Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Day 11: Do you work efficiently in the home office?

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

Now that we all work from home: How efficient is the home office? Are we more or less productive? What are the main hurdles?

For myself, I am unsure. Some things seem easier and faster here, but with no kids I am in a privileged position concerning the ability to concentrate at a task. Working with texts is significantly improved, Emails and Tickets take less time of my days though the volume has not decreased. On the other side I only save 20 minutes commuting time per day which is less than most colleagues.

Communication is, of course, more difficult. Partially it can be attributed to me and others not being familiar with doing everything through phone calls and video conferences. Though it also speeds up things (especially when you can avoid a long distance travel), it is harder to get points across. To verify that everyone is in agreement is as fast as ever, but the more contentious a debate is, the more difficulties arise due to the form of communication. It is far easier to become angry with a voice or with an image than with a real person.

I found out that I can partially mitigate the negative impact on communication by careful preparation. Making sure that everyone is aware of all points, having your thoughts already structured and perhaps as part of an agenda significantly improves online meetings. Se my remarks on day 3 concerning that. Bur preparation comes at a price in terms of time.

With the home office comes a tool chain. In my case Microsoft Teams. We started using it for six months before the Corona crisis. But we were slacking. It was more of a game. Those of us who had customers with heavy Teams usage saw more of it than others, but overall we could have done better.

Since then, there hasn't been a single day I did not learn anything new about Teams. There are things I really appreciate like the planner. But there are also issues that drive me crazy. There is no proper "push-to-talk", changing the tenant is slow and tedious. But most important: Teams does not like the love it is currently getting from all the users around the world. It has not been the most reliable and stable platform lately.

Though I consider Teams to be an asset for my work, I also have to cringe at the thought how great this tool could be when it would complete the whole nine yards and not stop after 7 and three quarter.

I am not the most social person in the world and do not miss the idle talk. But there are people that will really feel the hit. Getting hold of the colleagues you need to talk to has been easier than expected. Everyone was doing his/her best to be reachable. But the multitude of channels to communicate sometimes also creates confusion. We are still in the early stages of adoption of the distributed workforce.

Overall I can say that I am not as effective as in the office at the moment. I work more time in total to achieve the same output. The extra work time is more than the commuting time saved. But I also see ways to optimize things and improvements when are better adjusted. If the crisis lasts as long as I expect, we will probably become more efficient at home than we have been in the office.

I would welcome feedback on how the home office is working out for you. Please let me know!

Monday, March 30, 2020

Day 10: A house for Flip

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

Though we just yesterday had our first real snow this winter, spring is approaching rapidly. The grass has started sprouting. So countermeasures have to be deployed.

I am a big fan of automation so I delegated lawn-mowing already some years ago to a Husqvarna Automower 305. It was an instant hit with our neighbors. They could stand there for hours and watch it driving around randomly. For them, it had a Zen-like quality...

Probably it was inevitable that the lawn-mower received a name. The neighbors called him "Flip" after the grasshopper from Maya the Bee. Since one name was already assigned, we did not bother to give him another one.

Looking backwards, it was one of the best invests we did. Not only does Flip save us time, but also the quality of the grass has improved significantly due to the mulching.

But the weather in Northern Germany is not the fairest (forgive me the small understatement). Even though it is just a machine, it did not feel nice to expose Flip to the forces of mother nature without any protection. We really cherish the service he provides and want to keep him around.

So we decided to get him a garage. Together with the yearly release onto the open range (all 900 square feet of it) he received a shelter from the elements. Enjoy dear Flip!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Day 9: First round of Pen&Paper RPG online

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

I am part of a group that plays a pen&paper RPG together for 30+ years. We decided to not let small issues like the current Corona epidemic to come between us and our hobby. At the same time we want to keep the social distance. So we called for technology to the rescue.

Luckily it has much improved (a small understatement) since we started playing together in 1988. That not only applies to the rule set (we started with Version 2, Version 5 is current) but also to the tools available to us. But there is a downside as well: we play Midgard, a system that is practically non-existent outside our own country. The total pool of players is rather small. The limited market does not attract many companies or coders to solve our problems.

