Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial

Posted on Jan 10, 2018 in Books | 0 comments

Did you know your posthumous options are greater than pumping your heavy metals into the atmosphere and enclosing yourself in many thousands of dollars worth of metal box inside a concrete box only to turn into a hot stewy mess? For the most part, I didn’t.

This book dives into those alternatives, provides the history of them and the current funeral industry (hint: it’s mostly a product of the past century), and ultimately left me curious to find out more. How can I save my family money, time, effort, and give back when I’m already gone? All of these things are appealing and there are ways.

I won’t go into the various methods that are better than what we currently have at our disposal (hah), but suffice to say I have reached out to a local cemetery that is the largest in the country [and that I happen to often ride my bicycle through] performing “natural” burials.

With the subject of death being taboo in general, I found myself unable to put this one down as I was learning new things left and right. I won’t lie, I’m fascinated by the mortuary arts, but only in text; absolutely no desire to do that stuff. Anyway, after a few days, I did find myself a bit burned out on the subject of dying and decaying so my reading did slow, but the author wrapped it up nice and tight and drew things to a close before dragging on.

Highly recommended read. Even if you don’t, you should probably think about “life” after death. Never hurts to have plans. We’re all gonna die.

Raw Notes

  • The idea is to allow the body to rejoin the elements, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust.
  • Cremation, with its consumption of natural gas and electricity and release of mercury and other potentially hazardous emissions into the atmosphere.
  • Brackish blood streams from the tube and spills into the gutter that rims the embalming table. From there it flows into a porcelain basin at the head of the table called a “slop” sink and gurgles down the drain on its way to the city sewer system.
  • No federal law requires that a body be embalmed.
  • The few studies that examine the public health benefit to embalming show decidedly mixed results.
  • The state of Hawaii prohibits the embalming of a body infected with any of half a dozen communicable diseases.
  • Formaldehyde is nonetheless a human carcinogen, and because of its potentially toxic effect when released into the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates it as a hazardous waste. The funeral industry, however, legally buries over three pounds of the formaldehyde-based “formalin” embalming solution every time it inters an embalmed body.
  • The growing middle class worked to emulate the refined lifestyle—and the more involved funeral etiquette—of its “betters.”
  • When it came to elaborating on the simple funeral, capitalism and gentility proved a winning combination.
  • Areas of Anglo-Saxon Britain, where the dead were burned upon the “bone fires” from which we inherit the less funereal English word bonfire.

Book: The Oregon Trail

Posted on Apr 28, 2017 in Books | 0 comments

highway_36_maryville_ksMany men purchase a Corvette to satisfy their midlife crisis. Rinker Buck? Well, he chose to purchase a team of mules, a covered wagon, and began a many month journey to become the first person to drive the entirety of the Oregon Trail by those means in over a century.

This turned out to be decent reading for an Oregonian, but like the trail itself, it dragged on much longer than comfortable. As such, despite having no job, it took me far too long to finish.

The book teaches quite a bit about wagon travel (it sucked), mules (they’re awesome), Mormons (they’re trying to take over the trail), Indians (they were done wrong), locations on the trail, and the immense hardships faced by those making the great emigration, but unless the subject really fascinates you, you should probably skip this one. Not a bad read by any means, but there are likely better books in the subject and I already have a few hopefuls lined up.

Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love

Posted on Oct 14, 2016 in Books | 0 comments

inspiredlgLong time since a book review, eh? I might get back to it. I make tons of highlights when e-reading that I never get back to/review and therefore I get little out of. Recalling my school days, rereading my notes one extra time made them sink in way better – this is more for me than you.

Background: I moved from QA to Product Management about a year ago. Our teams were growing, I had a lot of product knowledge, I’m pretty decent at communicating, my background had me thinking of the customer already… It was a pretty natural fit. Still learning a lot, messing up a little, and enjoying it. If nothing else, it’s been great to have an opportunity to get out of QA – I was feeling a bit pigeonholed there and am no more.

