Optimizing, Values, and the Right Answer

Engineers love clear problems with delineated right and wrong answers. Data, especially quantified data they think, is objective and clean. Without painting too strong of a stereotype, they don’t like to muck around with soft skills, or social/political factors in problems. They like to keep engineering pure.

The problem with this view is that it’s not correct – it makes an underlying assumption about what makes something a right or wrong answer to a problem. Most problems that engineers deal with when designing a solution are not value neutral. When we think of problems with clear right or wrong answers, we think of problems that are purely mathematical or having discrete binary solutions (e.g. “will the object handle the forces that it will be subjected to under normal conditions?”). The secret is that all problems have “right” and “wrong” solutions based on the underlying values you are trying to optimize for.

An engineering problem that is optimizing for maximizing return on investment might have different solutions than one that optimizes for addressing systemic inequity for particular people. The tradeoffs are not just opportunity costs, but instead are tradeoffs on which values inform the vision of the final outcome of your solution. When you seek to return on investment, to maximize profit, the answers are pretty clear – drive down expenses, raise prices as high as the market will bear, communicate the value proposition to the customer, and produce enough goods at the right rate to meet demand without excess goods sitting idle. When you seek to address systemic inequity, your solutions will have decidedly different considerations – your expenses will go up as you pay fair wages, prices might not maximize your margins, you will be more candid with your customers, and your manufacturing and distribution will be likely slower and more intentional as you make ethical considerations in your processes. You will also consider all sorts of other externalities that pop up as a result of your solutions, boosting the positives while capping the downsides.

This is not to say that all solutions will be equally easy to implement under any one set of values systems that you choose. However, it’s fallacious to believe that the same answer will always be given for “can we build this?” and “should we build this?” if you aren’t also examining the underlying values that you set in your assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Cross-Domain Knowledge

I’m a huge fan of cross-domain knowledge. Coming from an academic background in philosophy, I feel my greatest strategy for creating and building a career is leaning in hard to knowledge and skills that are learned in one domain or context, then applying it to a unique area. You get a large confidence boost when you make connections by spotting patterns and connections that map analogical cases to each other.

The first time I truly appreciated this was in my days working for the university gambling lab. We were collecting data on slot machine players by recruiting participants into our study to measure the effects properties of the machine user-interface had in gambler’s cognitive awareness. In other words, did how the graphics and sounds play on the screen help the gambler understand their relative wins and losses over time. In one study, the simulation we were using for participants to play on during the trial had been modified, but on some of the laptops the wrong version of the software was copied over, and we didn’t realize the mistake until the end of the day. Of the three laptops, two had the right software, and one did not. At the end of each session, we uploaded the user data to a secure repository and deleted the local files, which meant that once we were back in the lab, there was no way of knowing which participant file batch came from the defective software.

We thankfully caught the issue early and limited the damage, but afterwards we had an issue with figuring out which files to exclude from analysis. On the face of it, there was no way of knowing from the participant’s biometric data which simulation they used. So instead we had to dig into the debug files that were spit out by the machine to verify that the simulation ran successfully.

All the files were generated in an XML format, however I had neither experience in basic coding nor reading XML files. I had to figure out a way of showing whether the version of the software was correct. To me, the XML files were largely gibberish.

But, I was able to spot a pattern in the files that reminded me of my formal logic courses from undergrad. While I did poorly in the courses at the time, I did retain some of the strategies taught for understanding the structuring of the syntax of formal logic arguments, specifically how nested arguments worked and how assumptions were communicated. I started to see the same structure in the XML code, how sub- and sub-sub arguments were written to call different files into the program, and where those files were being drawn from.

And there it was. At the bottom of one of the debug files, was a list of the files being called on by the simulation. In the broken simulation, the file path to a certain sound that was meant to be played was empty, meaning that when the simulation was supposed to play and auditory cue, there was no file name to look for, and so the simulation moved on.

I compared this with the files we knew came from the working simulators and saw that this was the main difference, giving us the key for finding the bad data points and justifiably excluding them from the overall data set. By finding this, I saved an entire day’s worth of data files (a cost savings that includes the some-30 participant files, their remuneration, three research assistant wages, per diem costs, travel, and consumable materials on site).

I grant that computer programming is entirely built on the foundations of formal logic and mathematics, so it’s not that I was gaining a unique insight into the problem by bringing knowledge from one separate domain into another. However, this was one of the first times I encountered a problem where I lacked the traditional knowledge and skill to address it, so I came at the problem from another angle. It was a case where I gained confidence in myself to be resourceful and tap into previous learning to address new/novel problems.

