Positive Disruption

Many, many years ago, when I was but a young person, “disruption” was not a positive thing. If you were disruptive in class you’d get detention; if you were disruptive in public you’d get the consequences of that behavior. (Side note: I’m not the first person to do the “hey back in my day this wasn’t a thing but now it is”, as evidenced here.) So I’ll spare you the history lesson (as best as I can tell from personal experience I started hearing about “positive disruption” in the first dotcom era) and get to where we’re at, which is my job.

My job is all about minimizing the disruption at work. A team has a thing, a thing they need to do, it is not as smooth as it can be, my team makes it smooth. That’s the simplest description of how my team works and frankly how I do. Constant iteration and improvement, balanced only by the reality of resources.

When I first came to the ‘soft, I got a lot of raised brows from friends, family, and coworkers – “they reorg an awful lot” was the net of it. In my previous experience, “reorg” meant losing your job most of the time – or that you were in danger of losing it. Moving my eggs to the Microsoftian basket was considered by some in my peer group as a risky move. In my first sixteen months I had four managers and moved five times. I was never in danger of losing my job and in the transitions since (I’m on my fourth role here) reorgs have been fairly regular (about twice a year), and relatively minor (the impact to me was typically a skip level or skip-skip level) (and when it wasn’t I reevaluated as needed). This semi-regular disruption leads to an exercised muscle of constant career evaluation: “Do I want to be here?” “Do I want to do this?” It’s not a bad thing, but it can be a scary prospect for those who look at a role as an exercise in stability.

This is the time of year we see the most in terms of change; our annual review process is complete and we’re firmly in second quarter; teams have evaluated what they’ve promised and now (a quarter of the way into the year of promise or halfway through a semester) the rubber meets the road. As folks evaluate, “Do I want to be here? Do I want to do this?” they identify other opportunities and, should they be attractive enough, pursue them. This happened in my own team and I’m proud of and happy for the person who did – they had a list of what they wanted, and they got what they wanted. For me, it means I need to fill a gap.

I’m in excellent company. Right now my larger team is hiring, the organization is hiring; we’re hiring all sorts of disciplines and all sorts of levels. You cannot have that level of gap-and-fill without having an amount of disruption and yet, the show must go on: credit to Friedman that the business of business is business. Here we are then, doing all the things on one hand while simultaneously hiring and ramping in the other. It’s a frenetic time for all, from hiring managers to individual contributors working on the front lines of the product. It is unsettling for some and the twitchy adrenaline rush others need. In my case, it’s a function of recognizing the positive in the disruption. I find it helps to ask “Do I want to be here? Do I want to do this?”. Right now, that answer is positive.

Bring the Pain

Learning is hard.

I’m not talking about casual, “oh that’s how Bob Ross turns that odd-shaped line into a tree” learning; or even “hey I was listening to my podcast the other day and they let me know that there’s actually only 8 species of bear in the world”; I’m talking about “you need to learn this new thing and be able to *do* it within a given period of time”, usually with a flavor of “for your job” or “for your life”. Requisite learning, not-necessarily-your-idea learning.

I’ve previously blogged about how I had to stumble through and learn a new query language and I hated every minute of it. It was such an unpleasant experience that the running joke with my teammates for about 6 or 8 months was how much I hated it. I use that query language every day though, and it allows me to do all kinds of analysis and make all kinds of cases that I would not be able to, or would be hyper-dependent on others to do. No pain, no gain.

The company I work for, like most major companies that hire a ton of engineering talent, looks for drive, initiative, and potential. The entire review system is based on ‘and what else could you do?’; you are measured on impact rather than delivery. (You can work all day and not deliver. You can deliver all day and have no impact. You are measured on impact.) The set of humans surrounding me are all people who are very used to being *good at a thing right away*, or getting good at it quickly.

When you’re in an environment with that level of expectation, and the culture is one of “growth mindset” (e.g., yes learning is hard but we lean into it), it can feel lonely. One is often looking across the Teams chat to identify if the person who is talking just naturally knows all that stuff (query language, given service architecture, etc.) or if they had a painful time drilling through it, too. Not unlike high school, where there was some subset of people who looked like they got effortless A’s (because you didn’t see the late nights, the weekends, the tutoring sessions, the agita. You saw the A’s.) You question if it’s just you, if you’re the odd person out, and this (unfairly) leads to impostor’s syndrome. I don’t belong here, I can’t do what these people do, how did I get here, etc.

There’s actually two things at work here: first, the invisible mountain those folks climbed or climb that you do not see (e.g., all the studying, or head banging, or side meetings with all kinds of other people to ask all of the questions), and second, comparing your step two to someone else’s step six. Or sixteen.

The only way to “get over” the idea of unseen investment is to acknowledge it exists regardless of admission. That is, not everyone shares their investment effort — some prefer to come off as “naturally good at things” and they may as yet be, or they may come from a culture where that is the expectation. I come from one where you share the investment and that potential embarrassment is the price of entry; I ask smart people stupid questions (thanks Ologies) and I share that I asked smart people stupid questions. The questions aren’t stupid and if it wasn’t evident to me/not easy to self-serve and find the information, there are others who are having the same problem. If there are others having the same problem they need to see that they aren’t the only ones. The struggle is real but it does not have to be lonely.

As a result, without knowledge of the hill that person climbed (the investment they had to make), it’s easy to assume they are on step 2 just like you; in fact they are on step 6. This sets up for unfair self-comparison and expectation, which can bleed into other areas (so and so got a promotion and it was *just so easy* for them).

I’m not saying there are not people who are just naturally good at things. There are, of course. Some of us though are “naturally good” at a thing because we have been doing it so long it is no longer painful: when I started in the corporate world (in 1994) I was not “naturally good” at anything. Now I am “naturally good” at organizing and streamlining things, making shiny power points and anvil-spotting, because I have spent 27 years doing that (in various capacities). It would be unfair for me-of-’94 (or ’98, or 2000, or even 2007) to compare myself to me-of-now, because me-of-now has literal years of investment, experience, embarrassment and failure to build on.

There are areas I’ve doggedly tried to learn and have not mastered — and that is what growth mindset is. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to suck, and I’m going to pursue it anyway because I will learn and grow, and I know that I can because I have done it before. I’m “naturally good” at “A”, but I still am learning “B” (and I frankly have no clue about “C”). The phrase “A Jack of all trades is a master of none” is only a partial quote: the actual quote is “A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oft better than a master of one.” In our careers (and in our lives) we have the opportunity to sit tight and do just one thing, or go out and do and learn many things. In both there is opportunity to learn, and expand, and learn more — and it’s going to hurt. No pain, no gain.

You get what you pay for.

I’ve been thinking about the so-called the “democratization of information” or “right to information” or just the plain old adage that we went to the moon with less technology than what sits in my pocket and catches emails for me; if I want to know the answer to something then Google is there for me (or Duck Duck Go — browse privately, friends).

