Review of Sam Sykes’ the City Stained Red

The City Stained Red (Bring Down Heaven, #1)The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. This definitely isn’t the high fantasy of Martin with big words, the biggest. This is the way that your DM talks to you while you’re playing a DnD campaign. Short, brutal, and with enough description to know how deep you are in the shit and let’s your imagination to fill in the rest. I mention a DM, because this books feels like someone took an incredibly chaotic DnD campaign and decided to turn it into a book. Where characters went off and did everything that you wouldn’t want them to do if you were running the campaign. It’s great. It’s funny, you love the characters, you care about what they are going through. Furthermore, this is generally a very tightly focused book on a single place without the massive world ending implications driving everyone to save everything. The characters are scared, in a horrible place, with crazy things going on that you don’t generally understand.

Sykes creates some really cool twists on existing fantasy character races, while makings new ones that blend seemlessly in his world. I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has had a hilariously absurd DnD session or that just wants a fun book that isn’t as weighty as a Rothfuss or Martin (weighty in terms of plot not size of book).

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Review of Oathbringer by Brand Sanderson

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was definitely ok. It was a good way to pass time, but I don’t think this book is nearly as good as some of Sanderson’s other writing. I find these books to be bloated, take an overly long time for events to happen, and for there to be a general lack of emotional depth for many of the characters. The story progresses along a somewhat predictable path with a few minor twists and turns that feel like they come out of no where, but it doesn’t really matter. The twists don’t really feel like they materially change the general direction of the story.

The author tried to add a great deal of tension throughout the story, but I never felt that the important characters were really ever at a real threat to being killed. I also didn’t feel like there was a threat to them being removed from the real important battle in a meaningful way. This was basically accurate throughout the story.

I also felt that many of the characters still seemed two dimensional even though we’ve now been with them for three books. This was simply confounded by the fact that no one truly grieved when an important (but not a main) character was killed. I couldn’t help but compare the death of this character to my reactions to characters that were significanly more minor or insignificant generally to the story, but we learned more about them in series like Malazan Book of the Fallen.

This was a good entertaining book, it’s not the best fantasy out there. It’s good enough to get you through to a better series though.

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Review of Lean Media

Lean Media: How to focus creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences loveLean Media: How to focus creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences love by Ian Lamont
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Normally, I wait until I finish most of the book to start a review. However, in this case there are some things that I must call out immediately after reading 39 pages of this book. Which, I almost put down this book after page 38, but since this was a review copy I felt obligated to continue. In Chapter 2, the author calls out a number of customer/advertiser behaviors that had negative impact on the media landscape, including sites like Craigslist which killed the classified section of news papers and saying that “some [customers] had gone as far as installing ad blockers.” This I found deeply problematic, because it starts with the premise that we, as consumers, should accept every ad thrown at us. The book never reflects as to why a customer would want to use an adblocker.
This is due to the fact that in chapter 3, the author explicitly explains he’s eliminating the Five Why’s methodology from the Lean Media tool kit. Let’s take a look at an example I saw on twitter the other day about the importance of the Five Why’s in this case.
Site: “You’re using an ad blocker, please Whitelist us”
User: Whitelists
Site: Hidden ad plays music and sound at full volume
User: Blacklists site

Here’s a way to use Five Why’s (you only need one) in this case.
Site: Why did you black list our site?
User: Because there was an obtrusive ad that I was unable to control, it started to use my speakers without my permission and since I couldn’t find it, I wasn’t able to mute it. My only recourse was to blacklist your site for violating my trust.

This single ad now has likely cost the repeated visits of this user and has reduced trust in sites that ask for users to whitelist their site. There is a clear lack of trust.

