Speaking with and listening to authority

From Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything:

Occasionally the criticism is personal, though, and even when it’s constructive, it can sting. Prior to my last mission, my American crewmate Tom Marshburn and I were in the pool for a six-hour EVA evaluation, practicing spacewalking in front of a group of senior trainers and senior astronauts. Tom and I have both done EVAs in space and I thought we did really well in the pool. But in the debrief, after I’d explained my rationale for tethering my body in a particular way so I’d be stable enough to perform a repair, one of our instructors announced to the room, “When Chris talks, he has a very clear and authoritative manner—but don’t let yourself be lulled into a feeling of complete confidence that he’s right. Yes, he used to be a spacewalking instructor and evaluator and he’s Mr. EVA, but he hasn’t done a walk since 2001. There have been a lot of changes since then. I don’t want the junior trainers to ignore that little voice inside and not question something just because it’s being said with authority by someone who’s been here a long time.”

At first that struck me as a little insulting, because the message boiled down to this: “Mr. EVA” sounds like he knows what he’s doing, but really, he may not have a clue. Then I stopped to ask myself, “Why is the instructor saying that?” Pretty quickly I had to concede that the point was valid. I don’t come off as wishy-washy and I’m used to teaching others how to do things, so I can sound very sure of myself. That doesn’t mean I think I know everything there is to know; I’d always assumed that people understood that perfectly well and felt free to jump in and question my judgment. But maybe my demeanor was making that difficult. I decided to test that proposition: instead of waiting for feedback, I’d invite it and see what happened. After a sim, I began asking my trainers and crewmates, “How did I fall short, technically, and what changes could I make next time?” Not surprisingly, the answer was rarely, “Don’t change a thing, Chris—everything you do is perfect!” So the debrief did what it was supposed to: it alerted me to a subtle but important issue I was able to address in a way that ultimately improved our crew’s chances of success.

We make the road by walking

From “All Clear” by Connie Willis:

Polly had asked Mr. Goode to do the eulogy, remembering his sermon that day in Backbury. He spoke of [spoiler] and his bravery at Dunkirk and then said,

“We live in hope that the good we do here on earth will be rewarded in heaven. We also hope to win the war. We hope that right and goodness will triumph, and that when the war is won, we shall have a better world. And we work toward that end. We buy war bonds and put out incendiaries and knit stockings—”

And pumpkin-colored scarves, Polly thought.

“—and volunteer to take in evacuated children and work in hospitals and drive ambulances—”

Here Alf grinned and nudged Eileen sharply in the ribs.

“—and man anti-aircraft guns. We join the Home Guard and the ATS and the Civil Defence, but we cannot know whether the scrap metal we collect, the letter we write to a soldier, the vegetables we grow, will turn out in the end to have helped win the war or not. We act in faith.

“But the vital thing is that we act. We do not rely on hope alone, though hope is our bulwark, our light through dark days and darker nights. We also work, and fight, and endure, and it does not matter whether the part we play is large or small. The reason that God marks the fall of the sparrow is that he knows that it is as important to the world as the bulldog or the wolf. We all, all must do ‘our bit.’ For it is through our deeds that the war will be won, through our kindness and devotion and courage that we make that better world for which we long.

“So it is with heaven,” the vicar said. “By our deeds here on earth, in this world so far from the one we long for, we make heaven possible. We not only live in the hope of heaven but, by each doing our bit, we bring it to pass.”

Hating is Lazy

From the introduction to “The Art of Focused Conversation”. There is a number of these kinds of arguments.

In Parallel Thinking, Edward de Bono says that Western culture has always esteemed critical thinking too highly. Teachers are always getting students to “react” critically to something put in front of them. The easiest kind of critical comment is a negative one. In a meeting or conversation, any person who wants to be involved or noticed has to say something. The easiest form of contribution is the negative. Criticism is also emotionally attractive and satisfying. When I attack an idea, I am instantly made superior to the idea or the originator of the idea. Criticism is also one of the few ways in which people who are not creative can achieve something and become influential.

Moreover, says de Bono, criticism takes very little effort. All you have to do is to choose a frame of judgement different from someone else’s and you have a free field of fire for your intellectual howitzers. If the conversation is about architecture, and someone is admiring the work of the Bauhaus style and I prefer imitation classical, I can simply point out that the Bauhaus is stark, lacking in grace, and downright boring. If someone is in favor of the whole-word approach to teaching reading, I can point out its lack of emphasis on phonetics. If the conversation ends there (as it usually does), I will never understand my friend’s sense of beauty which leads her to admire the Bauhaus style. I will never hear the teacher’s story of trial and error, as she sought to help children overcome their inner blocks to learning.