This is the same world where we see quips like “Please do not confuse your Google Search with my medical/law/etc. degree.” The same world where one has to look for and describe what “peer reviewed research” means. The same world where “alternative facts” and “fake news” are lobbied in counterpoint.

We have an information pricing problem.

In a conversation with a colleague we were discussing school adventures — ours — and up came terms like “microfiche” and “card catalogue”. Back in my day (with overtones here of “get off my lawn you kids”) if one wanted information one had to go to the library to get it — you went armed with your topic (say, Earthquakes) and went to the card catalogue and first searched by subject and then narrowed it down to one or more books/items that had information about that subject. Each item was printed on a card, with the name of the item and the author(s) and publishing information (in fact, cribbing from that card is what typically got you your bibliography). You then followed the Dewey code for that item and went looking in the stacks to get the item in question, and then you had to actually read the whole item even if you were for example going to cherry pick things to meet your needs. (Card catalogues have been around as “the way to find things in the library” for over 100 years, so what was true for me was true for my parents and theirs and theirs and so forth).

Microfiche was even more involved — if your item was microfiche then you had to take it to the librarian or look through the drawers for it, put it into a special machine, and scroll through it until you found the article or print you were looking for. Microfiche has not been around as long as the card catalogue, but it’s coming up on it’s 85th birthday in libraries. Microfiche (and film) is still in use, but it wasn’t as snazzy as this when we had to use it. It looked like this. Somehow everything in the 70’s was beige.

This was “pull method” of information – you made the investment and went to the library and invested your nontrivial amount of time to go and get the information and glean it for whatever purpose.

“Push method” — ingestion of information in a someone-else-does-the-bulk-of-the-work-way — was mostly TV (nightly news, from 6:30-7:30) and radio (mostly public or talk radio). This was before blogs and user-based journalism which have largely changed the landscape of the form and presentation of journalism (far less stuffy but far more opinionated). Journalism has a code of ethics that most journalists follow, rando persons on the internet (such as myself, hi/hello) are not bound by those ethics. (I mean, I try, but I’m not formally trained and this is not a professional blog, this is just where I spit things out that are in my brain). It’s important to note however that the “push method” of nightly news and radio, along with relative lack of choice (when I grew up there were at first 3, and then 9, channels) meant that the news you were getting in your home was the same news that everyone else got. The same leading stories, the same local color, the same news from Washington and the world. The accessibility of the news, even with the “scheduling war for news” we saw with the Gulf War, was still relatively uniform.

Which is all a very long way to say that, for the previous 100-odd years, the foundation for information was roughly uniform and the amount of investment one had to do to get it, past that initial uniform bit we got with Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather (or before them, the nightly newspaper), was relatively involved.

My offspring recently graduated high school and he has never known a world where information wasn’t searchable locally at home: every “paper” (for most of them never made it to paper) was researched via internet.1 Everyone I know has a mobile phone that has internet search functionality on it and can quite literally “look up” the answer to any question at any time for any purpose. The *investment* to procure information is drastically lower, information is now astonishingly cheap – and I do mean cheap.

Quick digression – I’m a fan of good diction, this comes from how I operate in the world (very explicitly). If one has a reputation for being specific and direct, one has to choose one’s words carefully because the amount of thought that goes into receiving them is ostensibly higher. When I say “cheap”, I do not mean “inexpensive”. There are a variety of definitions for “cheap” and the fact that “inexpensive” routes to “cheap” according to Merriam Webster is a tragedy. I think someone cut a corner there. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary gets closer to the nuance I’m looking for. “Cheap” comes with an inference of low quality as to the reason for something’s low price, whereas “inexpensive” (for me) does not.

Here we return to “Do Not Confuse Your Google Search with my XYZ Degree”: The seventeen seconds you spent online “researching” your symptoms do not equate to the years of study (and practice) a good MD has (always get a second opinion, though). How many times have we heard the joke that one goes to google with one’s symptoms and they’re either dehydrated or dying? The issue at hand is while the access to the information has been greatly simplified, the investment required to get to it has also been removed: the knowledge isn’t earned and the context is absent.

I can go watch endless YouTube videos about solving household plumbing problems (e.g., how to clean out your P-trap, remove drain flies, even replace a toilet). This does not make me a plumber. If I elect to attempt any of these things on my property it’s my problem but I sure as heck should not be advising you on yours (nor should you take my advice there except as maybe a prompt to go talk to someone who actually has been trained in this). I do a lot of home cooking and watch a lot of food recipes, this does not make me a professional chef. I read up a lot about the things I contend with (thyroid, cardiological, etc.) but I do so in preparation for an intelligent conversation with my MD’s about it and not *instead of* those conversations, and absolutely not to “guide” others. (Or to suggest to them that “doing their own research” will arrive at the same conclusions.)

The cheapening of information combined with an elevation of User Generated Content to Journalism (a loosening, in my opinion, of how journalism operates — a lot more opinions and editorials) and the breadth of information and information targeting (my “news fix” may not be the same as my neighbors) has led to extreme polarization and, worse, a willful ignorance to information that may not align with our inclinations. (This exists, incidentally, in scientific exploration which is why peer review is so important and why you should always get a second opinion). This polarization is not only political, it extends to our societal behaviors when it comes to medicine (e.g., vaccines in general — not just for COVID) and how we view things like Climate Change (regardless of political affiliation, or perhaps exacerbated by it).

I am not suggesting we somehow lock down information (I mean, that would create a scarcity which in turn would increase the price as supply goes down and demand ostensibly goes up, but that’s a little more 1984 than I think anyone wants). I *am* suggesting, as with any (relatively) newfound2 privilege or boon, we do our homework. Specifically, we elevate the role and investment of critical thinking (in our schooling and as a foundation of education), The information tsunami (and its accompanying hurdles) will not go away and so, much as we should be teaching financial literacy and scientific literacy in schools, we should be teaching critical thinking skills. In a world where information is cheap and easy, the filtration and identification of information of actual value is not.3

The “good” news (?) is that educational standards are set at the State level. Meaning the curriculum requirements for your state are owned by your state Superintendent of Public Instruction (or equivalent). In a world where all politics are local, this can be influenced by your local state representative and local state senator (again: not Federal. You’re not writing to the person that goes to DC, you’re writing the person that goes to your state capital).

Yes, writing. This is the sort of topic that would not come up (or only come up cursorily) during election season, likely drowned out by the myriad of other agita that happens at that time. The very best way to get action on anything from an elected representative is to visit them, which can be impractical (in terms of investment), so the second very best way to get them to look at a thing is to write a letter (like… the kind that gets mailed). Email is your third choice here. Don’t want to go through the pain of finding your state’s legislative site and then figuring out who represents you? Go here — you can find your state (and federal) representation. Here’s a guide on writing legislators. As to your State Superintendent of Schools — sometimes these are elected, sometimes they’re appointed, you can find that out here. (You can also use that link to find your State Superintendent, their office, and their office mailing address and email). In addition, you can get involved through your local school *district*, either directly with the district or via a PTSA council (if you have that kind of time, and not all do).