Ok, maybe that’s not a fair example. Let’s look at someone of the rationale the author users to throw it out as it reduces creativity. Paraphrasing here, some creative people are tyrannical and that seems to work for great creative processes. Well, given that many of these tyrannical personalities have been outed as sexual harassers lately and the Five Whys might have identified this as a risk, maybe that’s not a good answer. His other answer was to look at the Doom creative process and showed that tension was part of the reason why that game was great. Sure, it might work as a one off, like Doom, but the problem is that you want to build a long lasting company. If you allow that sort of toxicity in a company long term you risk driving off creative talent that are being overruled by those voices. Furthermore, this approach has been thoroughly debunked in the Agile software development community (which is an incredibly creative space in general and has just as many egos as game development (which is fundamentally software development)). There are frequent “Retrospectives” where the team asks what they can do better and the leaders are expected to go and fix the problems, which typically requires Root Cause analysis, where Five Why’s is a key tool to doing so.

As someone that has read a large amount on the topic of Six Sigma, Lean, Agile, DevOps, and Creativity, I find a book that purports to be about Lean and Creative material content development that ignores the Five Why’s to be deeply problematic because it is ignoring Root Cause analysis because personalities that clash are important. In “Creativity Inc.” the history of Pixar, by Edwin Catmull one of the founders, the explicitly call out reigning in the egos was a key part of their success and that they use Lean and the Five Whys as part of their creative process. I propose that if a media giant like Pixar can figure out the best way to use Five Why’s in their methodology, then every media company can and should use it as well.

The remainder of Chapter three is problematic for two reasons. First the author argues that Data driven media companies are doomed to fail, which is an argument that warrants farther investigation. However, the example, Zynga, wasn’t done in by missing the mark with their data, what happened was that Facebook essentially killed Zynga by blocking most of the Mafia War links, the games themselves were going strong until Facebook interceded on behalf of other Facebook users. Second, since the author argues against being exclusively data driven and that there are these qualitative features that are unique to media ventures, but clearly the Five Why’s, an interview approach, can answer some of the questions. For example, the author poses the question, why did you leave after being on the site for 10 seconds. That’s literally the point of the Five Why’s and A/B testing, which are both qualitative and quantitative ways to answer that question.

Another point that is frustrating to me as a reader is that the author seems to be confusing “Media ventures” and “Creative Media” because many of the points the Author makes fall into media ventures, which are the firms, which could definitely benefit from all lean methodologies. Then turns around and argues that they are so unique, because creativity and basically argues that design is so purpose driven that it doesn’t count as creativity. This is patently false and books like Design Driven Innovation and Creative Confidence both call out some really great creative qualitative tools that are used in both lean and the even more data centric Six Sigma. The building on this point, one of the major areas of “creative” media the author talks about is newspaper articles and book editing. The latter is certainly not a creative process, it is a process though and that can be improved by lean.

Another problematic aspect of this book, is the general tone of the writing. There seems have been some past issue between the author and the operations side of the media business that he puts into this framework book. Maybe it was intended to come across as humorous or an in joke between fellow creators, but if I’m a creator and I want my media company to adopt Lean Media as a way of doing better media development, I’d want to feel comfortable giving this book to a member of that team as a rationale why we should change our management practices. Based on the tone of this book, I’d be unwilling to do that. These are cases where the author is 100% correct in what he is saying. For example, he’s arguing that a way to reduce waste (more on waste later), is to have smaller teams, because it improves the creative functions and those sales VPs are idiots. That might be 100% correct, however the tone misses the mark. Agile and DevOps make the exact same argument, but in a less antagonistic tone, which is significantly more effective in making the case to the creatives, the head creative (the pigs), and the operations team (the chickens) than the Lean Media approach. It does it through an old joke about a pig and a chicken wanting to open a restaurant called ham and eggs. The pig wants to have full control since he’s committed (Ham) while the chicken is only involved (eggs). This is a significant tonal shift that allows for the exact same conversation in a less confrontational way which allows this book to be shared between the main target audience and the media executives that may have to buy off on the management and cultural change.

After finally finishing the book, the real value of the book kicks in around page 70 where the author really starts to talk about how to analyze audience feedback. This is where the book stands out compared to just about every other high level Lean book I’ve read. The book provides much more explicit direction, but not tools, about who should be included, and generally how to use the feedback provided by various audience members. The book does parse out the different groups of people that you should try to get feedback from based on the phase and maturity of the media that you are developing and uses a few great examples of that towards the end.

