All posts filed under “Analysis

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What I struggle with every day…

Seth Godin truly nailed it on the head today with a short blog post titled “In and out“.

That’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make today.

How much time and effort should be spent on intake, on inbound messages, on absorbing data…

and how much time and effort should be invested in output, in creating something new.

There used to be a significant limit on available intake. Once you read all the books in the college library on your topic, it was time to start writing.

Now that the availability of opinions, expertise and email is infinite, I think the last part of that sentence is the most important:

Time to start writing.

Or whatever it is you’re not doing, merely planning on doing.

I grew up loving reading, loving learning and this has transformed me into someone that constantly juggles half a dozen books, a couple magazines, a never-ending Twitter feed and a truly never-ending Google Reader.  But as much as I enjoy it, when I step back I realize that I really love doing something about what I’ve learned.

The problem is saying “enough is enough”, stepping back, and taking action.

It feels like I’ll never get the balance right, but I try to get better every day.

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“My Nuclear Life” by Chris Brownfield – a review

My Nuclear Life, written by Christopher Brownfield, was published recently. It chronicles his ~6 year career in the Navy, which primarily consisted of 3 years on the USS Hartford and 1 year in Iraq. I served on board the USS Hartford with Chris for about a year. This post is a review of his book through the lens of someone who knew him and worked with him.

Setting the scene

There’s probably one in many good-sized organizations… “that guy.” Well, Chris has always been “that guy.” He has always been the odd man out, marching to the beat of a different drummer. He cares about different things, and does things differently to everyone else. It’s not always a bad thing, but it means that Chris is not representative of most Navy officers I’ve ever known.

Also, submarines are very strange places to work. Pack 130 men into a very small space for six months. Then mess with their body clocks by having them work on an 18-hour day (compared to a rational 24-hour day), with six hours on-watch, six hours training/maintenance, and (hopefully) six hours sleep… constantly changing so you never feel fully awake or (sometimes) even fully tired. The norms of human behavior just change when you’re out at sea.

When you’re confined for so long you get bored easily, and the way to be entertained is simply to fuck with people. You’ll do anything to get a reaction out of someone. Once you get that reaction, you know that whenever you get bored you can do the same thing and get the same reaction. Two of the most common ways we would use to get reactions from each other would be by playing off of fears of homophobia and general bad taste. In other words there was a lot of “grab-ass” and disgusting stories (and pornography); all of it to try and get a reaction from other guys on the boat. (Most everyone was immune to the usual “your mom” insults.) As long as you didn’t react you were fine; guys would stop trying and find other things to eliminate boredom.

I explain all of this because Chris just didn’t quite seem to fit in that kind of environment, and also didn’t recognize that people were fucking with him only because he would react. (And it appears that the same problems of not fitting in occured in Iraq, where run-ins with his superiors in Baghdad ended up getting him transferred to another command.)

Melodrama

Most importantly, only think of reading this book if you’re comfortable with melodrama. Below is quite a long quote, but I think it describes exactly what I mean:

Around the base of the statue [in France], the names of various writers, philosophers, and mathematicians from centuries past are inscribed. The names are those of giants like Descartes, Renoir, Sartre, Curie, Fourier, Newton, Shakespeare … every one a genius—someone who had changed the world! As I read the small chiseled names, it occurred to me that the names had been added after the statue was built; it was a work in progress! Encircling the monument, I realized with a sense of amazement that fully half of the space was left blank for more names to be added!

