Garden Update: Spring Equinox 2016

spring-equinox-2016-compositeSomehow I seemed to have missed the winter solstice update last time which is a shame because many of the native plants in particular showed nice growth last autumn. This year I think I saw the reason why some Victorian gardeners use the term “Sprinter” as many plants began flowering and growing in August as the weather started to warm a little. Since then the garden has seen great growth probably because of the excellent amount of rain we’ve had this year.

Updates to the garden: 1) added a finger lime near the back fence; 2) remove the A4 macadamia which was growing very slowly and replaced with another Pinkalicous Mac; 3) Removed the avocado which was already looking sick and replaced with a Frantoio olive. I put the avocado in a pot just to see if that made any difference.

In many of the photos, the natives shrubs and groundcovers have shown excellent growth and it’s a little hard even to see the fruit trees! The other notable thing is that the avocado I had given up on near the side fence had actually started to grow new leaves in August after about three months of having shed all leaves! I was going to pull it out but I’ll leave it in now and see if the miraculous recovery continues.

Start doing something better. Start doing strategy.

I have worked for corporates who (try to) do social media and I have also done my own social media marketing for a side project of mine.  So, I very much enjoyed the content of Ritson’s speech in its own right. But it struck me while watching that the dynamic which Ritson exposes is applicable to other fields.  In this post I want to briefly extrapolate his message.  I will try to keep the discussion general but also draw on examples from a sphere that I know something about: software testing.

  1. Always ask: Cui bono?
That’s Latin for: In whose interest?  Most people take what they read or hear on face value and Ritson provides some great examples of how this can mislead.  In IT, good software testers know to question requirements. Most people don’t.   It has often astonished me how most people are happy to go along with even the vaguest and even nonsensical explanation of what needs to be built.  There are many reasons for this some of which include: laziness, social pressure to conform, physical and political distance from the speaker/writer, desire to avoid cognitive dissonance etc.  In The Real World, these traits make you a sucker.  Don’t be a sucker.

  1. FoMo
The IT industry specifically and Western culture in general is full of neophiles. Everybody wants the latest, shiniest toys and gadgets, the newest javascript frameworks, AI, robotics and all the rest.  There are many reasons behind this but one is certainly FoMo: fear of missing out.  In a professional context, this manifests as the desire to have the latest bit of tech on your resume.  There is, to be fair, anecdotal evidence that this is a good idea.  I have seen people land plush jobs simply for knowing how to use a particular tool.  That approach is very fragile, however.  Tools are always changing, you’ll always need to learn the next shiny new thing and eventually your luck will run out.  And spending all your time playing around with tools means you have less time to work on the real underlying skills that will underpin your performance and win you credibility with the people who know what they are doing.

  1. Artificially Limited Thinking
I did my degree in Linguistics and I recall a nice line from one of my professors: “I want you to become philosophical linguists”.  In the software testing field, we are fortunate to have some great examples of what it means to be philosophical testers.  I’m thinking here mainly of the guys in the Context Driven school such as James Bach and Michael Bolton overseas and Jared Quinert where I am in Melbourne.  The likes of Kent Beck and Martin Fowler fill the same role on the developer side.
Unfortunately, most people just just follow along with whatever is going at the time.  This is artificially limited thinking.  These days, it often translates into simply using the same tool that everybody else uses.  Reading and following the true philosophical thinkers in your field is the best way to avoid this problem. Thinking for yourself helps too.

  1. An obsession with something that has no meaning
 Ritson talks at length about how the “digital” versus “traditional” media divide simply has no meaning in the field of marketing.  This reminded me very strongly of the “automated” versus “manual” distinction in the testing sphere. The job of Automation Tester is analogous to what Ritson describes as the job of Digital Marketer.  It is a hollowed out, dumbed down, tool driven position.  It elevates the trivial matter of knowing how to use a tool while devaluing the real skills which make you a good practitioner.

