Tuesday, March 7

Lessons for all

Many of the more than 8,700 documents on CIA hacking tools released by WikiLeaks are technical. But not all. Among the files is a quick summary of Practices of an Agile Developer by Venkat Subramaniam and Andy Hunt, a book readily available on Amazon. The advice is timely and could be useful for any leader. 

Practice #1 – Work for Outcome

Blame does not fix bugs. "Instead of pointing fingers, point to possible solutions.  It is the positive outcome that counts."

Practice #2 – Quick Fixes Become Quicksand

Beware of land mines such as quick fixes and shallow hacks Do not code in isolation to ensure more than one person knows about a certain piece of the project...

Practice #3 – Criticize Ideas, Not People

Negativity kills innovation... Take pride in arriving at a solution rather than providing whose idea is better. "There is no absolute best, only better.  Despite the popularity of the term, there is no such thing as 'best practices,' only better practices in a particular situation."

Practice #4 – Damn the Torpedoes, Go Ahead

You definitely need to read this section for yourself - basically admit your mistakes and back up your opinions with facts (pros and cons). "Do what is right.  Be honest, and have the courage to communicate the truth.  It may be difficult at times; that is why it takes courage...."

Practice #5 – Keep Up with Change

Learn iteratively and incrementally. Get the latest buzz.... Read voraciously. "Keep up with changing technology.  You do not have to become an expert at everything, but stay aware of where the industry is headed, and plan your career and projects accordingly."

Practice #6 – Invest in Your Team

"Raise the bar for you and your team.  Use brown-bag sessions to increase everyone's knowledge and skills and help bring people together.  Get the team excited about technologies or techniques that will benefit your project."

Practice #7 – Know When to Unlearn

"One of the foundations of agility is coping with change.  Given that change is so constant and pervasive, does it make any sense to keep applying the same techniques and tools you have always used?"  Expensive mental models are not discarded lightly: "Learn the new; unlearn the old.  When learning a new technology, unlearn any old habits that might hold you back.  After all, there is much more to a car than just a horseless carriage."

Practice #8 – Question Until You Understand

 The best question to ask – Why ...? "Keep asking Why.  Do not just accept what you are told at face value.  Keep questioning until you understand the root of the issue."

Practice #9 – Feel the Rhythm

Agile projects have rhythms and cycles.... Time boxing – setting a near-term, hard deadline for an activity that cannot be extended. "Tackle tasks before they bunch up.  It's easier to tackle common recurring tasks when you maintain steady, repeatable intervals between events."

Chapter 4 – Delivering What Users Want

Quotable Quote – "In warfare, as in software development, the situation can change quickly and drastically.  Sticking to yesterday's plan despite a change in circumstances is a recipe for disaster."

Practice #10 – Let Customers Make Decisions

Decide what you should not decide: "You do not want to have to make decisions that are business critical by yourself.  After all, it is not your business."
"Let your customers decide.  Developers, managers, or business analysts should not make business-critical decisions.  Present details to business owners in a language they can understand, and let them make the decision."

Practice #11 – Let Design Guide, Not Dictate

 Design should be only as detailed as needed to implement. Strategic versus tactical design – strategic is the up-front design before requirements are known "A good design is a map; let it evolve.  Design points you in the right direction.  It is not the territory itself; it should not dictate the specific route.  Do not let the design (or the designer) hold you hostage. "'No Big Design Up Front' does not mean no design.  It just means do not get stuck in a design task without validating it with real code.  Diving into code with no idea of a design is just as dangerous.  Diving into code is fine for learning or prototyping, as long as you throw the code away afterward."

"White boards, sketches, and Post-It notes are excellent design tools.  Complicated modeling tools have a tendency to be more distracting than illuminating."

Practice #12 – Justify Technology Use
  • Blindly picking a framework is like having kids to save taxes. Pick technology and frameworks based on statements like – "It is too hard to ..." or "It takes too long to ..."
  • Does it really solve the problem?
  • Will you be tied to this technology forever?  When technology changes, will you be able to change the design to match technology?
  • What about maintenance costs?
  • Do not build what you can download – reinventing the wheel
  • "Choose technology based on need.  Determine your needs first, and then evaluate the use of technologies for those specific problems.  Ask critical questions about the use of any technology, and answer them genuinely."
Practice #13 – Keep It Releasable

  • Checked-in code is always ready for action... Check out the latest source.  Run your local tests.  Check in.
  • "Keep your project releasable at all times.  Ensure that the project is always compilable, runnable, tested, and ready to deploy at a moment's notice."

Practice #14 – Integrate Early, Integrate Often
  • Never accept big-bang integration
  • "Integrate early, integrate often.... start integration early and continue to do it regularly."
  • "Successful integration means that all the unit tests continue to pass.  As per the Hippocratic oath – first, do no harm."
  • "For prototypes and experimental code, you may want to work in isolation and not waste effort on integration.  But do not stay isolated too long; once you learn from the experience, work toward integration quickly...."
Photo of young girls learning to use computers in Eastern Afghanistan, courtesy of Todd Huffman and Wikimeda Commons.

Saturday, February 25

Path to prosperity

I'm a journalist, so it's a given that I respect newspapers for the stories and news they provide each day. But let's be blunt. Newspapers of all sizes, by informing the community and presenting a first draft of history, also outline a path to prosperity.

Information is key to investing and pursuing relationships. The most useful details and analysis on the internet often expand upon or respond to newspaper reports. As an editor of an online publication, I suspect that the internet would struggle to inform without the world's rich supply of newspapers.

There is a reason newspaper journalists and their regular readers, even those who might earn relatively low salaries, tend to live comfortably and happily. They stay informed, learning to detect value and avoid risks. They minimize unpleasant surprises by quickly discovering which managers in their community are likely competent and which are inefficient bullsh--ters. Newspaper readers come to understand community trends and discern which accomplishments, whether their own or from others, are a result of good luck versus hard work. By balancing a range of opinions and reports, these readers practice critical thinking on a daily basis.

Reading about a community, learning multiple points of view about every aspect of life, is invaluable before making what is for most the largest purchase they will make - their home. Newspapers offer insights about community schools, businesses, resources, courts, governance, economic climate, art and culture, crime, opinions and values and so much more.

Reading about other people - accomplishments and mistakes - offers lessons for how to live. I recall numerous specific ideas picked up from newspapers and, no doubt, countless more left an influence that I do not even realize. One small example was in 1995, I had just moved to New Haven and subscribed to the New Haven Register, reading it religiously from front page to back. A guest opinion column caught my eye. A freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to attend New Haven Public Schools even though his family had lived in the suburbs.

City schools generally have a  reputation for low test scores and inadequate resources - the median income for families in NHPS is just under $36,000 - but this writer  was passionate about his high school, the opportunities available in the city including enrollment in college classes and the rich diversity of the student body that delivered daily lessons in motivation, resilience and the power of education not readily found in textbooks.

Though my son was in third grade, that opinion essay exposed a perspective that shaped our family's decisions on education for years to come. My son, like that guest columnist, attended New Haven Public Schools, thriving and going on to attend Yale to study biology and later degrees in mechanical and civil engineering. While one can never be certain about choices not taken, the teachers and staff were caring, and I'm confident he could not have done better in a suburban setting.

Newspapers accounts likewise shaped my decisions on purchasing homes as well as selecting graduate school (an article in the Anchorage Daily News about Harvard’s Kennedy School), investments (the Wall Street Journal and Boston Business Journal), contractors, activities, and more (thank you, the Boston Globe, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Lansing State Journal and Guilford Courier). With newspapers, I have discovered ideas for decorating, cooking, reading, and preparing for any sort of event at home or work. A police blotter item from The Daily Sentinel triggered the idea for my first novel.

A good newspaper saves readers money, lots of money, and I'm grateful. The media - especially the New York Times and the major broadcasters - are not an enemy for the American people, anything but. But the media do threaten the charlatans and fraudsters in any community. Journalists, covering the police blotter or the highest levels of government, learn this time and time again.

Newspaper readers typically don't have to be warned about those who issue blanket warnings against journalists and, for that matter teachers, librarians, scientists, and others who inform and educate. The fraudulent can't afford to let their marks analyze details or think for themselves.

Photo of the couple by an unknown photographer in Hungary and the engraving by W. Taylor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Wellcome Images.

Wednesday, February 1


USA Today reviewed audio recordings of the Breitbart radio show and comments made by Trump adviser Steve Bannon. He is exposed as an insecure and cowardly man:

"Bannon told his listeners that the United States and the Western world are engaged in a 'global existential war,' and he entertained claims that a 'fifth column' of Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media," report Steve Reilly and Brad Heath.

So we can imagine what someone like Bannon might think of Fear of Beauty and its protagonist Sofi. Fear of Beauty is the story of a Muslim woman who lives in a remote village in Afghanistan, how she yearns to learn how to read after the murder of her oldest son. Her family and village are comfortable due to a crop she plants in secret on a nearby hillside, and no, the crop is not heroin. This woman is thoughtful, resourceful and devout, but also an independent thinker who does not allow religion or the men in her life to impose controls. She is quiet and constant in resisting those who attempt such controls.

One of the great rewards of writing this novel was how US readers responded to Sofi as an Afghan woman. "For readers numbed by a decade of news reports from war-torn Afghanistan, Froetschel provides a fascinating glimpse into life in a humble village," wrote Cynthia Sebalius for Calliope. "More importantly, she lets us spend time in Sofi's mind and heart. The magic of reading this book is that we become Sofi, and we leave better for the experience." 

Fear of Beauty is a story about Afghans as individuals who work hard and love their families and communities, and not as terrorists, and Bannon probably would regard the novel and character part and parcel of his fifth column of Islamist sympathizers.

If feeling empathy for women on the other side of the world, if developing a thinking, caring, resourceful, independent and courageous Muslim woman as an admirable character, is the work of a sympathizer, then this author is guilty as charged. Bannon is defying everything the US military has worked for in Afghanistan. He is a bully who exaggerates and seeks conflict, terrified of the beauty of this world and incapable of understanding why others don't share his world view, much like Jahangir, the antagonist of Fear of Beauty. 

Fear of Beauty and the stories from Afghanistan carry a warning. Societies can go backwards.

Photo courtesy of SPC Kristina Truluck and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 31


"There's some upset in The Wall Street Journal newsroom over a directive from editor in chief Gerry Baker to stop using the phrase "seven majority Muslim countries" in coverage of President Trump's immigration order," reports Joe Pompeo for Politico. Pompeo quotes Baker's email to editors: "Can we stop saying 'seven majority Muslim countries'? It's very loaded."

Welcome to the land of "alternative facts" and realities.

Loaded? Let's go the CIA World Factbook and check the demographics for the seven countries from which travel and entry to the United States is banned:

Iraq - 99 percent Muslim
Iran - 99.4 percent Muslim
Somalia - 99.8 percent Muslim
Libya - 96.6 percent Muslim
Yemen - 99.1 percent Muslim
Sudan -  97 percent Muslim
Syria  - 87 percent Muslim

The ban comes from a president who promised as candidate to ban Muslims from entering the country until US officials could figure out what the hell is going on. His supporters cheered him on wildly.

Now plenty of people in the world are trying to figure out what's going on in the United States.  And anyone in a position of power should understand that their emails and directives on these issues will be forwarded to the world at large.

Get a spine, editors.

Photo of Blue Mosque in Iran, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 23


In the novel Fear of Beauty, the women in the fictional Afghan village do most of the day to day farming work. The story is about Sofi, an illiterate woman who innovates with crops and techniques in secret, all the while contributing to her village's prosperity.

No one should underestimate women's contributions to the global economy. Businesses and politicians should take note of the turnout for the Women's March in Washington DC and the more than 670 sister marches around the globe.

Women drive about 70 percent of consumer spending, explains Bridget Brennan, CEO of the Female Factor, for Forbes.  Women also have a multiplier effect: "Because women serve as primary caregivers for children and the elderly in virtually every society in the world, women buy on behalf of the people who live in their households, as well as for extended family (such as older parents and in-laws) and friends." Brennan urges businesses to monitor demographic trends. Women worldwide continue to enter and succeed in the labor force; women are marrying at older ages and families are having fewer children. Women pursue higher education at higher levels and they also vote.

Themes of the Women's March included women's rights as human rights, opposition to misogyny  and encouragement of political activism on health care, the environment, education, labor rights and more. Thousands of women in cities around the globe will continue to think, talk and organize. They are concerned and will watch how leaders in every sector respond to the politics and policies in Washington. 

As the stories of Afghanistan and Fear of Beauty warn, societies can move backwards. But a few, sometimes the most unlikely of individuals, can question policies that most in their communities take for granted and they manage to resist the controls.

Photo of Women's March in Lansing, January 21, 2017.

Saturday, January 21


Eliminating films, books, websites and other media that analyze problems do not eliminate the problems themselves. Erasure won't eliminate analysis or discussions either - unless the threats are accompanied by the brute force, similar to efforts of the Taliban types described in Fear of Beauty.

The Trump administration has eliminated mention of climate change on the White House website, but other US government websites still address the issue.

CIA World Factbook includes a list of countries that have signed and ratified international agreements on the environment. 

Climate.gov is still up with great GIS maps showing warming global temperatures.

NOAA still posts on climate: "From supercomputers and state-of-the-art models to observations and outlooks, we provide data, tools, and information to help people understand and prepare for climate variability and change."

NASA still gives the vital signs of the planet.

And climate change still matters for the Department of Commerce. 

And the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The Department of Defense describes the security risks of climate change. 

All departments like Labor and the VA have prepared climate adaptation plans.

And the Department of Energy still begins: "Addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority of the Energy Department. As global temperature rise, wildfires, drought and high electricity demand put stress on the nation’s energy infrastructure. And severe weather -- the leading cause of power outages and fuel supply disruption in the United States -- is projected to worsen, with eight of the 10 most destructive hurricanes of all time having happened in the last 10 years."

Businesses and homes have no choice but to contend with the weather and their surroundings. They cannot ignore these fundamental inputs, and the same is true of government. Our environment is a priority, and our survival depends on those surroundings.

The new administrators may try to dismiss the research and pull down the pages, but nothing disappears with the Internet Archives and the Wayback Machine.

Some are watching. 

Image courtesy of Earth Observatory and NASA. 


Monday, January 16

Survival guide

Many of us share some traits of narcissism that linger from our childhoods, and most manage to tame extreme notions that we might be special.

In the novel Fear of Beauty, a bullying terrorist who resents education, books, women, Americans, joy, you name it, swoops down on the fictional village of Laashekoh and takes control. Janhangir assumes he can whip up resentment against a nearby American outpost for a provincial reconstruction team, including soldiers and civilians whose goal is to provide technical support on agriculture, and he uses that as an excuse to take control of Laashekoh. Jahangir and his men are brutal with high-powered weapons at their disposal.

Jahangir is a narcissist, covering every insecurity when near those more productive and intelligent, with a brash manner and assertive ignorance.

Some observers like Zoe Williams, writing for the Guardian, have suggested that we are amidst a narcissism epidemic: "From attention-seeking celebrities to digital oversharing and the boom in cosmetic surgery, narcissistic behaviour is all around us. How worried should we be about our growing self-obsession?" The examples include increased reliance on cosmetic surgery, selfies and oversharing on social media and includes informaton from Pat MacDonald, author of "Narcissism in the Modern World" who wrote:

"Seemingly irreversible alterations to family life, technological development – including social media, attitudes to death and dying and celebrity worship, all feature in the rise of our narcissistic society and are interconnected trends. Group greed and grandiosity, as in the world of banking, have led to wide-scale corruption and cover-ups leaving us vulnerable and unable to place our trust in many organisations. Perhaps most sinister of all is our attitude to the planet that supports us, as we play a part in the destruction of much of the environment and many of the species that share the earth with us."