A sense of awe gripped me as the weight of that empty space set in, for in that blank space lay faith in the capacity of mankind—the most powerfully humanistic statement I had ever seen. A tear came to my eye as I stared at the beautiful emptiness of those bronze panels, wondering whose name would come next and what extraordinary thing that person would have accomplished. Then, just as quickly as this audacious faith in mankind had gripped me, the emptiness of another monument seized hold and dragged me down. My spine tensed, the hair on my neck stood on end, and I imagined myself standing once more at attention in the central rotunda of the Naval Academy. On the large memorial to our fallen alumni, several new names had appeared since my graduation, yet the vastness of the empty space seemed unchanged. On that massive wall with movable plastic lettering, the emptiness had become the most salient feature. I realized with a sense of horror that my life had been a pursuit of that emptiness. Until that point, I had struggled to control the things that would prevent the names of my classmates from appearing in that unbearable space. My faith in those white plastic names had dignified my pursuit! But at that instant, I realized that my quest had been hollow because of what lay within the emptiness of that godforsaken wall.

Instead of faith in the capacity of mankind, that emptiness chanted in an austere, commanding tone the insidiously pessimistic dogma War will never end … War will never end! WAR WILL NEVER END!!! “SHUT UP!!!” I shouted in anger at the cold, blackened wall. My voice echoed in the hall as though I were standing alone within a canyon. Suddenly tears were streaming down my face, my fists were clenched, and I howled, “I will not follow you anymore! You can’t have my life!” I sobbed, exasperated and purged. The albatross that hung from my neck broke loose and fell into the sea. I knew what sort of monument I wanted my name to be inscribed upon, and that knowledge carried me forward with a newfound sense of hope.

If you managed to survive reading that quote, you see exactly what I mean. If you couldn’t survive reading that quote, I would avoid the book.

Cheating in the Navy & on the Hartford

The biggest controversy to come out of Chris’ book was his accusations of wide-spread cheating on the Hartford. Overall, this is absolute horseshit. I don’t ever remembering receiving answer keys to any of my nuclear exams before the exam. And I’m pretty sure I passed mine on the first try.

What I think happened is that other guys on the boat recognized that Chris was struggling with the exam. (The book mentions it took him five times to pass it!) The choices for the Navy then are to either kick Chris off the boat and off of submarine duty, or to help him pass the exam so he can at least be evaluated in the context of actually doing the job. Some guys just aren’t good test-takers, but are solid nuclear plant operators. It appears that while Chris could barely pass a test and couldn’t lead a watch team, he could operate a reactor plant safely. In my mind, that’s much better than washing someone out of submarines, wasting a lot of the Navy’s time and money, when it wasn’t really necessary.

Chris extrapolated this to believe that everyone on the boat was receiving exam keys and cheating. That’s certainly not something I ever witnessed. What he experienced was someone who was a bit of a rock getting help. And after doing so, he proved that he could actually do the job.

Were the exams too tough? Possibly. But if that’s the case, I don’t blame the boat, I blame the Navy’s nuclear community and Naval Reactors for putting into place a system that sets unreasonable standards. Was it too each to cheat if you wanted? Yes, but unless the Navy develops Navy-wide exams and hold exams that are proctored not by the boat but by the squadron (the commander of ~5-6 submarines) the current system is the best there is.

Other Hartford stories

Did pressurized septic tanks spray in the galley? Yep, it happened. (Though it’s not as bad as it seems.)

Did Chris have some legendary run-ins with the crew? Oh, yeah. Perhaps the most legendary was the one he describes in Chapter 1, where one of the enlisted guys in the engine room wagged his genitalia near his face when Chris was leaning down to read some electrical meters. It was early in Chris’ tour on the boat and as he writes in the book, “I completely lost control.” That set the tone for a lot of his interactions with the crew for as long as I was on board.

At one point in the book he described how he had to call the senior enlisted supervisor into the engineering control room to enforce discipline. If you know how to lead a watch team, that never needs to happen. (You also learn what’s serious, and what is people trying to fuck with you, and how to ignore the latter.) You earn the respect of your team, and it sounds like Chris had difficulty with that.

Iraq

The problem I have with Chris’ description of his time in Iraq is that I’ve already read “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” and “Fiasco”. (Both of which I highly recommend, by the way.) He does capture the daily inanity of working as a junior officer on a major command staff, but a lot of this part of the book was a bit boring because it was just from his single-person perspective. It’s more personal, but very limited.