As I noted above, being trained in academic philosophy has pushed me in this direction of career development. On a superficial level, relying on cross-domain knowledge is a career survival strategy because philosophy doesn’t always teach you skills that are easily applicable to the working world. I have sadly, never once, had to use my understanding of Plato’s arguments in my workplace. But on a deeper level, I think training in philosophy naturally pushes you into this kind of problem-solving. Most of my experiences in philosophy involves approaching a thought experiment or line of thinking, considering what it’s trying to tell us, then testing those arguments against counter-factuals and alternative arguments or explanations. To do this well, you have to reduce a problem down into its constitutive parts to tease out relevant intuitions, then test them out, often by porting those intuitions from one context into another to see if they still hold as both valid and sound.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the processes used by engineers or designers to gather data and accurately define the problem they are intending to design for. Whereas the engineer will apply the tools they’ve been taught fairly linearly to create a design for the problem, my strategy is to adopt cross-domain knowledge to make connections where they might previously had not been apparent. The results can often be solved quicker or more efficiently if I had the relevant domain knowledge (e.g. an understanding of coding), however when I lack the specific experience to address the problem, as a generalist thinker I have to rely on analogical thinking and a wider exposure to ideas to suss out those connections. What I lack in a direct approach, I make up for in novelty and creative/divergent thinking, which has the benefit of sometimes opening up new opportunities to explore.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Back In The Office

Last week I stepped in the office for full-day work for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I have visited the office twice in the last two years to pick up items and personal effects, but have otherwise acted as an employee from the comfort of my home. I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to work remotely, and now things at work have been deemed safe to return.

This is not to say that everything is back to “normal.” We are obviously still following public health protocols by conducting screens on entry, displaying our vaccine QR codes, wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, and staggering our time in the office to cut down on the number of people on site at any given point. But it’s the first step back towards “normalcy” I’ve experienced in two year – I had to put on pants to “go to work.” In my time at home, I have whole-heartedly embraced what I call the Zoom mullet – business up top (in camera view) and party down below (always shorts; even I have a sense of propriety).

What I found most jarring about my return is the paradoxical strangeness of being on campus. It’s paradoxical because intellectually, I know I have been away from the office for two-years, however on an emotional, visceral level, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been gone at all. I have a few guesses why it doesn’t feel strange being on campus. First, I have continued working my job during my time at home, so I’m not stepping back into an unfamiliar context. I’ve also been in regular contact with many of my collegues (though some I literally have not interacted with them since we’ve been away), and I’ve seen many of them on video, so there is a sense that we’ve not been apart too long. Third, the pandemic has created a distorted time dilation, where large swaths of time pass quickly, even if day to day existence is (sometimes) painfully long. This tricks our minds with a kind of time travel into the future; perhaps we’ve all been more zoned-out on auto-pilot than we realized. And finally, I think the reason why it feels like I’ve been gone for a short time is that the office hasn’t changed. I mean almost literally, the office is the same as when I left. Because we have all more or less worked from home during this time, and everyone has been out of the office, no changes have happened to the physical space – the furnature is all where we left it, the decorations are the same, the same names appear on the walls, etc. Other than the desks being decluttered, you wouldn’t know that people have been gone for two years. Props to the custodial staff for keeping the space clean.

I came to work with some mixed emotions. I’m a little sad that our time at home is over and we have to move on to the next phase of things. The pandemic might drag on, but I am entering a new phase of interacting with the phenomenon. And of course, I’ll miss the flexibility that came with always being home. However I was looking forward to my return as well. I looked forward to the separation of work and home, the commute to function as a liminal space. I embrace the structure imposed on my time by virtue of changing phyical locations. I look forward to the serendipitous interactions with my colleagues, around the proverbial water cooler.

All things change, and now so must I. I will look back with some fondness on the last 23 months, despite all the negatives it brought. However, now it’s time to get back to work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Ethical Shopping

While I don’t condone thinking of capitalism, consumerism and consumption as hallmarks of Christmas, it’s something that is nevertheless on my mind. After a record year for some big box (or big warehouse) retailers last year, many folks in the ethical space really hammered home that we must vote with our money wisely and choose more ethical options when it comes to shopping. Supporting local, supporting products or services that aren’t wasteful, supporting employers that pay good wages are all values that hit louder when we felt safer just staying home and shopping from our phones.

