Monday, May 25, 2015

The things we miss

I was getting some air out front of my house, listening to a podcast just now. It's been end of times raining here for several days, though not right now, so the drainage ditch is pretty full. You can't see it in this picture because this is my phone and it's not capable of those kind of night shots. 

But it occurred to me as I was standing there looking down the ditch between the blocks, that I hadn't stood out there at night before, looking down the ditch toward the road like this. Not in the almost five years that I have lived here. I've cut through the ditch many times with the kids or the dog, but I don't think I've ever just stood there and watched the cars go by. Most nights I've just come home, gone in my house and done daily living stuff. 

Now with days left of living on this street, it seems everything is a little fresher, a little more signficant.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

quick review: Creativity, Inc

I just finished reading Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmul. Ed is the president of Pixar Animation, and one of the founders of Pixar.

I picked up the book because I was hoping to get some insight into creative organizations.

It's a good book, particularly if you are interested in the history of Pixar, or if you work in a creative organization (i.e., one that is not primarily oriented toward production, like a hospital or factory).

I think the main value of the book is Catmul's focus on communication. At the end of the book he has few pages of what amount to aphorisms, one of which is:
A company's communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to everybody. (p.318)
I think this is the core of Pixar's success, at least based on the book. Most everything else flows from there. He has an interesting chapter on the Braintrust - Pixar's formal process for reviewing a movie as it moves through production. Pixar seems to embrace a culture where everyone is encouraged to constructively criticize the product in order to improve it. There are no loan geniuses laboring alone at Pixar - making movies is a team sport - and Catmul puts a high value on candor.

I see this as a weakness in many organizations I have been a part of, and it is a weakness I confess I have myself. I tend to sit back and listen in meetings. I'm not a huge fan of big meetings for getting anything done, anyway. I've found a few loudmouth individuals tend to dominate those scenes and the real work winds up getting done offline - either before or after. It takes talent to manage a meeting so that it doesn't get dominated, and so that everyone contributes. I'm not saying that my tendency to remain silent is good organizational citizenship - it's not in most cases. But I don't like wasting time. I'd like to see a Braintrust meeting in person to see how well it really works.

Catmul didn't just focus on the Braintrust, though. He also was very aware of the need to get everyone to contribute at all levels of the organization. This idea of communication structure vs. organizational structure plays to that. A person shouldn't feel that because they are far down the organizational structure that their ideas don't matter. But getting the good idea from the front line to the people who have the authority to act on it is a challenge. For this purpose, organizations like Google and Gore allow employees a certain amount of "personal time" to work on projects that interest them - personal not for personal business, but personal to pursue company-related projects that interest them individually. The hope is that if they have time to work on their own projects part of the time, they will come up with something that can ultimately be elevated. Most of the organizations I have worked in have always felt understaffed. and the idea of having 10 or 20% personal time would have been ridiculous. But again, most of the organizations I have worked in have been production oriented, rather than creative. Nevertheless, even these organizations need to invest in improvement. The problem is moving beyond a nominal investment to an actual investment. Too often I've observed management give lip service to thinking differently while failing to resource for it.

Catmul offers a list of "mechanisms" in chapter 8 that the company uses "to put our collective heads into a different frame of mind." There are 8 of them  (p.192). I think three are of particular interest:

Research trips - they make a point of going and spending time in places that are similar to scenes they are trying to produce in their movies. For example, when doing Monsters University, the team made trips to Ivy League universities and hung out there trying to get a deeper feel for the scene, beyond their own preconceived notions. It's also useful that the whole team shared that experience, so that they all had a similar reference point. This advice seems to be similar to the advice IDEO follows, in getting to really know how the customer uses a product - by getting out into the field. I think there's a power in this that could translate to other businesses. If nothing else, getting out of your own space and seeing how someone else does something, and doing it as a group, could be a powerful organizational learning process.