I think this is clearly the strongest part of the authors Lean experience, but is still mostly intuition/experienced based rather than using some of the common tools already in use in the Lean space for dealing with feedback. One common tool I’ve used to analyze, group and include/discard feedback is called the KJ Analysis or Affinity Diagram, this would have been incredibly powerful to include in this discussion. It would have taken the book from a high level framework to a much more powerful tool than it is. It’s isn’t like the author is avoiding this either. He provides one or two tools throughout the book, with the Lean Media Project Planner being the most powerful and obviously useful of the tools.

I think based on the Author’s experience, adding tools to the second half of the book, providing more examples and showing how to use the Five Why’s to analyze the root cause of a failing project (which may indicate that the project needs to pivot) would be really powerful. I would recommend that the author shortens the first half of the book, and expands the second half. The second half is where the framework becomes more powerful.

I also have doubts about how much the author really understands of Lean and waste because the impression that I’ve gathered from reading this book is that waste reduction is primarily focused on the size of the team, not reducing defects, overwork, over processing, or any of those common waste types (for a translation from manufacturing to office waste reduction which applies more to media, I would recommend reading the Lean Office and Service Simplified). Complicating this, the author uses “lean team” to literally mean a team with only a few people in it, which is different than a team that embodies Lean practices.

I hope that the author takes this feedback to heart and makes improvements to the book like he says he intends to at the end. The back half was a fantastic dive into audience identification and how to use audience feedback. The first half where the author looked at the fundamentals of Lean is flawed and less than useful.

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Book Review of DevOps Handbook

The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology OrganizationsThe DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations by Gene Kim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book took me longer than was warranted to finish it. This was a fantastically written book that takes a large number of case studies provided by experts in the industry to argue for using the methodologies espoused in their first book the Phoenix Project. While that book was more akin to the Goal, this book was more related to a book like Lean Thinking. Providing case study after case study arguing with clear data and results from a variety of differently sized organization that this is an imperative if you want your business to scale in a structurally sound way.

This book doesn’t by beating you over the head with just the end result. Instead they walk through a series of different steps that any DevOps practitioner will need to follow to fully implement DevOps. However, the authors note that doing most of the steps in the book can really enact massive change in your organization. This book isn’t just for CIOs it is for anyone that has influence in an organization. In fact, the authors point out that many of the people driving these changes did it through their informal organizational authority rather than their hierarchical authority. In some cases they actually made these changes in spite of being directed to do the exact opposite by their leadership team.. In the end, these cases were wildly successful because of the bottoms up adoption where other groups decided they had to do the same thing, if they wanted to achieve similar results.

I highly recommend this book if your organization is struggling or if it is performing well. The tools in this book provide the best way to take a good team and make it a great team.

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On the Efficiencies of Business

So, I’ve been going to therapy for a few months now to deal with depression. One of thing that has come up is how I don’t really release a lot of the emotions that I am feeling and one of them is anger. I typically swallow that to stay diplomatic and deal with whatever situation as well as I can. I think that I’ve been stewing about this for a while and mentioning it to my friends periodically. I don’t feel that business leaders respect my career path and don’t understand how to actually make their businesses more efficient.

Excluding the past two years, the majority of my career has been focused on Lean, Six Sigma, or Lean Six Sigma (yes all of them are different in terms of how you approach continuous improvement). I have run projects, developed courses, facilitated strategic planning events for companies like AMD, but the entire time, I never truly felt secure in my role. At Samsung, we had lay-offs and last some employees, at AMD, we definitely lost some and my Director actually decided to be let go to save a number of my coworkers. This is in spite of the fact that our group had saved the company measurably millions of dollars over the 1.5 years I worked at AMD. We were always on the chopping block. Then while working at Cambia (Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield) I was laid off, even though the result of my training program included winning a national Blues award and saved the company a lot of time and money. My team easily paid for itself more than once over while we were there (my team was me and my employee Phil).

