Friday, October 31, 2014

The Sins of Those Who Came Before

I'm tired, I'm bumped up, I'm skinned up and I have learned a whole lot more than I intended to when I went in. Sounds like  I got into a bar fight, doesn't it. Actually, I had a three round bout with my bathroom sink. The good news is, it's been replaced, it works as intended, and I know a whole lot more than when I first started this whole process.

A few weeks back, we noticed that the upstairs bathroom sink was leaking. Just a little at first, but over ensuing days, it got progressively worse, to the point that I had to do something about it. The last time this happened, it was just a washer to be replaced. Fairly simple, I can do that, and did a few years ago. This time, I went in and did the same thing. I put everything back together, and when I turned on the hot water, it came out as a trickle. What? What would be causing that? I looked at everything again, checked to make sure that everything was seated right, turned on the water again, and yet again, hot water was a trickle. Hmmm, this meant I was going to have to go under the sink to figure out what was going on. I never relish this process, not b ecause I'm afraid of plumbing, but because I'm afraid of finding what one of the previous owners of this house did to make the system work in the first place.

Some back story... when we bought the house fifteen years ago, there had been a number of remodeling jobs done to the house, including an upstairs addition and a partial kitchen update (mostly lighting. A couple years in, we decided we wanted to redo some of the kitchen, and we called a contractor to help us scope the job. The contractor brought an electrician over to help with the estimate, and when he saw the switches on our wall, he yelled out to his partner "Hey Kenny, come get a load of this!" Trust me, a sentence like that does not instill confidence. The switches that were being used were from an industrial site. They were not up to code, or even close to it. Turns out that the previous owner who did the remodels was an industrial electrician, and apparently he "scavenged parts from his various jobs" to do the remodels. We had to pay a lot extra to undo much of what they did. We had thought we'd seen the last of the surprises, but no, I got to see another one first hand. Under the sink was a range of snaking pipes, strange silicone wraps, and parts that looked like they'd been welded together, In addition, I saw what had happened, the copper pipe had twisted, and was constricting the flow, mainly because the pipe was wrapped around a tight corner. Again, I don't want to think of how this was put together, but now I had to take it apart.

An early morning trip to Lowe's (thinking about Mike Lyles the whole time and thinking he'd get the biggest chuckle out of this situation), I picked up a nice, modern, clean looking wide spread bathroom faucet, and then went home to read instructions and brace myself for the mother of all home repair fights. Yep, it turned out to be just about that bad. I had to cut hoses, break pipes, and pop welds to get the parts loose, not to mention gobs of silicone in the threads that made getting it out a royal nightmare. I pride myself on not cursing, but today, you would have hear my inner sailor loud and clear at pivotal moments.

After what should have been a fairly routine lunch time break, I emerged victorious, but a bit humbled, a bit bloody in spots and frustratingly realizing I may have more "sins of my predecessor" to deal with in the future.

All of this is to say, for those of you in the here and now, I know it may be tempting to take a shortcut, to avoid some area because it's too time consuming, or think that you are able to do something at an incredible discount because you have access to stuff. Truth is, parts misused can cause tremendous problems later on, and in most cases, the person cleaning up the mess will have no idea what happened or went on before, just that they have a royal mess on their hands and they get to be the person to clean it up. To that end I am really trying to be a good steward with my home, and also when I test or hack code. Pennies saved now, a little time shaved off here and there, in some cases are positive and efficient, but in other cases, they can be really tricky, really annoying, and potentially fill a future homeowner, programmer or tester with murderous rage, at least temporarily. When in doubt, figure out how to do it right, or at least as right as you possibly can. Don't make people in the future pay for your sins, it's really not nice.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

There's Nothing Wrong with "Ordinary"

One of the things that I have found interesting over the past few years is the perceptions people have and how they deal with them in regards to their own potential, and what they can actually do. I've been struggling as of late with a harsh realization. I am not brilliant. I am not amazing. I am not a genius. In most ways, I am noteworthy for the fact that I am so very "ordinary". Yet many would rebut that statement and say "that is not true, you are far from ordinary", as though ordinary is a curse word or an epithet.

I've been thinking a lot about this the past several weeks as I have watched my daughter and her growing tribe of people who appreciate the efforts and abilities she has in the artistic sphere. Here I risk no hyperbole. My daughter is an excellent artist, for her age or any age. She has gone from being someone who loves to draw and making cute picture to making really good pictures to making "oh my goodness, where in the world did that come from?!" pictures. Her Instagram account has 30,000+ followers. That's more followers than I have in every single social media account combined ;). So many people post comments to her pictures and say "wow, that is incredible, I could never do that!" She handles the compliments with a very sweet grace and courtesy, because only she knows the truth. In most ways, she is a very ordinary girl, and in some ways, she has several unique challenges that put her at a deficit compared to many of her peers.

My daughter has a triple whammy of vision issues. She has amblyopia, strabismus and astigmatism. On top of that, she is also far-sighted. Most people don't realize that, when she wears her general purpose contact lenses, people are blurry if they are more than 30 feet away from her. The glasses she needs to wear when she doesn't have her contacts in, that allow her some better distance vision, give me a headache to try to look through. Yet with all these frustrations, she has one very neat positive effect... she can see up close very well. It's because of this little quirk that she has been able to develop an eye for close details that has enabled her to become exceptional as an artist over the past few years. Still, even with the talent, and the close up ability, what has set her apart is the fact that she put in an incredible amount of time to hone and perfect what she does. She stays up way too late for my personal comfort most nights. She sometimes struggles with other aspects of her life, such as school work, organization, and at times her health has taken a hit or two. Yet she perseveres, because she knows that she is ordinary, and she has decided that the only way to transcend ordinary is to work at what she can, and use every day to get a little better.