There is a contingent of folks who will read this who either 1. do not have children or 2. whose children (like mine) have already graduated and are off to their next endeavor. The inclination here is to say “this does not affect me” and therefore no investment is needed. I argue that that is shortsighted and obtuse: you as a taxpayer are paying for the education system and you are paying for the product of that system (its current and future students), who in turn are going to be your future co-electorate. If the purpose of public education is for a well-informed and productive public, then you should be very much incentivized to ensure your investment is well spent.

  1. The teachers explicitly stated not to use Wikipedia as it is not considered a credible source; we taught him to check out the footnotes to find the credible sources and use Wikipedia as a coalescing function.
  2. Let’s just wave a hand at it and say it started with the internet in the 90’s. That’s 30 years, and so we’re at least one and likely two generations behind here already. “Relatively newfound” is overgenerous. We are late.
  3. In a sad turn of events, searching for “critical thinking” (in quotes deliberately to get that phrase), plus curriculum plus legislation, all I got was the never-ending debate over Critical Race Theory, which is a different thing altogether. That and a WaPo article about how Texas doesn’t want to teach critical thinking skills but I couldn’t find a second source.

Every New Beginning Comes from Some Other Beginning’s End

(Title courtesy of “Closing Time” by Semisonic.)

I’m at the nexus of a bunch of temporal landmarks — my kid just graduated high school, I’m leaving 13 years of PTSA board service (why yes that is highly correlated), there are some Big Work Things (some just normal as part of the end of the fiscal year, some delivery related and no I won’t talk about it just yet), we just passed the Summer Solstice which for me is when there is maximum daylight in my house to highlight all the cleaning I can do, and so forth.

Much as I am driven by points-for-points-sake (I’m looking at you, Apple Watch Fitness) I am driven by temporal milestones. Each morning there’s a fresh list for the day, each Monday there’s a fresh list for the week, each first there’s a set of goals for the month; these could be personal (hey, I washed my walls last weekend) or professional (I will finally take that training/do that brain dump/write that documentation). I have legitimately written “get coffee” on a morning’s to-do list so I can have something to check off, on the more challenging days. Oftentimes when people ask me how my weekend went I find myself judging it against the list of things I had for the weekend (those things can include hobby time, it’s not all chores and emails) and producing a qualitative score on it (“productive”, “okay but there’s still stuff left to do”, “I feel like I got nothing done”).

The Fresh Start Temporal Effect is a normal human thing, we all have degrees of it. Have you ever set a New Year’s resolution, or made a list of improvements after you got a divorce/out of rehab/broke up with someone/moved? That is that. We all have that and it’s just like anything else we all have, it hits in degrees. For me, I have to make sure it doesn’t override the realities of day to day life.

I remember one time I was changing jobs and I made a whole list of things I wanted to get done in the week off between jobs (it was a change not only of role but of companies, so there were no residual emails or “hey how do I…” questions to attend to). I started crafting that list a month before I left my former job, by the time my week off had rolled around the list had got crammed into weekend lists and I found myself having done most of what I had “reserved” for the week off, ahead of the week off. I spent my first day of the week off, making a list for the week off.

To someone who’s got different temporal milestones — maybe you are a per-quarter person, maybe it’s strictly New Years for you; maybe you look at Fiscal years or Lunar years or maybe you go based on the rhythm of your kids’ school or your work sprints — this can be jarring, or even exhausting to watch. There’s a potential for comparison of milestone lists — somehow if I compare my week to your quarter I feel unproductive or I feel stressed by the volume of work I feel like I should be doing in comparison. Those of us who have more frequent milestones are probably unaware of this effect (I was, until very recently); those of us who have less frequent milestones should take care to do a sanity check. (Think of it like a task-based “keeping up with the Joneses” — we’re not comparing purses or lattes or cars or hedgerows, we’re comparing productivity… and this gets back to the “always busy” mindset, which is comfortable for some and not others.)

Because I’m at this nexus of a bunch of milestones, my lists are all coming to a head this week. If I tick down them things are getting done, but I feel like I’m at a precipice and unsure what it’s going to feel like when the last thing is checked off. Predictably I have a new set of lists, but they’re looking awfully sparse. I had better add “list review” to my list for today.

Color Theory

I am not really in charge of design decisions in my home, mostly because I prioritize function over finesse; you should never ever ever ask me if a given color goes with another given color because I have no sense of design. In my thirties I watched way too many HGTV shows and had tennis ball green bedroom walls, a baby aspirin orange library, and a dark brown powder room. (The name of the paint was “Praline”. It wasn’t until after the last coat was up and I had friends over for a dinner that I realized that perhaps a dark brown color was a little too “inspirational” for a powder room.)

A good 80% of my wardrobe is grey or black (or generic denim). The next 10-15% could be described as varying degrees of beige, oatmeal, or “sand”. The remainder gets right up there with a dark purple or red, but that’s strictly for when I’m feeling very adventurous.

I don’t get color the way some folks do; I am not colorblind but I don’t have that talent to know that X and Y should or should not go together. I mean, everything goes with black or grey; but there are some greens that can be paired with some blues and some purples but others that can’t and those “rules” just do not stick. However we as humans assign significance to specific colors and take specific meanings from them.

I write this from the pseudo-“purple” state of Arizona, with a Republican Governor and two Democrat Senators. I don’t actually know how “purple” Arizona is, but I do know that it’s “Republican Red” and “Democrat Blue” in terms of color associations, at least since 2000. (Interestingly enough, before that from 1976 it was reversed).

The color blue is associated with calm, peaceful, quality, neutrality, and trustworthiness. The color red is associated with energy, passion, danger. Your doctor’s office probably has a lot of blue elements in it. Your bank almost certainly does. The sale rack (attention!) has a lot of red signage; as does many fast food chains (Jack in the Box, McDonalds — while employing Golden Arches the other principal color is the Red on which it rests). Blue wants you to trust, red wants you to act.

As I was taking in a morning walk in the 90-odd degree heat, passing political signage and thinking about the color associations, I was trying to figure out that first one: if blue elicits trust (or tries to), and we are the most polarized we’ve been in a while (if not ever), how trustworthy is “blue” if I’m a Republican? That is to say, if I am a Republican and look across the aisle and say “anything Democrat is bad” (and that could be construed as a legitimate argument from a Republican given current discourse), does blue at my doctor’s office make me trust them any more… or specifically less? (Yes, I tried to find articles on this and no, I didn’t find any).

Is the inverse true: if red gathers attention and signals action, and if I am a Democrat, am I going to ignore that part of “red” and instead, well, “see red” when I see red? Am I going to tune out when I see initiatives or logos with a red color more than a blue one?

