June 28, 2022 4:12 PM

You May Be Right

Billy Joel performing 'We Didn''t Start the Fire' at Notre Dame Stadium, June 25, 2022

I first saw Billy Joel perform live in 1983, with a college roommate and our girlfriends. It was my first pop/rock concert, and I fancied myself the biggest Billy Joel fan in the world. The show was like magic to a kid who had been listening to Billy's music on vinyl, and the radio, for years.

Since then, I've seen him more times than I can remember, most recently in 2008. My teenaged daughters went with me to that one, so it was magic for more reasons than one. I've even seen a touring Broadway show built around his music. So, yeah, I'm still a fan.

On Saturday morning, I drove to Elkhart, Indiana, to meet up with three friends from college to go see Billy perform outdoors at Notre Dame Stadium. We bought our tickets in October 2019, pre-COVID, expecting to see the show in the summer of 2020. After two years of postponement, Billy, the venue, and the fans were ready to go. Six hours is a long way to drive to see a two- or three-hour show, especially knowing that I had to drive six hours back the next morning. I'm not a college student any more!

You may be right; I may be crazy. But I would drive six hours again to see Billy. Even at 73, he puts on a great show. I hope I have that kind of energy -- and the desire to still do my professional thing -- when I reach that age. (I don't expect that 50,000 students will pay to see me do it, let alone drive six hours.) For this show, I had the bonus of being able to visit with good friends, one of whom I've known since grade school, after too long a time.

I went all fanboy in my short post about the 2008 concert, so I won't bore you again with my hyperbole. I'll just say that Billy performed "She's Always A Woman" and "Don't Ask Me Why" again, along with a bunch of the old favorites and a few covers: I enjoyed his impromptu version of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", bobbles and all. He played piano for one of his band members, Mike DelGuidice, who sang "Nessun Dorma". And the biggest ovation of the night may have gone to Crystal Taliafero, a multi-talented member of Billy's group, for her version of "Dancing in the Streets" during the extended pause in "The River of Dreams".

This concert crowd was the most people I've been around in a long time... I figured a show in an outdoor stadium was safe enough, with precautions. (I was one of the few folks who wore a mask in the interior concourse and restrooms.) Maybe life is getting back to normal.

If this was my last time seeing Billy Joel perform live, it was a worthy final performance. Who knows, though. I thought 2008 might be my last live show.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal

June 14, 2022 2:48 PM

A Two Cultures Theory of Meetings

snow falling on a redwood cabin

Courtesy of Chad Orzel's blog:

This ended up reminding me of the Two Cultures theory of meetings that I heard (second-hand) from a former Dean (a Classics professor, for the record). This was prompted by her noticing that the scientists and engineers always seemed grumpy and impatient about having meetings during work hours, where folks from the non-STEM fields were more cheerful. She realized that this was largely because the STEM folks tended to do research in their labs and offices on campus, during the day, so having a meeting was directly taking them away from productive time. For folks on the more literary side of academia, the actual scholarly work of reading and writing was mostly done elsewhere— at home, in coffee shops, at archives— and at times outside the normal academic workday— in the evening, during the summer, etc. As a result, they tended to only come to campus for classes, meetings, and socialization, and the latter two tended to blend together.

Now I'm thinking back over my years as a faculty member and department head. I've been attending meetings mostly with administrators for so now long that I my experience is blunted: the days of science department heads are less different from the days of arts and humanities department heads than the differences for the corresponding faculty. Most admins seem reconciled, if ruefully, to their meetings.

Being a computer scientist affects my experience, too. Most of our faculty are software people who can read and write code from anywhere. In this regard, we are perhaps more like arts and humanities folks than other scientists are. When I think back on my interactions with CS colleagues, the ones least likely to want to meet at any old time are (1) people who do work with hardware in their labs and (2) people doing the most serious research. The second group tend to guard their creative time more carefully in all respects.

The other thing coloring my experience is... me. I am frequently grumpy and impatient about having meetings at all, during regular work hours or not, because so many of them come up on the wrong side of the cost/benefit ledger. A lot of university meetings happen only because they are supposed to happen. Many of my colleagues are congenial about this and manage to find ways to put the time to good use for them and, presumably, many other participants. I'd generally like to get back to work on more pressing, or interesting, matters.

But that is getting a bit far afield from the basic observation of a Two Cultures-style split, which is founded, I think, on the notion that the meetings in question are essential or at least important enough to hold. In that narrower context, I think Chad's colleague may be on to something.


Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Managing and Leading

June 08, 2022 1:51 PM

Be a Long-Term Optimist and a Short-Term Realist

Before I went to bed last night, I stumbled across actor Robert De Niro speaking with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. De Niro is, of course, an Oscar winner with fifty years working in films. I love to hear experts talk about what they do, so I stayed up a few extra minutes.