This year, I’ve made some attempts at being more mindful of my shopping, though with a toddler at home during a pandemic, my flexibility is a little more constrained than in the past. Recently I came into an ethical shopping scenario that I found difficult to find a perfect solution for, and it involves comic books.

I’ve been a nerd for a long time and loved comic books as a kid. While I didn’t always have the means or funds to regularly purchase comic books, I would try to keep up with stories through alternative sources like the now shuttered Wizard magazine. Now that I’m older, with more disposable income, I’d like to step back into comics and attempt some regular readership.

Off the top, my goal would be to support local and to ensure I’m paying for the art, rather than finding easy, cheap access to the stories. The first constraint is, as of writing, we don’t have a comic book shop here in town. There is a shop that’s closer to me the next town over, however I feel a deeper connection to the comic shops in Kitchener-Waterloo, a town not that far from me, but still a commitment to travel to for things like this.

The second constraint is I’m trying to be mindful of the environment and the fact that I tend to be a packrat, and I’ve accepted that I don’t intend to collect comics, but just want to read the books, so I would be fine with paying for digital versions of the comic books. However, there is no service that I can find that would purchase the rights to read the stories from comic book shops. Instead, the near-universal option would be to pay for digital books from a platform called Comixology, which is unfortunately a subsidiary of Amazon (side bar – many publishers have their own digital archives that you can pay for access to, though Comixology seems to be the only service that allows you to buy current books, whereas publishers seem to have a lag of when the stories appear in their lists). I already have an Audible subscription, and I purchase way too much from Amazon already, so I am hesitant to give more money to the big A.

The way I see it, there is no easy solution for this – I can pay money to a big corporation for the ease of reading at home (and hoping that the money spent through Comixology makes its way back to the creators fairly – which I doubt given the comic book industry, artists and writers are not compensated well) but then I’m not supporting local businesses, or I can make special trips into town to buy from the local shop, which is inconvenient, requires driving, and requires me to purchase physical books.

In the end, I made a trip into town (I had other errands to run, so it was a more efficient trip) and bought recent releases at the shop, AND (in full, shameful disclosure), I bought a collected series on Comixology that wasn’t available in the shop. While this was hardly the most ethical solution in the moment, I still think it was a good exercise in thinking through the options and consequences of my choices.

Not fully related to the comics example, but in parallel to this consideration is voting with your money on art worth making. Chris Stuckmann released a short meditation recently on films and the question of why movies aren’t made like they used to be (in the sense of artistic films that were riskier box office bets, rather than the safe intellectual properties we see coming out all the time). The same conversations are being had in music, where it’s harder for bands to get a foothold in the world of streaming, and the only big acts tend to be bands that were big before streaming.

In his essay, Stuckmann reflects that our choices to see certain kinds of film sends messages to studios and the system of what works are likely to make money, so the incentives are to continue making only those kinds of art. I’ll let his video speak for itself, but it gives me something consider when I’m choosing how to support art and how to consume more ethically (if such thing is really possible under capitalism).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Leverage

I’ve been reading ‘self-improvement’ books for the last five years. Some of those books dealt with financial and life management, where you leverage the money you earn to create more value for yourself. But until you reach that point in your life, it’s only a theoretical exercise to engage with – there is no point in thinking deeply into investing options or buying your way into freedom until you have money to buy options. I’m sure there are self-improvement adherents who will vehemently disagree with this, but the reality is you aren’t going to gain access to the game by saving money not buying lattes or avocado toast unless you are playing a really long game with a lot of good luck.

I’ve now hit a point in my life where options have opened up for my family, and we can make choices and trade-offs to build out a lifestyle that works best for our goals. This is not to say that all options are available to us – we have to carefully look at the tradeoffs and determine whether the downsides of any option are something we are comfortable living with (e.g. to pay for a given option, should we, say, reduce from two cars to one).

Part of this exercise is critically examining each of our assumptions and systems to determine if they are moving us towards what we want, or if they need to change to better align with what we want. This is where the concept of leverage has entered my mind, because when evaluating costs or expenses, it’s important to note that not all expenses are net negative. Some expenditures end up buying more value than what we spend on them.

This is the game in a nutshell – you trade your time for money. Money represents quantified time and effort that can be exchanged in markets with mixed goods. I spend time at work and my employer gives me money in return. I then take that money to purchases goods or services.