  1. Put down the dreary tools
 I recently interviewed for a test manager role where the job description stated that the successful applicant would be tasked with coming up with the test strategy.  At the interview, I was surprised to learn that the company had just hired a full time “Automation Tester”.  When I asked the interviewers about this they couldn’t say why the person had been hired.  When I suggested that the hiring of this role implied a specific strategy they seemed surprised.  They were surprised because they are involved in Artificially Limited Thinking.  Having a test automator is just what you do these days. It is “best practice”.

Another example.  I once paired with a tester who was doing “performance testing”.  He wrote a basic JMeter script and ran it against an API with 1 concurrent user, then 2, then 5, then 10 etc.  He was working off a spreadsheet that somebody else had generated.  I asked him who wrote the spreadsheet and he didn’t know.  I asked him why he was doing that.  What problems was he expecting to find.  What risks.  He couldn’t explain.  Later, he shared the test results with the team and put them on the wiki.  This is Artificially Limited Thinking.  Copying what others do and not having a single clue why.

The people in your field who know what they are doing will expect you to be able to think strategically.  That means you have to be able to justify why you are doing something and not something else.  The world is full of trade offs and compromises.  Know what they are.

  1. Hegemonic Forces
Hegemony refers to the dominance of a group in a certain context.  This dominance creates pressure to conform.  To go against this dominance can often involve short term stress.  In Ritson’s world, this makes it a risk to try and break out of the Digital Marketer role.  In the IT world of software testing, this means the risk of not calling yourself an Automation Tester or, even worse,  calling yourself a “manual tester”.  The current hegemony drives this narrative and you will feel the pressure to conform.  You’ll have to learn to deal with this pressure if you want to remain true to yourself.

These six points are all interrelated.  I’ll end by making some connections explicit:-

  • You need to ask Cui bono?  In doing so, you will find out what are the hegemonic forces at play in your context.  Unless you know what those forces are, you can’t deal with them.
  • You need to put down the tools, put aside the latest fads and think deeply and philosophically about your context.  Doing this will help you avoid Artificially Limited Thinking.  It will let you judge the value of practices rather than blindly following them.  It will also let you see meaningless distinctions that are being propagated by certain players in your field.
  • You need to do strategy.  Strategy requires a deep understanding of your context.  Your context involves hegemonic forces.  It involves other people blindly following the latest fad.  It involves the narratives that people uncritically read in the media.  And it involves those things you can actually do that will make a real difference.  You know you’re doing strategy when your making real trade offs and designing for the optimal outcome in your context.

The Carnegie Course

Everybody’s either read or heard of the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. But what many people might not know or remember is that Carnegie was teaching those lessons as a course for about 20 years before writing the book. The course is still being taught over a hundred years later.

A few weeks ago I took part in the three day intensive version of the course. I had read the book casually in the past and I knew basically what to expect. Nevertheless, my expectations were far exceeded. It’s one of the best things I’ve done and I highly recommend it to anybody.

It occurred to me afterwards that I had probably learnt more in three days than I had learned in entire semesters, maybe even years of school and university education. So, I sat down and wrote a list of the things that set the course apart and then reflected on how traditional high school and university education differed. Here’s the list I came up with. I’ll expand more on each point below.  (Disclaimer: It’s been over a decade since I was in formal education so my perspective on that could be out of date. From what I have heard, however, probably not).

Carnegie Course Traditional Education
Keep energy up Energy almost always suppressed
Engage the student. Make it personal Keep it objective
Work the body as well as the mind Restrain the body
Encourage people to go out of their comfort zone Standardisation of learning
Focus on building skills Focus on regurgitating content
Teachers model behaviour, class follows Teachers explain, class does
Only give positive reinforcement and guidance Grading relative to fixed standard
Empirical approach Rationalist/Authoritarian approach
Listen and share with fellow students Compete with fellow students

Keep energy up: There are literally no down times in the Carnegie course. No time for the mind to wander or drift off.  While you are in the room, you are doing something. Any pauses that are required for logistical reasons (eg. tallying results) are filled by engaging in a group activity that gets everybody laughing. Then you get straight into the next activity in high spirits. Far from being vacuous or a waste of time, this is a great pedagogical technique.  Management of energy levels is, in my opinion, key to person success but also key in group dynamics.  Carnegie demonstrated for me how to do that flawlessly.

