Every Ending is a Beginning

Yesterday was the last day of the Fall semester for me, the day when my final project and exam were handed in.  Yeah, so you’d think with a title like that I’d be talking about writing stories.

But no, the punchline is that today was the first day of a new mini-semester we call an “ACE” class.  These are little one-class-at-a-time deals that occur in the month-long period between semesters where we go for three weeks, two normal class-days a week plus Saturdays.  The topic of this class is one where I am sorely in need of improvement (the course has “networks” in the title, and it’s not a computer science course, if you know what I mean).

So, what did I do with a whole evening’s break?  Why, go with Dear Wife and some other family members to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra in concert, of course.  It’s the Christmas season, so it’s the time of year when you break out that kind of music.  But I’d been so sleep-deprived from some extremely late nights this past week that we ended up not staying for the whole thing; the better to beat the crowd out and get home so I could crash (and Dear Wife was tired, too).  Last night was the first full night of sleep I’ve had in a while.

And now, I’m back in the saddle.

The good news?  I can really and true just make out the light at the end of the tunnel.  Five months.  Just five months.  At the same time… I can’t help but recall it was a year ago when I started work, in earnest, on that short story referenced in the side-bar (“PFTETD”), rewriting vast sections of it, adding new characters, and changing the direction of the story somewhat, in anticipation of sending it out with an eye toward its hopeful publication.  It ended up taking me a little longer than what free time I had during the semester break (I didn’t take an ACE last year), but I did finish it and I did get it out.   It was only shortly before that that I started blogging.   It’s interesting to look back over that year.

Anyway, I’m just relieved.  This past semester has been one of the most challenging and demanding, time-wise, that I’ve had so far.  I’m glad I’ll only be taking one class in the coming Spring Semester.

Cross-posting: Amazon and the Big Squeeze

In one class I’m taking this semester, called “Strategic Decision Analysis”, we have a course blog where we, the students, are keeping track of things we notice in the news and in our lives that reflect the course topics, which largely revolves around Game Theory.  Earlier this year I posted an entry in this blog about the infamous “Amazonfail” event, otherwise known as the “Kerfuffle”, and what I was then learning about the future of publishing.  Well, recently, the Boston Review published an article that details the whole sordid history of how Amazon has put the squeeze on the publishing industry, and what that means for the future of the industry.  And I noticed that there were a lot of Game Theory aspects to this whole story.  So, I wrote about that for the course blog.  You can find my original entry hereContinue reading

Gaming Chess

I don’t play chess – as cerebral as the game is supposed to be, it somehow never really appealed to me, perhaps because the level of abstraction in chess was to high for my tastes.  Sure there are kings and knights and such locked in mortal combat.  But, I’ve always reasoned, at its heart, Chess is really a math problem.  The kings and queens and knights and bishops are just trappings.  You could call those pieces anything you want, and the math works out the same.  In theory, chess can be solved

And I never really found that particularly inspiring.  

Well, now I’ve started a new semester, and one class – called “Strategic Decision Analysis” – has really caught my interest.  Considering that one of the primary topics of study in the class is Game Theory, I suppose that comes as no surprise. 

Game Theory, as the term is intended to be applied, is meant to be a study of the competitive actions taken by two or more “players” whose interactions are, well, interactive, such that the actions of one player affect the decisions and actions of another, each trying to get to some desired outcome or result.  Wow, that’s a lot of words… but what it boils down to is: game theory isn’t about games like you or I know them, it’s about nations, corporations, and individuals struggling to get what they want in a world where other people are trying to get what they want.  In MBA school we study it for its effect on business. 

But even so, the concepts of Game Theory can be applied, no surprise here, to actual games.  You know, the ones you play for fun

And that includes Chess – a game, incidentally, which I typically don’t play for fun – vis-à-vis the aforementioned distaste for the math of it all – but about which I am fascinated nonetheless. 