Republicans, at least those in office, tend to align to the party principal and requirement even if they don’t like it. The laundry will only rarely be washed in public if at all, the voting will happen with nose-holding and sticking to the party (or the person, in some cases). From the Republicans I’ve spoken with that holds: they may privately disagree with leadership or a given facet of the platform, but they will vote the platform for the cherry-picked 2 or 3 things they care about most. I suspect the same is true for Democrats.

If the party prefers to identify as red and as a party is “anti-blue”, how does this message trickle down to the primary constituency, which skews to 56% membership of over 50 (so… people who find themselves at financial institutions and doctors’ offices much more often than those who are younger)? And how does this work with other driven organizations, e.g., Koch Industries, whose own logo includes blue (and not red)? We are now in a state of affairs where we are aligning political party to how we respond to a global public healthcare crisis, both in terms of community health and our own; it’s not unreasonable to think that this polarization can/could extend to how we see heretofore “simple” color signals. But I can’t find anything credible that has tackled this, and it was just an idle stream of thoughts.

It was probably the heat.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Does Not Have a Glaring Story Problem

There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon introduces Amy to Raiders of the Lost Ark (the first Indiana Jones movie) and, having expected her to be awash in amazement, is disconcerted when she asserts that it has a glaring story problem: “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story.” The tenet here is that the Nazis would have found the Ark of the Covenant, gone to the island, opened it, and would have died as they did, regardless of Indiana’s involvement.

I don’t think this is true, and after countless minutes searching (yeah, I Duck’d it for a few minutes and found only a couple of articles including a discourse on movies.stackexchange– read, I invested no real time because I kept getting cookie notifications) I figured it’s time to document that here. I *hope* this is a cookie free experience but who knows what wordpress does.

Let’s start with the near-beginning of the movie, when Indy is introduced to the idea that the Ark is real and the Nazis are after it. The US Government has intercepted a cable sent by the Nazis saying they have “discovered Tanis” and need the “headpiece to the staff of Ra” and that they need to find “Abner Ravenwood, US”. The Government doesn’t understand what any of this means and Indy explains: Tanis is the resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant (stone tablets of Thou Shouldn’t Really Do Anything to Piss A God Off), the headpiece is a shiny medallion like thingy that sits on top of the stick, no one really knows how tall the stick is, you use the piece on the stick in a map room to find the treasure, and he hasn’t seen or heard from Abner Ravenwood in ages because they had a “bit of a falling out I’m afraid”. (We discover later it’s probably because Indy was schtupping his daughter.) Indy says that he thinks Abner may be “someplace in Nepal”.

After some discourse with Marcus Brody (Indy’s boss? Chancellor of the University? Head of Archaeology? Curator at the Museum? I don’t think we really ever get to know his title) Indy books a trip (that we get to watch on an interactive map graphic) to Mongolia. We see as he boards the plan a nefarious character in all black (I prefer all black too but I’m not so nefarious — we know this guy is because the music changes) who eyeballs him and puts his paper up to shield his face.

Here is my first counterpoint to the argument: I don’t think the Nazis knew where to look for Ravenwood. The cable said, “Abner Ravenwood, US”. Indy asserted to the US Government folks (who said they couldn’t find any trace of Ravenwood” that no one really knew for sure and he thought Ravenwood was “somewhere in Nepal, I think”. Without the tail on Indy, they wouldn’t have known to go to Nepal, or at least in that general direction. I personally think the cable was leaked on purpose (though that is never stated in the movie).

After the map gets to Nepal, instead of seeing Indy’s arrival we see a drinking scene, and Marian Ravenwood closing her bar after winning it. Indy comes in, they fight with some exposition, he asks her for the medallion and she says she doesn’t know where it is, he offers her cash, he leaves. The Bad Guys come in after, having followed Indy (I think this further supports my point above, if the Nazis knew where Marion was before Indy went to her, they would have gone there first), and attempt to get the medallion. For various reasons they don’t get it but they get a print of one half of it. Indy and Marion escape with the real deal. And now we’re off to Cairo!

The Nazis are digging in the wrong place, which we know because they only have one half of the medallion. While we can say that’s because of Indy, we can also assume if they had both halves they’d be digging in the *right* place. Indy gets his digging team in the right place, he and Sallah bring up the Ark, the Nazis catch them, and now the Nazis have the Ark that they are going to attempt to fly out. Indy escapes with Marion and as part of that escape blows up the little airport (and at least one plane), and his rival French archaeologist (Belloq) and the German in charge of things (Dietrich) say they’re going to put it on a truck and get it out of Cairo that way.

Then of course Indy hijacks the truck, gets to a ship and Marion with Sallah’s help, and they’re now on a boat! Which of course gets waylaid by the Nazis and the two of them (and the Ark) taken *again*.

I’ve glossed over a lot that happened here and we’ll get into a more nuanced argument in a second, but let’s pause: let’s give the Nazis credit for craftiness and assume that they would’ve, *eventually*, figured out where Abner (or Marion) Ravenwood were, and would’ve eventually got the medallion, so they would be digging in the right place.

I don’t think they were originally going to take the Ark to the Island. The original plan was to fly the Ark out, but Indy blew up at least one plane and a bunch of fuel at the airport– and the German in charge’s next plan was to *truck* it out of Cairo. Without Indy blowing things up, the Ark would have been on a plane back to Berlin.

Here’s where the more nuanced part of this comes in: Belloq and Indy are old adversaries, and Belloq (it’s pretty clear from some of the dialogue) winces at his mercenary status. (He’s not giving it up though, because it gives him access to things he thinks are valuable, like the Ark). It’s clear that Dietrich doesn’t approve of him and that approval decreases over time with Belloq’s fancy with Marion, with Belloq’s apparent soft side, etc. But Dietrich allows for it because he knows he cannot get the Ark without Belloq, and as Belloq uses patience over time to get to the Ark this strengthens his position with Dietrich — meaning Dietrich has to give Belloq what he wants (Marion, specifically not torturing Marion, and then letting Belloq be the one to open the Ark) because Dietrich knows he can’t get what the Fuhrer wants without him. My point (and I know I’m laboring to get here) is that if the Nazis had got the medallion first thing, got to the map room straight away, dug up the Ark without Indy, and had their plane not blown up, that plane would’ve gone straight to Berlin — with Dietrich in tow, certainly, but none of the confrontation we see between Belloq-Indy would have fueled pursuant Belloq-Dietrich confrontation — I don’t think Belloq could’ve made the successful argument that they needed to divert an entire army to a small island to open a box. The blown up plane, the hijacked truck, the ship’s capture — all of that needled the situation to allow for it.

