Tales from the jar side: Dealing with failure, Never postpone a progress meeting, and Shameless pandering to my awesome readers
Also: I once got only 7 points on a midterm exam, so I'm proof you can screw up and still do okay
Welcome, jarheads, to Tales from the jar side, the Kousen IT newsletter, for the week of November 28 - December 5, 2012. This week I taught my Managing Your Manager course on the O’Reilly Learning Platform, and two NFJS Virtual Workshops: one on Spring Data and the Java Persistence API, and one called Upgrade to Modern Java.
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The last couple of newsletters had lots of technical content, so I’m going a different way this week.
Dealing With Failure
Yesterday I played in a chess tournament: the 2021 Connecticut State Championships. I was in the Open section, since the Championship section had a cut-off rating of 2000 and included a couple of Grandmasters.
My results were quite mixed. I won 2 games and lost 2. The time control (Game in 55 minutes, plus a 5 second delay, meaning every time you moved the clock would tick down 5 seconds before it started using your time) was too fast for me. I need time to think, and even more as I’ve gotten older. I won the first round, but if my opponent had been cruel, instead of resigning he would have forced me to play it out and I probably would have lost on time.
Btw, that’s been the rule in the tournaments I’ve played since resuming live play this summer — everybody I’ve met has been very kind and friendly. Maybe it’s because I tend to give off easy-going Dad vibes, or maybe they’re all really like that, but the experiences so far have been very pleasant for me either way.
The second round I actually forgot that the start time was noon rather than 12:30pm (oops), so I walked in 20 minutes late to play a much higher rated opponent. I held my own and was even up a pawn for a while, but eventually lost on time. Sigh. I could really have used that extra time.
My third round was against a true beginner and became an easy win. She turned out to be a quite charming young woman, and we had a nice discussion afterwards. Apparently her experience in this, her first tournament, was also positive.
The last round, well. About that. This is now officially the worst rated game of chess I’ve played in my entire life:
Yup, not only did I lose, I got mated, in one of my favorite openings, in eight moves. Wow.
Let me explain. No, wait.
I was matched against someone with a provisional rating of 1973. That’s over 500 points above me, so I figured I was doomed. Still, I planned to do better than this.
If you want the details, when he moved his bishop to d3, I knew I’m supposed to oppose it with mine. The idea is that since black’s pawns are going to be on both e6 and c6, my light-squared bishop was going to be what they call a “bad bishop,” meaning it on the same color as most of my pawns, so it’s in my best interests to exchange it. What I forgot was that I’m supposed to move it to g4 first, before opposing White’s bishop, and now I know why: when he stops the attack, he blocks the Queen from moving to f3. By going to f5 directly, White was able to move his Queen to f3 directly, and I was already in big trouble. His Queen simultaneously attacks my Bishop and the pawn on b7, which also threatens the Rook on a8.
What I should have done at that point was acknowledge my mistake and move my Bishop all the way back to c8. I thought, however, that if I go to d7 instead, and his Queen takes on b7, I could then attack it with Bc6. Everything would then be protected, and his Queen would have to back off to, say b3. I could then take on g2 with my Bishop, and I’d be in excellent shape.
I was very surprised when he took on b7 anyway. Even then I was thinking his Queen couldn’t take anything, so I was okay, so I went ahead and put my Bishop on c6. What I somehow didn’t see is that sure enough, his Queen couldn’t take anything, but it could move forward to c8. That was — inconveniently enough — checkmate. I totally missed my opponent’s mate in 1. Ouch.
Why am I showing you this? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s because my reaction wasn’t to get upset or angry. I actually laughed. I mean, it’s such a blunder, such an example of chess blindness, that all you can do is laugh, right? I mean, I haven’t made a mistake like that since I first learned the game, around age 8. Wow. In fact, I still find myself chuckling just thinking about it.
My opponent’s rating was so far above mine that I was probably going to lose anyway, but still. At least I’ll never make that particular mistake again. Wow.