In class this week, we began looking at an application of Decision Trees in “Sequential Games”.  Sequential Games, boiled down really simply, are games where one player takes a turn then another player takes a turn.  (That’s not really the definition – it’s a lot more complicated than that, and turns don’t necessarily instantly pass to other players, etc. – but it’s close enough for our purposes here.  )  Chess, obviously, is a great example of a Sequential Game.  As the class went, I began imagining the Decision Tree for a game of Chess.  This,  I realized, is how you solve Chess

What does a Decision Tree for a Sequential Game look like?  Well, you have but to ask, and Wikipedia doth provide: 

A Decision Tree for a Simple "Battle of the Sexes" Game

A Decision Tree for a Simple "Battle of the Sexes/Bullfight" Game

In this “game”, a husband and a wife are trying to decide where to go for the evening.  They are both away from each other with no means to communicate, so each will drive to one of the events – either a “Bullfight” or an “Opera”, separately, and simply expect the other to be there.  (In reality, as presented in the description on Wikipedia, this game would be a Simultaneous Game, not a Sequential One, but since we’ve got this handy tree, we’ll treat it as Sequential.)  Each has a decision.  The Wife knows the husband prefers the Bullfight and the Husband knows the Wife prefers the Opera.  How much they enjoy their evening depends on where they end up – indicated by the scores on the right hand side of the tree (higher scores are better).  So, for example, if the Wife decides to go to the Opera, the Husband, to maximize his score, ought also to go to the Opera – even though he would prefer the Bullfight, we prefers time with his Wife even more.  Likewise if the Wife decides to go to the Bullfight, the Husband ought happily to go as well.  If he ends up at the Opera instead, both Husband and Wife will be at their least-favorite destination alone, and both lose

That’s a rather simple game.  There are only two moves, one to each player. 

So, what would the Decision Tree for Chess look like, I wondered?  I began to imagine. 

It turns out, there are about twenty possible opening moves in Chess.  White goes first, and can move any of 8 pawns (each with two possible moves) or 2 Knights (each also with two possible moves).  So, where you see the Wife’s first move in that tree above, the gray box labeled “a”, imagine that with twenty lines coming out of it.  In response, the Black player has another twenty possible moves.  So those twenty lines go to twenty decision boxes for Black’s move.  Each of those twenty boxes has twenty lines coming out as well. 

And so it goes.  Back and forth.  The math gets pretty complex pretty quickly – some moves, once taken, invalidate the possibility for other moves.  Other moves, like crossing the board with your Pawn, open up a whole new universe of possible moves.  In fact, my professor postulated this week, there are more possible combinations of moves in Chess than there are stars in the universe. 

Yes, Chess is a math problem, and it can be solved.  In theory.  But in practice, you would need a super-computer the size of the entire universe to do it. 

So, how is it that Chess Champions do what they do?  How is it that Deep Blue – a super computer not the size of the Universe – beat Chess Champ Garry Kasparov

Well, they’re not solving the whole tree.  Not even Deep Blue.  Instead, man and computer both have typically developed heuristic models of the game – they memorize positions and relate them to other positions in the game, either favorable or unfavorable, and try to maneuver the pieces to their advantage.  Even Deep Blue, which was capable of brute-force calculating the game to a farther degree than any other computer, couldn’t solve for the entire game – it lost to Kasparov in several bouts. 

So, why has this exploration fascinated me that I’ve written such a long blog post about it?  Honestly, it’s hard to pin down.  In some way, a part of me wants to like Chess – but even knowing that as a practical matter Chess can’t really be solves like an equation does little to lessen my distaste for actually playing the game.  And neither does getting beaten at it, over and over, by my laptop (Deep Blue it is not).   In other ways, though, I guess I see Chess as analogous to the history of all games, and in another way, as analogous to the history of the Fantasy genre.  Chess was once the Kingly game.  Is there not certain to be such a game that is common and popular in a fantasy world not only of Kings and Knights but also of Wizards and Dragons?

The Sum of All Midterms

It turns out, only one of my midterm exams was this week.  The other, for my Wednesday class (“Leading People and Organizations”) won’t be for another couple weeks.

