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The Anne Karenina Principle and the Case for Project Management

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

– Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina (1877)

Thus begins Tolstoy‘s novel Anne Karenina. I learned about it when I was introduced to the Anna Karenina principle in Jared Diamond‘s book “Guns, Germs and Steel“. The book explores why in the history of humanity some societies have come to dominate others and one the factors involved is the access to domesticated animals. Ever wondered why you can’t ride a zebra like a horse? When you count it becomes clear that very few of the planet’s large animals can be domesticated, a fact that it explained by considering the factors that must all be fulfilled for an animal to be domesticated successfully. If just one of these factors is missing, then domestication is not feasible. In other words, while domesticated animals are all essentially alike, each is undomesticated animal is undomesticated in its own way.

Project managers talk a lot about unhappy projects and often seem quite unhappy about it. However, I believe that the unhappy nature of projects is not necessarily a bad thing and that a certain unhappiness is part of being a good project manager.

First, what is a happy project? If a project is a “…temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed Business Case” [cf. PRINCE2.wiki], then a happy one must be one that has no problems delivering its products at the expected cost, value and time, and where all other status indicators are good and green. I suppose these projects exists. At least I will not say on record that they don’t – maybe like black swans they live and roam free in a country far away and in zoos, where they are executed perfectly and run smoothly, always delivering on time, budget and quality.

However, in my experience, all projects are unhappy, and they are each unhappy in their own way. And yes, I just admitted that the projects I manage are rarely in an all green status, and when that happens, then it is time to review the project and look for risks and issues that might have been overlooked. Or, keeping the project management triangle in mind, if project is in the middle for an extended period, then either the budget is higher than it needs to be, the scope unambitious or not innovative, or the timeline too lax. It reminds me of the anecdote about Henry Ford that he would have workmen check Ford cars in junkyards to see which parts could be manufactured cheaper. Seriously, though, part of good project management is to deliver what is agreed at the right time and in the agreed quality and at no more than the agreed cost, and to do this work the project manager should always look for opportunities for optimizing delivery. This principle is weaved into common Agile frameworks as part of retrospectives and continuous improvement and in PRINCE2 as part of the Managing a Stage Boundary process.

In other words. to deliver the most value, the project manager should not be afraid of challenging herself, the delivery organization, or the client. Having said that, there are also projects that are severely challenged and possibly beyond redemption (or may not have actual delivery as the main purpose). Transparency and upright communication go a long way for this.

Doing this not only provide the client the best bang for the buck, but it is also good for the project managers, even though they expose themselves to unhappiness. Consider the alternative – a project where everything is green always and the project manager tasks is reduced blindly approving stuff. First the project manager might follow the example of Homer Simpson in “King-Size Homer” who got someone to cover for him, but eventually the project manager would be replaced by someone more junior (or a dipping bird). No Challenge -> No Job.

Someone to cover for King-Size Homer (or an under-challenged project manager). (from The Simpsons, episode S07E07 – thanks Frinkiac.com)

Therefore, project management is about working perpetually unhappy projects and whenever one source of unhappiness is removed move on to the next. It is a Sisyphean, almost depressing task, always focusing on the things that are missing, the things that are going wrong and being suspicions of ever there is an all green status report. All glasses are half-empty or out to get you.

Just thinking of a recent experience: At one point all looked green and I really considered calling a meeting to brainstorm risks and determine what we might be missing. We found out soon enough though and could go back to work. External interfaces, uncertain backlog and uncertain funding kept times interesting thereafter.

Another project I was involved was hardly a project at all – missing both a clear goal and timeline (no budget either : ), but it was a tricky (and very innovative) job and someone had to do it. That sort of thing calls for project manager skills, so it was called a project anyway.

All said, I can happily return to work and keep pushing, pulling, nudging, and kicking my projects forward. Not only are all projects unhappy, but they are also unhappy in each their own way, providing a never-ending source of challenges and opportunities for the experienced project manager to learn, excel and add value.

Garden Update – Summer 2020

<- Spring 2020

As mentioned in my spring update, this is the year of the COVID-19 pandemic and for better or worse, a time to appreciate the garden if you have one.