Short Experiments - Pixar gives would-be directors a chance to work on short movies first to test their mettle. Short experiments are a great idea that can be done in a variety of settings. They require fewer resources, give more people an opportunity to try their hands at different activities, and the organization can afford for them to fail.

Postmortems - In the Army we called these After Action Reviews (AAR). The Pixar team does postmortems after movies are released, even when they are successful (as pretty much all Pixar movies have been). The team looks for ways that they can improve their processes - particularly their communications processes. It's far too easy to just move on to the next thing rather than take a tactical pause and consider what went well and needs to be sustained, and what didn't and needs to be improved, especially since many of these things involve individuals' behavior.

Overall this is a pretty good book on management. There are some tid-bits worth reflecting on, even if you are not in an explicitly creative business. And it's kind of fun to read about the machine that makes all these amazing animated movies.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Seasons of a Man's Life: The Dream

The following passage is from The Seasons of a Man's Life by Daniel Levinson. It's an older book (1978), but it has really struck a chord with me. The book largely deals with men as they develop through their mid-life crisis (usually in their mid-forties). Since that happens to be exactly where I am in my life, I read the book looking for parallels in my own life. I think I will likely write a few more posts about this book because of how much it has occupied my mind over the last few weeks as I read it, but I wanted to start with this passage, where he is talking about the man in early adulthood. One of the tasks of the "novice adult" according to Levinson is to develop the "Dream":

Many young men have a Dream of the kind of life they want to lead as adults. The vicissitudes and fate of the Dream have fundamental consequences for adult development...
In its primordial form, the Dream is a vague sense of self-in-adult-world...
Whatever the nature of his Dream, a young man has the developmental task of giving it greater definition and finding ways to live it out. It makes a great difference in his growth whether his initial life structure is consonant with and infused by the Dream, or opposed to it. If the Dream remains unconnected to his life it may simply die, and with it his sense of aliveness and purpose. (p.91)
Throughout the book Levinson uses the Dream as an organizing focus for a man's life. The Dream is the vision that resides in a man's heart. It is the goal of his true self. Levinson does not prescribe good or high-functioning dreams. He does describe a few Dreams that are unrealistic (being a professional sports player) and their consequences. And he describes lives where the Dream never seems to develop - with the result of a listless and purposeless life. But he examines the role of the Dream in the life course of many men, and the Dream is different for each of them. It is clear that some people share the same or similar Dream. The book follows several groups of men engaged in specific occupations: corporate executives, academic biologists, novelists, and workers. The men within these occupations tend to share similar Dreams. Executives tend to be in their role because they have a dream of being a leader. The academic biologists tend to have a dream of being a first rate scientist; the novelists likewise want to be first rate novelists. Workers, meaning people who are hourly laborers, tend to have a Dream unrelated to their profession, or they have a Dream of moving up into management. The Dream in almost every example Levinson uses is tied in some way to work. Men define their place in the world largely by the work they do, at least in the early/pre-mid-life stages of life, and so the Dream is bound up with work.

While Levinson is agnostic about the specific content of the Dream, he believes it is an imperative that a man have a Dream in order to move into full adulthood. But having a Dream and following this Dream are two different things. Many men don't initially follow their true dream. Instead they follow some other track. This was especially true for the novelists, who often had to make a break with a prior profession before they followed their dream. Following or not following their dream had consequences as the man approached mid-life.
Many young men develop a conflict between a life direction expressing the Dream and another that is quite different. A man may be pushed in the latter direction by his parents, by various external constraints, such as lack of money or opportunity, and by various aspects of his personality, such as guilt, passivity, competitiveness, and special talents. He may thus succeed in an occupation that holds no interest for him. The conflict may extend over many years, evolving through various forms. Those who betray the Dream in their twenties will have to deal later with the consequences. Those who build a life structure around the Dream in early adulthood have a better chance for personal fulfillment, though years of struggle may be required to maintain commitment and work toward its realization... (p.92)
Levinson shares examples of men moving through their 20s and 30s pursuing or failing to pursue the Dream. The internal dialogue and self-reflection he documents is fascinating. I can imagine that externally, each of these men would have seemed to be getting along, for better or worse. But internally there was a great deal of conflict and uncertainty. The Dream does not come with an instruction manual or any guarantees.