That’s actually kind of nice.  Only one test to cram for in a week.  I’m not sure how well I did on the test for Managerial Accounting – I mean, I think I did well, but I’m not sure how well.  As in… did I do very well or just okay?

As it turned out, I opened the test to look at the first problem, and was stumped right away.  I thought I had prepared well.  But there it was, the first question, mocking me.  “There are two different ways to calculate X.  Calculate X using both methods.”  Wait.  There are two ways to calculate X?  Crap.  I only remembered one way to do it.  No matter.  After a moment of thinking, I tackled the problem logically.  First, let’s calculate using the way I already know how.  Then, let’s break the problem down to decompose what the other method must be, and do that.  I still wasn’t sure, though, so I later went back and recalculated the problem a third way, just to check my work.  When the third method turned out identical to my second method, I felt more confident that I had done it right.

But the knot of worry that the first problem put in me stayed with me the whole test.  Most of the other problems failed to stump me quite so thoroughly as the first problem, but I was wary.

Anyway, it’s over, and now the waiting game.  My goal this semester has really been to get top marks again.  I haven’t done that in several semesters.  In fact, I think the last time I got top grades in both my classes for that semester was in the Spring of 2009 – so it’s been over a year.  Like I’ve said before: I’m in a different caliber of school, here.  My program is chock full of really smart people.  And being a really smart person among a cohort of really smart people kind of means you’re suddenly average, in a way.  At least as far as the people I’m interacting with, this now holds true.

Even though it’s my goal to get top grades in both classes this semester (honestly, that has never not been my goal, but I’ve grown accustomed to knowing I have to do with second-best grades most semesters), I am reminded from time to time that my real goal needs to be focused on preparing myself for post-graduation.  Obviously I didn’t start working on my MBA in order to remain in the position I have now.  The purpose of this education is to position myself for advancement in my career.  But the education alone will not make that happen.  There’s a lot – I mean a lot – that needs to be done if I’m to take advantage of the opportunity getting this degree provides.  And the time when those things need to be done is now.  Or… in some cases… yesterday.

Summer Semester So Far

Well, next week I have my midterms for the Summer Semester, and tonight I’ll probably be drowning in reviews and studying there for.  During Spring Semester I did weekly updates of how my classes were going, but so far I haven’t done that this summer.  This resulted largely because of two lost blog days per week to my “hiatus”.  And now, I can’t believe the summer semester is basically almost half over!  So, I thought I’d provide a midpoint update to how things are going in class.

The classes I’m taking this semester are required classes for the program I’m in.  They’re the last of the “Core” classes.   The first of these is Managerial Accounting and the second was Leading People & Organizations. 

The former I was decidedly not excited about.  What I do in my day job can largely be considered Managerial Accounting, so I know my way around the subject matter to some degree.  But of course my goal is to shift my career away from the world of Finance & Accounting, which is at best a necessary support function of business, and toward Marketing, which really is more of a core function of any business (if you build it, they will not come, unless you market it and market it well).  So rehashing something that I kind of half-knew in a field that had little long-term interest for me was not an exciting proposition.  But, so far, the class has been reasonably enjoyable.  I’ve learned things about how I could do my job better than the way it’s currently done where I work.  And even if my long-term goal is to get out of this field, what I’ve learned will, I think, still be helpful in future strategic planning for whatever company I may eventually work at, and may be especially helpful when working with various managerial accountants in those companies in the future. For instance, asking them “hey, could you do this or provide me with this data?”

The second class was inherently more interesting-sounding, to me.  I’d enjoyed my various organizational theory and development classes in my undergrad experience, and I’d also enjoyed the leadership program here in my MBA.  So this promised to be an interesting class, at least.  And so far it has been (other than one incident in which I made an ass of myself [long story, but I forgot that one of the readings I had done for class was, in fact, an assigned reading, and proceeded to make a fool of myself by referring to in class discussion as though it were something I had discovered on my own]).  The topics in this class, so far, have centered around cognitive biases that affect decision-making and working with teams.  Basically, the class is focused on the various tasks and challenges faced by leaders of organizations.  I may not be a leader of an organization (yet) but the information is still useful, nonetheless.