Anyway, one of the best ways to learn this new role is through reading. I’ve reviewed a couple of design books on here before, but I’ve also read a lot more that I’ve not added. GETTING BACK TO IT STARTING NOW.

I discovered this book through a list of recommendations at work, which have been hit and miss. I’d call this one by Marty Cagan a hit and would definitely recommended it. There’s a strong focus on internet service products and consumers, but a lot of it crosses product and customer types.

My Highlights:

  • The job of the product manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.
  • Engineers are typically very poor at user experience design—engineers think in terms of implementation models.
  • The job of the product manager is to identify the minimal possible product that meets the objectives.
  • The product manager has two key responsibilities: assessing product opportunities, and defining the product to be built.
  • Your mission as the product manager during the implementation phase is to jump on their questions and get answers as fast as humanly possible.
  • It’s all about the team and the caliber of the individuals.
  • Everything begins with the right product team.
  • If you neglect the infrastructure, all software will reach the point where it can no longer support the functionality it needs to.
  • The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
  • It can be dangerous for a product manager to have too much domain expertise.
  • Every new product manager needs roughly three months of hard learning before you can entrust them with the responsibility of guiding a product. During this time, the new product manager needs to immerse herself with target users and customers.
  • If you micromanage your product managers, they will not step up and take ownership the way you need them to.
  • Always hire people that you believe are smarter than yourself.
  • “Specials” (doing explicitly-defined work for a specific customer typically in exchange for their agreement to purchase your product) are so dangerous. They represent bad revenue, and hurt your company’s ability to deliver products that create happy users.
  • The more latitude you can give your engineers and user experience designers in coming up with the solutions to the problems you are trying to solve, the more likely they will come up with something that customers will love.
  • Most managers prefer to see your recommendations on how to solve problems you encounter rather than just a statement of the problem.
  • Every member of the team should be able to see the goals and objectives you are using, their priority, and how you assess each option. The decision—and the reasoning behind how you got there—should be clear to all.
  • Your goal is to [have] at least six happy, live, referenceable customers from your target market.
  • Customer surveys are so easy and so inexpensive, that they’re a must-do for any product.
  • Winning products come from the deep understanding of the user’s needs combined with an equally deep understanding of what’s just now possible.
  • It is an extremely common mistake for a product to try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.
  • Any startup has to realize that everything starts with the right product, so the first order of business is to figure out what that is.
  • In many cases, the best ideas come from the bottom up.
  • Innovation is rarely about solving an entirely new problem. More often it is solving an existing problem in a new way.
  • [Product managers should] focus on the most miserable thing people have to deal with everyday.

Book Review: Lean UX

Posted on Jul 22, 2014 in Books, QA, Tech | 0 comments

Work book review!

I grabbed this one for its relevance to what we’re currently working through. It builds upon the principals from Lean Startup, which I haven’t yet read. In hindsight, I probably should have read that first, but this book stands up pretty well on its own.

Who would I recommend it to? Anyone with their hand in UI/UX design, which should be everyone out there.

The premise is that designing a user experience is difficult to do in a lean environment. All too often we get caught up in the old BDUF approach. Collaboration is the key and it starts at the design phase. Someone from every discipline of your team should be involved from the start to the finish. This establishes ownership and understanding of the goal and product. There’s no more “Oh, my job is done, on to the next thing and I’ll half-assedly glance back at this other thing now and then.”

One of the key suggestions for getting great UX in a fast moving environment is to design toward outcomes rather than a backlog of must-have deliverables. Similar to how a backlog is created (or how one should be created), customers are polled. Rather than having one person responsible for that interaction, the entire team is. How? Regular user acceptance testing. Get the product in front of actual customers and see what they say. Have everyone view the results. This book and idea are primarily focused on UX, but it can go for any feature of the product; getting more people involved in understanding customers can never hurt.