One hobby project (MOAM) allows us to manage the character sheets online on a shared platform. A D&D player may smile about it, but for our community this tools is unique and a huge improvement. But it only supports the newest (Version 5) rule set. This was the biggest hurdle on the way to an online round. Once you played 20 years with Version 3 as we did, you become hesitant to jump two version ahead at once. In order to soften the blow, we decided not to migrate our current campaign at once but start with new characters in a new campaign. That way we can experiment without breaking things.

Audio and video conferencing was done through Discord. For me as a PC gamer, it was easy. I had all the tools in place. But some of us faced quite a challenge to get Microphone and Camera working. Due to professional experiences with new users, we scheduled several technology checks to prepare the session. It took me a while to remember that Windows 10 has privacy setting that prevent apps from using Camera and Microphone. Also Discord contained some challenges, but this page was a huge help (hint: Legacy Mode). The quality of the technical equipment and Internet connection varies as the virus did not ask for an appointment and supply is currently limited. But we got everyone online and that counts.

One huge deficit is the unavailability of a proper CoIP (Chili over IP) implementation that would allow me to serve food. All players complained about the service downgrade in that regard.

Online sessions require also more discipline while the chaotic talks were always a huge part of the fun. We still have to find the optimal balance here between intelligibility and spontaneity.

Preparing the session is more labor intensive. This is partially due to the deficit of MOAM which does not a proper monster database (though I can user other players characters as NPC) and also does not provide a lot of assets. But I will not complain as it is much better than everything we had before. The more work intensive setup is partially compensated by the fact that we decided to hold small sessions (goal: 2h, max: 3h) at first.

Overall the session was fun and we decided to go on next week. I will report.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Day 8: Corona, Brittleness and Efficiency

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

The last years have been focused on making the economy more efficient. But the corona crisis now shows us the downside of our efficiency. The economic systems in turn have become more brittle.

Wikipedia says "A material is brittle if, when subjected to stress, it breaks with little elastic deformation and without significant plastic deformation." This definition also shows what one property on the opposite side is: Elasticity. And since we all love elasticity in our systems: How can those systems be brittle? Let me explain.

Elasticity is not just a checkbox we click "on" when we design a system. It comes at a cost. For example:
  • Services are elastic that have unused resources that can be used to satisfy a higher demand.
  • Organisation are elastic when people have time they can invest in managing a crisis.
  • Projects are elastic when there are buffers (in terms of time & material) to deal with unexpected problems.
Elasticity always implies not using 100% of the available resources. That is not perfectly efficient. So in order to increase our efficiency, we eliminate non-allocated time of people, CPU cycles or delivery windows. But in turn our systems become more brittle.

Elasticity also means a system or process bends under stress: the functionality becomes limited or restricted. For example it is slower to react or may show unfamiliar reactions. This is not a desired property.

So how elastic do we design something? We want it to handle the normal stress without breaking. But what about unusual stress? How much stress to plan for is still economical?

We found very interesting ways to approach this vector:
  • We outsource it: We have a provider who shall provide us with the elasticity on demand to cope with unusual high stress. "Our contracts will protect us!"
  • We accept the risk: We assign a cost to the (unlikely) case, multiply it by the probability and create reserves to deal with the fallout. "Our bank account will save us!"
  • We create pans for a breaking system: We plan for the case of disaster and on how to continue or restart the system in case of a major breakage. "We know how to get out of the jam!"
  • And one of the most common one, we ignore it. As we have no way of dealing with the risk without breaking our business case, we prefer to ignore the risk. "It is extremely unlikely and therefore will not happen!"
Usually not a single approach is taken, but a combination of several methods is applied. For example: we have a cloud provider who promises us to increase our resources in case we need them, assign a small probability to the scenario of the cloud provider failing and build reserves for that case, have an emergency plan to move our business to another provider quickly and ignore some scenarios.

This not just true for the small web shop next door who sells handcrafted items, but also for whole national economies. In the competition between nations for wealth our economies have become more and more efficient by using the same means as described above. We just increased the scale by several orders of magnitude while maintaining the same coping mechanisms.

Those mechanisms are not as stupid as they sound here. They have been working quite well for some times and have gotten us through quite a few earthquakes, hurricanes and a lot of other disasters. So we used them to become even more efficient. And we have become huge fans of this efficiency. It is nothing short of a miracle that with the click of a mouse we can get nearly every item even from China for dime within a week. After two years that feels like a universal law.