The Dream is "a mixed blessing" (p.246) according to Levinson. Because it is based on a young person's understanding of the world and what can be accomplished, it is never completely realistic. It makes demands they may not be possible to accomplish, and it promises happiness that it can almost certainly not deliver. There is a youthful, "And then he lived happily ever after" element to the Dream that that makes me think of these photographs of Disney princesses after their story is over. Levinson says:
The central illusion is this: "If I attain the Dream - if I become a great novelist or scientist, if I make a special contribution to humanity or to my clan, if I gain great power - then life will be good and everything really important will come to me." (p.246)
The Dream is a "personal myth" and the man is the "central character, a would-be hero engaged in a noble quest."

Typically at mid-life, the man takes stock of his Dream. If he has failed to pursue the Dream, he feels like a failure. Levinson uses a character from Elia Kazan's novel The Arrangement to illustrate this failure (he also has real examples, but a novel is a distillation and makes the point cleanly):
He had become an advertising executive rather than the novelist of his early Dream. Having succeeded in climbing the wrong ladder, he was now traped in a fraudulent and empty life. His marriage was based on a relationship between his wife and the executive (but not the novelist) in him. They had been living for some years in an arrangement that was destructive to both of them. He was withholding the most valued parts of himself from the world and could not really love, work, or play. (p.250)
So here is an illustration of a man who has failed to pursue the Dream. As a result, his life seems to be ashes. Levinson gives examples of men who do pursue their Dream, but meet with only partial success. These examples include men from each of the four categories: an executive who is very successful, but fails to rise to CEO of a major national corporation; a novelist who writes several novels, and has some critical success, but is not recognized as a major literary force; a biologist who feels he is a failure because he did not win the Nobel prize (despite being a full professor and having his own lab and being regarded as highly influential); and a worker who never quite makes it into management and realizes he never will. In this context of partial fulfillment, Levinson refers to the "tyranny of the dream" - the Dream must be either fully realized or the man is a failure. Partial success is no different than failure when viewed from the perspective of the youthful Dream.
[T]here is the illusion that the ultimate outcome of the heroic enterprise must be total success or total failure. The only success that matters is total success. To succeed partially is to fail. The hero can have no flaws. The Dream must be perfectly realized. (p.248) 
The "mid-life transition" happens in the mid-forties according to Levinson, and this is the point at which men deal with their Dream. A successful mid-life transition allows the man to reconcile his Dream to his life, and revise the Dream in more realistic terms. Youth doesn't know what it doesn't know, and the Dream comes out of those unanchored expectations. Because it is born in idealism, it must be ultimately reigned in and made to fit some of the reality of a man's life circumstances if the man is to achieve some degree of contentment.
Reducing this tyranny is a major task of the Mid-life Transition, whenever the Dream has had an important place in a man's life and he is in the grip of its myth. The task is not to get rid of the Dream altogether, but to reduce its excessive power: to make demands less absolute, to make success less essential and failure less disastrous; to diminish the magical-illusory qualities. (p.248)
I think the key lesson of the book are the sentences that follow the above passage:
Later, a man may continue to seek excellence, but he gains more intrinsic enjoyment from the process and product of his efforts and he is less concerned with recognition and power.The men who have written most eloquently about the corrupting effects of ambition, and about the importance of "being" and "self-actualization," generally came to their insights in middle adulthood after a Mid-life Transition in which they began slowly and painfully to reduce the tyranny of a powerful Dream.
It seems to me that the pattern Levinson describes is one where a young person has a fairly specific idea or end-state that is encapsulated in the Dream. For people who do not follow the Dream, they live a life looking back over their shoulder at what might have been. For those who follow the Dream, they are almost inevitably disappointed because, even if they actualize the terms of the Dream, they discover that there is no happily ever after. More likely, because the Dream is almost always unrealistic and unrealizable, they partially actualize the Dream, which from the binary perspective of the Dream is the same thing as failure.