My Highlights (brackets = paraphrasing, indented italics = my comments):

  • “Get out of the deliverables business.”
  • [Your] most urgent task [should be] delighting customers.
  • It is time to break down the silos, unite the clans, and get to work.
  • The biggest lie in software is Phase II.
    • Just don’t do it… From the start, create a 2nd release. Give it a real version number.
  • You’re not going to get it right the first time.
    • Don’t try to. Make the roughest of plans and iterate. Don’t be afraid to ship UX debt, but do be sure to note it in the backlog and address it appropriately.
  • To generate the best solutions quickly, you must engage the entire team.
    • And do so in a meaningful way. Don’t e-mail out a spec and ask for comments. Call out specific people for comment. The project manager should ensure that someone from each group has signed off.
  • Working software [is better than] comprehensive documentation.
  • [Respond] to change over following a plan.
    • Don’t code to a spec that you know isn’t perfect. Just like your code, it will never be. Roll with it.
  • “Lean Startup processes reduce waste by increasing the frequency of contact with real customers, therefore testing and avoiding incorrect market assumptions as early as possible.”
  • [Minimally viable products don’t have to be made from code]. Each design is a proposed business solution — a hypothesis. Your goal is to validate the proposed solution as efficiently as possible by using customer feedback.
  • Their involvement must be continuous, from day one of the project until the end of the engagement.
    • This is in regard to folks from different disciplines in your team.
  • Keep your teams small — no more than 10.
  • Understand what the users are doing with your products and why they are doing it.
  • Research involves the entire team.
  • Give potential customers a chance to provide feedback on your ideas sooner.
  • The success or failure of your product isn’t the team’s decision — it’s the customers’.
  • Rockstars, gurus, ninjas, and other elite experts of their craft break down team cohesion.
  • The answer to most difficult questions the team will face will not be answered in a conference room. Instead, they will be answered by customers in the field.
  • Frequent failures lead to increased mastery of skills.
  • The team’s focus should be on learning which features have the biggest impact on the their customers.
  • Our goal is not to create a deliverable, it’s to change something in the world — to create an outcome. We start with assumptions instead of requirements. We create and test hypotheses. We measure to see whether we’ve achieved our desired outcomes.
  • The hypothesis statement is the starting point for a project. It states a clear vision for the work and shifts the conversation between team members and their managers from outputs (e.g., “we will create a single sign-on feature”) to outcomes (e.g., “we want to increase the number of new sign-ups to our service”).
  • None of your metrics will be meaningful if you don’t have a benchmark in place.
  • It’s much easier to pivot from a failed approach if you haven’t spent too much time laboriously documenting and detailing that approach.
  • [Promote] “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” – Agile Manifesto
  • Style guides create efficiency.
  • [With style guides,] reviews become more focused on the core product.
  • Build MVPs that allow you to observe and measure what people actually do, not just what people say.
  • Usability testing should be a group activity.
  • [Iterations should have themes.]
  • [You should have iteration planning meetings.]
  • [Scrum meetings offer little value without the above because nobody cares or knows what anybody else is working on.]
  • Proactively reach out to your [support team], product owners and executives.
    • Nobody knows the customer better than the support team. They should have regular views and chance to comment on what you’re working on.
  • Your organization needs to adopt a mantra of “competencies over roles.”
  • Break your big teams into what founder Jeff Bezos famously called “two-pizza teams” (http:// 50106/ inside-mind-jeff-bezos). If the team needs more than two pizzas to make a meal, it’s too big.
  • “Speed first, aesthetics second” (https:// jasonfried/ status/ 23923974217).
    • Iterate, iterate, and iterate. Don’t spend too much time on any one design. Makes it that much easier to throw away when it is deemed deficient.

A decent read and pretty quick read. If you’re interested in UX in the slightest, you ought to give this a go.

Book Review: Exploratory Software Testing

Posted on Jan 28, 2014 in Books, QA, Tech | 0 comments

I’d heard of the subject before, vaguely knew some things about it, thought it was the type of testing I had naturally evolved to, and vowed to really find out by reading Exploratory Software Testing by James A. Whittaker.