(BTW, I just saw the results for the tournament posted online. My standard rating went from 1463 to 1459, so the tournament was pretty much a wash anyway.)
Obviously, this isn’t the first time I’ve failed. So much of my life has been learning how to handle failure. In keeping with that, here’s the story of the lowest score I ever got on a test.
My junior year at MIT, I was working toward a double major in Mechanical Engineering and in Mathematics. That made an odd sort of sense, because for an engineer I was good at math, and for a mathematician, I did much better on the applications. Also it was my way of doing physics without being a physics major (a long story for another day). My first semester junior year, one of my classes was called simply Algebra, which was one of the most theoretical courses I ever took. For those who are familiar with the topic, it was course on Group Theory (groups, rings, and field theory), which I’m not even going to try to explain.
I’ll just say that the big result of the second half of the course was that polynomial equations of order n have n roots in the complex plane (i.e., a quadratic equation has two roots, a cubic equation has three, and so on) and leave it at that. When that professor said the word application, he meant how to use one theory to prove another one. This was real “castles in the sky” stuff.
The problem sets were really hard. Fortunately, I was taking the course with a true math major in my dorm, and he was really good at figuring out the solutions. We worked on them together every week. I understood his results, at least after he explained them, but I was growing concerned that I was less and less able to do the problems myself as the weeks went by. That fear, it turned out, was completely justified.
On the midterm, the total number of available points was 53 (I told you it was a weird class). Class average was only 19, so yikes right there. At MIT, one standard deviation above class ave was usually an A and one below was a C, and they didn’t like giving out Cs. I don’t remember what the standard deviation was for that exam, but it didn’t matter. My total score was a 7. That’s a failure by any measure.
Fortunately, by junior year I knew how to deal with it. I went to see the professor, told him what happened, took my lumps, and found out what parts I misunderstood. Between my problem sets, which continued to be good, fixing the problems I had, and doing some extra work, I managed to perform well enough on the final to scrape out a very low B. It wasn’t fun, but I got there in the end.
Looking back, I now realize that much of my life has been acknowledging my failures and dealing with them. The biggest one of all, at least in terms of its eventual impact on my life, happened many years ago when I got together with this girl I’d met when we were doing a community theater show together. I got scared of the strong emotions she triggered and a too-fast commitment, so as the kids today would say, I ghosted her. After about a week of that nonsense, I came to my senses. I called her up, took my lumps, told her I really missed just talking to her, and offered to do whatever was necessary to start over.
Fortunately, it turned out she was the forgiving type, as demonstrated by the fact we’ve been married for over 30 years now.
Never Postpone A Meeting
Speaking of learning lessons from the past, I talked about one in an article I wrote on Medium this week, in the Pragmatic Programmers publication. It’s called Never Postpone A Meeting, at it was about a big lesson I learned from the best manager I ever had.
Early in my time with him, my manager gave me an assignment and arranged to meet with me to report on progress on Friday. Thursday afternoon he came by my office to remind me about it.
I hadn’t made anywhere near the progress I had hoped, so I tried to beg out of it.
“Let’s postpone until Monday,” I said.
I hemmed and hawed, claiming I had a few items to “finish up.”
He saw through that immediately, and said no. “If you haven’t gotten much done, tell me that and we’ll talk about it.”
Me met as planned and I talked about what blocked me from making more progress, both technically and otherwise. To my surprise, he wasn’t judgemental at all. We figured out how to proceed, but more importantly, he made a key point.
“You realize,” he said, “that working over the weekend wouldn’t have fixed any of this, right?”
Absolutely. In fact, the points he made were:
Postponing meetings rarely changes how much you’ve accomplished in a significant way.
Postponing meetings tends to mushroom. If the first is delayed a weekend, the second slips a week, and later ones a month or more.
It’s always better to identify problems as early as possible, when there’s still time and budget to deal with them or replan if necessary.