At this point we’re on the island, Indy bluffs with a grenade launcher and loses, and now Indy and Marion are tied to a pole. Queue opening the ark, ghosts come out, face melty things happen, and Indy and Marion survive because they close their eyes. If Indy had not been there, and if we say my second point is moot (we ignore “would they have gone to the island or Berlin directly”), YES, the Nazis would have opened it and all died anyway. Sure. But what would have happened is now you have a closed Ark on an altar in the middle of a presumably deserted island with some Nazi artifacts around it (remember, it consumed the bodies but left the camera – although it did fry the camera, so no video evidence). Without Indy, the Ark stays there. With Indy, the Ark goes to a warehouse in US Government custody. There is truth in the assertion that Indy’s original charter was to make sure the museum got the Ark, and that did not happen because US Government. But the Ark exists in the movie in that undefined warehouse because of Indy; otherwise it’d be either have discovered in Berlin (assuming no one opened it and it just sat in a Nazi-analog warehouse) or opened and left on a remote island, somewhere undisclosed. In the Big Bang Theory, towards the end, the boys (Sheldon and his friends) do acknowledge this, but then burn on Indy as he “couldn’t get it back to the museum”. Sure — that was his charter and he was unable to fulfill it (Thanks, Uncle Sam) — but it is not an argument on his not having a role in the outcome of the story.

Algorithm

“It’s all just/an the algorithm.” We hear it a lot: bandied about in media coverage of, well, the media; used as an explainer for why Facebook knows you like teacups with dragons on them and why Amazon suggests you purchase tissues and why you see those ads in your Gmail about bulbs or deer or survivalist stuff. (All true, btw). I think there’s a decent size of the population that has a context-specific definition for algorithm (e.g., I know that this means a black box in which things are magically done and then Instagram *just knows* that I like fitness videos) but not an *actual* one, which means when I hear that “the algorithm knows” I have no problem with GMO’s but do prefer organics and less-processed foodstuffs, I think that it “just knows” without really understanding what that means.

So here’s a primer of algorithms, because this is what goes through my overcaffeinated brain of a Sunday morning. If you’d like to understand more about them, or if you’d like to explain them to someone you think should understand them more, this one’s for you.

Super-Basic Basics

The first thing to know about algorithms is they are not smart. They have no intelligence whatsoever. They’re basically an equation, a formula, a set of rules by which one or more pieces of data (“Bobbie likes pie”, “Bobbie tracks her food on MyFitnessPal”) gets “looked at” and then somewhere checked against a list of criteria (“People who like pie like junk food”, “Women who track their food are on a diet”) and then a “logical” conclusion is spat out. You actually can use algorithms in your day to day; you probably already are. Just like the algorithms in your brains, algorithms in computers are built by humans.

Example

For example: up until 2020, I drove about 20,000 miles per year. For those non-drivers in the world or those who are based metric, that’s more than average. Most dealerships will assume, for their “bring you in for maintenance purposes”, that you’re driving about 12-15,000 miles per year. Because I had a relatively new car up until 2020, and because it was covered for maintenance through some package deal I bought, I was bringing my car in every 5,000 miles. However, the dealer had an algorithm for every 5,000 miles based on what they considered “typical use”. This means that they’d always want to schedule my next maintenance 4 or 5 months from my current one; and I’d frequently have to bump it sooner, because at 20,000 miles/year, I’m driving 5,000 miles every 3 months. I know this and because it was nice simple round numbers, I didn’t have to have a spreadsheet on it. My driving mileage has been pretty consistent for 15 or so years. So the *algorithm* we’re looking at here, to predict when my next appointment is, is Number of Miles Per Year Expected / 5,000 = How many Times Per Year my car gets serviced. Then it’s How Many Months Per Year / How many Times Per Year my car gets serviced, to how many months between each service. If I wanted to be fancy, I could write that as (Months Per Year)/(Miles Per Year Expected/5000). The reason the dealer and I get different numbers is that while we both agree on how many months there are in a year, they are working with a different Miles Per Year Expected. The *algorithm* isn’t wrong, because it isn’t *right*, either. It’s all dependent on what goes in, to determine what comes out.

What Happens When Things Change

Now that we are in COVID restriction, I still drive quite a bit to go visit immediate family every 2 weeks, but aside from that I’m working from home and I’m working out at home and so I don’t drive nearly as much. The *algorithm* still hasn’t changed — but the Miles Per Year Expected has. So now, my number looks a lot more like the dealer’s number — I’m driving about 12k miles/year, and so I would come in every 4 or 5 months. If the *dealer* changes their expectations, though, thinking “oh wow people aren’t driving with COVID we should bump that down to like 5k/year”, then our output of the algorithm will once again differ.

Slightly More Sophisticated Stuff

Simple algorithms are like the one above, it’s got one or more inputs (expected miles per year) and at least one output (Bobbie needs to get her car serviced in June). You can add more inputs, though, and some “checking stations”. These can be what are called “if” statements (If Bobbie likes strawberry pie then assume excess calorie consumption from April to July; if Bobbie likes blueberry pie then assume excess calorie consumption from July to August) which in turn can be on other “if” statements (If strawberries then In Season = April, May, June; If blueberries then In Season = July, August). You can take these “if” statements, or conditions, and sprinkle them in all of the parts of the algorithm: at the beginning, middle, and even with the ending to determine the ending.

Again, you probably do this all the time. Say you’re at Costco. I don’t know about you but I like to limit my Costco trips because crowds are not my thing; also because I like to limit my trips in general (I’m the sort of person who has a categorized grocery list). Most folks have a grocery list, and most folks have a Costco list. You’re at Costco, and they have special pallet stacks of stuff on sale (the pricing usually indicates how much off). And you’re in front of the toilet paper, which was not originally on your list. This is a more sophisticated algorithm you’re running in your head:

Inputs:

  1. Toilet Paper is On Sale
  2. Toilet Paper is 36 rolls
  3. Sale is only good for about 1 week
  4. I am not coming back to Costco for at least 3 weeks.
  5. How much toilet paper do you have at home

Evaluation: Here you need your algo to check a few things:

  1. Do you have the money in your planned budget for the extra toilet paper that was not on your list? – this is an evaluation that you can do with only one of the inputs – the Sale Price
  2. Do you need toilet paper between now and the time you *think* it will next be on sale? – this evaluation is done with the input of the volume of toilet paper you have at home, plus the amount of time between now and when you think it could be next on sale. (You know the next time you’re coming to Costco, in at least 3 weeks. But it may not be on sale then.)
  3. Do you have the storage capacity for the extra 36 rolls? – this evaluation is done independently of 1 and 2 — straight up can you stock 36 rolls or not?

As you evaluate each of these, you spit out the “result” of your algorithm, perhaps as these steps (remember, these assume you didn’t need toilet paper right now, and that this was just something to evaluate on top of your regular list):

  1. If I have money for this, then go to step 2. Otherwise, keep rolling my cart.
  2. If I think toilet paper will be on sale the next time I am here,
    1. *AND* I can last that long until I need toilet paper, then keep rolling my cart, else
    2. *AND* I cannot last that long until I need toilet paper, go to step 5
    3. If I think it will not be on sale next time, then go to step 3
  3. If it is worth it to me to delay purchasing the toilet paper for next time at the expense of the sale price (e.g., is 3 weeks wait better than $4 off?), then keep rolling my cart, else go to step 4
  4. If I can store the toilet paper, go to step 5. Else, keep rolling my cart.
  5. Buy toilet paper.

