9:27 pm - Thu, Aug 22, 2013

All Process is Waste

My friend Adam Yuret says all process is waste. As I was heading to lunch with a coworker to do some Lean thinking, my experience with a downtown parking lot reminded me of it. Let’s go over using this idea to analyze my experience at the parking lot.

As is often the case around lunch time in downtown areas, on-street parking was non-existent. However, I know a parking lot that is relatively close and never full, partially because it’s a bit more expensive and not near restaurants.

My fundamental desire is to park my car worry free so I can enjoy a lunch. I’m willing to spend a few dollars for this.

On street parking has parking meters at every spot, like this:

image

The parking lot, however, does not have individual meters, it has one for the entire lot:

The process here is: Park my car without parallel parking (yay!), pay (expected), wait for ticket (irritating), put ticket in (irritating), walk away (finally!).

So, what is this process actually giving as value? One, it allows me to pay for my parking spot and two it allows for effective enforcement of the cars parked in the lot.

So, we want to allow customers to pay, while only allowing customers to park in the lot. How can we improve this process?

One possibility would be to add individual meters for all the spaces in the lot. This would eliminate the process for the customers and still allow enforcement. However, this would be higher in cost for maintenance.

What information does the operator really need? They need to know which cars in the lot are paid for. One way to do this that some places do is ask you to enter your license plate. I personally don’t have mine memorized, but this does eliminate the return trip.

How can we eliminate the need for people to enter their license plate? The data we need to know is what cars are in the lot and who is associated with the car, so they can pay. A simple way to do this would be to take a picture of the car as it comes in so the customer can select what car is theirs. This also makes parking enforcement easier and doesn’t require too much additional equipment, just some software systems.

Addendum: Adam points out that there are several additional questions that need to be answered through experimentation to determine whether this automated system is actually an improvement. Does it actually increase revenue quickly enough over the old inefficient system to justify change? What other risks or issues does the automated system introduce? Does it have new, more severe failure modes, are there unintended consequences?

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abbynormy/

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9:57 pm - Sun, Jun 30, 2013

The Fourth Week of Stoic Practice

I’ve reached a new status quo in my personal philosophy of stoicism this week. I’ve been cementing my understand through discussions with my friends who have a similar philosophy of life, or questions about how to approach life. My daily meditations on losing what I have, fate screwing over my ability to reach my goals and what is and is not in my control have continued.

I have some consistency in my ability to “burn” through frustrations and obstacles, feeling joy in the challenge. For example, one day I came home to my computer not working as I was about enjoy myself with some web browsing. In the past, I would probably have exclaimed frustration, but since I had meditated on the possibility of my computer breaking totally and completely, I was able to take it in stride and rapidly work to troubleshoot with no emotional turmoil.

Both these consistencies are the result of deep and frustrating struggles, anger at others for not doing things the way I think they should be done and frustration and worry myself of what the future holds. Despairing that I’ll never reach my goals. After calming down a few hours and looking at these both intently, I realized that i needed to make some more changes to myself and how I managed my emotions, especially separating what is within my control and what is not within it. This growth comes in spirals and circles, a bit by bit, I’m getting better at it.

My sense of “honor” in my daily life is coming together more. I’m focusing on doing actions that make me feel “elegant” or “high-minded”, untwisting arrogance into something that’s good.

Courage is love and respect for others. Honor is about being about pettiness, insults and compliments and honoring others.

The next part of my stoic practice I’m attempting to focus on is self-denial. In the following weeks I’m also thinking of describing some of the specific techniques I used in this month, both for developing my philosophy and for practicing stoicism. Please comment if there’s anything you’d like to know about specifically.

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1:56 pm - Fri, Jun 28, 2013

Strength versus Endurance, Growth versus Resilience

There was a tweet in my feed that tickled my interest that I’d like to reply to in more depth.

This is an interesting analogy, but I’m not sure if I agree with it. My initial reply, which I’ll expand is this.

This clearly needs a bit more elaboration. So, the question is, what is the goal of a athletic training program or corporate change initiative? The assumption I’m working under is that goal of athletic training is a broad-spectrum “athleticism” in all parts of life. Similarly, I assume that a corporate change initiative is to enhance the ability of the corporation to function, both now and in the future. To function I mean reach all of its goals, both internal and external.

