Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: Flash Boys

Flash Boys is the amazing true story about High Frequency Trading (HFT) which came about when stock trading switched from an activity done between people to an activity done between computers. What most people think about when you mention Wall Street stock trading are guys in a pit wearing colored jackets yelling at one another as they trade stock. That is fiction. The reality is it is all automated, and this has created a new class of players who can take advantage of the system by being very fast and very smart.

Michael Lewis weaves together a very readable story reminiscent of his great storytelling in books like Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, and The New New Thing which are all books I've enjoyed and recommend. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and Lewis is a master craftsman in telling stories about how what we believe to be true isn’t the whole truth and maybe not even the truth at all. 

Reality is not what you think it is. I learned this as a physics student back in the late 1980s. I thought I was smart, but it all came crashing down when trying to wrap my mind around Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. I’ll never forget the day it happened. Kip Matthews and I were meeting with Dr. Wolfgang Rindler on a field trip to University of Texas at Dallas. Our physics professor from Austin College had set up the meeting because we were using Rindler’s text for our senior level class. It was an “advanced topics” class, and it was a chance to meet the guy who wrote our text book. 

On that day with Dr. Rindler, it became very clear to me that there were people in the room who really understood what we were talking about, but I was not among them. Reality was far more complex and weird than I ever expected, and my prideful desire to “know it all” had reached its end. I did not understand, and I wasn’t going to. My brain had reached its upper bound. Kip went on to graduate studies at University of Chicago in Medical Physics, and he is quite possibly one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. I realized my dream of pursuing theoretical or high energy PhD level physics was a pipe dream. 

I ended up pursuing a career in software technology, and reading Flash Boys once again taught me I’m not as smart as I think I am. There are computer technologists out there who are far smarter (and faster!) than I am even though I’ve spent 25 years in the computer software industry and have a basic grasp of high speed networking including the underlying physics. Flash Boys showed me yet again that reality is not what I think it is. 

If you invest in the stock market, and particularly if you’re a professional money manager, I’d suggest this is a must read book. If you think you are smarter and faster and can consistently beat the market, you’re fooling yourself. Reality is not what you think it is either, and you’d be wise to consider carefully the risks and hidden tax from HFT and the Flash Boys.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Course Corrections vs. Adjustments

Professionally, I'm a software technologist who specializes in software development methods and practices. For the last few years, I've been focused on helping big companies with many small teams become more "agile" in the way they work. In doing this, I've noticed amazing similarities between the software development teams I interact with professionally, and the small communities of people I interact with personally outside of work, particularly discipleship groups of guys whom I meet with from time to time to pursue truth and do life together.

The small software development teams I coach professionally are very much like discipleship groups because they do life together too. We spend more waking hours at work than any other activity, so I want to be sure these teams are not just existing or merely tolerating their work lives as drudgery. I want them to thrive and have fun and be successful, the sames things I want for my family and friends and whatever discipleship group I happen to be doing life with at any given time. One thing I've learned from both contexts is this: What we say to one another matters.

One of my favorite phrases is "words matter." How we speak and the words we choose can often convey unintended messages, and I was reminded of this by Mike Cohn who is the highly respected instructor I intentionally selected for my Certified Scrum Product Owner training. I'm on Mike's "tips" email list where he sends out weekly wisdom, and this morning the subject was "Stop Making Course Corrections." I read Mike's weekly tips because his wisdom often applies not only to my work life, but life in general. Mike's email today started out like this:
Hi Dennis,
I listened to a podcast this morning that mentioned the need to do course corrections. Then I read an article in Harvard Business Review, and it mentioned the importance of course corrections. Enough! We need to stop making course corrections.
No, I’m not saying we need to get it right the first time and know exactly what we’re building. In fact, I’m saying exactly the opposite. When someone says they are making a course correction that implies they are now on the correct course. It implies there IS a correct course. There isn’t. At least not one that is knowable in advance.
Instead of course corrections we make course adjustments. A subtle nudge to product direction here. A minor shift to the product strategy there. And here’s the key: We never know if those nudges and shifts are going to make the product better. Each is an educated guess. An adjustment rather than a correction.    ...
For about a year, I was in a very command and control oriented discipleship program led by a guy who is very talented at establishing vision and finding followers. It was mostly experimental, and I chaffed a lot under the leadership of this well intentioned guy who was leading it. But, I couldn't figure out why we locked horns until I got free from the heavy handed methods employed in his program. This guy liked to use the phrase "this is just a minor course correction" every time he was trying to get me to change behavior. The implicit message this sent, whether intended or not, was "My way is correct. Your way is incorrect. Do what I tell you, or this program is not for you."

