Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shaving blades....

This post is way off topic for me and certainly about something I do not look forward to.

I saw an article ( that claims to make a disposable razor blade last 20 months.

If you have tried something like it -- please do leave a comment. I will attempt it over this month anyway, but currently I am very sceptical about getting 20 months out of a razor.

The real question I have is, why techniques such as these are not passed down through the generations or popular culture. Looking at the economic state that the US and much of EU have ended up in, it will not be long before we will see these techniques get pushed around by even the mainstream press in the next big TV show most likely called -- "The bigger miser", "Master home garden", etc..

I would love to know of well tested and viable techniques like this as it will allow me to reduce the amount of "stuff" that we buy and eventually throw away.

Warning: The article contains a "u-tube" video with a guy demonstrating the technique, he is no model -- sadly does not wear a shirt (he should) -- will look a tad strange if you view this vid. in a cubicle farm (and is certain to attract attention of nearly farm residents). Horrible sound as well.

-- rv

Friday, March 12, 2010

Project planning - Problem framing approach

One of the components of project management is planning a project. However, there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. Further, the tools that are widely used do not make it easy to plan because of the way they are designed. But, by using the slightly different frame of reference and understanding these limitations, I belive that we can plan projects a bit better.

Before I get to the gist of the message, I want to define the vocabulary used.

Project: Has an objective, a clear start date and a specific end date. If these are missing, a different term may be more suitable (undertaking or a venture come to mind).

Now to the plan and where many project management tools struggle a bit.

A plan has the following core components:

  1. A break-down of the work that needs to be completed (often can be determined reasonably well for the short-term, but gets harder as we move into the future)
  2. Resources that will undertake the work (Can be allocated with some confidence at the 2-4 weeks scale, but harder beyond that)
  3. The order in which work will take place — a schedule of sorts with a time-line

A simpler way is -- What do we want to get done, Who will do it and How/When will they go about should be apparent in proper plan.

Now to the real interesting part – each of these components from a "problem framing" perspective require very different thinking models, and different skills to solve the problem as well.

Work breakdown is a ‘decomposition problem’. We need to consider the level of detail/abstraction. But it is generally a good idea to have work expressed and communicated as a set of outcomes rather than prescribed granular tasks. Outcomes makes it easier to check if you have actually completed the task and give the worker a lot more automony on how to execute.

Allocation resources is well …. an ‘optimization problem’. We have a fixed pool of resources with certain skills and knowledge. We need to allocate these for the most optimal outcome. A first pass of this can be done without taking into consideration the time-line. Allocating resources without using the time constaints seems odd initially, but it is a proven good practice because you are not preemptively thinking ahead too much.

Scheduling yet another ‘optimization problem’, only now you have to take all aspects into the equation, especially time -- specifically: the overall strategy, actual work, people and time/cost.

Planning is a complex problem solving activity, with some distinct problem types each of which require a slightly different hat and frame of thinking.

So far so good. Now for the mess-up by the tool vendors. The traditional project management tools (as in those that follow and mimic the M$ Project paradigm) provide a user-interface model that requires the user to think about all the of above activities pretty much at the same time.

So, we create a task, allocate resources and set start/end dates and include dependencies. Good planners do innately understand the above process and tend not to get too carried away by the tools focus, but this learning is gained over time. However by understanding that a different frame of reference is needed, the planners can overcome the way the tools focus our mind.

I am in particular impressed by David Allen's methods in GTD (Getting Things Done) as he tends to take this perspective where they get people to focus on tasks from a specific context.

-- R. Vasa

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Economic growth - what happens when it stops?

I have been studying the 'nature of growth' mainly in software systems, but also in the general economy over the last 4-5 years. My interest in how economies grow has been more of a side-effect, since I wanted to learn how growth is measured and understood in other fields.

[[Warning -- long post]]

This blog entry is a personal reflection on what might happens if there is no economic growth. But, what is economic growth? Simply put -- economies grow when more resources flow through the system. That is, we use more energy/people/natural-resources and transform them. To keep growing, we need to consume more and more energy.

Now, for the PREDICAMENT -- our current economic system relies on 'fossil fuels' for almost all of its energy requirements, and we need to keep getting "more and more" energy to maintain our growth. However, we are running out of cheap and easily available energy sources (as can be seen in the relatively high oil price even in a global recession). We also currently do not have a way around this predicament -- a detailed explanation of this bold claim will take far too many pages, so I will leave it for now.