Until now, most of the way I thought about the game was surface-level transactions of 1:1 value transfer – I work x-hours for y-dollars. I then trade y-dollars for a good or service with a transactional value of y-dollars. I haven’t really given much thought to the value (that is, how much I value it subjectively) of the good or service provided back to me, and whether that value is higher than what I’m spending. I suppose I’ve thought about it in an abstract way, such as I receive more enjoyment from the thing than the money I spent on it; the opportunity cost is not higher than the value I’m getting from it.

By focusing on the surface-level transactions, the only metric that was critical was to ensure the revenue was not exceeded by the expenses, that I wasn’t spending more money to buy value than I was getting in exchange for my labour. It’s worked up until now, but the direction my family wants to head requires me to think more deeply about what those expenses are buying us.

Ideally, I should be seeking to engage leverage – I trade time for money, then use the money to buy time in greater quantities. What might this look like?

  • With my wages, I can lease or own a car. The money I spend on the car frees me up to commute to work on my own terms. I could get to work more cheaply, such as public transportation or cycling (ignoring environmental costs in this calculation), but then I’m trading cost for time. Having my own vehicle is more convenient, more comfortable, and faster, allowing me to maximize time at work and time at home.
  • With my wages, I can pay for cleaners to clean my house. This frees up more leisure time and cuts down on bickering in the house. It is cheaper for me to buy the supplies and do it myself, but I value the leisure and time with my family more than the cost.
  • With my wages, I can pay for daycare for our child. My spouse or I could quit our job to care for our child at home full time and save the money. However, the money we spend on childcare frees us up to earn multiples of what we spend for the childcare – e.g. at $1,000/month, we would spend $12,000/year for daycare so that we can make north of 5x of that in our jobs.

This is not an easy exercise as many of our expenses feel necessary on the one hand, or scary large in context. However at this point in our lives, we have to accept that our raw effort will only diminish (I can’t work all-nighters like I used to without significant physical cost), and there are no more hours in a day we can squeeze out through discipline and efficiency. We must now turn to leverage and force multipliers to translate what we have into higher value.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Thankful for Options

While I am Canadian and our Thanksgiving was back in October, I’ve been reflecting this week on what I continue to be thankful for. This week, my kid has been home sick from daycare. In the before times, this would be difficult enough, but now you have to be mindful of covid tests and access to healthcare risks.

This week, I’m finding myself being thankful for my employer and my supportive colleagues who show compassion and sympathy as I take time off work to wait out my kid getting over his daycare cold. Not everyone is fortunate to be in a position like we are, and we should support more accessible childcare options for everyone. Children deserve better, and parents need slack in the system for their sanity.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Post #302

I uploaded my post last week without much thought. When I went back to draft some ideas for a future post, I saw that Beachhead was my 301st post. I missed the opportunity to both celebrate the milestone and reflect on its significance.

Earlier this year, I missed the 5-year anniversary of this blog. I let the milestone pass by, unlike years past. I think part of the lack of enthusiasm for these significant milestones is due to general pandemic-induced apathy (we’re all feeling it). But the optimistic side of me also thinks that these milestones are less important than the work itself. I used to be more metrics-driven with my blog, excitedly noting the passing of the first year or the first 100-posts. However now I’m not concerned with reaching a future target but instead focus more on ensuring I’m keeping up with the weekly schedule and trying to come up with decent thoughts worth publishing.

That’s not to say that all of my posts are worth reading. I wouldn’t say I take a lot of pride in the final product of what goes up weekly; I’m not ashamed either. It’s just that the quality of the final draft isn’t as important as sitting down to do the work. Of taking an idea from brainstorm to coherent narrative. I find more satisfaction in putting in the work than the bragging rights of the final product. I try to think of it as more of a craft-mentality rather than creating a masterpiece corpus of writing.

Each post is an exercise that stretches the muscles, practices the movements, and gives me an opportunity to learn and develop slowly over time. At present, this blog operates at a loss (no income is generated to offset the nominal fees I pay for the site and URL). And I’m completely fine with that. At one time I thought about turning this into a brand and trying to monetize it. I’m not opposed to scraping money out of the endeavor, but it’s not the primary focus of this blog.

