Fair to Middlin’

23 April 2014

Dear J-

Well, I’m ready to turn around back homeward bound and twist again like we did last summer, I know what you did last summer. I’m not particularly ready for the day today, but that’s my fault for staying up (Rez!) instead of sleeping, which would have made the 3:30 freakout this morning (the boy, he needed water) more bearable or less disruptive and do we have to have this conversation now, my head is killing me. I want to be done with a particular bit of analysis so I can move on and play with numbers some more, but the way you finish and move on is by finishing, not avoiding it. Let’s do it and get it done and not have to fret about it some more, as I know there’s someone coming up behind me to re-do the work and oh geez is that demoralizing.

Maybe that’s it. In cause analysis space they talk about the importance of multiple independent barriers — how if everyone involved in a product or report or whatever each does the work independently and conscientiously then the likelihood of any one error slipping by all these multiple layers is reduced. They don’t talk about how if each layer is conscious of the others, there’s a natural tendency to write off as good enough and trust in some downstream review (or upstream responsibility) to do a better job. Let’s just make it right the first time, as well as you can. I know it’s aggravating to think the work you do is second-guessed but it’s not personal, and if you want to earn the freedom of that second check then you need to start doing quality work now, as you’re still unknown but you certainly don’t want to be held up as unreliable.

Right. Earn your place. Then continue to justify it by churning out flawless work. Don’t waste time with preliminary results unless you want to discuss it; make sure it’s as good as you can make it before releasing it into the wild, right? You can take these things more seriously and not as a lark in the park to be massaged by others because you’re too lazy to be bothered with trying harder. I … yes. There is a lot of truth that I don’t always want to hear, even when it’s between me and myself. Think on it as the miles spin away: is that how you want to be remembered? Good enough? Pretty good?


Three Disjoint

22 April 2014

Dear J-

The wind outside is something else; I know the weather in San Diego was milder than this but I’d forgotten about the wind and its attendant cold (to be honest we learned about this three or four months ago after the unseasonable warmth of September gave way to the chill December air). I spent part of the night last night looking back at pictures from a year ago, two years ago. It’s only another month and a half or so until the one-year anniversary of the announcement we would be shuttering the plant. At this time last year I was writing up our results of flat-bar support testing and confidently going forward that we could get the wear to slow down. Well, we found a way to stop it, didn’t we?

A year ago I was returning from a long stint in Canada and we were getting ready for figgy’s birthday party (she’ll be seven this year; last year we … I think it was Pump It Up), not thinking about getting a new job or having to deal with the thousand agonies of moving, purging stuff we didn’t use and didn’t want. Your world changes overnight and it doesn’t have to be fair; there’s no fair about it sometimes. I’m looking forward to the changes we might find next, though the long nights of sleepless, restless children have given me pause in the carte blanche of reinvention. These folks will understand.

Tuesday. At work today I will finally get to take a cut at figuring out wear rate attenuation over a series of cycles; I’m not sure why we didn’t do this at SONGS but using the information from the public domain has proven to be surprisingly simple (and productive: yesterday was able to translate 140 pages of PDF into a couple of spreadsheets). I can pull wear rate based on an average basis (i.e., cumulative to-date) or just on the basis of the change since the last recorded measurement, or even wear rate from existing wear. It’s clear to me there are a number of new indications, but whether those numbers are increasing or not is the interesting part.


Me Time

21 April 2014

Dear J-

There is the life we lead at home and then there is the life we build using our own narratives, minute by minute by hour by day in school, independent and free from the influence of none but our peers. The things we do as parents grow less influential and I hope we’ve done a good enough job that there’s not too much carnage to pick up afterwards. Yesterday, faced with the prospect of an Easter Sunday driving around to places that were already closed, we spent the day steeping in our own juices at home: can we watch you play games instead? I remember that instinct too, growing up: after lunch on those half-days we’d wander down to the PUB — that’s Pence Union Building and not the drinking kind — to watch the video gamers at work with their quarters and sprites.

And yet there she is, spending the equivalent of hours and days on the couch as this weekend moved forward. I grant that we spent a long busy period Saturday wandering around outside and having a fun time but the overcorrection of sitting at home with the blinds drawn (literally) while a beautiful sunny day raged on outside, not even stopping to bother to walk the three blocks to the park, that’s galling in a way that seems perfectly reasonable at the time. The influences we will have later will be less, so why cede some of what we do have now? The targets are surprisingly low, and yet we fail to meet even those. Brilliance. We has it.

