Eulogy for Morris Pfeffer

(I delivered this eulogy at my Dad’s funeral, December 4th, 2016).

First, I’d like to remind you of some of my Dad’s favorite sayings:

“Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money”,
“Work is the curse of the drinking class”, and
“Blessed are thoe who go around in circles, for they shall be known as big wheels”.

In response to political nonsense at work:
“When in panic, fear and doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”, or
“Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice: pull down your pants and slide on the ice”.

I noticed that today is also the day of Fidel Castro’s state funeral. I can’t decide whether this would have annoyed Dad, or amused him, so I choose to assume he’d be amused: “if I have to go, I’m taking Castro with me.”

One of the proudest things in his life was his rise, on the basis of merit, to a professional position from a working-class background. His father, Albert, was a trolley-car driver, and his mother was a homemaker. He was born following his own path. His mother told me that his favorite haunt as a boy was the Brooklyn library, especially after he found a way to climb through a window after hours. He told me that he knew from the age of 8 that he was going to be a scientist.

He was the first member of his family to go to college. After college, he defied his family’s wishes and attended graduate school at the University of Vermont and Syracuse University, earning a doctorate in biochemistry. He did a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory, and became a subject matter expert in pharmocokinetics, the study of how medications are absorbed and eliminated by the body. He worked at pharmaceutical companies, and finished his career at Bristol Labs. He enjoyed his work, and it was a source of great pride to him; it was an inner resource that carried him through many difficulties that he encountered in his life.

He was a very quiet and independent person, who rarely shared his thoughts with anyone. He retired in 1994, and spent the rest of his life reading books on history and physics. He was a devoted husband, deferring to Nancy in many matters, and stubbornly asserting his will in others. In the early evenings, over a beer, he could briefly become talkative, and tell stories of his childhood, his parents, and his workplaces. He once told me that he was an early developer of Narcan, a drug that blocks opiate receptors and immediately stops a heroin overdose. This drug is notable for simultaneously saving people’s lives and killing their buzz, which now that I think of it seems like a legacy that would have pleased Dad.

He fought a very brave battle, that lasted for years, against his final illnesses. In a single week in 2012, he had his bladder removed to treat cancer, followed by a complication that required him to have an emergency colostomy. He survived peritonitis and multiple rounds of chemotherapy; he eventually bullied his doctors into reversing his colostomy, in spite of his age and ill health. He was diagnosed soon after that with a 3rd degree heart block; not long after that, he suffered a gastric bleed on an airplane, and was diagnosed with an entirely new type of cancer. His final illness came as he was preparing for battle on this new front. He always said that he had a high tolerance for pain, and his ability to cope with pain and worry was incredible. When invited to sign a do-not-resuscitate order only a few months ago, he refused to do it, saying: “They’re not going to shuffle me off that easily”. He took to saying, “I intend to live forever: so far, so good.”

He never got depressed or gave up. He was an incredible example to me in the last few years, as I struggled with health problems of my own. But throughout my life, he was the person I most wanted to be like. His early family life, with a younger sister whose parents did not permit her to attend college, made him something of a quiet feminist. He was determined that I would have a career, and after some early thrashing around, I accepted what I felt was my destiny: I became, like my father, an applied mathematician.

I was happy to be able to tell him over the phone, just before he passed away, that everything I’ve become, I’ve done because of his example: a happily married woman, a career woman with interesting work, and an independent and skeptical thinker. He was a stubborn curmudgeon, but he could always make me laugh, and I loved him with my whole heart.

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A Bestiary of Turbulence

I’ve suffered from fear of flying for about 20 years — and I do mean suffering.

When it first came over me (which it did in the course of only one or two flights, which weren’t even especially bad flights), I had never in my life felt that kind of raw animal panic. I kept hoping the condition would go away as quickly as it came — I’d been flying for many years without fear. I’d even survived an ‘incident’ in which an emergency door fell out of the wall into my lap as the plane landed (it was USAir, if you’re curious), and gone on to fly again for several more years before the phobia came over me.