I am thankful that I do, especially after I was provided with some extra motivation for seeking out new career opportunities and plenty of extra time to do, well, something… That something has resulted in an ambitious to-do list for garden work. Early casualties was the willow tree back in May, which had a fungus infection and looked to be slowly dying (in the post-mortem it looked OK though) and one of the espaliered apple trees which had very low yield (plan is to replace with some pear trees), but the list also contains garden path cleanup, repairs and replacements, flower bed renovations; even a play house for the kids is planned. I am not going to share the list though – as any plan, it is unlikely to survive contact with the enemy reality).

Key events in the garden

  • Jun 13: Picked elderberry flowers for first batch of syrup (-> this recipe (Danish))
  • Jun 23: Finished cleaning the garden paths.
    Before
    Backyard garden path before cleaning

    After
    Backyard garden path after cleaning


  • Jun 24: Finally reined in the raspberries. This task has been on its way for many years, but I didn’t find the brain space to construct a proper scaffold. Now I finally did it, with five poles and 3 meters of coated metal wire. While the planning phase may have lasted 8 years, the execution took 10 minutes 🙂
    Simple scaffolding for raspberry bushes

Featured image

A cleaned-up garden path. I build those myself about ten years ago and the looked great when they were brand new. Then, every spring they look at little more worn down, as time inevitably passes, but it is always great how a few hours of work can make them look almost new.

Related post

Garden Update – Spring 2020

Garden Update – Winter 2020

Princessology Update

Beware, spoilers ahead

As I write this (mid-May 2020) the time of waiting is coming to an end. Specifically, the wait for the home video release of Frozen II, which, given the demography of my household, will probably run almost non-stop on the TV for the foreseeable future. This is a great time to make an update to my princessological study of Disney princesses.

Princessology being the study of princesses, just like geology is the study of the earth and climatology the study of the climate (the abominable misuse of the term “methodology” in situations where “method” will do just fine shall be ignored – it will get its own post some day). The subject is not generally taught in schools where I live, but it is part of the curriculum at Ever After High and that is good enough for me).

This began as a speech to a niece at her confirmation some years ago about princesses as role models. I started out with real life examples like the daughters of  English Henry VIII and Valdemar IV of Denmark, after which I turned attention to Disney royalty. First as a as a chronological walk-through so that I could demonstrate how the characterizations of princesses changed over time, but with 22(!) princesses on my list that didn’t work in practice and did not do justice to the better written characters. Below is what I did instead and at the end of the post some additional thoughts and personal observations.

I know there a plenty of post like this one out there, often either discussing how horribly old-fashioned some of the female characters are portrayed, or celebrating the modern portrayal of other (newer) characters. I find it worthwhile to look at them all – to confirm both the new and the old views, and find something interesting in-between.

Definitions and Scope

What is a Disney Princess anyway? The short reply is “depends :)” and Disney has at least two answers themselves: According to Maui (Shapeshifter, Demigod of The Wind and Sea, Hero of Men) you are a princess if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick; and then there is the official Princess Squad (numbering 12 as of May 22, 2002). I am not going to argue with a flashy demigod, but I also have issues with the princess squad list as being both too inclusive and too exclusive. Specifically: Mulan, for all her personal qualities and potential as a strong, female role model, just is not a princess nor does she become one. Likewise, there are several perfectly fine princesses-by-birth who could be added to the list if Disney should choose so, for example Vanellope von Schweetz and Kida.

Examples of alternate princess squads from the Internet: The Disney Princes ‘B’ Club and The Disney Princes B-squad

To arrive at a more accurate list of princesses I consider only female characters in Disney theatrical animated features who are of royal either or noble descent, or become royal or noble by marriage. As mentioned above, the nobility requirement this eliminates Mulan from the list, but I do include chieftains’ daughters like Moana and Pocahontas.

Next, limiting the study to a specific list of Disney movies also scratch several candidates from the list, starting with Merida who is great, but a Pixar character. If she was added to the list, then we might arguably add characters from Blue Sky Studios movies, since that studio became part of Disney as part of the Fox Deal (it actually looks like Blue Sky has managed to avoid princesses in their movies so far, although I am not going to watch all Ice Age movies to confirm it). This also removes Sally Nightmare  from the list (stop motion is technologically closer to the vintage animation of the movies from CGI was introduced, than today’s CGI productions).