Here’s the thing: this evaluation happens in the space of a minute or two in your brain, standing at the endcap of toilet paper in Costco while trying to avoid getting sideswiped by carts and small children running to get the free food. You probably spent more time reading through that list than you would actually doing the evaluation in your head, at Costco. You’ve just run an algorithm, because you could easily have replaced “toilet paper” in this decision, with say, “steaks” or “beer” or “high-end whey protein shake mix” or “kale” or “salmon” or “bread” or any of a number of consumable goods. You could replace the windows of your visits to Costco with different figures (I know folks who go every week, every two weeks, only when needed, etc.). You could replace the amount of the sale price in the evaluation (e.g., $4 trade off for your visit window may be enough. But is $2? Or would $10 be a good trade off of convenience for a 2-month window? etc.). The *steps* are the same, the kinds of things that you are checking in the steps are the same, but the specifics differ from situation to situation.

Algorithms In the World

When we say “Facebook runs an algorithm and so they know you like Argyle Socks”, we mean that Facebook has a HUGE volume of inputs (ones you give it and ones it infers and ones it purchases) and a HUGE volume of conditions it evaluates.

It can for example extrapolate from the data you give it (say, photos, comments on friends’ posts, clicks you do *on Facebook*, etc.) that you like socks.

It can infer from things your friends post, or from cookies it drops (think: little text tracker that sits in the background of your computer that, when you leave Facebook.com, gets “looked for” by other websites that Facebook has deals with. That rando website checks to say “hey computer you got a Facebook cookie?” and your computer says “yup I got a Facebook cookie, it’s cookie number bla-bla” and that website says “cool beans thanks I’ll make a note of it”. Because Facebook *made* the cookie, it knows that bla-bla belongs to you. And because there’s millions of sites that Facebook agrees to check for cookies with, that sites that Facebook does not own or operate, Facebook can know that you went on Target, for example, and shopped for argyle socks.).

Facebook also straight up purchases data. “Hey argyle sock company, let me know the typical demographic by zip code of people who buy your socks!” When the argyle sock company comes back and says “ok so like in 98074 the typical argyle sock purchaser is female (we infer this because they bought women’s argyle socks) and over 30 (we infer this because she didn’t use pay pal or apple pay she used like an old school credit card)”, Facebook can marry that up with marketing data that says the average 98074 female over 30 also is also married with an income bracket of XYZ and likely owns and doesn’t rent.

Facebook can then take all of *that* data and run it through *another* set of checking stations and say ok so if she likes argyle socks then with this other data we have about her *what else* can we market to her? Maybe there’s a high correlation of female argyle sock wearing disposable income homeowner to coffee consumption. Let’s try that. Oh, did she click it? Our checking stations were *right*, let’s use them more. Oh, did she not? More data for the checking stations.

This is just one (very tortured) example: nearly every site you interact with (not just Facebook or its properties), every company that you purchase goods or services from (e.g., banks, insurance companies, etc.), and most especially every company you work with that gives you something “for free” (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc.) collects this information, and has their own special list of algorithms they chug through and spit out ideas as to what you like or don’t like, what you do or do not want. Sometimes they sell these ideas, sometimes they purchase other’s ideas and marry them up with *their* ideas to get super-specific ideas about you. The more inputs they can get, the more outputs they can test, and the more testing they do, the more accurate they can get. This isn’t just about argyle socks either: they can suggest or infer political preference, disposable income, sexual preference, charitable leanings, religious leanings, and so forth. They can then market to you based on what they think you want to hear, or want to read, or want to buy.

All just an algorithm.

Art and Artifice, Requirement and Request

This time last year, my brother, my son, and I were in Disneyland. It was the first time the three of us had been together, the first time we had been as adults (well, I had taken the kiddo but he hadn’t really been an adult until this time), and it was all the things I appreciate about Disneyland: a predictable experience, people on their best behavior, cleanliness, and a sincere acknowledgement that the world doesn’t actually work that way but wouldn’t it be lovely if it did? I love Disneyland. Yes, it is artifice and yes, it is not real. As active escapism goes, for me, it’s right up there in my top three. (Books are and forever shall be the top one.)

When I was a kid, I lived in California, and so a Disney trip was something that happened once a year with camp, and once a year with my family. As such, I would reliably get physically ill the night before – waves of nausea, I couldn’t eat, I was a jumble of nerves and had fitful sleep. As an adult this happens to me still; plus all of the associated accoutrements of generalized anxiety disorder: I am, as my husband puts it, constantly anvil-spotting. Imagine a videogame where you know you’ve entered the boss fight space by a change in the music — now imagine you hear that change in music but there is no boss fight to happen. You’re picking up the mail. You’re filling birdfeeders. You’ve just finished a day of meetings. It’s like your brain decides, “hey, everything’s going fine, let’s panic now: ok heart rate you go up, lungs? I want you to pretend like you can’t get air. Stomach — do that Disney thing. And then let’s just shut it off after about 10 minutes of googling panic attack symptoms. Sound good?”

I wasn’t formally diagnosed until two years ago, and before that I had already started to take this into my own hands as a project. If I would anvil spot, I would anvil spot my anvil-spotting. I talked to a therapist about the attacks (only long enough to talk about the physical bits, let’s just ignore the mind racy bits) and she suggested breathing exercises. I have a friend who is an amazing music teacher and specifically vocal coach (I have seen her in opera, I will go to anything she is in, ever) and had her teach me how to breathe. (She, being the smart cookie she is, also had me learn music theory, because she knows I like math). With the ability to reactively control an attack, things got better. When I actually got cognitive behavioral therapy, the proactive side of things got better.

To be clear: I’ve also learned to use this as a power: where I used to get caffeinated and reorganize friends’ garages or clean kitchens or such; now I am in a space to professionally execute in job whose whole purpose is to identify all of the things that can go wrong and come up with contingency plans.

Yes, I’m still fun at parties.

We are one year into the US general acknowledgement of the pandemic, about two weeks away from the anniversary of when it got real for most of us — we got sent home to work and ten million people got sent home to not work. (I am dripping with privilege, folks: I “get” to work from home, I still have my job; my kid is actually doing *better* in online schooling than in-person schooling, my expenses have gone down, etc. etc. It’s not fair. I know it’s not fair. I am trying to do things to help.) Our political system and the people in it very courteously (/s) displayed possibly the most effective and thorough civics lesson we had encountered in our generation: I would wager a majority of folks had no idea that the electoral college worked the way it did, or what the electors did, or when they met, or when and how the Senate and House met to vote and ratify, or all of the different deadlines with that, until 2020. Our financial and employment systems very courteously (/s) displayed the most effective and thorough economics lesson we had encountered in our generation (well that whole Great Recession should have learnt us but this was a step beyond): the stock market is not the economy and the job market is not the stock market. We learned that our most critical workforce is the least paid and provided for; we learned that nearly 40% of all landlords are mom-and-pop mortgagees that are left unsupported and whilst renters are randomly assisted (or not — moratoria or not, some landlords are engaging in good faith and some are not; some renters are engaging in good faith and some are not) no mortgage relief for these small-shop landlords exists. For all of you thinking landlords are large corporations, consider that friend of yours who elected to rent out their house while they moved to the Bay Area or Texas and rent an apartment — they are a landlord now.