Trials and tribulations; the cumulative effect of little things like allowing unlimited screen time are not known but we’re all absorbed into our separate worlds, even when we’re sitting physically together. We work to deflect the natural curiosity of how things work in favor of small parts and finding appropriate tasks, which doesn’t help one whit. I have yet, it seems, to get over the me-first attitude that has pervaded my life with selfishness and rotten harvests. This is my weekend motivation: that we should find something interesting and remain grateful, so let’s find a way to make it happen. Entertainment is a question of inclination, not construction, and the hours we do have together are not worth spending alone.


Number Cloud

18 April 2014

Dear J-

At times I wonder if the other train riders think I’m writing about them. I won’t go into detail about them in a Harriet-the-Spy-like speculation on habits or observational clues except to say this: there are regular riders, who I’ll see every day, rain or shine, and others, who show up once in a while, and still others who, like the proverbial ships in the night, I’ve only seen once. I’m not sure what separates some from others aside from schedule and happenstance, but I’m cheered by the regulars and have regular literal nodding acquaintance relationships with them, like some titanic bobblehead convention. Hey. How’s the day today? Catch the Giants game last night? How about those Sharks?

At times I find myself idly speculating if social customs are because it’s inherent in my nature, if it was taught, or if I’m some sort of flesh-and-blood machine programmed with a thin veneer of societal norms (as I put on the headphones and tune everything else out). I’ve spent the last few weeks, it seems, immersed in the world of spreadsheets and numbers, either pushing the numbers to do my bidding (march! transform! correlate!) or getting pushed around by the numbers (when I have to work with other people … ask questions … interact), which lends some credence to following the third theory. Think of my self-perception as being akin to a proto-Nexus unit from Blade Runner: something not quite right there.

I do recognize the conductors, but that’s much easier on me than it is on them, as I have a handful of faces to see on the two regular trains I take (102 and 261, or 267 if I’m running late). I may not know their names but I have enough training to be friendly. Thank goodness for that much, at least. There will be plenty of other things to do once I get to work, so I can concentrate on the task of being human, and pleasant, and not so self-involved with challenges I’ve thrown up for myself. Now forward march, onward, upward, higher. Motivation is a good tool but not so useful as distraction; I do adore the beat of numbers and the look of a good curve fit, though. Meanwhile … elsewhere … hmm; there’s many points of comparison, aren’t there? (spreadsheets from all over crowd in on my head)



17 April 2014

Dear J-

It’s been an eventful few days for figgy; last night they had trouble sleeping as Calcifer kept babbling and carrying on (“I want my covers on! I’m thirsty!”) amidst the excitement of having a cousin sleep over again. With that said I’m grateful for the return of the routine today, though it’ll all be replaced with a new routine come Monday when theVet starts back into work. She has run the household almost as a sole proprietorship for the past seven years and now we’re ready to move on. I remember my mom going back to full-time work when I was seven (just a little older than figgy is now!) and I wonder what that might have done to our relationship, though it seems healthy enough today.

At the same time, though, you don’t always go to work just to earn a living, or to do the thing that you think is super-important (reconstructing eddy current records from the 180-day report PDFs the NRC puts up for each steam generator inspection); sometimes you go back to have the companionship of adults, conversations and not always having to take care of dependents. Yet this is the nature of things: dependents are dependent. Adults are mostly mature. As I grow in age I realize that we’re all faking it at times: does that [insert age category that's just slightly older] group have all the answers? From where I am now, yes. From when I catch up to them, no.

I read a quote from Jack Clark, the Cal men’s rugby coach and inarguably the most successful athletic program on campus, that it’s hard to try to improve yourself. I agree. Your’e not going to be comfortable. You may hate it. You may not understand why when the status quo is easy enough, smooth sailing and a nice routine. But seriously: don’t you want to be better? Isn’t that the true nature of things? No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to make mistakes and be unkind; no one actively tries to … unimprove? destroy? slip backwards? If you’re not trying to get better then why are you doing that? So let’s find the right foot forward into new phases of our lives together. Change brings excitement and anticipation; let’s live up to that.


