• Agile Development

    Architecture is a prediction, and all predictions are wrong —Stewart Brand

    Watch a modern-day Major League Baseball player step up to the plate. He shuffles his feet moving the dirt around in the batters box before he finally digs in. He’ll tug at his uniform every which way, and unsnap and snap his batting gloves. If we’re lucky, he’ll eventually realize that there are 30-40,000 fans waiting for him to swing his bat and settle in to face the pitcher. And that’s just before the first pitch. If he’s a disciplined hitter and works the count (swings at mostly strikes and fouls off tough pitches), he’ll be up there for a while, repeating his numerous bodily maneuvers after each pitch. Some stay at home plate so long, the only way to get them out of there is with a 30-day notice.

    The second group of hitters, as the Nike commercial advises, just do it. They think that their brain stem (the pure instinctual part of the nervous system) knows best how to get it done. They’ll get up to the plate and swing away, as if the batter’s box is being rented by the minute.

    Those of us who are lucky enough to live in Edmonds see both of these mentalities in the realm of planning and development—the deliberate, disciplined type, and the seat-of-the-pants type. Unfortunately, the planners don’t develop, and the doers don’t plan. To abuse this baseball metaphor to a point nearing a felony, doers keep hitting into double plays, while planners look at called third strikes.

    To be clear, when I say planners, I am not talking about the City of Edmonds Planning Department, which is not a planning department but, rather, a rules-and-regulations department. I would not accuse the City of Edmonds of ever planning anything, short of which week it will be raising the Mayor’s salary, and which week it will be unraising the Mayor’s salary. By planners, I mean the citizens of Edmonds who, no matter how effective in their personal and professional lives, get stuck in neutral when trying to accomplish something positive for our beautiful city.

    Is there a way out of this dilemma, where doers get it done, but ugly (butt ugly?), while planners dream of utopia? Can doers learn to plan and planners learn to do?

    Irreconcilable Differences

    I used to be a marriage counselor. Getting just two people to agree on something, two people who supposedly share major values, is nearly impossible. This is more so when they’re in a mixed marriage—you know, where one spouse is for, and the other spouse is against, raising Edmonds height limits. Statisticians tell me that two people have one relationship, three people have six relationships, and ten people have 75 relationships. (Good thing I ducked that call from one of the King of Siam’s 39 wives trying to make an appointment.) Lack of common beliefs make it harder to forge agreements and the more relationships involved, the fewer common beliefs. The first major reason why it’s so hard to make changes is that it’s so difficult to get lots of people to agree on any particular change.

    When citizens think of public projects, they usually think big: an indoor swimming complex, a large art center, a condo-rich urban village, a multi-billion dollar mass-transit system, new bridges, freeways, a new sports stadium. A new project of this sort means an unimaginable amount of money, concrete, and construction time, that takes an unimaginable amount of time to produce. And what if it doesn’t work as promised, by reducing congestion, bringing in tax money, or creating beauty? What if it turns out to be a real or metaphorical bridge to nowhere? Or worse, a typical new downtown building in Edmonds? The second major reason it’s hard to agree on any particular change is that major projects can turn out badly, and major projects have no undo key.

    Agile is the New Black

    There’s a trend in software development called agile development. Rather than build a huge edifice of capability (or in some cases, an artifice of capability), such as Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office, developers go with simple, but elegant applications. Rather than big releases every few years, agile developers release updates in increments. And rather than releasing a new version with the primary goal of refilling the coffers, they release to only improve the product. This works especially well with web applications and services, where users pay by subscription. The main advantage of the agile model is that users can heavily influence the selection of features by taking part in online forums. With relatively small applications, change in the form of updates can be quick and responsive to the needs of users.

    Agile development sounds ideal for a software company, but what does software development have in common with the development of cities and buildings? Enough apparently, for UC Berkeley, Professor (Emeritus) of Architecture, Christopher Alexander’s ideas to have influenced programmers through his design guidelines he calls A Pattern Language. Alexander’s patterns are recommendations for houses, public buildings, and cities that are meant to be used, not by architects, but by the home and city dweller. He believes that architects should not design homes or cities for other people to live in, but that people who live in these houses should view their homes and towns as works-in-progress, and design/build/modify using his patterns as a guide.

    Similar ideas are expressed in Stewart Brand’s book (and the subject of a BBS series), How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

    What these approaches have in common is foregoing the big upfront design and letting the process be the blueprint. Here’s the traditional way to create a major waterfront center of activity: Design and build condos, retail structures, expanses of empty space with walkways and plants, and a multi-level parking complex. Make sure that you pour mega-tons of concrete with your mega-funding. Hope that there are condo-buyers and thousands of shoppers.