She's a stellar reminder to me that we are all ordinary, and there's nothing wrong with being ordinary. What's wrong is if we use "ordinary" as an excuse, as a way to say "oh, I could never do that, I don't have the talent or a special gift". Here's the good news... you don't really need special talent or genetic blessings, at least not for most things. Being an NBA basketball player, OK, you may have some problems if you are 5'4", but that doesn't mean you still can't play an excellent game. Likewise when I find myself frustrated with my own technical skills, or lack thereof, and I want to wallow in the comfort of being "ordinary". It's OK to be ordinary, everyone is, but it's the one's that work hard enough to push past others that make them "extra-ordinary". My thanks to my daughter for the continual reminder, and a desire to keep pushing the level of what "ordinary" can do.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An Alternative Approach to Teaching History?

Over the past several years, I've found Dan Carlin to be one of the most entertaining and thought provoking podcasters that I've listened to. For some, he is grating, irritating, and frustrating. He doesn't use the standard narrative. In fact, he steadfastly refuses to. Both of his podcasts, Common Sense and Hardcore History, strive to look at current events and history from what he calls a "martian" perspective. In many ways, I consider Dan to be the most "testerly" of podcasters. He strives to take views and commentary from all sides, consider the possibilities and the arguments made, and then presents them in a way that boils down to central themes and core ideas.

In his most recent podcast (Common Sense 281 – Controlling the Past), he makes a few points that I think would be immensely helpful in regards to not just K-12 education as it relates to history, but the entire way that we teach any subject. Perhaps it's the contrarian in me, or perhaps it reflects my own frustrations and misgivings with the way that school is taught, but I think we do several things wrong, and the net result is that many children develop a serious aversion to actual learning and discovering the joy of learning and education.

I am currently living this reality with my three children. I now have a college freshman, a high school sophomore, and an eight grader. I see what they are currently trying to do to get through their days in their various schools, and the adaptations each has to make. Ultimately, though all three are slightly different, they tend to suffer from the same problem. We operate our schools on the notion of facts and figures and dates and formulas that need to be memorized, need to be spit out on tests, evaluation is made, and then we move on to the next bit. Sometimes, this works well. Sometimes, it doesn't. As an adult who works in an ever changing landscape, I've had to embrace a different approach to learning. Also, as a software tester, I've had to often approach learning from a skeptical and often even cynical viewpoint. I'm not paid to say the product works. I'm paid to try to find out where it might be broken. My entire workaday life is the process of disproving and refutation... and I get paid for that ;).

Back to Dan and this podcast... one of the things that Dan highlights, especially in history, is that we tend to go through waves of revisionism. Fifty years ago, the Founding Fathers were near mythical deities. today, in many circles, they are seen as greedy despotic "white men" who built a society on a veneer of freedom at the cost of slavery and subjugation of others. every few years, there seems to be some tug of war about whether or not we should be exposing every one's sins, or instilling virtue through printing hagiography. Dan's thought, and one I share, is "why are we doing either?". In other words, if we truly want to teach history and what has come before, why are we necessarily giving one narrative more air time than others? What if, instead, we did something similar to what the news magazine "The Week" does? For those not familiar, The Week is a journal that presents many of its stories and headlines as a distillation of a variety of views from different sources. If a topic is going to be presented, it would take headlines and stories from both "liberal" and "conservative" pundits, publications and writers, and generally avoid making an editorial of its own, with the exception of actual editorials that it publishes, and clearly states as such that the writers are doing exactly that.

What is the purpose of this type of presentation? It actually allows for the reader to synthesize what they are reading, see the various viewpoints, the pros and the cons, and even the inherent biases of each side, and then leave it up to the reader to reason out what they are reading and what it actually means. It also helps give a more balanced view of the events and the key players. Rather than force a viewpoint based on an ideology, it allows the reader to process what they are seeing and apply their own litmus test to the material, and let them look for the coherence or the inconsistencies, something that testers are very well familiar with doing. Think about what history would look like if we allowed this same approach. We don't tell the story or George Washington or Geronimo or Martin Luther King from just one side. It isn't hagiography or character assassination. It isn't sanitized or prettied up to meet an agenda. It's given as is, with the idea that the reader discovers who the people actually are, and that they really are just that, they are people. Possibly extraordinary, possibly flawed, almost always misrepresented. Gather multiple views, present them as is, and then let the student actually practice some critical thinking skills, synthesize the data presented, and then (gasp!) actually give an opinion or discussion on what they've covered.

It's possible I may be completely insane proposing such a thing, but ultimately, I think the benefits would be huge. We talk a mean game about the importance of critical thinking. Wouldn't it be awesome to actually let students, I don't know... critically think?! Also, and I may just be speaking for myself here, but wouldn't this also make the idea of studying history (or any other subject) way more fun? As a tester, the ferreting out of the causes and effects, and advocating for the information discovered, is a huge part of the fun of testing. How great would it be to actually let students experience that in their everyday learning?

Again, it's a scary and bold proposition, but I'm just crazy enough to think teenage students are able to handle it, and might actually learn to enjoy these subjects in a way they've never really been able to before. What do you think? Realistic objective? Pie in the sky dream? If you had the chance to reshape how primary and secondary education were presented, what would you do?