Everywhere you look there is work to do, and/or opportunity: yes, there is value in framing these things with a silver lining (as in, identifying the things that are going well and recognizing them) but let’s not let that get in the way of the remaining work to be done.

As individuals, and as US Citizens, there is the temptation to indicate “well we voted and that’s that”; e.g., by voting I have exercised my voice and therefore I participated in the process and therefore I have done what can be done (protest aside). (When I say protest, I mean peaceful march, not breaking-and-entering, not threatening people with bodily harm, but instead I have snacks and a water bottle and I am using my voice and this sign to bring awareness to my cause). In addition to my consistent reminder that there are more elections than just the Presidential and MidTerm ones — for example Washingtonians our next one is in April — there are other ways you can influence the system. I’ve written before about how all politics are local and it’s still true. You may not like the person who was elected to represent you but they work for you and you get to tell them what your thoughts are and how you’d like them to proceed.

If you’ve tried that route and it’s still not working for you then you can get involved in the nonprofit space — there’s a lot of them out there and they’re probably doing a thing you’d like to support, either monetarily or with time (they may use your brawn, they may use your brains, they may use both).

If you’re not really into that sort of thing then see about local organizations of which you are already involved — maybe your local church, PTA, school, kids care center, etc. has something you can help with.

And if you are one of the millions of people who need this help I’m telling the other millions of people (well I know not millions of people will read this but let’s just pretend, shall we?) then know that there is help — albeit difficult to find. Start with your local library, believe it or not. King County Library System for example offers a whole lot more than books and periodicals – printing services, resume-writing classes, even help on filing your taxes. The King County Library System Foundation also offers literacy programs, and digital literacy and internet services for folks. Hopelink can help you with food, housing, financial services, employment help, transportation, and a whole lot more.

I do not suffer the illusion that some day we will all get to live in a cleanly-designed, hyper-efficient land of wonder and magic, where people are a shade nicer and things are a shade rosier (and with churros!). We will not get to live in Disneyland. We can, however, work to make it better.

Conservative

(NB: this isn’t actually political, although there are some strong parallels in parts.)

I work in the “tech industry”, for a large company, in the Seattle area. I’ve been an “engineer” (the profession includes program management, software/hardware development, and analytics, among other things) for a little over sixteen years. And I am conservative.

Believe me when I tell you I am trying really hard to see both sides.  I’ve taken steps to educate myself, even though I don’t identify with some of these new ideas. I can “speak” the language, but I don’t want to have to.  I just don’t want things to change; I don’t think that makes me a bad person but I’m watching things progress and I have to somehow keep up with it all. Why can’t I just keep querying my databases using SQL?

(Was that introduction meant to be double-entendre? Yes.  Did it get you all shocked and thinking that perhaps neither side of an equation is necessarily the extreme? Hopefully.  Does that mean there are no extremes in the world? Of course not; the phrase “extreme”, by its very definition, means it is atypical. Finally, yes, learning and growing as human beings is a hard but necessary thing.)

I went back to school in the early millennium to learn about computer programming and database theory, having resisted “going into computers” as the family trend. I fell in love with database theory (and practice) and at that time the name of the game was SQL (Structured Query Language). (For understanding, the name of that particular game *had been SQL* for at least a double decade already).  I am, very much, a creature of structure and definition and I found SQL intuitive and easy.  I spent the next decade working with it, refining my skill, getting it to do some perhaps unnatural things, and generally enjoying that this was a language I could speak.

Fast forward another ten years or so and I’m in a different role (and have been in different roles; my LinkedIn job history looks like it was plotted by an inebriated kitten) and the call for writing queries is much diminished. In the intervening ten years another popular query language has arisen, courtesy of my very own company, and it’s driving me nuts.  KQL, the Kusto Query Language, is the “no SQL” language used to query Azure Data Explorer clusters, and it’s *just enough* like SQL to trick you with its wily ways and not at all enough like SQL to behave in polite society.

For the uninitiated: SQL follows a prescribed list of things you MUST do (you must SELECT something, otherwise nothing happens, you must state where that something is FROM, you must identify what the something(s) are). There are things you MAY do, but you can only do them in some places: you SELECT first, you then indicate WHAT you selected, then WHERE it is from, you may then GROUP, indicate if it is HAVING a condition, and/or ORDER your results.  Barring some fancy stuff you can do like linking up Data Source A to Data Source B in certain ways, and some rules about what you can do with the stuff you’ve selected, that’s it.  Simple, refined, elegant, transactional, neat, orderly. If SQL were a desk there would be nothing on it, and all of the papers are filed in neatly-labeled folders, and all of the pencils are in the correct drawer and sharpened and facing the same way.

KQL is your stoned college roommate’s nightstand which serves as a desk (nightstand, dinner table, etc.), piled with papers in any which way, but *somehow* they are able to retrieve *exactly* the term paper they need to turn in, right now, because they “just know”. There is *barely* any structure – you start by simply naming the first data source you’re pulling from (no Select, no indicator that that’s what you’re doing, you just say your TableName). Then each subsequent thing you want to do is marked by a pipe |; which I guess is fine.  From there on out, though, the rules are pretty wishy-washy: do you want to filter out things first? Sure, put a “where” to start.  Oh, do you want to now go pick what you want to see? OK you don’t “select” them, you “project” them — unless you’re creating calculations in which case you “extend” them, unless you intend to group them in which case you “summarize” them.  And you can do those in any order, multiple times, throughout your whole query.  I mean, you can literally have a query that STARTS with a where statement and ENDS with a select, with five other where statements and a whole splattering of calculations in between. Where is the elegance? Where is the neatness? Where is the order and preservation, I ask you?

Proponents of KQL will be quick to point out that this flexibility offers you the ability to pre-filter a ginormous data set in advance of the things you want to select and calculate, meaning the machine has to do less work (it only has to calculate the things you want it to and not necessarily all the things in the data sets you’re extracting from). Hogwash! When it was my day we calculated all the things or we created subqueries and it worked just fine! Besides, if your query is so cumbersome you’re probably not using indexes properly and should optimize your queries.  Why should *we* have to be punished into using some newfangled query language because *you* want cheap data?

I could, as I believe you understand now, rant and rave about this for hours. One of my very favorite work friends had to listen to me mention how much I do not like this language repeatedly, to the point that it’s a snicker from him when I say it in meetings (I still feel like sending it to him in instant messages on occasion). I won’t give it more space here, because I’ve said it and it’s out there.