    There’s already an excellent example of the agile way—the summer market. It started as a small farmers’ market, with produce stands, and quickly expanded to include prepared foods and crafts. Other examples we now take for granted include The Taste of Edmonds, and the Edmonds Arts Festival on Father’s Day weekend.

    The agile way means that if something works, do more of it. Why not have the summer market become a four-season market? Why not add live music, dance classes, and Tai Chi classes? Not enough space? One option is to ask Edmonds Mall manager, Al Dykes, if he’d rent the old Safeway parking lot until the city council and he agree on a mega-project (in other words, until hell freezes over). Target his ego and offer to name it Dykes Place Market.

    With the agile way, if it doesn’t work, you can just stop doing it. You can experiment, endlessly, because when you’re not pouring concrete and spending gobs of money on a project too big to fail, you can develop and undevelop. You have an undo key.

    Objections to agile development — especially by the local government — are inevitable, mostly, because modest projects won’t solve our tax revenue problems the way (we fantasize) a mega-development would. But building for tax revenue is like marrying for money. It sounds practical at the time, but a loveless mega-project is likely going to end in disappointment, or even disaster, because an ill-conceived mega-project can ruin an area for decades.

    A failed agile project, in contrast, can be modified endlessly, or shut down quickly. At its worst, it provides useful feedback on what to do different next time. At its best, it’s just what the people of your community need until the people of your community decide they need something else.

  • Close the Accounts You're Not Using

    My mother was a bookkeeper, first for the Air Force during World War II, and later for my father’s business. She liked to organize bank statements, write checks, pay bills, and reconcile her bank accounts, of which she had several. The IRS requires that you keep the previous seven years of expense records to support your business, but my mother exceeded that requirement by 400 percent. When she passed away, in addition to the business records, she had multiple checking accounts, about 30 credit cards, investments with several financial consultants and banks, along with years of records.

    If you want to locate someone’s credit accounts, start with credit agencies. However, they’re not always up-to-date, so I called every card account in her pile to double-check its status. I learned that many of her credit accounts were defunct and, all but one, unused.

    Account closure practices, from credit lenders, varied widely. Some responded to a quick phone call, while others required that I mail a death certificate and a copy of letters estamentary, which showed that I was the legal representative of my mother’s estate.

    Along with the credit cards, I contacted the bank of each checkbook and any other accounts that I discovered. I learned that nearly all of the accounts were either defunct, or barely used. On the whole, my research into the thousands of records on her shelves, my calls to banks, and the forwarded mail from financial institutions revealed that a small percent of her accounts held current assets or debt. Most of her financial records had value as only potential confetti or shipping filler.

  • Jar Openers and Death

    Making life easier for those you leave behind includes both the simple and the complicated, both the painless and the unsettling. To illustrate, I’ll start with an example of these extremes. First the simple:

    A couple of years ago, I injured my elbow tendon badly enough that it took months to heal. Not only could I not work out, I couldn’t even wrestle the lid off a jar, which took away one of the few reasons my wife keeps me around. Feeling the pressure, I looked for a surrogate jar opener, and the ladies at the local kitchen store introduced me to this tool that loosens lids by cracking the vacuum seal.

    Now for the complicated and unsettling one:

    A few years ago, my mother had a stroke that, a week later, ended her life. She had lived a rich full life, and was physically and mentally capable all her 91 years. While her last week of life was uncomfortable, most of us would be pleased to have our lives end like hers, and most of us would be pleased to have our loved ones’ lives end like hers. Nevertheless, that last week could have gone easier for my mother, and was emotionally bruising for my wife and me.

    Because of the stroke, my mother could not swallow and would need a feeder tube to survive. As it had been determined, by that point, that her physical infirmities would be permanent, she would need an artificial apparatus to feed her, and she would neither be able to walk again, nor talk well enough to be understood.

    People adapt surprisingly well, physically and emotionally, to physical ailments if they develop gradually, but not so well when they come on at once. In short, she had gone from living as full a life as could be expected by a 91-year-old (attractive to the end, she had three male suitors), to facing what would be a miserable final months.

    Now my mother was gradually starving, and a decision had to be made whether to put a tube down her throat, as well as to install a permanent feeding apparatus.

    Many years ago, both my parents had living wills drawn by a lawyer, but only my father signed his. My mother was never able to admit that she would die and (I suppose) was superstitious about a living will. Because my mother never signed the living will, a drama played out in her hospital room over a couple of days. We had to make it clear to her what it would take to keep her alive for the time being, and what would happen if she did not have a feeding tube installed permanently into her stomach.

    Because of her stroke, and the morphine to allay the pain, my mother was only conscious for short periods, mostly to tell us she wanted more morphine. And as I said, she could barely make herself understood. During the moments of consciousness, we had to explain her situation, and ask her consent to withhold the means to artificially keep her alive. Eventually, my mother signaled that she understood that she would die if she didn’t get the feeding tube, and consented to let nature take its course. We arranged for hospice, and she died a couple of days later, comfortably unconscious most of that time.

