Software Kitchens

gordon-ramsay-7

Kitchen Nightmares
“Kitchen Nightmares” is a show where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay visits failing restaurants and tries to revive them by giving them incredibly harsh and direct feedback on their food and practices. Sparks fly and egos get hurt, but progress gets made.

Systems and Feedback
Seeing how this shocking, refreshing, accurate feedback gets stagnant situations moving in the right direction again reminds me of a fantastic book I read recently, Donella Meadows’ Thinking In Systems.

Discussing how to make systems better, the author says:

If I could add an eleventh commandment to the first ten: “Thou shalt not distort, delay, or withhold information”. You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.

In the case of the restaurants Ramsay visits, we often see owners with strong personalities suppressing, denying or ignoring the feedback they need to help them improve.

Expert Beginners
In the software world, Erik Dietrich recently wrote a series of articles about “Expert Beginners”. These are people who have learnt enough to feel smart, but not enough to realize there is much more for them to learn. In an environment where feedback is lacking, or where they suppress feedback by force of personality, this can create a stagnant situation. Here’s an excerpt showing how attempts to improve the status quo are dealt with:

…most of them are content to do things my way. But a couple are ambitious and start to practice during their spare time. They read books and watch shows on [...] technique. [...] They expect me to be as interested as they are in the prospect of improvement and are crestfallen when I respond with, “No, that’s just not how we do things here. I’ve been [programming] for longer than you’ve been alive and I know what I’m doing…”

Dietrich goes on to explain how the good people leave due to lack of progress, and only poor performers (who won’t rock the boat) get hired. It’s a convincing argument, and fits well with the feedback-resistant owners we see on Kitchen Nightmares.

The software version
One of my co-workers is a huge fan of the show, and he wondered what it would be like if a Ramsay-equivalent visited software development teams and gave them an unequivocal dressing-down for the imperfections in their build systems, test suites, ability to hit business deadlines etc.

I would watch that show in a heartbeat. I’d love to see someone like Zed Shaw, Ted Dziuba, or Erik Dietrich walk in to a stagnant software development organization like the one described above, watch them, and give direct feedback.

Then again, maybe we can learn almost as much just by imagining what Ramsay would say if he knew about the business of software.

High Scalability recently published an article listing 100 of Ramsay’s lessons for restaurants, leaving the conversion of “kitchen lessons” to “software lessons” as an exercise for the reader. The conversion is surprisingly easy and thought-provoking.

Hashima

Reading about a deserted island in Japan ahead of our trip there, pretty amazing stuff.

Approaching (8)

This little island (Hashima) was once the most densely populated area in the world: it was about 400m by 140m, and at its peak housed 5,259 people – coal miners and their families. When the coal mine was closed in 1974, it became deserted almost instantly.

It’s nicknamed Battleship Island (Gunkanjima) because it looks like an island – so much so that American submarines torpedoed it during WWII.

The island has been deserted and decaying since 1974, and was even featured on “Life After People” in 2009, to show what the world might look like after all humans are gone.

Madness! Can’t wait to get to Japan.

There’s a nice documentary here on Vimeo if you’re interested, including commentary from a man who lived on Hashima as a boy.

Photo by Chad Chatterton.

Japanese Design – Bunk Beds

Found this while looking up cabin types on Japanese ferries for an upcoming trip.

Bunk beds were always a bit crap, but imagine you’re on a ferry in a turbulent sea, climbing up the shaky ladder to the top bunk bed, waking your neighbours as the ladder wobbles around. Not cool.

Japan says no to this kind of thing, and using almost exactly the same amount of space, pulls this awesome design out of the bag. No waking neighbours, better privacy (one wall closed off from others’ view), and about 100% extra coolness:

Japanese Bunk Beds

Colour me impressed.

XP for Getting Things Done

This idea has occurred to me a bunch of times – looks like someone has finally gone and done it, and in some style.

When you play a game like World of Warcraft, or even Call of Duty, you do some pretty boring things to get Experience points (XP) or to get new perks or items – kill 100 deer in a forest, or play through several rounds using a low-powered weapon.

I’ve never done either of the above for very long, but when I do, I notice that I’m doing things which are more boring than tasks I’m putting off in real life, just in order to make a slightly meaningless number (XP) increase.

I think we humans just crave progress. Seeing a number increase by our efforts makes us feel like we’re getting somewhere, proves to us that we can change things. The problem is that in WoW, although the all-important number does increase, no real life progress is being made.

I had daydreamed, for example, about a central clearinghouse where you receive XP for charitable donations or volunteering; your Charity XP could be displayed on Facebook for example.

Anyway, RexBox have applied the principle to real-life To-Do lists for their new iPhone app; here’s the pre-release trailer:

More detail at http://www.rexbox.co.uk/epicwin/ .

Japanese (Kotoeri) input method disappears on Mac OS X

This morning I found I could no longer switch to the Japanese keyboard layout on my mac – only the US layout was listed. So I went to System Preferences > International > Input menu and looked for the Japanese Input Method (called Kotoeri on the mac). There was no sign of it; here’s how it got fixed in the end.

Check that it’s a preferences / configuration problem:

  • Create a new user (System Preferences > Accounts)
  • Log out and log in as new user
  • If the input methods are displayed correctly for this other user (see below), it must be a settings issue.