So, that’s the semester so far.  It’s been interesting, even if it’s been a challenge – especially since many of my free weekdays have become days focused on career-planning activities: sprucing up the resume, learning interview skills, and zeroing in on what I will do in my post-MBA career.  All of which will be very important in my ongoing “support of my family”, a responsibility which has taken on new importance with the advent of B.T. into our home.

Semester Complete

So, as of today, Spring Semester of 2010 is finally over.

I wanted to write something deeper and more interesting than this, but work started gearing up pretty heavy for the beginning of the old monthly cycle again, and so I’ve been swamped… I’ve had to work through lunch rather than getting a bit of freedom, so that’s been a little rough on my “blog-writing” time.  My apologies, folks.

I’d been planning to do another “Genre Critiques” essay sometime in the near future… (I hadn’t done one in quite a while) but I couldn’t decide on a topic worthy of a full-fledged essay (nor a topic which I would have sufficient time to do a little research before today).  So, do you guys have topic suggestions, and maybe I’ll get to one next week?  I was considering researching and critiquing either the “Unobtanium/Adamantium” trope or the “Orphaned Boy” cliché, but I wasn’t sure the first had enough meat for a full essay and I didn’t have enough time to devote sufficient thought to the second. Ah, well.

Other than that, I want only to say that if I drop off and miss a day here or there over the coming weeks, you have my deepest apologies, but it’s only because it’s unavoidable.  I’ve managed to keep up with a daily posting schedule for the last several months, and though I would hate to miss a day at this point, after examining my time and what’s going on in life, I only felt comfortable recommitting to a two official post-update days, with 250 words on each of those days (I updated my About page to reflect the change in my “official” post schedule to the expanded amount a few weeks ago).  Anyway, though the semester is over, there’s still work, and the new “mini-internship” project to work on, and things have a way of catching up with you sometimes.

Hopefully, later today I’ll have an update to my Magical Lexicon.  There may only be a very small handful of definitions added, but at least it will be something…

Project Success

Thankfully, my concerns about the future of the Project Management class have proved a little less grave than the prior class suggested.  The second class was still crowded – every seat was taken and the TAs had to sit on chairs to the side – but we seemed to have lost a few students, which made it a little less over-crowded feeling.  And the professor had more pedagogical control.  We started learning how to construct a project in Microsoft’s Project 2007 software.  I’m glad to soon be adding another piece of software to my list of skills.

The professor tells us that the 2010/2011 version of Project will be far superior to what we’re using in class (which is, in turn, much better than the 2003 version).  So that’s something to look forward to, if I do any significant amount of work in this program in the future.  The key failing in Project, with regards to the life cycle of project management, is that it makes no provision for the first stage or project management, in which the purpose of the project is reviewed and the scope determined.  This focus on the design of the project over this developmental stage means that a lot of people who are doing “project management” are failing to grasp the difference of whether their projects are really adding value to their organizations. 

Basically, I’m again excited about what I stand to learn in this class.

That being said… It’s sort of difficult to tie this back to writing in a meaningful way, but here goes my best shot.  Considering this stage in the novel-writing or story-writing process means, in essence, asking the question “why write this story?” or “does this story add any value to what has already been written on this subject?”  But the answer to those questions is self-evident to the writer.  The writer is driven by an internal need and purpose more than any desire to add external value to customers.

However, when we recognize that, to be successful in writing endeavours, we have to be cognizant of the needs of our “customers”, the readers, we can really elevate the quality of our writing, and make a valuable impact that writing to our own inner muse alone will not allow us to make.  A writer needs to write, and that fact doesn’t change.  To be successful, a writer needs to write for his readers.  That, if properly addressed early in a writing project, will better prepare the writer for a successful project.