I recently (well, about four months ago) took about six hours and studied KQL.  Armed with a “conversion” doc and five or six real, pragmatic queries I needed to write, I drilled through until I got the hang of it.  I can query in KQL, it is the preferred language for the majority of datasets I care about these days. I can speak this language enough to make my way about the country and transact business; it is not my native language and I still do not “think” in it. The point though is things do move on, and as uncomfortable as it is, I needed to learn this new thing. I don’t have to like it, but I do need to be able to understand it. And I can.

Even if it drives me nuts.

(Post-publish edit: This was originally written on 14 December 2020.  On 6 January a whole passel of people went to the capital and what started as some form of protest turned into something much, much worse, and people died. I’m leaving the post as-is, because I do not believe all conservative-leaning political folks are spoken for by those who were at the capital that day. Note that politically, if it’s important to you to understand my motivation or writing, I lean left.)

After Life

(Note: This is the last one of these I’m going to write for a while. Not because they’re particularly depressing for me, but they can be a bit of a downer for others. Still, I’ve had a couple of people ask about “what happens next”, so without further ado, here’s what happens next.)

(Also note: this isn’t about the spiritual afterlife — the one that happens to your spirit when it leaves the body, if that is your belief. This is about what happens to others who are still in this life, when that happens, in a practical tactics sort of way.)

I once had a break of a whole week between two jobs — a real break, I had left company A and was moving to company B. In preparation for that I started a checklist of all the things I was going to do during that week — various house stuff, crafting projects, probably catching up on filing, reorganizing the pantry — and it grew. The checklist started about four weeks before the break, and about one week before the break, it was complete.

I had done all the things on the checklist.

It has taken me years to allow things to sit on a list for their appointed time, because my instinct is to do the thing if it can be done. This has historically resulted in manic cleaning fits, late-night papers, insomniac email, and associated unhealthy behaviors; I’m working on it. Still, I typically craft my resolutions for the New Year around Thanksgiving and start addressing them around mid-December.

I’ve had a will, and the standard, boilerplate living will/healthcare directive since I had my son. I felt like I had done all that needed to be done, things were addressed, and so if something were to happen to me, the “work” left to my estate would be trivial. My mom also had a will, a healthcare directive and healthcare power of attorney (that specifically named me). It took seven months from the time of her passing to the last bit of paperwork/administrative work to be complete.

(NOTE: I AM NOT A LEGAL PROFESSIONAL AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TALK TO ONE). In the interest of preventing others from going through this same hassle (inasmuch as it can be avoided), I’m going to share some specific experiences and some guidance for you as you think about your own paperwork or guide a family member through theirs.

When my mom got put on hospice, the hospice team suggested reaching out to make pre-arrangements with a funeral home. We did do that, a local place that was hugely sympathetic and understanding (I had to do it virtually thanks to the viral outbreak), and walked me through the process. They had a lot of questions that were not answered in mom’s documents: did she want an obituary? Did she want a full or partial viewing? What kind of container did she want her remains in? Did she want them interred in a cemetery or to come home? And so forth. Learning: go talk to the local funeral home/investigate their site and look at their intake forms. It will give you an idea of the questions you should either have answered in your will or separate letter to whomever you want taking care of that.

When it happened, the home walked us through the initial administrative process, and we notified mom’s lawyer that she had passed. Both the home and the lawyer walked us through next steps, which included such things as “let us know” (the home) “how many death certificates you need”, and “get me a death certificate and the most recent bank and title statements of the joint properties listed in the community property agreement” (a thing my parents had in addition to their will, that was supposed to streamline the process and avoid a lengthy probate). Learning: each financial or legal institution you will deal with will want a *certified* death certificate. So each life insurance, bank, etc. Start with five if you can, or if things are super-tight, start with the one and then ask each office to send it back. (In Washington State, death certificates are about $20 each, and your funeral home can get them for you as part of their service).

About a month or so in to going through mom’s papers, we discovered not one but two ancient life insurance policies – one opened up as a “savings account” for her by her father when she was born (the kind you pay each year and then cash out at 21, except she didn’t) and one she opened when she was still married to my dad, her first husband.

The savings account one wanted not only a death certificate but receipts from the process, and when they made a copy error (I am not making this up) and copied the receipts over the death certificate they held up progress for FOUR MONTHS while they sent me form letters saying they hadn’t heard from me. (I’d call and they’d tell me the form letter wasn’t as specific as it could be and that they wanted a new death certificate. When I pointed out they already had one and that their copy error shouldn’t be my problem, they agreed and said they’d handle it. The next month I’d get another form letter saying they hadn’t heard from me. Repeat.) Learning: the Insurance companies aren’t just going to let you file a claim and receive the paperwork and have it be all fine, be prepared to spend some phone time and (in my case) know who the OIC (Office of the Insurance Commissioner) is in your state, the state the life insurance contract was opened in, and the state the insurance company operates in. (In my case, I ended up opening a complaint in California, Pennsylvania, and with the BBB).

For the one opened in her first marriage, the insurance company did NOT care that there was a will, that my mom had divorced my dad, and that my mom had remarried. The beneficiary in this policy was my dad, and so to my dad the payment would go. (Dad mailed the payment to my StepDad because my dads are cool). Learning: Check your beneficiaries, especially if you have had a life change. Those can override any sentiments in your will.

Additionally, with Life Insurance, the appreciation you get on it (e.g., if the policy matured N years ago and therefore has been collecting X interest since then) is taxable. Learning: Talk to an accountant/estate planner about how that works and/or talk to yours if you are on the receiving end about the tax implications so you’re ready. (Also, not every insurance company withholds anything from this payment. I have a letter from the “savings” insurance company saying they did. The actual check stub and accounting does not show this. I’m not saying that insurance company sucks, but I won’t be voluntarily doing business with an insurance company whose name rhymes with Detrimental).

(Incidentally, the local banks and mortgage company, the department of licensing and the social security office all went easy as pie.)

Dollars and cents aside, there’s then the physical artifacts: what do you want to become of your stuff? I’m not talking about the stuff you name-check in your will — the family opal ring or the signed print or such — I’m talking about your *stuff*. Your clothes, shoes, etc. mainly. In my mom’s case, she had a lot of nice, barely worn things from a stretch of cruising. The nice things got donated to a local women’s shelter, as did unopened extras of toiletries and such. There were also some not-nice things, and those went into the trash. (I don’t think my mom ever considered it but I think she would have agreed with a women’s shelter and would’ve disagreed on the “not nice” label). Learning: if you have a preference, spell out where you want your stuff to go. If you don’t, spell out that it’s up to the person executing the estate.

It probably comes as no surprise that I processed this grief the way I process most everything — there was an Excel spreadsheet, a detailed One Note; there was lots of productive activity, there was lots of avoidance of the icky, emotional deluge (which didn’t turn out to be much because, as I sorted out with my therapist, I’d been grieving since she got admitted to the hospital)– but I hope that the learnings from this will help you and/or yours in how you approach your preparations, perhaps as a New Years’ resolution.