That, in brief, is the problem—criticism as the first step in a discussion stops the discussion and is therefore, generally the last step as well. It is an entirely different matter if I hear the other person first, understand what she is trying to do, then talk with her about better ways to do it. De Bono does point out that criticism is a valuable and essential part of thinking, but, of itself, totally inadequate. (de Bono, Parallel Thinking, pp. 27-28.)

Clarity and Accuracy

An excerpt from the essay “Wrong—Again—About Plain Language” by Joseph Kimble; written in defense of Plain Language legislation and in response to an attacker:

Advocates believe that “it is more important to be clear . . . than to be accurate.”

This charge could not be more wrong. I responded to Mr. Stark on this same point 18 years ago.[14] No reputable advocate has ever said that clarity trumps accuracy. Yes, I have said, “Your main goal is to convey your ideas with the greatest possible clarity.”[15] But of course I mean “convey your ideas accurately.” Nobody who knows my work — or the work of any other advocate — could possibly think otherwise. We all take the need for accuracy as blindingly obvious.[16] But we do think that, with rare exceptions, clarity and accuracy are complementary — not competing — goals. As Reed Dickerson, the father of modern-day legal drafting, wryly put it: “The price of clarity, of course, is that the clearer the document the more obvious its substantive deficiencies.”[17] Or in the words of another expert: “The purposes of legislation are most likely to be expressed and communicated successfully by the drafter who is ardently concerned to write clearly and to be intelligible.”[18] Time after time, we have seen clarity improve accuracy by uncovering the ambiguities and errors that traditional drafting tends to hide. Yet if in some instance, on some point, accuracy and clarity really are at odds, then accuracy wins. It goes without saying — almost.

On secrets

From “Secrets: A memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” by Daniel Ellsberg:

“Henry [Kissinger], there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all – so much! incredible! – suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t… and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time – not too long, but a matter of two or three years – you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What could this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues… and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”

Idleness and disability

From The politics of Helen Keller: Socialism and disability by Keith Rosenthal:

For instance, in a groundbreaking article, “The Unemployed,” written in 1911 for a magazine for the blind Keller argued,

We have been accustomed to regard the unemployed deaf and blind as victims of their infirmities. That is to say, we have supposed that if their sight and hearing were miraculously restored, they would find work. But I wish to suggest to the readers of this article that the unemployment of the blind is only part of a greater problem.

Mass unemployment, Keller argued, is due not to “physical defects or lack of ability,” but rather to the fact that capitalist production requires “a large margin of idle men.” The capitalist class use the pressure of unemployment to force workers to compete with one another, and in that process, “the weaker workmen are thrust aside.” Thus, she argued, blindness may be a contributing factor to a person’s unemployment, but not the primary cause. Linking the struggle of blind people for the right to work with the struggle of all unemployed people for jobs, she wrote, “We know that the blind are not debarred from usefulness solely by their infirmity. Their idleness is caused by conditions which press heavily upon all working people.” She concluded that “it is not physical blindness, but social blindness which cheats our hands of their right to toil.”


Sadly, the fundamental dream that Helen Keller maintained throughout most of her life ultimately eluded the grasp of her generation. In the years since her death, that dream—the dream of a socialist world, free of oppression, exploitation, and war—has likewise been deferred for subsequent generations. And yet, that dream has not died, and will not die as long as there are people in the world who remain animated by the memories and legacies of Helen Keller and all of our other fighting ancestors. It is in such a spirit that this article ends at the beginning—with an excerpt from the very first public lecture given by Helen Keller, in February 1913.

I am going to try to make you feel that no one of us can do anything alone, that we are bound together. I do not like this world as it is. I am trying to make it a little more as I would like to have it.

It was the hands of others that made me. Without my teacher I should be nothing. Without you I should be nothing. We live by and for each other. We are all blind and deaf until our eyes are open to our fellow men. If we had penetrating vision we would not endure what we see in the world today.

The lands, the life, and the machinery belong to the few. All the work they do gains for the workers a mere livelihood. It is the labor of the poor and ignorant that makes others refined and comfortable. It is strange that we do not see it and that when we do we accept the conditions.