If you read “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” or “Fiasco” there are a lot of stories and perspectives from people across the government and military, and they are woven together into a compelling story that’s really powerful. Chris’ story is interesting, but doesn’t really add anything to the body of work about how screwed up the Iraq war had gotten.

Summary

Part of me really liked this book because it brought back a lot of memories of my time on the Hartford. Thinking back, this was a very formative period in my life, and it’s pleasant to revisit (some) of those memories.

But mainly I was really frustrated reading this book, because it reflects the perspective of an oddball outsider. In the grand scheme of history it might be useful for family history to be written by the black sheep of the family, but it doesn’t do much for accuracy of that family history. Those of us who were there know how to filter the author’s offbeat perspective and understand what’s behind it, but for any other reader it’s just not what I would call an full version of the truth.

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Switching from the iPhone 3G to the Nexus One and Android – my story

I was lucky enough to have joined Google in enough time to receive a Nexus One as the company’s holiday gift to employees. Though it has been written about extensively, I wanted to share my perspectives as someone that switched from my previous iPhone 3G to the Nexus One.

(Note that enough though I got the Nexus One, the experience will be very similar for anyone switching to a modern Android phone, such as a Droid or any of the cool new HTC phones that have come out recently.)

The wicked awesome

Power widget / battery management – When I first saw the power widget on my phone’s home screen, I honestly didn’t know what it did. There were five icons, which seemed to toggle on/off. But this widget is fantastic, and allows you to quickly turn battery hogs (such as GPS, WiFi, push notifications, etc) on and off. Compared to digging in a variety of various iPhone menus in the “Settings” app, I can quickly change how much power my phone is using.

And it might be my usage patterns, but I get a LOT more use out of my Nexus One battery than I got out of my iPhone. It was getting to the point where my iPhone would barely last until after lunch, where my Nexus One can easily last all day and my commute home. Not only that, but when my Nexus One battery degrades, I can replace it myself!

Google Maps – This app is just amazing. It’s even got StreetView, and I personally think that the StreetView interface on the phone is superior to the interface on the desktop. I find it hard to describe exactly how fantastic this app is, and how useful it can be. Every time I go somewhere I haven’t been before I use this app.

Flexibility – I love the flexibility of the Android platform. Just the concept of adding widgets to your homescreens is awesome. I’ve been traveling quite a bit recently, and I have little 1×1 widgets on my homescreens that constantly update with the latest exchange rates. There are built in widgets to control music, to search (big surprise there), see news headlines, twitter, etc. Fundamentally there is so much more flexibility in what you can do with an Android phone, and I love it.

Multiple apps – The biggest feature I love is that multiple apps can be running at the same time. This didn’t seem to matter that much when I first switched from the iPhone, but I’ve slowly come to realize how brilliant this is for users. I can click on a link in my Twitter client (I use Seesmic; it’s awesome), open it in a browser, get a notification that I’ve got a new e-mail and open the Gmail client, and then switch back and forth with little or no wait since all the apps are running at the same time. It just makes the experience of using the phone so much faster, particularly for “power” users.

The really good

Unlocked – The Nexus One doesn’t come locked to a carrier. While you may or may not have a contract with that carrier which could be expensive to break, the phone itself is unlocked. I really like that.

Form factor & display – The display is amazing, and really vivid. It’s got an 800 x 400 pixel display, which is over twice the iPhone (which has a 480 x 320 pixel display). It feels great in your hand, and it amazingly thin. While I don’t see the need for a trackball, it’s there and has occasionally been useful to select/edit within a paragraph of small text. It’s just a really solid phone.

Speed – The Nexus One is fast. I switched from an iPhone 3G, and the 3GS is probably a better comparison, but I love the speed of my new phone.

Google integration – I’ve been a Google user since it was still hosted on the Stanford servers. I’ve been a Gmail user since 2004, and have since switched to Google Calendar and Google Contacts. If you use *any* of these products, the Nexus One is amazing. The apps just simply work, and work the way you want them to. Any changes sync back immediately, and you can be much more productive. (Certainly much more productive than I was with my iPhone.)