When I shifted away from the blog being an exercise in becoming a paramedic, it merely became a place to publicly share my practice of writing to meet a deadline. That’s good enough for me. It doesn’t have to seek to achieve anything grand – not everything has to be epic or monetizable. It’s still fun and I feel good shipping the work. As the mass of posts grow, I can look at the incremental progress and take satisfaction in what it represents – time well spent.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Beachhead

A friend who recently was appointed CEO of a company called me this week looking for a soundboard to sort out ideas he had in his head about how to proceed with company operations and strategic direction. The company is looking to shift strategic priorities, and he was looking for an outside voice to make sense of the new direction in relation to the legacy systems he’d need to grapple with.

One of the topics that came up reminded me of a concept I learned about while reading Susan Eisenhower’s book about her grandfather’s time during World War 2 and his subsequent Presidential years.

At two times during Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in significant leadership roles, he had to create a beachhead to establish his forces (literal and metaphorical) to push towards his objectives. During the war, Operation Overlord’s first phase was to establish a beachhead in Normandy to create a defensible position to allow Allied Forces to work their way into Europe to push back Germany’s army. Establishing a beachhead is critical to success, but is often difficult for offensive forces to complete as the defending force usually has the upper hand in terms of resources and strategic positioning. While the offensive forces need to both set up a foothold and protect its lines to allow more troops to arrive, the defending forces merely have to reinforce it’s occupying positions to clamp down on fresh troops from joining the beachhead. Once the effects of first-mover advantage wears off, the offensive force must contend with protecting supply lines, fighting active defense from the opponent, and pushing past inertia to avoid grinding to a halt in order to win. Once established, a successful beachhead serves as a ratchet for the offensive force – the location of which all future offensives are launched from, and from which the troops need not backslide past. Traction is gained, and the army moves forward.

Similarly, during Eisenhower’s presidency, he saw the importance of passing civil rights legislation, but saw the difficult uphill battle that would needed to both move the country towards accepting civil rights AND enshrining those rights in law (turning both hearts and minds of the nation). While he would have aspired to complete civil rights equality in his time, he knew that if poorly planned, then history, culture, and opposing interests would ensure that forward progress towards equality would halt. Instead, he sought to establish a kind of metaphorical beachhead for civil rights, working on government programs and legislation that would lay the foundation for future leaders to take up and ratchet their work – allowing the movement to progress forward without worrying about losing traction and backsliding.

In listening to my friend, I noted that he also needed to take this lesson from history and focus on his own beachhead. While we think that a CEO is all-powerful in terms of exerting their will over the company, we must also face the reality that comes with working with legacy systems and people. Change is difficult and slow, and when poorly executed either stalls from inertia or alienates your workforce. And so I suggested he take a leaf from Eisenhower’s example and focus on what his core objective is that is reasonable within the timeline he’s being given, and focus on establishing a beachhead to deliver value back to the company president.

Since reading about Eisenhower, I’ve thought about my own beachheads – what are the areas of my life that I must focus on to ensure I’m moving forward with my goals, whether they are family, work, health, or passions. It is still very much a work in progress, but I want to find those areas that I can carve out and secure so that when it’s time to take risks towards my goals, I have a safe space to launch from.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Evidence, Credibility, and the Homunculus Courtroom

We should think of our beliefs and the evidence we engage with as if we had a little homunculus tv courtroom in our brain adjudicating whether to admit evidence into the record. Obviously, this is incredibly difficult to pull off in real time, but it’s a nice thought experiment to pause and consider the weight of a claim being made.

This idea came to me while watching a YouTube video covering the recent downfall of a famous hustle influencer, where the presenter made an observation that she (the presenter) would normally not take people’s personal lives into consideration when judging their professional work, but the case that the influencer sold conferences and products marketed as relationship coaching courses under the pretenses of having a great marriage was swiftly undermined by her (the influencer) getting a divorce approximately two years later.

I was impressed with this statement by the presenter – she was right! Under normal circumstances, the personal life of a person shouldn’t bear weight on something like this, but given the fact that the evidence under consideration was whether someone was misleading about their personal life and getting others to pay for her “expertise,” it would be grounds to consider this piece of evidence as relevant or bearing weight. My homunculus courtroom judge ruled that the testimony was admissible.

This is a silly thought experiment to anthropomorphize cognitive thought-processes that are otherwise just a black box to me. I suppose it’s a little farfetched to think that we have this much control over our beliefs, but maybe the next time I listen to a claim (or gossip, or something that doesn’t jive with my experience… or claims that I want to be true…), I will remember my homunculus courtroom and think twice about the claim’s believability.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan