September 2006

Joel On Software linked to this long post bashing Agile, using Google as example. This Stevey Yegge guy used to work at Amazon and likes to write LONG blogs.

I don’t agree with all his points, but I understand his disdain for those “methodologists” who make money from books and seminars and consulting gigs on “process improvement”. Alas, I wasted a couple years of my own life in that.

Also I don’t think it’s appropriate to use Google as a universal example. Google is different in too many aspects from most software shops, most importantly its business model and its development methodology (or the lack therefore) derived from it. Most software projects don’t have the luxury of NOT defining a release date. Whether most software shops should try to imitate the Google Way is another topic, but I doubt that’s the case because that would make the Google Way just another (anti)methodology that doesn’t work universally.

But I do love so dearly about many points he made. And it’s cliche but Google does look like a programmer/engineer’s dream job: work hard AND smart, work with great people, work on interesting AND hard things, be rewarded in all noble/abstract and mundane/practical ways, and of course most of all, your work matters to the world and makes it a better place.

Some striking things about the Google Way (stuff in italic is from 8/28 issue of Information Week):

  • Managers = tech leads, they code at least half time
  • Developer can switch team/project at any time for any/no reason (every 3 months)
  • Developer SHOULD spend 20% work time NOT on her main project
  • Meetings are rare, and only occur during midday, so that developers don’t get interrupted when they’re in the zone (usually very early and late).
  • Performance review is all public
  • Custom made for efficiency: server hardware, web server, MapReduce, BigTable, Sawzall (intepreted language), GFS, etc.

Some quotes:

Google can be considered a fusion of the startup and grad-school mentalities: on the one hand, it’s a hurry-up, let’s get something out now, do the simplest thing that could work and we’ll grow it later startup-style approach. On the other, it’s relatively relaxed and low-key; we have hard problems to solve that nobody else has ever solved, but it’s a marathon not a sprint, and focusing requires deep concentration, not frenzied meetings.

Google is an exceptionally disciplined company, from a software-engineering perspective. They take things like unit testing, design documents and code reviews more seriously than any other company I’ve even heard about. They work hard to keep their house in order at all times, and there are strict rules and guidelines in place that prevent engineers and teams from doing things their own way. The result: the whole code base looks the same, so switching teams and sharing code are both far easier than they are at other places.

We do have project managers and product managers and people managers and tech leads and so on. But the amount of energy they need to add to the system is far less than what’s typically needed in our industry. It’s more of an occasional nudge than a full-fledged continuous push. Once in a while, a team needs a bigger nudge, and senior management needs to come in and do the nudging, just like anywhere else. But there’s no pushing.

UPDATE: Stevey has a follow-up. It’s also super long but super hilarious, an animal farm with The Carnival of the Animals soundtrack: cat, dog, chicken, pony…

One thing he’s not clear about, though, is the testability of any methodology. Well nothing is truly testable, according to Heisenburg. It is particularly true for anything that deals with human and has time lapse, like software development, or society at large. It’s simply and categorically impossible to have a double-blind test of two methodologies because you cannot guarantee an identical environment for both.

Anyway, I think two points should be well taken in any case, for software development, or life in general:

  • Be suspicious. Have some doubt. Don’t take anything too religious, especially yourself and what you think is right.
  • Be humorous. Have some fun. Don’t take anything too seriously, especially yourself and what you think is right.

Heard about it for many years, recorded a while ago and finally got to watch it. What a stirring movie. I know something terrible would inevitably happen in the morning after the climatic party, but when I heard Billy speaking without stuttering at all I thought something miraculous would save them–how naive! I think that’s the finest moment in the movie, but it’s too painful to think about what happened next.

Another fine moment is when McMurphy announced the Yankees-Dodgers World Series Game 1 in front of an off TV. In reality, the Yankees were swept (the only other time being 1976 to Reds), Mickey Mantle hit only one home run in the series (7th inning of the last game), and Sandy Koufax got MVP with 2-0 and 15 KO’s in Game 1 (only 2nd to Bob Gibson’s 17 in 1968 Game 1. The all-time MLB record is 21 by Tom Cheney in a 1962 game with 16-inning, 228-pitch).

From IMDB’s forum I learned that the title is taken from a tongue twister nursery rhyme:

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn;
Wire, briar, limber lock,
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east,
And one flew west,
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

The “cuckoo’s nest” is an obvious denotation of the psycho ward, as cuckoo is a slang for crazy. It’s left to interpretation and imagination, though, for the meaning of one flew over it. On second thought, cuckoo doesn’t make nest–it parasites its chicks in other birds’ nest. The Selfish Gene talks about this amazing behavior at length, speculating that it evolved relatively late and the other birds haven’t developed a cost-effective strategy to counter it. I don’t think there’s any connotation for the movie along that line, but it’d be fun to come up with a preposterous one:

The cuckoo is the society at large (bad bad bird), and it drops one of its nasty chicks (McMurphy) into a nicely controlled nest, expecting the chick to grow up and conform, like all the other crazy chicks already in the nest. But the nasty chick grew nastier by taking in all other crazy chicks’ food (in this metaphor everything is backward, so McMurphy not taking pills means taking bird food), and finally it was able to fly and flew over the nest to some neverland so that it’d never become a cuckoo itself. One more fine point is that the Chief is actually an eagle chick, also parasited in the nest. He actually threw McMurphy over the nest as if he flew, and then he himself flew over the whole cuckoo country back to where he belongs. Sounds interesting? That’s total BS 🙂

I also learned about prefrontal lobotomy for the first time. The movie didn’t say it, and I thought McMurphy’s brain was “just” fried by too much electroconvulsive therapy. OH MY GOD. I can’t imagine people doing that to “cure” mental illness. I hope it’s not me being ignorant that I haven’t heard of Chinese people getting such treatment during the first 30 years of the People’s Republic. What an effective way it would be to shut up the dissidents!

The movie won 5 Oscars in 1976, the whole Big 5 that is: Picture, Director, Writing (adaptation), Actor, and Actress. Only two other films made the Big 5: It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs. Louise Fletcher is so unworthy of the award, though. Her role is by no means “leading”. She probably has fewer shots than the Chief. The devil’s incarnation is way too easy to play (J noticed how her hair was combed like devil’s horns toward the end of movie).

And what a great bunch of supporting nuts! It is one of Danny DeVito’s earliest roles. Also Vincent Schiavelli’s (the subway ghost in Ghost), who’s undoubtedly a real incarnation of the Holy Ghost–may he RIP. And Brad Dourif’s (Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Ring) second, with an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. And Christopher Lloyd’s (the Doc in Back to Future) first.

The director Miloš Forman is a Czech Jew whose parents died in Auschwitz. His Amadeus is one of my favorite movies (but I can’t remember Schiavelli playing Salieri’s valet, probably only a couple of quick shots). Looking forward to Goya’s Ghost later this year since we love Goya’s paintings.

It’s the 3rd year in a row that we went to see US Open live. New York is the greatest city in America simply because no where else in America hosts a Grand Slam event!

This year we went to see men’s semifinals, like last year. Why not the final? The answer is embedded somewhere down the line as a cheap trick to keep you reading. Before I start talking about the final since its result obviously matters more than the games we watched, a quick observation: I’ve never seen so many blondes in my life. They’re everywhere in the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe stadium, women, men, kids, dogs–no I made the last one up. I wonder why I didn’t notice it last two times, or maybe I did and forgot. I guess Tennis is still much of a bourgeois sport in America.

Chasing History

It’s all too fitting that Tiger Woods was there to witness Federer became the first man to win both Wimbledon and US Open 3 consecutive times during the same 3 years. If it weren’t for Safin in 2005, he might have got 3 Australian Open in the same span as well.

I’m sure now there’re lots of people making bets on when Tiger and Roger will break their respective records for majors/slams, currently at only 6 and 5 away. Of course under normal circumstances Tiger could win a lot more majors than Roger for slams, simply because Tiger could play a lot longer. It’s quite reasonable to speculate that Tiger can play 10 more years at about his current level, thus winning possibly 20 or more majors, bringing his total to an astronomical 32.

It’ll be much more difficult for Roger to keep playing like the last 3 years for another 5 years till he’s 30, but 2 years would be enough to get past Sampras, and 4 would push future comparison back to Sampras as “who will become #2”, since Roger’s possible 20 at #1 is totally out of at least this century’s league.

There’s another record that Roger will break very soon: consecutive weeks at No. 1 ranking. Connors had 160 and Lendl has 157, while Roger is about 30 away. He’s only half way to Sampras’ total No. 1 weeks at 286 (Lendl 270, Connors 268), though, so he needs at least 3 more great years for that one.

I’m not into sports betting, but I’ll bet everything on next year’s French Open final breaking all viewing records if Roger gets there, regardless of whom he’ll play. Probably Nadal, whose improvements on other surfaces would bolster his dominance on clay even more. I actually hope Roger would lose if he plays Nadal, even though I don’t like Nadal’s playing at all, only so that Roger would still have something to work for.

The tennis world would be unbearably miserable if Roger becomes too good that he only has to play like the semifinal with Davydenko. If it weren’t for the high quality match between Roddick and Youzhny, we would’ve totally felt like getting robbed–again, like the 2004 final where Roger obliterated Hewitt in just about one hour with 2 bagels. That was at least Roger’s first US Open title, so we had something to claim for in the end, although some snafu at bag check kept us waiting at the stadium for several hours after the match as some dumb tourist took our friend’s backpack by mistake and had to come back from Manhattan to return it. There you have it–that’s why we decided to go for the semifinals instead.

The Davydenko match was so uninspiring and uncharacteristic that I suspect half of the audience were taking naps towards the end, even though the 2nd and 3rd set look closer (7:5, 6:4) than the 1st (6:1). They’ve now met 8 times and Roger only lost 4 sets. The only two Grand Slam semifinals that Roger ever lost are the aforementioned 2005 Australian to Safin and 2005 French to Nadal. Both matches were on his opponent’s birthday. Davydenko would not have a chance even if every single person in his extended family up and down 5 generations were born on 9/9.

Enough Roger talk–give me a break, you say, can you even talk about someone who’s unrecord-breaking, unawe-inspiring, and unomnipotent?

Roddick 2.0

Well, you asked for it. The biggest story in this year’s US Open is Roddick’s comeback–nah, that’s just wishful thinking of the US media. Yet seriously, Andy did find his mojo back (remember that ominous “Andy lost his mojo” series of commercials?), seemingly with help from someone no stranger to emotional US Open games.

Andy still doesn’t, and probably will never, play graceful tennis. Actually he is everything un-Federer: bruteforce, ugly double-handed backhand, emotional, and worst of all–one trick pony. His serve is as lethal as always, but all other aspects of his game were falling apart in the last couple of years so when his first serve percentage wasn’t high enough, he couldn’t even past a slam’s early rounds.

All commentators say that Connors helped Andy get his confidence back. I figure that’s the effect, not the cause, since confidence means achieving what you’re capable of, not doing what you can’t possibly do. Andy’s backhand and volley were painful to watch, and I can’t imagine Connors improving them just by telling Andy “hey kido don’t you know your backhand and volley are sure as Federer, if not better”. It’s probably some simple tricks, possibly mental ones, to redirect Andy’s power that helped. His backband is notably more solid and consistent, and his volley obviously improved to the point where he’s willing to take the net quite often, even though when against Federer sometimes it seems a bit like a desperate move. Connors is one of the last great serve-and-volleyers, so he should have a lot tricks left in the bag for Andy to keep on improving.

Improvement is really the name of the game, which is amazingly true for the world’s top players. Nadal has improved dramatically on hard court in the last couple of years. Baghdatis popped up from nowhere and you can see him getting more solid every time, though he really needs better sneakers to avoid slipping and stumbling. James Blake has had a truly inspiring comeback from near death, taking cue from Agassi to get rid of his flamboyant hair without giving up his tenacity. And have I mentioned Federer’s improvement in every imaginable way, and then some? Oops, no more Roger talk. Roger that.

That’s what Andy was missing: He occasionally did worse but not always, yet he just couldn’t play better. If he can keep his current momentum going while improving on certain aspects of the game (there’re plenty to choose from), I actually believe it can be him instead of Nadal who will be remembered as the great opponent who pushed Federer, which would be a tremendous honor in light of what Federer is becoming. The US fans certainly dream about that, as one of the more memorable screams during Andy’s semifinal match was “Comon Andy! This is your house now!”

Really? Can Roddick possibly take over a retired 36-year-old bald, short, flat-footed Iranian descendent? That guy fathered two beautiful kids with the greatest female tennis player ever, but that’s just bonus luck. What makes him so special? Why will this US Open be always remembered as the last one of his 21 consecutive appearances?

Andre’s House

“The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. And over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I’ve found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I’ve found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you. And I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life. Thank you.”

This is why. And doesn’t it sound vaguely familiar?

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. … So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

This is just too overwhelming. Let’s both take a deeep breath…

When Andre spoke of “you”, I don’t think he only meant the fans. Nor did Lou Gehrig mean just “fans” when he said “fans”–or maybe he did. “You” are the collective name that represents everything that Andre’s life is for, up to that point. He has found it. He has lived for it, and now his life is what we live to witness, as finely told by this lengthy SI article.


There’s a reason why that guy writes for SI and I write for this blog. Why don’t I just shut up and quote something else, this time from New York Times:

“Artists try to do or make something exceptional in life to produce out-of-the-ordinary reactions, in themselves and in other people. This is a basic definition of art. We seek it out, at the movies or in a museum or at a concert hall, to escape from our routines and be moved in ways that might refresh and enlighten us when we return to normalcy. After all, what is beauty except the opposite of mundane? That’s not all it is, of course. … It’s also what sports fans desire: to be stirred, if only fleetingly, by an experience above and beyond the norm, which is as rare in sports as it is in art.”


I was IMing with HH about Federer, and after we exhausted our words of admiration he came up with a strange idea:

“What if tennis never became a sport, how sad would that be for Federer.”

I dismissed it as nonsense, and he responded with something a bit more sensible:

“In that sense, maybe we are leading our ordinary lives now just because the sport or whatever thing that fit our whole packages the best didn’t happen to become popular for us to shine. :)”

Either that, or as my Uncle George used to say, everybody is born with some kind of supernatural power or extraordinary capability, only to be chipped and ground away after years of brainwashing conformistic education…

I didn’t really want to think about it, and tried not to watch the plenthora of memorial media. It’s just too painful and sad and messy for humanity, the event itself and moreover the aftermath.

What made me want to write is an excellent essay “Thoughts on the Effects of September 11th” by my immigration lawyer. His point that immigration and democracy with rule of law are the foundation of America is common sense, but it’s a lot more resounding from his profession. It’s no coincidence that 35 out of 55 delegates to the US constitution convention were lawyers or had legal training.

It’s the first 9/11 anniversary since I started to work in downtown. One of the things that I wanted to write about in a yet-to-be-written installment of my “Commuter’s Tale” is the way that a PATH train parades around Ground Zero before entering the WTC station. It’s a very stirring experience the first time around, but of course it became everyday chore very quickly, plus I’m always asleep or trying to nap on the train, to the point where I would deliberately miss a crowded train to get a seat on the next one.

For the few times that I was awake, I did look into the huge hole in the ground to see progress, of which I’ve noticed little during the last 10 months. According to the rebuilding timeline, the major projects (memorial, Freedom Tower, new PATH station) is scheduled for 2009, so that gives me a good reason to stick around at my current job for a few more years. It’s a big pity, though, that a newly constructed condo completely blocked the view of the WTC site from where I sit. So I’ll need to be more awake on PATH to witness the transformation.

Being awake is sometimes not easy, literally and figuratively. I could claim that I close my eyes to shun the perplexing and profusing changes at the WTC site and the world beyond, but now you know that’s just a lie to cover up the lethargy of my life. Nevertheless, I dare say that most people who perished with the Twin Towers would rather take a nap than keeping eyes wide open to the same old commute. They were common people trying to carry on with their lives, just the same as those London folks taking the subway, or Iraqi people surviving wars and genocide, or Israelis ducking suicide bombs and Hazbollah rockets, or Lebanonese ducking Israel missiles. How hard is it, really, for human to be tolerant for others and resort to reason, as America might have been at some point in its short history, or at least as its Founding Fathers believed or claimed to be?

UPDATE 9/29: I promise this has something to do with the topic, so please bear with me…

My Chinese colleagues and I used to go to a Chinese lunch place at Dey x Broadway all the time, because the only senior employee among us (Jason) had been going there for several years. It’s one floor below ground, above a subway station, and it’s dark and filthy and cramped and noisy, but it has the only remotely decent Chinese food closeby.

One day we walked there and found the door locked with a note saying “MTA terminated the lease”. Jason was utterly shocked and lost, muttering “what am I supposed to do now”. We ended up going to Chinatown everyday instead, which is a healthy walk of just 15 minutes. And one day at a Chinatown crossroad Jason recognized a guy used to work in that underground restaurant, and he said it may reopen some time but we didn’t ask him where.

A while ago I went to Battery Park City for a lunch date and noticed a new restaurant at Liberty x Church with the same name to be opened a few days later. I checked it out this week and it’s indeed the same place, much brighter and cleaner. I told Jason about it and he’s happy as a child.

Well how is it related to the topic? I just realize that the old underground restaurant was closed, along with the whole block, to make room for the new Fulton Street Transit Center. So we got a better lunch place (though a bit farther) and will get a better transit hub–a better life, isn’t it? There is hope in the world, after all.

I feel exhausted after getting to sleep after 2am 3 nights in a row. I’m really getting old. All of us.

Don’t get me wrong, we had unbelievable fun over the weekend. The original plan was that we go see museums and have dinner in Mahattan on Saturday, go to Tanglewood on Sunday, relax and make dumpling on Monday. Things didn’t go perfectly as planned, but all is well in the end.

We went shopping as planned on Friday night, but due to forecast for Ernesto we doubted if we’d go to Tanglewood, so we didn’t buy as much food as planned. And Jay was really stressed out that the Chinese store didn’t have picnic shoulder. The weather caused late after-midnight arrival of the D.C. and Philadephia couples, so they all stayed at ours.

Ernesto did make Saturday miserable, so the girls went shopping while the boys stayed home. We went swimming, watched a stupid Aeon Flux DVD, and made a lavish dinner. After dinner we all played poker, which is always a total waste of time yet always fun, even though I was the first out.

Sunday morning the weather was perfect post storm autumn: sunshine, blue sky, chilly breeze. We decided to go and Jay almost panicked for not enough food. We went to Costco to buy salmon and bread and other edible, while they went to Walmart to buy lawn chairs. The drive to Tanglewood was fun, and we’re delighted to find only slightly overcast sky and be 3rd in line at the gate.

The concert wasn’t too good, but I didn’t expect much from Dave Brubek anyway, even before I learned he’s already 86. The focus wasn’t on the concert–it’s the food, stupid! Nothing beats having great food and drink with your best friends on the great lawn of Tanglewood.

But next time we should go for the Shed: the concert sounded too much like a recording, with dominating amplified sound (can’t expect 86-year-old to play the piano loud enough), excessive reverb due to the boxy Ozawa hall with the rectangle opening, and very damp air. The saxophonist broke quite a few high notes, though he plays the flute much better. The only pleasant surprise is the drummer. He didn’t play any solo throughout most of the concert, leaving me wondering if he’s capable or too tired due to old age as well since he has bright white hair and beard as all other members of the quartet. Then out of the blue he started a roaring solo that lasted at least 5 minutes, leaving me wondering if his white hair is dyed.

On Monday everyone seemed spent except Jay and HH, who went to play 18-hole golf. We watched the recorded last match of Agassi, and what a moving moment it was when he played the last points and made the last on court speech, crying. We then went to see Jinhua’s new born, and joined Lei/Tina couple after their crazy grocery shopping for an afternoon “snack” at a Shanghai restaurant. Went grocery shopping ourselves, and Jay/HH joined us at the parking lot. The NJ4 went home and made dumplings, as planned.

The best part of the weekend is getting to know Lei. He’s very typical Shanghainese, all in its good ways: smart, shrewd, meticulous, and a connoisseur for everything about fine living–food, drink, clothes, music, movie, gossip, … BTW I just realized that precisely half of us are from Beijing and the other half from Shanghai, and that’s NOT a coincidence.

I hope I didn’t talk too much about music to make him somehow feel that I was “showing off”, when in fact I was just so happy to find someone with deep and wide knowledge and experiences in music to talk to, who also learned to play the piano as a kid. It’d be so much fun to go to some concerts in NYC or Philadelphia with him.

Spending a long weekend that has mostly good weather, great food and drink, great concert environment with your best friends–life doens’t get any happier than this, does it? With Cindy pregnant and other couples following suite possibly soon, our lives will be changed dramatically and fundamentally, but we could always stick together as long as we want to, or as a matter of fact as long as we don’t do anything–just keep on living our blissful ignorant middle class lives. HH will have his own client base, Jay will be a great manager, I don’t have any future in my current job but I can probably get a better one if I really want to. Two couples are already applying for US citizenship. We still have the green card as an excuse to resort to, but what else after that?

It’d be heaven on earth to watch our kids grow up together, and we ourselves go together to a lavish golf resort once in a while, if happiness is all that matters in life. It’s all that our selfish genes ask for anyway.

But why is it that I still feel uneasy or even guilty after this heavenly pleasure? There’s a piece in 冰点故事 saying that “it’s a crime living in Beijing”, and if that’s true, shouldn’t we all just shoot ourselves?

UPDATE: I typed this when IMing with HH: “seeing Jinhua’s newborn was nice, but it’s quite something (i don’t know how to describe it) listening to 4 girls talking about pregnancy and child bearing. at some point it’s almost as if they’re talking in encrypted Chinese, where i understand every word but can’t make sense of anything they’re saying”.