As we all know Insurance companies are always raising premiums. The underlying assumption is that these businesses are actually working to continually drive down their financial overhead, but those damn regulations keep getting in the way to drive up cost. This is just flat out wrong. These businesses don’t actually know how to drive improvement in their organizations. The only way they can even imaging improving their business is to hire an organization like McKinsey or BCG which costs millions and gets little to no result. The results they do provide are typically brought about by recommendations internally to the organization that leadership is unwilling to implement unless told about them by an expensive consulting group.

This is problematic because it doesn’t actually change the culture of the organization to drive continual improvement and innovation. As I’ve written in the past Innovation and Improvement are positively correlated. Furthermore, these training classes help expand people’s networks, which also significantly improve innovation as well.

So, first of all, I’m pissed off at corporate leaderships for not understanding the value of continuous improvement. Second, I’m pissed off that it’s just accepted that businesses always figure out ways to be more efficient. This isn’t true. If it was true there wouldn’t be a large number of people in their mid-50’s looking for work after a very successful career in continuous improvement. If these businesses didn’t think that the best way to improve efficiencies was to cut costs and then have someone else do two people’s work, this wouldn’t be a problem.

You can reduce headcount and drive up efficiencies, but only if you provide your people with the right tools and the requires true investment in the business. Although, all continuous improvement efforts pay for themselves if you aren’t just looking at how much a few people cost that are part of the team. You need to weight that against the positive gains they are making for the organization.

I’m pissed off about this because I feel like Michael Bolton from Office Space “I shouldn’t have to change, he’s the one who sucks.” I have had to completely change my career, which I was really passionate about because I don’t trust corporate leaders to try invest and buy in to continuous improvement. Maybe this is short sighted and I just need to find the right company. But I’ve looked I’ve been at a number of them and I’ve heard stories from other people that have been laid off (while i was interviewing for the position Phil filled) for exactly what I’m talking about here. So as a response I’ve tried to protect myself from that by avoiding applying for those jobs.

I loved doing that work because I knew at the end of each day and each project, I made someone’s work life better. Which is awesome. You listen to their problems, which helps them, but then you provide them with the tools to make change and to fix their current situation. When they look at how that aspect of their job is going to work after you finish the project, you can just see how much happier they are. You can see that it allows them to focus on the thing they were hired to do, not deal with some bullshit that was there because it’s always been there.

Businesses need more of this. The culture needs to change from top to bottom. It’s the role of the Lean Manager to change the culture so that people want to do continuous improvement. It’s the role of the business leader to provide the right incentives to do this as well.

On Being a White Liberal In Portland OR

Portland Oregon has been in the news a lot lately. Mostly for not very good things. The city has a great image generally, but that’s because the people talking about Portland, generally look and think like me. White, bearded, and generally liberal. However, there’s a history to Portland that’s rarely talked about, which is that it was essentially founded to be a White Utopia. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a great article interviewing people of color after the Max Light Rail attack, I recommend you read that here, because they do a great job explaining the background.

I think generally, it’s safe to say, that Portland encompasses both the best and worst of being a white culture. You’re able to find good high paying jobs in technology. You are able to be around other white people because you have a similar background. I can’t decided if those two sentences are the best or worst. On the one hand it means that generally white people are well off, but that also means that we are exclusive and not well integrated with the rest of the community at large. This leads to ignorance, in liberals it results in something of a White Hero mentality, regardless of good intentions. In Conservatives it can manifest itself into hate, including white supremacy and neo-nazi’s. The former wants to make friends with minorities to understand them better, but that can result in tokenism. While the latter ends having “our Mexican” who isn’t like those other Mexicans out there. Which is a justification for liking one Mexican while hating all other job stealing Mexicans.

