Beyond and Beneath – brainstorming

Change is hard, so seeking out a mentor to talk through ideas can often help, even on a Sunday morning…

Sunday 12th February 2023

From: Badger Dowdeswell
Sent: Sunday, 12 February 2023 10:36 AM
To: Celine
Subject: Reflections on what we talked about today.

Hi Celine,
Thanks for calling me this morning and then emailing me the link to your new company website. It is definitely a change from the current one. My first thought was that it has been carefully constructed and offers a fresh take on what you do in your business. Well done.

As with all site refreshes, you have to trial them and then refine them iteratively. Listen carefully to feedback from a range of sources. Many will be ill-informed but amongst the noise could be a nugget of gold.

Regarding what we discussed, remember that you do not have to be the solver of every problem, but you can be the gentle guide who ensures that as a team, you all stay on-course and do not miss the one bright idea you were all hungering for. Acting on that idea sometimes requires difficult decisions. Winston Churchill understood that well:

Finding that one dominating point .. the thing which lies at the root of the problem or need. Then you need just one bright nugget of a fresh idea. That is all it takes to catalyze a change.

That happened to me this week. In the midst of lots and lots of discussion about my iron deficiency and numerous medical explorations over nearly three years, one doctor on Thursday raised a point no other physician had talked to me about. I seized on it and used all my research skills to investigate it using authoritative, peer-reviewed medical literature (i.e. not Tik-Toc videos or conspiracy sites 😉). I now have a hypothesis, something to take back to my doctor for him to consider. Give the experts the right data and let them do their stuff. Trust their judgement but make sure they have all the relevant data, especially the stuff they were missing. You have told me how much you love your great team so give them the opportunity to lead you through this change as much as you lead them.

Here is that quote from General George Patton I mentioned today:

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Patton knew that people hate to be micromanaged. A good leader tells his or her subordinates what is expected, or what the overall goal is. They don’t need to be given a step-by-step explanation. It’s a waste of a leader’s time, and worse, most people resent it.

Let’s talk again soon.

The stranger with the blue umbrella ..

My friend Asanthika Imbulpitya got caught in the Auckland rain yesterday morning on her way to AUT University. She wrote this piece later about the kindness of a stranger with a blue umbrella who stopped to help her…

Monday 30th May 2022

I’m not usually the one to write stories, and I’m not particularly good at it, but I felt it was important to remember this at least for myself as a memory.

The day in Auckland began with heavy showers that were expected to turn into thunderstorms (that’s Auckland in the winter for all of you!). It was such a horrible condition that I wouldn’t have gone out except for the meeting I had. I stepped out with my broken umbrella, a jacket that had seen a couple of Auckland winters, and a coffee mug in the other hand.

It was a 15-minute walk to the university, but with my luck, and in classic Auckland winter form, it began to pour after only five minutes. In my head, cursing my existence, clutching my mug (even in my sad state, I only wanted to rescue the coffee!) I was waiting to cross the street when I noticed a shadow in my peripheral vision. I turned to find a stranger holding his blue umbrella for me with a smile because I couldn’t hear anyone talking.

Blue Umbrella – Ewa Czarniecka

Despite becoming wet himself, he shared it with me till he took a different turn. When I finally expressed my gratitude, all he said was, “We are all human, no problem!” I kept thinking to myself, “Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be?” This world would be a better place if we all took a moment to remember that, despite our differences, we are all human.

Dear stranger, thank you because of you I went to my meeting a little less soaked and with a heart full of positivity!

“Blue Umbrella” by Ewa Czarniecka

The right tool …

What matters at Rockweather: research teaches you to use the right tool for the problem …

Tuesday 25th January, 2022

My library here at Rockweather has a near optimal air flow from the far side of the house. However, that cool air is, by definition, delivered by the wind. Hence doors slam a lot…

All that study during my doctorate has taught me one thing; you need to think until you understand what the real problem is. Then you need to find and use the right tool for the job …

So, since that is a physics problem, we need to apply an appropriate physics solution. I sought advice from the most authoritative physicist in history after Newton. Thank you Professor Richard Feynman … your solution works perfectly and I think you would have approved.

Beyond and Beneath – Looking ahead …

Looking ahead, what is …

17th April 2021

A few years ago, I wrote down two questions before meeting with a friend for coffee. He is one of the most creative people I know, a designer and an engineer with a wicked sense of humour.