Engage the student: Our education system is based on the idea of objectivity. Reality stays true whether or not you believe in it. That’s probably true of reality but not true of how people’s attention and motivation works. As the saying goes “if you want people to build a boat, tell them a story about the sea”. Engage people first and they will do most of the learning by themselves. A central tenet of the Carnegie style is that you should attempt to frame your communication in terms that other people can intuitively grasp. If you do that, you will win people’s attention. The same goes for students. Get them engaged first and they will learn what you have to teach.

Work the body as well as the mind: One of the memorisation techniques introduce in the Carnegie course involves the use of body movements. This works incredibly well. It’s amazing what unrelated material you can commit to memory using this method. Weeks after the course, I can still bring those mnemonics to mind. That’s a pretty good return on investment. As for traditional education, just ask yourself what information you actually retained from all those textbooks you read in school/university?

Encourage people to go out of their comfort zone: In the Carnegie course you really get to choose your own level of intensity. Different personality types naturally respond to different exercises. People who are slightly uncomfortable with some activities are gently encouraged to push through but never criticised or made to feel they didn’t measure up to some standard. Individual differences are respected. By contrast, the traditional educational model is graded, planned out in advance, evened out so as not to leave behind the stragglers but also not flexible enough to continue to encourage those who have the aptitude to push ahead.  Everybody must conform to the standard measure rather than allow each to find their own breakthroughs and milestones.

Focus on building skills: Of course the Carnegie course has the famous book to use as a textbook. How many times is it referred to in the course? Zero! Powerpoint slides are used to introduce the basic concepts. They are shown for seconds at a time and then switched off. You get to your feet, get the body working, learn the concept and then immediately put it into action.  You spend the majority of the course exercising the skills and watching your fellow students do the same.  At the end you walk out knowing exactly what those skills are, how you can use them and what the results will be.  You have actual techniques you can begin to apply immediately in your life.

Teachers model behaviour, class follows: The teachers in the Carnegie course demonstrate the skills they are teaching and they do so to a very high standard. The students then enact those same skills. This gives you a reference point for excellence. A gauge you can use to compare your performance to.  And that gauge is another human being, not some abstract theory or part of a syllabus.

Only give positive reinforcement and guidance:  In addition to modelling the skill for you, the teachers in the Carnegie course guide you while you are performing a skill. Where the student is not pushing hard enough or not carrying out the skill correctly, they are gently guided in the right direction.  This is the kind of instant feedback that most of us only ever got with sports training but it works just as well with any skill. At the end, everybody applauds your effort. This has the effect of encouraging the student to make mistakes. You realise that holding back is counterproductive.  You want to push on and try your best.  By contrast, the traditional education system encourages a conservative approach by the student.  What you’re after is high grades and you get those by not making mistakes.

Empirical approach: The Carnegie course tells you the theory and then gets you to put it into action in real life. You see, hear and feel the results. Traditional education takes a rationalist and frankly authoritarian approach. Learn the right answers and then regurgitate them at the right time. In that system, it is possible to get good grades without ever learning the first principles. With Carnegie, you learn the first principles and then trial the ways in which you can implement them. Learning becomes a kind of exploration.  You’re exploring the space in which you can effectively implement the principle.  In doing so, you get to develop and express your own style.  Of course, no standardised test ever gives credit for the style in which you carried out a principle.

Listen and share with fellow students: The Carnegie course requires you to put into use the skills you are learning and then report back to the class on how it went. This serves to reinforce the principle because you get to hear the different ways that others put it into action. In addition, many of the exercises allow people to incorporate their personal experiences. In fact, this is encouraged as a way to make an idea more understandable.  The result is to allow individual personalities to shine through which builds group solidarity and creates a sense of trust.  By contrast, students in traditional education don’t get to see each others work for fear of copying.  The system is actually a competitive one in which students are fighting each other over grades. This approach does not encourage the understanding of first principles and obviously doesn’t allow for much individual expression.