I’ve become acutely aware of this over the past several years in Portland. I am married to a Mexican-American woman as many of you know. In Austin these issues didn’t come up as often as they do now, and I think that was more due to the people she was working with during her PhD studies and Post-Doc. However, whenever she started working at Intel, which has a big problem with diversity, these issues became a focal point of many things she does. She’s been heavily involved in Women’s groups at Intel. She’s a member of the Saturday Academy working to get under privileged and minorities involved in science and technology at an earlier age. These were things that, to be honest, are fairly new to me as a thing that needs to be done.

Growing up in Grove City, you didn’t really realize that you had it pretty well. It was a very very very White community. The school system was really good. Opportunities were there for anyone to join Saturday Science, there were ways to easily take more advanced classes in any subject if you were on the college path. Since Grove City was a really small school, our High school had 800 some odd students, we didn’t have the massive disparities due to differing socio-economic. They were there to be sure. It was a handful of kids rather than the majority of the kids as some rural or inner city schools see.

I guess it’s really fair to say i grew up sheltered and started to experience more diversity while studying at Pitt. I have been lucky since going to Pitt to marry my amazing wife, study in Europe meeting people from all over the world. People from countries the US has foreign policy issues with.

Even despite that, I’m still uncomfortable around people that I don’t know how to start a conversation. I think it’s important to be honest about that discomfort to myself and use that as an opportunity to grow. The only way to get rid of the discomfort is to meet more people. I don’t want a black friend because they are black. I want and need more friends of diverse backgrounds to grow into a better person. My wife has opened my eyes to her family’s cultural. I really enjoy Mariachi music now, Son De La Negra is one of their favorite songs and one of mine too.

So how does all this relate to being a White Liberal in Portland? Well, I think for a start, we need to meet people where they are, try to understand their world and world view. It’s very different than ours. We need to start joining groups and becoming part of the larger more complex city of Portland or whatever city you currently live in. The other thing that we must do is listen. When people are talking about their history and where they came from, you’ll hear both a lot of similarities and many defining differences. You can build bonds on the similarities, while using those differences to understand people in a way you never could before. These differences can be painful because it forces you to look into the mirror and really think about where you came from and for you to grow as a person it requires to potentially reevaluate how you got where you are. I know that I grew up in a pretty special area that gave me a huge amount of opportunity. My parents were in a position where they enabled me to go to Pitt leaving with minimal debt. This makes me very fortunate and puts me in a very different place than people who built up a lot of debt going to school or came from an area where they weren’t enabled to succeed.

Upon self-reflection, I need to do more listening and growing.

An Alternative To Just Resisting

One of the problems with simply resisting is that it seems passive. That there’s nothing else there. The Democrats need to take another play book from the Republicans now that they have some momentum on Healthcare reform. We all know that the ACA (aka Obamacare) is an imperfect law, as any law is, so there’s plenty of room for improvement there. Why not take advantage of that, but do so using their own requirements against.

One of the main arguments against ACA is that it’s expensive. According to Bernie Sander’s pushing Medicare to all would save individuals somewhere between just under $4,000 and just over $5,500 per year. That’s a lot of money for most people, in some cases over 10% of their income. One study is putting the savings for the overall economy at an absurd half TRILLION dollar saving. In one year. Let’s say that we’re less optimistic and say it’s 20% of that, so a cool $100 billion dollars. That’s 1/7 the amount of TARP, which was used to bailout the banks. When we injected $700 billion into the economy it saved it from the worst banking crisis we’d seen since the ’30s, injecting that much extra money into the economy at the individual level would have a huge multiplicative impact on the economy, much more than just pushing that money into a single location.

So my proposal, which is more modest than Medicare for all, would be to propose Medicare to everyone that makes less than < $30,000 year or maybe 20% above the minimum living wage in a city/region. Regardless, this would help the people that are protesting most loudly, the rural red states. The rest of Obamacare could stay the same, it would just really help the bottom of the population. We could even extend it to small business owners so their employees get a perk of Medicare and all those benefits without that employer needing to worry about their employee’s healthcare. The other benefit is that companies like Hobby Lobby wouldn’t be able politicize healthcare and would allow individuals to make decisions about things like birth control for themselves.