But the permanent drive for efficiency has also produced additional side effects:
  • Cluster risks: Similar systems can operate more efficient if they are placed physically close to each other.
  • Cascades: In case of a failure in one system the load is redirected to a similar system.
  • Inter-dependencies: Every system depends on several others to work. This allows us to specialize (and therefore increase efficiency) but create the danger of (unseen) circular dependencies.
Examples are:
  • Pharmaceutical companies have similar demands on raw materials and trained people. Though they are competing with each others, they tend to install themselves in close physical proximity.
  • Cloud services of customers are often to intended to be cloud agnostic (with limited success). If a cloud provider fails, they shall be quickly deployed to the next one.
  • Mines require complex machinery which is turn fabricated by using the same ores.
Overall all systems have become more and more efficient to handle the usual stress. 

The corona epidemic is far from being just "usual stress". We discover that our usual mitigation strategies do not work on this scale:
  • Contracts cannot save you from a government ordered shutdown of your provider.
  • The financial reserves may be calculated for one week or even a month of production outage, but a longer duration may cause the company to close.
  • Disaster recovery plans are designed for one's own company to experience a crisis alone and not in concert with several others, competing for the same resources required for a recovery.
  • Business scenarios considered unlikely or even impossible occur right now quite frequently.
  • All competing companies producing some specific goods are located close to another and are affected by the same regional outbreak/shutdown.
  • Failing companies shed their customer base which turn to the competitors and overloading their infrastructure and causing a chain of failures.
One property of brittleness is that the work-piece or system at the point of too much stress does not bend but break. This is called a "catastrophic failure". Meaning the affected piece (or in our case: system) has to be replaced or rebuilt before it can be used again. 

Lacking sufficient storage (another inefficiency we got rid off via "just in time delivery"), this requires other systems to work and provide the resources for a restart. The circular dependencies already mentioned may cause overlay systems to fail and make restarts/rebuilds really painful and slow.

And this is why the current crisis worries me. That is also the reason why I am very much in favor of the government intervening and trying to prevent additional failures for financial reasons.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Day 7: No post today

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

I said "Accept no excuses" and here I am totally exhausted.

In theory it was a vacation day to use up my last remaining day from last year. But in effect it was a series of phone conferences. Home office is even more difficult on the work-life-balance scale.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Day 5: Working from Home (Part 2: Challenges)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

Working from home has challenges and I think they are different for everyone.

I play the home office game in the "easy" mode. No kids in the house and a separate room to work evade the most common challenges. Also my internet connection and IT setup have no problem to cope with the requirements. So what could possibly challenge me?

My primary challenge is that the hour seems to have become shorter. I do not save much time by avoiding the way to and back from work. Shopping was never a thing for me. So home office holds little in terms of extra time revenue for me. On the other hand additional time drains have appeared. Online meetings take up more time than presence meetings. This is not primarily due to the meeting itself, but I spend a lot more time beforehand preparing and structuring my points. Heading into an online meeting unprepared is a safe way to a disaster. Preparing food takes more time than heading for staff canteen. But the largest drain is the multitude of communication channels (Teams, Email, Texts, etc.) that offer an undisciplined person like me a lot of options to get sidetracked. And take to those opportunities like a duck to water. I still have to find a new equilibrium.

Another long term challenge is the excellent stock of food I have at home. Stress and readily available food make a deadly combination for me. This will really will haunt me. The current counter strategy is to spend as much time with indoor sports as possible. But that can only compensate a limited amount. Again my lack of discipline falls back on me.

This problem is compounded by sitting too much. In the company I easily walk 7.000 steps on a day in office just visiting and talking to colleagues. The number has tanked like the economy during corona and on some days I do not reach 3.000. Add video games as my favorite stress relief and <WHAM> you have the perfect storm.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Day 4: The over-sized home IT (Part 1: Gaming rig)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

In the current crisis, I am lucky in several regards. First I am a technology hoarder. With unused stuff alone you could probably run a small company. On the second point I was just switching from one upstream technology (DSL) to the next (Cable). So when the crisis broke out, I postponed the cancellation of the first one. Counting the LTE backup, I now have three lifelines to the world. And last but not least, I enjoy tinkering with it.

One of the favourite things to tinker with is the gaming infrastructure.