Dawn’s Early

16 April 2014

Dear J-

I’m reading the novel Wonder (R.J. Palacio) and I’m thinking about the first precept, which I’ll paraphrase since I don’t have it handy to look up: when given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind. At the moment we have house guests and the sound of gentle snores fills the air by ten PM, while theVet works twice as hard to be a good host and do all the things (yesterday, we went out to dinner, which saved on dishes and cooking, but it also meant getting home late and having to get the kids ready for bed, laundry in the machine, clean up the cat barf, etc. If you’re going for kind the corollary of that is patience: kindness, patience, understanding. This is what it means to have guests in the house.

There’s a lot of patience that I need to work on; of the thousand different things that are probably going through figgy’s mind every day the least is some of the day to day activities: getting up, getting ready, eating fruit and all the other thousand things you do as part of the normal course of the day. I need to set aside patience for the time it takes for her to drag her feet through the routines: we have selective amnesia when it comes to remembering how we were at that age (“When I was your age …” yeah, I wasn’t any better, I bet), and extend some of the patience that was loaned to us at the time. You try to figure out the right way to motivate the kids and we’ll get there in time, I suppose.

It’s Wednesday and we whisper on in the dark early morning: by the time I get to work the sky will be lightening but not lit, this time of year. I checked the stars were out and the clouds have passed on; it will be an excellent day. Your attitude determines your approach, and of the thousand different ways you could go about it, kindness — patience, love, understanding, kindness, charity — is usually the right one. I know we have a lot left to do, so let’s — let us together — find the right approach to scale that mountain. Dawn is a moment away: first light on the world around us.


Questions and Lies

15 April 2014

Dear J-

It’s getting to the point where I can’t count on doing anything productive on Monday, so all the weekend progress is lost. Let’s reiterate that: weekend progress, which implies bringing my laptop home, which is so fretful I can’t even begin to say. So yes. Maybe if I didn’t feel the need to haul it home, would that make Mondays better? Or would a nice week-long vacation do the trick instead? Not even a year of work and I’m looking forward to time off. I suppose it’s not the end of the world, but this could be handled a lot better, I think. There’s plenty to do, that is, plenty of drudge work and things I need to ask questions about, so there’s plenty to do.

I have an overly eager tendency to not: I don’t want to talk to other people, so I end up sitting and doing what I can alone, and I shouldn’t be so surprised when it turns out I’m doing it wrong (you’re not doing it right … again) because I didn’t ask how to do it or what it is they actually wanted. Basic rules of communication, here: who is happy with the work I’ve done? If it’s not even me, then I’m not doing it right. There will be a lot of times when I need to ask for help and the sooner I get used to it — the sooner I’m comfortable asking, the sooner I learn how to do things — the faster I’ll pick it up. Right? Then I can go back to being a hermit. As it is I just look recalcitrant and stubborn and recidivist, at least as far as arrogance goes.

Stay classy. If I’m smart enough to motivate myself (how do you do that, by the way?) then I’m certainly smart enough to ask the right questions without worrying too much about how I look. I remember the sighs and eye-rolls I got for asking questions at Worldcom, but those tasks were quite simple in comparison to what I’m doing now, and I’m pretty sure I asked more questions then than I do now. What’s different? Do I know more now? Indubitably. Do I know what I’m doing? Oh no. No, no, no. You learn something at every job you take on and it’s my time to pick it up rather than continue to do it wrong.


Retry, abort, fail

14 April 2014

Dear J-

Forty hours to go, or so. If all you’re doing is marking off time until the next whatever, then maybe you’re not being properly motivated to do … whatever. It’s not like everything is going to be life-and-death all the time, so you might as well enjoy what you’ve got as long as you can. Do you really need to be spending this much time worrying about how long it’s going to take if you still need to do it? I guess it would be more productive to fret about seeing if you can get it done more efficiently instead. While I like the idea of a three-point fit there’s far better ways to go about estimating parameters, aren’t there? I’m happy with the work I’ve done so far, and proud (pride goes before a fall) that I was able to fix my errors with the prior fit.

It turns out I was missing a set of parentheses, which made the old fit off by a factor of two (it got multiplied, not divided) and I couldn’t figure out why until well into the weekend. I should have known better, given the way one view of the distribution (which was calculated correctly) was off while the other view (with the parentheses error) was not. Nevertheless I chalked it up to oddness in the fit and proceeded along blithely, even going so far as to tweak the factors to fit better. What’s wrong with me? Or, let me do it this way: what’s wrong with that? Proceeding in the face of uncertainty. First time evolution. All the classic human performance error traps and I’m feeling good this morning because I was able to catch them, not that I ignored them in the first place. Stay classy.

