October 2007


Atheism and Religion23 Oct 2007 09:09 pm

“Having faith” means believing in something unconditionally, no matter what the evidence.

For a number of years in my youth I wanted to believe — tried to believe — in various supernatural phenomena.

I believed that if I tried hard enough, I could will actions to happen at a distance. I could move that lamp on the table from across the room. I believed that given enough practice, I could read someone’s thoughts. I could predict the future. I could make luck turn my way. I had faith that I could succeed in these things.

I never collected real data, but after enough years of never seeing anything I could repeat, not seeing consistent evidence that I was right, I began to change my mind. [Fortunately, others have collected hard data and debunked bogus claims.] Sure, sometimes I convinced myself that I had moved that lamp — if just a little bit. Occasionally I did predict something that came to pass. Sometimes I rubbed my special rock, and then got lucky. But too often the converse was true, and eventually I had to admit it.

This self-admission was tied to the realization that reality is the best criteria for believing in something. Sure, I could spend the rest of my life believing in my ability to move lamps around just via thought, but in the absence of evidence, that was fundamentally no different than me believing my imaginary friend was real, or believing in ghosts or goblins. Alas — in the end, my faith in my supernatural abilities seems to have been unfounded. It would have been completely silly for me to keep pretending. [And since then I've never seen any evidence to contradict this conclusion. But hey -- I'll keep my eyes peeled, just in case I'm currently on the wrong path...]

On a related note…

I also spent some years in my youth assuming that what people around me were saying about God was true. There is a God, you can learn about him (oops, Him) from the Bible, you should pray to God, you should not take His name in vain, and so on.

Of course, the same realizations that I had about the supernatural apply in spades to religious belief. Neither I, nor anyone I’ve met, has any sort of compelling evidence that a God exists, or that if he / she / it does exist, that he / she / it gives a hoot about the world as it exists today, much less any of its inhabitants. In the absence of any objective evidence, why should we pretend that God exists, or matters in any way?? Because we’re scared? Because we’re just not sure, and want to hedge our bets? Because we want to be good people? Because we find comfort in going to Church? These may be common responses, but (as we’ll discuss in future posts) they’re certainly not good answers.

I think it took me longer to free myself from religion than it did from other superstitions just because right now religious faith is the most pervasive type of superstition in our society. We are social creatures, and when everyone around you assumes a thing, it can be hard to question (or even think to question) its veracity.

There is no doubt that the influence of religion is pervasive and strong, and seems especially difficult to shake if you were raised to believe in it from a young age (Richard Dawkins has some insightful thinking about this situation in The God Delusion). Nevertheless, I urge you to question your belief. It is also true that religious communities can provide support, a sense of belonging, feelings that you are behaving charitably, a sense that you are following a moral path, and more. But do yourself a favor: separate those things in your mind. You don’t need a belief in some god in order to have healthy, positive relationships with other people, or to do good works, or to behave morally.

If you find it hard to believe in something that has no basis in reality other than what some biased people are saying, then ‘fess up (if only to yourself, at first): “I have no faith.”

Having no faith is not a bad thing. Completely to the contrary, it is something to strive for. It is saying “I don’t believe in fairies, or Greek gods, or vampires, or silly superstitions, because there’s no good evidence for any of that stuff.” Yahweh, Mohammed, and Jesus Christ all fall squarely into this category too. You can believe in them, but given lack of any credible evidence that they were other than myths or ordinary (albeit celebrated) humans, it’s no different than believing your make-believe friend is real, or believing that ghosts or goblins exist, or that walking under a ladder will harm you.

In fact, I would argue that believing in something unconditionally despite all evidence to the contrary is on the whole a very bad thing, and probably causes more pain and suffering in this world than it relieves (another topic for future discussion). And at the end of the day, it just isn’t a reality-based way of dealing with the world around you.

If “having faith” means believing in something unconditionally, no matter what the evidence, then it is a thing that a reasonable person will avoid at all costs.

Biking and Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources21 Oct 2007 04:36 pm

Today is the two month anniversary of when I started commuting to work primarily via bicycle.