Some of the younger guys in this group cowered under this leadership, and were frightened about being kicked out. The leader would talk about the guys who had not made it, and how they lost their once in a lifetime opportunity. I think this was a genuine effort to make us feel good about being in an elite, high-performing team, but the encouragement was more like the fear my son in the US Air Force felt about being "recycled" if he failed a part of his bootcamp. But in this case, "recycling" wasn't an option. It was do or die, and "course corrections" meant, "It is my way or the highway."

Ultimately, after about a year, we decided this program was not for me, and I'm a lot happier to be free from it. I do not thrive in command and control organizations. I prefer agile teams who share responsibility, hold one another accountable, and pursue a shared vision through respect and mutual accountability. A year after the start of this program, I saw one of the guys who was dismissed for refusing to follow orders in the program during the first few weeks. He's thriving and even leading people in another context.

I know from my corporate life that high performing teams cannot thrive long term under heavy handed command and control leadership from the top down unless you're in a culture like the military, and even the military is starting to learn about agile methods of leadership. True leaders don't try to control. They lead by seeking first to understand before being understood, and follow all those other Seven Habits too.

Mike Cohn's advice is to encourage people through course adjustments, and the word choice matters. Adjustments lead to a mutually discovered path toward freedom and creativity, and it also shows humility in listening to someone who might have different ideas about what adjustments are necessary. Only a prideful leader believes their way is the only way or absolute best way. So, I would join in with Mike by encouraging leaders to seek input and help the people under your leadership to engage in conversation around how to adjust course without coming at them with correction.

And if you do have a case when empirical evidence proves you correct and they are incorrect to the point of being in danger, admonishment should not be in the context of "a minor course correction" because in that case the word choice is weak and indirect. If someone is in danger, such as in a military firefight and about to be blown up, then give them a direct command, but don't tell them to make "a minor course correction." Choose your words carefully, because words matter.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

17 Laws I Never Learned In My Physics Studies

My physics degree is from Austin College in north Texas, but we never learned any of this in school.
  1. Law of Mechanical Repair - After your hands become coated with grease, your nose will begin to itch, and you'll have to pee.

  2. Law of Gravity - Any tool, nut, bolt, screw, when dropped, will roll to the least accessible place in the universe.

  3. Law of Probability - The probability of being watched is directly proportional to the stupidity of your act.

  4. Law of Random Numbers - If you dial a wrong number, you never get a busy signal; someone always answers.

  5. Variation Law - If you change lines (or traffic lanes), the one you were in will always move faster than the one you are in now.

  6. Law of the Bath  - When the body is fully immersed in water, the telephone will ring.

  7. Law of the Result - When you try to prove to someone that a machine or piece of software won't work, IT WILL!!

  8. Law of Biomechanics - The severity of the itch is inversely proportional to the reach.

  9. Law of the Theater or Sports Arena - At any event, the people whose seats are furthest from the aisle, always arrive last. They are the ones who will leave their seats several times to go for food, beer, or the toilet and who leave early before the performance or the game is over. The folks in the aisle seats come early, never move once, have long gangly legs or big bellies and stay to the bitter end of the performance. 

  10. The Law of Hot Coffee - As soon as you sit down to a cup of hot coffee, your boss will ask you to do something which will last until the coffee is cold.

  11. Murphy's Law of Lockers - If there are only 2 people in a locker room, they will have adjacent lockers.

  12. Law of Physical Surfaces  - The chances of an open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwich landing face down on a floor are directly correlated to the newness and cost of the carpet or flooring.

  13. Law of Logical Argument  - Anything is possible IF you don't know what you are talking about.

  14. Law of Physical Appearance  - If the clothes fit, they're ugly.

  15. Law of Public Speaking - A closed mouth gathers no feet.

  16. Law of Commercial Marketing Strategy - As soon as you find a product that you really like, they will stop making it OR the store will stop selling it!

  17. Law of Doctor Office Appointments - If you don't feel well, make an appointment to go to the doctor, by the time you get there, you'll feel better. But don't make an appointment and you'll stay sick.
Source - From an email forward probably copied it off the internet which ensures it is true.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Church Camp

Growing up my main social settings, other than home and school, were Boy Scouts and my church youth group. Every summer between 7th and 12th grade, I went to two summer camps. Our scout troop would do summer camps in different locations, but church camp was always at Falls Creek in the Arbuckle Mountains of south central Oklahoma. According to their web site Falls Creek is "the largest youth camp in the world each summer with over 50,000 annually attending the eight youth weeks." That's a lot of kids!

Back in my era between 1979 and 1985, I met kids from all over Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas at Falls Creek. The Falls Creek staff, church staffs, and many volunteer parent chaperones invested their time and energy helping us kids have a great summer camp experience. I appreciate them for contributing to the development of many kids like me who benefited from the good moral values they poured into us. For the most part, church camp was a ton of fun too. I have a lot of great memories, but I was fairly introverted back then so meeting new people was also intimidating. Church camp wasn't all fun and games, at least not for me.

Oklahoma, like my native state of Texas, gets extremely hot in the summer. The large group meeting pavilion at Falls Creek had no air conditioning. They had some fans, but the heat could be stifling. The camp dress code enforced modesty, but also contributed to our suffering: no shorts or tank tops for the boys, and very modest attire for the young ladies. And just to be sure our pubescent minds wouldn't lust at the swimming pool, the boys and girls had segregated swimming times. I remember sweating a lot at church camp. Maybe they wanted us to get a tiny taste of the suffering in hell fire if we didn't repent. 

Our youth pastor did a really good job of recruiting kids for church camp. We always had many campers who weren't regular church attenders. Our youth pastor was a former jock, so he worked at getting the athletes and cheerleader types to come to camp. I guess he related better to those kids. I didn't. I was a book worm and a bit of a nerd who hung out with the "brain" clique at school. I didn't fit in with the "popular kids" he recruited for church camp, and contributing to this awkwardness was my lack of school friends at church.

My social circles of school, church, and Boy Scouts didn't intersect, and I wasn't very social anyway. I didn't have any friends that were in all three groups. Most of the kids at my church went to a different school than I did because my church was located within a different school district. There were a handful of kids from my school at my church, but most of the youth group attended the rival schools across town. I was also somewhat of a loner, so I never felt like I fit in. I felt like an outside observer more than a participant a lot of the time.

One of the observations I made was the annual repentance parade at church camp. Many of the kids were not regulars at church, so they didn't get regular doses of altar calls like I did. A full week of emotional altar calls would convict many of these kids about their ungodly behavior, so they would repent at church camp and either "get saved" if they hadn't before or "rededicate" if getting Jesus in their heart hadn't previously worked. All manner of evil would be forsaken at church camp.

Those of us who didn't have as much to confess would forsake listening to our evil rock music or petty lusts, but the really brave kids would confess and forsake doing drugs or having sex with their boy or girl friend. The bigger the sins and more radical the confession, the more attention they received from the youth director and adult leaders. The last night at church camp was always a big kumbaya love fest filled with singing, crying, hugging, and all manner of teenage emotion about how we were all going to be great friends at school. We'd all promise to stop the social cliques and "set the school on fire for Jesus." There was usually some sort of pretense toward reconciliation among this newly formed community of faith, but the new social structure never emerged.

I have to confess I got caught up in this repentance parade myself. Southern Baptists are pretty good about working the guilt and shame angle, and one year we even promised we would burn all our evil rock music. Those were the days when backmasking was a big controversy, and we didn't want to give the devil a foothold in our tender youthful hearts. The thing that bothered me most about the repentance parade and anticipated "revival" in our school is it never seemed to stick, and the social cliques would revert back just as they had been before. The Breakfast Club effect is fiction. Jocks, brains, pretty people, and outcasts (we called them "freaks") just don't mix in American teenage life. I raised three boys who went through pretty much the same thing in their teenage years. In fact, it may be worse today with social media and the internet.

These youth group experiences were the beginning of the end for me and organized religion. The temporal results and emotional appeal altar calls based on subtle shame and guilt wreaked havoc in my young psyche, and when I went off to college in 1985, I walked away from church and God completely. As Paul Harvey would say: Here's the rest of the story.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Get Jesus In Your Heart

As mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up in a Southern Baptist church-going family. All my life I heard preachers giving emotional appeal altar calls to "ask Jesus into your heart." As a little kid, I had a lot of questions about this process. How did Jesus get in there? Since God is everywhere, and since Jesus is God, I was able to process this logic equation enough to not be worried about him being in all those hearts at the same time. However, what really did worry me was whether or not Jesus was *really* in my heart. I couldn't feel him in there most of the time.

I was told that when I did bad things and felt bad about doing them, that was the Spirit of God living in me. I figured this guilt feeling must be Jesus in my heart. If I wasn't feeling guilty, then I doubted if Jesus was still in my heart, and that was troubling because of the Rapture. The pastor assured us that if Jesus was *really* in your heart, he would never leave. It is a good thing I was Southern Baptist which taught "once saved, always saved." If I'd grown up believing you could lose your salvation, I'd have had even more anxiety than I already did because our preacher kept on preaching about being sure of your salvation. Other people seemed so sure about Jesus in their hearts, but I just didn't feel him in there most of the time.

If you haven't heard of the Rapture, then buckle up because this is going to sound really weird. In my child like understanding, the Rapture was when all the people with Jesus in their heart were going to suddenly disappear and go to heaven, and it could literally happen at any moment. Nobody knew when, but it was imminent. And if you were left behind you would suffer through the tribulation and then go into the Lake of Fire forever. There was a lot of urgency around the Rapture, and the youth pastor showed us frightening videos about it. Rapture videos were used to scare kids in Baptist churches long before the Kirk Cameron movies based on the Left Behind book series. Anyone growing up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt in the late 60s through early 80s probably experienced this, but now that I'm writing it down it seems absolutely crazy.

Apparently the challenge for all Christians (or at least for us Baptists) was getting Jesus in everyone's heart before the Rapture. Really religious people would "surrender" to full time missionary work to be sure people in foreign countries could get Jesus in their hearts too. I really hoped I had Jesus in my heart, but I wasn't ever completely sure about it. Nearly every single week at church our pastor reminded us we needed to be sure about our relationship with Jesus because the Rapture could happen at any second. I sure as hell didn't want to end up in the Lake of Fire for eternity!

The thing is, I had already asked Jesus into my heart sometime before 1976. I walked down the aisle during an altar call and got baptized which was the process for getting Jesus securely in your heart. I had done my part, so why was I re-educated every week on the same process? Almost every week, usually through some subtle shaming sermon, I was reminded I needed a "relationship" with Jesus? How do you have a relationship with someone who is invisible? It seemed very difficult in my analytical mind. I got straight A's in school in math and science, but this Jesus stuff was really hard to figure out, and I spent a lot of time worrying about it.

Most Sundays our pastor would come down from the pulpit and stand at the front of the church after his sermon, and invite people to get Jesus in their hearts. He'd stand there with a grim and somewhat pensive look on his face, sometimes closing his eyes in deep prayer, just waiting and waiting while the organ played verse after verse after verse of Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus or Just As I Am. It was pretty clear nobody was going to lunch until at least one person walked down the aisle to get Jesus in their heart. And it seemed like Pastor Estep had special knowledge someone was holding out.