Which is not to say that I’m suggesting writers should be soulless, market-driven automata (I’m sure, soon enough, we’ll have actual soulless, market-driven automata that can write; i.e. well-programmed computers).  If the writer doesn’t love what he or she writes, have a passion for it and believe in it, then the work is doomed, of course.  So you have to write what you’re passionate about.  But if you want to succeed, I think you also need to balance your passion against what the audience will want.  Chances are, there’s a huge area of overlap.  Find that area and exploit it.

Happy writing (and happy project management).

In Which I Learn to Excel

I wrote about some of my trepidation going into my first Decision Modeling class, but after my third session of that class, I have to say my impressions are very positive.  It’s clear there’s a reason this professor is so well-renowned at my university.  Sometimes, a reputation like that is a set-up for a disappointment, but in this case that reputation is well-deserved.

No doubt the course has been challenging, so far.  There’s been a lot of material to read.  And there’s a lot of ground to cover.  But what’s been great, for me, is how much I feel like I’ve learned in just a few short weeks of class.

Going into this class, I was already something of an Excel expert.  I knew most of the tricks and the shortcuts, and I could really hammer out some impressive spreadsheet models, given enough time.  I once redesigned the game system of the 3rd Edition of D&D to make it better fit the story of the novel-in-progress (maybe that little side project was one reason progress on my novel slowed down?) and built a fully customizable spreadsheet model of a character sheet for my revised system that would automatically calculate every detail and crunch every number.  That’s not a unique feat, by any means, but it’s still a tough one.

And yet, by the third class, I’ve learned some impressive new tricks for Excel that I’m sure are really going to help me not only in my current job, but in jobs to come.  And the practice I’m gaining in thinking about problems and how to model them in order to better understand them is really going to improve my ability to perform well in any business capacity.  It’s making me rethink the way I think about problems.

In a funny side-story related to this, I found myself making some notes  on the background of my novel-in-progress, and I was trying to reason through a problem in the background in which something didn’t quite make sense.  I realized, as I was writing these notes, that I was approaching the problem in a very logical, systematic way that reminded me of the way we were learning to approach problems in the modeling class.

Which isn’t to say that I consider Decision Modeling to be an especially useful skill for writers, but I’m glad I’m able to take inspiration from such a peculiar source.  And I do feel confident these are skills that will help my career in general.  I look forward to further classes in this subject.

From the Trenches

I’ve talked about how I might find time for writing by putting that time upfront, or finding moments in those five-minute-breaks between things that have to get done.  But with the semester getting under way, I’m finding things aren’t always so easy.

Although, I knew that already.  There’s a reason why I hadn’t been writing anything over the previous year or more since I started work on my MBA.  Frankly, the course work is demanding – especially when around ten hours of the day are absorbed, off the top, by my full-time job.

Other than this blog, I haven’t written much of anything for the past week.  I have found, however, that my notebook has started to come in handy, again.  I’m glad I still have that tool up my sleeve.  I’ve used it a couple times in the past few weeks.  As long as I have it around, I find ideas start simmering in the back of my mind.  For me, though, 90% of those ideas revolve around that long-gestating novel – even though I tell myself I need to think about other things, other potential novel ideas, if I want to be successful (I don’t want to count on the Harry Potter model: write a single series of novels, get incredibly lucky in your timing after a period of financial destitution, then grow fabulously wealthy and not have to write anything else ever again).  I do have other ideas for novels, but most of my ideas seem to impact that other novel.  I guess it’s because it’s the one work that I find most closely mirrors my own heart and soul – it’s tied to my own personal narrative in a way.

In the meantime, I’ve had increasing trouble figuring out what to write about here.  With progress on my short story temporarily stalled, I’m not running across new (and hopefully interesting to read about) lessons to learn from that process.

But I will have class.  And I wonder if I’ll have to write about class, just to have a couple topics to muse on here.  The classes this semester: Decision Modeling for one and Project Management for the other.  Decision Modeling is with our very popular and highly awarded professor.  And, so far, it’s been very interesting.  It has a lot of potential applicability to my current job.  Project Management will hopefully be a good exploration of another possible career-field, post-MBA.