Immigration

ICE has been brutally cracking down on immigration the past few days. Democrats should introduce a comprehensive immigration reform that protects the country and aliens. I think that this is something that red states and red parts of blue states are going to be filling the pinch on. Apparently, farmers that supported Trump in California are now worried about losing most of their work force. This is a pretty valid concern. In Austin Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted raids of illegal aliens by targeting their children. There are reports of their cars following school buses waiting for children to get off the bus to ask the parents for immigration paperwork.

While Arizona was enforcing their paper’s pleas law the state lost between $300 million – $1 billion in agricultural output, while losing out in another $147 million in cancelled conferences in the state. Arizona isn’t known as a agricultural powerhouse, if something similar happens in California, the entire country is going to feel the impact with massively increased food prices. Arizona’s Ag output is about $7.3 billion while California’s is estimated closer to $50 billion, if we lose 1/7 of California’s ag output that’s losing as much as all of Arizona (Az lost about 1/7 of theirs due to papers please). That’s a huge hit to that economy, ripple that out across the entire country and we’re potentially looking at a recession with food prices skyrocketing. Furthermore, many of these illegal aliens are actually paying taxes, of the estimated 11 million about 6.1 million pay taxes which equates to billions in federal and state revenue.

Democrats should instead offer reform that allows non violent illegal aliens a path towards citizenship or some sort of migratory work visa that is designed and so that the workers that want to use that program can go home when they are finished with the year’s work. This should guarantee access to the US for a number of years in such a way that people feel they are safe to go back and forth across the boarder. Partner with Mexico to vet the candidates for these types of visas to ensure that they were upstanding citizens in Mexico and that there are no gang connections. Furthermore, work to protect these migrants so that there’s no need for them to ever mule drugs across the boarders. Require that these workers get car insurance, licenses, and health insurance while they are here (or at least pay taxes for them to cover their portion of Medicare if the above passes). As for those that are already here, stay the course with Obama’s practices, which were more aggressive than past administrations, but still more human than what Trump is doing. Provide a path for citizenship for those that are here. Even toss in a requirement to learn English if you want to mollify the far right.

That still leaves the question of refugees and the Muslim ban. First, I think we need to make sure that the people we train here with PhD’s should be enabled to stay easily. This shouldn’t even be a question, we should in fact require it for any one that is trained in the US or require them to pay back the entire cost of their education immediately. This is what the Netherlands does – or at least Eindhoven University of Technology does. Additionally, if we’re concerned about too many foreigners taking these positions we need to incentivize American students to pursue higher levels of education so there are few spots for immigrants. I personally think that for the best result science and business needs diversity, so I’m for getting more people more degrees.

Beyond this though, I don’t really know what remedies to offer, someone with greater immigration reform experience should weigh in here, but generally, we need to accept refugees for crises we created.

Reigning in the Cloak and Dagger

It’s time we ended cover operations like the one in Yemen. They create resentment towards the US and since they are covert we don’t know what’s being done in our name. We need to end drone strikes and use diplomatic channels to address these concerns. Democrats should introduce bills that require increased oversight of these operations and reduce the executive power to conduct military operations without Congressional approval and/or a formal declaration of war. It is very unlikely that this will pass at all, but there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle that believe there needs to be more constraints on what the President is able to do without approval or oversight. We have now been conducting these raids for 15 years and there has been no increased safety in the US due to them.

The other area where the same operatives are heavily engaged is mass surveillance in the US. Democrats need to introduce a bill that stops. Simple as that. It’s been shown not to work as with any large data set it’s possible to create find correlations that really don’t exist. It’s possible create sinister reasons for why a person is doing completely innocuous things.

I think if Democrats repeatedly introduce bills to attack these areas, they will get more and more support as the Trump administration continues to crack down. These sorts of initiatives will show they have a backbone and that they really are actually striving to make things better. Without at least these three changes, there’s no way that Democrats can mount a serious “resistance” to Trump. We’ve seen how loud and upset people are with Obamacare, the next step is to figure out how to do the same with the other two.