Then, by considering only theatrical features we not only remove the (also) excellent Elena of Avalor from the list, but also Sofia the First and all the other pupils from Royal School of Enchancia school (as well as Princess Ivy and, if one considers the Amulet of Avalor a princess summoning device: Olaf the Snowman). It also leaves out direct to video sequels and the new remakes.

Finally the study stick to “animated”, which leaves out not only Giselle, but also any other Princess showing up in a theatrical Disney production. 

A good test is the Leia Criterion: Don’t include a character in the list, if including that character would allow include Princess Leia. 

Through this the list of princesses has been reduced considerably. I do not, however, see any reason to limit the study to human characters: I think Vanellope and Nala are both very fine princesses.

Furthermore, the study is limited to female characters. Disney Princes may warrant their own study post in the future, just think about the story that could unfold if Frozen III picks up the story about commoner Christoph being married to royal Anna (in Denmark media have been ripe with stories about the trials of a prince consort; or watch The Crown on Netflix for a British perspective).

Finally, the study only consider the characters’ story within the context of the movie, so while Esmeralda marries Captain Phoebus in the Disney adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and he is a noble in the book, I will not cheery-pick that single nice fact and ignore Victor Hugo’s vastly different character story arcs.

All said, the list of princesses making the cut follows below. There are less than 22 because I leave out the three Pixar princesses Merida, Atta and Dot.

NameMovieYearPrincess byNotes
Snow WhiteSnowwhite1937Birth
FalineBambi1942Marriage
CinderellaCinderella1950Marriage
TigerlilyPeter Pan1953Birth
AuroraSleeping Beauty1959Birth
Lady MarionRobin Hood1973Birth
EilonwyThe Black Cauldron1985Birth
ArielThe Little Mermaid1989Birth
BelleBeauty and the Beast1991Marriage
JasmineAladdin1992Birth
NalaThe Lion King1994Marriage
PocahontasPocahontas1995Birth
MegaraHercules1997Marriage
Kida (Kidagakash Nedakh)Atlantis: The Lost Empire2001Birth
TianaThe Princess and the Frog2009Marriage
RapunzelTangled2010Birth
Vanellope von SchweetzWreck-it Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet2012, 2018BirthPrincess by initialization
AnnaFrozen, Frozen II2013, 2019Birth
ElsaFrozen, Frozen II2013, 2019Birth
MoanaMoana2016BirthAlso called Vaiana in some regions.

A mentioned the study started out as a rumination of the feminist development of the Disney princess over time, and while that is an important point, I eventually divided the princesses into four different categories:

    • The Damsels 
    • The Driven
    • The Responsible
    • The Rebellious

The first group is the usually reviled group of pretty girls waiting for Prince Charming, but the other categories are a reminder that there are sgreat characters out there with more interesting stories to tell.

The Damsels

This is the home of the first,classical Disney princesses: Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). Beautiful, loving girls who can mange a household while waiting for Prince Charming to show up. Lady Marion is saved and Faline is conquered, saved and get to bear the next generation.

All characters don’t do much in their story except wait to be saved and then presumable become good wives and queens and live happily ever after.

The surprise member of this group is Belle from Beauty and the Beast’, because although she is introduced as an intelligent and bookish girl who wants more from life than what her village has to offer, she succeeds through goodness and love. The pivotal character saving the day is the boy Chip, who has the technical savvy to make farther Maurice’ contraption work. Of course the title of the movie and name of the character gives this away, but it still seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

The Driven

The next group is less likely to live happily after after, but if they do, then it is because they made it so. They are driven and ambitious and their royalty is a secondary trait. Consider self-made business woman Tiana, whose prince gets to entertain in her restaurant; or Vanellope von Schweetz who will rather drive racing cars than rule her kingdom.

Who knows if that ends well?

The Responsible

I expect it to end well for the responsible princesses, who experience a crises and use their wit and charm to succeed against the odds. Anna, who journeys through ice and snow to bring summer and her sister back to of Arendelle belongs in this group, along with Nala who asks Simba to drop ‘hakuna matata’ and become a proper Lion King. Kida from Atlantis gets to rebuild her society from almost nothing. I also put The Princess Eilonwy and Tigerlily in here, although their story arcs aren’t great (for Eilonwy’s complete story read The Chronicles of Prydain).