The needs improvement

The Nexus One and Android isn’t exactly a “Jesus” phone… there are some things I wish it did better.

App Market – Searching and purchasing in the App Market is great. Browsing, however, isn’t. I personally feel that browsing for new apps is something best done on the desktop, and that’s not possible with the App Market as it stands. Hopefully it’ll be something that will change someday.

Sync music – So far I’ve been using DoubleTwist, and certainly recommend it. (And highly recommend getting the DoubleTwist app for your Android phone- it eliminates some annoying steps you would otherwise have to do manually when you plug your phone into your computer.) But it’s not perfect and not quite as slick as iTunes is for the iPhone. That said, I think there’s a lot more I can learn and get configured within DoubleTwist, so I don’t want to be too harsh.

Sound/Vibrate – When I first drafted this list, I wanted to point out that there’s no “silent” switch like there is on the iPhone. However, I’ve since learned about the “Ringer Toggle Widget” which is now on my homescreen. It lets you quickly toggle between normal ringer, silent ringer, and vibrate modes. And even though it’s on the home screen, with multiple apps it means you don’t have to quit out of an app to get to it. With all that said, I do like having a physical switch so I can reach into my pocket in a meeting to make sure the ringer is off!

Summary

I love my Nexus One, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new smartphone.

But more broadly, I’m now a convert to the Android platform. As the iPhone becomes more of a walled garden, I’m really loving the openness and flexibility of the Android platform. Where there are certainly some user experience things I find a little annoying, overall I love the sense that I can make my phone do what I want it to do, and not what Apple thinks I should do with it. Now clearly I’m biased, not least because I work with a team of engineers who also do Android development and work with the community of Android developers. But the trend toward openness and flexibility is something I really look forward to experiencing in the coming years.

PS

For an example of a video I created/uploaded to YouTube directly from my Nexus One, see below. (It’s MGMT in concert in London this last week… on a side note their next album “Congratulations” should be awesome!)

(Not too bad considering how close I was to the speakers.)

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As if on cue… (Checklists, round 2)

Yesterday, I wrote about an absolute must-read book: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

It has been shown in an extensive world-wide study that a simple checklist used in surgery cuts infection rates, cuts death rates, and saves costs. It does all of these by substantial margins, everywhere they’ve been implemented. But so far only a minority of hospitals (Dr. Gawande mentioned 10 percent) have started using the safe surgery checklist, or any others, for that matter.

Yet today, the New York Times has an article titled “Results Unproven, Robotic Surgery Wins Converts.” Here are the most important quotes:

But robot-assisted prostate surgery costs more — about $1,500 to $2,000 more per patient. And it is not clear whether its outcomes are better, worse or the same.

[…]

Last year, 73,000 American men — 86 percent of the 85,000 who had prostate cancer surgery — had robot-assisted operations, according to the robot’s maker, Intuitive Surgical, the only official source of such data. Eight years ago there were fewer than 5,000, Intuitive says.

[…]

[O]nce a hospital invests in a robot — $1.39 million for the machine and $140,000 a year for the service contract, according to Intuitive — it has an incentive to use it. Doctors and patients become passionate advocates, assuming that newer means better.

[…]

And the robot is slow; it typically takes three and a half hours for a prostate operation, according to Intuitive, twice as long as traditional surgery.

So in this particular kind of surgery, a majority of surgeons quickly take up a new technology that has yet to show it can provide any sort of benefit! The same procedure is now slower and much more expensive. And the same doctors are resisting adopting a simple checklist (for little to no cost) that conclusively show improved results.

Not to make too much of a political situation here, but our health care system is clearly a mess. Doctors clearly don’t always know what’s truly important for their patients. I’m not saying surgeons shouldn’t use robots, but exhaust the easy, cheap, and conclusively better tools first! Use a damn checklist!