Endurance training alone is not enough to build athleticism, and if I was to choose only one training regimen I would choose strength training. Why? Because strength training build endurance as a side effect. If you’re a good sprinter, you’ll tend to perform well at long endurance as well.

Similarly, I’d chose a resilient culture. If the organization is able to recovery readily from misfortunes or mistakes, that builds the same things that are necessary for growth. There is little difference between a change of strategies because a niche has disappeared and a change of strategies to expand into a new niche while maintaining the old one.

To summarize, I think that a choice between resilience and growth is a false dichotomy and to guarantee growth now and in the future, you need to focus on resilience.

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10:25 pm - Sun, Jun 23, 2013

Third Week of Stoic Dreams

This is the third week of my Stoic Dreams project. My daily meditations on possibly losing everything, including not reaching the goals I’ve set for myself continues. These meditations, especially of failing to reach my goals, were very painful at first, but I have acclimated to them to the point where I can handle them almost as well as my meditations of losing belongings and other morally indifferent things.

I also had two startling instances of “stoic joy” while I was in deep emotional pain. It was a joy that I could still be a good person, regardless of the pain or outside things that were occurring to me. This let me look at my situation as an opportunity to prove my mettle. This is a turning point in my practice of my life philosophy and I think what Seneca meant when he said that you will have a well of joy that cannot be taken away, that it comes from within yourself.

I’ve also thrown myself into reading Epictetus’s Discourses and Seneca’s Essays, partially because I was recuperating from some gum-graft surgery and found them a good distraction and partially because I felt a deep urge to go back to the sources and not get secondhand accounts. I know the secondhand accounts have helped me, but I think I’m developing my own path of a life philosophy now, more neostoic than classical or modern stoicism.

Speaking of my surgery, I found it very nerve-wracking to be in the chair. This was a great opportunity to use a technique from Seneca, which was to think of brave rolemodels and compare their trials to my own. Partially because I’m so impressed by it, I thought of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who put his right hand in a fire and had it burnt off while he was captured to prove the bravery of romans. If he was able to do that for sheer bravado, I could handle some small oral surgery with painkillers to enhance my health.

I also found it very useful, when I ran into obstacles (even though I was using the “reserve clause” e.g. “God Willing, I’ll do what I set out to do today”) to think of obstacles as fuel for me. I’m vaguely reminded of a quote by a cartoon villian of my youth. “Everything I touch is fuel, fuel for my hunger for power!”, where the stoic equivalent is “Everything I touch is fuel for my virtue and moral excellence”.

Focusing on being honorable and virtuous has helped my state of mind and helped me take more appropriate action. I’m starting to develop my own path through through the philosophical teachings. I have noticed less irritation at being irritated. I’m coming to believe and practice that fear of failure is not failure.

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10:22 pm - Sun, Jun 16, 2013

More Stoic Dreams

This is the second week of my stoic project. My vision continues to evolve:

I look into the future with calm preparedness and wise judgment. I accept the present joyfully and aim to be worthy of love, respect and honor. My emotions, choices and rational faculties are aligned. I live as a full and honorable man.

This week I’ve been doing a lot of stoic contemplation of calamity and my goals, every morning either as I drive or with my eyes closed at home. I envision failing at gaining my desires and how I can act honorably regardless. I also have emphasized the “reserve clause” in my thinking about my longterm desires. My fears about the future and possible failures have drastically diminished after engaging in these exercises. The reserve clause especially helps with feelings of frustration, disappointment and envy when I look at other people’s “successes” that I desire.

Maybe because of this, I have been having a lot fewer “emotional flashbacks” of anger at perceived insults, disappointments or could-have-beens then I had the last week. I’ve been able to look back at previously painful memories and analyze them with greater rationality and fewer painful emotions.

The week began with some irritation with my lack of a stoic outlook on things, this had persisted from last week, but waned as the week progressed. Engaging in small pieces of self-denial, such as turning off my phone for an entire day, helped with this.

I initially felt confused on what to do next to help my development, but that turned into growing confidence as I engaged in trial and error and repetition of stoic techniques.

I have also spent quite a bit of time discussing stoicism with other members of the online community and my friends. I’ve found this helpful as way to clarify my thoughts of what practices to engage in and what attitudes to take.

I have also cultivated a better habit to deal with irritations in my life. As Epictetus recommends, when my tranquility is disturbed or my virtue is threatened, I contemplate taking this very moment as my last moment alive. For me, this brings great clarity of what is truly important. Through this, I have realized that it is my duty to love others unconditionally, and that fulfilling this duty fills me with great contentment. This is very different than the emphasis some people seem to put on “limiting attachments” or “thinking logically”, as different as fire is from ice.

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10:21 pm - Sun, Jun 9, 2013
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Stoic Dreams

This week I started a new method to better integrate stoic methods and precepts into my life. I’m a big fan of Mark Forster and one of the techniques he describes in his book “How To Make Your Dreams Come True” (available here free online).

It consists of 4 parts of a disciplined journaling approach. Writing down a vision of where you want to be, what the current reality is, a list every day of what went better and an imaginary dialog between your future ‘ideal’ self (for stoicism, a sage-version of yourself) and your current situation.

I started by creating a rough vision of who I want to be:

I am not enslaved by external events, brave and focused totally on being the man that I am meant to be. I am virtuous, magnanimous, kind and strong.

I prepare for calamity everyday through negative visualization. I often practice self-denial and practice poverty. I am focused on what truly matters, doing the best that I am able to love Fate and love my neighbor as I love myself.

I am unafraid of what the future holds. My rational faculties and emotions are in sync, living as fully human.

And a blunt assessment of my current reality:

I am devout and somewhat rigorous in my Stoic practices, but not as consistent in my practices as I think I should be.  I am not as perturbed by external things as I used to be, but I notice some cases where I am not as brave as I would like, especially when I’m with strangers.  People often say I am kind and strong and virtuous and I often feel magnanimous.

I rarely engage in negative visualization, self-denial or practicing poverty. I have been focusing more on virtue, but I need to figure out if it conflicts
with my other values, or if there’s a consistency I don’t understand yet.

This gives a clear direction for me to work towards throughout the day. My vision focuses on preparing for calamity and having a tranquil and sage-like outlook on all parts of my life.

My current reality is how I keep track of what practices I’m missing,
forgetting or otherwise haven’t fully integrated. It’s also where I realize I’m fearful of the future and other opportunities for stoic growth. I also see my emotional struggles and frustrations get recorded there as I muddle through.

The what’s better list is where I collect my successes, which really helps
'locking-in' mental habits.

An example:

  • Continue to use cognitive distancing and judgments of feelings about for three days running to reduce bad feelings
  • Saw difference between ‘true stoicism’ and ‘pop stoicism’ in discussion on reddit

This list has helped me track my success at using cognitive distancing
techniques to handle powerful negative emotions, as well as insights into the differences between stoicism and other related philosophies or the ‘pop’ vision of what stoicism is. It is also how I realized who my ‘stoic’ friends are.

The final piece is dialogging, which is an imaginary conversation between my current self, and the future sage-Ryan.

For example:

Future: What would you like to talk about first?
Present: Guilt about the past.
Future: Oh, what’s the thing you need help with?
Present: I need help dealing with past emotions of guilt and anger at perceived slights and insults.
Future: Well, what are you already doing that’s helping?
Present: Thinking about it fatalistically, asking myself “what can I learn
from it?”, not thinking about it.
Future: And why aren’t those working now?
Present: My emotions about the past are coming on stronger, either that or I’m weaker than I was before.
Future: What do you want to be different?
Present: That I can handle them even when I’m weak and being hit by external things like when my friends ask what’s wrong.
Future: What can you do to strengthen that?
Present: Think about the past and watch my emotions and judgments, see which ones are incorrect and analyze them in depth.

I’ve been a bit surprised at how effective this has been with thinking about my future-self as sage-Ryan. I’ve found it very comforting to imagine that these struggles are part of the natural development of myself and having sage-Ryan ask appropriate questions seems to help me use my own analysis tools.