Given, we are unable to increase the energy sources -- the economic system is likely to also stop growing. But, what will happen? Will the stock market collapse? Will we all slowly starve to death? Will it be a chaotic society? The short answers: ... the stock market as we currently know it will end (slowly) -- we are unlikely to starve to death, but few people will be considered obese. Economies will change (slowly) to be highly localized, but history (and my own experiences) suggest that most humans will live quite well with each other -- that is, we are not likely to start killing each other at the local level (global wars are a different matter).

The real changes will however be in how we will start using material resources and the focus of work + life. The focus will change to be on "quality", rather than on having many many things. We will have less, but "better quality" stuff. Companies that manufacture "cheap trinkets" will go bust -- even better, no sane person will start such a company in the near future.

In terms of work + life -- this is where the biggest changes are likely to be. If companies have to produce "good" quality stuff that lasts a long long time -- then you will be expected to produce really high quality stuff using the least amount of resources and energy. Efficiency and quality are valued. Things like "first to market", "growth of customer base" will be irrelevant. The aim of a company will be to maintain a stable equilibrium. There is going to be some growth at times -- but overall -- the aim is to be at a stable equilibrium.

In this "stable" economic system, there are going to be a number of benefits:

  • You can have a very fulfilling work life, since the focus shifts to actually building "better" products, "caring" for your customers and producing stuff that adds value. The odd aspect, is that you do this with the full knowledge that it will make no difference to your end-pay.
  • You can develop skills slowly and carefully over a lifetime, rather than live in the "fad" of the day. Systematic cultivation of skill will be useful and rewarded by society (in terms of respect -- rather than material reward).
  • In equilibrium economies -- skills are valued. In fact, the only way to survive is to gain a good level of skill. The education system will adapt to provide these skills, the work culture will adapt to ensure that people have the time and space to grow and refine these skills.
  • There will still be greed and the profit motive -- but, it will be at a different scale. Companies cannot concentrate and gain a large amount of wealth easily.

The downside? Well .. the process of "change" is going to be painful, slow, erratic, messy and highly stressful because of the uncertainty of how it will all play out. Of course, the govt. and those in power will try to stop it -- control it -- slow it -- only to prolong the uncertainty.

Will there be rich people? Absolutely, but there will only be 0.01% of the population, the rest will have more or less the same amount of stuff. In this world -- the rich will have to live in palaces and castles. If they are smart, they will make sure that their lifestyle is not public knowledge, they will have to "re-educate" people to accept their role as being a "divine" appointment. Again, this is not likely to happen overnight.

What will happen to the current rich people? Well ... without strong and well organized governments, the wealthy just cannot protect most of their assets. In a cheap energy starved world, the large and complex entities like big trans-national corporations, large governments are the first to go (slowly -- nothing dies in an instant like in the movies). Employees in a company do not swear a personal allegiance to work there and protect the boss, the day the pay checks stop if the day the company collapses.

What type of management model will survive and thrive? Answer: Mafia like organizations -- where the big boss has full control because all key members are family, and those that are not, have a mental attitude similar to the clan. If you do not have workers that will stick with you in hard times (i.e. work for nothing more than food/shelter for months at a time), then you are not likely to be able to build and hold anything substantial.

In this world with expensive energy, you need people with good leadership skills to control people -- not administrative-managers (that cannot inspire most workers). The alternative is to embed a mythology into the culture and society where they are inclined to accept some families to be 'divinely' appointed leaders. This is a possibility, but this level of change requires a good 70-80 years in a well established democracy, since you have to brain-wash and re-educate everyone from birth.

Though, I am convinced that the world will change, I am used to the current way of things. So, the change though anticipated, is likely to be hard for me. However, my kids will probably adapt far better and the generation after that will most likely thrive in it.

-- R. Vasa

Monday, March 08, 2010


I just spent some time reading two interesting articles on programming -- both of them by Mike Taylor.

The first one essentially is an opinion on how programming has changed to become a task that mostly involves assembling different components/libraries, rather than (complex) algorithm development (+testing/debugging). It explains why this copy-paste method of building software end up being a horrible experience. I agree with some of these points -- though life without libraries would be equally horrible.

Mike has been king enough to actually compile the key comments and his response to them is posted at:

This second article was far more informative ... and enjoyable. I hope more authors that get long and detailed comments do this. It would be great if someone "thoughtfully" summarised key points in the comment-flood on good Slashdot / Reddit articles.

The key points that I tend to agree with:

1. Frameworks can be dangerous beasts that over-promise and under-deliver at a great cost to flexibility.

2. The explosion of libraries and technologies to be used even on simple applications -- best summed up by the comment at - (I may be getting old and my rusty brain is no longer able to cope as well).

R. Vasa