I. Love. It.

Let me count the ways:

1. In the morning I arrive at work after a good workout, and spend several hours enjoying a mild endorphin high ;-)
2. In the evening I arrive home after a good workout, and spend several hours enjoying a mild endorphin high (and a beer or two).
3. As a result of item 2, all day at work I look forward to riding home.
4. As a result of item 1, in the evening I look forward to riding to work the next day. Life is good, no?
5. I’m finally losing the “tenacious ten” (extra poundage around my tummy). Despite the fact that…
6. I don’t have to worry so much about caloric intake. Yes, thanks, I will have some of those pretzels… That said, I often find myself less hungry at mealtimes than before. Go figure.
7. Miss a workout on the weekend? No prob, I’ve been getting a solid hour of exercise every other day this week!
8. I’m saving something like $1000 / year in gas and other vehicle costs (this is on a car which is completely paid for; otherwise it would be way more).
9. No more knee pain (which I started to get after about a year of running a few times a week).
10. I’m undergoing a very healthy mental paradigm shift about commuting, which spills over into the way I think about other things. I find myself questioning things I wouldn’t have thought to question before. Do we really have to do it this way??
11. On the road I feel like I’m reminding motorists that there is another way :-D
12. On the road I look really cool with my trusty steed (an old-school ’90s-era mountain bike), my goofy panniers, a supporting chunk of 2×4… Umm, never mind…
13. I love the thrill of (occasionally) dusting one of the slower roadies on the W&OD trail. Given that I’m on a mountain bike carrying 20 lbs of crap in my panniers, fer crying out loud!!  [6/09 update: a while back I added front panniers as well. I love the ability to swing by the store on the way home, but in a headwind I sometimes think I'm going backwards...]

There are down sides to bicycle commuting, however:

1. Flats suk.
2. Occasionally you have to educate a motorist about a biker’s right to the road.
3. You need to learn how to ride properly and safely. Here is a must-read for anyone who rides regularly: http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm
4. I spend about $200 / year or so on biking gear, etc. Deduct from item 8 above.
5. Rain kinda sux. But not so much. It’s sucky in the same sort of way that camping is. Sometimes it is not super comfortable, and you are out in the elements. You’re wet, and you’re a bit cold, but you expand your awareness of the world around you. Yeah, you definitely feel at one with nature. Umm, wait, I reconsider… Rain is kinda nice ;-)
6. While short-ish commutes are cool (mine is about 7 miles each way), I imagine longer commutes (maybe after 10 or 15 miles each way) would get a bit tough.
7. I now have trouble imagining working at a place I couldn’t bike to.
8. Occasionally coworkers will campaign to get me off of my current ride (goofy panniers and all) and onto something more upscale…
9. Occasionally I get pissed off when some roadie passes me and I cannot keep up. The more I commute, the less this happens ;-)
10. Flats (still) suk.

Lessons learned and other resources?
Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far: when planning a route to / from work, do not think like a motorist. Very often, there’s a route that will get you there without fighting traffic the whole way, and without venturing onto high-speed roads. Check out this great article for more helpful info. Right now I’m kicking myself for missing years of bike commuting before figuring this out… Doh! :-/

In general, Paul Dorn is a great resource: http://www.runmuki.com/commute/

Life21 Oct 2007 04:07 pm

Apparently I’m paid for.

img_2539_mods_lowres.jpg

That must count for something. Maybe that’s why they keep me around here ;-)

AOL and Software Development and Work Life16 Oct 2007 07:09 pm

This sounds much stranger than it actually is, and every day I am less wary of saying it in public ;-) I am a Master of Scrums.1

The software development group I now work in did agile development in a kinda-sorta, half-assed way for about a year or two (during which time I happened to be their customer). Then about six months ago, a while after I joined the team, we decided to get serious about Agile — in particular, Scrum.

There were plenty of obstacles. The biggest was the fact that AOL has in recent years taken a very process-heavy, waterfall-like approach to product development. It was antithetical to developing software in an agile way.

Earlier this year our execs brought in an outside firm to do some Scrum training. Their two-day course — which I highly recommend — was a great foundation for us to build on. We found it most beneficial when all members of a team — product management, development, QA, project management — attended training together. This gave us all a common reference point over the coming months. On the whole, this has been a very useful and productive effort, and I hope Agile is here to stay at AOL.