The questions had been turning over in my mind for awhile. Over coffee, he took each question and shared honestly how he felt about them. It was one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent, one-on-one with a friend looking ahead …

They are very simple questions:

Looking ahead, what is:

  1. Your most interesting or exciting thing to look forward to (preferably on the near-term horizon) ?

  2. What is your greatest challenge or difficulty facing you now (or approaching on the near-term horizon) ?

Since that time, I have shared these same two questions with many other people. Some I knew well, some were new acquaintances. Almost every time, the questions have guided us through some fascinating discussions.

Sometimes, they open up some painful places that were ready to talk through. More often, they have made us realise just how many opportunities were in front of us. In this time of change both during and after COVID-19, when nothing is remotely “normal“, we all need to think more creatively and optimistically about the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Next installment: Brainstorming …

Recycling in Sweden …

Sweden and Norway are BIG on recycling …

25th December, 2017

Norway and Sweden are big on recycling. In Luleå, each grocery store had a plastic bottle drop-off machine called a panta that you could return packaging to before you entered the shop. Rather than give out cash, each machine would print a receipt that you could later scan at the checkout and get a discount on the total. It seemed to work so well.

I watched people arrive with big bags of drink bottles and then go in to do their shopping. I later found out that there is a linked supply chain where manufacturers participate to recycle plastics they manufacture. In 2016, it was estimated that Sweden recycled 84.9 percent of its aluminum cans and plastic bottles. That was a total of 1.8 billion items or an average of 177 per person per year. The pay-out when you return a container ranges from one to two krona (NZ$0.17 to NZ$0.34).

On Christmas Day in Oslo, Norway, Jane and I felt like Burger King for Christmas lunch. Like Sweden, the Norwegians are also into recycling but I could not help noticing that people seemed to take their spoons with them after they had eaten. No wonder; they looked big enough to use as snow shovels ….

Pomodoro and Coffee

Research and lockdown sometimes feel remarkably similar …

17th December, 2020

New Zealand went into several different stages of lockdown during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. However, for a student like me, not much seemed to change. Being sent home to … er … keep doing research … was not really much of a change or a burden.

Please do not misunderstand me: I realise how hard it was for so many people with changes to their routines and income. This pandemic was a disaster in every sense. However, in the midst of it and in the intervening months following our release from lockdown here in New Zealand, I have seen examples of how people around me thrived. I saw all sorts of creative approaches for how to figure out what the “new normal” was supposed to look like.

One approach that has worked for me for a long time is called Pomodoro. It is a technique that helps me focus on a task for a set period of time, take a controlled break, and then resume without losing the flow. My pomodoro time during a typical day looks like the program below:

If you are not a coder, just try reading it as plain English. The first stage is about getting organised. Retreat away, turn off all interruptions (Facebook, Instagram, my smartphone, email, WhatsApp, … you get it …). Coffee is essential. OK, so tea works but not as well …

I find a pomodoro length of sixty minutes works for me. Some people find twenty or thirty minutes works best for them. Experiment until you find out your optimal work-chunk size. Then, the loop starts:

drink coffee … read … think … code … write … rewrite … refactor the code ….

Keep doing that until the interval is complete. No sneak checks of social media or email. That’s cheating. Believe me, unless something out there is on fire or one of your children managed to flush a sibling down the toilet, it can wait. Your creativity is allowed to take precedence.

Sometimes, my daughter Michaela and son-in-law Luke lend me their dog Axl Rose for company during the day. He loves these cycles since almost every pomodoro cycle involves a quick walk around the block for us if he is here. He quickly settles into the rhythm; dogs just get this stuff instinctively.

It’s not complex. The secret is to figure out how not to break your concentration and stay in the flow. I only take a short break each cycle. It is often in those breaks, walking, making fresh coffee or letting Axl chase the neigbour’s cats out of our garden, that I see solutions to problems that I could not see sitting at my desk.

Over the last few years, I have taught this technique to a lot of my students. Give it a try! This YouTube video is a great introduction to Pomodoro.

The video mentions that background music without lyrics can be helpful. YouTube has this great collection of the Best of Chopin you can try.

Memory upgrades

Never underestimate the power of a small bear with a good screwdriver …

December 13th, 2014

Everything was running just a bit too slow around here, the end of my first year at AUT. Eclipse clearly needed a bit more room to wriggle so I had a talk with Luke, Bottomly and Jeremy.

Bottomly nodded wisely, got out the Rockweather credit card and went hunting at PB Tech on-line.