The longer the altar call went, the more worried I became. I thought it might be ME keeping us from going to lunch! I could never be sure if it was my stomach growling because it was lunch time, or if that was Jesus in my heart. Or, maybe it was Jesus "knocking on the door of my heart" wanting to get in because I'd been fooled by the devil into thinking he was in there when he really wasn't. Maybe my faith was a sham? I had so much anxiety about Jesus not really being in my heart and not having the right "relationship with Jesus" that my parents took me to talk to Pastor Estep at least once that I remember. Everyone was concerned about my soul, including me! It didn't matter if I was one of the most faithful kids in the youth group. It was all about the ephemeral "personal relationship."

If nobody came after a few verses, sometimes Pastor Estep would ask Norman the music director to stop the music. Things were getting very serious on those Sundays. There would be a call for "every head bowed, and every eye closed" so we could all pray again for the person keeping us from going to lunch. Apparently someone was unwilling to walk down the aisle, but if every head was bowed and every eye was closed, maybe they would secretly raise their hand as their first step toward walking down the aisle to get Jesus in their heart. The pastor was allowed to look, but the rest of us were instructed to keep our eyes closed. I confess I peeked a lot because I wanted to know who was keeping us from going to lunch.

This was the normal routine for me pretty much every Sunday from 1976 when we moved to Oklahoma City until 1985 when I graduated from high school and came back to Texas for college. It wasn't uncommon for me to be at church both Sunday morning and evening, so I got double doses of these emotional appeal altar calls. My mom was a church organist and my dad was a deacon, so I was frequently in church on Monday and Wednesday nights too. I easily sat through at least 100 altar calls every year for about a decade. That's roughly 1,000 repeated messages to "invite Jesus into your heart" so I could have a "personal relationship" with him. On top of that, there were summer camps where we got altar calls at least twice a day for a week. They really turned up the guilt and shame meter during Baptist summer camp at Falls Creek Baptist Church Camp in Davis, Oklahoma. I went every year. Religiously.

Missing the Rapture and ending up in the Lake of Fire forever can create anxiety in a kid, so a few times I "rededicated" my life just to be sure. This involved walking down the aisle and confessing you weren't living a godly life and promising to do better. This usually happened after summer camp, because if you "rededicated" at camp you had to do it again in front of the church when you got back. We kept score too. The number of kids who "got Jesus in their heart" at summer camp or "rededicated" was a big deal. Baptists like to keep score. Apparently keeping score in "relationships with Jesus" was how we measured our success as a church. We counted baptisms too. They printed the results in the bulletin they handed out every week so everyone knew latest scores.

This drum beat about a "relationship with Jesus" was thumped into my impressionable, formative mind over and over and over (and over). But these people LOVED ME and cared about my soul, so I just assumed this was for my benefit. I have no doubt Wendell Estep is a godly man, and I'm sure he was just teaching us to the best of his ability according to his best understanding of the Bible, but many years later when I started to study the Bible for myself I was shocked to discover there is almost NOTHING in the Bible to support this emotional appeal to "ask Jesus into your heart." There is also nearly zero Scripture about having a "relationship with Jesus." In those days Billy Graham had a huge influence on evangelical pastors, and in retrospect a lot of what I was taught was probably an effort to imitate what they saw in the Billy Graham Crusades.

I've thought about these childhood experiences a lot over the last 20 years in trying to unwind the indoctrination I received during my growing up years between 1976 and 1985. Not all of it was bad, but not all of it was truth based or Biblical either. I hope to unpack a lot of this here in my blog this year, Lord willing and time permitting. I'm looking forward to finally getting free from the shame and guilt driven religion that was poured into me by well meaning people who really did care for me. I've battled depression for the majority of my adult life, and I'm also going to dig into my own psychology and see if these issues are related. I suspect they are.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Lost Art of Reading

"Our culture has made a radical shift in the last century from a word-based society of readers to an image-based society of viewers. The media of our time are movies, television, and the Internet, not books. As a result, unlike our fore-bearers of just a few generations ago, we don't know how to read. To a large extent we have lost the art."

- Howard G. "Prof" Hendricks (Dallas Theological Seminary)