As it turns out, my weak understanding was mostly wrong. The entire strategy is based upon testing “tour” metaphors that can be visualized by thinking of yourself as a person “touring” in a new city. That new city being your code. What I did understand and agree with fully in both mind and practice is the idea that strict adherence to a detailed test case or test plan is not efficient, not enjoyable, and metaphorically speaking, not the best way to see town. Instead, write test cases that are more of a general guide and do your own exploration in order to introduce variance with each run. The tour metaphor is ever-expanding and will be different for each team and each feature. The author presented his list of favorite tours, which can conveniently be found on MSDN (the author used to [maybe still does?] work at Microsoft and most of this book was MS-centric).

My takeaways (as usual, personal comments and clarifications in italics):

  • Behind most good ideas is a graveyard of those that weren’t good enough. This is a universal. Don’t be afraid to screw up/do something worthless because it is all part of the process.
  • The modern practice of manual testing is aimless, ad hoc, and repetitive.
  • Software is peerless in its ability to fail.
  • Software is not, and likely never will be, bug free.
  • There is no replacement for the tester attitude of “how can I break this.” Any development team that thinks they can get away without dedicated QA persons is fooling itself. I’ve seen this time and again in the gaming industry as I’m privy to many an alpha and beta from knowing folks in the industry and my previous experience running a major gaming site. I’ve not yet been close to a project that ignored QA and did not fail. Not to say they don’t occur, but my personal experience is a goose egg. It is too hard for someone who was in the code to step back and say to themselves “This sucks.” You need someone disconnected, but fully respected to say that.
  • The less time a bug lives, the better off we’ll all be. Bugs found in design are the best kind.
  • If testers are judged based on the number of tests they run, automation will win every time. If they are based on the quality of tests they run, it’s a different matter altogether.
  • Automation suffers from many of the same problems that other forms of developer testing suffers from: It’s run in a laboratory environment.
  • Test automation can find only the most egregious of failures: crashes, hangs (maybe), and exceptions. … Subtle/complex failures are missed.
  • Manual testing is the best choice for finding bugs related to the underlying business logic of an application.
  • Tester-based detection is our best hope at finding the bugs that matter.
  • Exploratory testing allows the full power of the human brain to be brought to bear on finding bugs and verifying functionality without preconceived restrictions. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by manual scripts. THINK. Otherwise you might as well be a robot and then be automated.

EPIC DIGRESSION: I’ve never had luck outsourcing testing to India and this is the reason why. The workers there are not encouraged to think, and instead treated and expected to function as worker bees. Follow instructions to a tee, don’t raise your hand, put in your hours, and get paid. I was involved early in outsourcing and several stories from colleagues lead me to believe it has changed for the better, but it was so bad for me that I still have that filthy taste in my mouth and would never proactively attempt to implement Asian testing for my team until I saw it work first-hand somewhere. At a recent QA Meetup, a colleague at Symantec actually mentioned they have it working really well there. It involved A LOT of effort from both sides of the ocean. I think that was what we missed in the early days. We assumed we could just drop things on these people and they’d get it done. Outsourcing with European countries now, I don’t know if it is just the individuals or the culture that matters, but we get amazing work from a group that considers themselves part of our team, company, and culture. It is a relationship that has been cultivated over many years and the fruit it bears is wonderful.