International (System Preferences)

Fix the preferences problem:

  • Log back in as the main user
  • Drag these two files from /Users/MAINUSERNAME/Library/Preferences to the Desktop:
  • com.apple.menuextra.textinput.plist
    com.apple.system.preferences.plist

  • Restart, and presto, Japanese is back on the menu – いただきます!

Note: This is probably relevant for these other Input Methods also, as they disappeared and reappeared along with Japanese (kotoeri):

  • Hangul
  • Simplified Chinese
  • Tamil Input Method
  • Traditional Chinese
  • Vietnamese UniKey

Sayonara

High-Fiving Students at the Farewell Ceremony

I love this photo – it’s exactly how I will remember this year – smiley, fun, good-natured students, and friendly, fun and helpful teachers (see the vice-principal on right). I have avoided mentioning the school’s name on this blog so far, but the whole year has been such an overwhelmingly positive experience that I want to mention it now. Thank you, Hokuto High School.

I want to thank everyone at Hokuto High for being such friendly and fantastic people. Even though I was only there for one year, they welcomed me like one of their own. Teachers chatted to me in the photocopier room, at sports days, in the corridors; students shouted “Hello, David!” every time they saw me at school, and ran over to chat whenever they saw me outside school.

The students were humorous and smart, and made me laugh with their work – here’s an example. The comic reads from top to bottom, right to left:

Fat Frog

I also want to thank my friends, who have been great craic all year – here’s a last purikura of the group of 6 I hung out with most.

The Magnificent Six - Purikura

Sayonara, Japan. And thank you.

Kosuge Mura Festival

A taiko player raises his drumstick to the sky as the bonfire flames lick higher.

Taiko player and bonfire

This is my favourite photograph from this weekend’s Kosuge Mura festival. Like all of the other photos in this post, it was taken by a fellow JET and photography graduate, the talented Kelly Bryan.

I was lucky enough to play a yamabushi – a mountain monk – at the festival. Another JET, Clint Peters, was taking part along with 8 locals and managed to get me invited too – thanks Clint! First, we carried big flaming torches down the riverbank, lighting small fires all along both banks:

Me carrying my torch

Then, we each introduced ourselves to the crowd. It was a fantastic feeling to roar out the old Japanese words in a deep, rolling, samurai-style voice. Mine was, roughly translated:
“I am the Irish mountain monk, Dave Cahill. I have come today to give you love.” Yes, just like the Simpsons episode – “I bring you love!”

Anyway, with the introductions over, we set 3 huge bonfires with our torches. Here’s a before and after:

BEFORE (Around 2pm on the day of the festival)

Bonfire - before

AFTER (Around 7pm, i.e. after we went at it with our torches)

Bonfire - after

The heat was like nothing I had ever felt before. The towering flames grew threateningly in the wind, hordes of orange sparks flew through the air, and wave after wave of heat washed over our faces. Standing there in the intense heat of the fire, looking around and smiling at my fellow monks, was definitely a moment to remember.

When the fire died down a little, we waded back across the river to great applause. This is Clint, emerging from the river dripping wet and freezing!

Clint emerges from the river

To finish off the festival, we touched our torches against a pole – at the exact moment we touched the pole, a barrage of fireworks blasted into the sky, capping off another amazing night in Japan.

Broken purikura promises

Damn you, purikura. Every time I fall for the wonderful promises on your curtain booths, and every time my hopes are dashed.

What promises? Let’s just take a sample.

Purikura - Our Dolls In Black
So the DoLLs in black were going to invite me to the monogram dream, huh? Do you know how many nights I sat by the phone, just hoping the dolls would call? I may not know what exactly a “monogram dream” is, but as I have never been invited to anything by a doll, I think it’s safe to say you broke your word on this one.

Purikura - Inferior To No One
Now that’s what I call a promise. 400 yen makes you the most superior being on the entire planet – sweet deal! OK, so in all honesty I didn’t hold out much hope for this one…

Purikura - Lame Pens
“Will bring more brilliant beauty to you, by glittering lame pens and new tools.” How many more lies could you have fit in one sentence, purikura? I became neither brilliant nor beautiful. The glittering pens were not lame, they were actually pretty cool. And there was not a hammer or a drill to be seen.

All of you out there on the interwebs, take heed. Purikura = lies.

What’s in a name?

Here in Japan, I’m often reminded of Butch in Pulp Fiction talking about how American names don’t mean anything. Japanese names are made up of Chinese characters, each of which has a meaning.

I imagine that it must be pretty tough picking names as a Japanese parent – they don’t just need to sound good, they also need to mean something nice. In fairness, I think they interpret meanings a little more loosely than us, though; one of my teachers has a name which translates to English as “Graceful Vegetable”.

Given a non-Japanese name like David, you can work backwards and see what combinations of Chinese characters will fit the sounds in the name. So, Graceful Vegetable and I once tried to find some good characters to fit my name. Unfortunately, the best we could come up with is this:

Deibito

It means: Exit, Well, Person. Roughly: “The person who comes out of the well”. Hmmm. The original Hebrew meaning of David is Beloved, so I think I’ll stick with that.

Hello, World!

For the craic, I sometimes call my students by the English translation of their names. For example, I had a student called Minami (南) in the last school year, and she got a kick out of being called South.

This year, a new student called Sekai (世界) arrived, which means I can mentally high-five myself every time I see her and shout “Hello, World!”