So, I’ll report more on those classes each week, and what I’ve learned there.  In the coming weeks, I’ll also tell a little more about the story behind that novel of mine (not the plot of the novel, but the story of how it came to be).  I’ll talk about my novel-writing-reboot process, and I’ll compare-and-contrast novel writing with short-story writing.  Stay tuned, and happy writing.

New Semester, and Already Behind

Today is the first day of the new semester, and I’m already behind on getting work done for class.  Late last week, the professor for my Thursday class posted his syllabus, and then the first assignment expected to be ready for the first day of class.  Over the weekend I checked the syllabus and the assignment.  It was another lesson in sifting through mountains to find the gems.

The assignment was to read the first two chapters of the professor’s work-in-progress textbook on the subject of the class, as well as from another text-book, prepare a short case, and do some problems from the second textbook.  It really didn’t look like much, except for two problems. 

Until syllabus was posted I didn’t even know what the supplemental text would be (and I won’t have it for another day or so, yet; buying textbooks new from a college bookstore is a fast-road to an empty wallet and wastefulness when used ones are available for less than half price online).   So there’s little chance I’ll have those chapter’s read and those questions worked before class.  (Frankly, in the age of textbook buying online, expecting students to have a textbook by the first day of class is stretching matters, but expecing students to complete assignments from those texts borders suggests to me a disconnect from the everyday reality of evening students.) 

Then there’s the problem of the professor’s incomplete textbook draft, the first chapters of which were posted online for the class to read.  The first chapter was 50 pages long.  The second: 79 pages.  That’s an enormous volume of reading material to expect of students with full-time jobs to work during the day – even given nearly a week to read and prepare before the first class.  If there’s to be two chapters covered a week, that quickly rises to the level of nigh-impossible to keep up with.  Extrapolating those figures, I would expect the full, 19-chapter behemoth to be well in excess of 1,200 pages and several hundreds of thousands of words.  Unfortunately, it was pretty tricky sifting through the material in those two sample chapters to find the nuggets of truly crucial take-aways.

Don’t get me wrong, though: the professor of this class has an oustanding reputation at my school.  Besides our well-regarded school, he’s taught at (and earned degrees from) a top-tier and world-renowned business school.  He’s widely regarded as one of our best professors.  And his writing style is interesting and entertaining, even as it delves into such arcane topics as statistics and decision modeling.  I knew when I signed up for this class that it would be a very challenging course.  And I don’t mean to shy away from that challenge, or complain about how challenging it’s really going to be.  I knew you don’t get a reputation for excellence at a school like mine without being a very demanding professor, and I know that my best learning takes place in courses that are challenging.

The first lesson I’m going to have to learn from this course is to review and analyze more quickly what’s most important from a large volume of material, and to focus the limited available study-time on those things that are most important.  I don’t think it’s feasible to read several hundred pages of text each week for class (on top of whatever assignments I might expect in my other class) in the few short hours I have available.  I’m no speed-reader when I’m reading for comprehension.

As I alluded to previously, if my work on my short story extended into the start of the new semester (it has), it was going to multiply significantly the time it would otherwise take to complete that work.  That realization has now come home.  With the mountain of work waiting for me before the semester has even started, a full-time job that has now been made more challenging with the departure of one of my team-mates, and the irrevocable fact that a new baby will be arriving to put the finishing blow on the end of the semester, the one thing I won’t have time for at all in the coming months is writing.  Once the baby arrives, all other bets are off.  There’s no telling what time management challenges I will face then.  I feel a twinge of regret that I failed to meet my self-imposed deadline.  The story was looking to be in great shape.  I was excited for the progress I was making.

But reality has returned with a vengeance.  For the next few months, this blog will likely be the only writing I do that isn’t for class or work.  If a few odd moments come up that allow me to work on the story without sacrificing other high-priority tasks, I’ll try to take them, but I’m not expecting much.  If I’ve learned anything about Time Management in the past month, I will need to bring all those lessons to bear to make it through this semester sanity intact.