Final member in this group is Moana (or Vaiana, depending where you live), whose journey both across the sea and personal discovery is driven by a desire to save her island (of course she is a Chosen one, but while she is attracted to the unknown, she does return to (and for) her people).

I am confident that these women will do well.

The Rebellious

Exciting stories are those of the rebellious princesses. Like Jasmine, who meets Aladdin after running away from tradition and arranged marriage. Instead, when she gets marries it is to a commoner. Megara, on the other hand, confronts the bad decisions of her past.

Some princesses rebels against there parents. Rapunzel, who pursues her Dream (well-) armed with a frying pan, the little mermaid Ariel and chieftain’s daughter Pocahontas, who follows their love heart instead of duty.

Finally I now confidently place Elsa in this group. In the original (non-posted) version of the study I was reluctant about placing Elsa in this group. She does leave behind her place as queen of Arendelle to go on a journey of self-discovery and -realization. But then she is back home again, creating skating fields.What happened to the girl who ‘Let it go’? Of course she had a rough time in the movie, but ending her story there never felt credible to me. I was optimistic when the sequel was announced, and after watching the movie also delighted that Elsa’s story arc is concludes in a satisfactory way.

Final Thoughts

The study may be whimsical, but at the core it is about thinking critically about the entertainment that we allow our children to watch and emerge themselves into. Who should be their heroines and heroes? Which stories catches their attention and when do they need guidance and when should their ideas and understanding be challenged? The study could be written about any piece of entertainment featuring a diverse cast of characters. Who is the favorite pub of Paw Patrol (Everest, if you ask me, no competition even close), The greatest superhero? (Batman, of course, but what if we play Marvel only?) And so it goes, on and on, but as long as they take it seriously, I as parent will do the same.

The number of universes created and pushed upon children is enormous, but I find it worthwhile to at least follow which ones my children watch and enjoy. It is something to share with them and I hope that if we can share the funny things now, then they will also share the less funny stuff when that day comes.

Featured Image

Closeup of crabapple flowers.

Garden Update – Spring 2020

<- Winter 2020Spring 2020 ->

This year, 2020, has become the year of the corona virus pandemic. It is bad already and no one knows yet how much worse it is going to get. To so many people it has meant spending time confined at home, so if ever there was a time to appreciate one’s garden, this would be it and I certainly am. 

However, staying at home hasn’t meant spending more time in the garden than usual. Taking care of work and children at the same time takes plenty of energy and with the pandemic hovering in the background, working the garden doesn’t get much attention. Still, the basic work that must be done is getting done.

Among the yearly spring activities is the pruning of trees. Especially our apple espalier and willow are important milestones every year because they must be done in winter or early spring, and are therefore very dependent on the weather being at least reasonable. Then we have fruit trees and bushes, and especially the fruit trees – apple, quince and crabapple – have been challenges. Not because they are intrinsically difficult – I don’t believe they are – but because I have been uncertain about how to prune them, and doing something year after year without really feeling confident about what you do, doesn’t yield satisfactory results (aesthetically, that is: fruit yield from the trees is not bad, actually, except for last year 2019 when frost in May ruined the fruit production across the entire country). And even the aesthetics I am not so sure of – it may just be that my vision of what the trees should look like didn’t match up with the reality in my garden.

My pruned crabapples

But what do I actually know about the shape of young apple trees? Not much, so Youtube to the rescue. Because, of course there are videos showing apple trees, showing apple trees before pruning and after pruning and showing apple trees in the process of being pruned. Some videos also have people talking about pruning without trees. Fascinating stuff and very instructive. I was relieved to discover that pruning is not an exact science that I just don’t or can’t understand. There are general rules: get rid of water sprouts and growth follows the nearest bud; but apart from that, I see that people approach this in very different ways, so I came away with the beginnings of confidence and an idea of how to approach the task with my own trees. “Slow, but Fearless” turned out to work for me: Slow, because taking one branch at a time allows me to evaluate the result of each cut, so I stretched the pruning out over 3-4 days, shaping each tree along the way. Fearless, because some major branches had to go away before the trees were aesthetically pleasing. For example, on one crabapple tree I actually removed the central stem above a certain height. The tree is one of a pair and one tree was always bigger than the other. That, is, not any more and it looks so good. Now I look forward to see the trees row this season and doing adjustment pruning next year.