But the fear of flying never did go away, and twenty years later, I’m proud to be able to say that at least it hasn’t stopped me from flying. I am a much calmer flyer these days than I used to be, thanks to a combination of strategies that I use for keeping myself calm. These are, in rough priority order:

  1. Xanax  — absolutely necessary, though not sufficient to keep me calm all by itself. I accept no substitutes; in particular, alcohol seems to make things worse;
  2. Meditation, mainly of the simple, close-your-eyes-focus-on-your-breath sort. I hate to meditate normally, but it keeps me calm in an airplane and, incidentally, also in MRI scanners and dentist’s chairs;
  3. Mental imagery, about which more below;
  4.  Clutching the arm of my neighboring passenger if the turbulence gets bad enough (I always ask politely first, and no one has ever said ‘no’). I thought I was over the need for this last-ditch strategy, but on a recent flight, things got bad enough for me to break down and ask my neighbor to hold my hand. At least I was able to ask first, instead of just clutching.

The ‘taxonomy of aircraft turbulence’ grew out of my efforts to develop mental imagery to combat my panic. I’m not afraid of, or disturbed by, turbulence on open ocean, which is very similar to open sky in most ways. Both water and air have tall waves, deep troughs, changes in density, and sudden choppiness. I may hate flying in rough air, but for some reason, I actually enjoy choppy boat rides. I tell myself that, just as a boat is designed to withstand rough water and cars to withstand rough roads, planes are designed to withstand rough air, which is really not such a different thing.

So as I breathe, I try to imagine I am riding in a car or a boat. It is easier to do this with some types of turbulence than others, and so different types of aircraft turbulence require different strategies. As you can see below, I’ve developed ways to cope with most of these, but at the extreme end I can still be reduced to mindless panic.

A bestiary of turbulence

Turbcon 1. No turbulence — like being in a room anywhere, only with a nice soothing very loud hum. I have no problem with this.

Turbcon 2. Sodapop turbulence — hard to explain, but it feels like there are little tiny bubbles of turbulence beneath the plane. Kind of fizzy and nice, really, like a boat ride in a lake of your favorite beer (I don’t like beer, so I imagine ginger ale).

Turbcon 3. Gravel road turbulence — crunchy, noisy.

Turbcon 4. Rocky, rutted road turbulence. Not very fun. I’m breathing as calmly as I can, and my eyes are closed so I can’t see the airplane flexing. Yes, I can see the airplane flexing. I think.

Turbcon 5. Wavy bay turbulence — the resemblance to a car on the road turns into a resemblance to a boat on the lake, being bounced by moderate waves and then dropped again. Very unpleasant, but with effort I can at least maintain my mental focus and therefore my dignity.

Turbcon 6. Open ocean turbulence — you go way up, and then come way down with a bang. I hate it when aircraft go ‘bang’. What exactly is doing that banging? The flight attendants are seated by now. Conversations have stopped. I am probably holding someone’s hand.

Turbcon 7. Any resemblance to anything earthbound is gone. This turbulence resembles God swatting violently at a balloon. The flight attendants are not only seated, they’re praying along with the passengers.  I am probably gibbering and whimpering — I’m not sure what I would do; it’s been a long time since I encountered a flight this rough.

Thank you, commercial pilots, for (mostly) flying around this stuff nowadays. And thank you for not dropping any more emergency exit doors in my lap.

 

 

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My workplace loyalty manifesto

This morning a friend happened to link to an article entitled Do you want to join us? Read this first and reconsider, by John Mihaljevic, the managing editor and owner of BeyondProxy LLC. It’s a very clear statement about what you’re signing up for if you go to work for BeyondProxy, with quotes such as:

 

Then there is the issue of equity. Here I have to say, “equity in what?” My company is my life — my working/creative life anyway. You are not getting equity in my life. Certainly not immediately, and certainly not if you leave.

Pay is another huge issue. The day you join BeyondProxy, we take a hit to cash flow. Not only do we become less profitable from one day to the next, but the demand on my time and attention escalates. I love my independence, lack of schedule and, frankly, lack of responsibility for other people’s livelihoods. I have three kids, and that’s quite enough responsibility for me.
 …
By removing the anxiety-inducing logic chain “no pay, no food, I die”, the salary frees you up to do what you love and not worry about your existence. In this sense, I am taking a risk on you by committing to paying you no matter your near-term contribution to the business. I might do this for three months or for a year, it depends.
 …
and finally:
If the point of “exit” does come and the value of the business is clarified in concrete terms, then I will think about each individual contribution by going back to the things I value most in a business context: hard work, long-term orientation, and loyalty (boldface mine).