But I am no pessimist. The pessimist says that man was born in darkness and for death. I believe that man was intended for the light and shall not die. It is a good world and it will be much better when you help me to make it more as I want it.

We are all resistant to change

Came across this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith in a presentation by L. Carson of the University of Sydney about Strategic Questioning (pdf):

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

Universal prefaces

From Sandi Metz’s “The Shape at the Bottom of All Things”:

I totally understand that this is a small example and that these techniques can feel like overkill for a problem of this size. Perhaps they are; I wouldn’t resist if you insisted it were so. However, there are bigger problems for which these techniques are the perfect solution and I rely on your ability to see the larger abstraction. You can’t choose whether to use these techniques unless you know them and it’s much easier practice on a small example like this.

From the Chapter 1 of Robert Martin’s Clean Code:

Consider this book a description of the Object Mentor [the group of authors of this book] School of Clean Code. The techniques and teachings within are the way that we practice our art. We are willing to claim that if you follow these teachings, you will enjoy the benefits that we have enjoyed, and you will learn to write code that is clean and proessional. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that we are somehow “right” in any absolute sense. There are other schools and other masters that have just as much claim to professionalism as we. It would behoove you to learn from them as well.

Indeed, many of the recommendations in this book are controversial. You will probably not agree with all of them. You might violently disagree with some of them. That’s fine. We can’t claim final authority. On the other hand, the recommendations in this book are things that we have thought long and hard about. We have learned them through decades of experience and repeated trial and error. So Whether you agree or disagree, it would be a shame if you did not see, and respect, our point of view.

Rigorous complaint

“The Heriarchy of not-for-profit rigor” from White Courtesy Telephone;

The hierarchy of rigor

At a certain level of experience in some fields, one realizes that “the problem” is not that people are incompetent or bad at their jobs, but rather that they are spectacularly excellent at what they are doing but they happen to be doing the wrong thing. Which is what makes the above chart so enjoyable for me, having reached the level of nonprofit experience in which I can juxtapose the superb competence of those inside the sector with those voices outside the sector braying of its incompetence, while recognizing just how closely aligned both of them are.

Now exhale

From  Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby:

Let’s start with some deep breathing. Give me a good deep breath and count to four with me.

Here we go. 1. 2. 3. 4. Now exhale. You can feel your eyes. Good, that’s exactly it.

Now let’s take a deep breath and, in your mind, draw a hippopotamus as fast as you can. Quick quick. His legs, his folds, his marshmallow teeth. Okay, done. Now exhale.

Take another deep breath and hold it tight. As you hold it tightly in your chest, imagine the tightness is shrinking you down into a bug. You’ve held your breath so hard that you’re an insect. And all the other bugs saw you shrink and they loved the stunt. They’re clapping and rubbing their feelers together madly. But you had an apple in your hand when you were big and it just caught up with you, crushed the whole crowd. You’re dead, too. Now exhale.

Give me a solid deep breath and imagine you live in a town where everything is made of telephone cords. The houses are all telephone cords, the shingles, the rafters. The doorways are a thick mass of telephone cords which you simply thrust yourself through. When you go to bed, the bedspread is telephone cords. And the mattress and box springs are telephone cords, too. Like I said, everything is made out of telephone cords. The telephone itself is made of telephone cords. But the telephone cord going to the telephone is made out of bread and a couple sticks. Now exhale.

Breathe in. 1. 2. 3. 4. Breathe out.

Breath in. 1. 2. Another short breath in. 3. 4. Imagine both of your hands snapping off at the wrists and flying into your computer screen and programming it from the inside. Exhale.

Big, big deep breath. Deep down inside you there is a submarine. It has a tongue. Exhale.

Breathe through your nostrils. Deep breath. Filter the air through your nostrils. Breathing through the nostrils gives you quality air. Your nostrils flare, you are taking breaths of nature’s air, the way God intended. Imagine a floppy disk drive clogged up with orphans. And while it chokes on orphans, you have good, wholesome God’s breath in your lungs. But that pleasurable, life-giving air will become a powerful toxin if held too long. Hurry, exhale God and nature’s air!

Now, you will wake up, smoothing out the creases of this page in your web browser. You will have full recollection of your whole life and not forgetting any one of the many adventures you have had in your life. You will feel rich and renewed and expert. You will have no remembrance of this short exercise, you will instead remember teaching a rabbit to use scissors from a great distance.

And as you will wake up with your eyes directed to the top of this exercise, you will begin again. But this time, try to imagine that even your shadow is a telephone cord.