My blooming apple tree, after pruning.

Also part of the yearly cycle is preparing plants for the greenhouse. This year we once more bought seeds from Simpson’s Seeds, and the seeds were sown on Mar 6 (chilies) and Apr 7 (tomatoes and cucumbers)

This is pretty much the same as our 2018 dates. An overview of past sowing dates:

YearChiliesTomatoesNotes
2020Mar 6Apr 7
2019Mar 10Apr 13
2018Feb 24Apr 7
2017Mar 20Apr 9
2016Feb 22Mar 27
2015Feb 19
2014Mar 2Mar 2
2013Not recorded
2012Mar 17Apr 1
2011No sowing, on vacation
2010Feb 28Mar 21

Key events in the garden

  • Mar 6: Chilies sown:
        • Goat Horn
        • Habanero
        • Lemon Drop
        • Cayenne Long Slim
        • Hungarian Black (2018 seeds)
        • Jamaican Hot (seeds from a jar of dried chilies from 2018)
  • Mar 8: Pruned the willow tree
  • Mar 21: Pruned roses
  • Mar 28: First mowing of the lawn
  • Apr 7: Sowed tomatoes – cultivars as follows:
    • Sungold
    • Stupice
    • Bloody Butcher
    • Indigo Cherry Drops
    • Black Russian
    • Bottondoro
  • Apr 9: Repotted the chilies, keeping 3 of each (5 different ones – the Jamaican Hot didn’t sprout); also sowed cucumber
  • Apr 27: Repotted tomatoes, keeping 3-5 of each
    The tomatoes are ready to be repotted.
  • May 23: Prepared greenhouse
  • May 24: Planted greenhouse
  • May 27: Willow tree was felled, along with the oldest espaliered apple

Featured image

Garden trash is piling up during the closure of recycling stations.

Related posts

Garden Update – Winter 2020

Garden Update Summer 2020

Playing Roles – My Brief History #5

The years from 2003 to 2012 are a distinct period where I focused mostly on Role Play Games. As far as interests go it is a natural development from my earlier interests, it is only because of new hardware that I see it as a different period in my gamer career. The end, on the other hand, is definitely marked by the birth of my first child. Playing computer games too k a backseat for a long time after that.

I have always loved playing computer Role Play Games (=cRPG or just RPGs). I wonder why – probably a mix of the pacing (slow, player controlled), the scope (10s of hours per play through), the storytelling and the degree of complexity (not  simple and not overly complex, just right). fairly high, but not the purpose). I was hooked on Wasteland and never really stopped since, although 1993 – 1998 were dry, until Baldur’s Gate and Fallout revitalized the genre.

(By the way, I also love playing pen & paper RPGs, but that’s for another post)

My brief history of gaming #5 – Playing in the 2000s

Writing about my hardware in the 2000s it strikes me that whereas upgrades in the 1990s were primarily driven by adding CPU power, in the next decade it was more about additional features like USB connectivity and affordable portability (i.e., laptops).

My first PC (from 1993) lasted until 2002. Then it couldn’t escape obsolescence any longer. hit it. There were no more compatible upgrades available. Motherboards no longer came with the AT/Din5 keyboard connector that my PC case required and after 9 years the cabinet was worn and scratched. It was also too small for multiple hard disks and optical drives and had no easily available  place for USB connections (eventually provided by a PCI card on the back of the case – a must-do if I wanted a mouse, since PS/2 connectors were not possible either)

PC gray was out of fashion now and I went for black instead. I do not remember all specs well but it was based on an AMD Athlon XP 2000+ CPU and I remember adding 2x 80 GB harddisks for the multi-boot setup – initially it ran Windows 98, Windows 2000 and Linux (probably CentOS) – but it wasn’t long before the older Windows were replaced by Windows XP. Initially it had a modem for dual up networking. It wasn’t intended for gaming, and the most exciting feature apart from the two USB ports on the font was the monitor I bought with it – a 14” flat-screen, which was just becoming affordable at the time (that would be at 4000 DKK at the time (about 540€) – it is strange to think back what a huge difference it made to get rid of the big CRT monitor and swtich to flat screen, also at a a time when 1024×768 resolution was still OK.