 

My friend asked why you wouldn’t want to go to work for such a no-BS kind of guy. My own reaction to his article was very different; I wouldn’t want to invest my emotional energy in John+, the man or the company. I  appreciate his honesty, but honesty is a base expectation I have from my employers even if we have worked out a straight exchange of money for time (this base expectation is, sad to say, usually not met these days, but that is another problem not for this article). What struck me as funny was that, after being so brutally honest about the deal you get if you go to work for John, he stated that he values loyalty.

 

I’ve been a technical R&D manager at various companies doing remote sensing and geospatial R&D for over twenty years. I manage small-to-moderate groups of people with mixed skill-sets, working on image processing software projects. I’ve been at my current workplace for six years, which is a long time by my industry’s standards these days. I have a team of about 10 people that I work closely with on technical projects, many of whom I recruited because we’ve worked on previous jobs together, and I found them to be excellent performers and human beings. I am a technical technical manager: I have a math Ph.D., I do R&D myself, and I do software development, in addition to my managerial work. I can’t imagine trying to manage teams like mine without commanding respect on a technical level.

 

John might find me a valuable employee, based on the criteria he states. I have a work ethic, and so he would get value for his money. I’ve never sought to cash out of the workplace, so I always work with a long-term orientation. But loyalty, unlike the other two criteria, is not about the work: it happens between people, and it is reciprocal.

 

My personal loyalty is worth a great deal. If I have given you my loyalty, that means that I consider myself to have some responsibility for your well-being, and I will give you what I have to give at the cost of my free time and comfort. If you have a difficult personal problem, I’ll keep your confidence and help you figure out how to solve it. I will invest in teaching you what I am able to teach, which is quite a bit, and I will be patient even if you struggle with it.

 

It means I’ve taken your measure as a human being over some length of time. I’ve probably watched you being loyal to me or someone else, and giving more than was completely comfortable for you to give (short of outright self-sacrifice, which I don’t expect and don’t give). It means I’ve given you a piece of my heart.

 

Here’s how this relates to what John wrote: if you come to work for me, then that means I’ve given you the chance to earn my loyalty, and granted you the first couple of points up front. The minute you walk in the door, I’m invested in your well-being. As long as you give the work your sincere best effort, I will consider myself to have partial responsibility for your livelihood and your success. I will work to find the right tasks and focus areas for you. If it looks like your project is going to dry up, I will take action to get you transitioned to a project with more longevity. I will take extra steps to teach you what you need to know if you are struggling, and I’ll do my best to protect your livelihood until you get on your feet. To summarize, I’ve granted you some equity in my life.

 

The downside: if you are a pure opportunist, you’ll probably reveal that to me very quickly. At that point, it will be really clear that I’m not the right manager for you, and you’re not the right employee for me.

 

I enjoy my work, but I’m not primarily loyal to either my work or to my company: I am loyal to people. I believe that most people come in to a job with the expectation of giving more than a straight exchange of work for money. Even if they are madly passionate about what they’re doing, they want to work with people they like and trust, and the relationship will go south in a hurry if liking and trust are not present.

 

I worked at Microsoft in the stack-ranking 2000s, where everything was very competitive and merit-based (in theory), and the incentives were such that teammates were turned against each other; there is nothing okay or right about such a work environment, even if everyone knows up front what they are getting into. I saw decent managers, caring people under ordinary circumstances, corrupted by this system and throwing their own people under the bus without a fight; I also saw a few managers who did their best to protect their people in an environment that made that exceptionally difficult. Those who were corrupted told themselves that they weren’t responsible for the implementation of the system, that they were just playing the business of management according to the stated rules of the game. It’s all okay if you have no responsibility for the livelihood of the people working for you.

