life that can compare to the excitement, the sheer unadulterated, bouncing-off-the-ceiling joy of waking up on Christmas morning aged 5, but it’s all relative isn’t it ? I think there was also a time  that a hospital doctor told me that I didn’t have appendicitis after all – it had all been a false alarm – just as my Mum arrived on the ward with my new light sabre that she had bought me out of guilt for having dismissed my “tummy ache” for 3 days. That is a pretty good day for a 6 year old.
Maybe it’s because I’m happy now, that I don’t get nostalgic for happier times. I love my family, they make me happy. Watching my kids grow up day by day is an emotional rollercoaster but not one I ever want to get off. I love playing music and cooking and socialising. I love my job and the fact that I am good at what I do. I’m happy that my job and my hobby overlap so much. That saying, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. That’s really true.
Q2.  Are you a planner or a rambler? What I mean by this is do you structure your life according to some plan, or do you just take things as they come and ‘go with the flow’?
There’s no grand plan or over-arching strategy to my life. I do plan stuff. I plan holidays, I plan menus and shopping lists, I plan the downfall of my enemies, I plan the enterprise architecture for a major airline…you know, the small stuff.
I didn’t plan my career, I fell into it by accident. I didn’t plan my relationship with my wife, we actually disliked each other intensely when we first met. I didn’t plan our first child, no one saw that coming.
A lot of the big stuff in my life has been a combination of serendipity, my willingness to go with the flow and my ability to both land and think on my feet. I sometimes think I should plan more but it’s worked so far and I worry I might mess it up if I try to interfere. I don’t think my plans would be very realistic or effective, sort of :
  • Monday : Secret Lair
  • Tuesday : Winged Monkeys
  • Wednesday : Death Ray
  • Thursday : Minion Brainwashing Session ( => Hand out uniforms <= )
  • Friday : Shop for the weekend (Extra bread for packed lunches !)
  • Saturday : Take over the World.
Except while I was out shopping on Friday one of the minions would accidentally open the monkey enclosure and, even though we spend all Friday night cleaning up, the Death Ray is useless on Saturday because of some suspiciously peanutty poop on the concentrator crystals. Y’see, the best laid plans…
Q3.  You sang as a child. Is this something you wish you still did, maybe professionally?
I still do sing…quite a lot actually, though not professionally and rarely publicly. I play the piano and guitar and sing and I love it. I don’t think I could do it professionally, or at least if I could, I doubt I could make a decent living at it. It’s a question of pragmatism really. I think I get the same level of satisfaction and fulfilment out of playing music for my own pleasure as I would out of doing it professionally, but I know that I would not get the same level of reward either financially or in terms of intellectual stimulation and challenge if I did software development and architecture as a hobby or sideline.
Q4.  What would your perfect day be.
That’s hard. Probably some wonderful mix of the things from question 1 that make me happy. Some sense of achievement like finally finishing a great piece of work that I can be really proud of and get that climactic feeling of a job well done coupled with the freedom of some well-earned time off. Then going off somewhere with friends and family, ideally somewhere outdoors with beautiful surroundings, to eat great food and drink great wine and have fascinating conversations, hear hilarious stories and jokes all with the sense that there’s nothing particularly important to do the next day, so you can just chill and live in the moment. Also, Jon Cleary would be playing live at this event and insist on a duet.
Q5.  What is one of your main goals in life?
To raise my children so they turn out to be a) fundamentally decent human beings and b) at least as happy as me.
So that was much harder than I thought it would be. If anyone wants to get tagged, mail or tweet me and I will provide questions.

Wordle

Just used wordle to greate a word cloud of this blog…
Wordle: Untitled
…and my twitter atom feed…
Wordle: http://twitter.com/statuses/user_timeline/17945466.atom
Click images to zoom.

The Player of Games

I have just bought myself half a PlayStation 3 as a Christmas present (I’m coming to the “half” bit in just a sec). I never seem to get tired of acquiring games consoles. My current collection includes :

  • PlayStation 1
  • PlayStation 2
  • PSP
  • XBox
  • XBox 360
  • 2 Dreamcasts (one Japanese import)
  • Nintendo DS
  • Nintendo Game Cube
  • Nintendo GameBoy Pocket
  • I have been playing Metal Gear Mobile on my Nokia N95 recently but I’m not sure that counts

I think that’s all of them. I still don’t have a Wii. The crazy thing is I hardly ever get time to play them. My son is too young to be really interested in video games yet and my daughter is only really interested in the Nintendo DS.

The PlayStation 3 sneaked into my life as a result of the following conversation. I have no idea how this came about, but as you can see my wife is actually talking me into buying a PlayStation here. I wasn’t dreaming. This really took place :

Wife : I still have nothing for you for Christmas. What do you want?
Me : I don’t know. I have everything I need.
Wife : How about a Wii ?
Me : Are you seriously offering to buy me another game console ? Wow, you really are out of ideas then.
Wife : So you don’t want a Wii?
Me : I just don’t think we’d use it. Lots of people I know have them and they used them a lot to begin with and then it just tapered off and now it just sits there and they hardly ever use it.
Wife : Well what about that other one then ?
Me : What, PlayStation 3 ? They’re nearly twice the price of the Wii.
Wife : We could go halves. You could buy me the other half for Christmas.
Me : You want half a PlayStation for Christmas ?!
Wife : Well, can you think of anything better ?
Me : No. I can’t. But I think you will, probably sometime between when I order the PlayStation 3 from Amazon and Christmas morning and then there will be sulking because you’ll have forgotten this was your idea.

NB : I’m trying not to sound too keen at this stage. In fact, this is a god send. My wife is hard to shop for and I’ve just used up all my good gift ideas on her birthday.

Wife : Oh well. If you don’t want to…
Me (sensing the moment slipping away) : Although…now I think about it, you can play Blu-ray movies on a PS3 and we did talk about getting a Blu-ray player…
Wife : OK. That’s settled then.

You see. Job done, zero pain. I’m thinking this could in part be because I have recently sold off one of my guitars and perhaps I’m now below some secret guitar/console quota she has imposed in retaliation for my “one-in-one-out” shoe/handbag policy.

But now, on reflection, I see that this may only be the beginning. The thing is I don’t watch much TV and as a result I still have a lumbering, 5 year old CRT television set which was fine…until the whole PlayStation thing happened. Now I will have Blu-ray which is pointless unless you have HD. I can feel a big, flat screen, HD Ready 1080p looming on the horizon as I type. I don’t need one…I don’t think I even want one…but it’s there…waiting…

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