And how worried should we be about the self-obsession of others, the Janhangirs of this world, who might have control over us? Mayo Clinic lists the criteria from the DSMV, the diagnostic manual on mental health:
  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expects to be recognized as superior even without achievements
  • Exaggerates achievements and talents
  • Preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty
  • Believing that he or she is superior and can only be understood by others who are superior.
  • Requires constant admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Expects special favors and compliance
  • Takes advantage of others
  • An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Envious of others and believes others are also envious
  • Behaves in an arrogant or haughty manner.
The cause?  Possibly genetics combined with parents who treated their children as objects with excessive praise or criticism. Awareness of the personality disorder is one means of protection. A goal is not to become what some call the narcissistic victim, compelled to reinforce the narcissist's self-image, obeying and telling that person what he or she yearns to hear, accepting all blame for the problems sure to ensue from focusing on petty appearances and slights rather than the larger challenges at hand. Oddly enough, some of the most insecure are repeatedly attracted to the traits.  

Some narcissists are downright clownish with their belligerence and unbearable and experts offer advice. "Keep your distance," suggests Preston Ni for Psychology Today.  Of course, that does not help when someone like Jahangir takes over an entire community and is capable of brute force. But Ni also advises reliance on assertive communication, saying no firmly, not over-reacting and expecting plenty of disappointments. "The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to 'stand down' a difficult person," he writes. "Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the narcissist, and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect."

Steve Berglas describes workplace narcissists for Forbes and also offers some defense: They overpromise. Any consideration of another is intended to exact future promises. They demand attention and immediate response. They crave praise, and any criticism must be couched as praise. They regard themselves as victims and expect others to share that view.

The narcissist's craving for praise can be maniuplated in practical ways, and some narcissists can be convinced to pursue good deeds to obtain that praise. "All is not lost," notes Williams of the Guardian. "MacDonald picks out five principles of self-improvement: gratitude, modesty, compassion (for self and others), mindfulness and community. Some of these are obvious – modesty as an antidote to self-love – and some have a practical application." 

Though some prominent narcissists seem beyond help. So back to the village of Laashekoh and how Parsaa and Sofi, husband and wife, managed to remove Jahangir. Sofi describes her feelings; "From my home, I watched Jahangir with disgust, how he raised tension and then smiled and laughed, letting everyone think that his wrath had faded. the speed of his changing moods was most disturbing. The anxiety of waiting for his next eruption was a dark and all-consuming force."

The couple remains mostly quiet about their concerns and resist in secret ways. Each is on the lookout for others whom they could trust, and for most of the novel, Parsaa and Sofi are uncertain about whether they can trust each other. One is more impatient and angry than the other. So, they work separately on their own strategies - analyzing long-term consequences, following Jahangir, tracking him and taking account of his secret deals and meetings. Both rely on help from outsiders to the village for support. This comes from the same American soldiers at the nearby outpost who Jahangir wants to attack.

Those committed to the development and enforcement of the rule of law is one challenge for the Jahangirs of this world and another is clashes with other narcississts.

And the worst experience may be for the child who is trapped at home with a narcissistic parent, as explored in Allure of Deceit. An interactive version of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory is available online - a good tool before dating or hiring someone as well as for assessing one's self. Studies suggest that self-reporting of narcissism has climbed among college students in recent years.

Some will be lulled into the notion of feeling special, but few appreciate or get along with a narcissist for very long.

Image of Narcissus and Echo, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, courtesy of Stefano Bolignini and Wikimedia Commons. The term "narcissism" is from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who is fascinated with himself and rejects the admiration of others including Echo, whose voice is limited to repeating just a few words of what another has just said.