The 2002 PC didn’t get a lot of upgrades (a faster CPU and new graphics card is all I remember), but then I also started working on laptops more and more. The older PC sometimes acting as a terminal for remote desktop connected laptops, so it wasn’t until 2009 that it was replaced with new hardware – a system bade on a Core 2 Duo. Not a bad rig (it is still running after upgrade with SSD and Windows 10), but while I had it, it had some stability issues (both in Win XP and In 7, but gone in Win 10) and it didn’t support SATA3 and USB 3, so in 2011-12 it was gradually replaced by the 2500K system that I am still running (which has done well with some good upgrades, but is showing its age now).

Memorable games

This is a funny list – very focused on Bioware and Bethesda products, with appearances from Obsidian and Troika (which are all related now). Just proves the point made in the beginning of this post.

  • Battlefield 1942 – yes, I did play a non-RPG during this period!
  • Sid Meyer’s Pirates: An enjoyable remake of the C64 games I used to play
  • Icewind Dale 2: The last of the infinity engine games and fun to play, even if the game style was getting old. I am glad I played it then. There is little chance of seeing a Beamdog ‘Enhanced Edition’ remake since the source code is lost, but there should be mods available to make it run on modern systems and resolutions.
  • Morrowind: My first experience with a Bethesda Elder Scrolls game and one of the better ones, even if interface and game-play is a bit heavy-handed by modern standards. Also, playing the leveling system optimally is tedious and much bookkeeping. Still, the sense of exploring a vast world at my own pace is what I remember the most.
  • Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR): This game brought me back to PC gaming after some hiatus. I liked it a lot and played it through at least 4 times (including one game on Android phone)
  • Knights of the Old Republic 2: More playing jedi and generally enjoyable. I recognize the quality issues that plagued the game, but the game was fine and the ambition paid off.
  • Planescape Torment: When I finally played this in 2005 it was 5+ years old but still a great experience and a classic that I, as RPG enthusiast, would not want to be without
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines: Another RPG that is well.known for quality issues. I played a patched version and had fun.
  • Jade Empire: A new universe from Bioware, but the game felt a lot like KotOR in a new, eastern setting.
  • Fallout 3: The first Fallout game after Bethesda acquired the IP from Interplay. As expected and feared by some, it felt much like a post-nuclear Elder Scrolls game and that works fine for me. 
  • Oblivion: The fourth Elder Scrolls game, following Morrowind. I think I played almost the complete game, except finishing the Shivering Isles DLC. Generally enjoyable, but while it kept the bookkeeping gameplay of its predecessor, it felt less like an open world, due to its focus on the Oblivion threat from early on.
  • Mass Effect: Another new IP from Bioware, this time set in a SciFi universe. Another fine game which I played twice and enjoyed both times. I should still play at least the first sequel (I tried once at it felt to fast paced though)
  • Dragon Age: Origins: I finally finished this game last year, but I played it first in 2011 but never finished.Thinking back I blame the dwarven part of the game and one more boss-fight than needed.
  • Skyrim: Great, immersive and beautiful. Didn’t feel quite as open-worldy as I remember Morrowind being, but Bethesda got rid of the old leveling system.
  • Neverwinter Nights 2: Another game that I tried completing several times, but never did. The last attempt was just before my daughter was born and all that remained was the last boss fight. Thinking back I should just have changed the difficulty settings and completed the game that way, but it is too late to do anything about that now. I may give it another go at some point, either playing from install DVD or pick up a fully digital version from GOG.

It was also during this period that I played Eve Online. A whole lot of it, actually. I will write on that in the next post in this series.

Feature image

Evening sky with just after sunset – with something rare these days: Contrails. It is strange how you don’t see those at the moment – a symbol of a new age.

Related posts

Thoughts of Games – My Brief History #1

Becoming a Gamer – My Brief History #2

IBM Compatible Gaming – My Brief History #3

What about Consoles? – My Brief History #4