I think Colbert had just asked De Niro to give advice to actors who were starting out today, because De Niro was demurring: he didn't like to give advice, and everyone's circumstances are different. But then he said that, when he himself was starting out, he went on lots of auditions but always assumed that he wasn't going to get the job. There were so many ways not to get a job, so there was no reason to get his hopes up.

Colbert related that anecdote to his own experience getting started in show business. He said that whenever he had an acting job, he felt great, and whenever he didn't have a job, pessimism set in: he felt like he was never going to work again. De Niro immediately said, "oh, I never felt that way". He always felt like he was going to make it. He just had to keep going on auditions.

There was a smile on Colbert's face. He seemed to have trouble squaring De Niro's attitude toward auditions with his claimed confidence about eventual success. Colbert moved on with his interview.

It occurred to me that the combination of attitudes expressed by De Niro is a healthy, almost necessary, way to approach big goals. In the short term, accept that each step is uncertain and unlikely to pay off. Don't let those failures get you down; they are the price of admission. For the long term, though, believe deeply that you will succeed. That's the spirit you need to keep taking steps, trying new things when old things don't seem to work, and hanging around long enough for success to happen.

De Niro's short descriptions of his own experiences revealed how both sides of his demeanor contributed to him ultimately making it. He never knew what casting agents, directors, and producers were looking for, so he was willing to read every part in several different ways. Even though he didn't expect to get the job, maybe one of those people would remember him and mention him to a friend in the business, and maybe that connection would pay off. All he could do was audition.

The self-assurance De Niro seemed to feel almost naturally reminded me of things that Viktor Frankl and John McCain said about their ability to survive time in war camps. Somehow, they were able to maintain a confidence that they would eventually be free again. In the end, they were lucky to survive, but their belief that they would survive had given them a strength to persevere through much worse treatment than simply being rejected for a part in a movie. That perseverance helped them stay alive and take actions that would leave them in a position to be lucky.

I realize that the story De Niro tells, like those of Frankl and McCain, is potentially suspect due to survivor bias. We don't get to hear from people who believed that they would make it as actors but never did. Even so, their attitude seems like a pragmatic one to implement, if we can manage it: be a long-term optimist and a short-term realist. Do everything you can to hang around long enough for fortune to find us.

Like De Niro, I am not much one to give advice. In the haze of waking up and going back to sleep last night, though, I think his attitude gives us a useful model to follow.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Patterns

June 07, 2022 12:25 PM

I Miss Repeats

This past weekend, it was supposed to rain Saturday evening into Sunday, so I woke up with uncertainty about my usual Sunday morning bike ride. My exercise bike broke down a few weeks back, so riding outdoors was my only option. I decided before I went to bed on Saturday night that, if it was dry when I woke up, I would ride a couple of miles to a small lake in town and ride laps in whatever time I could squeeze in between rain showers.

The rain in the forecast turned out to be a false alarm, so I had more time to ride than I had planned. I ended up riding the 2.3 miles to the fifteen 1.2-mile laps, and 2.30 miles back home. Fifteen mile-plus laps may seem crazy to you, but it was the quickest and most predictable adjustment I could make in the face of the suddenly available time. It was like a speed workout on the track from my running days. Though shorter than my usual Sunday ride, it was an unexpected gift of exercise on what turned out to be a beautiful morning.

A couple of laps into the ride, the hill on the far end of the loop began to look look foreboding. Thirteen laps to go... Thirteen more times up an extended incline (well, at least what passes for one in east central Iowa).

After a few more laps, my mindset had changed. Six down. This feels good. Let's do nine more!

I had found the rhythm of doing repeats.

I used to do track repeats when training for marathons and always liked them. (One of my earliest blog entries sang the praises of short iterations and frequent feedback on the track.) I felt again the hit of endorphins every time I completed one loop around the lake. My body got into the rhythm. Another one, another one. My mind doesn't switch off under these conditions, but it does shift into a different mode. I'm thinking, but only in the moment of the current lap. Then there's one more to do.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons some programmers like programming with stories of a limited size, or under the constraints of test-driven design. Both provide opportunities for frequent feedback and frequent learning. They also provide a hit of endorphins every time you make a new test pass, or see the light go green after a small refactoring.

My willingness to do laps, at least in service of a higher goal, may border on the unfathomable. One Sunday many years ago, when I was still running, we had huge thunderstorms all morning and all afternoon. I was in the middle of marathon training and needed a 20-miler that day to stay on my program. So I went to the university gym -- the one mentioned in the blog post linked above, with 9.2 laps to a mile -- and ran 184 laps. "Are you nuts?" I loved it! The short iterations and frequent feedback dropped me in to a fugue-like rhythm. It was easy to track my pace, never running too fast or too slow. It was easy to make adjustments when I noticed something off-plan. In between moments checking my time, I watched people, I breathed, I cleared my mind. I ran. All things considered, it was a good day.

Sunday morning's fifteen laps were workaday in comparison. At the end, I wished I had more time to ride. I felt strong enough. Another five laps would have been fun. That hill wasn't going to get me. And I liked the rhythm.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Personal, Running, Software Development