The problem of the Dream seems to be that it is state-based, rather than process-based. It takes getting to the Mid-life Transition to start to see success as process-based. One of the lessons seems to me to be that one must make the seeking of excellence the focus, rather than any specific outcome. I don't know that that is realistic as a young person though. I suspect not. The problem with a general exhortation to seek excellence is... to seek excellence in what? There is a need for a goal to focus the seeking towards, and this seems to me to be where the Dream-as-goal comes into being, and the resultant tyranny of the Dream originates.

I've got more to say on this topic, but that's enough for now.

I think I want to think about the economics of the Dream. In particular the problem of aggregate rationality. Economists generally hold that individuals may act irrationally, or they may just be stupid, but in the aggregate we tend to make the right decisions. So why does this pattern of error arise repeatedly? Why is it that Levinson seems to be pointing at a pattern of behavior that has persisted for a long time and is likely to continue to persist? Economics would indicate that we should be able to solve this problem.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

running (out of time)

Running in the late afternoon in San Antonio is not generally the best choice in mid-May. But it was the time I had, and I really needed the exercise.

This is me sitting out on my back porch, cooling down after my run. I've missed my back yard while I was up in New Hampshire, and it will be one of the things I will miss most about my time in Texas. It's a little oasis of peace. Of course, I have a fantastic new backyard up in New Hampshire, but there are no palm or fig trees, no pomegrenates or prickly pears. I'll have to see about planting a few fruit trees. I guess that's the Italian in me - a need for the abundance that fruit trees represent.

We're running out of time here in Texas - we leave for good, if all goes as planned - mid-June. It has been a long twilight transition. It will be good to achieve solidity again.

Monday, May 18, 2015


What a great little innovation! The PRETENTIOUS-O-METER:

the Pretentious-O-Meter—created by Niall Beard—calculates a film's user-generated ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb with its critical scores on those same sites. Thus, a movie like Sideways, which enjoys a 96% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics, but only a 78% audience score, gets reassessed and judged: 100% pretentious, where critics adore it and everybody else seems to think that it's just okay, at best. 
(that from )

I kind of liked Sideways, actually, but it's great that someone has taken this rather simple step of coming up with an integrated metric that shows how whether a film has signficant divergence in opinion. Kandie and I try to catch a few of the Oscar winning films each year, after the award is given out, and inevitably we're left scratching our heads. It will be fun to use this site. The guy should definitely make an app.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

deconstruct the local NPR station

I was reading this post about public radio, and the assumptions behind public radio's membership-based fund raising:
The existing membership model for public radio is largely based on a single assumption: that people who want to listen to the kind of high-quality programming that public radio provides will eventually find and then listen to public radio — on the radio, in the car, or on a mobile device. But the assumption that public radio provides a particular type of listening experience may no longer be accurate.
I didn't really find the rest of the post interesting. Mostly because I am doubtful about the value that stations will add in the future. When I use the term station I am thinking of a bundle of things: physical infrastructure to broadcast over a geographically limited area on radio waves, infrastructure to create local programming, some organization component that curates a collection of centrally created talk programming (such as Morning Edition, This American Life, Car Talk), as well as some curation of music programs (mostly classical and jazz, and not popular forms).

The question is, why is it better that a station continue to exist as a bundle when the key unifying feature, the physical infrastructure to broadcast over a geographically limited area on radio waves is declining precipitously in value? I almost never listen to the radio in my car anymore. I listen to my phone. I have a fairly extensive library of music on my phone that I update regularly through internet purchases of music that I hear when I am listening to Pandora on my computer. I also have a large collection of audio books. But most importantly for my thoughts on local NPR stations, I listen to podcasts.