A serious memory upgrade to my system began along with the sound of screws getting dropped into the innards of the machine. These are the times I just let the experts do their thing while I make them coffee.

Never underestimate the power of a small bear, a good screwdriver and a strong expresso …

Exam time

At a university, sitting an exam is not the hard part; sometimes it is harder to get your exam paper and marks back …

November 23rd, 2020

I had a most interesting time at the AUT University exam hand-back on this day back in 2013. It was the end of my second semester here and I had taken four papers, three of which had final examinations to sit.

I talked to the Nice Lady who was on the door at the Exam Hand-Back room. “Hello, my exam number is shown as ‘Not available‘ on your list over there. When is the next hand-back time?”

“There isn’t one …”

“So…what happens next?”

“I do not know…which paper do you want back? ” So I showed her the paper number and she said…. “No, you are wrong. That ‘Not available‘ does not mean that.”

“Ohh .. So what does ‘Not available‘ mean then? Is my paper not available yet?”

“But it does not mean that …”

“Right”, says the very confused Badger..

She had me sit down and fill out a Yellow Form. I went into the Hand-Back room and sat where she told me to. The Nice Lady came over and took my form. … sat there … sat there … still sitting …

About five minutes later, the Nice Lady came back and asked me why I was still sitting there. I politely explained that she had taken my Yellow Form but not given me my exam paper yet.

“Oh”, says the Nice Lady. “I filed your form.”

“Ahh … OK … so what happens now?”

“Um…not sure.” In my obvious ignorance I asked: “Well can you possibly get it out of the filing? Surely you filed it in alphabetical order?”

“No, these are exam conditions…I am not allowed to do that.”

“What? This is not an examination, it is an ‘exam hand-back’. I understood I was supposed to come here, do what I was told and receive my examination script back. I cannot change anything, only check the adding …”

“What was your paper number?”

“It is a six-digit number. It is Algorithm Design and Analysis. It is in the bag you asked me to leave outside the room. I cannot remember the exam number, but it is on the list on the door outside.”

“Then you will have to go outside and fill in another form …”

The obedient Badger went outside and filled in Yellow Form Number Two. Ten minutes later the same Nice lady on the door asks “Why are you back?”

“Please don’t ask …”

Again, I went in, sat down, gave the Yellow form to the same Nice Lady just like I did the first time … sat there …sat there … finally …got my exam paper

I took my phone out to add up my marks.

“Stop – You can’t use your phone in here” says the Nice Lady. “This room is under exam conditions. Put it away or you will have to leave.”

I put on my best stern Badger face: “Today, this is not a phone. Today, it is a calculator. I am using it to add up my marks … “

“I repeat, this room is under exam conditions. Put it away or you will have to leave.”


I passed …

Alchemy and lemons

It’s your choice what you do with the lemons or Pak’n Save trolleys that irritate you …

Saturday 21st November 2020

Over the last month I have been camped in my library, writing the final academic journal paper for my doctorate. The view from the second story here is beautiful, with the white-noise of the wind as the only sound for hours at a time …

The days pass uneventfully, page after page gets written, rewritten and then rewritten again. I have learnt how to plod …

It was all pretty peaceful until some ‘inconsiderate person’ (President Trump might describe them more colorfully as a ‘loser’) abandoned a Pak’n Save shopping cart outside my house. We are a long way from the nearest store.

For a few days, it just hung around outside, blown around in the wind. I was intrigued how something constructed out of holes could catch the wind like that. Finally, it got blown over during a gale and just lay forlornly in the kerb.

Jane phoned the store but they showed no interest in retrieving one of their assets. That irritated me even more than the ‘inconsiderate person’ who had created the problem in the first place.

By Saturday afternoon I had had enough of moaning about it. Sometimes life is a lemon. That either makes you sour or do something to change things: I chose to take a walk with the trolley. As I passed hedges and gardens, I noticed for the first time just how many other trolleys had somehow escaped their servitude. Maybe there is something like the Underground Railroad that allowed American slaves to escape during the 1800’s going on here, where trolleys get together and escape in the dead of night. Was I really doing the right thing returning it to its Master ?

I reunited the trolley with some of its other bedraggled and rusting companions on the edge of the store car park.

With a silly grin on my face, I walked back home. Along the way, I came across a bin of free off-cuts of wood being offered outside a factory. Sticking out were the perfect pieces I needed to finish a shelf in my library. Maybe all this doctoral research is teaching me to become an alchemist: I think I just learnt how to turn lemons into timber.

I love this stuff …