Having seen the Carnegie style of pedagogy, I can’t help but reflect on how many of us have been shaped by the alternative style that was dominant in our school education.  For example, I see a lot of people in my line of work who don’t seem to understand the first principles of what they are doing.  Many people don’t spend time developing skills but just learning what is the latest trend (the latest, “correct” answer to a question you might get asked in a job interview).  And there is a distinct lack of true teachers and true leaders.  People who model behaviour and who let the results speak for themselves.

I think the best part about the Carnegie course though is that everybody else in the class will have a different list of things they learned.  That variety of perspective, understanding and trying to appreciate what makes others tick was just another bonus of the course.  You learn to appreciate the things that make us different and unique while also understanding the core things that unite us.  Almost like a yin-yang combination of objectivity and subjectivity in one.

Garden Update: Autumn Equinox 2016

The local natives have grown very well during this period.  The only native I have had trouble with is the Golden Wattle where I managed to kill a couple but the third has grown very strongly.  I suspect I may have overwatered the two that died.

The apples and pears have unanimously been the best growers of the fruit trees.  The grapes and olives have also done well as did the passionfruit and hop vines.  The macadamias seem to be doing quite well which is nice.  However, the avocados have been the main disappointment.  Neither has shown much growth.  Both continue to grow new leaves only to shed them before they grow to full size.  I’ll need to rethink my strategy with these this year.

El Nino was in full effect this year with a relatively hot and dry spring and summer.  Considering this, I’ve been happy with progress.  Now that autumn is upon us and the really hot weather has passed, I’ll be looking to add some more colour and decoration to the garden as well as continuing to trial companion plants.


What’s in a sneer? Part 3: The Status Quo

“We live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work [sic] hard, and earned it.”

This quote comes from a well-off person annoyed at the inconvenience of having homeless people show their faces in public. As I read those lines I couldn’t help but notice that the language mirrors the fictional accounts I have described in this mini-series of posts: It is the attitude of the Salary Class towards the Wage Class but in a more advanced state. It’s the natural progression of the mentality which arises when a group finds itself in a position of superiority relative to another.

The quote is taken from the moving story of a member of the Wage Class trying desperately not to slide into outright poverty in the US and is well worth reading in its entirety.

Such stories are not uncommon these days. They describe very accurately the plight of the Wage Class as a group. There is no shortage of statistics to back up these accounts. Even using the official figures, which are systematically distorted to make the results look as good as possible for the government, the middle and lower class has been going backwards for at least two or three decades in the US. The bailout following the GFC further exacerbated this and the failure of the US government to reign in the excesses of the banks has seen income disparity get steadily worse and worse. Couple this with the loss of manufacturing, increasing automation, the increase in part-time work etc. and there is absolutely no doubt that the standard of living of many millions of people has gotten worse. Even life expectancy in certain demographics is falling for the first time in generations.

Given these facts, the rise of a “populist” like Donald Trump doesn’t seem very surprising. In fact, it seems overdue. But it certainly has come as a big surprise to many elites. Jeb Bush’s feeble campaign is one of the great examples of a man who woke up one day in a world that bore no resemblance to the one he knew. I suspect a similar revelation is waiting around the corner for Hillary Clinton. But elites are very far removed from the realities of everyday life and their ignorance is not all that surprising. What is more noteworthy is the reaction of one of the groups relevant to my theme: the Salary Class. Their attitude to Trump could best be described as irrational loathing. Trump has managed to trigger a deep emotional response from the best educated and supposedly most rational group in society. Why is this so?

