Category Archives: Life

3 Stupid Article Title Patterns

If you use social media (e.g. Facebook) a lot, you’ll notice that your friends probably share a lot of crap, ranging from Farmville invitations to ‘inspirational’ (*cough*) articles. Over the years, you probably noticed that a lot of the articles they share seem to follow a small set of clichéd patterns. Here are three particular ones I’ve come across.

1. n Things

stupidtitles-nthings

Look at the image above. The article itself and the majority of the ones linked on the side follow the same pattern: “6 Reasons…”, “5 Things”, etc. In fact, I deliberately used such a pattern even for this article, to help get the message across.

An “n Things” article is typically little more than a random list of items, often based on the author’s limited experience and viewpoint rather than on any relevant sources. There is no particular structure in such articles. In fact, even the numbering itself is misleading: these articles often list items in no particular order. This is in stark contrast with factual news articles which use the inverted pyramid as a model to present information progressively in descending order of importance.

stupidtitles-topn

A variant of this is the “Top n” article, such as “Top 10 places to visit in Dublin”. In this case there really is an ordering. However, it’s not always quite reliable. If it’s some top 10 list on someone’s blog, then that’s just the (only?) 10 places he happened to visit. Some more reputable sites might refer to some actual statistics, but the criteria used to evaluate the items and come up with a ranking are usually quite debatable.

2. Questions

stupidtitles-question

I’m not the first person to feel uneasy whenever I see a title that ends in a question mark. In fact, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines states that:

“Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Again quoting the above-linked Wikipedia article, Betteridge was quoted thusly about a particular article:

“This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”

I don’t think this requires further elaboration.

3. Future Predictors

stupidtitles-predictors

Articles that contain the word “Will” are usually one of two types. If they end in a question mark, then refer to Betteridge’s Law above. If they don’t, then they’re making some kind of grand statement about how things will be in the future.

You might think that people writing such articles have been blessed with the gift of prophecy. More often than not, however, they have no idea what they are talking about. Such articles tend to make grand claims about the future, either depicting some sort of utopia or scaremongering on the bleakness that is to come. But in reality, nobody knows what will happen in the future, and the people who write these kinds of articles are usually not among the few who might be able to make educated guesses about what will happen.

Not convinced? Check out the comments for the above Slashdot article.

What’s in a Job Title?

The companies I’ve worked for so far have always had some kind of hierarchical organisation. For instance, you start off as a Software Developer, then you are promoted to Senior Software Developer, and so on. However, I’m aware that there are other companies which prefer to have a flat hierarchy, and keep job titles to a minimum.

Well, what’s in a job title, anyway? Does it really matter what your job title is?

Motivation

There’s this scene from the film “Kingdom of Heaven“, where the main character (Balian) selects a peasant and knights him on the spot. The bishop is horrified.

Bishop: “Who do you think you are? Will you alter the world? Does making a man a knight make him a better fighter?

Balian: “Yes.”

You see, making a man a knight doesn’t give him any special power. But he knows that he is now a knight. This means that he is responsible to uphold his duties as such.

On the job, it’s pretty much the same. Becoming a Senior Software Developer does not make you any more able in your work than turning 18 years old makes you suitable to drive. But it does put you into a bag of a handful of accomplished and trusted developers, and as such you will work a lot harder to show that you deserve that title. It also means that you will most likely take more initiative in your work, and go outside the scope of your individual duties by guiding others in performing theirs.

A little recognition goes a long way in motivating individuals.

Categorisation

Some companies offer the excuse that their employees have the same job titles or salaries in the interest of fairness, so that they are all treated equally.

Such companies should wake up and realise that people aren’t all equal. Some work harder than others. Those people do not deserve to be lumped in the same boat as those who do a miserable job.

The CV Factor

When an employee applies for a job, having “Senior Software Developer” looks a lot better than “Software Developer”.

It is true that job titles mean different things from one company to another. In some companies, a Software Developer is merely responsible for coding; while in others, he might actually be managing a whole project. Hiring companies should ideally look beyond the job title and ask about the roles that the candidate played in his employment.