I know we have a thousand other commitments this upcoming weekend, and a thousand after that, between the kids’ social lives and our no-longer-living-amongst-strangers situation (down in San Diego we were really on an island, relatives and friends-wise, although perhaps by choice) but we need to get out and be more active, said the guy who spent at least two hours napping while the kids were occupied. One of these days I’ll have to see how long it takes to bike to Millbrae. There’s a marked difference between the ambitions of Monday versus the realities of Friday. And there’s a ton of stuff I have yet to do for the house, what with laziness being the watchword lately. Reshelve. Restock. Repair, restore, redo.


Number Gymnastics

11 April 2014

Dear J-

How much is a trillion? If you gave a million people a million dollars each, that would be a trillion. At the last census the population of America was right around 300 million people, and the national debt is … wait for it … 17.6 trillion, which means we’re each on the hook for 17.6/300 million dollars apiece; that’s right around $60,000 each. I guess I have better things to do with my money (if I had that much money) but spend we keep must doing. Right? Does that even make sense? The universes within the machines we do work are already staggering; let’s talk about the memory card I bought yesterday, 32GB of storage, which if we simplify is 32 billion bytes, 256 billion bits. That’s almost enough to record yes/no votes from everyone in America a thousand times over.

It’s also approximately a hundred times the storage of the first hard drive I bought twenty years ago, for about a tenth of the price. Numbers and numerology are fun but these feel like huge leaps, intuitively I think we understand ten times as much but even a hundred starts to get a little fuzzy, and it’s hard to picture a million, which sounds impossibly multiple. A million grams is a thousand kilograms is approximately one ton in customary measurements. The Japanese one Yen piece is an aluminum disc that weighs almost exactly one gram and given where the exchange rate is (let’s peg it at a hundred Yen to the US Dollar) a million Yen is ten thousand dollars is a ton of one Yen pieces. Literally.

Take your mental estimations and keep tying yourself in knots; there’s a lot to be said for giving yourself a little exercise in the mornings. I should be so mentally sharp towards the end of the day, but I keep dashing myself against those rocks over and over again. The knife’s edge of razor wit is lost by noon, irretrievably lost. We keep moving forward, hands on the wheel at ten and two, throttle open and the heady song of the road under your wheels.


Probable Cause

10 April 2014

Dear J-

Thursday. Somewhere between Burlingame and San Mateo, 0525. There’s a unique smell to the Caltrain bike car this morning, like some great unwashed onion, or maybe it’s just sweat and desperation. Now is the time of the week that I’m actually looking forward to going to work in order to tackle something new: some new analysis, perhaps, or maybe just a new way to do things. I work to get things figured out and it’s pretty amazing when it does work out. Yesterday, for instance, I learned that it’s easier to fit the cumulative distribution function than the actual distribution. Set up the CDF and then you can pick out the mean (CDF = 0.5) and two standard deviations (CDF = 2.5% and 97.5%) away from the mean without too much difficulty. Fitting the probability distribution is for chumps.

I am a little worried the spreadsheets I’ve been building have all been custom one-off sheets; in contrast I think I should be reusing some, but quite honestly I haven’t been repeating any work from job to job so I guess it’s okay. I think. More importantly, I forget techniques, but I suppose it’s okay as long as I know where to look for reminders on how I did it. Here’s my lognormal fit. There’s my Weibull fit. Both give pretty good results, both are fitted to the CDF. I can learn quickly and try to pick up what I learned quickly as well: I feel pretty awesome. That’s gotta be a good feeling, right? I suppose … I just think maybe it took too long to get there, perhaps. Perhaps perhaps perhaps.

It’s all a balancing act. Right here on the Peninsula there’s been settlements and life for several hundred years, balanced between the hills and the Bay, a narrow strip that (have I said this before?) reminds me of Japan in a way, though there the habitable flats are an even narrower sandwich between hills and water. I remind myself how lucky we are and pinch myself that I get paid to play with numbers, pushing them around into shape and making them march to our drum. But that too is a balancing act: clients and their needs versus our time; if we tackle too much the whole juggling match comes crashing down around our ears.


P.S. I’ve never been a juggler. This terrifies me.


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