  • Exploratory testing is especially suited to modern web application development using agile methods. … Features often evolve quickly, so minimizing dependent artifacts (like pre-prepared test cases) is a desirable attribute. … If the test case has a good chance of becoming irrelevant, why write it in the first place?
  • Having formal scripts can provide a structure to frame exploration, and exploratory methods can add an element of variation to scripts that can amplify their effectiveness.
  • Start with formal scripts and use exploratory techniques to inject variation into them. In my case, I do this when regressing a feature. On initial testing, I stick very closely to my script. With subsequent runs, tracing those same code paths is unlikely to discover anything new. I inject this variation then and use my former test plan to guide me to all the code, but I will not take all those same steps.
  • We need the human mind to be present when software is tested.
  • Testing is infinite; we’re never really done, so we must take care to prioritize tasks and do the most important things first.
  • Don’t allow stubbornness to force you into testing the same paths over and over without any real hope of finding a bug or exploring new territory.
  • All software is fundamentally the same. … [They] perform four basic tasks: They accept input, produce output, store data, and perform computation.
  • It is good to keep in mind that most developers don’t like writing error code.
  • No matter how you ultimately do testing, it’s simply too complex to do it completely.
  • As testers, we don’t often get a chance to return at a later date. Our first “visit” is likely to be our only chance to really dig in and explore our application. We can’t afford to wander around aimlessly and take the chance that we miss important functionality and major bugs.
  • Tours represent a mechanism to both organize a tester’s thinking about how to approach exploring an application and in organizing actual testing. A list of tours can be used as a “did you think about this” checklist.

Despite my plentiful notes, I didn’t really care for this book. I feel it could have been summarized in 40 pages or so. The touring metaphor is a great one that I’ll keep handy in my tool belt, but the book had a number of user stories (don’t think Agile) from using the tours that didn’t really add anything, there was a good amount of general testing knowledge that is always a nice reminder, but better suited for a different book, and it finished with this wildly optimistic/futuristic section on the future of testing that had nothing at all to do with the subject I cared about reading. I had a fair amount of difficulty getting through this one, but I’m glad I did because ultimately it will make me better at what I do.

2 out of 5. Too much noise.

My other QA book reviews:

Don’t Make Me Think – A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

Book Review: Don’t Make Me Think – A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

Posted on Dec 19, 2013 in Books, QA, Tech | 0 comments

A book review? Yeah, sure, kinda. I tend to highlight the crap out of professional books that I read. I rarely go back and look at the highlights so this exercise is as much for me as it is for you.

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Not yet released. This is the one you want. My only complaint about the 2nd edition, which I read, is that it is awfully dated (I think he uses Netscape in an example or two). If you want to buy, use that link so I get a kickback. I’m not shy about referrals.

Good read. Short enough that it can comfortably consumed on a flight across the country (I did it in two because Candy Crush has got my attention).

Anyway, my takeaways (personal comments or clarification in italics):

  • The most important thing you can do is to just understand the basic principle of eliminating question marks.
  • For most of us, it doesn’t matter to us whether we understand how things work, as long as we can use them.
  • Many designers tend to underestimate just how much value conventions provide.
  • Innovate when you know you have a better idea (and everyone you show it to says “Wow!”), but take advantage of conventions when you don’t.
  • Making the choices mindless is one of the main things that make a site easy to use.
  • The main thing you need to know about instructions is that no one is going to read them.
  • The concept of Home pages is so important. Every site needs a landing page of sorts that makes sense of the whole.
  • It’s no fun feeling lost. Navigation that is clear and logical is very important.
  • If the navigation is doing its job, it tells you implicitly where to begin and what your options are.
  • Every page needs a name.
  • The name needs to match what I clicked.
  • The most common failing of “You are here” indicators is that they’re too subtle.
  • Search. Every site needs it regardless of whether or not it makes absolute sense. Everybody finds things in different ways, and many are wired to look for a search field by default. It doesn’t need to be anything grand; a simple text search of your site will suffice in many cases. No need to make it keyword driven, which adds to maintenance.
  • Designing a Home page inevitably involves compromise.
  • Don’t confuse a tagline with a motto.
  • All Web users are unique, and all Web use is basically idiosyncratic.
  • Testing one user is 100 percent better than testing none. In reference to usability testing.
  • The best-kept secret of usability testing is the extent to which it doesn’t much matter who you test.
  • In general, if the user’s second guess about where to find things is always right, that’s good enough.
  • [as a user] should never have to think about formatting data.
  • Ignore all comments that users make about colors during a user test, unless three out of four people use a word like “puke” to describe the color scheme.
4 out of 5. The updated version is likely a 5 out of 5.