In previous posts, I have explained how both the economic winners (Salary Class) and losers (Wage Class) make up stories to explain their relative positions. I tried to show how the stories of both groups have their roots in the attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance felt when there is an unanswered question of economic justice. In this post, I will refer to a set of related stories: the stories that make up the wider political discussion in society. I see these stories as a natural extension of the stories told at the individual level.

One of the most important of these is the State of the Union address. I recall one that Obama delivered a few years ago which had as its core message the idea that America was back on track. The GFC was history. Just a little blip on the radar. Everything was returning to “normal”. The middle class was back on its feet. The economic numbers were going in the right direction. A big deal was made about how the US was still making forays into space and was even seeing a resurgence in fossil fuel extraction as the fracking boom kicked into gear. In a strange way, it was a big song and dance trying convince the public that it was the early 80s all over again. This kind of story is the one that has become generally accepted in the public discourse in the years since the GFC.

The Salary Class had no problem with the story. It pretty much described their condition. Maybe a few bankers lost their jobs for a while after the GFC. Maybe there were some layoffs in other professional services, but they quickly bounced back. It was indeed business as usual.

For the Wage Class it was very different. Their jobs did not bounce back. Their conditions did not recover. Reality for them just continued the same downward slide that they had known for decades.

Not only had the economic reality steadily declined for the Wage Class but the offical public discourse had ceased to discuss their problems. It is not hard to see how this state of affairs would exacerbate an already increasingly tense situation. Levels of anxiety, anger and resentment among the Wage Class grew as they not only saw their life prospects get worse but were told by politicians and the media that everything was just as it should be. As more and more people found themselves in precarious economic straits, the number of people disenfranchised by this state of affairs grew.

The same dynamic caused a hardening of attitudes among the Salary Class. As the Salary Class find themselves better off relative to the Wage Class, it’s natural that they explain this in the same way they explained their original ascendance: by reference to intrinsic merit. As income inequality increases, the Salary Class feel themselves more entitled. If the reason they got ahead in the first place was because they were smarter and more hard working, it logically follows that the further ahead they get, the more smarter and hard working they must be. The flip side of the equation is that the Wage Class must be getting stupider and lazier. So stupid and lazy, in fact, that they lost their jobs altogether. The official discourse further reinforces these attitudes. If everything is just as it should be in society, then the people who cannot get by must have something wrong with them.

It is for these reasons that the number one sneer by the Salary Class against Donald Trump and his supporters is that they are stupid. That attitude does not come out of nowhere. It has been around in some form for a long time and a few decades of rising inequality has strengthened it. The relationship between economic reality and the official narrative created a positive feedback loop whereby the latent and not so latent differences between the two classes become further hardened and entrenched.  This is the natural outcome when both the economic reality and the offical discourse are skewed in favour of the Salary Class (or any class for that matter).

It is the self-serving and self-reinforcing nature of this dynamic that led to the inability of both the elites and the Salary Class to see what was coming. Because the official story happened to suit their economic interests, they never questioned it.  It never occurred to them that the same discourse was progressively alienating a large proportion of the voting public. When Trump came along and so expertly manoeuvred into the sweet spot where the beliefs of millions of disenfranchised people lay, they were simply not ready for what happened next.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the stories of the different classes happen to align with their economic interests. These narratives are just post hoc rationalisations of reality and not actual attempts to understand or predict reality. The difference is that the Wage Class has been increasingly disenfranchised while the Salary Class and elites have been happy to sit back and allow that to happen so long as their piece of the pie did not contract. When all’s said and done, it’s still just the economy, stupid.

What we are seeing in this election campaign is exactly what democracy is supposed to achieve. When the direction of the country no longer works in the interests of the majority of the citizens, those citizens should be able to choose a new direction. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature.  It’s a feature that Donald Trump is currently exercising to maximal effect. It’s because of this feature that democracies tend to last longer than the alternatives. If democracy were not allowed to right the course of the country, some other release valve would need to be found for these grievances. The most educated members of society appear to be unable to see that. They appear to be unable to see beyond their short-term economic interest. That is the spectacle that Trump has given us and it is a valuable one to understand.