However it is also true that companies and recruitment agencies receiving a lot of job applications often resort to simple filtering at face value in order to reduce the number of applications.

Consider this: individual A has been a loyal and hard-working Software Developer for 20 years, and his company never gave him a promotion. His friend, individual B, has been promoted to Senior Software Developer and then Lead Developer, even though his skills and responsibilities are less than those of individual A. When recruiters look at their CVs at face value, who will they prefer? What will they think about individual A when they see that he’s had the same role for 20 years?

How Learning to Play an Instrument Makes You a Better Professional

I briefly mentioned the importance of experience in my recent article, “On Military Intelligence“. There are many skills which you can only learn in one specific way: by doing it a lot. Such skills include reading, writing, driving, art, programming, and music. That’s why “practice makes perfect”.

Music is a daily commitment, requiring lots of practice in order to learn and master the theory, practice, techniques and styles. One could even go as far as to say that it quickens the mind, as the arrangement of notes into various scales and patterns is almost mathematical in nature, and one learns to reason about them.

However, beyond the music itself, learning to play an instrument can help you develop certain characteristics that are particularly important at work. Let’s see what these are.

Patience

Music is like software: if you’re going to work on it, then it’s worth taking the time to do it properly, as I’ve written in my earlier article, “On Goal-Orientedness and Mediocrity“. Attempting to rush something will only result in poor quality. While such deficiency may go unnoticed for several months in software, it is much easier to realise when a tune you’re playing doesn’t sound right.

Music gives you the patience to take the time to do things the right way.

Confidence

Playing in front of other people, even if it’s just the teacher, can be intimidating. Aside from any possible confidence issues that one might have, there is the fear that doing something wrong in front of others will make you look stupid.

And that’s a good thing, because this pressure causes you to prepare well for when you need to do something in front of people. The next time you give a presentation at work, or you lead a meeting, you know you’d better know what you’re talking about.

And at the same time, playing regularly in front of people and getting used to the fact that you’re doing it right has the effect of boosting your self-confidence and helps you overcome any fear of audiences.

Humility

When you’re a 27-year-old who’s been playing for six months, and you’re in the same room with 12-year-olds who have been playing for six years, that’s a pretty humbling experience. They’re kids, so you should know more than them, right?

It’s also possible that there are people with less experience, but who are much better than you are. The same can happen at work – someone younger might have a lot more talent than you.

You can be arrogant, and perceive such people as a threat. Or you can accept the reality that they have a lot to offer, and try to learn from them, and in doing so benefit from their experience and become better at what you do.

On Military Intelligence

In a war situation, military intelligence is of vital importance. There are two aspects to this: knowing yourself and the enemy, and knowing the terrain around you.

When you know yourself and the enemy, you are better prepared to face any situation that may arise. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” says (emphasis added):

17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory: (1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. (2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. (3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. (4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. (5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

18. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

While knowing your forces and the enemy’s forces is important, knowing the terrain is often even more important. If you’ve played chess before, you’ll know that although each side has full information of the forces at play, it is often a positional advantage that makes the difference. One who often prevailed in battle through terrain tactics rather than strength in numbers was Castruccio Castracani, whose story is narrated in an appendix to Niccolo’ Macchiavelli’s “The Prince” – among other things he used rivers and narrow passes to secure victory against larger forces.

A good chunk of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” deals with the various types of terrain and how to use them to your advantage. For one does not obtain the advantage in battle by knowing what terrain is around him, but by knowing how best to use it.