Within the Scrum framework, there is some room to tweak things to suit your own organization. Half a year in, we’re still correcting mistakes, making adjustments, and learning what works best for us. One surprise: we find that best practices (which I’ll talk about in a future post) vary from one team to another.

So what are the benefits we’ve seen using Scrum?

One of the biggest benefits is that you get very rapid feedback on how things are going. Four days into a sprint,2 and you will know straightaway if you are having problems. We often find ourselves making adjustments after a week of work. In contrast, when using our older waterfall approach, we often wouldn’t become aware of a problem until we’d missed a major milestone, typically weeks or even months after a project had begun. Now these checkpoints and moments of awareness happen regularly: for small issues, on a daily basis, and on a larger scale every few weeks when we complete a sprint.

It is also much easier to make rapid adjustments. Even if you strictly follow the rules of Scrum, you can often get sudden requests into your next sprint, which means out to production within two to four weeks. In some cases we cheat a bit and incorporate smaller changes into the ongoing sprint.

If you are good about using a tool3 to keep track of tasks and progress, you gather invaluable data about your team: your development velocity, your hidden inefficiencies (like overhead for build management), how good you are about identifying tasks ahead of time, how well you estimate task effort, and more. Each team is unique, and the sprint histories provide valuable characterization of the team as well as a record that informs you going forward.

After you get a bit of history under your belt, you become a pretty good judge of the scope of a project — “this thing feels like three, maybe four two-week sprints…”

Finally, here’s a really cool benefit of Scrum: if you are diligent about knocking out the most important and highest-risk stuff first, you sometimes finish a project earlier than expected. On a couple of projects, we’ve suddenly realized that, while we still had a backlog of items (“stories”) to complete, none of them really needed to get done now, and hey — we’ve got more important things to do somewhere else. “So, umm, folks, I think we’re actually done here…” Man, imagine that!

Where have we had issues?

It definitely hurts when you try to do too much at one time (although this isn’t unique to Scrum!). We’ve had most success when a small team (1 to 3 developers) can be dedicated to a project until it is complete. If you find yourself spreading individual developers or QA people across multiple projects, you may have productivity problems. On the other hand, some of the ancillary team members, like the scrum master, product manager, or operational folks, seem to do ok handling multiple projects. As scrum master, I find that I do okay with up to 4 or 5 simultaneous projects (although that means I’m not getting a whole lot else done during the day!).

We’re still learning how to most efficiently manage projects where multiple remote teams are working on different components of a single, larger effort. This scenario — which is increasingly likely going forward — definitely presents challenges. For us a daily scrum of scrums improved communications a lot. And one definite win when teams span multiple locations: small- to medium-scale video conferencing; daily visual interaction can make a huge difference when working with remote teams.

It’s also worth noting that some of our groups that do heavy integration work, and others that work on projects with very infrequent but very large deliveries, have struggled with Scrum. I’m not directly involved with those efforts, though, and not particularly familiar with their situations, so I won’t comment further.

What else?

Agile methodologies were popularized in the software development world (though they really originated elsewhere), and are especially suited to the sorts of work in which the path to the desired solution is not clear at the onset.4 So where else could this approach be useful? I’ve worked in several fields that, in retrospect, could benefit from following a Scrum-like methodology (or maybe just using parts, like the daily scrum for keeping on top of things and getting frequent feedback):
* Physics. Namely, in the design of, and preparation for, medium- and large-scale physics experiments.
* Electrical engineering. For hardware and firmware design, especially where one is dealing with leading-edge technologies.

What do you think?

Footnotes:

1 If you’re not familiar with Agile / Scrum, wikipedia has a good overview. The Google video of Ken Schwaber’s talk is also very useful.
2 We’ve been happiest with short sprints: typically two weeks, and sometimes less.
3 We’ve experimented with a few tools, with varying degrees of success. In a future post I’d like to discuss this in some detail.
4 Contrast this, for example, with building one of a dozen houses, or building a widget in a factory…

AOL and Work Life16 Oct 2007 12:56 pm

It’s been a sad and strange day here at AOL, with some good folks let go :-( We’ll miss you guys.

Nuff said… I think it’s time for a beer.

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