I can download the programming that I appreciate and value from NPR onto my phone and listen to it at my leisure - asynchronously. I am not at the mercy of the local station's broadcast schedule. If I get to work and the episode of This American Life isn't over yet, I just pause it and listen to the rest on the way home. I get the content from Stitcher, a podcast aggregator (I used to get it from iTunes, but Apple won't let Android phones run iTunes, so I have largely abandoned Apple and iTunes).

Since I can effectively curate my own station - that is, I can pull from the internet all of the programming I want to listen to - talk and music - why do I need a local station? The local station could create some of its own programming, but why do I need all the rest of the station? Likely I don't want all of the programming it will create. I might want one locally developed program - which I would download along with the rest of the programming I want from the internet.

In the last few months I've become a podcaster as well, developing talk programming that I put on the web for free download (see I didn't need a radio station to do that. I needed some basic recording equipment and an account on SoundCloud. That's the future of talk programming.

I used to be a loyal NPR listener - for my morning commute. But I missed out on a lot of other cool stuff that NPR had - like This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion - because I wasn't listening when they were on.

The business model of the local NPR station is only held together by the broadcast technology. But the value of that technology is falling daily. If people are falling away from the local NPR station it is because the station as an aggregate is no longer of value. The broadcasting technology is no longer of value. When the broadcasting technology is no longer of value, the aggregated curatorial function will cease to be of value. Individuals will curate their own muisic and podcast list. That will leave the local content developer.

Local content will continue to be of value. That is where we need to look for the future. How do we ensure that local content continues to be produced when it can no longer be subsidized by the national/international content?

The effort to maintain the existence of local stations is a waste of time and resources, and doomed to failure. The station as I described above as an aggregate of broadcasting hardware, curatorial functions, and content production is outdated in the mobile internet age. The only element that adds value today at the local level is local production of local content. That needs to be preserved. To do so, we need to deconstruct the local NPR station. The resources that used to be spent on those other functions need to be let go. The local station, if there continues to be such a thing, should be raising money to produce local programming, which is then hosted on a cheap service like SoundCloud ($130/year for unlimited space and downloads, by the way).

B.B. King and we all sing the blues (at some point)

I don't really know BB King's work that well. Any recommended albums?

AC/DC was one of my favorite bands growing up, and there's clearly a heavy blues influence to their music, so I owe him a debt there.

I've just finished reading Daniel Levinson's The Seasons of a Man's Life  and this segment from the interview made me think of the book:

(at 2:45)
Interviewer: You came out of relatively hard times, a lot of blues players did, is it necessary to have hard times to reflect that music?

BB King: No, it's not, but it helps though. 
Hard times don't necessarily mean being poor all the time. I've known people that were part of a family and always feel that the family likes everybody else but them. That hurts, and that's as deep a hurt as you can possibly get. I've known people that would have problems with their love life. This is kind of how the blues began, out of feeling misused, mistreated. Feeling like they had nobody to turn to. The blues don't have to be sung by a person who came from Mississippi, as I did, because there are people having problems all over the world.
One of the recurrent themes of the book was how even people who seem to have perfect lives suffer powerfully at different points in their life. Writing about a very successful scientist who achieved a lot, but not as much as he had dreamed he would, Levinson says:
His Dream of becoming a scientist of the first rank had formerly given meaning to his life and provided clear goals. The enterprise of the first half of his life was now completed, but his Dream was unrealized and, as it seemed, unrealizable. Suddenly there was nothing to strive for. Life had no meaning. (p.270) 
Externally, it appeared this guy had made it. He didn't win the Nobel, but he was pretty close. And yet that was not enough for him, because his Dream callled for him to win the Nobel. It's foolish to those of us looking from the outside in, but that's what his Dream required. James Joyce wrote extensively about this phenomenon, which he referred to as an "epiphany". It's something we humans do - building up expectations about how the future will look, only to be disappointed.

The emotion behind the blues is universal, which I think is what B.B. King was saying. Some degree of suffering enters each of our lives. If it doesn't hit us from the outside through external events, it hits us from the inside, with disappointment and disatisfaction. Sooner or later, the blues get to us all.