Both aspects of military intelligence (knowing yourself and the enemy, and knowing the terrain) are beautifully illustrated in Chapter 14 of Niccolo’ Macchiavelli’s “The Prince“:

As regards action, he ought above all things to keep his men well organized and drilled, to follow incessantly the chase, by which he accustoms his body to hardships, and learns something of the nature of localities, and gets to find out how the mountains rise, how the valleys open out, how the plains lie, and to understand the nature of rivers and marshes, and in all this to take the greatest care. Which knowledge is useful in two ways. Firstly, he learns to know his country, and is better able to undertake its defence; afterwards, by means of the knowledge and observation of that locality, he understands with ease any other which it may be necessary for him to study hereafter; because the hills, valleys, and plains, and rivers and marshes that are, for instance, in Tuscany, have a certain resemblance to those of other countries, so that with a knowledge of the aspect of one country one can easily arrive at a knowledge of others. And the prince that lacks this skill lacks the essential which it is desirable that a captain should possess, for it teaches him to surprise his enemy, to select quarters, to lead armies, to array the battle, to besiege towns to advantage.

Philopoemen, Prince of the Achaeans, among other praises which writers have bestowed on him, is commended because in time of peace he never had anything in his mind but the rules of war; and when he was in the country with friends, he often stopped and reasoned with them: “If the enemy should be upon that hill, and we should find ourselves here with our army, with whom would be the advantage? How should one best advance to meet him, keeping the ranks? If we should wish to retreat, how ought we to pursue?” And he would set forth to them, as he went, all the chances that could befall an army; he would listen to their opinion and state his, confirming it with reasons, so that by these continual discussions there could never arise, in time of war, any unexpected circumstances that he could not deal with.

Why should we care about military intelligence?

Because just like being well-prepared for war increases the likelihood of victory, being well-prepared for life’s situations increases the likelihood of success.

As a software developer, for instance, one must be familiar with the technologies, the tools, the concepts, the challenges, and even the soft skills.

  • Knowing the tools, technologies and concepts allows you to use the most effective techniques for the situations you will be facing.
  • Knowing the challenges allows you to find the most effective way to address them when you encounter them again in future.
  • Having well-developed soft skills allows you to maintain strong client and internal relationships, allowing you to leverage human resources.

This kind of preparation comes with experience, and so it is important to gain as much experience as we can – not in terms of years, but in terms of scenarios.

Another example is the job market. Just like it is important to keep training for war during times of peace, it is good and healthy to know the job market even if you are stable in your job, because this makes you well-prepared for any time of need, and at the same time keeps you aware of opportunities. Learning the skills commonly requested in job descriptions makes you both more effective in your current job, and competitive when looking to move.

In all aspects of life, be well-prepared by:

  • Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Developing your strengths and addressing your weaknesses, through personal development.
  • Knowing your competition (“the enemy”).
  • Knowing the various factors in the scenario (“the terrain”).

On Goal-Orientedness and Mediocrity

It seems that Jessica at TodayWasMeaningful has just posted another brilliantly insightful article, “what you lose when you’re busy“. This article deals with the need to slow down and enjoy individual moments in your life rather than continuously feeling pressured to do things.

I am very familiar with this theme. I have always been goal-oriented myself. After obtaining my first degree, I could not resign myself to live merely for the work routine, so I started a Master’s degree, continued to learn programming on my own time, pursued other software projects, etc. And as the years rolled on, I found that while I was still managing to keep up with my tasks, most of the time I rushed through them, precisely because my time was so limited. The end result was that quality suffered, and that I was unable to complete any spare-time projects I wanted to do, and because of all my commitments, I did not have time to learn technology that would be useful for my career development.

It is surprisingly easy to get addicted to goal-orientedness. You know, I can actually write this article here and now because I took the morning off from work, without having planned to do anything specific this morning. Until very recently, I would never have done that. Any vacation leave I took was booked with specific goals in mind: to travel, to study, to run errands, etc.

Why is idle time such a stigma nowadays? Is it really so terrible to spend the morning listening to the waves, or watching TV, or dusting off the furniture? That same idle time is that which allows you to relax, to recollect your thoughts, and to be creative. It is not hard to imagine why there is so much pressure to do, and to achieve, nowadays. Just think of how many years it will take you to pay off your mortgage, just look at how many requirements are listed on an average software developer vacancy nowadays, look at all the things that are expected of you from your friends, your colleagues, your family, and most of all, yourself. Because although it’s really easy to get addicted to goal-orientedness, it’s also quite easy to break out of it. It’s just a switch, and it’s in your mind.