 

I think that John is probably a decent guy, who has probably been burned by his employees a few times, and who just wants to get his deal out on the table and scare off anyone who  might burn him in the future. But he’s also scaring off the people with heart. He tells us that his company is about him, his own investment, and the work that it does; but the work alone will never earn or deserve loyalty,  no matter how worthy or interesting  it is. John loudly says that what he wants is to exchange your dedicated work for a straight-up salary. But in a softer voice, he also asks for a more emotional kind of energy over the long haul. I think that, whatever we tell ourselves about the coldness and money-drivenness of the modern working world, this is really what most of us want: a team of people around us that we can get to know and trust.
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Simple Kalman Filter on github

Today I made the wonderful discovery that Jupyter (IPython) notebooks that are hosted on public repositories on github are automatically rendered!

The rendering feature was added to github on May 2015 (link to announcement), so at least it’s been less than a year. This is a great thing, as it means that people like me can show off their work with a minimum of hassle.

Have a look at a simple Kalman Filter demo that I uploaded, that allows users to explore the effects of varying the filter assumptions on the resulting estimates.

Expect lots more demos to come!

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Top 100 geospatial companies

Check out this roundup of geospatial startups and established companies from geoawesomeness.com.

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A happy occasion

On February 2nd, 2016, DigitalGlobe’s patent for the automated HPC implementation of a Metric Information Network (MIN) production system issued. A MIN is a large-scale network of ground control points (GCPs) that can be used to precisely position imagery on the earth. Learn more about the project here.

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The fastest way to triage email

It goes without saying that your inbox needs regular management, or it’ll be full to overflowing. Either way, every day more stuff comes in for you to remember to do. Some of it is urgent and gets handled by you immediately; some of it is temporarily or permanently ignorable, and will work its way off the bottom of the list as you handle more important things.

Years ago, after too many forgotten tasks and missed deadlines,  I read a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen. I followed its excellent prescription for getting your life’s tasks under control. I keep spare copies of this wonderful book in my office at all times, to give to people that I think might need or want to read it. I pick them up in used bookstores whenever I find a reasonably priced copy.

I won’t go over the GTD approach to inbox triage here, as there’s so much written about it everywhere else on the internet; but I used it for years. It’s a rather zen-like process for making sure nothing slips through the cracks. But over time, as I progressed from my small company to larger ones, and from individual work to management, I began receiving more emails every day. Email-wrangling began to be something I spent a significant amount of my day doing, which stunk.

Eventually, I started experimenting with cutting corners to reduce my email time. What follows is the method for email triage that I eventually settled on. It’s a variant of the GTD method — it has the same output (i.e. things in to-do lists, and an empty inbox), but for some reason I can do it in much less time.

First step: Create two folders named __ARCHIVE__ and __HOLD__. In Outlook you can create ‘action buttons’ that, when clicked, will move the selected email to each folder — I recommend creating them if you’re in Outlook. Not sure what the equivalent thing is in gmail.

Second step: Start at the top of your Inbox list and ask of each item: Is there anything in here that I have to do? If the answer is yes, move the email to __HOLD__. If no, move it to __ARCHIVE__. Continue until the email Inbox is empty.  That’s the end of “Phase 1”.

EmailTriage1

Third step: Now move over to the __HOLD__ folder and start at the top. Each email that’s now in __HOLD__ had some action item or task associated with it; as you read each email, put the associated ‘next action’ into a separate list (I like using Workflowy for this purpose). If you’ll need to read the email later for reference, when doing the associated task, also flag (Outlook) or star (gmail) the email. Then move the (flagged or unflagged) email to __ARCHIVE__. Continue until the __HOLD__ folder is empty.  That’s the end of “Phase 2”.

EmailTriage2

That’s all; your to-do list is populated, and both Inbox and __HOLD__ box are empty.

You’ll notice that with this system, everything ends up in the __ARCHIVE__ folder; I rarely if ever delete emails, because I never can guess which ones I’ll need again. Anyway, the time I spend dithering about whether it’s too important to delete is time I’d rather save.

I used to keep emails in separate folders (such as DEFERRED, DELEGATED, etc), thinking this helped to keep me organized; but I gave this up. The search function in the single __ARCHIVE__ folder does a better job. I flag the emails I know I’ll need to find again, but only because the flags help to make them ‘pop’ visually in the midst of all the other emails.

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