For more than 40 years, computer games has been a very important part of my life. More specific: I am a playing on a PC. But I am not very good at building and customizing a PC (the technology has become too small and my eyes too weak). So last year, I decided to switch to a Shadow PC. My current Desktop PC is (by gaming standards) rather weak. All the heavy lifting is done in the cloud and streamed to me. I can use the Shadow PC from my Desktop, my iPad and on my TV set (thanks to a Nvidia Shield TV). As a positive side effect I also put all the noise into the cloud as well (not a small plus considering the noise level of a high end GPU).

Overall I am a happy customer of Shadow. With the current price change, the cloud based gaming PC is now also significantly cheaper than having a high powered PC at home, especially if you put the electricity costs into your calculation. On the downside, an excellent Internet connection is a must (which adds to the costs). With HD you will need about 20 mBit/s for a adequate quality, with 4K you can easily use twice that.

My biggest doubts beforehand were about the latency. As I am customer of a french company, my cloud PC is currently running in Paris. So I have about 30+ ms round trip time. It would probably be more critical if first person shooter were still a genre for me. But at my advanced age, those games no longer appeal to me. PvP also was never high on my list. With my restricted subset of games, the additional latency is not noticeable.

I prefer the Shadow PC compared to services like Google Stadia as I can still use my own game library. Thanks to the Humble Bundle, I have a huge stash of un-played games, enough to get through half a dozen virus quarantines. The Shadow PC is not tied to any gaming platform: I have Steam, GoG and Origin installed and they co-exist like on a normal PC. The game do not need to be ported or adapted to the platform, they run out of the box. For my purchases I have a multitude of independent stores available. This independence is a very big asset and should not be underestimated.

In case you want to try it for yourself, please use the friend code MARQFBQH. You and I, we both get a discount if you do.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Day 3: Working from Home (Part 1: Video Conferences)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

A major part of my daily work now consists of participating at video conferences. Tough most of you have participated in a few, I would still try to summarize the most important points from my perspective. If some parts of this text seem familiar, I borrowed heavily from @Isotopp.

It is much easier to join a presence meeting unprepared and to recover gracefully. Online meetings are not so forgiving. Being badly prepared (either as moderator or participant) is a lot more obvious in a video conference. It is close to impossible to save a chaotic online session.

Every online meeting of more than two people should have a clear agenda and it should be known to all participants beforehand. Either it is part of the calendar invitation or at least the URL pointing to it is included. If the person inviting is not the moderator of the meeting, the role also should be designated with the invitation.

The purpose of the agenda is:

  • To define the scope and goal of the meeting. What is the desired outcome?
  • To deliver the necessary information about the topics discussed.
  • To assign roles within the meeting (e.g. "I invited John to give us the forecast for January")
In an ideal world, the agenda is a living, collaborative document that can be edited during the call and be converted into a protocol.

A lot of conferencing tools come with a chat channel (e.g. Teams, Discord). If the tool does not come with a chat, provide one through a link within the agenda. 

Use the chat channel aggressively to prepare the meeting. Point out key issues beforehand (e.g. "I want to understand how that tool is to save us money?"). You may find out that you already have a consensus on some topics and may drop them from the agenda. On the other hand, you may also identify contentious points that may require to arrange a separate meeting to decide. 

That chat channel can also be used to collect questions (which are answered at a opportune moment) or to indicate the intent to comment ("*raises hand*" or "*wink*"). In a larger environment it can be used to keep a speaker list for everyone to see. So not every breather is used by someone else to make his/her point.

When you are delivering a message beyond Yes/No, turn on your camera. When speaking, you are always delivering cues by your mimics. People understand you much better when they see your movements.

Finally: the best online meeting is the one that will not take place. If you manage to use the steps above to make the conf call superfluous, you save everyone a lot of time.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Day 2: Self-Maintenance (Part 1)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive.

Any offensive relies on the troops being in the shape for it. Especially during the coming weeks and months,  this will be a challenge. For one we are being more and more restricted in terms of movement and the psychological impact (at least on my side) has increased the intake of sweets.

I start the crisis with two preconditions. My knees are completely worn out and I am heavily overweight. Both problems are interconnected as the weight (and the attempts to reduce it) has put a heavy strain on my all joints. Especially my right knee is giving me troubles. If it were a horse, I would have to shoot it. Even though it is not a horse, I sometimes felt the urge to shoot it anyway.