I have promised myself to do these exercises for an entire month, with a blog post each Sunday as I do them, so this should be the first of 4 posts on the subject.

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10:09 pm - Wed, Mar 13, 2013
Behold! The GO Ontology in all its glory. This only shows the relations between classes, not attributes and other fun stuff. It only took 27 hours to transform it into the appropriate format and render this graph. Partially because I’m a bad programmer ;-)

Behold! The GO Ontology in all its glory. This only shows the relations between classes, not attributes and other fun stuff. It only took 27 hours to transform it into the appropriate format and render this graph. Partially because I’m a bad programmer ;-)

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3:01 pm - Sat, Jan 12, 2013

Constructivism

Constructivism is a specific philosophy of learning. construct knowledge after exposure and interaction with material, learn in cycles and spirals.

Constructivism acknowledges that learning is a self-directed process with experimentation, exploration and reflection. It can be done with a learning leader, groups or alone.

It can be combined with direct instruction. The instructor determines the level of each student and designs a series of questions which increase in challenge level and require the students to practice the necessary skills. Frequent feedback, ideally built into the activity itself, aids this process.

There are several types of desirable difficulty that can be incorporated into practice to increase learning and effectiveness. Two of the most well studied are spacing and interleaving. Spacing reinforces memory and aids in the construction of models, while interleaving tends to allow errors to surface and for the appropriate submodel to be selected.

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3:01 pm - Sun, Jan 6, 2013

Play and Exploration

Play is enjoyable, undirected activity that seems to develop skills that occurs in mammals. It is generally social and resembles both combat and sex.

Play and exploration have their own structure. It’s fractal and natural. It occurs in cycles. New information is introduced, then this is explored. Then reflection occurs and a new outing is made.

Sometimes it’s useful to use specific heuristics in exploration. For example “leap and creep” (from James Bach). Spend some time exploring the local “area”, but sometimes leap into a totally different part of the map. Repeat as boredom dictates.

"Brainstorm and analyze", my own invention. Especially useful when troubleshooting. Brainstorm possible solutions or areas to look, then go through them, adding new ideas as areas are eliminated. Occasionally reflect on what has occurred to come up with new ideas. Also gather ideas from others.

Experimentation is important. Either guided by hunches, curiosity or hypotheses. These too require reflection. It is important to realize that all of these experiments are equally legitimate depending on the context.

Playful exploration is sometimes funny. It’s natural and non-mechanistic. It resides in the complex domain where reasons can only be discerned after the fact. If it was predictable, it wouldn’t be fun.

Sometimes play can be uncomfortable. You’ll stretch or end up a place where you haven’t been before. The important thing to realize is that these phases are transient. You’ll soon have new knowledge to integrate into your repertoire and practice. Lots of small mistakes and discomfort lead to rapid learning.

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3:01 pm - Mon, Dec 31, 2012

Feedback Loops

Feedback loops are one of the necessary things for a learning system. In general, imprecise but rapid is better than precise and perfect. If it isn’t rapid, the system doesn’t know which action lead to which result.

According to this article, it may also be psychological. You perform with more intensity when you know you’ll get feedback right away and hence perform better. They also claimed that those with pessimistic outlook performed better, which has interesting connotations for Stoicism, which I may investigate in a later post.

One obvious way to increase feedback is to break your large goal into subgoals. Since subgoals are smaller, they can be accurately judged much more quickly.

Errors are useful in several ways. One, they maximize surprise, which allows for maximum learning. They also tend to increase willpower and determination, as long as you don’t totally give up.

The build-measure-learn loop of Lean Startup and science in general thrives off of error. The error is the difference between the actual and the goal.

If you have written goals, this comparison between actual and desired occurs subconsciously.

Sometimes it’s useful to actively reflect upon the current state and desired state, and the changes that have occurred through timelining, journals and other techniques.

Another way to look at this is as a map. You have to know where you are and where you want to go to get there, but not necessarily the path. You can simply explore your local space to attempt and find a route to your goal. Reflecting upon where you are and where your goal is is all that’s necessary.

In day to day life, this means having goals that you write down and reflect on for short time periods seems to aid learning and change.

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