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.

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

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.

Sumo

Jacques Chirac may be a fan, but I wasn’t going to sumo for the craic. My motivations were more cultural – I viewed it as kind of a “museum visit”. After all, how much fun could it possibly be to watch two fat guys push each other around?

A hell of a lot, it turns out.

I remember going to watch a rally when I was younger and thinking that the exciting part was when a car crashed or span out, and that didn’t happen enough. The great thing about sumo is that there are no crashless rallies. No goalless draws, no drab stalemates. Technically, if a wrestler touches the ground with anything but his feet, or puts one toe over the straw bales that mark the edge of the dohyo, it’s over. But the dramatic sight of a 150kg man hitting the floor or flying out of the ring (the dohyo) is much more common!

TOKYO - Pre-sumo - L'attaque du sumo francais!

We arrived early at Ryogoku (両国) stadium in Tokyo, and stayed down at the premium seating area for an hour or so, close enough to see every flabby contour of the wrestler’s butts. These early-morning competitors were from the lower ranks, and the owners of the premium seats wouldn’t arrive until much later, when the real wrestlers started.

For us, though, the rapid-fire early matches were a great way to get a feel for how sumo worked before the big matches began. The rough structure is:

1. Staredown.
The wrestlers hunker down and glare at each other to psyche each other out. They may break away and come back a few seconds later to hunker and glare again. Different ranks have different staring time limits – the lower rank matches come in rapid succession because they have almost no staring time, whereas the big matches are drawn out and suspenseful thanks to their longer limit.

Sumo wrestlers staring

2. Wrestling
At some point, the hunker-and-glare breaks into a fight, and they’re off.

Sumo wrestlers in action

As the higher grade wrestlers started to appear, the premium seating gradually filled up, and we went back to our 4,900 yen (€31) upper-tier seats. After some great higher-rank matches, we were treated to the kind of finale you could only dream of. When a yokozuna, a top-ranked wrestler, loses a bout, spectators throw their zabuton (cushions) down at the dohyo. Asashoryu (朝青龍 明徳), probably the most famous yokozuna, came on for the final bout of the day, and lost in spectacular style, sending cushions flying in all directions. Thankfully I caught it on video – Asashoryu is the guy with the black nappy (mawashi). Check it out!

We had an amazing day, and if you’re in Tokyo during a tournament you’d be insane to miss out – you can find details on sumo tournament dates here. All in all, it looks like Mr. Chirac and I have more in common than I realised!

Purikura

That’s the Japanese abbreviation for the insanely popular Print Club (purinto kurabu or プリント倶楽部), photo booths where teenagers go to take pictures of themselves in strange situations.

Aaaanyway, in Yokohama a weekend or two ago, Cha and I gave in and gave it a go – we stabbed the pen at the screen a couple of times and pressed a few buttons, but couldn’t figure out how to draw on the pictures. That aside, here are some for your viewing pleasure:

Purikura