I knew all that intellectually, of course, but I’d had a series of bad managers over my first decade in business and had developed a habit of avoiding situations where my progress was less than satisfactory. In this case, I admit I got lucky, because I had a really good manager who knew how to deal with that. Even now, though, whenever I’m tempted to delay a progress meeting, I force myself to resist the urge. The outcome is usually much better than I fear going in, and the weekend I save is my own.
Pandering? What Pandering?
Craig Calceterra, former lawyer turned baseball writer and author of one of the newsletters I actually pay for (Cup of Coffee by Craig Calceterra), talked about how athletes moving to new cities often tweet welcome messages that are little more than pandering to the local fans. He used this one as an example:
Between talking about how passionate they are, the references to Yadier Molina’s greatness, and the defensive gold gloves awarded, that tweet is carefully designed to appeal to Cardinals fans. For all I know he meant every word, but wow, that’s a really good job of saying exactly what he (or, just as likely, his agent or PR staff) knew they want to hear. That tweet gets an A+ in Pandering Composition. Calcaterra talked about how such statements confirm biases we have about ourselves, and how we are suckers for this kind of stuff. He concluded with:
And believe me, I know. Because I write for the most clever and savviest subscribers in the world. There’s no way you all would allow me to get away with anything less than a good insight along these lines. You keep me honest. God bless you all.
Not to argue with such a successful writer, but I’m forced to disagree. Readers of Tales from the jar side, affectionately known as jarheads, are by far the most intelligent, successful, and sophisticated readers in the entire world. These days it’s sometimes considered old fashioned to speak with true sincerity about the greatness of others, but my readers are simply the BEST and I don’t care who knows it. I am proud, and humbled, to provide you with this little newsletter every week.
On a totally unrelated note:
(Did you know that Ken Osmond (the actor who played Eddie Haskell) felt so typecast by the role that he left acting for a time and became a Los Angeles police officer? He even grew a mustache so people wouldn’t recognize him. He led quite a life, according to Wikipedia, which included getting shot in the line of duty and enduring urban legends that claimed he grew up to become either Alice Cooper (!) or adult film star John Holmes (!), one time even being forced to disrobe for the LAPD’s Internal Affairs division to prove he wasn’t the porn star. Oookay. He died quietly at home in May of 2020 at the age of 76.)
Writing Issues And More
As a reminder, every release of Dinosaur Comics uses the identical six panels, changing only the text. One release this week was perfect for me:
If I can’t use first person, I have a lot of trouble avoiding passive voice. I suppose instead I should say, passive voice is frequently to be avoided in my writing, which has caused me a lot of frustration.
There was a great NFT comic this week:
In astronomy, I’ve always wondered at the difference between the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. This tweet links to a very thorough article explaining it all:
Here’s a direct link to the article if you’d rather by pass twitter.
If you, like me, are keeping track of Magnus Carlsen’s defense of his chess World Championship, you may know that he broke through in an awesome game 6 that went on for 136 moves over nearly 8 hours. This tweet says it all, really:
This is a geek joke and I’ve seen similar ones, but I liked this version:
For the uninitiated, a 200 is a success (200 is OK, 201 is Created), 300s are redirects (304 is Not Modified), 400s are client-side failures (400 is Bad Request, 403 is Forbidden, 404 is Not Found), and 500s are server-side failures (500 is Internal Server Error, 502 is Bad Gateway). The full set is on this page. The 418 code is called I’m a teapot, and was originally an April Fool’s joke, but it now implemented in lots of places. I sense a fertile field of jokes for a future class.
Finally, this is every bit as freaky as it sounds:
I can’t believe I watched the whole thing, but it’s really hard to look away.
Spring Data and the Java Persistence API, an NFJS Virtual Workshop
Managing Your Manager, on the O’Reilly Learning Platform
Upgrade to Modern Java, an NFJS Virtual Workshop
The 2021 Connecticut State (Chess) Championships, at Wesleyan University.