    Following my mother’s death, I spent many months unraveling her financial situation. Records, which were once carefully filed in numerous folders (my mother was a bookkeeper), were now haphazardly filed or stacked. Her list of assets, scratched on a yellow pad, were out of date by several years.

    If you lived in a well-populated urban area, especially, on a coast, and bought a house right after World War II, there’s a good chance that you retired with the means to live out your last years comfortably if you cashed in your house equity, especially, if you upscaled several times. My mother fit that description.

    After my father’s death, 13 years earlier, my mother sold her house and scattered her assets with several investment groups, small CDs in this bank and that, and so on. More research and follow-up became necessary when I found a three-inch stack of plastic credit cards (some as I found out still in service, some not), and additional checking and savings accounts, some, still in service, some not. Unfortunately, none of the accounts had an extra 100-million in them. My dream of being a venture capitalist, down the drain.

    It took me months, and the help of a a probate lawyer, to deal with my mother’s finances pay—demonstrating that you don’t have to be wealthy to leave a complicated and confusing estate.

    The good news in all this is that my brother was the only other heir, neither of us are greedy, and we trust each other. My brother, the college professor, prefers to hide in his ivory tower and tend to the dragons in his moat; he generously let me do all the probate work.

    Which brings me to the point of this blog, which is to not leave a mess behind for my wife and children to contend with. Large amounts of money won’t be waiting for them, but I can make up for that a bit if large amounts of hassle aren’t waiting for them either. And I win, too. Getting rid of complications will make my life easier—whether it’s through simplifying our finances, or finding a simple tool to open jars.

  • Living Wills and Medical Directives

    Most people fear death, some so much that they’ll go to wild extremes to avoid it, such as Paypal founder, Peter Thiel, who is investing part of his wealth in life extension research. Apparently, the famously libertarian entrepreneur wishes to spend an eternity complaining about taxes.

    It can get even wackier with the offspring of the recently deceased. Several children of famous baseball player, Ted Williams, contracted to have their father’s head surgically removed and frozen following his death, apparently, in hopes of finding a way to make money from his DNA. While no doubt, even in his present state, the late slugger could hit better than the most of the San Francisco Giants, I’m sure there’s a technicality banning zombie players — at least during night games. Anyway, it’s always a relief to learn that some families are loonier than your own.

    The most important task you can do to make life easier for those you leave behind is have a will and a medical directive (often called a living will). A will, as everyone knows, is a directive on who gets what, when you die. A medical directive, which goes by many terms, gives instructions regarding how aggressive, or not, you want medical professionals to be in sustaining your life, no matter what your condition.

    Because wills and medical directives force you to think about your death, it’s no wonder that people put off getting them done. As I wrote in the initial article, my mother had a living will… and never signed it, which resulted in the most uncomfortable episode of my life. My wife and I had to get a a life-and-death answer from a woman who (because of her stroke) could no longer communicate effectively and who had always refused to consider that someday she might die. That’s a situation that I don’t wish to pass on.

    You could hire a lawyer to create a will, and if you’re sufficiently well-off, that’s probably a good idea, because a good lawyer could save your heirs money. The medical directive is another story. There are many personal, cultural, and often religious viewpoints that may work to nullify your wishes, and they don’t have to be your personal, cultural, or religious viewpoints. Views that could interfere with your wishes may be held by an influential family member (typically, the spouse or adult child), an involved healthcare professional, a chaplain, or even a grandstanding politician (though Terry Schiavo did not have a medical directive).

    While medical directives may not be virgin territory, they’re definitely in the awkward stage and, to get family members, healthcare professionals, or chaplains to not interfere with your wishes, it may take something more forceful, and more comprehensive, than the current conventional medical directives created by lawyers or software templates (see below). The most useful idea I’ve heard is to create a medical directive that includes a comprehensive statement of your wishes, make sure that your loved ones both understand and respect the approach, and have your primary care physician sign it – all easier said than done.

    If you just want the basics, there are cheaper ways than using a lawyer to create a will and medical directive. You can chose from a variety of desktop and Web templates for wills and medical directives. My wife and I chose online templates from Rocketlawyer (we get no kickback), but the software universe changes constantly. Here’s one review site.

    Creating a will along with a medical directive with one of the above templates takes minutes, and is the minimum that everyone should do for themselves and their family. This is especially so if there’s significant conflict among your offspring or between you or your spouse and your offspring. Tip: The better everyone in your family gets along, and the better each member of your family respects one another, the better chance there will be no major conflicts regarding the contents of your will or the medical directive. Familial conflict is how expensive lawyers gets involved, and how your wishes get ignored. Raising your children to get along is sound financial advice and improves your chances of getting your end-of-life wishes honored.

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