Last year I made a huge push to reduce my weight. Some colleagues in my company had shown me, that it can be done. It is very motivating to see this with a person you know. Knowing something is possible can account for more than a quarter of the way. So I went on an OptiFast based diet and lost 35kg in four months and another 5kg in the following months when I was phasing out the diet.

I stopped my diet with the holiday season last year. I gained 4kg since then, but that is not a worry. Originally (in the pre-virus time) I planned for another push this spring. But I have decided to postpone the push as it is a too heavy strain on the organism.

So at this point, I have a lot of stress rolling my way (thanks Corona!), I will spend my days indoor for weeks or months and on top I will combat stress with sweets. Not a good combination.

Last year I started sessions of physiotherapy to improve my knee. I cannot give enough praise to the women from Bartsch & Benk. They did not get the knee back into mint shape (that is just impossible), but they managed to improve it a lot. I no longer want to shoot it.

My physiotherapist has lately gone through a special training to help people to improve their breathing. One thing that really shocked me, that she had to pay the training from her own money. Interesting was the information what can be achieved by physiotherapy for people who are suffering from breathing problems.

But I am afraid that my own sessions of physiotherapy may become a victim of the virus as well. Currently there are no recommendations to shut down physiotherapy, but that may change at a moments notice. It might also be restricted as physiotherapy is much more important for the vulnerable group.

In order to prepare for this time, I have received a number of exercises for my joints. Unluckily I am not the most disciplined person.

Another asset for the coming time is my Stationary Bicycle. I bought it last may for pushing down my weight.

I found that iPad, YouTube and a Stationary Bicycle make a good team.

So the intent for The 100 Days Offensive is to

- conduct the exercises for my joints,
- spend enough time on the Stationary Bicycle for cardiac training and
- keep an eye on my weight.

As already said: I am not the most disciplined person. So I decided to make my data public, so all of you can track me and call me out if I slack.

P.S. I added a "Part 1" to the title as I expect that topic to re-occur during the next 100 days.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Day 1: The 100 Days Offensive

I have to confess, we were caught flat-footed. Though we received the first warnings in early January, we failed to prepare ourselves well enough. Now we are in the middle of a fight. And make no mistake, it is a real fight though the enemy is not visible.

I am seasoned five star armchair general and been steeled in endless sessions of Warhammer, Command & Conquer, Heroes of Might & Magic, Panzercorps and Age of Empires. With that vast amount of experience I can say with all authority: we need to regain the initiative. Luckily, there is a well proven method for this: to conduct an offensive.

But this one will need a long breath, it will not be one overnight or even within a week or a month. Therefore I hereby announce:

The 100 Days Offensive

Though I have the strong tendency to know everything better, even I have to concede that I am no virologist. It is extremely unlikely that I will have anything to do with the cure, even though my PC is folding molecules like crazy. This implies I will need to attack from a different front. So I have decided to launch my attack at the home front. That has the advantage that I can utilize my well proven tools: Mouse & Keyboard.

Every offensive does need a plan. I have to confess: I don't have one yet, it is just a rough sketch at this moment. But plans can and will grow. My intentions so far are:

  • We are not alone in this fight, so getting information flowing going needs to be step one. I will organize virtual rounds of Kaffeeklatsch. We must not allow the virus to disrupt our lines of communication. This will help us to preserve sanity and calm. 

    Luckily we have a lot of technology to do that. But not everyone knows or can use those technologies yet. So I will try to spread knowledge here. We also can build on a foundation that @akareilly has already started.
  • Core of the offensive will be one blog post a day for the next 100 days. Please accept no excuses from my side!
  • I will use every mean and method I have at hands to stay connected to friends and family. There is no experiment (e.g. How to play Midgard online? Which board games works well with WebEx?) I will shy away from.
  • Cooking and baking will be heavily intensified as it does not fight well with an empty stomach. I intend to launch a carpet bombing with food porn and recipes.

Further measures will be announced through my blog.

This is a free-for-all offensive. Conduct your own raids and share stories about it.

There are already inspiring examples all around already. The kids in our street started their own newspaper and have just delivered the third issue within that many days.