I want to clarify something here: setting goals is not a bad thing. The bad thing is biting more you can chew, attempting to be too productive without leaving any quality time to yourself; being entirely absorbed in the routine. I think Jessica’s article points this out extremely well:

“i slow down when i’m eating so i can savor the flavor, i try and walk slower so i can see all of the beauty, and i try not to rush.  i do my best to not wish my days away- to trust in the process and appreciate the steps it takes to get there.  because what i know is that i’d hate to reach the destination to find that i’d missed out on the journey.

And this is something that I think is a big problem in today’s society. Have you ever noticed how the entertainment industry (think computer games, films and music) is mostly producing unoriginal stuff using the same formulas as before, and the quality is constantly getting worse? Have you ever watched a romantic comedy or a disaster movie that actually didn’t use the standard template for its story? And that’s not just limited to the entertainment industry, as Chris Colombo’s article on academic trends illustrates:

“Ironically, the increased pressure and competitiveness on academics, has only served to lower the quality of research – researchers might be busier than ever writing project proposals and reports, supervising students and churning out papers, but the quality, the innovation, and the pioneering elements are slowly being eaten away.”

The constant pressure by large institutions to satisfy the demand is resulting in mediocre, short-sighted work, which is far within the potential of the people who do that work. In a society where money and prestige are vital to survival, and where these may be obtained more easily with mediocre work, there is little reason to stand out. This is just another form of goal-orientedness: neglecting the means to focus on the end is a complete waste of potential.

Someone very close to me used to say:

“What is worth doing, is worth doing well.”

The way I see it, if you’re going to invest a significant amount of effort to do something, then you should take the time you need to do it properly, or do nothing at all. It is better to attempt nothing at all than to waste your time and effort on something meaningless. Failing fast leaves you free to pursue whatever ideas are most appealing at any given time.

On Detachment and Goodbyes

So as I explained in the welcome post, I am bidding goodbye to Programmer’s Ranch and starting something afresh with Gigi Labs. Programmer’s Ranch was probably my most successful website so far, and it is a little sad to let it go after slightly less than 18 months.

In life we come across many sad moments, and the demise of a blog is certainly among the least significant of these.  Whether we’re talking about a colleague leaving to pursue a new venture, or a friend who is emigrating, or someone close who just passed away, it is never easy to say goodbye.

There’s a nice conversation from Star Wars which I think contains a few nuggets of wisdom that apply in such cases. Taken from this question, here it goes:

Yoda: “Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin! The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side.”

Anakin: “I won’t let my visions come true, Master Yoda.”

Yoda: “Rejoice for those around us who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy, the shadow of greed, that is.”

Anakin: “What must I do, Master Yoda?”

Yoda: “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

This advice might sound a little bit brutal, but I think it depends very much on the interpretation. For me, detachment from the things and people that were an important part of our lives does not mean that we don’t care about them. It merely means that we accept that nothing lasts forever. It is for this reason that we make the most of the time we have available with them. And when the time comes to part ways, and for all the time thereafter, we remember and appreciate the part they played in our lives, and the part we played in theirs. Because each one of us has developed into who we are as a result of the interactions we had with others, much like invisible threads.

This also ties in with Buddhist teachings on attachment and liberation:

“The Buddha saw that people’s ignorance of the nature of change was the cause of suffering. We desire to hold on to what we value, and we suffer when life’s inevitable process of change separates us from those things. Liberation from suffering comes, he taught, when we are able to sever our attachments to the transient things of this world.

[…]

“The challenge is not to rid oneself of attachments but, in the words of Nichiren, to become enlightened concerning them. […]

“In their proper perspective–when we can see them clearly and master them rather than being mastered by them–desires and attachments enable us to lead interesting and significant lives.”

So perhaps Yoda will be disappointed to find out that we’ll still miss the people who are no longer a part of our lives. However I think he’d be pretty proud of us if, whenever a friend leaves for greener pastures (whether it means a new job, a new country, or whatever), we know in our heart that we played an important part in his/her personal development, and life in general.